Book review: ‘Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me’ by Lisa F. Cook

When Lisa joins her teacher husband in holy matrimony, they have a few blissful days before embarking on a whole new life — across an ocean. After Peter accepts a job in Nagoya, Japan, high maintenance Lisa must adapt to a new culture. Kicking and screaming, perhaps, but adapt nonetheless.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Japan Took The J.A.P. Out of Me is an entertaining look at one Type-A woman’s quest to make the most of a foreign experience. Peter’s new teaching post means Lisa must leave behind her L.A.-based friendships, family and work for the year they’re abroad. As someone addicted to her regular primping sessions, lunch dates and hob-nobbing, Lisa’s introduction to Japanese culture is a little rocky. She doesn’t speak the language, for one, and as a tall, blonde American? Well, let’s just say attracts her fair share of attention. Cook isn’t prepared for the onslaught of changes, but eventually attempts to make the most of her time away outside the U.S.

Despite the skewering it’s taken, I have to tell you: I really liked this book. It was my constant companion in the days until I finished it, and I loved Cook’s glimpses at a culture so entirely different from my American way of life. Broken down into chapters regarding seemingly “simple” tasks, like laundry and eating out, Cook’s battles to master things that came naturally in the U.S. really got me thinking. I’ve traveled a bit in other countries and love peeking at how others live, but to actually move there? It was brave. And bold. And really cool.

Does Lisa occasionally act like a spoiled brat? Sure. Does her pinched-nose annoyance with foreign culture become grating? Sometimes. It’s hard to believe someone so averse to living abroad actually moves abroad, but hey — we all do crazy things for love. And Lisa makes no bones about the way she feels for Peter, even getting into the nitty-gritty of doing “dirty” American things in their Japanese living arrangements. We know they’re in love and they’re going to thrive or fall together. I liked the vulnerable parts of their nacent marriage she let us see, and I loved that she never tried to be perfect — or describe it that way.

And here’s what makes Lisa a likable heroine: she’s aware of her faults and doesn’t take herself too seriously. Though deemed “shallow” by other reviewers, I gently beg to differ: Cook is a self-proclaimed J.A.P. (Jewish American Princess), so her misadventures on public transportation and fending for herself in a world where everything is foreign takes on extra meaning. She admits she’s been spoiled and sheltered. And she’s trying to change that. Maybe it takes a while, but that was all right with me. I was invested — and along for the ride.

If you’re looking for a deep look at life for expatriates doin’ their thing in Nagoya, this probably isn’t for you. Lisa is often more interested in finding a good hairdresser and manicurist than becoming culturally enriched, but that didn’t bother me. She does offer insights into Japanese culture through an American lens, though they were pretty superficial. Still, I found her hilarious and charming, and Japan Took The J.A.P. Out of Me was a delightful read.

For chick lit lovers and armchair travelers, this is one delicious bento box of fun. (Mmmm, bento.)

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 1439110034 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Camp Nine’ by Vivienne Schiffer

In tiny Rook, Arkansas, Chess Morton lives with her beautiful and bold mother on a strip of land owned and run by the powerful Morton family. With Chess’ father dead and her mother struggling to maintain a foothold on reality, Chess grows up a lonely but imaginative child without any idea of how her life will soon be changed.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II, Japanese Americans — primarily those living on the West Coast — were taken from their homes and interned in camps across the U.S. While the government cited their relocation was for “their own protection” considering the anti-Japanese sentiment spreading across the country, the reality was approximately 110,000 people — innocent people, innocent citizens — were sequestered away from society. In America.

Rook is home to Camp Nine, one such holding center, and it’s there that Chess cannot escape the extremes of life within its walls. When her mother, a brave and caring woman, reaches out to those in the camp and begins to teach classes, Chess meets the Matsui family and their teenage son, David. Racial tensions run hot in Arkansas, and the wars aren’t being waged just on foreign soil. Fires of war are being stoked at home, too.

Vivienne Schiffer’s Camp Nine is a quiet, moving coming-of-age story detailing life at fictionalized Camp Nine, a place teeming with life and culture in the 1940s. In modern times, it’s difficult to believe that places like this actually existed on American soil — but while reading, I had to remember the mayhem that followed the dark days after Sept. 11, 2001. The rampant fear and uncertainty. The chaos and confusion. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the American people struggled to make sense of the attack and questioned the loyalties of anyone of Japanese descent — the new enemy. Sound familiar?

This is not at all to justify what happened — that would be impossible. I suppose I just had to repeat to myself that it was a different time, a different time.

And this time, indeed, was scary. If Chess wasn’t playing witness to the despair within Camp Nine, she was dealing with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in Rook. Growing up with black servants she also considered friends, Chess can’t make sense of the hatred spreading through Rook like a sickness. The military installation of thousands of Japanese Americans nearby was like throwing a match into a powder keg.

What I liked best about Camp Nine, aside from the lovely writing, was the way Schiffer chose to tell us Chess’ story from her adult perspective. Though we don’t know exactly how the story ends, we know that Chess is reflecting upon her early experiences as a married mother herself. We know she remembers these hazy days in Rook clearly, but that doesn’t mean her memories haven’t taken on a soft patina with time. Narrator Chess is wise, thoughtful, intelligent. She recalls moments at Camp Nine with a clarity her young self could not understand. Her narration was very moving.

If you’re looking for a book ripe with action and plot, Camp Nine might not quench your literary thirst. The novel is definitely a character exploration examining family dynamics, race relations, this particular moment in history — and what came after. Though I love historical fiction, this is the first book I’ve read detailing the experiences of Japanese Americans in the U.S. during World War II. The situation was deplorable, and I feel like I’ve gained a new perspective.

Schiffer has crafted a fine-tuned, lyrical and affecting work and doesn’t waste a single word in her narrative. Dropped immediately into Arkansas, readers experience a great progression — a sincere, unexpected journey — with Schiffer’s well-drawn, sympathetic characters. If you like historical fiction and character studies, add it to your wishlist.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 1557289727 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘How To Be An American Housewife’ by Margaret Dilloway

I started Margaret Dilloway’s How To Be An American Housewife just before bed last week, distracted by my busy day and unable to calm my worried mind enough to sleep. From the opening sentence, I was surprised at how quickly I sunk into this beautiful, lyrical story — and how enchanted with Dilloway’s world I became. I didn’t put the book down again until 2 a.m. — and only when my eyes were literally shutting.

In this novel centering around identity, growth, healing and motherhood, our protagonists are Shoko and Suiko, or “Sue.” The Japanese wife of a former American GI, Shoko has become American through assimilation. She chose to marry Charlie, a shy redheaded military man, and left her native Japan after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima left her culture, land and family devastated. Sue is Shoko and Charlie’s divorced American daughter, a lovely woman with a 12-year-old daughter, Helena, who understands her mother little and their Japanese heritage even less.

Now aging and facing serious surgery, Shoko is looking back at the life she left in the Japanese countryside — and the family that disowned her when she married an American. Taro, Shoko’s brother, was particularly venomous and couldn’t — or wouldn’t — see the way out Shoko was forced to take. After her father chose her future husband out of a photo line-up of American suitors, Shoko said goodbye to her native country . . . and hello to a world even more foreign than the frightening one she abandoned. But toward the end of her life, did Shoko make the right choices? Could she have changed things for herself, for Charlie, for their son Mike — or for Sue?

From the novel’s first words to its rapid conclusion, I was enchanted with everything about Dilloway’s story. In the cover blurb, author Jamie Ford calls the story “tender and captivating” — a description I second whole-heartedly. I can think of little I disliked about Housewife, except that — for me — it ended far too soon.

Alternating between Shoko’s memories of her early life and teenage years across the Pacific and the present in California, Dilloway seamlessly moves us from time to the next. Shoko herself tells us her story, providing background and details in flawless language. We know that Shoko has faced discrimination in forms: especially after she arrived in the U.S. We know, too, that her English language skills are limited and her accent hard to understand. But as a narrator, Shoko is intelligent, witty, deft; she’s wonderful. The details Dilloway shares strike the impeccably perfect balance between telling and showing.

For as much as I loved Shoko, I had a harder time connecting with Sue — but I think that’s deliberate. Sue grows up in the face of her parents’ interracial relationship, making her their beloved and biracial daughter. Dilloway doesn’t dwell on Sue’s mixed ancestry, choosing instead to show the ways in which she could have advanced in life but hung back. Sue is not a “perfect” mother to Helena, just as Shoko was not a perfect mother to Sue. The women all clearly love one another, but it’s a faceted and imperfect love. But maybe that’s the most beautiful.

Oh, there’s so much to discuss in this fabulous book: the nature of Charlie and Shoko’s marriage; Mike’s difficulties and the nature of his reticence; the Japanese caste system that forced Shoko to shy away from a man she once loved; the effects of the atomic bombs on Japanese society, and the way the war changed everything. But I don’t want to give away the story or overshare, because I went into this novel mostly blind — and I loved that. What appealed to me most, from reading a description on Goodreads, was the cover. I’m obsessed with cherry blossoms — or sakura — and usually savor stories of immigrants and foreign cultures.

This novel was exquisite — one of the finest I’ve read this year — and I highly, highly recommend it to lovers of literary fiction, historical fiction and plain ol’ fine storytelling. If it’s any further proof of my love, too, I completed Housewife on a long lunch break from work. I desperately wanted to finish it just as much as I didn’t want it to end. I wound up returning late to my desk, shame-faced and tearful, after the conclusion of an exquisite story — and I was thrilled (thrilled!) with the ending though, after everything, it felt a bit hurried to me. Anything I allow to purposely make me late, busy worker-bee that I am, has earned my devotion.

4.75 out of 5!

ISBN: 0399156372 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy won in Goodreads’ First Reads program