Awhile ago, I joined Goodreads, a social networking site built around books. I really liked the idea of Goodreads but left because I don’t have time to manage a Myspace, Facebook, and Goodreads account. There’s probably a way to combine them, but I’d rather eliminate, simplify, and spend more time writing.
But when I was using my Goodreads account, I wrote a few brief reviews. I kept them under 500 words. I should also mention that most of the books I read are either classics or vaguely contemporary. For example, I just finished The English Patient, which would have been a great topic of conversation–in 1996. Along with the upcoming Titanic movie, Michael Jordan’s 70th win with the Bulls, and the O.J. Simpson civil trial.
In that vein, here’s a brief review of Snow Falling on Cedars, published in 1994.
Snow Falling on Cedars has an interesting premise: a Japanese-American man is charged with murder after the suspicious death of a fellow fisherman. The story takes place in the 1950s and explores the ideas of place and community along with the aftereffects of the war and internment camps.
The novel is smartly framed as a trial with a basetime of about a week. The trial sections are exciting and there are a few unexpected (but logical) plot twists. Between courtroom testimony, there are long stretches of flashbacks mostly describing characters’ backstories, aftereffects of the war, and descriptions of life on the island. Due to the tension between the fast-paced courtroom drama and the slow-paced (but gorgeously rendered) flashbacks, this novel sometimes becomes an exercise in patience. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but one needs to be in the right mood.
I appreciated the complex treatment of racial issues throughout the book, which is sympathetic and fair.
Guterson did a lot of research (about the Pacific Northwest, commercial fishing, Japanese culture, WWII, farming) and he’s not afraid to flaunt it. The research, though, solidifies the setting and atmosphere. In addition, he has a talent for the perfectly-placed subtle detail, from the radiators inside the courtroom to Ishmael Chambers’ DeSoto to the mannerisms of the accused fisherman on trial. Finally, he makes good use of the titular snow to enhance important landmarks in the trial.
Snow Falling on Cedars deserved to win the Pen/Faulkner. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Even though I had work the next day, I stayed up until 2 AM to finish the last few chapters and was very glad I did.