Thursday, February 06, 2014

Jamie Ford and "When She Woke"

I loved Jamie Ford's "Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" which we read for my library book group, and I've also recently read and enjoyed his "Songs of Willow Frost."  From what I've read, he's been doing a grand book tour and having a great time at the Winter Institute here in Seattle.

Transforming himself into debauched, eccentric Hunter S. Thompson is all
in a day's work for novelist Jamie Ford
Outfitted in a Hawaiian-print shirt and fisherman's hat, gripping a
cigarette holder and a bottle of booze, he recently attended a costume
soiree at the Pulpwood Queen Girlfriend Weekend in East Texas, an annual gathering of authors and readers where this year's theme was "Viva Las Vegas, Baby!"

Ford has traveled from Illinois to Italy promoting his second novel,
Songs of Willow Frost, since it was
published last September. By the time he's done touting the tale, he'll
have state-hopped and ocean-crossed his way to more than 45 events,
including some in Norway. Ford is no stranger to the whirlwind schedule,
having toured extensively for his hit debut novel, Hotel on the Corner
of Bitter and Sweet.

"I say that my books have a career, I'm just along for the ride, which I
stole from Pamela Anderson," joked Ford. (The actress quipped something
similar about her breasts.)

Events for Ford's novels have ranged from a visit to a medium security
prison to a country club tea to a walking tour along Seattle streets.
One gathering drew more than 1,000 people, necessitating a
state-mandated police escort, while at another a librarian asked him to
ring her bell--literally--which was then added to a collection of signed

Making appearances is the flip side of Ford's "monastic lifestyle" as a
writer and an aspect of the job he enjoys. "To interact with readers is
really fun," he said. "I think of book events as 50% entertainment, 40%
education and 10% reading, if that. It's literary vaudeville."

During talks, he delves into the historical aspects of the novels and
shares stories behind the books. Set in Depression-era Seattle, Songs of
Willow Frost centers on a young Chinese American boy, William, who
glimpses a familiar-looking actress on screen; convinced she's his
mother, he runs away from the orphanage where he lives to track her
down. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet also takes place in
Seattle, shifting between the 1980s and the 1940s, when 12-year-old
friends Henry and Keiko are separated after she is sent to an internment
camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.

Readers are often curious to know which aspects of Ford's novels are
autobiographical. One answer is that the stories are infused with
feelings drawn from real-life circumstances. "I think authors channel
quite a bit of emotion in their work. There were father and son things
that came up in Hotel, and I just went with it," said Ford. Songs of
Willow Frost, on the other hand, is "definitely a mother/son book. I
dedicate the book to my mom. Not that it's biographical or
autobiographical, but there is a lot of emotional angst there. Without
it being a Dr. Phil moment, it comes from an emotional well somewhere."

Sometimes event attendees share their connections to the stories. Hotel
on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet has opened doors for some people once
reluctant to speak with family members about their experiences in
war-time internment camps, which changed when they read the book
together. Ford was even invited to a reunion of former internees of Camp
Minidoka, depicted in the novel, where "Don't Fence Me In" was a darkly
comic selection on the karaoke repertoire.
At one of Ford's appearances, a woman announced that the figure in the
frontispiece photo in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is her
aunt, Mae Yanagi. The identity of the little girl shown in the image,
which is housed at the National Archives, hadn't previously been known.
Mae and her family have since joined Ford at signings in the Sacramento
area, where she lives. Another memorable moment took place when a woman
approached Ford at an event to share that like William in Songs of
Willow Frost, she had grown up at the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Seattle,
abandoned by a mother who couldn't afford to provide for her and her

Inquiring minds also want to know how life has changed for Ford, a
former advertising executive, since he became a bestselling author. "I
think that's a funny question because I'm like, 'Is my life supposed to
change?'" he said. "You pull back the curtain, it's not quite so
glamorous. I still have to pick up dog poop in the backyard." When he's
not on the road, Ford is at home in Montana playing "Mr. Mom" to a
blended family that includes six teenagers.

A self-described "geeky kid" who logged a lot of time in a Carnegie
library while growing up, Ford is right at home in bookish venues. "I
visit places I like to be even when I'm not traveling. I could spend
time in fewer airports, but I could be in a different bookstore or
library every day and be quite happy," he said. "I love talking about
books. Not just my books, anyone's books."

Regardless of the locales where Ford appears, audience members from
Norway to Kentucky share a common tie. "The interesting thing I've found
is that readers are readers, whether they have southern accents or
Boston accents or they're Seattle hipsters or they're homeless or in a
prison," said Ford. "Reading is a beautiful common denominator. They all
read for the same reason, for entertainment and escape, but also to
enlarge their appreciation of the human condition." --Shannon McKenna
Schmidt, Shelf Awareness
I've just finished "When She Woke" by Hillary Jordan this past Monday, and I was surprised at how much more I enjoyed it than I enjoyed the book on which it was based, "The Scarlett Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
I'd read Scarlett Letter in 9th grade, of course, and I found myself being rather frustrated with Hester Pryne, because she seemed so gullible. Looking back, though, I had a rather jaundiced view of men and relationships because my parents where having troubles, and because my mother insisted on treating me as if I were her friend and confidant and not her daughter, I had to hear about all the sexual foibles and affairs of not only my parents, but everyone else's parents, including the town fathers and ministers and teachers, which made social interactions tortuously embarrassing. I just could not understand why women allowed men to victimize them, and to make them pay the price for the after effects of sexual relations, which to me seemed to be something that was mutual, so men should have to pay an equal price socially, morally and physically, in terms of taking care of children resulting from the union.
At any rate, in When She Woke, Jordan has taken her cue from Margaret Atwood's "Handmaids Tale" and put Hester Pryne into a future world where the religious right has taken over America and set women's rights back to the turn of the 20th century, meaning no reproductive rights (no abortion or birth control) and few legal rights. So when Hannah, the protagonist, has an affair with a popular evangelist minister who is married, she seeks an illegal abortion because she knows that if the child were born and the affair exposed, his career would be over and he's have to divorce his wife who became barren because of an epidemic STD that he gave to her early in their relationship. Here's the flap blurb: When She Woke, tells the story of a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of a not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated but chromed—their skin color is genetically altered to match the class of their crimes—and then released back into the population to survive as best they can. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder (abortion is considered murder).
Of course, Hannah goes through terrible trials, nearly being killed by a group who call themselves "The Fist of Christ" who make it their mission to kill women who are chromed, especially the "reds" because these men do not deem them worthy to live, and because they are psychopaths looking for a way to 'legally' rape and murder women. She goes to a "redemption" center, which is something like "rehab" with a religious nutjob in charge, and as soon as she is thrown out for showing compassion to another chrome who has gone mad, she finds the resistance movement and, with a friend Kayla in tow, tries to find her way to Canada, which hasn't reverted back to religious fundamentalism.
Though I loved watching Hannah become more self-assured and self aware, I found her constant adoration of the hypocritical minister to be annoying. I just felt that her martyring herself in order to keep him in a job was ridiculous, especially when he told her that he wanted to come out about their relationship and divorce his wife and marry her. She didn't want that, however, and felt that he was doing so much good ministering to the poor and suffering of the world, that her sacrifice of her life was necessary because she wasn't as important as he was. Arg.
Though I found that frustrating, I was glad that things ended well for Hannah and her friend Kayla, and I felt that a lot of the questions brought to the fore about religion and politics and women's rights were dealt with in a challenging and intelligent fashion. I'd give this book an A-, and I would recommend it to those who read Handmaids Tale and/or the Scarlett Letter and were as chilled by those scenarios as I was.

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