Book Reviews

Alan's haunting novel of the AIDS epidemic, As If Death Summoned, was released on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2020, and has won the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards. Watch the book trailer here. Read the reviews here.

Jamie Ford

Ballantine Books


Henry stared in silence as a small parade of wooden packing crates and leathery suitcases were hauled upstairs, the crowd marveling at the once-precious items held within: a white communion dress, tarnished silver candlesticks, a picnic basket—items that had collected dust, untouched, for forty-plus years. Saved for a happier time that never came.

The more Henry thought about the shabby old knickknacks, the forgotten treasures, the more he wondered if his own broken heart might be found in there, hidden among the unclaimed possessions of another time. Boarded up in the basement of a condemned hotel. Lost, but never forgotten.

From Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Book captures indelible imprint of first love

Those novels that entertain us, we like; those that move us, we love. Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet will be loved by many.

The story opens in 1986, when the new owner of the Panama Hotel in Seattle’s International District discovers suitcases and boxes that have been stored in the basement for more than 40 years. They were left there by Japanese-Americans who were interned during the Second World War. A crowd assembles outside the hotel as the owner holds a press conference in an attempt to return the belongings to the descendants of those families. In the crowd is Henry Lee, a Chinese-American and recent widower. As the hotel owner displays some of the items, Henry is transported back to 1942, when he was a twelve-year old boy, living in Seattle’s Chinatown, and where he fell in love with Keiko, a Japanese-American girl.

On one level this is a star-crossed lovers’ tale with an ethnic twist, for there is centuries-old enmity between the Chinese and the Japanese communities, made deeper now by Japan’s brutal conquest of China.

Ford’s story slides smoothly between 1942 and 1986 with the fluidity of memory. He captures what it was like to live in that time in small, telling details: Henry’s father makes him wear a button to his all-white elementary school, declaring “I am Chinese.” (This is several months after Pearl Harbor.) In Nihonmachi (Japantown), Henry notices American flags decorating every home and storefront. His father also forbids him to speak their native Cantonese, even in their own home. He must now speak only English—which his parents do not understand.

There are some very sweet moments in the book (on the whole, it is more sweet than bitter): Henry practices a Japanese phrase to tell Keiko that she is beautiful, only to discover that she doesn’t speak Japanese. She's American.

It may be a little too sweet for some readers’ literary palates, and there are some coincidences that may strain readers’ credulity, but Henry’s story will move people.

Hotel has been chosen as the “Community Reads” book for this year’s Celebration of Literacy, and the organizers are to be commended for their choice, for this is a book that will speak to middle school students as well as senior citizens, capturing first love's indelible imprint on the soul that can last and color a lifetime.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (February 15-March 14, 2010). Reprinted with permission.

This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (February 15-March 14, 2010.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet on Amazon here.

Gabrielle Zevin

Algonquin Books


Despite the fact that he loves books and owns a bookstore, A.J. does not particularly care for writers. He finds them to be unkempt, narcissistic, silly, and generally unpleasant people. He tries to avoid meeting the ones who’ve written books he loves for fear that they will ruin their books for him. Luckily, he does not love Daniel’s books, not even the popular first novel. As for the man? Well, he amuses A.J. to an extent. This is to say, Daniel Parish is one of A.J.’s closest friends.

               from  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry


Benjamin Alire Saenz

Simon & Schuster


Feeling sorry for myself was an art. I think a part of me liked doing that….I had all kinds of tragic reasons for feeling sorry for myself. Being fifteen didn’t help. Sometimes I thought that being fifteen was the worst tragedy of all.

 from  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe


Garth Stein

Simon & Schuster


Growing up in rural Connecticut, I had been told the name Riddell meant something to people in the Northwest. My paternal great-great-grandfather was someone of significance, my mother explained to me. Elijah Riddell had accumulated a tremendous fortune in the forest industry, a fortune that was later lost by those who succeeded him. My forefathers had literally changed the face of America—with axes and two-man saws and diesel donkeys to buck the fallen, with mills to pulp the corpses and scatter the ashes, they carved out a place in history for us all. And that place, I was told, was cursed.

                                from  A Sudden Light


Christina Baker Kline

Harper Collins Publishers

“So is it just human nature to believe that things happen for a reason—to find some shred of meaning even in the worst experiences?” Molly asks when Vivian reads some of these stories aloud.

“It certainly helps,” Vivian says.

                                from Orphan Train


Tom Robbins

Harper Collins Publishers

This is not an autobiography. God forbid! Autobiography is fueled by ego and I could make a long list of persons whose belly buttons I’d rather be contemplating than my own. Anyway, only authors who are household names should write autobiographies, and not only is my name infrequently tumbled in the lapidary of public consciousness, but those rare homes in which it’s spoken with any regularity are likely under police surveillance.

                              from  Tibetan Peach Pie

A well lived imagination

For Tom Robbins, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

Robbins burst onto the literary scene in 1971, with the publication of Another Roadside Attraction, which quickly became a cult favorite, a made-to-order book for hormonely inspired college kids, eager to see how far they could stretch the boundaries of authority.

This was followed by Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Still Life With Woodpecker, Jitterbug Perfume, and other imaginative serio-comic novels with philosophical undercurrents.

So it comes as no surprise that his memoir is written in the same style: wacky, quirky and irreverent, mischievous but without malice. If it doesn’t read like a normal memoir, “that may be because I haven’t exactly led what most normal people would consider a normal life.” This is called an understatement.

He grew up in Virginia during the Depression. From early childhood he had two deep and lifelong passions. One was for the opposite sex (“Her name was Bobbi. She was eleven—an ‘older woman.’”) His other passion was for words and writing: “I started writing fiction at the age of five. Hardly an overnight success, however, I didn’t get published until I was seven”—in the school newspaper. Becoming “a literary lion in the second grade,” Robbins knew that he wanted to be a writer.

As in his novels, he comes up with madcap metaphors that often hijack his sentences, such as describing the summer he reached puberty “when testosterone first barreled into my plasma, piloting a red speedboat and scattering large pieces of childhood in its wake.”

He recounts experiences from eighty-plus years—his stint in the air force, his several marriages, his travels and his friends—but without reflecting much on them. An exception is when he writes about his experience using LSD, fulfilling “a vague yet poignant desire to experience, up close and personal, the fundamental essence of reality.”

From a life filled with so much merriment and mayhem, it was that experience that would prove to be “the most rewarding day of my life, the one day I would not trade for any other.”

Robbins wrote his memoir, he tells us, without referring to any notes or journals (he never kept them), but believes he has “a pretty good memory and can at a moment’s notice name the lineup of the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers and all but one or two of my ex-wives.”

Ah, well, we remember the important things.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (October 15-November 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.


Edward St. Aubyn

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“Personally I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but that it makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent. Only the mediocre, pushing forward a commonplace view of life in a commonplace language, can really be compared, but my wife thinks that ‘least mediocre of the mediocre’ is a discouraging title for a prize.”

                                 from  Lost for Words


The polite, cutthroat world of literary politics

Ever wonder how books are chosen for those prestigious literary prizes—the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Award, the Pulitzer, the Hugo, the Edgar?

In his novel, Lost for Words, Edward St. Aubyn, author of the popular Patrick Melrose series, delightfully skewers the personalities and the politics that decide the winners.

Malcolm Craig, an obscure opposition MP with little to do on the backbench and no literary credentials is appointed to head the Elysian Prize committee, a clear reference to the Man Booker Prize—Britain’s highest literary award—for which, it just so happens, St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, was shortlisted, and lost.

To join him on the jury selecting the year’s most worthy novel, Craig gathers an Oxbridge academic, a retired officer from the Foreign Office, a popular actor, and (well, why not) even a writer.

They argue vehemently over the nominated books they haven’t actually read (200 titles—how could they?) and fight passionately for the one book they have.

The shortlist is pared down to: The Mulberry Elephant, The Frozen Torrent, wot u starin at, The Greasy Pole, and a cookbook, submitted by mistake from the publishing firm of Page and Turner.

Some members of the committee immediately recognize The Palace Cookbook as “the boldest metafictional performance of our time.” A collection of Indian recipes, it also contains brief family stories (Think Suzanne Martinson’s The Fallingwater Cookbook.)

Ever since Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, satire has been a staple of British literature. Certainly, other cultures also employ satire, but the British do it with a certain wicked glee—Yes, I know I’m being naughty, but isn’t this fun?

In that fine British tradition, St. Aubyn has his fun, making sharp observations on everything, from how committees operate (“Malcolm favoured a collegiate approach: there was nothing like proving you were a team player to get your own way”) to our selfie-obsessed modern society where “the collective unconscious has become the collective self-conscious”; even on falling in love (“…it had all gone terribly wrong, but that, after all, was the point of romantic folly. If it hadn’t all gone terribly wrong, it wouldn’t have been the real thing.”)

Along the way, the committee struggles to decide who will receive the coveted Elysian Prize. I won’t give away which book wins because, well, really, who cares?

A footnote: Lost for Words won the 2014 Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction. Just as well, since it’s not likely to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (September 15-October 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.


Anthony Doerr


It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world—what pretensions humans have! Why bother to make music when the silence and wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably snuff them? When Russian prisoners are chained by threes and fours to fences while German privates tuck live grenades in their pockets and run?

               from  All the Light We Cannot See


Trajectories of the human soul

What the war did to dreamers, laments a character at the end of Anthony Doerr’s new novel, All the Light We Cannot See.

It’s 1944 in occupied France, a few weeks after the D-Day invasion. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a sixteen-year-old French girl who is blind. Werner Pfennig is an eighteen-year-old German soldier. Their lives are about to converge in the historic walled town of Saint-Malo.

The story then jumps ten years earlier, and in brief, alternating chapters, we follow Marie and Werner through their childhoods and adolescences as they make their way to the approaching rendezvous in a future they cannot discern.

Marie loses her sight at six, but her devoted father, who works at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, finds creative ways to help her compensate for the loss, and she develops a curious and active mind.

Werner and his younger sister, Jutta, are orphans in Germany as Nazism rises around them. Werner has a fascination and aptitude for mechanical things, and he builds radios from discarded junk. With these, he and Jutta entertain themselves listening to programs.

Because of this technical aptitude, Werner is sent to an elite school for Hitler Youth, where he devises the equipment and methodology to “triangulate” and identify the location of another radio transmitter’s signal.

With the outbreak of war and the Germans advance on Paris, the museum attempts to safeguard its greatest treasures. Marie’s father is entrusted to take with him and hide a large exquisite diamond, called the Sea of Flame. He and Marie depart for the small seaside town of Saint-Malo in Brittany, where they stay with Marie’s eccentric great uncle Etienne. Hidden within his house, Etienne has a radio that he uses to send messages for the French resistance.

The Wehrmacht has successfully used Werner’s skill to locate and destroy the radio transmitters of the resistance fighters in Eastern Europe. As the Germans prepare for the Normandy invasion, Werner is sent to France to locate the French resistance’s radio signals.

And the scene is set.

When Marie and Werner’s lives at last converge, we see what they cannot: their personal stories trailing behind them like the tails of two comets.

What we call destiny may be sensing the way one has come before it happens, and glimpsing the trajectory of the soul working backwards in time.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (August 15-September 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.


Thomas Piketty
(Translated by Arthur Goldhammer)

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

In a way we are in the same position at the beginning of the twenty-first century as our forebears were in the early nineteenth century: we are witnessing impressive changes in economies around the world, and it is very difficult to know how extensive they will turn out to be or what the global distribution of wealth, both within and between countries, will look like several decades from now…Their answers were not always satisfactory, but at least they were asking the right questions. There is no fundamental reason why we should believe that growth is automatically balanced.

   from  Capital in the Twenty-first Century


Income inequality is not good for capitalism

One of the pleasures of history is the perspective it provides, placing this present moment in the context of what has gone before. Those who prefer some intellectual heft to their summer beach reading might enjoy Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century.

Concerned that the dialogue about the distribution of wealth has been based on “an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact,” Piketty, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, brings a historical perspective to the issue.

He begins with Thomas Malthus whose Essay on the Principle of Population reflected the uneasiness of the European aristocracy in the 1790s (the French Revolution had erupted in 1789.) For Malthus, the major threat was overpopulation, leading to mass poverty, leading to political upheaval.

Both he and David Ricardo, author of “the scarcity principle,” understood capital in terms of land and rents. Standing on the cusp of the industrial revolution, they could not foresee the vast technological changes coming and the societal implications of those changes.

By 1867, when Karl Marx published the first volume of Capital, both capital and capitalism itself had been re-defined in terms of manufacturing and the means of production. The mass “misery of the industrial proletariat” was another of its defining characteristics. Eventual revolution was inevitable, predicted Marx.

But by the mid-twentieth century, economists’ “overly developed taste for apocalyptic predictions gave way to a similarly excessive fondness for fairy tales, or at any rate happy endings.”

The leading proponent of these “fairy tales” was U.S. economist Simon Kuznets. who espoused the idea that long term growth would benefit everyone, summed up in the trope: “Growth is a rising tide that lifts all boats.”

Piketty, who has studied income inequality in the United States over the past twenty years, describes how income rose sharply for those at the top of the wealth distribution during the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, then became more equal during the era of post-war prosperity (1945-1975)—the top income tax rate was ninety per cent, the federal government had set minimum wages in many industries, supported trade unions, and invested heavily in the nation’s infrastructure.

Income inequality began to grow again in the nineteen eighties and nineties with the policies of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States. The tide continued to rise, but the majority of boats did not rise with it.

By 2012, the top one per cent of American households took 22.5 per cent of the nation’s wealth, making the level of income inequality in the United States “probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world.” If these current trends continue, warns Piketty, “the consequences for the long-term dynamics of the wealth distribution are potentially terrifying.” (Revolutions can be so messy.)

To address this growing imbalance, Piketty proposes a global wealth tax, like an annual property tax, that would apply to all forms of wealth, thereby requiring individuals who have largely managed to avoid paying taxes to now pay their fair share. One senses we’re back in the realm of fairy tales.

Capital in the Twenty-first Century is one of those occasional books that captures and contributes to a moment in history, summarizing the issues and providing the historical and statistical background to foster intelligent dialogue that could result in policies that benefit all members of our capitalistic society and its commonwealth.

True, not your typical beach read, but you’re going to be terrific in those conversations at the summer barbecues.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (July 15-August 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.


Peter Stark

Harper & Collins Publisher

Astoria constituted a tiny dot of “civilization” on this farthest, wild rim of the continent. The ports of China lay 12,000 miles across the Pacific. The ports of the United States lay 21,000 miles around Cape Horn—five times farther than Jamestown or Plymouth had lain from their supply ports in England…Should the Astorians need to flee, they had no one to run to, and nowhere to hide. The remoteness and exposure were profound. The nearest reliable help lay at least a year’s journey away.

                                        from  Astoria


Lewis and Clark had it easy

In 1811, John Jacob Astor organized and outfitted two parties to establish a fur trading post on the coast of North America. One would go by sea around Cape Horn; the other, over land through the Rockies.

During the whole of Lewis and Clark’s perilous expedition (1804-1806), only one of their party died (of a ruptured appendix); more than half of those in Astor’s parties would die violent deaths, others would go mad, and most would nearly starve to death.

Peter Stark, author of numerous books on exploration and a contributor to Smithsonian and The New Yorker, has written a gripping account of Astoria’s founding.

Arriving in America in 1784 as a penniless youth from Germany, Astor would amass a great fortune from the burgeoning fur trade. The lustrous sea otter pelts could be bought for one dollar’s worth of trinkets from the Northwest Coast people and sold for the equivalent of one hundred dollars in China.

The leaders of his two parties were poles apart in personality and styles of leadership. Captain Jonathan Thorn, a U.S. naval hero in command of the Tonquin, was decisive yet arrogant and uncompromising. His refusal to listen to those who understood the native cultures would doom him, his men and his ship.

Wilson Price Hunt, a businessman inexperienced in the ways of the wilderness, was a consensus builder, and his gentle hand would hold his party together through the worst of their ordeals. Unnerved by reports about the Blackfeet and their penchant for torturing their captives to death, Hunt departed from Lewis and Clark’s established route. Instead, he set off to find a southern course through uncharted territory, guided by three trappers who turned out to be less reliable than Google Maps. He and his party would become lost and nearly perish in the wintry mountains.

Stark’s book relies heavily on the journals of the survivors, which brings a you-are-there authenticity to the experiences. The account of the Tonquin’s arrival at the Columbia River is harrowing to read. Eight of its crew would drown, trying to find a way through the treacherous bar at the mouth of the great river.

Stark also provides a description of the sophisticated native cultures of that time. Enjoying an ample and protein rich diet (an estimated 300 million salmon ran in predictable patterns each year), their standard of living was in many ways superior to late-eighteenth century conditions in Europe and the U.S.

For those of us in the lower Columbia region, there is the added enjoyment in learning about the men behind the place names we have grown up with, such as the tragic tale of John Day—At least he got a dam named after him.

This is history as it was lived, capturing the vision that propelled people into an uncharted future, and the price they paid for that vision.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (June 15-July 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.