Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ordinary Heros

The only Scott Turow book I'd read previously was Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty, his 2003 explanation of how and why he changed his mind about killing prisoners. Turow now thinks it's wrong. It is a convincing argument made by someone who has actually been involved in capital cases, and I recommend it to anyone who wonders if state judicial, murder is ever justified.

Ordinary Heroes is Turow's 2005 novel set mainly in WWII. It has an interesting framing device to allow two narrators, Stewart Dubinsky, and his father, David Dubin. Stewart, in his 50s, divorced, a retired journalist, discovers in his dead father's papers a letter written aboard a troop ship heading toward Europe in March 1944. It is a love letter written to a fiance Stewart has never heard of--not his mother. In trying to learn more about his father's life, Stewart discovers that his father, an Army lawyer, was court martialed and subsequently exonerated. It sets Stewart on a quest to learn exactly what happened.

Through an entirely believable chain of circumstances, Stewart comes into possession of a memoir his father had written about his experiences after he landed in Europe, was assigned to the JAG office of the 3rd Army, and what led to his court martial.

I found the book compelling. Both the present-day account of Stewart trying to understand his father's life and his father's WWII account of Army law, war, combat, and much more. A number of things ring absolutely true: the noise of combat. I've never seen a movie or TV show that convincingly conveyed the sound of guns, and David Dubin's memoir talks about the incredible noise.

I also believe the book conveys more accurately the reality of the war. At one point we Americans execute four German prisoners. In one sense, it's justified, they deserve it; in another, it violates the Geneva Conventions; and in yet another, it is not something WWII movies and comic books ever suggested was possible. I suspect it happened more often than we would like to think.

Until the very end, I had no idea where the book was going. I knew that Stewart's father was going to live because, after all, he returned with a war bride to sire Stewart and his sister. But his story turns out to be fascinating.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Changeling

I read Joy Williams' The Changeling because it was recently republished (recently being May 2008) 30 years after it originally appeared. I thought that any book with a following so loyal a publisher was willing to take a chance with a new edition 30 years on had to offer something special.

The new edition has a preface by Rick Moody who tries to explain what happened to the book when it was first published and to justify the republication. Williams had been a National Book Award finalist for her first novel in 1972, so she was no dilettante when The Changling was published in 1978. However, as the New York Times reported with the new edition, Anatole Broyard's review of the original publication "found nothing to like about The Changeling, a book about a young, heavy-drinking woman named Pearl. In his first sentence, he called it 'startlingly bad'; he wrote that its story was 'an arbitrary muddle'; and he wrote that the children in it were 'as artificially tiresome as any I have ever met in literature.'" The case has been made that the review killed the book.

Nevertheless, it lived on. Here are some quotes from fans: "Started off amazing, got a bit iffy, then transformed itself into a perpetual surprise machine..." "Reading this is like stepping into someone else's fever dream - it's hot, it's menacing, but it ends up working by its own strange logic. A very weird book that I only half got but Williams' prose is so wonderfully transporting and visionary that I was willing to let her get away with a lot...." "Amazing book. Stark, surprising language. An unusual romp through the mythological intricacies of the imagination...."

I am afraid I vote with
Broyard. The main character, Pearl, is a drunk and, except for one short section, we see the story through Pearl's point of view. Because she's a drunk, and because we never get outside her head long enough to test her perceptions, we never know what's "true" and what's her fever dream. Is the child that survives a plane crash with her really hers or has he been switched? Who knows? Who can tell? And finally, who cares? At the end, Pearl is raped by her dead husband's brother, something she finds physically enjoyable but mentally/emotionally repugnant. Or maybe it's the other way around. Who knows? Pearl doesn't and there's not enough for the reader to know. Or, in my case, care.

When I finished, I felt that Williams had created an interesting verbal object that says nothing about people, the world, life...anything. It is not a book for me.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Shameless bragging

As a hobby, I continue to study Japanese. While I am comfortable speaking Japanese on topics a tourist needs to cover, I cannot read a Japanese newspaper or a magazine. I am therefore on an endless quest to memorize the kanji, and slowly, slowly, slowly build my vocabulary. (The main character in my novel Getting Oriented is much more fluent than I am.) Because reading is such a struggle, I was delighted when I discovered that I could read without help the following in a letter I received from a Japanese friend a few days ago:


I believe it's the longest string of characters I've ever been able to read by myself. (Japanese conversation partners have always had to help me in the past.) It means "National History Museum" or "Museum of National History," and my friend was telling me that her husband is now a volunteer guide there. An ordinary sentence but it gave me a frisson of excitement.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


David Rhodes published three well-received novels in the early 1970s. In 1977 he was in a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Driftless is his first published novel in 30 years. I found it extraordinary for reasons I will try to convey.

The title refers to a region in southwestern Wisconsin that last glacier did not reach. Consequently, the glacial deposits of rock, clay, sand, and silt—drift—are missing. The book is set in this Driftless Region, in and around the village of Words, a town so small small that state maps no longer show it.

I will not attempt to summarize the story because the book contains many stories. It is not, however, a book of linked short stories. Driftless has perhaps a dozen main characters, some connected by blood, some connected socially (it's a small town after all). Not everyone knows every else personally, although almost everyone knows July Montgomery, who might be called the protagonist except that his actions are fairly low key. Some of the narrative threads are connected, but not all. We see characters grow and change in believable ways as their actions touch one another.

I had a sense of Rhodes listening carefully to everything he heard for the last 30 years, thinking about it, and shaping it. The writing is often lovely: "It was cooler here, and she felt her body relax as she threaded through the calligraphy of underbrush." "Olivia lay in her dark room without sleeping. Outside the window she could see a thin sliver of moon nailed against the sky." Yet the writing does not become so lovely that it distracts from the narrative motion.

I like the book because it is about people I do not often read about: farmers, handymen, a small-town preacher (whose epiphany is one of the high points of the book), and more. None of them are professional people—unless you consider farming a profession—nor, for the most part, are they highly educated. They have to contend with weather, wildlife, broken machinery, corporate corruption, medical emergencies, accidental death, their own prejudices, and more.

As a side issue, I was interested to see that Driftless was published by Milkweed Editions, a non-profit, independent literary publisher. I don't know if Rhodes tried to sell the manuscript to a commercial publisher (Harper & Row published his last book), and I don't know what kind of advance or royalty contract he might have, but I suspect both are modest. Milkweed, after all, has to stay in business. I can only hope that the word spreads and that this interesting portrait of contemporary midwestern rural life finds the large and enthusiastic audience it deserves.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Coldest Winter Ever

While I work on new fiction, I have been reading a lot of other people's fiction and, because I have not posted to this blog for months but do read about a book a week, and because I want to clarify my thoughts about the books I'm reading, I plan to spend the next several months writing about other people's fiction, starting with Sister Souljah's The Coldest Winter Ever.

I came to it because students in a prison fiction writing class talked about urban fiction as a genre and recommended it highly. The book has been out since 1999, so I am coming to it late. But it's still in print and the 2006 paperback edition I bought announced there are a million copies in print. With all that, I'd never heard of it. A

If one of the reasons to read fiction is to learn about other lives and other cultures, I can unequivocally recommend The Coldest Winter Ever. The protagonist, Winter Santiaga who tells her own story, is a 17-year-old woman of color who is the daughter of a wealthy Brooklyn drug-dealing family. She worships her father, has three younger sisters (Porsche, Lexus, and Mercedes, which says something about the family's values), is sexy and smart, if contemptuous of school. " policy was to go to school just enough so the authorities wouldn't kick me out. If I had a new outfit to show off or some new jewels I knew I'd get sweated for, fine, but I wasn't gonna report to school every day like it was some type of job when they weren't even paying me for it. School was like a hustle. Teachers wanted me to come to school so they could get paid to control me. What do I get out of the deal?"

When Winter's father is arrested; his entire drug-dealing organization rolled up; the house, cars, jewels, and other property confiscated; her mother picked up; and her sisters taken by Child Protective Services, Winter is—for a while at least—on her own. She makes one questionable decision after another, running on pure appetite and rationalization. I suspect the book would be very irritating if Winter were an adult—how could she be so stupid?—but as an adolescent I was willing to follow her from one crisis to another. What is she going to do next?

Because I know so little about the world that Sister Souljah portrays, I believed these characters in these situations would speak and act in the way they do. Souljah includes herself as a character in the book, a do-gooder that Winter tries to use and for whom she has little patience: "On the radio, suddenly Sister Souljah started talking shit, her coarse voice overpowering the music. 'The number one group of people dying from AIDS is young black women.' I popped in a tape to shut her down before she started gettin' on my damn nerves."

Winter is a force of nature. I'm not sure that she has learned anything socially useful by the end of the book. But the reader has, I believed, learned much about the assumptions, attitudes, and lives of men and women in our ghettos.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Novelizing Drucker in Japan

The Economist has a cute story on page 61 of the July 3rd issue: "Drucker in the dug-out."

A Japanese publisher, Diamond Publishing, has released a novel titled, What if the Female Manager of a High-School Baseball Team read Drucker's 'Management.' According to The Economist, the book features a fictional teenager called Minami who becomes the gofer for the baseball team’s male coach. "Unlike many of her compatriots, she is the kind of girl, as the book says, who leaps before she looks. Horrified by the team’s lack of ambition, she sets it the goal of reaching the high-school championships." She finds Peter Drucker’s 1973 Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices "and it helps her turn the rabble into a team."

Not only has the novel become successful, it's apparently stimulated sales of Drucker's original. Reportedly some 300,000 copies sold in Japan in the first six months of this year compared with 100,000 copies in the previous 26 years.

Drucker who loved Japan would have been pleased. A year before his death in 2005 he warned that "Japanese firms might soon be overtaken by rivals from South Korea, China and India. He urged them to brace for competition by working out what they were good at, what they should do and what their values were." While there are exceptions, the magazine notes, most large Japanese enterprises "remain corporate octopuses squeezing the life out of Japanese business."

Friday, July 16, 2010

Ozu's "Early Summer"

"Early Summer" is a 1951 black-and-white film directed by Yasujiro Ozu, another one of the master's films that The Criterion Collection has released on DVD. I am finding Ozu's films fascinating for their portrayal of what seems to be ordinary Japanese life.

"Early Summer" [the Japanese title is "Bakushu" which my dictionary defines as "the time of the barley harvest (in early summer)"] is set in Kamakura and Tokyo. The Miyama family—the two parents; their married son, his wife, and their two young boys; and their unmarried 28-year-old daughter Noriko—all live in a big house in Kamakura. The movie might have been called "What Should We Do About Noriko?"

The family is concerned about her unmarried state. She works in an office in Tokyo and is not particularly interested in marriage--especially given the experiences of her married girl friends. Her boss wants to set her up with a 40-year-old bachelor; her brother bullies her emotionally to get married. In the end, Noriko makes her own choice of whom she'll marry, not for love but to satisfy the social pressures and because it seems like the best alternative available to her. Men work; women stay home and raise the children. An unmarried woman is unnatural.

Interestingly, the film is set five or six years after the war. The American Occupation still exists, but no one refers to it. (In one quick shot from a Tokyo office building window, the camera may have caught a jeep carrying GIs.) There is almost no indication of how the war affected the people in the film except that the Mayima family mourns a son who vanished into the war.

Warning: The movie is slow. The camera seldom moves. There is very little "dramatic action." But I have the sense that this is what these people would have lived like, talked like, dressed like, worked like, played like at this time in this place. It is the drama of ordinary life, and all the more powerful by being so.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Ozu's "Good Morning"

I am just getting around to some classic—or certainly entertaining—Japanese films. The Criterion Collection has apparently been remastering and releasing the Janus Film catalog and I just watched Yasujiro Ozu's "Good Morning" (お早よう).

Ozu made this color film in 1959, a time when Japanese society had mostly recovered from the war and families were interested in buying washing machines, refrigerators, and television sets. Nevertheless, all the housewives in the film still dress in kimono and people at home live and study on tatami. They seem to be living in new houses in a development on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Many elements are typically Japanese: Three generations live in the house. Grandmother prays at the household altar. School boys dress in uniform. Father is the supreme authority, although he does not have much to do with the children's daily life. A school classroom has 40 or more well-behaved students.

At the same time, the story is universal: Housewives gossip. Families cannot live on a husband's retirement pension. Children invent their own diversions. (Here they eat pumice so they can fart at will.) People jump to unwarranted conclusions.

The story is relatively simple. Two boys pester their parents to buy a television set. When they are told to stop talking, they do so, no longer even greeting a neighbor in the morning or telling their parents they need to bring lunch money to school. Complications ensue.

But while the story is simple on the surface, Ozo has some serious things to say about Japanese society as it plunges headlong into consumerism. I'd be interested in hearing what, say, a 35-year-old Japanese housewife would say about this 50-year-old movie. What is different and what is the same?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Modernizing Kyoto for Better and Worse

According to a recent New York Times article,a developer plans to build a mammoth aquarium complex in central Kyoto. The aquarium, to open in 2012, is to have a dolphin pool, a penguin park, and a giant wave pool. The developer, Orix Real Estate, says that the complex will bring at least two million more visitors to the city each year. Those opposing the plan say, "Kyoto should not be building concrete boxes. Kyoto's residents and its visitors care more about preserving old neighborhoods. We have the wrong idea of economic development, and it is destroying the city."

I am not sure where I stand on this issue. As someone who has written a novel about a guide leading a tour of Japan, I have strong feelings about the country. The first time I visited Kyoto it was a museum city, untouched by The Great Pacific War (we deliberately did not bomb Kyoto because it held so many cultural treasures). This was before the giant Post Office Tower, before the massive Kyoto Station, before thousands of wooden homes and businesses had been torn down and replaced with concrete and stucco. I've often thought I was lucky not to live in the city through the period of its greatest modernization. It would have broken my heart.

Which, of course, is nonsense. I didn't have to live in the drafty, uncomfortable houses. It's not my city, not my country. I have no say in what the Japanese do or don't do. If they want to use the wood from an old temple to heat the bath water, that's their business. (Reportedly, an American scholar saved the Phoenix Temple from such a fate in the Meiji era.)

The Times reported that Japan attracted only 6.79 million foreign visitors in 2008--fewer than Ukraine. Ukraine! There seem to be at least three problems: The cost to get there from the US or Europe, the cost of touring there, and questions over what foreign tourists want to see. Chinese tourists, for example, have ancient temples of their own. Officials say the new aquarium will attract more Chinese.

Perhaps. But it seems to me that most of us travel for pleasure to have experiences we cannot have at home. If Kyoto becomes a pale imitation of any other city, why go there? It was, in my limited experience, utterly unique. Now in some areas it is just like any other Japanese city. And destroying one of its few parks is not—again, my opinion—going to add to its charm.

Monday, April 26, 2010

36 Hours in Kyoto

Yesterday's New York Times Travel section carried an article by Jaime Gross on how to spend 36 hours in Kyoto. It confirms something I said in an earlier post...that the city offers something for everyone. Interestingly, Gross does not send readers to the Kyoto must-sees: the Golden Pavilion, Ryoan-ji, Sanjyusangen-do, etc.

I cannot comment on Gross's restaurant or hotel recommendations because I've had no personal experience with any place he suggests. I have had lunch at the Hyatt Regency Hotel's Touzan restaurant; it was elegant and not expensive. The hotel is close to both Sanjyusangen-do (the 33-bay temple) and the Kyoto National Museum.

I second Gross's suggestion for walking around the Gion to obtain a taste of what traditional Kyoto nightlife was like. He does not mention, but Gion Corner offers tourists—primarily foreign tourists—a taste of traditional cultural arts: an hour of dance, tea ceremony, Edo-era comedy, puppet theater, and koto music. (The picture above is from a Gion Corner performance.) It is the closest most of us will get to the real thing.

Gross suggests visiting Maruyama Park...and if you visit the Gion you are practically there. It is an oasis of tranquility when it is not cherry blossom season. During cherry blossom season, when the Yasaka Shrine and the trees are lit at night and throngs of Japanese are partying under the blossoms it is a carnival.

All of this is to say that with planning, one can have an exceptionally full and rewarding weekend in Kyoto...or week...or month...or more.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Where to go in Kyoto III

The Ryoan-ji in Kyoto is the most famous rock-and-sand garden in the world, and as a result it is usually mobbed with tourists. (The first time I saw it, in the mid-1950s, I was able to sit on the veranda for an hour virtually undisturbed by another person; those days are long gone.)

The Ryoan-ji, however, is not the only rock-and-sand garden in Kyoto. The Zuiho-ji has a number of such gardens...and I have never found it crowded with tourists.

A daimyo (feudal lord), Sorin Otomo (1467-1568), founded the Zuiho-ji as a family temple in 1535. Otomo was the family name; he took the name Sorin when he became a lay Buddhist monk in 1562.

Otomo inherited the domain of Funai, on Kyūshū, from his father. Over twenty years of warfare and rebellion, he unified much of Kyūshū under his control and secured a significant gain in his clan's power and prestige, Otomo is significant as one of the daimyo to meet personally with the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier in 1551, one of the first Europeans in Japan. Though Otomo converted to Christianity 1562 (the same year he became a Buddhist monk), he probably saw this as a politically strategic move and was not religiously motivated. Jesuit records refer to Otomo as the "King of Bungo" (one of the Kyushu fiefs). He sent political delegations to Goa in the 1550s, and the Tenshō embassy to Rome in 1582.

The Zuiho-in is a sub-temple of the main temple of Daitoku-ji, a major Zen temple located in northern Kyoto. The focus of the Zuiho-ji is its rock garden. The main garden is a combination of moss and rocks and an acclaimed example of a dry landscape garden-karesansui. Behind the main hall is the Garden of the Cross (with rocks laid out to form a cross). There is also a Tea house Ansho-ken within the precincts.

My picture does not do the temple or the gardens justice, but there are many exquisite photos of the temple at this site. The Zuiho-ji is one of Kyoto's hidden gems.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Where to go in Kyoto II

Recently I wrote about the must-see sights in Kyoto. The problem with these famous sights in the ancient capital is that virtually every visitor who visits Kyoto wants to see them, and because around 5 million tourists visit every year (the city population is only around 1.5 million), the popular sites can be mobbed.

Fortunately, Kyoto has so much to see, it is possible to have a rewarding experience without fighting the crowds. One special spot I've found is the Shisen-do (the House of Poet-Hermits).

One Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) built it in 1641 as a retirement villa. Although the city now surrounds the grounds, it was countryside when Ishikawa built the home; what is now the villa's parking lot was a rice paddy. Once you pass through the ancient gate, you have no sense of the modern city beyond.

Ishikawa, born in a samurai family, became a personal attendant to Tokugawa Ieyasu who eventually became Shogun. After Ishikawa disgraced himself in a 1615 campaign (he rushed into battle, killing several enemy, thereby violating military discipline which prohibited the Shogun's attendants from fighting), he became a scholar and eventually retired to Kyoto's northeastern hills, designing both the house and the gardens. He spent his last years writing poetry, tending his garden, watching the moon and the changing seasons. The main room is decorated with portraits of the 36 most famous ancient Chinese poets.

The building is now owned by the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism. The portraits are now reproductions. But the villa and the garden are, I believe, almost the same as they were in Ishikawa's day. I have always found the Shisen-do to be a lovely, tranquil spot...and uncrowded.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

What to see in Kyoto

A friend asked what she should see on her first, and short, trip to Kyoto. The only honest answer is, I don't know. One could (and I have) experience a number of different Kyotos--a Buddhist Kyoto, a Shinto Kyoto, a garden Kyoto, a museum Kyoto, a tourist Kyoto, a craft Kyoto...but you get the idea. I once stopped with my group at an exhibit of model homes a contractor had built and we all had a wonderful time going through them.

There are, I am afraid, a number of famous things to see. These are the things that if you don't visit them, people say, "You were in Kyoto and didn't see...." So let's start with those:

Kinkaku-ji, The Golden Pavilion. Perhaps the most famous temple in Japan, but the grounds are mobbed and the last time I was there you shuffled along pressed by the mob behind even though they do not show up in the picture above.

Sanjusangen-do. An extraordinary building filled with more than 1,000 statues of bodhisattvas and a central Buddha. Go very early to beat the crowds.

Kiyomizu-dera. A temple complex on the Eastern hills above Kyoto. From the platform high above the ground, you can look over the city. Water from a sacred spring gives you health, longevity, and success in studies.

Nijo Castle (the gate above) was the shogun's villa when he visited Kyoto. The scale, art, and grounds were designed to impress the Kyoto aristocracy. They impressed me, and the thing is big enough that I've never felt crowded.

Ryoan-ji. The temple with the world-famous dry garden...five groups of stones in raked white sand. The first time I saw it, I was able to sit on the veranda undisturbed for an hour. Today it is mobbed and the experience does not lend itself to contemplation. Go, but don't be disappointed by the bustle.

Next post, I'll talk about some of my favorite places.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Japan Times profile of a favorite blogger

The Japan Times, my favorite English-language Japanese newspaper, has posted a profile of one of my favorite bloggers about Japan, Shari Custer, who writes one of my favorite blogs about Japan, 1000 Things About Japan.

Asked whether her attitude toward Japan has changed over time, she is quoted as saying, "I went through the same phases that most people do when they live in Japan for some time. At first, all is sunshine and roses, then I got angry and depressed. Eventually, my perspective became more balanced. Part of my blog’s purpose is talking about both sides of life here. There are good things, but also bad ones. I realize that conclusions about Japan are subjective. My experiences are authentic, but my emotional responses to them are ones that others may not share."

At the end of the interview (which I encourage both my faithful reader to read), she is asked about other bloggers.

"I love Shibuya 246 for the way in which it feels both like a 'brand' blog (not personal), but still has a real human feeling and the author connects with his readers. The pictures are also excellent. I also follow a lot of personal blogs written by women in Japan because I think you learn the most by hearing about experiences that others have had and most male Japan bloggers don’t tend to write about their lives or experiences."

Thanks to Sheri, I've also begun following Shibuya 246, and commend it to your attention.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What to see in Tokyo

A friend asked for suggestions where a first-time visitor to Tokyo and Kyoto should go, an impossible question. Tokyo is like New York City; it is overwhelming and there is something for everyone. Indeed, lots of somethings for every taste, so one could spend one's entire week looking at art, going to theater, checking out fashion, visiting shrines and temples, go clubbing, or just sitting around and people-watch. That said, here's what I suggested:

Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park. A collection of the best of Japanese art.

International Forum Building. A contemporary architectural marvel beside Yurakacho Station on the Yamanote (circle train) Line.

Tsukliji Fish Market. Overwhelming, but go first thing in the morning--and stay out of the way of the people who are working.

Sensoji Temple, Asakusa. Famous temple at the end of the Nakamichi, a shopping street where Japanese tourists buy their souvenirs.

Edo-Tokyo Museum. Close to Sensoji (a cheap cab ride); the building is extraordinary and the museum covers the history of the city from its founding to the 1962 Olympics.

Meiji Jingu (Park and Shrine). A lovely park in the center of the city dedicated to the emperor who started the modernization process.

Harajuku (a train station and area) at the entrance to Meiji Park is where the most fashion-forward teens hang out on weekends.

Akihabara (train station and area), "Electric town" with scores of electronics shops.

National Museum of Science and Emerging Technology on Odaiba, an island in Tokyo Bay. Get there by monorail, which is interesting itself, and we found the museum and its exhibits fascinating. Odaiba also has one of the world's largest Ferris Wheels.

Finally, I would go to one of the big Ginza department stores—Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi, or even Tokyu Hands. Arrive before opening and be welcomed by bowing sales clerks when the doors open, check out the kimono department (and the prices!), the art exhibit on one of the top floors, and stay for lunch in one of the restaurants.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Guardians of Literary Culture? Ha!

Makoto Rich began a recent article in The New York Times, "Book publishers have long seen themselves as the gatekeepers of literary culture."

Book publishers might have seen themselves as gatekeepers of literary culture when Maxwell Perkins was editing Thomas Wolfe, but that was a long time ago. They may still see themselves as such at certain self-congratulatory awards events, but who are they kidding?

Book publishers have always been profit-making enterprises. At one time, if you believe the industry's story, they made enough profit that they could take a chance on a talented unknown author, support him through several money-losing but increasingly assured books, and be rewarded either in profit or literary status or both. Today, I suspect, profit is all. Is there any publisher today who believes it is worth spending the company's money cultivating an author? Is there any editor who would go to his or her publishing committee and say that "this might not be a best seller, but it's a fine book by an author who shows a lot of talent and any house would be proud to publish it."

The irony it seems to me is that while publishers reportedly spend big bucks to buy best selling authors, no one knows what makes a best seller. (Okay, a brand name helps: John Grisham, Danielle Steele, Stephen King, Clive Cussler, James Patterson...but how do you become a brand name?) Publisher's Weekly has run year-end review stories about the books publishers flogged enthusiastically that the public just as enthusiastically ignored and the books that took off with virtually no publisher support. Rather than trying to hit a home run (read: publish a best seller) with every manuscript, a publisher would probably be better off trying to hit a lot of singles and doubles, knowing the odds favor an occasional home run.

None of this is to say that if a book is a best seller it cannot be "literary" whatever that means. Nor is it to say that if a book is literary it cannot be popular. It is to say that if a book does not fit into a well-defined niche—mystery, romance, thriller, science fiction, chick-lit, etc., etc.—most publishers don't know what to do with it, and rather than work to find out, it is easier, and certainly cheaper, to pass and literary culture be damned.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The interpreter's dilemma

I've wondered what an interpreter does when his client says something that cannot be translated directly—an idiom, or a cultural reference that does not exist in the other language. I presume that at the highest levels of government and diplomacy, the interpreters are so good they can find equivalents on the fly...and their clients try to avoid idioms and obscure cultural references.

I have rarely had to act as an interpreter. For one thing, my Japanese is not good enough. and for another I've seldom been in a situation where I was the bridge between an English-speaker and a Japanese who spoke no English. The one time I was enlisted was a lunch at the New York City Princeton Club.

I'd met all morning with a client with whom I was writing a book. He had a lunch that day with a Japanese executive and an American consultant who were visiting a number of US companies. At the last minute, Kevin asked if I would like to join them.

When we met in the private room for lunch, I introduced myself in Japanese to the executive who, I am sure, spoke excellent English but who complemented my Japanese ability to Kevin. The consultant apparently spoke no Japanese. As we sat down for lunch, the consultant remarked that they had just come from Philadelphia.

"Well, as it says on W.C. Fields' tombstone, 'All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia,'" said Kevin. The Japanese executive looked blank. Kevin looked at me and said, "Translate it."

Aside from the fact that "tombstone" is not a word in my vocabulary, the line has so many cultural references—who was W.C. Fields, his attitude toward Philadelpha, what one writes (or not) on a tombstone, which are very different from Japanese tombmarkers—I could not possibly convey the point.

So I said was I was able to say Japanese, "Doctor Clancy has just told a joke. Please laugh."

The executive gave an appreciative chuckle, and we ordered lunch.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Philip Roth's "Indignation"

Spoiler alert:I am going to talk about Philip Roth's new novel, Indignation in some detail. If you have not read it, and if you have any interest in Roth and want to read it, you may want to skip this posting.

First, it's short; 233 pages that are only a little larger than the average paperback. The first 224 pages, titled "Under Morphine," are told in the first person by 19-year-old Marcus Messer who is either dead or on the verge of death. The next seven pages are an objective account of what happened to him—bayoneted and killed on a Korean hill late in the war—and the effect on his parents, and the irony of his being in Korea at all. The last two pages continue the history of Winesberg College, the small Ohio liberal arts school Marcus attended.

Marcus tell his own story: Growing up a good Jewish boy, son of a kosher butcher, in Newark, driven to leave his Newark college and home by his father's sudden and inexplicable terror that something will happen to his precious boy. Marcus is a straight-A student, is a non-practicing Jew (indeed, follows Bertrand Russell's atheism), is a virgin, and sees himself put-upon by his father, his roommate at Winesberg College, and by a well-meaning Dean of Students.

I found Marcus a young 19, stiff-necked, inflexible, self-justifying, with almost no insight into himself or other people. As a result I found myself regularly telling Marcus, "That's not a good idea...think of what you're doing...listen to what he/she is telling you." In fairness, Marcus himself realizes that there comes a point in his confrontations where he should shut his mouth—but he doesn't do it. He will not bend, and for his inflexibility, he ends up slaughtered pointlessly on a Korean hill.

But so what? I don't care. I suspect Marcus means a lot more to Philip Roth (who seems to share much of Marcus's early history) than to most readers, although you could probably say that about any writer's creations. The problem I find with the book is that, wonderfully well-written as it is (and it is), I am not moved in the least by Marcus and his struggle to find his way in the world.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Japan Living Arts

An acquaintance of mine, Steve Beimel, is writing an interesting blog, Japan Living Arts.

Steve, who is fluent in Japanese, founded Esprit Travel & Tours in the early 1990’s, as a U.S.-based tour company specializing in culturally focused tours to Japan and catering to enthusiasts of the arts. He and I jointly led a tour in Japan and I was dazzled by his knowledge of Japan and the culture. He has worked with a wide range of masters of traditional culture including art, crafts, architecture, gardens, music, theater, cuisine and religion. He now lives with his wife Ritsuko in the northern foothills of Kyoto.

His blog, which almost always includes wonderful pictures, focuses on contemporary arts and artists, including architecture, ceramics, textiles and more. I regularly check the site, and my only complaint is that Steve is not able to post more often than he does. But if you are interested in traditional Japanese art, I recommend a visit to the site. Even if you are not interested in Japanese art, Steve's blog gives a peek into a world few of us will ever be able to see.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Annie Proulx's character names

As I've said in earlier posts, I think that Annie Proulx's ear for dialogue and her ability to describe the natural world and the appearance of her characters in her novel That Old Ace in the Hole is amazing. I found the names she gave her characters disconcerting and unsettling. While I am willing to trust her descriptions of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandle and willing to go along with her Candide-like main character as he looks for a place to site an agribusiness hog farm, almost every time she named a new character, my willing suspension of disbelief popped. Here's what I'm talking about:

Millrace Giddins...Ribeye Cluke...Tambourine Bapp...Wayne Redpoll...Marisa Berdstraw...Kevin Alk...Orlando Bunnel...Beryl Schwarm...High Dough...Dolly Cleat...Rohama Bustard...Jason Shrub...Tazzy Keister...Advance Slauter...Harry Howdiboy...LaVon Fronk...Rope Butt...Wally Ooly...Freda Beautyrooms...Parch Wilpin...Cy Frease...Charles Grapewine...Methiel Huff.

For all I know, Proulx paged through panhandle phone books, chose genuine first and second names, and then shuffled them to come up with these. My problem is that they don't sound real. I probably would have ridden along with her if she'd only used a few to establish a period and a place. When I name a character, I try to suggest a personality, social or ethnic background, geography, attitude, or events that occurred when the character was born. "Parch Wilpin" sounds to me like someone from Texas. "Ribeye Cluke," "Rope Butt," and "Freda Beautyrooms" do not sound like anything except random words mashed together.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Annie Proulx's descriptive powers

I am routinely dazzled by an author's ability to describe the physical world--the landscape and people. It is much easier to write about abstractions—ideas, thoughts, theories—than it is to paint a word picture, or at least I find it so. Which is why I am blown away by a paragraph like the following, from the first page of That Old Ace in the Hole:

"Gradually the ancient thrill of moving against the horizon into the great yellow distance heated him, for even fenced and cut with roads the overwhelming presence of grassland persisted, though nothing of the original prairie remained. It was all flat expanse and wide sky. Two coyotes looking for afterbirths trotted through a pasture to the east, moving through the fluid grass, the sun backlighting their fur in such a way that they appeared to have silver linings. Irrigated circles of winter wheat, dotted with stocker calves, grew on land as level as a runway. In other fields tractors lashed tails of dust. He noticed the habit of slower drivers to pull into the breakdown lane--here called the 'courtesy lane'--and wave him on."

We see the land, get a sense of the character's feeling about the land through what he observes, and learn something about the people on the land.

Proulx can also vividly show us a character:

"Sheriff Hugh Dough was forty years old, a small man, five feet five, 130 pounds, riddled with tics and bad habits, but nonetheless a true boss-hog sheriff. He had a sharp Aztec nose, fluffy black hair ands black eyes like those in a taxidermist's drawer. A line of rough pimples ran from the corner of his funnel mouth to his ear. His uniform was a leather jacket and a black string tie. He had been a bed wetter all his life and no longer cared that he couldn't stop. There was a rubber sheet on the bed and a washing machine in the adjacent bathroom. He never married because the thought of explaining the situation was unbearable. He was an obsessive nail biter. He counted everything, courthouse steps, telephone poles, buttons on felons' shirts, the specks of pepper on his morning eggs, the number of seconds it took to empty his bladder (when awake)." (page 49)

Every detail helps us see and understand something about this sheriff. We don't understand everything because we can never understand everything about another person. Heck, we don't understand everything about ourselves. But a bed-wetting sheriff who cannot marry because of it.... Wow.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Annie Proulx's dialogue

I've just finished That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx. The novel is set in the Texas/Oklahoma panhandles in present day, and Proulx does two things that I think are wonderful and one thing I find off-putting. Let me talk about one of the things I like in this post, and I'll discuss the others later.

Proulx is a marvel in her ability to write dialogue that sounds like dialect without resorting to phonetic spelling. Here, taken at random, is an example (actually it's taken from page 132):

"Jesus... That's a little harsh, weld a man's gates. Could be he don't have no money. I hear their place is for sale. Anyway, when I was out there it was hot enough to loosen the bristles on a wild hog and Mrs. Wilcox gave me a glass a cold buttermilk. Best thing I ever drank. So I don't want to give them trouble."

I take it back on the phonetic spelling. She does use "a" for "of" and "awl" for "oil" and "Amarilla" for "Amarillo," but she uses it so lightly it does not become a distraction--or did not for me. One more example, a woman talking about another character on page 179:

"He was. Vain as a peacock. Wrote poetry too. Horse poetry and stuff about sunsets. Made your skin crawl to listen to him recite. He had a voice like a woman. They say a horse kicked him the Adam's apple when he was a boy. Some say the kick was lower down."

Friday, January 22, 2010

The questions they ask!

Although I had been extensively briefed to lead a tour in Japan, and although I've read extensively about Japanese history, Japanese culture, Buddhism, Shinto, Japanese gardens, and although I had already visited and was familiar with many of the sites the tour group would be visiting, I was not prepared for the questions people asked.

They did not ask about the subjects on which I was prepared: What is a bodhisattva? When did Buddhism come to Japan? Why don't Japanese gardens have flowers?

They asked things like: Why are some Japanese license plates yellow and some white? Why are the Japanese so polite? And—an example I used in the book—what kind of flower is this? A friend who has led many, many more tours of Japan probably has more arcane knowledge about the country than most natives because he's been asked so many off-the-wall questions...and has taken the time to find the answers.

I was talking about this with a tour guide in Italy, and she agreed that tour members could ask surprising questions. She once explained the Roman bus system to a group and said, "When you want to get off at your stop, push the red button to signal the driver."

A member of her group held up her hand and asked, "Can you describe the red button?"'s red...and it's round...and you push it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Japanese dialogue in English

Writing dialogue in fiction art?...a talent?...a skill? All of the above? It is tricky because it should sound like speech, but it cannot be an exact reproduction of speech. Real speech is full of verbal tics, dropped thoughts, repetition, and extra words. If you've ever read an exact transcript of ordinary people speaking you know how boring it can be.

Adding to the challenge is that ideally every character should have his/her own way of expressing himself/herself. His own vocabulary, turn of phrase, level of usage, and more. In a way, Japanese writers have it easy because there are words that only men use and words that only women use. Also by verb endings and other grammatical markers, it is clear whether a superior is talking to a social inferior, a man to a woman, an adult to a child, and more. It means that Japanese fiction does not (usually) need a lot of "he said/she said" to make it clear who is speaking and the relationship between the characters.

Another challenge I had in Getting Oriented—beside trying to give each character his/her own voice—was to distinguish the times when the main character was speaking in English and when he was speaking in Japanese or being spoken to in Japanese. I didn't want to clutter the pages with words few readers would understand, so I've put all of the "Japanese" dialogue into italics. And to make that dialog sound different, I tried (not always successfully) to first construct the sentences in Japanese and then translate them into English. I think—I hope—this gives the Japanese dialogue a different feeling than the English exchanges.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Will Miss/Won't Miss Things About Japan

One of the blogs I've been following faithfully is 1000 Things About Japan. The author is an American woman who has lived in Japan for about 18 years. She lives in Tokyo and teaches English in her apartment. A year or so ago she announced in an earlier blog that she and her American husband had decided to return to the States and that she would begin a daily blog of things she will miss/won't miss about life in Japan after she's left.

As a recent example of something she will miss: "About a three-minute walk from my apartment, there's a dingy little restaurant which uses buckets of red hot coals to cook its food. In the evening, when they are in full service mode, these buckets are sitting outside full of glowing coals and the air is filled with the heavenly scent of grilled food which is made with them. The smell is distinctive and extremely enticing. I'll miss the lovely scent of this old-fashioned cooking style and having a chance to encounter it often."

And something she won't miss: "Because of the long, humid summer and generous amounts of rain in Tokyo, I always have problems with spices and salt caking into lumps. While I keep most of my spices in the refrigerator, I simply do not have the space to keep everything in it and the result is having to whack the counter with the jars to try and break up the inevitable bricks that form. What makes it worse is the fact that spices are pretty expensive in Japan so wasting them can mean losing an investment. I won't miss my spices and salt forming bricks and blobs and becoming unusable because of the weather"

She accompanies each brief post with a picture, and I find her observations about everyday, ordinary life in Japan fascinating. And I'm fascinated that she seems to notice everything. I will miss her blog when she returns to the States...although at that point, perhaps she'll begin writing about the things she notices in everyday, ordinary life in America.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Nara Celebrates Its 1300th Anniversary

Until around 600 CE, Japan did not have a set capital. We don't know for sure because the Japanese had no written language until they were exposed to Chinese by Buddhist monks who had come across the Sea of Japan from southern Korea. Among the monks' ideas was that of a capital city and Nara was one of the first.

This year, Nara is celebrating its 1,300th anniversary. It has reconstructed the eighth-century palace that was leveled when, upon the death of the emperor, the capital was moved to Kyoto in 784 CE. The government has also built a life-size replica of a ship that carried Japanese envoys to and from Tang China.

So this is a good year to visit Nara. You can check out the New York Times story. This is, after all, the city with the largest wooden building in the world that houses a bronze buddha that is larger than the one in Kamakura, the Daibutsu in the Todaiji.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Introduction to the book and the author

Getting Oriented is a novel set in Japan. The action follows a group of ten American tourists as they visit Kyoto, Nara, Hakone, Nikko, and Tokyo. Their guide is Philip Fletcher, recently down-sized and whose wife had been killed in an accident a year and a half before the novel opens. Phil speaks Japanese and is offered the tour-guide job by an old college buddy.

I wrote the novel because I am fascinated by Japan, Japanese culture, American responses to the culture, and because I was interested in the way a group of strangers react to each other and to a foreign culture. I plan to use this blog to talk about Japan, Japanese, and writing.