Trimming Book-Fat #3

Searching for the end of the bookshelf and the belt line with K.M. Zahrt

I know you’re thinking, “Hey, I was ready for #3 last month, but it never came. What’s the deal with that?” Yes, I apologize for the delay, but I think the wait will be worth it. PLUS, I’ll remind you I offered you a special surprise edition to tide you over.

Now, onward…

9781451693669Let’s start with Jan Jarboe Russell’s The Train to Crystal City (2015).

  • Fact #1: “On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which permitted the secretary of war to arrest and incarcerate Japanese, German, and Italians who had been declared ‘enemy aliens’ ” (p. xvii).
  • Fact #2: “Over the course of the war, the US government orchestrated and financed the removal of 4,058 Germans and 2,264 Japanese and 288 Italians from thirteen Latin American countries and interned them in the United States, many in Crystal City” (p. xvii).
  • Fact #3: Russell’s book is full of interesting, if not staggering, facts about the American interment policy during WWII and the related prisoner exchange program.

If you’re like me, your public high school textbooks and somnolent college general education requirements didn’t, in fact, require you to know much about internment (a better word than concentration, at best, and a marginally better experience) other than many Japanese and Japanese Americans in California were temporarily (for sometimes years) corralled against their will (How innocuous!). Russell fills in the gaps, balancing the cold facts with personal narratives of all involved at Crystal City — from the interned families to the warden in charge; from FDR’s moral and tactical struggle to Eleanor’s dissent. However, bout halfway through, my attention began to waver. I get a bit antsy with nonfiction once I get the sense that the picture is nearly painted. Russell probably could have done with 100 pages less, but The Train to Crystal City will be a good addition to the Further Reading list at the end of the chapter on the WWII home front in the latest-edition textbook for that survey course on US History.

9780345505347I’ll try not to write too much about Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (2009) by Jamie Ford. Part of this challenge was to keep an open mind and to look for the value in the unread books on my shelf, even if they’re books I’d never read otherwise, even if they’re the wife’s, and even if they’re books lent to my wife from my mother (like this one). That being typed, I tried, and this book can be, in good conscience, trimmed from the home library. The storyline is somewhat compelling (only somewhat), which somewhat (only somewhat) makes up for the fact that the prose is weak and the dialog is predictable in spots and tacky in others.

“But, but, BUT?!” I can hear the cries now. “This book was a huge hit, a New York Times bestseller.” To that, I would say, if one thing is true, we know there’s a huge audience out there for romance light. Add a dash of treasure hunt and just enough social history to seem intellectually engaging (but not enough to deal with unpleasant realities), and you’ve got a winning recipe. But that doesn’t mean our diet should include everything on the menu.

Well, chalk it up to harmless entertainment, right? No. Not when you consider Ford’s reinforcement of the softened, high school textbook-type portrayal of the internment policy. At one point, the protagonist, Henry Lee, goes so far as to say, “They [the camps] weren’t that bad, but it changed the lives of many” (p. 107). If Russell’s book teaches us anything, it’s that Ford has grossly understated the impact of being held hostage as an enemy of your own State based solely on your ancestry. God forbid Ford would venture to make the masses too uncomfortable about such a thing. Unfortunately, from a book-sales perspective, he’d be right about that.

But, shoot, now see, I’ve written too much. So much for writing nothing for a lack of nice things to write…

9780385494243I can’t help it. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet made me start to feel a bit despairing about the state of the novel in general. I needed something to cleanse my palate. One night, I happened to pick up Ian McEwan’s Booker Prize-winning novel Amsterdam (1998), and read the first paragraph: “Two former lovers of Molly Lane stood waiting outside the crematorium chapel with their backs to the February chill. It had all been said before, but they said it again. ‘She never knew what hit her.’ ” Ah, how refreshing it was to read well-executed prose again, much of which is stylistically musical and lyrical, and rightly so, seeing as how one of the protagonists is a composer. (Form matching content? What a novel idea!)

If there’s one flaw in McEwan’s book, it comes at the end (no spoiler). As the we reach the aha! moment, and begin to think, “I see what’s happened here,” McEwan seems to have a lapse in faith in his own ability to narrate clearly, and he leaves a SparkNotes-like explanation in the mouth of a secondary character as if he was worried we wouldn’t get it. But, I suspect you will concede him that much.

Ultimately, what did we learn? If you’re interested in the internment story, read Russell’s book. Even if you don’t care about the facts, the narratives are at least better-wrought. If you’re interested in understanding the difference between average and superior quality writing, read Ford’s book for a while, then immediately read McIwan’s. You’ll feel the difference in the words.

Books Read: 5 (Change: +3)
Books Given Away: 8 (Change +11, -4)
Pounds Lost: 4.5 (Change +2.5)

Scoreboard Explained
With the addition of Amsterdam by Ian McEwan, that brings the total books read for this series up to five. Since the last installment I had a compulsion to visit my local used bookstore, which gave me the opportunity to trim an unusually high amount of books — a total of eleven. However, with the bookstore credit, I was unable to resist coming home with four new titles, which gave me an overall change of seven. Here’s a short list of the dearly departed: Harvest by Jim Crace, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (read more), The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (read more), Life of Pi by Yann Martel (I saw the film adaptation first, enough said), TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, and The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas (turns out I had two copies; kept one, of course).

And for that infamous final metric, I was able to kick my rear into gear over the last three weeks and trim two and a half more pounds from my circumference. The change was largely due to what started out as an innocent evening stroll that turned into a four and half mile hike. The good news (other than the benefits of the exercise): I now know my greater neighborhood much better. The bad news: I wasn’t wearing the proper footwear and nearly wore holes in the bottom of my feet.

Until next time, folks…

Next Month’s Reading Selections
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952), 1953 Pulitzer Prize Winner
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013), 2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner


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