Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Book Review: How to Be an American Housewife

"America consists primarily of Caucasians. It is understood without explanation or question that in the United States a Japanese person will not be considered as equal. … Therefore, you must work as hard as you can to prove yourself more than equal—the most polite, the best worker, an adept English learner, the most well-turned-out Housewife your husband could ever ask for. This is your duty, to both your home country and to your new one."

Margaret Dilloway's How to Be an American Housewife is first the story of Shoko, a Japanese woman who married an American GI, and secondly the story of her daughter Sue. Shoko knows who she is: she has made deliberate choices throughout her life to get to where she is. But Sue lives in a fog of identity crisis, mostly due to the complete lack of communication between her and her Japanese mother. Sue craves an American mother who offers praise and warmth; Shoko is surprised to learn, when her daughter is an adult, that Sue perceived her as critical and cold.

Although Shoko closely followed the guidebook How to Be an American Housewife when she came to America, she is truly Japanese, and she learns early on that she will never be American enough. But she is tremendously tenacious in the face of life-long assimilation. She recognizes that her adult children are miserable, but she doesn't sit around bemoaning her failure as a parent. She did the best she could, and it is up to them to get their lives together.

But Shoko is very ill and requires a serious surgery. Her biggest regret is that she never made amends with her beloved brother, Taro, who completely disowned her when she married an American. She asks Sue to travel to Japan with her and carry a message to Taro. From here the story shifts from Shoko to Sue and her teenage daughter, Helena, as they journey to Japan.

Sue's story is just as enjoyable as Shoko's story. We can't help but root for this woman who has tremendously low self-esteem as she discovers her roots in Japan. As she discovers who her mother was and meets her Japanese family, her whole world makes sense. She has, for the first time in her life, a positive sense of self.

I really enjoyed both Shoko's and Sue's stories. I loved how the book wrapped up all the stories in the end, drawing the two cultures together in a hopeful way. This is an interesting view on post-WW2 through the eyes of a Japanese woman, adding still another perspective to the WW2 experience. (See my reviews of WW2 books here, including a few on the Japanese-American experience.)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Review: The Forgotten Garden

Oh, Kate Morton, how I love you!
The House at Riverton was wonderful.
The Distant Hours was simply delicious.

But The Forgotten Garden? It was just, well, it was everything I could possibly want in a novel. A mystery with a ghost story feel. Romance, lost love, found love, familial love, orphans, good guys, villains, a manor, a secret garden (and speaking of that, well-done cameos with real life figures), fairy tales, and did I mention suspense?

Well, and then, of course, Kate Morton is a writer of astounding grace and perspicacity. I mean, I know that no one is perfect and all that, but quite possibly, Kate Morton is a perfect writer. Really.

OK, so here is the story in a nutshell: a little girl is lost on a big ship while waiting for the Authoress to come back to get her. But the Authoress never does, and when the ship lands in Australia, the little girl, assumed to be an orphan, is adopted by the dockmaster and his wife. When she is grown, the dockmaster tells Nell the truth—or as much as he knows of it. Chapter by chapter, the truth is gradually uncovered, sometimes by Nell and sometimes by her granddaughter, Cassandra. Who is the Authoress? Who is Nell? Why was she left alone on a ship bound for Australia?

The cast of characters reaches far back into the life of the Authoress. You'll meet a man in a black suit, a Dickensian harridan, an obsessive uncle, a kindly old fisherman, a beautiful invalid, a wicked aunt, and, of course, a garden maze that follows many twists and turns and dead ends. 

Please read this book. And please, Kate Morton, MORE!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Sunday Salon: April in Review

Books Read in April
You Don't Sweat Much for a Fat Girl by Celia Rivenbark: From my review: "I apologized profusely to my book club for having it on my list."
More Like Her by Liza Palmer: From my review: "Liza Palmer is chick lit without the fluff and feathers."
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. I haven't reviewed this yet but it was amazing.
Watership Down by Richard Adams. Multiple re-read. Taught this in British Lit class.
The Distant Hours by Kate Morton:  From my review: "Morton is a superb writer and mesmerizing storyteller." (Actually read in March but reviewed in April.)

Favorite Book of the Month
Watership Down. I love this book so much. I first read it 30 years ago when I was in high school. It is the first novel I can remember my father and I sharing as reading peers. My students were "eh" about it. Some of them loved it, some said "It's a book about rabbits!"

Books Read Aloud (to 11-year-old)
Heidi by Joanna Spryri
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

Added to My Ever-Growing TBR List
The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok
True Sisters by Sandra Dallas
Introverts in the Church by Adam McHugh
When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani
The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler
Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens

Now Reading
Norah: The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th Century New York by Cynthia Neale