Rui Umezawa: The Truth about Death and Dying

This book is about several generations of a Japanese family. It is written in snapshot style, so you are taken back and forth in time to witness episodes in the life of the grandparents, parents, and children. The book starts with a rather vivid description of the death of the father, so you might think that that is what the whole book is about (because of the title), but that is not the case (you’ll have to read the book to see what it is about). My favourite characters were Yasujiro (one of the grandfathers) and Toshi (one of the sons), with Hanako (one of the grandmothers) coming in as a late entry. The book depicts the war through the eyes of the Japanese, and also, briefly and cleverly, through the eyes of an American POW. The research that must have gone into these portrayals is so detailed you really get a sense of being there. The parents move the children to the States when the father gets a placement at a university. The scenes in which Rui describes the universal feelings of immigrant children are excellent. My favourite thing about the book was Rui’s choice of words. He is a natural storyteller, and manages to zing you just as you are lulled into the rhythm of the story. One of my favourite lines comes from a guy who has just arrived in the U.S. from Japan. He orders a “Milwaukee beer” while “grinning, in the same way some people said, ‘Swedish stewardesses'”. Or Toshi’s reactions to paintings that he sees in the Art Gallery of Ontario. Upon seeing Guido Reni’s depiction of a melancholy Christ under the crown of thorns, Toshi giggles and thinks, “He’s just pulling our leg. […] He’s just thinking how surprised everyone’s going to be when He rises from the dead in a couple of days. Inside, He’s laughing like a naughty girl.” Or when he sees a Dutch still life of fruit and cheese, he cries, “The fruit didn’t have a chance! It didn’t have a chance!” These quotes are taken out of context, so it’s hard to get a feel for them. It’s the timing of them that makes them so effective. I hope that you think of picking up a copy of Rui’s book and giving it a read. If you have any interest in Japan or families, or good reading, you will certainly enjoy it.

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