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.