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Straddling The Pacific: Books By Japanese-Americans

by Lisa See
Oct 20, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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Big Bachi The Year of Meats The Age of Dreaming

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I'm drawn to novels by Japanese-American women. They write about the same things that I do: love, race, identity and history — and its effect on the present. Yet their stories couldn't be more different from mine.

'Summer Of The Big Bachi'

Summer of the Big Bachi, by Naomi Hirahara, paperback, 304 pages, Delta, list price: $13

Author Naomi Hirahara's parents were Hiroshima survivors, and her father was a gardener in Los Angeles. In her first mystery, Summer of the Big Bachi, she meticulously and affectionately takes the reader into the subculture of Southern California's Japanese nurserymen and gardeners at a moment when they are fast disappearing from our landscape.

The main character, Mas Arai, tends other people's gardens, but his own life has gone to seed. He's a Hiroshima survivor. He's a widower. He wears dentures. He's losing longtime clients to young men he once hired. And now, he's about to come face to face with bachi, the spirit of retribution. When a stranger comes to L.A. asking questions about Joji Haneda, who also lived in Hiroshima during the war, Mas becomes a reluctant detective.

'My Year Of Meats'

My Year of Meats, by Ruth Ozeki, paperback, 400 pages, Penguin, list price: $15

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki is a wild romp — deeply comical, bitingly satiric and unabashedly romantic. Jane is a Japanese-American documentarian who is hired to work on a TV cooking show called My American Wife!, which takes her into the heartland to meet our very best housewives, who show off their most yummy dishes: Busy B Brisket, Coca-Cola Roast, and my favorite, Beef Fudge. The show is sponsored by BEEF-EX, a huge American meat-exporting business that wants to make a big splash in Japan.

It is there that Akiko watches My American Wife!, and dutifully cooks the Meat of the Week for her husband who happens to be the local PR man for BEEF-EX. Ozeki captures the problems of globalization — and global miscommunication — and the battle between personal and professional honor, while looking at some pretty serious issues associated with the meat industry.

'The Age Of Dreaming'

The Age of Dreaming, by Nina Revoyr, paperback, 320 pages, Akashic Books, list price: $15.95

Finally, one of my absolute favorite books is The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr. It's a literary novel masquerading as a noir mystery, also set in L.A. Jun Nakayama, who was once a silent film star, lives in near obscurity in the Hollywood Hills. A journalist tracks him down, and before you know it, the secrets that once caused Jun to retire from the movie business threaten to be revealed. Revoyr, who was inspired by real people and real events, including the murder scandal that destroyed Mary Miles Minter's career, has created a novel that explores Hollywood and Little Tokyo during the teens and '20s (a combination I doubt you'll find anywhere else); delves into the creative life and the toll it can take; and asks us to question what love is, how we recognize it, and what we will sacrifice for it.

Many of us straddle two or more cultures in our lives. I personally don't know much about what it means to be Japanese-American, but in these three marvelous books, these Japanese-American women writers have opened their world to me and given me a taste of that experience.

Lisa See is the author of the best-seller Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

Three Books is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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