Monday, August 2, 2021

Gordon McAlpine: Woman with a Blue Pencil

This is a very unique novel. Its structure is complex but I did not find it confusing, after I settled into reading it. 

Takumi Sato, a Japanese-American man in California, has written a novel with a Japanese-American protagonist, Sam Sumida. Sumida's wife, Kyoko, was killed earlier in the year. He has left his job as a professor and is devoting his time to finding her killer.  The police have given up on the case but he refuses to. 

Takumi Sato's story has been sold to a publisher and his editor Maxine Wakefield is communicating with him via letters as he sends chapters to her. The story begins in early December 1941.

On December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor takes place, and all of a sudden a book with a Japanese-American man as protagonist is no longer acceptable. Maxine gives Takumi the option of returning his advance check or rewriting the novel with suggestions from her. The new novel she suggests is the story of a Korean-American man who becomes a spy for the US government; his mission will be looking for Japanese spies in America.

The novel has three threads: (1) excerpts from a rewritten version of the original novel (titled "The Revised") that follows Sam Sumida as a character who has been erased from the story and no longer exists to the people who knew him, worked with him, or his friends; (2) the new novel that follows Korean-American spy Jimmy Park (The Orchid and the Secret Agent); and (3) the letters from Maxine, the editor, spanning the years from late 1941 through 1944. I know that sounds like it would be hard to follow using but really it isn't.

 


In addition to being a good mystery, Woman with a Blue Pencil provides commentary on the treatment of Japanese-Americans after the war against Japan is declared, the internment camps that the Japanese-Americans are forcibly moved to, and prejudice against Asians in general. 

I loved everything about this book. I admit that, about halfway through the novel, I was wondering how the author was going to pull it all together. But at no time was I bored. In the end the plotlines come together brilliantly. This was a fascinating story. 

The novel is brief, a quick read, under 200 pages.


Also reviewed by John Grant at Noirish and Kevin Burton Smith at Mystery Scene.


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Publisher:  Seventh Street Books, 2015.
Length:      189 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      California
Genre:       Historical Mystery
Source:      Borrowed from my husband.


18 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

This does sound great, Tracy. The 'book within a book' theme can be really effective when it's done well. And it's interesting that McAlpine uses the book to explore the reality of life for Japanese-Americans during WWII. I like the look at the publishing world as well. I can see how you'd be drawn into this one; it's got a lot of intriguing facets to it.

Rick Robinson said...

I read it a couple of years ago, and I remember it as good, but not particularly great or special.

TracyK said...

I enjoyed it a lot, Margot. I have not read much (fiction or nonfiction) about that aspect of the experiences during World War II.

TracyK said...

Rick, I found it very moving and I always like a story told within a different structure than normal.

I wrote a post on my thoughts on Asimov's Foundation yesterday. I had to struggle with writing up my thoughts on that, I don't have that much background in reading science fiction.

How is your weather there? We are having big problems with our refrigerator, not related to the weather though.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It sounds both great and difficult. But I will take your word that it isn't hard to follow and look for it.

TracyK said...

Patti, I did not find it hard to follow and I hope you don't either, if you do give it a try. It is the type of book you have to finish to get the full effect of it.

On a similar topic, but not the same type of book... I just ordered Naomi Hirahara's new book, Clark and Division, about a family that has been released from Manzanar in 1944 and resettled in Chicago.

Sam Sattler said...

I absolutely love the clever construction of this one...going right at the top of my TBR list. The search is on.

TracyK said...

I hope you like it, Sam. This is one of those books that I put off reading because I was worried I would not like it. How wrong I was. But it came at the perfect time.

col2910 said...

Aaargh, I have had this on the TBR pile for a number of years. I'm kicking myself now that I haven't got to it!

TracyK said...

This is one you should get to, Col. I am sure you would like it.

Rick Robinson said...

Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for it. I saw the Foundation review, can’t argue with your review, it is an exceptional book, as is the trilogy, which I think of as all one story, much like Lord of the Rings trilogy. Not sure lack of women characters matters in a 40s- 50s SF novel, but that’s a criteria many readers today look at.

Sorry to hear of your ‘fridge woes.

TracyK said...

Rick, you are probably right, that lack of women doesn't really matter in that time period and that genre, but I did notice the lack. I wasn't really looking for important characters, just some background characters would have been fine. But this novel was more about ideas than specific characters anyway, I think. And it was only a small complaint, a niggle, and I did not mean to say that it lessened the impact of the novel.

Yesterday we were told to unplug the fridge because it was making so much noise. A technician came (2nd visit) and told us he would order other parts and come back. So now we are using the fridge and the noise is less, but no real resolution. In the scheme of things, not a huge problem.

Neeru said...

Thanks for sharing this, Tracy. I love books where fiction and life mingles. I have to get this.

TracyK said...

This is a book worth reading, Neeru. I would love to hear your opinion if you read it.

Rick Robinson said...

Here is what I said in my January 2016 review:

Also read was Woman With A Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine. It’s a difficult book to summarize or explain. It’s a multi-layerd story of a Japanese-American author writing a book which he started and submitted to his publisher just weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Writer Sam Sumida’s wife was murdered, the police aren’t interested in the death of a Japanese woman, so Sam tries to investigate it himself. His book’s editor, the woman with the blue pencil, demands a rewrite after Pearl Harbor. But there are layers in layers. The writer, his wife, their world fades, all signs of his existence seem to have been erased. Sam discovers that, inexplicably, he is a discarded, fictional creation.

But there’s another book, a pulp spy story, also in the mix. It’s author has been relocated to an Japanese internment camp. Then there is that editor… As I said, layers in layers. The book is well-written, but can be confusing with the plot jumps.

TracyK said...

Rick, when you said you had read it, I intended to check your blog for a review, but I have been so spacey lately (allergies, lack of sleep?) that I forget things. So I am glad you added it to the comments.

I agree, a very difficult book to explain. I did not like the pulp spy story part, but I thought as a whole it came together very well.

Rick Robinson said...

Hope you’re feeling better!

TracyK said...

Thanks, Rick. Today I am definitely feeling better, but every night and morning is a problem. I am optimistic that it will get better over time.