This week I read two books that had recently been re-recommended to me through blog discussions on Asian stories. The recommendations, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See, were both conveniently waiting on my shelf.
And waiting seemed to be the theme of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I've heard much praise for this book and it was a good story. The characters drew me in and I wanted to see how they had reached the present condition of their story, which is 1986, forty years after the fact. That's some wait.
Henry and Keiko have an unlikely friendship in 1940s America. He is Chinese, allies of America during WWII and she is Japanese, enemy of both countries. However, both are American born and soon overcome any differences their cultures naturally hold over them. They are the only Asian students in an all white school and find solace in each other. If you know anything about the fate of the American Japanese during WWII, you can guess quickly where this story is headed. Because the story is told in flashbacks from the Henry of 1986, pieces of present happenings meld with stories of the past to finally bring an ending to Henry and Keiko's story.
I enjoyed this story. I read it in two days, usually hard to do with school beginning, but it was a good story and easy to read. The characters were like-able and I truly wanted to see where the journey would take them. Also, the one criticism I'd read in many reviews was that Ford used many anachronisms (references to things that didn't exist or were not in major use in the 1980s). I noticed a couple things, like CDs taking over records, use of the Internet to find someone, and the term "cakewalk" used by 12-year-old Henry of 1942. But, they were small and didn't stand out too much, nor did they ruin the story as some claimed.
My second read of the week, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, takes place in China starting in 1824, over one hundred years before Henry's story in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I loved this book, but I have to ask forgiveness for my ignorance. There was so much about the Chinese culture that I didn't know, which is what made the story amazing...I learned so much. I know much of it is/was Chinese tradition and ways, but it is hard for me to grasp, being an American woman who grew up and lives in a liberated time period.
The opening chapters focus on the art of footbinding! "Art" being an applicable word because foot binding was a difficult task that needed patience and precision over a long period of time to be done correctly and gain the most benefit. It was horrifying to read about. I've heard of it before, but the detailed process that Lily gives sent shudders through me. A woman's future as wife and mother depends upon it. And after her tiny feet secure her position with a husband, her life's value depends upon having sons, as opposed to daughters.
The first half of the book focuses on a girl's preparation for marriage, as the two main characters journey through. Marriage is a years long process in which you secure a match, prepare the dowry, trade gifts between families, and schedule the ceremonies that marriage entails. Lily is lucky to share this time with her closest companion, Snow Flower. Lily and Snow Flower's special relationship is called laotong. This means they are the most intimate of friends, as close as sisters, for the rest of their lives. A laotong relationship is only given to the most worthy of girls, so this is special for Lily, whose family is rather poor. It is Lily's tiny feet that make her eligible for the honor of a laotong. And in turn having a laotong, along with tiny feet, bring a wealthy and honorable husband for Lily.
However, after Lily's marriage, she finds out secrets that have surrounded Snow Flower the entire decade they have been laotongs. I don't want to spoil the story, but the secrets begin to unravel much of what Lily thought she knew about her life, her family, and herself. And it seems I haven't said so much about the story itself, but really much of the book is about how Lily and Snow Flower's lives intertwine. And their lives are wrapped in these customs, so discussion of the customs is definitely a big piece of the book. Really liked this book!
Now that I've read these two pieces of Asian literature together, I'm noticing even more on my shelves I haven't read yet, like Memoirs of a Geisha and China Run. Any other good Asian lit you've read?