Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Bowl with Gold Seams by Ellen Prentiss Campbell

The Bowl with Gold Seams reimagines a true, but little-known World War II chapter in the summer of 1945 between VE Day and VJ Day when the Japanese ambassador to Berlin, his staff, and their families were confined in the Bedford Springs Hotel in Pennsylvania which the U.S. had commissioned as an internment center. The novel focuses on Hazel Shaw, an imagined young woman, working at the hotel where the detainees were kept, then examines Shaw’s life years later when she’s the head of a Quaker School facing a moral dilemma. During this later time of turmoil, Hazel attends a conference and meets a woman she’d befriended as a child at the hotel and the two revisit the hotel grounds and learn that beauty and healing can come from things that are broken.

The bowl with gold seams that forms the novel’s title is a black pottery bowl that had been broken and mended with the shards held together with golden glue.
“The bowl’s design of blossoms and Japanese characters seemed caught in a net of shining gold seams. The long-ago artisan who fused the fragments with seams of lacquer dusted with powdered gold had transformed breakage into beauty, highlighting the damage as part of the bowl’s history rather than hiding its repair.”

Hazel had long displayed the bowl on her mantel until a visiting parent had exclaimed over it as a glorious specimen of kintsugi. Later, Hazel took the bowl to a gallery and learned that kintsugi had begun as a fifteenth-century accident after a shogun hadn’t been happy with repairs made to a broken Chinese bowl. He’d had a Japanese artisan re-break and repair the bowl with golden glue and the breaks had formed a gleaming pattern that had then developed into a new art form. Hazel had also found out that her bowl was extraordinarily valuable. Thus, debut author Campbell uses the bowl as a symbol to show that beauty and value can come out of brokenness. Hazel’s brokenness begins with the death of her father and the subsequent loss of her husband Neal whom she’d met in first grade and married just after high school before he shipped out for the war only to be declared Missing in Action a few months later.

In the summer of 1945, Hazel’s typing speed and shorthand got her the job of personal secretary to the State Department’s man in charge of the hotel camp. There she met the Harada family. Takeo Harada was a special attaché and was accompanied by his British wife Gwendolyn and their thirteen-year-old daughter Charlotte. Hazel began lending the internees books and Charlotte became the first of what Hazel considered her surrogate children thus starting her habit of sometimes caring too much about certain students and faculty.

This insightful novel offers a beautiful story of how the way we see things can change. Its themes of fatherly love, confused loyalties, justice, vulnerability, and looking inward to take what’s broken and make it beautiful make this a novel that book clubs will want to discuss.

I’m tempted to tell more of this moving story, but I want to allow the reader to experience its psychological impact without interference. This is a powerful, yet often tender story that reflects Hazel’s kind, Quaker upbringing. That it shows wartime and loss with such gentleness and precision is a tribute to the author’s finely honed skills as a critically acclaimed short story writer and to her experience as a practicing psychotherapist.

Stephanie Kallos’s 2004 debut novel, Broken for You, a novel in which healing comes out of making glorious mosaics from pieces of broken Dresden china, has long been one of my favorite novels. The Bowl with Gold Seams offers similar themes, multi-dimensional characters, and psychological insights that offer the reader the same promise of a compelling story that they will long ponder.

Summing It Up: Read The Bowl with Gold Seams to learn of a precisely described chapter in World War II history that’s been forgotten. Savor the language, characters, and metaphors that make this a vivid debut novel that’s also a page-turner and one you’ll want your book club to discuss. It also contains a reading group guide to make that discussion easier.

Note: The Bedford Springs Hotel, which was closed for thirty years, has recently been restored and reopened so readers can visit it and view its history.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: May 1, 2016
Author Website:
Book Trailer:  Watch this to see the Bedford Springs Hotel and learn more of the history portrayed in the novel.
What Others are Saying:  
Washington Independent Review of Books (Warning: this review contains spoilers.):  
In Ellen Prentiss Campbell's psychologically astute, highly original novel, cracks in a bowl are repaired with gold, and the resulting network of shimmering lines makes it lovelier than ever. The bowl figures in a fascinating, historically based story: as Japan loses the second World War, captured Japanese diplomats are confined in a Pennsylvania hotel that is staffed by local young people. Years later, the head of a school in trouble, meets up by chance with the child she befriended in the last months of the war and experiences again the beauty of what is broken."
--Alice Mattison, author of When We Argued All Night

"With a sharp eye for detail and accuracy, Ellen Prentiss Campbell recreates a little-known true moment between the Allied victories in World War II--VE Day and VJ Day--when a small resort hotel in the gentle hills of Pennsylvania housed detained Japanese diplomats, and their families and staff, who had been working in Germany. The complexities of wartime loss and bitterness on the home front--and of human compassion--come to fore when one young woman's life is intensely entwined in this single summer's experience, and when the memories cascade with poignant force decades later. This unusual story surprised and moved me, especially in its tender portrayals of father and daughter, and of difficult loyalties in friendship and love--loyalties that would, as Prentiss Campbell writes, come to make what we assume about ourselves and 'our small world...disappear like morning mist burning off the river.'"
--Eugenia Kim, author of The Calligrapher's Daughter

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Father's Day is Almost Here!

Father's Day is always the third Sunday in June, but it still seems to sneak up on us. This year it's this coming Sunday, June 19. That means there's time to visit your local bookstore to find the perfect book for the father or grandfather in your life.

For the man who's looking for history and a
thriller with literary heft, Stewart O'Nan's City of Secrets would be a perfect match. It embeds the reader into 1945 Jerusalem where Jewish transplants fight the British Mandate in hopes of creating an independent Israel. Brand, a Latvian camp survivor, wants to do what's just, yet moral ambiguities abound. As a taxi driver, he observes changes throughout the disputed lands as he tries to forget the past. This spare account will keep Dad up all night. G/SN/T, BC

I recommended Ron Fournier's Love that Boy for Mother's Day, but it's even more appropriate as a Father's Day gift. It's a book about what it means to be a father and to love unconditionally. Every father and grandfather should read it. The full review is here:  GPR/SF/SN, BC

Sebastian Junger's Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is a book
that thinking dads will want to read and discuss. It's a short treatise that makes the reader consider why the lack of closeness in modern society makes it more difficult for combat veterans to reenter life when they come home from war. It examines how loyalty, belonging, and searching for meaning can make war seem preferable to peace. Junger's thoughts on living in a society that doesn't offer chances to act selflessly and that is deeply divided make this a book to read and discuss this summer. It's written with the same journalistic integrity displayed in The Perfect Storm. G/SN/T, BC

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Wintering by Peter Geye

When you pick up a novel by Peter Geye, you need to grab an atlas or open a map app to keep by your side, because his novels inevitably make you want to trace trails to the areas his characters inhabit. Geye’s words place you so completely in Minnesota’s boundary waters and the cold northern land that you’re certain you’ll need a map to continue your own trek alongside his people. Wintering, Peter Geye’s latest and most accomplished endeavor, will transport you to an agonizing journey in the fall of 1963 when Harry Eide (who first appeared in The Lighthouse Road) persuaded his 18-year-old son Gus to postpone college and accompany him on a trek by canoe to the Canadian borderlands where they’d winter over just like the early voyageurs had done. Wintering also embeds the reader into the events of the past that led to Harry and Gus’s journey then returns to the present as Harry’s longtime companion Berit Lovig and Gus alternately narrate their stories with a scalpel-like precision that makes this the pluperfect novel for erudite book clubs. 

The novel opens as Gus visits Berit a few months after Harry’s final disappearance when he again wandered off into a November day, this time in 1996. Gus tells Berit that Harry’s hat has been found out past the breakwater and the two begin recalling Harry’s life. Gus soon relates the incongruity of heading off into the wilderness in 1963 with his father singing voyageur chansons in French as they paddled into the northern bays.
“Here’s what I wanted to tell you. A few days beyond the Balsam River, a cold, rainy day, we turned into the heavy waters of some swamp. My father paused to take his pointless reckoning and the rain turned to snow by degrees so deliberate and measurable it seemed to be happening out of time altogether. He pulled his hood back and looked up into the snow. And my father – the same man you knew, Berit – he wept. I was stunned. Too stunned to say a word. I just watched him. And after a moment he turned to me and said, “We’ll never find our way back.”

“I felt no fear or anxiety. None at all, even though I was certain we’d die in that wilderness. That I’d die without so much as a compass in my pocket. That we would never be found. What a thing for a boy my age to know. Or for a man to carry around his whole life.”

I took his hands in mine. 

“How can I convey any of this, Berit? How can I tell Sarah and our kids that our whole life, all of our happiness, it’s all been make-believe, because my father and I died up on the borderlands?”

I squeezed his hands tightly.

“We died over and over and over again.” 

Gus and Harry didn’t die, but for all those years they never told what had happened when they went “wintering.” The retelling with its psychological insights turns this novel into something to be reread to capture every nuance. While readers will relish Geye’s beautiful words and phrases, Wintering isn’t simply an exercise of Peter Geye’s literary chops, it’s a full-blown adventure story complete with a dastardly villain. Charlie Aas and his family intimidated and dominated life in Gunflint and Harry had good reason to head far away from Charlie’s reach that day in 1963. Years later, Gus hadn’t known all the reasons behind his father’s actions until Berit began sharing her stories.
Gus would call in a day or two. We would meet for coffee or lunch and he would tell me how it ended. Once he finished, I would tell him why his father had done all the things he’d done. I would tell Gus things he didn’t know because I loved him, I could see that now. I loved him because I loved his father, and because his father never told him where all this started, I would do so myself.

Most of the novel is set in the northern wilderness during Gus and Harry’s harrowing 1963 journey. That’s where Geye’s writing most resembles Jim Harrison’s attentiveness to place and character and Jack London’s sure-footed capturing of men battling nature. Through Geye’s faithful account, we read of the endurance tests and beauty Harry and Gus encounter as shown in this passage:
The ice moaned again. Now it was musical, like a low note from a clarinet.

“Beautiful, eh?” Harry said. 

“You’ve not heard that before?”


“It’s just our bay settling in.”

It was such a strange and lovely sound, Gus remembered. After days of hearing nothing but the thwack of splitting wood and the clunk of piling it up, to hear something like music again came as both a relief and a great sadness. Especially because it was native and wild but also because it seemed, inexplicably, destined for just the two of them. As though they deserved that euphonious moment. To prove that life was not just gathering wood and butchering bear. Gus closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them the clouds in the night sky whistled away and in their wake the stars snapped like embers in a fire. The ice sang on. They listened until it quieted and then turned back for their shack. 

As young Gus begins to realize that he and his father may not be able to get home he heads out on his own to find a way back should they need to leave before winter’s end. Gus’s time alone and with his father offers another aspect of this multi-faceted novel -- that of a young man finding himself and heeding his internal compass’s message that one never enters the same river twice and that we all need to pay attention to the beauty around us not just to our own quotidian gathering of wood and butchering of bear.
He was pleased by his efforts to chart a course to get back, but knew full well that, given the vast number of steps required to get there, it would no longer be the same place he’d left, that the home he’d known was gone forever, and that his next home would be one he’d make himself. Whether that was in this life or the next seemed not so consequential. This thought carried him back toward the shack.

Wintering is above all a rollicking good story. Like most great tales, Wintering is, as Berit notes, “These stories that we live and die by, I’ve learned this much about them: They never do begin and they certainly never end. They live on in the minds of old ladies and locked in antique safes, in portraits on a wall. . . Wintering reminds us that we tell each other stories because we need proof of love and this novel exerts that premise on every page.

Summing It Up: Read Wintering for a humdinger of an adventure. Give it to a man you love for Father’s Day. Slow down to savor the language and to ponder what a father and son learn about love and life. If you’re a fan of Jim Harrison, Jack London, or Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, you’ll surely savor Wintering.

The only question is whether to read The Lighthouse Road before beginning Wintering as Wintering is a stand-alone sequel. Reading The Lighthouse Road first will deliver a deeper appreciation of the characters in Wintering, but regardless of which you read first, you’ll want to read them both.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: June 7, 2016
Author Website:
What Others are Saying:
Beautifully written. Lush details of camping and trekking and living rugged in the woods…immaculately conceived characters…as well as Geye’s instinctive sense of narrative movement.”  —Brad Hooper, BOOKLIST

“The last time I read a literary thriller so profound Cormac McCarthy’s name was on its spine. But Peter Geye is his own man and Wintering is as unique and menacingly beautiful as its Minnesota borderlands setting.”
—Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of EMPIRE FALLS 

Kirkus Reviews:

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

Publishers Weekly: