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Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

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Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Cover

ISBN13: 9780345505330
ISBN10: 0345505336
Condition: Standard
Dustjacket: Standard
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Excerpt

Disorder Within,

Disaster Without

•  •  •

The years before the war forced everyone in Shanghai to choose: Nationalists or Communists? Resist the Japanese invaders or collaborate with them? Even passivity became a choice, a gamble, a hand consciously played. As for me, Song Yuhua, my hand was forced—I belonged to Du Yuesheng, and though I served him in public, through my education, rather than in private, as did other women, I was his indentured property, to do with as he pleased until my thirty-third birthday. Only in my secret mind was I free, so it was there, naturally, that I staked everything of my life that mattered.

   It was 1936; war was coming. Conflict with foreign powers had been eating at China for a century, since the Opium Wars first partitioned port cities such as Shanghai into foreign-controlled districts. We had already grown accustomed to being colonized, but then Japans southward expansion from its base in Manchuria turned into an all-out invasion. The Japanese ate up more and more of the northeast, and drew dangerously close to Peking, yet still Chiang Kai-shek did not fight them. His Nationalist armies fought only the Communists, who he believed posed the greater threat. When the Imperial Army pushed hard enough, he simply withdrew and conceded territory to Japan. The wrath of heaven and the resentment of men could be felt everywhere. To so many of us, Chiangs policy, “first internal pacification, then external resistance,” seemed like treason.

   What choice did I have? I joined his enemies on the left, so secretly it was ren bu zhi, gui bu jue, neither known by man nor felt by ghosts. At last I was living for something, and by then I didnt care if it led to punishment or even death. I knew I was going to die anyway, maybe in the war that was about to engulf me and Lin Ming and Thomas Greene, or maybe, if my secret was betrayed, at the wrong end of a gun in some Shanghai alley. For all the glitter of its golden era, the city during those years dealt death and life in equal measure.

   Ye Shanghai was what everyone called that time and place—Night in Shanghai, after the popular song by Zhou Xuan. It was a world of pleasure, permission, and nightlife, which was destined to evaporate the moment Shanghai fell to Japan. Jazz was the sun around which this paradise revolved, the rhythm that drove its nights, and agents like my brother Lin Ming made it possible by recruiting jazz men from across the sea and managing their lives in Shanghai. Those were the years of the great black orchestras from America who filled the ballrooms, bringing a marvelous sound that had never been heard in China before. For years after the Americans were gone, people remembered them, especially Thomas Greene. I used to hear people say theyd heard him play, or theyd danced to his orchestra, or they had it on good authority that he had been born in a cotton field. I knew all this was nonsense, and kept quiet, for almost no one really knew him. I did, knew him and loved him, more than this life would ever allow me to love any other. This was the one secret I never gave up.

1

Thomas greene awakened on his first morning in Shanghai to the creaking wheels of a cart and a mans low-pitched singing call. For a long and dearly held moment he thought he was young again, back in Baltimore, with his mother still alive, hearing the cry of the strawberry man who brought his mule-clopping cart up Creel Street in the summer. But then he felt the snap of winter air against his face, and he remembered he was under silk quilts, in China.

   The cry sounded again, this time answered by the crowing of neighborhood chickens. He slid out, shivered over to the French doors, and parted the curtains to look down. It was a night soil collector, his musical cry opening doors up and down the lane as housewives set out their night stools. Thomass house had modern plumbing and pull-chain lavatories and many other extravagances since, as Lin Ming had put it the day before when theyd pulled up to the place in a motorcar, the Kings were one of the most popular orchestras in Shanghai, and he was their bandleader.

   A forest of pops sounded from the south, over the rooftops. Later he would learn it was Japanese soldiers at firing drills on the proving ground below the Hangzhou-Shanghai railhead, but on that first morning, since Lin Ming had told him all about the Japanese invading China, he thought for a chaotic and dreamlike moment that the time had come.

   But then it grew quiet again, and he saw the night soil man continuing up the lane unhurried, and the women still opening and closing their doors. No war today. Just his first rehearsal at nine oclock, when within eight bars, the rest of the orchestra would know he was a fraud.

   Not that he was unskilled; on the contrary. He started classical training young, with his mother, then other teachers, and finally in the classrooms at Peabody, where colored students who had shown exceptional promise on their instruments could sit in the back and learn harmony, notation, theory, and composition, so long as they kept quiet. The piano was what people aspired to in his family, a line of ambition that ran through his mother, his grandmother, and now him. When he was small, before his father died in the Great War, his mother used to take him to private salons over in Washington, D.C., to hear polished black musicians play chamber music for hushed audiences. By the time he was nineteen, he himself was performing in starched evening wear. But just a couple of years later, the stock market crashed, and it seemed like no oned had a nickel to spare since. Teaching dried up, and accompanist work, and playing for church choirs. For a time he got by playing piano for the movies in the theater, but then the talkies came in, and that was that. No one was up in the money, except them that were already rich.

   But finally, luck got him work sight-reading the classics at a rich mans party in Guilford, and word of mouth got him some more. He did not land many jobs, just enough to give his mother a respectable sum toward their rent and food. He should have been happy with that, times being so hard, yet he was always on eggshells because some of these engagements came his way on account of the fact that his looks were light enough to confuse people. He may have been caramel-toned, with eyes as dark as ink, but his features were fine-drawn enough to attract second looks on the street. If he shaved his hair close, he had people asking his nationality. It didnt hurt that he was a classical player, whom everyone expected to be vaguely foreign, possibly European, though surely from one of the southern countries. When asked his background, he always weighed his answer, since as colored, he got two dollars, but it was five when he performed as a Turk, or a Portuguese—which he did, whenever he thought he could get away with it.

   He cracked the wooden wardrobe painted with Chinese scenes to find his meager stack of folded clothes, which seemed to have been arranged on the shelf yesterday before he even made it up the stairs. At home he had been proud of these suits, no, depended on them; they were his badge, the uniform that showed him to be a man of gentle education, fluent in the music of Europe. He had spent his whole life mastering the role, and now—he was here. He knotted his tie and buttoned his threadbare jacket like he was going to a funeral. In a way, he was.

   Downstairs, he came upon the servants eating at a round table in the kitchen, but they waved him insistently into the dining room, where he found a table set for one, with china on white damask, all because he was the bandleader. Chen Ma bustled in to serve him some of the rice gruel they were eating in the kitchen along with buttered bread and enough eggs for six men. Hunger overwhelmed him, and when he had satisfied himself and started to slow down, Uncle Hua came in from the kitchen to stand over him.

   “Master clothes blong low class,” Hua sniffed.

   “No kidding.” Thomas lifted a shoulder in response, and went on eating with real silver that felt heavy as liquid in his hand. He had seen silverware, of course he had, in rich houses where he had played at parties, but this was the first time he had eaten with it. His mother would be proud; she had made their little place an island of manners and gentility, with her fringed lampshades and her handmade antimacassars, and the exquisite sonatas that trilled out from her parlor every evening. She played the organ and taught piano at the church, and between the two of them, they made do, at least until she got sick.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 5 comments:

Denise Morland, January 4, 2010 (view all comments by Denise Morland)
Hotel on the Corner of Butter and Sweet is Jamie Ford's beautifully written debut about Henry, a Chinese American growing up in Seattle during World War II. Henry struggles with his identity, his stubborn father, and when his best friend, a Japanese American girl, is sent to an internment camp he has to decide between love and loyalty.

This book is like a little slice of history complete with the sights, sounds and smells of Seattle during World War II, jazz music, salty sea air, and the sweet taste of duck sausage. There are so many themes touched in this story that it should feel overly crowded: first love, father-son relationships, immigrants, racism, and looming over everything World War II. Yet the story flows around and through Henry seamlessly and it is easy to find yourself deep in his world.

I completely and unashamedly fell in love with this book from the very beginning. At first I raced through it eager to see what would become of Henry, later I slowed my progress wanting to prolong my time with him and anxious about his ending. When the end came it was perfect, bitter and sweet, but so satisfying too.
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Leslie Hogue, June 3, 2009 (view all comments by Leslie Hogue)
Jamie Ford's beautiful first novel about the life of two teenagers in Seattle, Wa. Henry & Kieko meet just before the start of WWII at an all white school in Seattle. It is a wonderful view into the lives of different ethnic groups in Seattle in the 1940's then into the 1980's. It shows how the personal relationships evolve as different aspects infuence their lives.
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Andrea Cumbo, May 26, 2009 (view all comments by Andrea Cumbo)
Sometimes books take a while to get revved up, but when we let them get warm in our hands and settle us into our seats, we find gems in the pages. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford is one of those books.

The first few pages were a bit slow because they are so subtle. They tell the story of an old man, Henry, who finds himself stunned by a Japanese parasol that has been pulled out of an abandoned hotel in Seattle. Henry has lost his wife, and somehow this parasol triggers that spark of life that he needs to keep going. Ford’s writing embeds the importance of this event in the mundane, but if a reader keeps at it, she will find herself richly rewarded.

The book spans two timeframes in Seattle’s history - the 1980s and the 1940s - and describes the life of a Chinese-American (Henry) and a Japanese-American (Keiko) who become friends as children during World War II. The cultural complexities of that time when internment camps and Chinese nationalism ran high alongside the soft but biting racism against African-Americans give this novel a social dimension that fleshes out a great deal that I did not know (and was not taught) about the 1940s, particularly on the West Coast. I don’t remember ever reading about or hearing a teacher speak about Japanese Internment Camps here on the East Coast, and the mentions I had of that dark stain of American history came only when I lived in California and read Farewell to Manzanar. Maybe out of embarrassment we have tried to erase this element of our history. I’m glad Ford has brought it back to me, for it is only when we hide something that we cannot work to heal it.

But it’s not just the political and cultural elements of the novel that make it a valuable book; the writing and characterization are subtle and complex. None of the characters here are flat; none are simple; none are wholly right or wholly wrong - they are people. Additionally, the novel is well-paced and gripping for a mystery drives the book forward (a mystery I won’t reveal for those of you who will take my advice and pick up this book). Relationships quiver with life on these pages, and the setting - historically accurate Seattle - is rich and rewarding, reminding me a great deal of what I heard about San Francisco during the same time periods. The moments of tenderness and brutality in this book live fully, bringing me to tears and gasps even as I plowed ahead to hear what was next. And Henry, the protagonist, well, I love him - both as a child I want to help and protect and as an old man at whose feet I would like to sit.

Occasionally, Ford’s writing, particularly at the end of chapters, seems a bit forced, like he’s trying to be writerly, but these lines are overlooked in light of the clarity and richness of the story.

So please, pick up Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, carve out a leisurely afternoon, make a cup of green tea, and read the hours away while adding these characters and this history into your mind.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780345505330
Author:
Ford, Jamie
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Author:
Mones, Nicole
Subject:
General
Subject:
Fathers and sons
Subject:
Japanese Americans
Subject:
Historical fiction
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Historical
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Cloth
Publication Date:
January 27, 2009
Binding:
Hardback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
288
Dimensions:
9 x 6 in 1.04 lb

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Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$10.50 In Stock
Product details 288 pages Ballantine Books - English 9780345505330 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Ford's strained debut concerns Henry Lee, a Chinese-American in Seattle who, in 1986, has just lost his wife to cancer. After Henry hears that the belongings of Japanese immigrants interned during WWII have been found in the basement of the Panama Hotel, the narrative shuttles between 1986 and the 1940s in a predictable story that chronicles the losses of old age and the bewilderment of youth. Henry recalls the difficulties of life in America during WWII, when he and his Japanese-American school friend, Keiko, wandered through wartime Seattle. Keiko and her family are later interned in a camp, and Henry, horrified by America's anti-Japanese hysteria, is further conflicted because of his Chinese father's anti-Japanese sentiment. Henry's adult life in 1986 is rather mechanically rendered, and Ford clumsily contrasts Henry's difficulty in communicating with his college-age son, Marty, with Henry's own alienation from his father, who was determined to Americanize him. The wartime persecution of Japanese immigrants is presented well, but the flatness of the narrative and Ford's reliance on numerous cultural cliches make for a disappointing read." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "[Ford] writes earnestly and cares for his characters, who consistently defy stereotype. Ford posits great meaning in objects...but the most striking moments come from the characters' readings of each other."
"Review" by , "In his first novel...Ford expertly nails the sweet innocence of first love, the cruelty of racism...and the sadness and satisfaction at the end of a life well lived. The result is a vivid picture of a confusing and critical time in American history."
"Review" by , "Sentimental, heartfelt...the exploration of Henry's changing relationship with his family and with Keiko will keep most readers turning pages....A timely debut that not only reminds readers of a shameful episode in American history, but cautions us to examine the present and take heed we don't repeat those injustices."
"Review" by , "A tender and satisfying novel set in a time and a place lost forever, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet gives us a glimpse of the damage that is caused by war — not the sweeping damage of the battlefield, but the cold, cruel damage to the hearts and humanity of individual people. Especially relevant in today's world, this is a beautifully written book that will make you think. And, more importantly, it will make you feel."
"Review" by , "Jamie Ford's first novel explores the age-old conflicts between father and son, the beauty and sadness of what happened to Japanese Americans in the Seattle area during World War II, and the depths and longing of deep-heart love. An impressive, bitter, and sweet debut."
"Synopsis" by , Set in the ethnic neighborhoods of Seattle during World War II and Japanese American internment camps of the era, the times and places are brought [stirringly] to life (Jim Tomlinson, author of "Things Kept, Things Left Behind").
"Synopsis" by , A new novel by the author of The Last Chinese Chef, a love story between a black musician and a gangster's translator set against Shanghais dazzling jazz age and the looming menace of World War II, and "a rich and thoroughly captivating read." (Gail Tsukiyama, author of The Samurais Garden)

"Synopsis" by , In 1936, classical pianist Thomas Greene is recruited to Shanghai to lead a jazz orchestra of fellow African-American expats. From being flat broke in segregated Baltimore to living in a mansion with servants of his own, he becomes the toast of a city obsessed with music, money, pleasure and power, even as it ignores the rising winds of war. Song Yuhua is refined and educated, and has been bonded since age eighteen to Shanghais most powerful crime boss in payment for her fathers gambling debts. Outwardly submissive, she burns with rage and risks her life spying on her master for the Communist Party. Only when Shanghai is shattered by the Japanese invasion do Song and Thomas find their way to each other. Though their union is forbidden, neither can back down from it in the turbulent years of occupation and resistance that follow. Torn between music and survival, freedom and commitment, love and world war, they are borne on an irresistible riff of melody and improvisation to Night in Shanghais final, impossible choice. In this stunningly researched novel, Nicole Mones not only tells the forgotten story of black musicians in the Chinese jazz age, but also weaves in a startling true tale of Holocaust heroism little-known in the West. View the Trailer: #LINK<www.nicolemones.com>#
"Synopsis" by , US
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