Thursday, February 27, 2014

Summer of the Big Bachi: Naomi Hirahara


From the back of the paperback edition I read:
In the foothills of Pasadena, Mas Arai is just another Japanese-American gardener, his lawnmower blades clean and sharp, his truck carefully tuned. But while Mas keeps lawns neatly trimmed, his own life has gone to seed. His wife is dead. And his livelihood is falling into the hands of the men he once hired by the day.
This book pulled me into Mas Arai's story immediately. It is 1999 and Mas is nearly 70; he is still working as a gardener. At one time he had several large estates to care for; now his clientele has dwindled to one large estate and short term jobs he finds here and there. Mas was born in the US, but his family had returned to Japan and he had spent his childhood there. He survived the bombing of Hiroshima, and later returned to the US. And for over 50 years he has lived with a secret that haunts him. Then two  men with different agendas come seeking his old acquaintance, Joji Haneda, and he can no longer avoid the truth.

The story moves at a slow pace. It is not short on violence, but much of the book is spent in Mas Arai's quest to discover why people are looking into his past. Most of the characters are old friends of Mas, and we get a picture of the Japanese-American community and the changes it is going through.  There is a heavy use of dialect. I did not find this problematic and I felt it was necessary to convey the setting, the characters and their relationships.

At one point, Mas goes with his friend Haruo to a medical exam conducted by doctors from Hiroshima. They come to the US every two years to examine Japanese Americans who were exposed to the bomb. These examinations began in 1977; hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) are also seen in three other locations in the US (San Francisco, Seattle and Honolulu). This is just one example of bits of history that I was unaware of until I read this book.

Naomi Hirahara used her own background in writing this book. From the author's website:
Naomi Hirahara was born in Pasadena, California. Her father, Isamu (known as "Sam"), was also born in California, but was taken to Hiroshima, Japan, as an infant. He was only miles away from the epicenter of the atomic-bombing in 1945, yet survived. Naomi's mother, Mayumi, or "May," was born in Hiroshima and lost her father in the blast. Shortly after the end of World War II, Sam returned to California and eventually established himself in the gardening and landscaping trade in the Los Angeles area. After Sam married May in Hiroshima in 1960, the couple made their new home in Altadena and then South Pasadena, where Naomi and her younger brother Jimmy grew up and attended secondary school.
The main attraction of this book for me was the cultural setting; the characters are interesting and different but we don't get an in-depth picture of any one character. I will be interested in seeing how the series progresses, because the basis of this book would not work for future stories. There are four more books in the series, and I am looking forward to seeing more of Mas Arai.




16 comments:

  1. TracyK: It is not easy for an author to come up with a unique sleuth. I can see why you want to read more about Mas Arai.

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    1. Bill, I am definitely curious about the other books in the series.

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  2. Never heard of this one TracyK, thanks - sounds vaguely similar to books by David Guterson?

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    1. Interesting, Sergio. I was not familiar with Guterson. I guess my only familiarity with Snow Falling on Cedars was the movie and haven't seen that. I will definitely check him out.

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  3. Like Sergio I thought of David Guterson and Snow Falling on Cedars. We used to live in Seattle, where there was a lot awareness of the Japanese heritage and what happened during and after the war. Anyway, this does sound like a good book, and one I haven't heard of.

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    1. Moira, I did not realize that about the Seattle area. Also interesting. I think, without knowing much about either the book or the movie, I avoided them because I got the impression that they were depressing. What do you think about either or both?

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    2. I liked the book, didn't see the film. But it was one of those stories that, although sad, gave you some faith in human nature....

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    3. Thanks, that is helpful. I will do more research.

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  4. Tracy - This really does sound like a fascinating sleuth. And the way that Japanese and American history are interwoven is an interesting context too. I can see why the cultural aspects of this novel would be appealing.

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    1. Margot, the cultural aspect is the main appeal for me, although I think Hirahara tells the story well. It is just slow, and usually I prefer a faster pace. She is starting a new series featuring a female bike cop in LA. That could be interesting.

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  5. This seems like a very interesting book, Tracy. Thanks for the review. I'l surely try to get a copy of it.

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    1. neer, I think you would enjoy this if you find a copy.

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  6. I would probably enjoy this if I gave it a go, but will probably take a pass on it.......too much waiting already. Glad you enjoyed it and want to read on. Maybe by the time you've raved over the second and third entries, I'll take the plunge!

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    1. Col, I am sure you would like it (maybe not love it), but we can see what I think of the rest of them. And you don't need any new authors / books anyway.

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  7. Interesting book, Tracy. I'm curious to know just what Mas Arai's secret is. I'm assuming this is not a work in translation.

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    1. No, Prashant, not a work in translation. In fact, a fun fact is that the author's father could not read her books until they were translated into Japanese.

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