Friday, December 30, 2011

Reading Murakami's 1Q84

I've begun one of my Christmas presents, Haruki Murakami's massive (925-page) "international best seller," 1Q84. I'm not going to say much because (a) I'm only 170 pages into it; (b) it has been reviewed and commented on extensively. Having said that, I'll now say something.

1Q84 was published in Japan in three separate volumes and I'd read that Knopf hired two translators to produce the English edition in one volume. In the first books, the point of view of each chapter alternates regularly between Aomame, a 29-year-old woman who appears to be on a mission to rid Japan of men who abuse their wives, and Tengo, an aspiring novelist who becomes involved in a plan to anonymously rewrite a young woman's novel.

One of the challenges of writing from alternate points of view is to make each character's perceptions, thoughts, dialogue, and personality clearly individual. Ideally (I think), the author should not have to identify in a chapter headnote from whose point of view the chapter is being told. I'm sensitive to this issue because I'm attempting to individualize three characters in my current work in progress. Barbara Kingsolver does this brilliantly in The Poisonwood Bible. I thought that a neat way to accomplish this almost without trying in 1Q84 would be to assign the Aomame chapters to one translator, the Tengo chapters to another.

The publisher didn't do that. Jay Rubin, who has written an entire book about Murakami (Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Harvill Press, 2002; another wonderful book by the way), translated the first two books of 1Q84. Philip Gabriel translated book three. I suspect they flow seamlessly (I'll let you know). And thank goodness Rubin and Gabriel did translate because otherwise we who do not read Japanese easily would not have the pleasure of Murakami's imagination and company.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"You're not a novelist"

Two months ago very old friend bought my novel. We met for lunch yesterday and he was ready to comment. "You're a very good writer," he told me, "but you're not a novelist."

He was not, I'm sure, deliberately malicious. I asked why he thought I wasn't a novelist. Because the book didn't hold his or his wife's interest. We spent the rest of the lunch talking about other things, but I'm afraid I have not yet recovered.

It's one thing to say, "The book did not hold my interest," or "I found the situation preposterous," or "I did not like the main character," or as another friend just said about a book (thankfully not mine), "it is woefully over-written, and under-imagined." Novels fail for different reasons for different people.

Moreover, it's one thing to say, "You're not a very good novelist." It's very different to dismiss someone with, "You're not a novelist." That statement closes the door on any improvement, on any possibility of being a novelist. It's both thoughtless and cruel.

First, it assumes there's a profession(?), trade(?), racket(?) called "novelist," akin to doctor, lawyer, truck driver. Second, it assumes, I believe, a level of craft rather than a diploma or acceptance into a professional group. It assumes one is a novelist, not by writing long fictions, but by writing novels that meet a certain standard of excellence, and that standard can be defined and measured.

There is, however, very little agreement over what defines a novel. It's a work of fiction, in prose, and lengthy, but even these can provoke debate. And if we cannot even pin down the concept of the "novel" who would be arrogant enough to define a novelist?

My toxic friend.

He knows what is a novel and what is not. (Robert B. Parker is one of his favorite novelists. Now there's someone who holds your interest! I agree; I'm not Robert B. Parker.) He knows my book is not a novel because it didn't hold his interest. Nor did it hold his wife's interest. Ergo: He knows I'm not a novelist. As a friend, he wants to save me from wasting any more time writing works for which I am not naturally suited.

I'm ashamed that his arrogant ignorance bothers me so much I took time from my current novel to write this. I wish I knew why mild criticism stings so much more painfully than sincere praise gives delight. It's something I'll work on.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Busy Monsters by William Giraldi

I did my best to like this novel. I was impressed by an interview with Giraldi in Poets & Writers magazine and I thought Giraldi's short story, "Hold the Dark" in the Winter 2011-12 issue of Ploughshares was wonderful. I'm afraid I gave up on Busy Monsters around page 100, however.

It certainly starts with a bang: "Stunned by love and some would say stupid from too much sex, I decided I had to drive down South to kill a man." Who could not keep reading after an opening sentence like that?

I could. I found the narrator, Charles Homar, both unbelievable, unsympathetic, and ultimately I did not care what crazy pickle in which he next found himself. In Chapter One he feels he has no alternative to marital happiness with the adorable Gillian, "the only woman I've ever met who hasn't asked me to adjust my persona, enlarge my heart, tweak my ideas, or alter my language, and this from a lady with Opinions," except to murder her former lover who threatens the lovebirds. He's assisted in this plan by a high school buddy, Groot, a Navy SEAL and experienced killer. When Charles finally reaches the home of the former lover, timidly intent on mayhem, however, he finds the guy has offed himself, saving Charles' conscience. Gillian can now be his.

No. Gillian, who is obsessed by the giant squid, has abandoned Charles and her marriage plans to join a world-famous giant squid hunter without so much as a by-your-leave to poor Charles. Charles follows her to a port in southern Maine, armed with an untraceable automatic rifle (thank you Groot), that he eventually empties into the hull of the world-famous giant squid hunter's ship. Charles is locked away in a minimum security facility for three months and Gillian sails off with her squid hunter.

I gave up on the book when Groot suggests that Charles could win his lady love away from the squid hunter by bagging the (a?) Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest. Big Foot would be more impressive than a giant squid. And Charles apparently accepts this logic.

I had the feeling Giraldi was strained for originality. I thought much of the writing was great: "The whole way down to Virginia [to murder the ex-boyfriend], I listened to Nina Simone to comfort the shebang out of me. If I were a man given to the depth of philosophy, this would have been the time: more than eight hours in my cushioned car, a killer's knife tucked into my boot, on my way to commit a capital crime, all for the love of a woman and, sure, an uninterrupted existence. Of course I considered the law and my soul, but neither seemed very vital just then...."

Yet halfway through, I just didn't care enough to go on. This is, I have no doubt, my failure, not Giraldi's. I guess all I can say is that if this is the sort of think you like, you'll like this.

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

British writer Terry Pratchett is a marvel and Snuff is his most recent and may be his last novel. He has Alzheimer's disease. He has, however, written 41 Diskworld novels, 14 young adult novels, and four other novels. The man has been prolific.

He is also has a way with words: "Lady Sybil knew her husband in the way people living next door to a volcano get to know the moods of their neighbor. The important thing is to avoid the bang."

"Young Sam [the hero's six-year-old son] did not need very much in the way of entertainment, manufacturing it in large quantities out of observations of the landscape, the stories that had lulled him to sleep at bedtime last night, some butterfly thought that had just sped across his mind and, increasingly, he'd talk about Mr. Whistle, who lived in a house in a tree but was sometimes a dragon...."

Adding to the fun is the occasional footnote. To a discussion why the housemaids in the grand country home turn their backs on the gentry as they pass, Pratchett appends the following: "Willikins was an excellent butler and/or gentleman's gentleman when the occasion required it, but in a long career he had also been an enthusiastic street fighter, and knew enough never to turn his back on anybody who could possibly have a weapon on them."

The Diskworld stories take place in an alternate universe, one that resembles Victorian England, but populated with dwarfs, trolls, werewolves, goblins, humans (and more), but without guns, phones, automobiles, airplanes, steam engines, or modern plumbing. There are carriages, crossbows, and clacks (which permit communication over distances). Many of the stories take place in Ankh-Morpork and involve members of the City Watch. Snuff features the Commander of the Watch, Samuel Vimes, who we've watched grow, change, and get married in past books. Lady Sybil has imposed on him to take a vacation (vacation? ha!) on her country estate where, as is the policeman's lot, Sam finds crime.

While I don't think Snuff is the best Terry Pratchett novel I've read, it is still laugh-out-loud funny, that is if you think "Monty Python" or "Fawlty Towers" are funny. If you've never read Terry Pratchett and you do think "Monty Python" is funny, you have a feast of enjoyment ahead of you. (And if you've never seen Fawlty Towers, get off the damned computer and go rent, borrow, or steal the disks.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Orientation by Daniel Orozco

Among the many delights in this collection of short stories is Orozco's experiments with form, all of which work in my opinion. For example, the title story is an unnamed supervisor orienting a new employee: "Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That's my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it. This is your Voicemail System Manual. There are no personal phone calls allowed..." The supervisor also talks about the other people in the office, the man who occasionally uses the ladies toilet, the man who is hopelessly in love with the woman who ignores him but who plasters the walls of her cubical with pictures drawn by her autistic son, the woman whose left palm began to bleed during a meeting.... By the end of the story we have a picture of a soulless office and the shades doomed to work in it.

Another story reads like an police Incident Report: "...400 Block, Sycamore Circle. Barking dog complaint. Attempts to shush dog unsuccessful. Citation left in owner's mailbox. Animal Control notified. 1300 Block, Harvest Avenue. Suspicious odor—a gas lead or "the smell of death." Officers investigate. Odor ascertained to be emanating from a neighbor's mimosa tree in unseasonal bloom. "The smell of life," officer [Shield #647] ponders aloud. Officers nod. Homeowner rolls eyes, nods politely...." Gradually the entries become more and more personally revealing and human.

Orozco has a story about a painter working on the Bay Bridge, about a warehouse clerk, about a temp, about the grossly obese (and food obsessed), and about an earthquake. The settings change, the points of view change, but I found all the stories powerful and convincing. Moreover, not only did I find the stories engaging, they suggest possibilities in fiction I've never considered. What more could one want from a book?

Monday, December 5, 2011

The NaNoWriMo Experience

I'm back from NaNoWriMoland. During November I wrote 55,448 words on a new novel tentatively titled "Mt. Koya." I have not finished, but I have a clear idea where it will go and in the next week or so I will have a first draft.

The NaNoWriMo experience was extraordinary. I tend to be a writer who distracts himself easily. I will not happily go ahead with a new sentence, a new paragraph, a new section until I am happy with what I've just written—and I am seldom happy. With the challenge to write an average of 1,667 words a day, I did not have time to be distracted. I worried that if I fell behind by a day or more, I would never make up the words, and I had to think about the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. As a writing teacher says about first drafts: "Write too fast."

I know that some people think through an outline before November 1 so all (all!) they have to do is fill in the blanks during the month. I had an idea for a story and simply began writing. On result of this approach: I was regularly surprised by what the characters said and did. I would like to think this leads to a more spontaneous and interesting work.

I am now almost in the habit of turning out 2,000 words a day. I did it before, I can do it again. So saying that I'm going to get started on today's 2,000 words.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


This is just a quick note to explain why I (probably) will not be posting much this month. I've signed up for the NaNoWriMo event, and will be typing my little fingers off for it.

NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, is—to quote Wikipedia—"an annual internet-based creative writing project which challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1 and November 30.The project started in July 1999 with just 21 participants, but by the 2010 event over 200,000 people took part - writing a total of over 2.8 billion words.

"Writers wishing to participate first register on the project's website, where they can post profiles and information about their novels, including synopsis and excerpts. Word counts are validated on the site, with writers submitting a copy of their novel for automatic counting. Municipal leaders and regional forums help connect local writers with one another for holding writing events and to provide encouragement."

I'll let my faithful readers—both of you—know how I've done in December. And if I need to procrastinate during November, I'll add to this blog.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Novel Travelogue

The other night I spoke to a group at our local library about Japan, my novel, and self-publishing. Because the characters I created in the novel travel on an imaginary tour to some of my favorite real places in Japan, and because I have pictures of the places, the presentation follows the tour. For those who've read the novel (or who plan to read it), the pictures add a layer of verisimilitude. For those who've been to Japan, the presentation is a trip down memory lane.

At the end of the talk, I invited questions. What roused my interest in Japan? How did I create the characters in the book? What happens to the tablets in my author picture?

When I was a GI stationed in Korea, I went to Japan on vacation several times. I was fascinated by the language, the culture, the people, so much so that I re-enlisted to be stationed there. I have been interested ever since.

I'm afraid I don't have a good answer to how I create characters. I think I begin with a vague form in a situation or with a history and then try to fill in the outline with as much detail as possible: what the character looks like, sounds like, acts like, thinks like. For main characters I often draw up a detailed biography: where they were born, when, family details, education, formative events, basic drives, and more.

The plaques are votive wooden tablets offered in prayer or in thanks for a prayer answered at a Shinto shrine. One buys it at the shrine, writes on the back, and hangs it at the shrine. At the end of the year, I'm told, the priests make a bonfire of the tablets so that the prayers continue on up to heaven.

At the end, of course, I sold and inscribed books. I can only hope that the people who came had half as much fun as I did.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Ise Stories

I've just read a new translation of Ise Monogatari, which may be translated as "The Ise Stories" or "The Tales of Ise." The new (2010) translation by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler joins a 1972 translation by H. Jay Harris on my bookshelf. There are at least two earlier translations, one by Helen Craig McCullough in 1968 and one by Frits Vos in 1957, neither of which I know. But this activity raises the question: What makes the Ise stories worth four translations into English?

The book is a 10th century collection of 125 prose-and-poetry episodes that purport to trace the life of nameless hero who embodies the social ideals of his era. According to Mostow and Tyler, "The Ise has been essential reading for every educated Japanese, male or female, for most of Japan's history." While anonymous authors created the book's contents over perhaps a century, Ariwara no Narihira (825-880) wrote about a third of the poems, and it is pleasant to think that the entire book traces Narihira's life, from his first affair to his death.

It was a life—if the book is to be believed—of elegance, taste, and sensitivity. Narihira, extraordinarily handsome and cultured, meets a woman, makes love to her, and sends her a poem. He isn't always able to make love to her, and sometimes he has to send a poem first, but if he doesn't make love to her, he expresses his regret in perfect poetic form, his sleeves wet with tears.

I was interested in comparing the two translations I own. Mostow and Tyler say in their introduction that they wanted to have "a fresh, appealing, and somewhat spoken character." Here is their version of episode 72:

"Back then this man never managed to get back together with a woman in the province of Ise, and before leaving for the neighboring province he let her know just how much he held that against her. She replied:

The Oyodo pine,
waiting ever patiently,
no, is not unkind;
rather, the wave washes in,
looks, then, grumbling, withdraws."

Here is the Jay Harris version:

"Long ago a young man was unable to meet for a second time a woman in Ise Province. Because he was very bitter toward her saying he was going to a neighboring province, the woman recited:

Though it is not true
that the Oyodo pines
bear them any grudge,
laden with white hot hatred
the waves back off and recede!"

My Japanese is much too poor to even begin evaluating the translations. I did feel that Mostrow and Tyler were occasionally too breezy and chatty, but if you want only one version, that's the one I'd recommend—not only for the translation, but for the introduction, notes, and woodblock prints. Ise monogatari provides a picture of a life and a world that is alien yet familiar.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I'm the other Wally Wood

As anyone who has tried to find me by typing "Wally Wood" into a search engine, I am not that easy to find. The first three pages of Google results are all about the famous and brilliant cartoonist, Wallace Allan Wood who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1981. According to the Wikipedia article on him, he disliked the name "Wally Wood" by which most people know him and his drawings, although he sometimes signed his work "Woody," a name I outgrew when I left the U.S. Army.

That Wally Wood made his name drawing a variety of comics: science fiction, horror, adventure, and more. When he was drawing for Mad Magazine and I was an aspiring humor/satire writer, I was tempted to visit the Mad offices, introduce myself, and see what they would think of having two Wally Woods on the staff. In the event, I didn't make the visit so I'll never know.

There is yet another Wally Wood who turns up in a Google search earlier than I do. That Wally Wood "was the founding president of the Finger Lakes Trail Conference. He was a long distance hiker living in Rochester when he organized existing hiking clubs in 1962 at Keuka College forming the Finger Lakes Trail organization. The Annual Wally Wood Hike honors his memory."

I'm not that Wally Wood either.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Publishers Weekly likes my novel

Until a year or so ago, Publishers Weekly had a policy not to review self-published books. With the publishing industry shifting under their feet, however, management apparently decided (a) there was money to be made from self-publishing writers, and (b) there might be worthwhile books in the flood of self-published titles. The magazine therefore established a quarterly "PW Select DIY Announcements" supplement.

For $149, an author can buy a listing (a brief book description plus a brief bio) in the supplement. In addition, and for the price, you can send two copies of your book to PW's reviewer along with your book's unique selling proposition. The reviewer selects 25 books from the pile to review. There's no guarantee your book will be selected, nor if selected that the review will be positive. You're not buying a review; all you're guaranteed is a listing. Nevertheless I thought my book was worth the investment and two copies.

The supplement appears Monday, and while I have not seen it, the review of Getting Oriented: A Novel About Japan, is already online. You can check it out at

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Review of Getting Oriented

I have been sending query letters to potential book reviewers, offering them review copies of my novel. The majority do not answer either because the book does not appeal to them (although I do my best to send queries only to those reviewers who seem likely to be interested) or because they are inundated by books. A few say they are inundated, but would take a guest post from me. And a few have said, "Send me the book."

The first review of someone to whom I sent a book and of which I am aware has been posted on "Literary R&R." I do not know Charlene, the reviewer, but she is clearly a woman of exquisite taste. She writes: "A very enjoyable book, written with great skill and knowledge of its subject. If you have any interest in the subject of Japan, this is a great place to start." I commend the full review to your attention.

I was particularly encouraged by a comment Charlene's review provoked: "Even though it's a novel, this book sounds exactly like the kind of travelogue I enjoy reading. I love to travel but I have limited means (who doesn't, right?), so armchair traveling is the next best thing." This person is absolutely correct.

You can find the guest posts at Bookingly Yours and WebbWeaver. You can also read a Q&A interview with me at A Writing Primate. Enjoy!

Friday, September 30, 2011

My personal seal

Several years ago in Japan, I bought the handmade inkan, or seal, together with its case and red ink pad photographed above. It had to be custom made because "Wood" is not a common Japanese name (although I suppose I could have gone with 森 which is pronounced "mori" and means "a wood, woods, a forest" and is a common Japanese name). Rather I went with the transliteration of the English, which is ウッド and pronounced "ood'do."

If you are Japanese or, I'm told, a foreign resident in Japan and need to conduct any official business, you need a seal, which—if you have a common name—you can buy in a stationery store. You register your signature and seal at the municipal office (i.e., city hall) and receive a "certificate of seal impression." and use it for official documents: a marriage certificate, divorce, death certificate, land sale and the like.

According to a Wikipedia article, most Japanese also have a far less formal seal than the inkan registered at city hall. They use these to sign personal letters or initial changes in documents; this is referred to by the also broadly generic term hanko. They often display only a single hiragana, kanji ideograph, or katakana character carved in it. The characters in my inkan are katakana, the characters used for foreign words and names.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The End by Salvatore Scibona

I expected to like The End by Salvatore Scibona. It was a National Book Award finalist. The paperback edition comes with laudatory reviews:

"The End is a throwback modernist novel. Scibona's subject is the meaning of place, time, consciousness, memory and, above all, language. Think not only Faulkner, but also T.S. Eliot, Virginia Wolf, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce." —The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Engulfing. Entangled. Fate-laden. Flinty. Dry-eyed. Memento meets Augie March. Didion meets Hitchcock. Serpentine. Alien. American. Ohioan. McCarthyite (Cormic). Bellowed (Saul)." —Esquire

"Set in an exquisitely rendered Italian immigrant community in early twentieth century Ohio and does not open up so much as catch and slowly reel in...The title itself points overtly to the novel's heart: The final chapters carry more than their share of emotional heft." —Los Angeles Times

I'll never know about those final chapters because I gave up around page 200. This is one of those (fortunately few) times when you wonder if the reviewers are talking about the same book you are holding.

True, individual sentences are remarkable and wonderful. Examples chosen at random: "She came from Lazio; however, her enunciation of the Italian language was barren of regional influence and pitiless, as though each word were a butterfly she was shooting out of the air with a pistol." (p24) "She loved him. His suffering and shame (he had little schooling, and the accent of his English was inept, and he desired a son with every breath; he was thirty-three) were almost invisible and therefore were to her mysterious, perhaps infinite, and he approached, wanting her and no one else." (p109) "The vineyard under snowfall looked like a sheet of paper on which a dingle word had been typed, and typed again, and again, and again; until the ink in the ribbon had failed and the word, at first so distinct, could hardly be read." (p187)

But Scibona plays with time moving backward and forward with no clear reason. Characters appear and disappear. We are given pronouns with no clear identifications. After reading—plowing through—two thirds of the book, I could not tell you clearly what it's about. Who most of these people are. Or what any of them want.

And I have a personal problem: The book purports to be set in Elephant Park, the Italian community in Cleveland, Ohio. I grew up in Cleveland, and to my knowledge there is no Elephant Park; there is (or was in the 1950s when the book is set) a Little Italy between Mayfield Road and Cedar Hill, and there is enough internal evidence to suggest this is what Scibona is writing about. But why play games with the reader? Why invent street names? He calls the Public Square the Public Square, but then calls the Terminal Tower on the square (at the time I believe the tallest building between New York City and Chicago) the Erie Station Tower. Why?

Once into the book, I did not believe in the characters, their motivations, their personalities, or their histories. The fine writing became cloying, and I became impatient with whatever Scibona was trying to express. Which, I'm afraid I have to admit, I never understood.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Japanese Vending Machines

First-time visitors to Japan are usually struck by the ubiquitousness and variety of vending machines. They seem to be everywhere. In an urban area, it feels as if you are never more than a few yards from one. My admittedly limited impression is that the vast majority of machines are vending drinks: hot and cold coffee; soft drinks (Coke, Fanta, Calpis); energy drinks; water, and beer. But I have also seen machines vending bags of rice, batteries, ice cream, candy and snacks.

Innovative Japanese vending machine manufacturers have introduced machines that respond to your cell phone. No cash to buy an icy brew for the ride home? Just swipe your mobile, make your choice, and the machine adds the charge to your phone bill.

Because competition is so great (although not price competition; prices seem standard across categories and markets), marketers advertise on their machines. A few years ago, I took this picture of Tommy Lee Jones who was promoting Boss brand canned coffee. The line of coffees—including espresso, coffee mocha, and black—are all vended hot. The line of blue buttons at the top of the picture are for cold drinks. One machine, two temperatures.

A final note: While I have sampled probably a bare fraction of the goods available from Japanese vending machines, I have never had a bad experience. I think the coffee is great, and I even like the soft drink Pocari Sweat.

Monday, September 5, 2011

My Book: International Best Seller

Okay, this headline is perhaps premature because according to the sales records the publisher posts daily, the sales of Getting Oriented: A Novel About Japan are currently in the low two digits. Nevertheless, I was surprised and delighted to find the book available on the Amazon Japan site as a ペーパーバック (paperback), as well as on the Amazon UK and Amazon Germany sites.

I was also pleased to find that it is available through B&, which either picked up one of the Amazon reviews or the reviewer posted on both sites. And last week, a librarian friend went to the Baker & Taylor distributor site from which the library orders books and found my novel listed there as well.

All (all!) I have to do now is get the word out and watch the sales grow.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The City of Your Final Destination

The 2002 novel, The City of Your Final Destination by Peter Cameron, has an interesting premise: Omar Razaghi, a graduate student at the University of Kansas, has won a fellowship to write an authorized biography of an obscure—and dead—South American writer, Jules Gund. Omar, however, has screwed up. He never actually obtained the authorization before accepting the fellowship. No problem, as his somewhat assertive (okay, pushy and controlling) girl friend points out. All he has to do is go to Uruguay and convince the three executors of the writer's estate to give him permission.

The executors include the author's French wife, Caroline; his American mistress, Arden; and his homosexual older brother, Adam. Caroline and Arden live together in the big house on what's left of the family's estate; Adam lives with his Thai companion, in the nearby millhouse. Caroline spends her days painting copies of famous paintings. Arden has a 9-year-old daughter and manages the household. Adam seems to read, drink, and get older.

Adam is in favor of the biography. It will help keep Jules' name and work alive. Caroline and Arden oppose it for their own reasons, which Cameron never clearly explains. I think that was a good decision. We all do things that are not clear to ourselves. The novel has hints of why they oppose a biography, so Cameron is playing fair with his readers, but nothing is totally spelled out.

Initially, Omar wants permission to write the biography; this changes as the novel progresses. Caroline is very clear about what she doesn't want (a biography of her dead husband), but it is not as clear what she does want. Arden wants the best for her daughter, and eventually it is clear to be loved. Adam almost seems beyond wants other than a good scotch and a good book. Perhaps the character with the clearest motivation is Omar's girl friend back in Kansas; she wants Omar to be a successful academic whether he wants to be or not.

Cameron has woven a tight fabric out of these threads. I felt satisfied at the end; what happens to the characters has grown out of their situations and personalities. And I thorough enjoyed thinking about the problems of biography, authorized and otherwise.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Will Miss/Won't Miss

One of my favorite blogs is "1000 Things About Japan...that I will miss and won't miss when I eventually leave." It is written by Sheri Custer, a dedicated blogger (she also maintains a Japanese snack blog that I do not follow). Sheri is a 46-year-old American woman who has lived in Japan with her American husband for more than 20 years. They live in a small apartment in Tokyo, both teach English (her husband goes to an office; she teaches private students in the apartment), have no children. That they are a childless American couple who have lived and worked in Japan for so long makes them fairly unusual. They are planning to return to the US in the foreseeable future, and when they made that decision, Sheri, who had been blogging about Japan in general, decided to identify the things she will and will not miss when she leaves.

By its nature, the blog is an eclectic collection of relatively short observations. The subjects range from the significant to the trivial, and Sheri is usually able to include a picture as an illustration. To suggest her range, here are some recent things she will miss: Japanese women who cover themselves entirely to protect their white skin; a kind of Japanese citrus/vinegar condiment; empty Japanese rooms; Japanese "soft cream'; national self-restraint; the "bottle-keep" system; and WYSIWYG restaurants.

She won't miss handwritten Japanese; a lack of charitable spirit; toilet paper paranoia; being a leaning post on trains; "it's Japanese" when it's not; earthquake sickness; or Japanese keyboards.

Sheri points out that her observations and opinions are entirely her own; she is making no grand pronouncements on Japan, the Japanese people, Japanese culture. But I find that what she says is almost always interesting and provides a unique account of items and aspects of Japanese life that for natives are too ordinary to mention and for tourists too small to see.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Messengers of the Gods

The imperial capital of Japan has moved at least three times, from Nara to Kyoto to Tokyo. (The political capital, the seat of government, has moved several times more; for a while in the 13th century, Kamakura was the political capital.)

Nara was the imperial capital from 710 to 784. When, upon the death of the emperor, the capital was moved to Kyoto, Nara's imperial palace was simply abandoned and allowed to deteriorate over the centuries. Archeologists, however, identified the buildings' remains and several have now been reconstructed.

Nara has been a center of Buddhism almost from the time monks first arrived with the tenets from China via Korea. While the elements, fire, war, and simple neglect have taken their toll on Nara's historic temples and shrines, there are at least a dozen worth visiting, including the Kasuga Shrine, and the Todai-ji (housing the largest bronze Buddha in Japan), Kōfuku-ji (founded originally in 669), Yakushi-ji (founded in 680), and more.

At one time, the small Sika deer from the area were considered sacred due to a visit from one of the four gods of the Kasuga Shinto shrine. He was said to have been invited and appeared on Mt. Mikasa riding a white deer. From that point, the deer were considered divine messengers of the gods and sacred by both Kasuga and Kofuku-ji. Today, the deer wander freely through the city's grounds and you can buy deer treats from vending machines to feed them. And, as my friend found in the picture above, the deer know it. Today they are more like beggars than messengers.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Beg, Borrow, Steal

Beg, Borrow, Steal by Michael Greenberg is subtitled "A Writer's Life." As a writer myself, I am always interested in another writer's life. The book is 44 four- or five-page anecdotes from Greenberg's life. These he revised slightly from columns he had written between June 2003 and April 2009. Because Greenberg wrote the pieces over almost six years, I would have liked the publication dates. For example, he begins one piece, "The novelist William Herrick has died at the age of eighty-nine." I knew Herrick, and I would have liked to know when he died. (In another anecdote about Ted Solotaroff, Greenberg does add a footnote giving Solotaroff's date of death.)

The anecdotes are entertaining and wonderfully well-written. So why are my feelings for the book so tepid? Perhaps because Greenberg was working against space constraints, he did not have room to go into real depth when the subject seemed to call for it. For example, he and his first wife spent a year in Argentina in the early 1970s. His wife was arrested for demonstrating against the government. Greenberg managed to scrape together $900 so she was charged only with disorderly conduct. As soon as she was free, they escaped to Uruguay where their son was conceived. The story deserves more than four pages.

I had a sense at times that Greenberg was writing to reinforce the stereotype of the struggling, Brooklyn-born, Jewish writer, one who rejects a future in the family scrap-metal business to toil at dozens of dead-end jobs (waiter, street peddler, post office clerk, more) while writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting an unpublished (unpublishable?) novel. He meets interesting people, but, again, because of space constraints, we never really get to know them or what they meant to Greenberg.

Apparently his only other book is a memoir of his daughter's manic breakdown, Hurry Down Sunshine, and he writes an interesting—if too brief—essay about the challenge of writing about one's family, friends, and acquaintances. He quotes Philip Roth on the bind in which family members find themselves: "Their own material is articulated for them by someone else who, in his voracious, voyeuristic using-up of their lives, gets there first but doesn't always get it right." Even if you have no intention of settling scores, it seems almost inevitable that someone you write about will see what you write as settling a score. Unfortunately for Greenberg, the memoir seems to be the milieu in which he is happiest and most effective. I suspect it turns family gatherings into minefields.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Does That Mean?

One of the many decisions I had to make in writing Getting Oriented was how to handle the Japanese language. I knew I didn't want to provide instant translations that you sometimes see, something like: "Ichiro picked up his hashi [chopsticks] and dug into his katsudon [bowl of rice and pork]."

My answer: When a character is speaking Japanese, the text is in italic. It becomes a little awkward sometimes when the characters are switching from Japanese to English and back, but I believe readers can follow.

As a result, there are almost no Japanese words in a 240-page book set in Japan. I did leave a few: moshi moshi, which I trusted most readers to understand from the context; sokaiya and dotera, for which there are no good English equivalents, and which I explain as soon as I use them. Toward the end of the book, my tour guide begins to tell a Japanese joke in Japanese, but when his American guests demand to hear it in English, he beings again in English.

To show that this is a novel about Japan, however, I did use Japanese at the beginning of each chapter:

第一章、第二章 etc. and I've been asked what it means.

It says "Chapter 1," "Chapter 2," etc. My way of giving a genuine Japanese flavor to the novel.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

While I am not a baseball fan, I've been to two minor league games in two different cities this summer. I like minor league games because the tickets are reasonable, the stadiums are small, and the fans (most of them) are just out for the game because so little is riding on whether a team wins or loses.

Until recently, I'd never been to a baseball game in Japan. But I went with a friend to watch the Yokohama Bay Stars beat the Yakult Swallows. Some observations: Fans were given an inexpensive plastic Bay Stars rain poncho on the way in.

The stadium was less than half filled. Officials turned off the Jumbotron/scoreboard during plays so you had to watch the game rather than the big screen.

Young women and a few young men in Day-Glo green shorts and jackets and hats came through the stands selling Coca Cola, beer, and a salty fish-based snack.

Cheerleaders in white boots, short skirts, and bare midriffs led the cheers with gold sparkly pompoms, and there were a number of mascots--a Bay Star, a baseball, and more.

Games for the kids before the game--pitch to the Bay Star catcher, run the bases. The TV camera would pan around the stadium between innings stopping on a group for three seconds. At the end of the game, the pictures were posted at the exit, a free memory of the night.

The fans, despite all the beer, were well-behaved. They usually shouted in unison, beat, a drum, and knocked noisemakers together in rhythm. Bay Star fans were silent when the Yakult Swallows cheered and, presumably, they were quiet when we cheered (I couldn't tell from the noise).

Baseball is so popular in Japan that, I've been told, some Japanese believe it was invented there. Robert Whiting has written a wonderful book, You Gotta Have Wa, that investigates the Japanese game called "baseball," but which isn't exactly the same as what we play here. As Whiting points out, players commit to an 11-month training/playing season; they practice fielding until they drop from exhaustion. Fans chant highly organized and rhythmic chants all game long, regardless of the score. As one reviewer points out, this is much more than a baseball book; culture, and cultural diffusion, and the differences between Americans and Japanese. If you like baseball, you should go to a game. And if you're interested in Japan, you should read Whiting's book.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Makioka Sisters, the movie

I've just watched (again) the Criterion Collection's high-definition DVD restoration of The Makioka Sisters. Set in Osaka in the years just before the attack on Pearl Harbor—the Japanese at home are already feeling the effects of the war in China—the movie follows the lives of four sisters from a declining merchant family. Their parents are dead, two older sisters are married (and the eldest's husband is the titular head, having married into the family and taken the Makioka name), the two younger are in the marriage market.

Much of the action involves the family trying to find an acceptable husband for shy and retiring Yukiko, 30, and the behavior of brash and modern Taeko, 25, who cannot marry before her older sister. Yukiko's husband will come only through a miai, the arranged meeting between the potential couple and their relatives. Taeko would marry for love and without regard for class or family status, I suspect an extraordinary attitude for a young Japanese woman in the 1930s.

The film is based on Junichiro Tanizaki's novel of the same name (in English; in Japanese it's Sasame Yuki, which means something like "a veil of snow"). The book was published right after the war and translated by Edward G. Seidensticker in 1957.

The movie, which by necessity has to simplify the 500-page novel, is both lovely and poignant. The war in China barely intrudes, and except for moments neither the film nor the book discusses politics or history. We know, however, what the characters do not; they are about to be swept into war and desolation.

The Makioka Sisters shows the tensions, needs, and social constraints within a Japanese family. For a fine discussion of the movie, see Audi Bock's essay. Even better, rent the movie, or read the book, or both.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Silent-Movie Star's Estate

If you walk through the bamboo grove I talked about a few days ago, you come to Okochi-sanso, the villa and five-acre estate of Okochi Denjiro (1898-1962), who played swashbuckling samurai in the early years of Japanese movies.

Kyoto is the Hollywood of Japan. Indeed, one of the city's sights is the Toei Uzumasa Eigamura—"movie village"—a film set and theme park that has replicas of traditional Japanese buildings used as settings for historical movies and TV dramas. There are streets depicting Edo Period town scenes, a replica of the Nihonbashi Bridge, a traditional court house, and part of the former Yoshiwara red light district. Actual film shooting takes place occasionally, and you can watch the action.

Okochi-sanso is in Kyoto's northwestern hills, in the Arashiyama district. The villa itself is not open to the public, but the real attraction is the stroll garden, a path that winds through the grounds. The route is designed so that the walker sees different views...a mountain...a gorge...the city...a tea house (above)...and a tea garden designed to make you feel you are in a remote spot in the mountains, miles from the city.

Everyone I've taken through the garden has been moved by the experience. Walk a few steps along the rough stones that make the path and suddenly a new scene confronts you. Take in as much of the beauty as you can stand, move along the path several yards and suddenly there is a new scene. Extraordinary.

There is an admission fee, but for it attendants in a pavilion give you a bowl of special green tea (matcha) and a sweet.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Your Life in Eight Words

The person who maintains the A Writing Primate blog, D.S. Renzulli, has interviewed me via e-mail, asking about my writing habits and interest in Japan. The interview concludes with this challenge: Give an eight-word description of your life.

Eight words! That's as bad as haiku. Worse than some. Perhaps the most famous haiku in English—"An old pond/a frog jumps in/the sound of water"—has ten words. What can you say in eight words? Of course, the haiku masters are able to evoke entire histories, entire landscapes, entire philosophies in seventeen syllables.

How important is haiku still in Japan? Not long ago, I visited the Matsuyama Municipal Shiki Memorial Museum pictured above, an entire modern building (dedicated in 1981) devoted to a Meiji-era writer and haiku. Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) was born in Matsuyama, a city on Shikoku, the smallest of the four main Japanese islands. Shiki is considered to be the most important figure in the modernization of haiku and tanka poetry, and the museum exists to promote the art of haiku and the memory of Shiki.

I was impressed that Matsuyama's city fathers (and haiku fans?) would construct a large building for a single poet. If you go, however, go with a Japanese guide; the exhibits and of course the poetry is all in Japanese. I looked up Shiki's haiku in translation (although haiku does not really translate well) and found this, which seemed to evoke his life in about a dozen words: "After killing a spider/how lonely I feel/in the cold of the night."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tanuki in the Garden

You do not need a guide to savor Japan. American travels with no more Japanese than "thank you" and "goodbye" can check into hotels, ride the trains, and read the wealth of English-language tourist information available from the Japan National Tourism Organization.

For those who want a richer experience, however, you can hire a guide and there is an organization of volunteer guides, the Association of Independent Tourist Assistance in Japan, that will help you. On one of my trips several years ago, a sweet, middle-aged Japanese woman stopped my wife and me on the Nara train platform to ask if she could be our guide for the day. Always skeptical (and speaking enough Japanese to get around without help), I was reluctant to put us into the care of a stranger. But she looked harmless, she had an official looking badge, and we took a chance. It was wonderful. She took us to gardens and sites we could not have gotten into without her.

A guide can point out small things that you might simply overlook. The picture above is a statue of a tanuki, a raccoon-dog, a creature in Japanese folklore, and statues of which, like this one, you often see outside noodle restaurants. The legendary tanuki is mischievous and jolly, a master of disguise and shapeshifting, but somewhat gullible and absent-minded. The tanuki has eight special traits that bring good fortune: a hat to protect against trouble; big eyes to perceive the environment and help make good decisions; a sake bottle that represents virtue; a big tail that provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved; over-sized testicles that symbolize financial luck; a promissory note that represents trust or confidence; a big belly that symbolises bold and calm decisiveness; and a friendly smile.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Where to Go in Kyoto

One of the problems with Kyoto as a travel destination is that there's too much. Too many temples, too many shrines, too many famous (or non-so-famous) sites. It is possible, of course, to hit the most famous—the Golden Pavilion, the Ryoanji rock-and-raked-sand garden, Nijo Castle, and Kiyomizu Temple—in a weekend, but then you've missed the Silver Pavilion, the Daitokuji Monastary's rock-and-raked-sand garden, the Imperial Palace, and Tokufukji.

For my tourists in the novel, I wanted to introduce them to some of the less crowded spots, and one of the places that has blown away everyone I've brought them to is the bamboo forest between Tokufuji, the giant Zen temple, and Okochisanso, the villa of a silent-film star Okochi Danjiro. It is totally foreign, absolutely lovely...and free.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Places in Fiction

Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels never appealed to me because we don't know where they're set. It's an unnamed big city, not New York, not Chicago, not Los Angeles. I was mildly put off by Lorri Moore's A Gate at the Stairs because while we can infer that it takes place mostly in Madison, Wisconsin, Moore coyly does not identify the midwestern college town. I'll gladly give her a pass, however, because she writes so well.

I prefer novels—generally—in which imaginary people move through real places: John Rebus in Edinburgh, Lew Archer in Los Angeles, Guido Brunetti in Venice. I also enjoy the occasional novel in which real people move through real places; I'm currently reading Susan Sontag's incredible The Volcano Lover. Not to mention (but I'll mention it anyway) I can enjoy stories of imaginary people moving through imaginary places--much science fiction.

All of which is to say that in my books, I want to use real places. Getting Oriented: A Novel About Japan is set in Kyoto, Hakone, Nikko, and Tokyo. The tourists visit famous shrines, temples, and sites (some of them have been famous among the Japanese for hundreds of years), all of which you could visit today. Unfortunately, you cannot stay in the hotels and ryokan (Japanese-style inn) where my group stops.

There is, as far as I know, no Maruyama Koen Hotel in Kyoto. There is, however, a famous park, Maruyama Koen ("koen" means "park"), and that's how I named my imaginary hotel. The tour spends a night in Hakone, a resort area south of Tokyo in the mountains, so I named my imaginary inn Yamanaka, which means "among the mountains." In Nikko, they stay at an inn I named Takiguchi—"top of the waterfall." And I simply put the Ichigaya Grand Hotel across the street from the Ichgaya train station in Tokyo. In other words, no real hotels were harmed in the making of this novel.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Getting Oriented, The Cover

My novel, Getting Oriented: A Novel About Japan, is now available on CreateSpace. I know from my experience as a magazine editor and as a business book writer that the cover is the most important element in engaging potential readers. If the cover looks amateurish, if they cannot read the type, few readers will take the next step which is to read the blurb about the book or pick it up and read the first couple pages.

Getting Oriented is, on one level (the most superficial) the story of a 12-day tour in Japan. The group begins in the old capital, Kyoto; travels to a traditional inn in Hakone, a resort area in the mountains south of Tokyo; spends a night in Nikko, the site of the most lavish temple complex in the country; and winds up in Tokyo. How do you illustrate the diversity of traditional and modern Japan?

My friend Susan Brier, who is a brilliant graphic artist, and I talked about various possibilities. I wanted something that said "Japan" and, ideally, something that said "travel." After discussing the options, we came up with the idea of a bullet train (something my characters actually ride during the course of the story) passing Mt. Fuji. Susan was able to find a color photograph of exactly that and, without having to manipulate the picture, use it as the cover. I believe both the book's front and back covers reflect the quality I wanted the book to represent. I will be interested to hear what, if anything, readers say.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Don't Know Where, Don't Know When

I've been trying to decide just why I am so put off by Karen Shepard's short story, "Don't Know Where, Don't Know When" in the current issue of Tin House (Vol 12, No 4). Shepard is no amateur; she's published three novels (An Empire of Women, The Bad Boy's Wife, and Don't I Know You), short fiction in a number of literary and other magazines, and she teaches at Williams College in Williamstown, MA.

"Don't Know Where, Don't Know When" is set in lower Manhattan (I think) in November 2011 (I know). The POV character is Zizi. "She has a cool nickname and some guy who seems to pay the bills in a pinch. She dresses East Village—extreme (shredded leggings, careless boots, layers and layers); her bangs are Mamie Eisenhower, her compexion is Louise Brooks, her jewelry is vintage. Her body is Japanese-teen, but dark chocolate and single-malt scotch are an everyday thing. It's unclear how she makes a living.... Her father lives in a faraway country and is vaguely famous, but no one can remember for what. Her mother is kind and easy to deceive." She lives in an apartment directly below that of her married lover who bought it for her.

The morning of 9/11 she and the lover have sex (Zizi took his finger, "wrapping it with hers, putting both inside her"); he goes to work at one of the upper floors in the World Trade Center; and Zizi and his wife spend the day together watching television news, "the falling men and women, their business suits flapping like vestigial wings, and both tried silently to pick him out of the flock."

I'm not sure why I found the story so disagreeable. I didn't find Zizi cute or charming or sympathetic or tragic or very interesting. If the author were a man, I would suspect Zizi is the writer's wet dream: passive, compliant, always ready for what she wants. We're told she's twentysomething, but she lives off the lover, allows him to set her up with other men so he can watch them have sex, and, once he's dead, she takes up with another guy.

And what is the story trying to tell us? "...she apologizes silently to the world. She's sorry, she doesn't know any better. She knows this to be both the truth and its opposite." A good trick that. She doesn't know any better but she does know better? I think she should pick one.

And "...if Mabel asks, she'll tell her we can mourn the flawed; we can, and we do." I am afraid that by the time I reached this line, the story's final sentence, I did not even believe such a self-evident truth.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere

John Nathan is a brilliant translator of Japanese and he has written a fascinating memoir, Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere. "Carelessly" is a key word here because by his own account he has abandoned or thrown away one opportunity after another. In some ways, I found it a sad book as Nathan looks back on roads not taken--and on roads taken he might have been better off ignoring. (At one point, when he was rolling in money, he and his wife bought a giant white elephant of a house north of Boston; they were saved only because, after an expensive year in the house, a rock band decided they wanted it.)

Nevertheless, if someone is interested in Japan, in Japanese literature, in the Japanese language, or all three this is a wonderful book, very funny in places and lively and fascinating. Nathan was hired to translate an early Yukio Mishima novel. The title in Japanese, Gogo no Eiko, means something like "An Afternoon Tug." Eiko is the verb "to tug" or "to tow a boat." An Afternoon Tug was not going to work for an American edition, and after trying a number of alternatives, Nathan went to Mishima to ask about it. Mishima had a number of suggestions, one of which could almost be translated word for word and became the English title: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace from the Sea.

Nathan has translated a number of Kensaburo Oe's novels and was with him in Stockholm when Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The memoir includes a wonderful scene of Oe and his family with Nathan and his children in the Oe home in Tokyo. Nathan also tells the story of chiding Oe for writing "the sea urchin raised its head" because sea urchins do not have heads. Oe pointed out that Nathan's translation had confused ウ二 uni, or sea urchin with ワ二 wani, or allegator. That one little eyelash at the top of the first character makes all the difference.

It's been a full, rich life and Nathan writes about it with verve and grace. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Character names

It's a perennial question: What do you name your characters? I try to pick a name that sounds appropriate, but of course that begs the question. What's appropriate? Usually, it's a name that sounds "right" to me. It suggests the character's background, ethnicity, race, and personality. I've also been interested in English names that were trade or craft names: Miller, Cooper, Sawyer, Cook, Waller (one who builds walls). My main character is Phillip Fletcher; a fletcher was someone who made and sold arrows. I would like to think of Phil as a straight arrow.

Japanese family names are often based on geography: Tanaka ("within the field"), Yoshida ("ancient field"), Yamaguchi ("mountain's mouth"). In picking names for my Japanese characters, I thought it would be fun to use names that have overtones in English. So a delivery truck driver is Nagamichi ("long road") and the bad guy is Kurotani ("black valley").

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Self-publishing Saga, Part 1

I've given up trying to interest an agent in my novel, Getting Oriented, and have decided to self-publish. For one thing, it does not fit neatly into a genre, and that makes it difficult to sell to a commercial publisher. But aside from the fact that it is simply a good novel, I had not looked at the manuscript for more than a year, and the last time I looked, I thought it was polished and ready to go. Ha!

When I began rereading, I discovered that I tend to be the Village Explainer. In an attempt to make everything clear, I say the same thing twice in different words, or put in extraneous detail, or simply repeat myself. Going through the manuscript, I discovered I could cut 5 percent or so of the words with no damage to the meaning and a major improvement in the story's flow.

When my wife, who is also a writer, read the manuscript with a copy-editor's eye, she pointed out that I had fallen into the habit of using ellipses in place of commas or to suggest pauses in dialogue. I'd also not used commas when I needed them. I brought in a new shipment of commas and retired perhaps a hundred ellipses.

The tweaks we've made to the manuscript improve it considerably. The characters, the story, the setting are all the same. I do think that the careful reader who cares about punctuation, wordiness, and—both of you—the overuse of ellipses will enjoy the story even more.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Behind the Waterfall

According to the flap copy to Behind the Waterfall, Chinatsu Nakayama, the author, "has been an actress on both stage and television and a member of the Japanese Diet...Born in Kumamoto in 1948, she now lives in Tokyo." The book was originally published in 1980 under the titel Kyoyaku no jikan ("A Child Actor's Time"); the translation by Geraldine Harcourt was published in 1990.

The book contains three stories, "Star Time," "The Sound of Wings," and "Good Afternoon, Ladies." Nakayama tells the first from the point of view of an 11-year-old girl who has been successful on Osaka television dramas and brought to Tokyo to act in what turns out to be a hit play. We see the girl trying to make sense of the adult world, caught up in her own cares and desires, and showing the first signs of wanting more...more attention, more fame.

The second story begins with a young wife telling her somewhat older husband that she has fallen in love with a young man. The husband, who by Japanese standards of the time is a model of marital bliss, seems to take the news well. He will give her a divorce, but to save face he asks that the wife have no contact with her lover for three months. She agrees, then almost immediately breaks her promise.

I found the story fascinating because Nakayama is able to convey both the wife's infatuation with her younger lover (we have a sense that she is experiencing sexual pleasure for the first time) and her strong feelings for her solid, good, reasonable husband. She is being torn in two, and neither the lover nor the husband care.

The third and longest story concerns an afternoon television show and Nakayama, who clearly knows the milieu, tells it from several points of view. The show invites spouses whose partner has run away to make a personal appeal on the air for the partner to return. The show hires detectives to track down the runaways, and tapes them when found. All involved—husband, wife, lover—are brought into the studio and a regular cast of experts analyzes the situation and recommends—or insists—the principals change their behavior. It is a show, in other words, that trades on people's misery for the enjoyment of the audience.

Although Nakayma wrote the story in the late 1970s, one character's justification for what they do sounds timeless: The show's ratings are high, he says, because people love to watch the sordid show. "When I say sordid, I'm speaking in terms of my own personal tastes. I would never be so arrogant as to force those tastes on the viewers. Television doesn't belong to me, it belongs to the public, and it must be responsive to public demand. As the makers of what goes on television, it's our job to deliver what the public wants. One way or another. It can't be helped if in the process the privacy of stupid and ignorant people has to be sacrificed to some extent What does that matter if you look at the valuable services that television as a whole is providing?"

He never explains what that "valuable service" might be. All this before reality TV.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Hunger Games

Imagine all the publicity and excitement surrounding the SuperBowl—profiles of the players, analysis of past games, commentary and interviews—and multiply it by, say, a factor of five. Now imagine a Shirley Jackson-style "Lottery" in which a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 16 are selected randomly from each of 12 districts. Now imagine that government puts the children selected into an arena that can be tens of square miles and include forest, desert, mountain, lake, stream, jungle...whatever. The game's winner is the one who manages to kill every other child. This is the framework for Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games.

This is the first book in a trilogy for young adults; the next two are Catching Fire and Mockingjay. It is narrated by Katniss Everdeen, a spunky 16-year-old young woman who has a 12-year-old sister and a widowed mother. They live in District 12 in, what sounds like, Appalachia; the District's main function seems to be to supply coal to the Capitol. Katniss's father was killed in a mine explosion. In this future world, food is in such short supply that Katness and her friend Gale must hunt small game with bow and arrow to feed their families. (Only the Peacekeepers, the cops, have guns.) The totalitarian government holds the Hunger Games annually to entertain the population and to keep them from rebelling.

Collins spends about the first half of the book setting up the society, giving us Katniss's history, introducing the other characters, selecting Katniss for the Games (actually her little sister is selected and Katniss volunteers in her place, showing what a brave, loving sister she is), preparing her for the Games, and putting her into the arena where she has to kill 23 other children to stay alive. At that point, the book takes off and I could not put it down. Collins manages to throw in enough twists and reversals that, if you accept the book's premises, are both believable and satisfying.

(I did have an extra-literary thought: Because Katniss is telling her story, we know she survives somehow. Unless...Collins is having a dead girl telling the story. Not impossible, but an unlikely authorial decision given that Katniss has two more books to narrate.)

Although the children are hunting one another with bow and arrow, javelin, sword, and knife, the government's technology includes force fields, silent hovercraft, genetically modified birds and animals, weather control within the arena, and enough unobtrusive video cameras that viewers can enjoy every single child's slaughter.

While it is possible to read the books as a girl's adventure story—the way, I suspect, most teenagers will read it—Collins's subliminal messages is: Don't trust reality TV. The Katniss that the government puts onstage for the pregame shows and into the arena has been buffed, burnished, coached, and dressed to the tens.

I do not want to over-praise the book. It cannot compare in depth and intellectual complexity, for example, to Philip Pullman's Golden Compass trilogy. The Hunger Games has been on the New York Times young adult best-seller list almost since the day it was published, and at least three of my middle-school creative writing students had read it and loved it. As I said, once the game started, I had to read on. I guess that if you have a young teen-age daughter or granddaughter, you might read it just to see what all the excitement's about.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

America America

The novel America America is Ethan Canin's sixth work of fiction. I picked it up because I remembered how much I enjoyed his collection of short stories, Emperor of the Air. I am glad I did.

The story is told by Corey Sifter, the 50-something publisher of a small newspaper in Western New York State. Corey tells the story of his involvement as a teenage yard boy with the wealthy Metarey family and the family's involvement with the 1974 presidential campaign of US Senator Henry Bonwiller, a local boy made very good. At the same time, Corey tells his contemporary story, his talks with a young intern on the newspaper, his feelings about his life as the father of three daughters, and his excursions with now elderly father, a workingman, a union man, an honest craftsman.

Senator Bonwiller is a charismatic figure, liberal, environmentalist, opposed to the Vietnam War, a friend to unions and working people everywhere. Canin has to be careful because, given Corey's menial position on the estate, he cannot be privy to much of the Senator's words, thoughts, or actions. As a result, one of the key incidents in the novel has to happen offstage, and Canin necessarily switches from first-person narration to third so the reader can understand what occurred between the married Senator and a young, pretty campaign aid. Presumably, these are Corey's speculations, but because Canin writes them with the same tone and detail as the rest of the narration, we wonder (I wonder) how he could have known so much.

The book is filled with wonderful descriptions of the natural world--and its destruction. There is not a false note in the 458 pages, and I found much of the writing marvelous. Here, picked almost at random, is Corey musing on his middle daughter:

"Emma is our reticent one. She has in her much of her maternal grandfather, in fact. Much of Liam Metarey's modest grade and affable, generous view of the world, and much of his guarded, quiet solicitude, too. And strange as it may sound, she has grown up touching me on the shoulder, just as her grandfather used to. How is that possible? When she wakes me from a nap in my leather library chair, it is with a hand rustling my hair, and whenever wew part for any length of time, first she hugs me and then, stepping away, she reaches back to touch me on the shoulder...."

The book contains no real villains, only flawed human beings. No real hero, either, now that I think about it. Corey is not even the center of his story; the Senator and wealthy Liam Metarey are at the center. As is America, what we do to our land, what we expect from our leaders, and the tragedy of simply being human.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I read Blur by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel primarily for the subtitle: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload. Kovach has been chief of the Washington bureau, the editor of the New York TimesAtlanta Journal-Constitution, and directed the Nieman Fellowship program at Harvard University. Rosenstiel was a media critic for the Los Angeles Times, chief congressional correspondent for Newsweek, and a press critic for MSNBC's The News with Brian Williams. Together they bring more than 80 years of journalistic experience to the book, their third.

They point out something that every astute consumer of news recognizes: even as the number of newspapers have declined, the number of other "news" sources—cable TV, blogs, websites, tweets, and more—has exploded. At one time, the newspaper's editors acted as gatekeepers to filter and vet the stories people would read; that function is much less significant today. Today news consumers have to vet the stories the stories they see on CNN, the Daily Kos, Reuters, MSNBC. Indeed, virtually every story. How do you tell what is reliable. How do you determine what facts (or whose opinions) to trust?

Kovach and Rosensteil point out there are four kinds of journalism. The journalism of...

1. Verification. The traditional reporter's attempt to obtain the truth about an event and "puts a high value on completeness: answering questions that the facts of an event may suggest and attempting to put these facts in a complete context so that they can be understood as they happened."

2. Assertion. The reporter simply passes along what were once the raw ingredients of journalism—the rumor, innuendo, allegation, accusation, charge, supposition, and hypothesis—directly to the audience. The reporter is a conduit, an enabler for sources and newsmakers.

3. Affirmation. This is opinion—or propaganda—masquerading as journalism. The practitioners are strongly ideological, often demagogic. They cherry-pick their facts, ignore alternative viewpoints, and appeal primarily to people who already agree with their views. They are not interested in looking for the truth because they already know it.

4. Aggregation. This is a benefit (or curse) of the internet age. It becomes embarrassingly easy to obtain stories from a variety of sources on a single topic. The stories may all follow the same ideological line—it depends on the aggregator—or they may offer a more complete picture with added details.

To become a more conscious and careful news consumer, the authors suggest we ask six basic questions about stories:

—What kind of content am I encountering?
—Is the information complete; and if not, what is missing?
—Who or what are the sources, and why should I believe them?
—What evidence is presented, and how was it tested of vetted?
—What might be an alternative explanation or understanding?
—Am I learning what I need to?

Two weeks ago, I was exposed to more cable news than I'd ever seen during an extended period. I found it superficial, unsatisfying, and often inadequate. Blur articulated my feelings. While the book is filled with interesting stories and good advice, I am skeptical that many Americans will take their suggestions to heart.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Japan in Print

Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period by Mary Elizabeth Berry is a fascinating study of Japanese publishing between roughly 1600 and 1800. Berry is a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and while her book has all the bells and whistles an academic study requires--47 pages of notes, a bibliography with more than 350 citations (the majority in Japanese), and full index--Berry's writing is lively and interesting as well as authoritative. The book is also beautifully produced with 34 b&w illustrations; it is a pleasure to hold.

In 1700, if you were Japanese, lived in one of the major cities (Kyoto, Edo, Osaka), and were literate, you had access to a plethora of printed information: maps, guides, genealogies, directories, catalogues, histories, medical advice, agricultural instruction, and much, much more. To convey this diversity, Berry begins the book by creating a Kyoto silk merchant about to make his first trip to Edo. "Being something of a bibliophile, you begin your research [into the trip] by consulting recent booksellers' catalogues, rough equivalents of Books in Print, which have been appearing in major cities since at least 1659. Koeki shojaku mokuroku (A Catalogue of Publications for Public Utility) published by a consortium of Kyoto firms in 1692 contains entries on over 7,000 current titles divided into 46 main categories (and numerous subcategories). You winnow leads from some obvious sections ("Geography," "Travel," "Famous Places") and from a few less obvious ones ("Erotica," "Military Affairs") hoping to come across additional items--ephemera, privately printed matter, texts published outside Kyoto that may not have made it into the catalogue--as you browse the shops. There are over 100 of them. Some are small printing houses stocking their own titles. Others retail texts on specialized subjects such as Chinese learning or poetry or medicine or Zen Buddhism..."

I found it fascinating that before 1600 there are virtually no maps--or no maps that have survived. After Tokugawa Ieyasu finally united the country, however, cartographers began thinking of the country as a unit and mapping it in considerable detail: roads, rivers, ports, fords, bridges, towns, villages, shrines, temples, famous spots, and more. With better maps came a need for descriptions of those shrines, temples, and famous spots, plus an interest in identifying all the businesses and their locations in the cities and towns. Readers wanted to know where to find the "masters" and "famous artists" and "famous craftspeople" and there were guides to tell them.

Berry not only describes these printed works--the maps and directories--but suggests how they were both affected by and affected Japanese culture. She makes the interesting, and to me persuasive case, that all this printed material helped turn the extremely fragmented and feudal Japan into the nation that was, in many ways, prepared intellectually and socially for the Meiji revolution of the 1860s. Japan in Print is a window into a Japan I had not known existed.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Google Translate

I continue to learn new Japanese characters and review grammatical forms. I'm working with a couple Japanese friends, helping them with their English and they help me with my Japanese. One of the our texts is a book of useful sentences that illustrate various patterns. I just came across the following:

社長はだれのことをどなたのですか?("Shacho wa dare no koto o donata no desu ka?")

The text translates that as, "Who did the boss shout at?"

Because the verb "shout" is not in the sentence, I decided to check it with Google Translate. The program translated it as "How is anyone to be president whom?"

I think I have to check this one with my friends.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sunset Park

Sunset Park is my first Paul Auster novel. Which is, I suppose, a good thing and a bad thing. Good, because as my first Auster, I came to it with no preconceptions, no expectations based on other books. Bad because I have no idea whether this represents Auster. Whether it does or not, of course, should be irrelevant; but I find it impossible to come to a well-known author—having read other works or not—entirely without assumptions. And Auster comes with high praise from The New York Review of Books, The Observer, and Haruki Murakami.

Auster tells the story from multiple points of view, Miles Heller, a 28-year-old college dropout who falls in love with and begins living with a 17-year-old Cuban-American high school girl; Bing Nathan, a friend of Miles from high school, who is squatting in an abandoned house in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is a drummer, and who makes a living framing pictures and repairing old technology (manual typewriters, fountain pens, rotary telephones); Morris Heller, Miles's father, the founder and head of an independent book publisher; Alice Bergstrom, who lives in the Sunset Park house, works at the PEN American Center, and who is writing her doctorate thesis on the relations between men and women as reflected in books and movies from 1945 to 1947 (we hear a lot about "The Best Years of Our Lives"); and Ellen Brice, who also lives in the house, sells real estate, and is a frustrated artist and a sexually frustrated women. And there are more: Pilar Sanchez, Miles's girlfriend; Mary-Lee, Miles's mother who is a famous actress who is returning to New York to play Winnie in "Happy Days"; Miles's stepmother, who is teaching in England during the course of the book; Jake Blum, Alice's boyfriend and short story writer; Renzo Michaelson, a famous novelist whose popularity has helped keep Heller Publishing afloat; and more.

But while Auster tells the story from the point of view of the main characters (and I have the sense that he tells much more than he shows), they tend to run together. Morris is older than Miles, but he seems to have about the same perceptions, sensitivities, and ideas as Miles. Ellen seems distinct because of her sexual frustration, described in some detail. We do not get a lot of sensory detail, however, about the characters or the world through which they move. Rather we get information about obscure (to me) baseball players, the work of PEN, the challenges of publishing literary fiction today.

We do get a lot of threads to follow. Miles has disappeared from his family for seven years. Morris's publishing company is suffering from the recession (this is a very current book). Mary-Lee's concerns about aging and her role as Winnie.

What we don't get—or I did not get—is a sense of closure. I did not feel that Auster had earned the last sentence in the book, which goes on for a page, and concludes "...he [Miles] thinks about the missing buildings, the collapsed and burning buildings that no longer exist, the missing buildings and the missing hands, and he wonders if it is worth hoping for a future when there is no future, and from no on, he tells himself, he will stop hoping for anything and live only for now, this moment, this passing moment, the now that is here and then no here, the now that is gone forever."

And that's the end.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


This post is for people who have never read a James Lee Burke novel and for those who have read him, but not read Bitterroot.

Bitterroot, published in 2001, is set in western Montana, in and around the Bitterroot Valley. The time is contemporary (in one plot thread, Federal agents are investigating the Oklahoma City bombing). Most of the story is narrated by Billy Bob Holland, a former Texas Ranger, a former Assistant US Attorney, and now a Texas lawyer who goes to Montana to spend time with a friend, a former Navy Seal. Complications ensue.

The friend, a widower, has a teen-age daughter who, early in the book, is raped by three bikers. The bikers are then murdered one by one. Then the story becomes complicated. There are Federal agents; bikers; militia; corporate interests polluting the river with the cyanide used in gold mining; an young Indian woman, Sue Lynn Big Medicine, with whom Billy Bob's adult son becomes involved; an alcoholic, if very successful, mystery writer and his movie-star wife; a psychopathic rodeo clown; an Italian mobster who is trying to collect $700,000 from the widow of a murdered man; the local sheriff, and more.

One of the appeals of the book is watching Burke keep all these various threads clear and seeing them cross and affect one another. Another appeal is Billy Bob, a flawed man with a past. As a Texas Ranger he and his now-dead partner murdered Mexican drug mules; justifying the violence as serving the greater good. Now Billy Bob has a guilty conscience and a ghost who will not leave him alone and to whom he talks periodically throughout the book.

Yet another appeal is Burke's descriptions of the natural world: "The clouds were mauve-colored in the west and the rain blowing in the canyon at Alberton Gorge looked like spun glass against the light. I could smell the heavy, cold odor of the Clark Fork and the wetness of the boulders in the shadows along the banks and the hay that someone was mowing in a distant field. The riparian countryside, the purple haze on the mountains, the old-growth trees that were so tall they looked as if they lived in the sky, were probably as close to Eden as modern man ever got, I thought. But this wonderful part of the world was also one that Carl Hinkel [the leader of the local militia] and his friends, if given an opportunity, would turn into a separate country surrounded by razor wire and guard towers."

Because this a popular mystery, you know the bad guys will get their comeuppance and the good guys will be rewarded, but wondering how Burke is going to tie all the threads into a satisfying knot kept me reading when I should have been doing other things. A lot of fun.