Tag Archives: mothers and daughters

Book Review: The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard

The Pink Hotel comes out April 23 from Picador.

The Pink Hotel comes out April 23 from Picador.

            In Anna Stothard’s candidly unflinching, evocative, and razor-sharp debut novel The Pink Hotel, the female protagonist is interested in creation stories and myths.  The Epic of Gilgamesh, Noah’s flood, and the Aztec legend of “Coatlique” fascinate the astute and precocious 17-year-old British girl.  And there’s a reason for her curiosity: her mother, Lily, left when she was only three.  The girl desperately wants to know her own creation story, and her dad has never been forthcoming about the tale.

Stothard does not give her protagonist a name.  Since Stothard tells the tale from the girl’s first-person perspective, perhaps Stothard did not feel the need to name the main character.  It is a rather curious move.  Naming and identity are so closely intertwined; because the narrator has no name, I never connect with her, I do not feel like I ever truly know her.  For me, she is unknown, unknowable, and rather unlikeable.  That is not to say that Stothard does not do a good job of fleshing out this individual—she does.  But not giving the novel’s main personality a name bothered me immensely.

Yet I appreciated the main character’s mindset.  Yearning for one’s mother is a universal concept that everyone can understand.  The Pink Hotel begins when the girl gets news that her mother, who lived in Los Angeles, has been killed in a motorcycle accident.  Stothard’s main character does not think of the consequences; she is 17, after all, and frantic over the prospect that she will never know her mother now that she is dead.

As she explains, “Presumably most people can conjure an image of their mother from childhood, but my memories are either from photographs or they’re physical.  I can’t imagine what she used to look like, but remember fragments of her holding my hand too tight in a supermarket, the texture of her legs when I grabbed them….” So she decides to travel to Los Angeles, where her mother owned “The Pink Hotel” in Venice Beach with her second husband.

For the young girl, her journey is really a pilgrimage.  When she arrives at the hotel for her mother’s wake, she sneaks into her bedroom and steals a red suitcase.  She stuffs it full of her mother’s clothes, letters, and pictures.  The girl flees the hotel after encountering her mother’s current husband.  With a stolen credit card and little money, the main character sets out finding the people her mother knew in hopes of learning more about the woman who left all those years ago.

In an effort to get closer to her mother, the protagonist seems to take on the role of her mother.  “I’m not Lily” she says, while wearing her mother’s “tight black dress and her red stilettos.”  “Are you as good at lying as you are at storytelling” a character asks her.  And she is quite adept at telling falsehoods, but not to the reader, only to others.  You would think this quality would endear her to the reader; alas, it does not.

The Pink Hotel is peopled by a quirky cast of characters.  Some of my absolute favorites are the Armenian women she meets.  “How did you come to America?” the girl asks one of them.  “My twin sister and I,” the woman replies, “weren’t interested in marrying men named Noah, you know?”

Stothard chooses the perfect setting for her characters and for the story.  In fact, it is setting that drives The Pink Hotel and its characters.  The author perfectly captures the essence of Southern California to create an atmospheric tale that would not have worked anywhere else.  With lines like “If the Atlantic was a foaming, snapping Rottweiler, the Pacific was a sleepy gecko in the sunlight,” Stothard grabs you and puts you in the middle of the story.

Sense of place is so important in The Pink Hotel.  In fact, the setting is what saved this story for me when I did not connect to the narrator.  Stothard writes, “Los Angeles isn’t built for the rain, and everyone panics.  The air gets saturated with ambulance sirens as oil rises up through the suddenly soaked tarmac highways, causing crashes.”  “The heatwave had finally ignited, and LA had a halo of fire over it.”

Descriptions such as these make The Pink Hotel compelling and worth reading.

Stothard is a master at using lyrical prose.  But I think The Pink Hotel would make a better movie than it does a book.  Perhaps the actress who played the main character could make her more knowable and more likeable.  A good actress could make moviegoers relate to the narrator and identify more with her, which was sadly missing here.

—-Bookmagnet

The author

The author

pink hotel original

Original 2011 cover

German cover

German cover

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Book Review: The Salt God’s Daughter by Ilie Ruby

The Salt God’s Daughter by Ilie Ruby (Soft Skull Press; 352 pages; $25).

                Ilie Ruby, the critically acclaimed author of The Language of Trees, counts among her influencers some big names like Isabel Allende and Alice Sebold.  Reading her moving, hypnotic new novel The Salt God’s Daughter,  I saw traces of both Allende and Sebold, as well as Alice Hoffmann.  Ruby combines elements of mystery, fantasy, and magical realism to tell a moving story about three generations of women in Southern California.  The Salt God’s Daughter is a beautifully told and seductive tale that lets Ruby show her amazing talent.

Ruby’s main character is Ruth, who, together with her older sister Dolly, struggles with an absent mother.  Diana, their unconventional mother, obsesses over the moon cycles of her beloved Old Farmer’s Almanac and interprets the phases of the moon.  They warn her of potential dangers or possible opportunities.  Through the character of Diana, Ruby is able to imbue elements of Jewish mysticism into her story, making it richer and beguiling.  With their mother inhabiting a world of her own, the sisters find themselves alone most of the time.  Dolly and Ruth quickly learn to protect each other.

“We ran wild at night, effortless, boundless, under a blood red sky—to where and to what we couldn’t have known.  We craved it, that someplace.  We were two little girls, sisters, daughters with no mother, distrustful of the freedom we were given, knowing she shouldn’t have left,” Ruby writes.  “We stole wrinkled leather sneakers that were two sizes too big, and wore them until they fit.  We raced in the sand, fought in the dusk.  We knew we were not invisible.  We tightened belts around our stomachs at night….”

Despite their mother’s negligence, they love her and desperately long for her.  “If I told you that I ached for a different mother, I’d be lying,” Ruth admits, “I ached for my own, every minute.  As motherless daughters do.”  When she is with them, they are a family.

Amazingly, the sisters have no idea their lives are unusual; they are isolated and insular.  Their one link to the outside world is the soap opera General Hospital.  When their mother dies, though, the girls face new challenges, as traditional society collides with their nontraditional, nomadic upbringing.

As the sisters grow older, each grapples with adversity, violence, and rape.  Each sister must decide what to do with an unwanted, unplanned pregnancy.  Violence against women, then, as well as lust and sexuality are just some of Ruby’s big themes.  She does not shy away from the brutality of rape.  The scene in which Ruth, a virgin, is raped is difficult to read, yet Ruby approaches the subject with realism, tact, and straightforwardness.  Understandably, Ruth begins to search for a place where she can heal, where she can carve out a life that is all her own.

Ruth finds a place of stability at Wild Acres, an old hotel on the beach. There, among the fragrant and colorful bougainvillea, rising tides, sandy beach, and rough surf, Ruth makes her own kind of family with the elderly people who live there.  She quickly finds a refuge in love, but this is not an average union.  Ruby falls in love with a selkie.

The Salt God’s Daughter is strongest in its use of the traditional Scottish folkloric tale of the selkie, or seal wife.  Ruth begins an affair with a mysterious fisherman who leaves salt in her bed and then leaves her for long periods of time.  A daughter, Naida, is born from their intimacy.

Kids bully Naida and call her a “frog witch.”  Naida is different and undeniably special.  Watched over by three sea lions, dubbed the “sisters,” Naida swims like a fish and keeps a secret.  For her, the ocean is a form of solace against the bullying and her difference.  Naida, though, feels a deep sense of loss because of her absent father.  She is sure he holds the key to her many gifts and determines she will find him.  Her journey will have lasting consequences, and the answers she seeks may hurt more than they heal.

Ruby does not portray men in the best light in this story.  Men leave; men abuse; men lie; men cheat; men rape; and even boys bully and beat up little girls.  The only man of any worth in The Salt God’s Daughter is Mr. Taki, a resident of Wild Acres and former friend of Diana’s, who may or may not be Dolly’s father.  Yet, women are at the heart of this story, particularly one woman: Ruth.  Ruth must overcome loss and heartache to raise Naida and create a home for herself and her daughter.  Ruth must choose to be a beacon in the storm for her daughter.

The bond between mothers and daughters is palpable in The Salt God’s Daughter.  Even when Diana is absent, Ruth and Dolly still yearn for her.  Her almanacs are a way for Diana to speak to her daughters and to her granddaughter even after her death.  Ruby likewise does everything humanly possible to protect her daughter.

Ruby came up with the idea behind this story while reading about bullied girls.  “I had been reading about four young girls who were bullied and who could no longer stand it,” she writes. “As I researched their stories, that number grew to ten girls. Then seventeen girls. There are more. I wrote their names out on a piece of paper on my desk, and I felt a strong sense of purpose. There was no way I was not going to tell this story.”  Her aim was not only to tell a “beautiful story, but to give voice to every girl who has ever been tested—who has been called out, named, bullied, gossiped about. And who has found the strength to stand up in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.”

The Salt God’s Daughter is full of magic and enchantment, violence and tragedy, fantasy and magical realism, discovery and survival.  Like an undertow, The Salt God’s Daughter pulls the reader in.  Before one realizes, she is far from shore.  Fear not, dear reader.  Let the current pull you under.  Ruby’s story is a tale to drown in.

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Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Little, Brown and Company; 336 pages; $25.99)

 

Reading Maria Semple’s wickedly hilarious novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I couldn’t help but wonder is this the end of the traditional narrative?  Semple uses only emails, letters, journal articles, memos, receipts, TED talks, emergency room bills, FBI correspondence, and press releases to tell the bold story of a Seattle wife and mother, Bernadette, who disappears.  The ways in which Semple ties all these unusual forms together makes for highly entertaining and surprisingly compelling reading.  Semple does not need conventional narrative at all in Where’d You 

The hilarity begins when Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, an eighth-grader, receives her report card from the Galer Street School, “a place where compassion, academics, and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet.”  The school wants to build the self-esteems of its over-privileged students, meaning no numerical grades are given.  An “S” means the student “surpasses excellence.”  “A” denotes the child “achieves excellence.”  Finally, “W” tells parents the student is “working towards excellence.”   Bee scores straight-S’s.

Graduation is not far off.  Bee reminds her parents, Bernadette and Elgin, that they promised that, if she got straight-S’s the whole way through, she could have whatever she wanted.  Bee has decided she wants the family to take a trip to Antarctica.  Her parents say yes.

Taking this trip will be very difficult for Bernadette, as she suffers from agoraphobia.  She enlists the help of Manjula, an employee of Delhi Virtual Assistants International and Bernadette’s out-sourced personal assistant.  Bernadette often sees Manjula as more than just a business acquaintance, however; Bernadette thinks Manjula is her friend.  She even pours her heart out to Manjula in emails.  Manjula, though, prefers an arms-length approach.  In response to a long email from Bernadette, Manjula is polite but terse.

“It would be my pleasure to assist you with your family travel plans to Antarctica.  Attached please find the contract for moving forward on a full-time basis.  Where indicated, please include your bank routing number.  I look forward to our continued collaboration,” Manjula writes.  It is abundantly clear that Bernadette has never had her identity or credit card stolen.  Bernadette cares only that she is getting a deal.  Manjula costs seventy-five cents an hour; that is thirty dollars per week.  Bernadette will let her “friend” Manjula plan everything.

The truth is that Bernadette just doesn’t have any friends.  Because she does not like to be around people, Bernadette does not venture out much, if at all.  Furthermore, she feels so out of place in Seattle.  She previously lived in Los Angeles and felt more at home there.  Bernadette was not always damaged emotionally.  Slowly, Semple reveals what happened to Bernadette to affect her so much.  Bit by bit, the reader understands Bernadette more clearly.

Bernadette was a successful and much-lauded architect in LA: “Saint Bernadette: The Most Influential Architect You’ve Never Heard Of.”  She received a prestigious MacArthur grant and was achieving great success until she and Elgin had to leave LA very suddenly.

In Seattle, she is like a fish out of water.  Bernadette is just out of her element.  The moms at the Galer Street School, an institution built on community, compassion, and volunteerism, despise her.  Bernadette never helps with anything.  Except once.  And who can blame Bernadette for never helping again?

“Five years ago, there was an auction item listed in a brochure for the Galer Street School…It read, “CUSTOM TREE HOUSE: Third-grade parent Bernadette Fox will design a tree house for your child, supply all materials, and build it herself.”  No one placed a bid.  Have these parents never heard of Google?

Bernadette hates the other Galer Street moms so much that she refers to them as “gnats,” because “they’re annoying, but not so annoying that you actually want to spend valuable energy on them.”  Bernadette’s rants against them are utterly laugh-out-loud funny.

Then again, Bernadette is not that fond of her husband, Elgin, who works for Microsoft.  He is so beloved at the company that he is second only to Bill Gates himself.  Elgin is famous for giving the fourth most-watched TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) talk, his colleagues treat him like a rock star.  He is less than a rock star at home, that is for sure, as he is hardly ever there.

Bernadette and Bee are left alone together much of the time.  Their mother-daughter bond is strong.  That’s why, after Bernadette goes missing, that Bee takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance.  Bee sorts through all the emails, receipts, bills, invoices, articles, and the other mixed-media Semple provides to find her mother and takes us with her on an incredible, unexpected journey.

I will go so far as to say Where’d You Go, Bernadette surprised me.  Semple constructs a convincing plot, creates fully-imagined characters, and satirizes Seattle culture.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is perfect for our times.  We live in a world of truncated communication: tweets, status updates, emails, and text messages.  The way we correspond is changing.  Should fiction reflect this transformation?  Sometimes.  Is this the future of fiction?  No, but every once in a while, mixing it up is nice.  The art of the traditional narrative will never die, but I predict a growing niche for mixed-media (much like the growth of flash fiction in recent years).  It’s not for everybody, but I thoroughly enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette for its boldness and uniqueness.

The Author

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An Interview with Samuel Park, author of This Burns My Heart

Here is my interview with the wonderful Samuel Park, author of the novel THIS BURNS MY HEART.

Thanks, Sam, for doing this!

Jaime Boler: What was it like growing up Korean in Brazil?

Samuel Park: Hi Jaime, just wanted to start by saying what a delight it is to be featured in your blog. I hope I can do justice to the wonderful questions you came up with. So, to answer the first question, growing up Korean in Brazil was really fun–there were a lot of other Asian students in my middle school, so I never really felt that “different.” There’s a surprisingly large Asian population in South America!

JB: When did you first know you wanted to be an author?

SP: When I was eight years old–as soon as I could read, I wanted to write. I’d watch American movies from the 50s every afternoon and then I’d write my “little novels” in my notebooks–which were just my kid versions of those fantasy and adventure stories.

JB: I see you are a Jane Austen fan. I read that after I finished the novel, and I suddenly saw Soo-Ja as a Korean Dashwood sister. How has Austen influenced your writing?

SP: Soo-Ja is very much like Elinor in that she’s too principled to try to steal Edward back from Lucy Steele. And just because she doesn’t say it out loud, doesn’t mean her heart isn’t in terrific pain. I suppose my intense love for Austen has influenced my writing in the sense that it very much shaped my awareness of the different and complex ways we can love–in Soo-Ja and Elinor’s case, silently, honorably, but not at all less passionately and intensely as Marianne. I also have a lot of admiration for Lizzie Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. She’s really strong and bold, but prone to making mistakes and has one particularly big flaw–her prejudice; Soo-Ja too is held back by an enormous blind spot early on in her love life.

JB: You say this is your mother’s story. How so?

SP: It is and it isn’t. It was inspired by her experience as a woman living in a Confucian-dominated society as that society moved from very traditional to more modern. But the novel is a work of fiction, with made up characters and situations.

JB: Do you have a favorite character in the book? If so, who and why?

SP: You know, I actually *love* Eun-Mee, the villain. She was unbelievably fun to write, because she says all these outrageous things. To continue the Austen analogy, Eun-Mee is a mixture of Darcy’s haughty aunt Lady Catherine deBourgh and Lizzie’s frivolous sister Lydia. Villains are fun to write because often times, they drive the story, and can be very charming.

JB: Did you, like Hana, dream of coming to the United States?

SP: I did! I think the United States attracts dreamers, and Hana is definitely a dreamer.

JB: Is any character based on you? If so, which character? Did you find it difficult to write for that particular character?

SP: None of the characters are directly based on me, but I’ve felt or am able to imagine feeling everything that the characters feel. Emotion-wise, the characters take after me–I went through an emotional journey with them, and tried to make their emotions as truthful as possible by thinking of times that I was in a similar situation, or feeling the same way about someone.

JB: I have to tell you that my favorite scene in the book is the drawing scene with Yul and Soo-Ja. It was so beautiful that I read and re-read it. Do you have a favorite part? If so, please do tell us about it!

SP: I’m so glad you liked that scene! It’s a pivotal scene in the book, and I rewrote it many, many times. The first time, they weren’t even drawing! But early on, I realized that these two people would never vocalize their feelings–they had to use their gestures to express their love. Neither Soo-Ja nor Yul are allowed to say what they feel, because it goes against their customs. But they’re in absolute sync–in spirit and mind–and their drawing together allows you to see that.

JB: Do you have a favorite line from the book? If so, will you share it with us?

SP: The first line is my favorite line: “You tricked me.” How do you make a life with someone who deceived you? And yet, so many of us do, or have to.

JB: Some themes that stood out for me while reading the book were family obligations versus true love and communal needs versus those of the individual. What do you want readers to take from This Burns My Heart?

SP: I guess I want people to consider what it means to live a life of duty, where you can’t just undo a mistake. That’s the way it was for women of that generation, women who could not get divorces–you were stuck, but you made the best of it. I hope I show in my novel what it’s actually like to be in that kind of situation. Maybe that’s the question I want readers to take away: “Would you turn away true love if it came knocking a second (and possibly last) time?”

JB: I noticed the importance of both saving “face” and losing “face” in your novel. Can you tell us more about that concept?

SP: Soo-Ja can’t really make her own choices because those choices deeply implicate her parents. For instance, she can’t get divorced. She just can’t. It’d bring enormous shame to her family. That’s a tremendous responsibility–to live not only for yourself, but also for those you love. They would lose “face,” and Soo-Ja cannot bear to cause pain to those she loves.

JB: At the beginning of This Burns My Heart, I saw Min as a villain. Yet, at the end of the novel, I had ceased to think of him as such. In my eyes, he was just as much a victim as Soo-Ja. He redeems himself in the end. The true villain was Min’s father. But who do you see as the “bad” guy?

SP: I’m glad you think of Min that way, since I took pains to explain why he does the things he does. Min’s father definitely comes off as the “bad” guy, but I don’t really think of him as such. I’m very forgiving and understanding of all my characters, even when they’re acting up and causing havoc in the story!

JB: Do you think, in Soo-Ja’s heart and in Yul’s, that Hana is his daughter?

SP: Oh, that’s such an intriguing question! It certainly does feel like she could be theirs, doesn’t it?

JB: It’s interesting how Soo-Ja helps Jae-Hwa escape a bad marriage; yet, she is not ready to do this herself because she does not want Min to take Hana away from her. Is Hana the only thing that keeps Soo-Ja with Min? What else keeps Soo-Ja in her loveless marriage?

SP: I guess that’s one of the mysteries of the book… But it is really ironic, isn’t it? Soo-Ja is so completely firm and sure of herself when she goes free Jae-Hwa, yet she can’t figure out how to free herself. It’s strange the bonds that keep people together, and even stranger the bonds we use on our own selves! Personally, I think her sense of honor and duty are what keep her in the marriage. In her mind, if you pick X, you have to live with the consequences of picking X. You can’t just say the next day, You know what, I think I’d like Y better so I’m gonna go with Y.

JB: Father-daughter relationships seem stronger here than mother-daughter, mother-son, or even father-son. For example, Soo-Ja and Mr. Choi have an unbreakable bond. Min is also very close to Hana. Was that deliberate?

SP: Oh, that’s a great question. I actually thought of Soo-Ja and Hana a lot as I wrote the book, but you’re absolutely right that in spite of all her sacrifices for her, ultimately Hana may like her father better. Isn’t that odd, how that happens, sometimes? I think that’s often the case in real life. We like the people who are similar to us even more so than the ones who truly love us.

JB: If Soo-Ja had gone to Seoul to become a diplomat, as was her dream, what would have happened to her then?

SP: My guess is that she probably would’ve lived for a long time in Europe or in the United States, and then returned to South Korea in her 30s. She probably loves her father too much to live apart from him out of her own volition. She also might’ve found a man who was a better match for her, in terms of her temperament and personality. Just like choosing Min had a domino effect, I feel that her being a diplomat would’ve led to very different choices and experiences.

JB: In the course of This Burns My Heart, the reader cannot fail to notice how much South Korea has grown. We first see a country recovering from a devastating war to a nation on the cusp of becoming a superpower. What kind of future do you see for both North and South Korea?

SP: The germs of democracy are spreading so quickly through the world–almost like a virus–it’ll have to reach North Korea eventually. As for South Korea, I see it becoming more and more socially progressive, especially in terms of opportunities for young women. I also see it as continuing to have strong ties with America, a country that has been a deep part of its history, having fought a war together.

JB: I want to congratulate you for writing some of the best prose I’ve read in years. How long did it take you to write this novel?

SP: Thank you! What’s the emoticom for cheeks blushing and writer taking a little bow? Actually, it’s very gratifying to hear that because I decided early on not to take any shortcuts. If I thought in the back of my head that a scene could be better, I would make it better. Sometimes it’s tempting to just write something and hope that it’s “good enough,” and I’m very proud that I did not take that bait. I have a lot of respect for the reader’s time and options–I absolutely do not take it for granted. But to answer your question, it took me about nine months to write it, and then I spent another three years or so revising it.

JB: Are there any plans for a book tour? If so, which lucky cities will you be visiting?

SP: The cities I’ve been to or will be visiting during my tour include Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Milwaukee, and Chicago, where I live. I would love to eventually make my way to the Pacific Northwest and the South.

JB: What’s next for Samuel Park?

SP: I’m working on another novel, which is about a mother-daughter relationship, and that’s all I can say for now! Thank you again for this interview–I love all the questions you asked.

Thanks, Sam, for a great interview!

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