Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War
By Annia Ciezadlo Free Press/Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York (2011)
Day of Honey is a book about a journey, a voyage through geographic space and historic time, reflected and recollected through cooking, customs of eating and hospitality and culinary accomplishment. The time is the near-present and the place is well—New York, Baghdad or Beirut depending on the day, the month and the year.
Author Annia Ciezadlo gives the reader a personal entrée into the life of a war correspondent, an American who marries a Lebanese man, a career woman and a loving wife. Her struggles to learn to understand her traditional Lebanese in-laws are enlightening and heartwarming. Her efforts to cover the story and yet stay alive in Baghdad are truly amazing.
Here is a glimpse at some of the threads that weave this book together: “The search for food led me to the places where Baghdad was at its best… Karada swarmed with women: working-class Iraqi women. They wore short-sleeved T-shirts, long black abayas and everything in between. The women wearing abayas billowed along the sidewalks like black jellyfish. Every so often a hand shot out to snare small children, point out tomatoes or clutch the surging black cloth underneath a rounded chin.”
Thus, food forms the foundation for explorations of neighborhoods, women’s customs and behavior and of survival. When unrest was anticipated, everyone rushed to the groceries to stock up on food, bread and water. The gatherings at the bakery became almost a ritual. Journalists huddled together in unbombed apartments sharing lodging and food, cigarettes and Internet connections.
In nine days during the Israeli conflict with Lebanon, Israeli warplanes had bombed 55 bridges, dozens of roads and killed 330 persons. She writes, “Eight square city blocks had been bombed into a concrete goulash. A haze of cement dust blanketed the wreckage, softening sharp edges and muffling all sounds…The street was a heaving sea of concrete. We were half-walking, half-climbing over the insides of people’s lives: a red plastic rocking horse, a radiator, half a sofa.”
Writing such as this is one of many reasons to cherish this book. It is a love story about two journalists from different continents and cultures. It is a record of Middle Eastern ways with food behind the scenes—the home cooking that eases homesickness and brings back memories. And it is a riveting tale of life as a war correspondent. And yes, there are recipes.
HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET
By Jamie Ford Ballantine Books/Random House, New York (2009)
A mostly unmentioned and forgotten part of American history is the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet tells the story in a low-key manner, weaving in human relationships with the unbiased relating of the movement of Japanese-Americans from one camp to another. They were all suspected of being spies, even if they had been American citizens for their whole lives.
These “internees” were forced to leave most of their worldly goods behind, and that is where the story begins. Henry Lee is now an elderly man and 40 years after the height of the war in the 1940s, he is standing outside the Panama Hotel.
This is the hotel from which the author derives the book title, because it divided the Chinese section of Seattle from Japantown. A new owner has decided to reopen the hotel, which has been boarded up for decades. In the basement are the belongings of Japanese families that were left in the 1940s. Henry spots a parasol that he believes belonged to his long-lost Japanese friend, Keiko.
We are taken back in time (this novel fluctuates between the 1940s and the 1980s, so be sure to look at the date at the beginning of each chapter) to the 1940s and the story of a young Henry Lee, a 12-year-old Chinese boy, and his best friend Keiko Okabe, a Japanese-American girl. Henry and Keiko are the only nonwhite children in their middle school, and they are either bullied or ignored by the other students. Since they are both “scholarshipped,” they are assigned to the cafeteria to work. Here they form a strong friendship under the supervision of the strict but warm-hearted chain smoker, Mrs. Beatty.
The author of this amazing debut novel, Jamie Ford, is part Chinese. His great-grandfather changed his name from Min Chung to William Ford when he came to America. He says that he got the idea of the story from an “I Am Chinese” button which his father mentioned wearing as a child. Henry Lee wears this same button in the novel in order to differentiate himself from the Japanese.
There are two complex father-son relationships in this history-based novel. One is between Henry and his anti-Japanese father and the other is Henry and his very Americanized son Marty, who is engaged to an American girl.
Another important character is a Negro jazz musician named Sheldon, who forms a close relationship with Henry and tries to help him find Keiko after her family is sent to an internment camp.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet has a charming, if not completely believable ending, which might leave the reader smiling, but scratching his head.
Anyone who lived through World War II, or has heard their parents talk about it should find this book hard to put down.