Monday, December 24, 2012

People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

I am not a fan of true crime. But I am endlessly by Japan. The subtitle of People Who Eat Darkness is "The True Story of a Young Woman who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo--and the Evil that Swallowed Her Up." Richard Lloyd Parry, the author, is the Tokyo bureau chief of The Times (London) and has lived in Japan for most of his adult life. His book is extraordinary. Both Publisher's Weekly and Time magazine picked this as one of the ten best books of 2012.

The story begins when Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old former British Airways flight attendant who was working as a bar hostess in Roppongi, disappeared in July 2000. Months later the Japanese police found pieces of her dismembered body in a cave southwest of Tokyo. By the time they found Lucie's body, they had a suspect in custody and eventually he was tried, a trial that lasted more than five years.

Parry spent ten years researching and writing the book. He interviewed Lucie's parents, her younger sister and brother, her Tokyo roommate, friends of the family, Tokyo police, Roppongi bar owners. We learn about Lucie (she worried about money and thought she could pay off her debts working in Japan), her family (her parents had divorced and had very different reactions to Lucie's disappearance), her sister (who badgered the police and British Embassy to do something), about the Roppongi bar scene, about the history of Koreans in Japan, about Japanese police procedures, and about Japanese criminal courts.

We learn, for example, that because the Japanese regard flight attendant as a high status job, Japanese reporters and the public could not understand why Lucie would give it up to become a bar hostess. We learn that criminals are expected to show remorse and, in fact, if they give their victims financial compensation they may actually be able to reduce their sentences.  

Because it is true, the story is not neat. Parry writes includes events that no mystery writer could get away with; they are too preposterous. The people involved don't follow the public's expectation of, say, how the father of a missing daughter should act in a press conference. At one point, Lucie's father gets sucked into a con by a guy who manages to extract $10,000 from him before the con falls apart. Lucie's mother consults psychics and Parry quotes some of their "information," none of which was close to the reality.

Because it is true, it has no tidy conclusion. Lucie is dead. The man accused of her murder is in prison, but not for that crime. Lucie's sister has attempted suicide. Her mother has remarried. Her father is a pariah. Japan remains one of the safest countries on earth.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain by Lucia Perillo

So many books, so little time. So how do you decide what to read next? My answer: Recommendations by friends and family (word-of-mouth); reviews; new book by an author I know; old book by an author I've discovered; a classic I've manage to avoid until I was old enough to appreciate it (I've begun dipping into the Essays of Montaigne); a title related to Japan; and—given this time of year—Top 10 Books of the Year lists.

Which is how I happened to read Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain a collection of stories by Lucia Perillo, her first such collection. It was one of Publishers Weekly's top 10 of 2012. Perillo has published five books of poetry, one of which, Inseminating the Elephant, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In 2000, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. She is married, lives in Washington state, and has MS. She talks about her poetry and her background in a 2099 interview that is available on the web.

Perhaps because she is a poet, Perillo's language is extraordinary and yet she does not seem to be showing off. Her sentences don't shout, "Look at me! Look at me!" But here's the first paragraph of the book's first story, "Bad Boy Number Seventeen":

"Don't tell me about bad boys. I've seen my black clouds come and go. Coming they walk with their shoulders back like they've got a raw egg tucked inside each armpit, and they let their legs lead them. Going, you can count on the fact that their butts will cast no shadow on those lean long legs. You can't compete in the arena of squalid romance if you're one of those guys shaped in the rear like a leather mail sack: you're automatically disqualified. That's just the way it is. I didn't make the rules."

Among Perillo's characters are an addict trapped in a country house who becomes obsessed with vacuum cleaners and their door-to-door salespeople...a young woman whose older sister has Down syndrome...and an elderly surgeon living in an elder housing development whose neighbor commits suicide. Some of the stories sound like downers, but Perillo's humor and insights into (and comments on) the human condition not only redeem them, but make them resonate with wisdom.

The fourteen stories are all so strong I had to stop reading for a time, concerned that Perillo's voice would sneak into my own writing. On the other hand, they were so strong I had to finish the book. Thank you, Publishers Weekly. And I envy those of you who can look forward to the pleasures of Perillo's book.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Things You Should Know by A.M. Homes

This is a collection of eleven stories by an author I'd never heard of (or whose existence penetrated my consciousness) until I read a favorable review of her most recent novel, May We Be Forgiven. By the time she'd published this in 2002, she'd published four novels and another collection of stories. According to Wikipedia, she "currently lives in New York City with her young daughter. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia University, the New School, and NYU. She currently teaches in the creative writing programs at Princeton University. In April 2007, she stated in the Washington Post, 'I've dated men and I've dated women and there's no more or less to it than that.' In an interview with Diva magazine she said, 'I am bisexual, but I wouldn't necessarily define myself that way.'" (N.B.: I've just checked the Wikipedia links for these quotes. They take you to the publications, not to the articles with the quotes. An "A.M. Homes" search on the Diva site, has no results.)

All but two of the stories are told in the present tense. Several of the narrators are male. They vary in length from three pages to more than thirty. They are all engaging, some—as is inevitable in any collection—more than others.

In "Georgica," the narrator, a young woman, cruises a nighttime summer beach, watching couples have sex through night-vision goggles, and harvesting the sperm left in the condoms to inseminate herself. Baldly describing the story in this way makes the narrator sound extreme, but within the story, what she's doing seems natural and reasonable.

That story has relatively little dialogue (compared to others in the book). Homes' dialogue is wonderful. Here's a piece of a scene in which the adult daughter comes from New York to visit her elderly parents in Washington.:

"Is she here?" She hears her mother's voice across the house.
"Hi Mom," she says, and her mother does not hear her. She tries again. "Hi Mom." She walks down the hall saying Hi Mom, Hi Mom, Hi Mom at different volumes, in different intonations, like a hearing test.
"Is that you?" her mother finally asks when she's two feet away.
"I'm home."
He mother hugs her--her mother is smaller too.  Everything is shrinking, compacting, intensifying. "Did you have a good flight?"
She has never flown home. "I took the train."
"Is Ray back?" her mother asks.
"Not yet," her father says as he puts two heaping tablespoons of green powder into a glass of water.
"Where did you meet this Ray?"
"Your father left his coat at the health food store and Ray found it and called him."
Her father nods. "I went to get the coat and we started talking."
"Your father and Ray go to vitamin class together."
"Vitamin class?"
"They go to the health food store and a man speaks to them over a video screen."

I am delighted to have found—or been pointed to—Homes, both for the pleasure that her stories have given me and for the lessons I believe I can learn from them. I now look forward to reading more of her work.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Tokyo Stories edited by Lawrence Rogers

Tokyo Stories: A Literary Stroll translated from the Japanese and edited by Lawrence Rogers contains 18 short stories by both famous authors (Mishima Yukio, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Kawabata Yasunari, Nagai Kaifu, Natsume Soseki) and less famous--at least to me. Two writers, Ikeda Michiko and Inabe Mayumi, are translated into English for the first time. Rogers is a professor of Japanese at the University of Hawaii a Hilo, and he provides useful introductions to the book as a whole and to each story, a glossary, and suggestions for further reading.

The stories are all set in the twentieth century, and are organized by Tokyo districts. So for example the first six stories are all set in central Tokyo, the next eight in the shitamachi, the "low city," the more raffish district of bars and theaters.

I think there are two problems in translating from the Japanese--and I'm writing here as one who is translating contemporary Japanese fiction for his own entertainment. First, English acts as a veil or fine screen between the reader and the original. I sense that literary Japanese carries nuances and implications that are either impossible to express in English or that lose all their effect when we do find an English equivalent. I suspect it is a rare translator who is so fluent in both languages that he or she can inhabit the consciousness of the Japanese writer and has the skill to find the identical spirit in English. Which leads to the second problem.

I suspect that, as a translator, I run the original through my consciousness so that what comes out sounds very similar to everything I write. I'm not skillful enough to convey each Japanese writer's unique style. I think that Rogers is skillful enough, which makes this collection exceptionally rich and varied. The stories are all different, different lengths, different situations, different different times, but all set in Tokyo. They include, as the jacket says, "a story of an all-too-brief affair in a burned-out Tokyo, an unsettling tale of high politics and possible blackmail, and reminiscences of childhood. The narrators and protagonists are diverse, among them an Asakusa streetwalker, a lonely apartment seeker who simply wants to keep her cat, and a self-obsessed young man casting off his devoted lover."

As an introduction to (or picture of) Japanese culture from the inside, the Tokyo Stories are fascinating and enlightening.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Interview with the writer

Samantha Holt, another self-published author, maintains an interesting blog in which she interviews other writers.

She interviewed me by e-mail recently and has now posted the results, which you can find here. I thought her questions about my book and about writing were interesting and I tried to answer them seriously.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowllng

J.K. Rowling is a British author best known for her series of young adult books about a young man with magical powers and an implacable enemy. The Casual Vacancy is her first novel written for an adult audience.

In England, as Rowling's beginning headnote explains a casual vacancy is "deemed to occurred: (a) when a local councillor fails to make his declaration of acceptance of office within the proper time; or...on the day of his death...." The story begins when one of Pagford's councillor's drops dead. The main story is the struggle among some residents of this perfectly charming English village to hold back (as they see it) the forces of drugs, crime, and the chaos from the neighboring town and other residents to bring the village into the 21st century and actually deal with the effects of poverty, unemployment, and addiction.

The book has a huge cast of characters--eight families, most with spouses, some with children and there are relationships of one sort or another among almost all the characters. I did not find one of the adult characters sympathetic. The five children in the novel, four teen-agers and a three-year-old, are mostly put upon rather than unpleasant; the adults are mostly small-minded, addled, or vicious. I did finish the book even though I could not care about any of the characters because I wanted to see what finally happened.

Rowling does a couple of things that most writers cannot get away with: changing point of view within a chapter or on a page and inserting flashbacks set off by parentheses. She does this three times in the last 10 pages of the almost 500-page book. For example:

     They arrived as the hearses appeared at the top of the road and hurried into the graveyard while the pallbearers were shuffling out onto the pavement.
     ("Get away from the window," Colin Wall commanded his son.
     But Fats, who had to live henceforth with the knowledge of his own cowardice, moved forward, trying to prove that he could, at least, take this . . . )"

For another two paragraphs.

I wonder a couple things: Would Little, Brown have published the book if the author were not J.K. Rowling? And: Did the publisher try to edit the book and Rowling refuse the suggestions or did the editor accept it as is on the theory that Rowling's fans won't know or care how well or how poorly it is written or structured?

It's not a bad book. It does give a picture of contemporary small-town English life that seems to this outsider as deeply felt an accurate. It suggests that the lives of English children can be (are?) nasty, brutish, and (in some cases) short. Married couples, even those living comfortably in idyllic little villages, do not have satisfactory sex lives. I found it an unhappy book about unhappy people.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Japanese coffee shops

In the novel I'm currently writing, a character finds his way into a Japanese coffee shop in the early 1950s. I may have caused an anachronism because I've place the character is in Japan before I was there, but the shop is based on one where I spent many happy off-duty hours in the year and a half I was stationed in Japan.

At the time, independent coffee shops (kissaten, 喫茶店) were a feature of Japanese city life. For the price of a single cup of coffee, one could sit all afternoon, read a book, chat with friends, smoke, and listen to the music. The coffee was expensive (240 yen a cup), but in my memory it was the best coffee I've ever had and the music was free. Different shops specialized in different genres: American jazz, country & western, classical, and there might have been more. (Japanese folk songs? American folk songs? Possibly.)

My favorite shop was L'Ambre, which featured classical music. Not only did the shop have a state-of-the-art high-fidelity sound system, a large collection of LPs, it held regular recorded concerts and printed up a program of the month's events. For some reason, I kept the program illustrated here. I was always interested that the shop's French name ("The Amber") was written in phonetic Japanese (らんぶる). The map on the back shows how to reach the shop from Shinjuku train station.

The three inside pages, the first of which is illustrated, alerts customers to the evening's concert. On Sunday, June 1, for example, the shop played Shostakovich's oratorio "Song of the Forests." On Monday, you could have heard Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana."

In addition to the regular concerts, patrons could request works the owner played in the order received. Which meant that you might have to sit through a couple hours of other great music before your selection made it to the turntable. It was a tough life.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Donald Keene, Japanese citizen

The New York Times has run an interesting article about Donald Keene. After last year's tsunami and nuclear disaster, Keene announced that he was moving to Japan permanently, publicly going against the tide of foreigners who couldn't wait to get out of the country. Not only was he moving to Japan, he was going to become a Japanese citizen, one of the least welcoming countries for immigrants in the world. He listed for the Times reporter "what he called the absurd requirements imposed upon him to take Japanese citizenship, including documentation to prove his completion of elementary school in New York City. Still...Dr. Keene’s application was quickly approved. To become Japanese, Dr. Keene, who is unmarried, had to relinquish his American citizenship."

Keene who is 90, taught for years at Columbia University and, because I studied Japanese at Columbia, I have been asked whether I knew him. I knew him, but I never took a course with him (I have heard him lecture on Japanese literature at New York's Japan Society, however). I only spoke to him once, and that was on the 116th Street downtown subway platform where we were both waiting for a train.

One of my Japanese teachers had told my class that Dr. Keene said that when he translates, he first does a word-for-word translation to make sure he's accounted for every little element in the sentence.  Japanese can be a challenge because a one- or two-syllable grammatical unit can change the meaning entirely. I wondered if that were true. Keene's fluency seemed to me good enough he could simply read a sentence and convert it to correct. A word-for-word translation can leave you with utterly fractured English.

I recognized Dr. Keene on the platform, introduced myself, and said I was curious about something my Japanese professor had told me. Once Keene established that I was not one of his graduate students looking for a graded paper, he warmed up considerably. He said, yes, he did still go through every sentence word by word.

I told him how much I'd enjoyed his translations. (He has translated and written about Japanese fiction; his books fill more than one shelf of my library.) He told me he liked Japanese because it has such a rich literature. He would never exhaust the material to translate, unlike a friend of his who, I think, specialized in Burmese literature. Fifteen years later and he'd read everything written in the language.

“You cannot stop being an American after 89 years,” Keene told the Times reporter. “But I have become a Japanese in many ways. Not pretentiously, but naturally.”

Sunday, November 4, 2012

NaNaWriMo (again)

Although I believe that NaNoWriMo (The National Novel Writing Month) is a wonderful event...and although I recommend that any who has ever thought of writing fiction do it..and although I not only did it last year, but eventually finished an entire first draft, I'm not going to participate again this year. I'm still hammering the draft I wrote last November into a shape where I think it may be publishable. I don't want to be distracted by starting a brand new project.

NaNoWriMo, for those who don't know, is, they say, "a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing on November 1. The goal is to write a 50,000-word (approximately 175-page) novel by 11:59:59 PM on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved. In 2011, we had 256,618 participants and 36,843 of them crossed the 50K finish line by the midnight deadline, entering into the annals of NaNoWriMo superstardom forever. They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists."

Although I've been writing most of my life, I never had a writing experience like last November's NaNoWriMo. I thought it was worse than a job because the only goad was myself. No one cares whether you finish your 50,000 words or not. (You do get to download a nice certificate if you finish). No one cares whether the quality stinks or not (like most first drafts, it tends to). No one cares whether you write every day during your lunch hour or in massive bursts on weekends (but you have to average 1,668 words a day). You do it for yourself, and I'm much tougher on myself than almost any boss (here I'm excluding a couple of sergeants in the Army).

The NaNoWriMo site gives you a place in which you can record your daily progress toward the 50,000, plus all kinds of forums and other aids. There are also local groups to encourage aspiring NaNoWriMos, and, still undecided whether to jump into this river again or note, I went to a local meeting in late October, talked to other writers, and collected a goodie bag, the contents of which is in the picture above. Cocoa and candy for a burst of energy, a tiny notebook in which to make notes, two small figures to sit and make you feel guilty when you're not writing, a post card, two pencils, and exhortations.

I was interested in what the other writers (two of them middle-school students with their teachers) planned to write: paranormal, fantasy, science fiction, romance, zombies, vampires, paranormal fantasy, paranormal  vampire romance. I asked one writer why she was committed to writing fantasy. She said she didn't have to do any research; she could just make it all up. One of the writers has participated in ten November events. He did not make the 50,000-word goal four times, did make it six. He's done nothing about his manuscripts. "I hate to revise."

As I said at the beginning, NaNoWriMo is a wonderful event. Maybe next year.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The People's Act of Love by James Meek

My friend Vinton McCabe gave James Meek's latest novel a rave review, and because I trust Vinton's opinions and because I could not immediately lay my hands on a copy of The Heart Broke In, I lay my hands on his earlier novel, The People's Act of Love.

Meek, 50, born in London, grew up in Dundee. He's worked as a newspaper reporter since 1985 and lived in the former Soviet Union from 1991 to 1999. At the time this novel was published, he wrote for The Guardian and contributed to the London Review of Books and Granta. His reporting from Iraq and about Guantánamo Bay have, according to the flap copy, won a number of British and international rewards.

Here's how The People's Act of Love begins: "When Kyrill Ivanovich Samarin was twelve, years before he would catch, among the scent of textbooks and cologne in a girl's satchel, the distinct odour of dynamite, he demanded that his uncle let him change his second name. He didn't want to be 'Ivanovich' any more. The Ivan from whom the patronymic came, his father, had died when he was two, soon after his mother, and he had lived with his uncle ever since...."

We're in pre-revolutionary Russia, a time of revolutionaries and acts of terror and exile to Siberia. By Chapter 2, we're in revolutionary Siberia, where the Czechoslovak Legion has washed up after WWI. The Legion is led by a monomaniacal captain who dreams of establishing a Czech republic in the vast, empty landscape. Meanwhile, the Czech soldiers—essentially stateless because the Austrian-Hungarian Empire from which they started no longer exists—are living in town populated mainly by a sect of castrates. So Meek writes (sympathetically) about two forms of fanaticism: political and religious.

The main characters include Samarin, the revolutionary; Lieutenant Josef Mutz of the Czechoslovak Legion; Anna Petrovna Lutova, a middle-class photographer and widow; and Gleb Alexeyevich Balashov, a former hussar in the Imperial Russian Army, now a castrate. Minor characters include the Legion's captain, a native Siberian shaman and his albino apprentice, and Nekovar, a Czech soldier/mechanic. Nekovar, who has no luck with women, considers them mechanically: "What if the female erotic machinery was wound tight by the pressure of the man's muscles, so tight that her soft outer hide began to palpitate and heat up with the tension as it strained against the unreleased mechanism, causing the nipples to harden and lubrication to be released into the mouth of her lower valve, which the rigid male member would then slide easily into, triggering the release of her coiled sexual spring and causing her body and limbs to shake and move with violent energy...."

I found the book riveting. Meek shifts point of view seamlessly, and writes one vivid scene after another. He convinced me these people would have acted the way they do at this time in this place—and the place is exactly as he describes. The best I can do is quote Jim Harrison's blurb from the back jacket: "This is a novel of the first order, and perhaps that is an understatement. It quickly becomes unimaginable that this story didn't happen exactly as Meek tells it, which is the grand and steadfast illusion of art without which we fail to understand life." I now have to get my hands on the Heart Broke In.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Black Dahlia & White Rose by Joyce Carol Oates

This 2012 publication, Black Dahlia & White Rose, is Joyce Carol Oates's twenty-fourth published collection of short stories. It contains eleven stories, all but one told from a female point of view, and several narrated by a woman. Bad things either happen or the characters dread them happening. The Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, is the victim of the unsolved kidnapping-torture-rape-murder-dissection in Los Angeles in 1947. Post mortem she narrates the story of her life and her roommate's, Norma Jean Baker. (Oates has no qualms dramatizing the impossible. In another story a woman and her lover turn into spotted hyenas.) A young girl has to ID a body suspected to be her murdered mother's. A good Samaritan finds a woman's wallet on a train, returns it to the woman's house, and meets her husband who is certainly distraught that his wife is missing, but who may also have killed her; we never learn what happened.

I very much liked the last story in the book, "Anniversary," because it echos my experience. An older woman—widow, professor, former college president—has volunteered to teach English in a New York State maximum security prison, working with another, much younger impetuous male volunteer. The story covers their first class with flashbacks to the orientation that the system gives to volunteers: Never touch a prisoner, even lightly on the wrist...never engage in flirtatious banter with a prisoner...never give a prisoner any gift however small, and never any money...never deliver any message even a verbal message from one prisoner to another, this is a felony. The prison (perhaps like most) has a no-hostage policy: if prisoners take hostages, there is no negotiating for their release. (Everyone get gassed and someone probably gets hurt.)

All of this rings so true and Oates's description of the prison so accurate I wondered briefly if she were writing about the facility in which I teach creative writing. It's not, but I'd like to talk to her about her experience. The point-of-view character, emotionally fragile anyway, is not reassured by the orientation nor by the behavior of her young colleague who has apparently (not uncommonly, if unfortunately) identified with the student inmates. At class end and the narrator's near-collapse from anxiety, it's not clear she will be returning. One hopes she does.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Taste of Japan in the Berkshires

For my birthday, my wife and I drove to the Berkshires and stayed two nights in a Japanese-theme bed-and-breakfast, Shirakaba Guest House (白樺旅館-it means “White Birch Inn”). We'd learned about it from an enthusiastic article in the Sunday New York Times travel section. It's at the top of a hill, and was designed by a Japanese architect to be a B&B. It has two, two-bedroom suites with a bath between the two bedrooms. These first floor bedrooms have large closets, giant, soft, luxurious beds, flat-screen TV sets with DVD players attached, mini-refrigerators, microwave ovens, alarm clock/radios that will also play an iPod, and more. There is also a lap pool, hot tub, and sauna on the ground floor level.
The second floor has a great room with a huge flat screen TV, fireplace, wonderfully soft recliner/couches, the open kitchen, restroom, and a traditional tatami room. (You remove your shoes at the front entrance and put on the inn’s slippers to walk around on the polished wooden floors.) The innkeepers, Sadao Yagi and Louise Palmer, do everything they could think of to make a guest’s stay memorable and comfortable. Fresh yukata are waiting on your bed to wear around the inn. Louise embroiders a special Japanese washcloth for each guest, a souvenir to take home. The fridge is stocked with flavored seltzers. There are cookies and microwave popcorn. The suite comes with a small bowl of chocolates. Breakfast can be either western (bacon and eggs) or Japanese (miso, oshinko, gohan, tamago) and the breakfast is big enough to hold you well past lunch. It can also include yogurt, fruit, Japanese-style toast, Japanese spread for the bread, juice, coffee, or tea.
Because it was my birthday, we ordered a special Japanese dinner, which is not included in the room rate. Louise decorated the formal tatami dining room with colored streamers, “Happy Birthday” banners, and balloons for a festive evening. The six-course dinner included edamame (green soybeans boiled in their pods), cucumber salad, miso soup, chawanmushi (a cup-steamed egg custard containing shrimp, carrots, and other vegetables), beef sukiyaki, and a dessert of homemade red-bean ice cream.
The weather was so nasty, we did not go out to Shirakaba’s gazebo until the morning we checked out. Too bad, because it is on a clearing on a hill overlooking the valley and the hills in the distance. It would have been an enjoyable spot to sit and read or to have our edamame first course. When we had to leave, Louise gave us a plastic container of freshly made oatmeal cookies. I want to go back.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Aerogrammes by Tania James

Tania James was raised in Louisville, Kentucky. She graduated from Harvard University with a degree in filmmaking and received an MFA from Columbia’s School of the Arts. Knopf published her debut novel Atlas of Unknowns in 2009 and Aerogrammes, a short story collection, in May, 2012. She received fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. From 2011-2012, she was a Fulbright fellow to India living in New Delhi. Now she lives in Washington DC.

The nine stories in Aerogrammes, all very different, all feature Indian characters. In "Lion and Panther in London," two Indian wrestlers have been brought to England in 1912 to challenge all comers. But wrestling has become a staged show and no one wants to challenge them. "What do Do with Henry" shows what could happen when a baby chimp is raised as a human child; the tragedy of the chimp and of the girl who grows up with him. "The Gulf," narrated by an eight-year-old, shows the lives of a family whose father has gone to work in Dubai, returning years later as a stranger.

I found James's writing engaging and supple. Here's the beginning of "Ethnic Ken":

"My grandfather believed that the guest bathroom drain was a portal for time travel. I didn't mind his beliefs until they intruded on my social life, what little I had. My friend Newt and I were playing slapball against the side of my house—I was up to a record sixty-seven slaps—when my grandfather came outside and yelled at me in Malayalam for leaving a clot of my long hair in the bathtub drain, thereby blocking his route. His mundu was tied up like a miniskirt, wet scribbles of hair against his spindly calves. After calling me a 'twit,' my grandfather stormed back inside, leaving Newt to stare at me with a dispiriting combination of pity and shock."

I thoroughly enjoyed these stories for a number of reasons: Even when the premise is fantastic (in the last story, a girl marries a ghost) the situation is comprehensible. James is able to evoke living people in circumstances that seem genuine. In an interview with The Kenyon Review, James says, "...if I’m getting at the core of what I believe, in both writing and reading, I’d say I believe in the potential of words to push a reader to the precipice and look down at what he might normally ignore in his daily life. He may not come away from the experience permanently changed, but he may be momentarily awake to something new, or something slightly familiar but skewed in a surprising way. Such moments are worth all the time and sweat the writer took to produce the book in the first place."

Friday, September 21, 2012

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

This was one of the three books nominated for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the year the committee did not award the prize to any one of the three. Denis Johnson had already won a National Book Award for his novel Tree of Smoke, which I read and thoroughly enjoyed.

Johnson has published four books of poetry, nine novels, and what sounds like a memoir (Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond). Train Dreams is a novella (about 115 pages in a small-format hardback) and originally appeared in a slightly different form in The Paris Review in 2002. Perhaps that's why the Pulitzer committee rejected it: Not brand new. . . and not very long.

It begins, "In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle." The laborer escapes and we follow the life of Robert in Idaho until 1935.

One of the marvels of the book, I think, is how much Johnson does in such a short space. We learn about Robert, his wife, the effects of a massive forest fire, life in early 20th century Idaho, logging, Kootenai Indians, barnstorming airplanes, and more. It's tempting to quote and quote and quote, but I'll just give one more sample: "...Grainier lives in the cabin, even through the winters. By most Januaries, when the snow had deepened, the valley seemed stopped with a perpetual silence, but as a matter of fact it was often filled with the rumble of trains and the choirs of distant wolves and the nearer mad jibbering of coyotes. Also, his own howling, as he'd taken it up as a kind of sport."

In one way, Train Dreams contradicts conventional publishing. There is no "plot" in the sense of a character who wants something, overcomes a series of challenges, and either obtains or fails to obtain what he wants. The book could almost be the biography of Robert Grainier except that his life is, on the evidence of the book, too unimportant to record.

Yet by the time you close the novel, you've experienced an extraordinary life. And you've watched the West's slow despoiliation. All in 115 pages.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Drifting House by Krys Lee

Drifting House is a collection of nine short stories by a writer who was born in Seoul, South Korea, was raised in California and Washington, studied in the United States and Korea, and now (all of this according to the jacket flap copy) lives in Seoul.

Because I was stationed in Korea for 16 months after the war (but have never been back), I probably bring a special interest to these stories, which are set in Korea and in the US. The characters are all Korean with a few minor exceptions. One exception is the black GI father of a girl, a father she never knows because he is shipped to Vietnam and dies in that war. In that story, "Beautiful Women," we watch a young girl grow into a young woman. It begins: "Under her mother's skirt, there is the shimmer of pink gills. Mina strokes the down of her mother's leg past the puckered marks of slugs on her mother's thighs, up to the dark starfish she spies under a strip of translucent fabric. But these mysteries become ordinary, merely thighs and fatty flash, when her mother slaps her hand."

I found all of the stories interesting for their reports from another world—life in Koreatown, life in Seoul during the 1990s financial crisis, life in North Korea. One of the questions such a collection raises is: How representative are these characters? Or are their stories all individual, unique?

Lee's characters—their thoughts, perceptions, actions—are all unique, in fact. Yet, these people in their confusion, anger, loss are also human. The woman who enters into "A Temporary Marriage" with an older Korean man as a way to reach America and find her daughter . . . what she does and why she does it is comprehensible and moving. The daughter in "The Believer" who tries to console her inconsolable father is absolutely convincing.

My only suggestion: Read only one of these stories a day. They are almost too strong to take at a sitting.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Dreams in Fiction

I've been reading a fat biography of Carl Jung and coincidentally thinking about the unconscious, dreams, and fiction.
People have known about the unconscious—or subconscious—for hundreds of years. Shakespeare explored the role of the unconscious in many of his plays without naming it as such. It seems to me that Jung and Freud (and others) thought that they could understand the unconscious through dreams. But that understanding is based on a chain of assumptions:
1) That dreams are manifestations of, or reflections of the unconscious.
2) That the dreamer can report a dream accurately.
3) That with this report, it is possible to interpret what is going on in the unconscious.
I suspect these are all wrong. Based on what I've read recently, it seems that dreams are utterly random firings of neurons in the resting brain. It’s impossible to report a dream accurately, even an exceptionally vivid dream (you may think you're doing so, but you are probably kidding yourself). And because the dreams are random, there’s no sensible way to interpret what they might mean. 
Michael Chabon has an interesting brief essay on dreams in the current issue of The New York Review of Books: 
“I hate dreams...I hate them for their absurdities and deferrals, their endlessly broken promise to amount to something, by and by. I hate them for the way they ransack memory, jumbling treasure and trash. I hate them for their tedium, how they drag on, peter out, wander off...Dreams are effluvia, bodily information, to be shared only with intimates and doctors...Whatever stuff dreams are made on, it isn’t words. As soon as you begin to tell a dream, as Freud reminds us, you interpolate, falsify, distort; you lie...
“Worse still than real dreams, mine or yours—sandier mouthfuls, ranker lies—are the dreams of characters in books and movies. Nobody, not even Aunt Em, wants to hear about Dorothy’s dream when she wakes up at the end of The Wizard of Oz. As outright fantasy the journey to Oz is peerless, joyous, muscular with truth; to call it a dream (a low trick Baum never stooped to) is to demean it, to deny it, to lie; because nobody has dreams like that...If art is a mirror, dreams are the back of the head. A work of art derives its effects from light, sound, and movement, but dreams unfurl in darkness, silence, paralysis...."
Dreams in fiction (says someone who has included a dream in his novel) are a cheat. As Chabon says, "Dreams in art either make sense, or they make no sense at all, but they never manage to do both at the same time." I'll try not to do it any more.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky

The English edition of Suite Française was published in 2006 so I'm coming to it late (but then, as I tell myself about my own novel, a good book is timeless).

Of course, Némirovsky wrote the novel in 1941 and 1942 and the manuscript was unknown until about 60 years later when her daughter began to transcribe what she thought was her mother's notebook and discovered only then it was the first two books of a planned five-volume novel.

Némirovsky, born in Kiev to a prosperous Jewish family that escaped to Finland during the Bolshevik revolution, eventually settling in France in 1919. In July 1942, the French police arrested her. She was shipped to Auschwitz where she died. In November 1942, her husband was arrested, shipped to Auschwitz, and gassed. Her two daughters managed with the help of French friends to survive the war and keep their mother's notebook safe.

Némirovsky had been a popular and successful novelist before the war, so it was only natural that she use her experience of the German invasion and occupation of France to create fiction. And what fiction! Book One of Suite Française, "Storm in June," follows a large case of characters as they flee before the invading German Army in panic, or irritation, or stoically. Book Two, "Dolce," follows a much smaller (and mostly different) cast as they live under the German occupation in a provincial village.

Both books can be read as studies of human character under stress. And Némirovsky has no illusions about humanity. Decent people will do terrible things with the right provocation. Ordinary people can rise to a kind of unexpected heroism. The invading Germans are not all brutes. The French villagers can be selfish, petty, and cruel. Everyone is reacting to forces and conditions—political, emotional, psychological—beyond their control. The books have no clear villain although they are filled with people who are not very nice.

I cannot judge the quality of the translation (by Sandra Smith), but here is a sample of the writing. From the first book, refugees are in a town, there are German and Italian planes overhead, but they appear to be harmless. "Suddenly, one broke loose and swooped down at the crowd. He's going to crash, Jeanne thought, then, No, he's going to fire, he's firing, we're finished . . . Instinctively, she covered her mouth to stifle a scream. The bombs had fallen on the train station and, a bit further along, on the railway tracks. The glass roof shattered and exploded outwards, wounding and killing the people in the square. Panic-stricken, some of the women threw down their babies as if they were cumbersome packages and ran. Others grabbed their children and held them so tightly they seemed to want to force them back into the womb, as if that were the only truly safe place. A wounded woman was writhing around at Jeanne's feet: it was the one with the costume jewelry. Her throat and fingers were sparkling and blood was pouring from her shattered skull. Her warm blood oozed on to Jeanne's dress, on to her shoes and stockings . . ."

Suite Française does not read like an American novel, although I would have trouble explaining why. It reads like something true and real. I believed these characters would think and speak and act the way Némirovsky shows them. I agree with other reviewers: Suite Française is stunning.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! was one of the three novels nominated for the Pulitzer Prize that the full Pulitzer committee did not award this year. (The others were The Pale King by David Foster Wallace and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.)

Russell, according to the flap copy, is a native of Miami, was chosen as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists, and is currently writer-in-residence at Bard College. Her first book was St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. 

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtree family, alligator wrestlers who live on their own island in a Florida swamp that sounds very much like the Everglades. Years earlier, Grandpa Sawtooth Bigtree had founded an alligator-themed theme park on the island and mainlanders came over on the ferry for a show, a tour of the Bigtree Family Museum, a souvenir from the Bigtree Gift Shop, and a snack in the Swamp Cafe. Grandpa's son, Sam, had married Hilola who had three children, Kiwi (the 17-year-old son), Osceola (the 16-year-old daughter), and Ava (13). When Hilola, star of the show, dies of cancer, both the park and the family start to fall apart. Grandpa Bigtree is in what sounds like Florida's worse rest home. Father Bigtree (the Chief) takes off for parts unknown on the mainland. Kiwi, sensitive to Swamplandia's fraught financial condition, goes to the mainland to earn enough to save the park leaving the two girls. Osceola falls in love with a young dredgeman who died in the 1930s and elopes with him. Ava goes after her sister with the help of a swamp character, the Bird Man. Complications ensue.

At the beginning of the novel, Ava tells the story in her own voice, i.e., first person. At Chapter 6 (p. 61), the point of view shifts to the limited third person as we begin to follow Kiwi and his adventures on the mainland where he finds a job with The World of Darkness, a competing theme park. From that point on the POV shifts back and forth. At first I found the shift jarring, but I think it works. I'm not sure I always believed that Ava, as a home-schooled 13-year-old, would have the sophistication (about some things) and language she has. But I was willing to suspend my disbelief.

Because there's no question that Russell's language is wonderful. Examples from a random walk through the pages: "Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered—our island was thirty-odd miles of the grid of mainland lights—and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of Venus and the sapphire hairs of the Pleiades, our mother's body was just lines, a smudge against the palm trees."

"I would vanish on the mainland, dry up in that crush of cars and strangers, of flesh hidden inside metallic colors, the salt white of the sky over the interstate highway, the strange pink-and-white apartment complexes where mainlanders lived like cutlery in drawers."

"The teacher was a tall, unsmiling woman in high-waisted pants with a nickle-bright Afro. Her body had a switch-blade beauty that Kiwi was not encouraged to continue appreciating by her face."

There's so much good, it's hard to stop, so here's just one more example: "Curtains of Spanish moss caught at my hair like fishermen's nets. The night had developed a suffocating wetness—breathing felt like drowning in a liquid you couldn't climb out of."

Swamplandia! is almost as remarkable a performance as Hilola Bightree's regular dive into a pool filled with alligators.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Without Fail by Lee Child

At the end of this thriller's first chapter a woman, who's been able to track down Jack Reacher, tells him, "I want you to assassinate the Vice President."

If you enjoy thrillers and have never read one of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels, I envy the pleasure you have ahead. Reacher is larger than life, almost unbelievable. Almost but not quite. He's big, strong, and smart. He's a former major in the US Army Military Police, so he knows weapons and investigative techniques, is a crack shot. He has no ties to anyone or anything (his brother dies in the first book in the series, The Killing Floor, a decision I suspect Child now regrets because the brother could have been useful in later books).

Jack has no permanent place of residence, carries no luggage except a toothbrush (when his clothes get dirty, he throws them away and buys new), wanders the country seeing the sights he missed when he was in the military. He's virtually always the smartest guy in the room. He's a remorseless killer, but he kills only in self-defense or villains who deserve it. He's The Lone Ranger without Tonto because he usually works—and prefers to work—alone. People come to him with insuperable problems. Jack solves their problems as bodies pile up along the way.

The woman who's asked Jack to assassinate the Vice President-Elect in Without Fail is the Secret Service agent in charge of the Vice President's protection detail. What she really wants is to see whether the protection is good enough; could an assassin slip through? For reasons I won't go into, but which make sense in the book's context, she knows that if her team could frustrate Jack Reacher, it could frustrate any assassin. Jack has a week to test the Secret Service's procedures.

At the end of the week, Jack shows the woman and her boss, the head of the Secret Service, an assassin could have killed the Vice President on three occasions. A fourth if the wind were right. The Secret Service will have to do better. Especially because the Vice President-Elect has been receiving credible death threats.

Who would want to kill a Vice President-Elect? How has someone been able to smuggle a threatening paper into the pristine office of the head of the Secret Service? Will Jack be able to eliminate the threat in a way that protects the reputation of the Secret Service? How many bodies are going to pile up before we find out? It's a lot of fun.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

I read The Samurai's Garden because it was recommended for its insights into Japanese culture. Gail Tsukiyama's father is Japanese from Hawaii, her mother Chinese from Hong Kong; she was born and raised in San Francisco. She's published seven novels; The Samurai's Garden in 1996. It was, I believe, a best-seller and the 151 reader reviews are overwhelmingly positive. For example, "A customer" writes, "Gail Tsukiyama is a masterful and wondrous storyweaver... This book helped me realize so many things about myself...."

A book club writes that the book "is a soothing, hypnotic, heartbreaking, evocative book we all enjoyed... The book explores cultural differences and similarities as it portrays the development of friendship and respect in disparate characters...."

The story: In the late 1930, as the Japanese are attacking China, Stephen, a young (17? 20?) Chinese boy, afflicted with tuberculosis, is sent by his wealthy family to recuperate at the family's summer home in a Japanese coastal village. Matsu, "a samurai of the soul," takes care of the home and its garden (thus the title). Stephen meets Matsu's soulmate, Sachi, a leper who lives in a village of lepers within a day's walk of the family home. Stephen's father, who apparently heads a successful trading company, lives in Tokyo and, we learn, has a mistress. Stephen is attracted to and eventually kisses a Japanese village girl.

This is one of those times when I wonder if the people who loved the book read the same novel I did.

First, I don't feel it gave me any useful insights into Japanese culture.

Second, I felt Tsukiyama was manipulating the characters for an effect; they were not, for the most part, acting out of their own wants, needs, desires.

Third, I thought she was too coy about the location of the village. On the Pacific Coast? The Inland Sea? Japan Sea? And she seemed cavalier about Stephen's TB. When he left Hong Kong at the beginning of the book, he seemed very sick; by the time he reached the village, not so sick. And that Stephen with TB—usually very infectious—would kiss a girl seemed almost hostile.

Finally, I'll quote Library Journal with which I concur: the book "is sunk by a flat, dull prose style, one-dimensional characters who fail to engage the reader's interest, and the author's tendency to tell rather than show."

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo is one of those writers I feel I ought to read more of. He's published 15 novels, won a National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and more. His novels are respectfully reviewed. That I've not read more than Underworld is a comment on my failure not on DeLillo's as a writer.

I thought the first 100 pages of Underworld—the final game of the 1951 pennant race between the Dodgers and the Giants as attended by J. Edgar Hoover, Jackie Gleason, and Frank Sinatra—incredibly powerful. So much so that the rest of the book seemed to be a slog. Indeed, the writing (and musings) seemed too rich for my taste. Again, my failure.

The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, however, while rich and thoughtful, can be read in short stretches. I mostly read one a night because more was, for me, too much. The stories, written over the last 32 years, are each very different, each affecting in a different way. It almost seems as if DeLillo is using the story form to experiment with different approaches, voices, characters.

The title story, which was published first in Esquire and was chosen for as one of The Best American Short Stories 1995, follows an elderly nun as she and a much younger nun as they distribute food in the wasteland of the South Bronx. Here's the beginning of Sister Edgar's day:

"She knelt in the folds of the white nightgown, fabric endlessly laundered, beaten with swirled soap, left gristled and stiff. And the body beneath, the spindly thing she carried through the world, chalk pale mostly, and speckled hands with high veins, and cropped hair that was fine and flaxy gray, and her bluesteel eyes—many a boy and girl of old saw those peepers in their dreams."

(The Blogger spellcheck doesn't approve of "gristled," "flaxy," or "bluesteel." Tough.)

Here from "Hammer and Sickle," published in 2010, are the narrator's thoughts as he stands on a highway bridge outside the minimum security Federal prison in which he is an inmate:

"I watched and listened, unaware of passing time, thinking of the order and discipline of the traffic, taken for granted, drivers maintaining a distance, fallible men and women, cars ahead, behind, to the sides, night driving, thoughts drifting. Why weren't there accidents every few seconds on this one stretch of highway, even before morning rush? This is what I thought from my position on the bridge, the surging noise and sheer speed, the proximity of vehicles, the fundamental differences among drivers, sex, age, language, temperament, personal history, cars like animatronic toys, but that's flesh and blood down there, steel and glass, and it seemed a wonder to me that they moved safely toward the mystery of their destinations."

It seems a wonder to me that someone can create sentences like these. The most I can do is admire them and suggest you read the book.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Plum Wine by Angela Gardner-Davis

This best-selling novel, published in 2007, is another effort to explain Japan to the West. Angela Gardner-Davis taught for a year in a Tokyo college. Her point-of-view character, Barbara, is teaching at a Tokyo college, but I suspect that's where the similarities between author and character end.

Another teacher, who has killed herself before the story begins, has left Barbara her tansu, an antique chest, that contains bottles of plum wine, each wrapped in a sheet of paper covered with Japanese writing. These are the New Years accounts by the dead teacher who has willed the tansu to Barbara. In her effort to find a translator of these intriguing documents, Barbara connects with Seiji, an erratic and cold potter. Barbara and Seiji begin an affair although I could not understand what she saw in him. True, she is painfully lonely, but it was hard for me to see what she was getting out of the relationship.

Gardner-Davis, who reports she did a ton of research for this novel, tells us about the lives of Hiroshima survivors, legends of foxes (they can turn into beautiful women and lead men astray), the Vietnam War (the book is set in 1965 and a character repairs the mutilated faces of dead GIs), Japanese pottery, and much more.

While the book is easy to read, I am afraid I am out of sympathy with the characters. It may well be my failure that I cannot identify with the victim of the Hiroshima bombing, but I am also not sure that that excuses (or explains) unpleasant behavior. I am also not sure about a female character who wants what she cannot have, can never have, and apparently cannot understand she cannot have it. I would not recommend Plum Wine to a reader who wants to know about Japan and its culture.

Friday, August 3, 2012

My Book in Libraries

I've known for months that my Getting Oriented is available through bookstores and to libraries. But when an acquaintance asked how many libraries had bought it, I was at a loss.

Another friend pointed out that I could get a very rough idea of how many libraries have your book by doing a search at  I entered my title and clicked the listing to show the full list of libraries that have the book.

It turns out it's in 25 libraries around the country, from the Princeton University Library to the Santa Monica Public Library. The WorldCat listing includes a Goodreads review and a link to buy the book--although of course if you're right here, you can buy it by clicking the cover.

Who knew?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I have had a three-volume edition of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne's Essays on my bookshelf for more than 30 years, unopened since the day they arrived. The Essays are, after all, a classic of Western literature, something every educated reader should have read. And if there's one thing I want to pretend to be, it's an educated reader. Unfortunately, that usually means actually reading the books.

That's why I was taken by Sarah Bakewell's How to Live or A Life of Montaigne, subtitled "In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer." Sarah Bakewell was, the paperback's back jacket tells us, a curator of early printed books at the Wellcome Library in London, which (I had to look up) is "one of the world's major resources for the study of medical history." Bakewell has published two other biographies and currently teaches creative writing at City University.

The one question is: How to live? The twenty answers include: Don't worry about a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted....survive love and loss...question everything...wake from the sleep of habit...reflect on everything, regret nothing...give up ordinary and imperfect.

Bakewell uses the Montaigne's essays and what we know of his life and times to illustrate these twenty points. One Amazon reviewer was unhappy because she does not explicate the essays, but that's not her purpose. Her goal, as I read her, is to show how Montaigne addressed the question of how to live through his biography and, where relevant, the essays. Her book in other words is more a biography than a study of the the writings.

I found it fascinating. I'm not sure I know any better how to live than I knew before, but I do have an appreciation of Montaigne and his times that I did not have before. Bakewell quotes from Montaigne's writings and illustrates the book with etchings and pictures that add to our understanding. 

On the one hand, Montaigne's world—he was born in 1533, died in 1592—is so removed from ours that it seems in some ways totally alien. For example, "For a husband to behave as an impassioned lover to his wife was thought morally wrong because it might turn her into a nymphomaniac.... The physicians warned, too, that excessive pleasure could make sperm curdle inside the woman's body, rendering her unable to conceive."

On the other hand, many of Montaigne's ideas, observations, thoughts seem as fresh and relevant as this morning's opinion column. "Women are not wrong at all when they reject the rules of life that have been introduced into the world, inasmuch as it is the men who have made these without them." "It is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things, and there are more books about books than about any other subject: we do nothing but write glosses about each other."  

Now I guess I have to read the actual Essays.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Japanland by Karin Muller

In Japanland, Karin Muller joins a crowd of Westerners (including, I should acknowledge up front, myself) who want to describe Japan.

She subtitles her book "A Year in Search of Wa." My dictionary gives one definition of "wa" as peace; harmony; concord; unity; union. One of the example sentences is "Harmony among people is most important."

In her preface, Muller says that she was 34, been married, divorced, blown through a half dozen careers, learned six languages and forgotten three, but there was only one place where her worries would temporarily disappear: a judo academy. "Most of my instructors were Japaneses; and they approached judo with a sense of utter dedication to perfecting a profoundly difficult art." She decided that if she went to Japan she could find peace and happiness. She could obtain wa.

Or that's the rational she gives. Actually, she went to Japan to make a documentary that was, I'm told, shown on PBS. And because she's there to make a video, she is looking for the off-beat, the colorful, the unfamiliar Japan—scenes that will entertain an American television audience. At the same time, she wants to explain Japanese culture:

Executives retire at 60 and their wives, who have been in charge of the house and the children, don't know what to do with them.

Adult daughters live at home as "parasites" until they get married. They have to marry by age 30 or they become "Christmas cake," something that has no value after December 25.

The majority of marriages are still arranged.

Japan is filled with colorful festivals and traditions. She goes to one where young men go for a naked New Year's Eve swim in the Pacific that turns out badly for her; climbing back from her own midnight swim, "I feel my body stiffening like a piece of roadkill after the sun goes down."

Because I am currently writing a novel tentatively titled Mt. Koya, I was particularly interested in what Muller had to say about her visit to the sacred spot. I'm afraid I found the brief chapter (most of the chapters are brief) superficial and condescending. She does not find wa (and Mt. Koya with its emphasis on meditative practice is probably a better place to find it than dressing up as a geisha which she does), but she takes a wrong turn in the temple in which she's been staying and finds  the student monk rooms. "They are anything but austere—in fact, they look like miniature versions of a college dorm."

I thought Japanland was fun but not as a guide to finding wa or learning about Japan. Muller is hard on herself--she is regularly thrown to the mat in her judo sessions; she so offends her host family's matron she's driven from the house; she comes down with pneumonia on a pilgrimage to the 88 temples on Shikoku. But the book's title, I think, suggests her attitude toward the country. It's not really a culture, a society, a place with real people living real lives. It's an amusement park fill with colorful, often charming, sights. That's what she looked for and that's what she found.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This is not Harry Potter for adults. This is for adults, however.  Unfortunately, I am not one of the adults it is for.

The magician is Quentin Coldwater (something he tends to throw on every happy experience). He is finishing high school as the book opens but rather than go to Princeton, he is admitted to a school for magicians where he learns real magic—sort of an American Hogwarts on the Hudson. Quentin has always been fascinated by a series of children's books in which four English siblings go to a magical land which is not called Narnia, in the last quarter of The Magicians Quentin and five friends find their way to it where, among others, they meet a talking bear and a talking tree.

A quick look at the Amazon reviews (176 five-star / 98 one-star) suggests that many of the people  who rated it highly liked for the very reasons the people who rated it one-star hated it. For example: "... Quentin is full of his own shortcomings and dichotomies. He's a brilliant, troubled man, searching as much for himself as anything else, and makes some bad decisions throughout the course of the novel. Midway through the novel, Quentin is let loose into the world with little direction, near limitless access to money and drugs, and all his relationships falling to pieces around him. This period of the novel was difficult to read, as Quentin becomes unlikable and brash and confused, deserving little sympathy from the reader [who] often wonders why they should even bother reading on, if there are any redeeming qualities left in Quentin...Grossman is very deliberate in this emotional breakdown of his protagonist, and it plays an important role in Quentin finding the motivation he needs to remove himself from the downward spiral."

To me, Grossman is writing against every fantasy novel, from Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, The Lord of the Rings, and beyond. He's out to claim that while magic is real—it is possible to be turned into a goose, to create a protective spell and go to the moon, to manipulate this physical world, and to travel to an alternate reality—it's not very rewarding or satisfying. It's a lot of hard, nasty work and it's not much when you've done it. Even after you've trained to use all these powers, the best you can do with your life—given that you have unlimited money and freedom—is party, get drunk, do drugs, and recover enough for the next party. So you think you can escape your dull, boring life? Forget it.

I read the book to the end, which turned out to be a mistake because Grossman ends with a cliffhanger to promote the next book in the series. I'm afraid I come down on the side of those readers who found Quentin unlikable, brash, confused, and deserving little sympathy—and certainly not worth reading another word about.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

I don't ordinarily look at reviews until after I've read a book or watched a movie. Obviously that's difficult with a popular book or movie because the reviews are ubiquitous and because I like to read reviews. On the other hand, when a friend recommends a book that sounds interesting, I don't check the reviews so I can come to it with relatively fresh eyes.

That's the case with The Book Thief by Australian author Marcus Zusak. It was published in September 2007, and it a YA best-seller. Zusak has said that he grew up hearing stories about Germany during WWII, about the bombing of Munich and about Jews being marched through his mother's small, German town. "We have these images of the straight-marching lines of boys and the 'Heil Hitlers' and this idea that everyone in Germany was in it together. But there still were rebellious children and people who didn't follow the rules and people who hid Jews and other people in their houses. So there's another side to Germany," said Zusak in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald.

The Book Thief dramatizes that other side by telling the story of a young girl living in a small German town during the years 1939-44. It might have been a mirror image of Diary of a Young Girl—the Aryan girl who also suffers under Nazism—except that Zusak does an interesting thing: He has Death tell the story. Because Death is everywhere, Death sees things and knows things no one of the characters can know. The result, I found, is an interesting, and convincing, picture of small town German life from the perspective of the children at that time.

The book is popular. When I checked a minute ago, it had 1,174 five-star reviews on And with a book that's so many people are willing to take the time to rate and review, I am always curious about those who didn't care for it, the 37 people who gave it one-star reviews. What is their problem? Many of them found it slow-paced and boring. Some didn't like the writing, i.e., "...the premise of this seemed so original and fun, but I was sorely disappointed. I couldn't get past the first 30 pages. The voice of the narrator was so irritating I wanted to scream..." "... I found [the language]  to be empty, fruity, and ultra-pretentious..." "...this book was so confusing, and hard to understand..."

Few of the critics feel the problem with the book is in themselves. "The book is boring" not "I thought (or felt or found) the book to be boring." Many of them are mystified that other people enjoyed the book and are angry that they got sucked into trying it or, worse, buying it. Almost no one who hated the book goes into any detail why. On the other hand, these are Amazon reviews and one can hardly expect the reviewers to spent more than a moment warning off potential readers. Nonetheless, it does not help the author or the potential reader to write with no examples or detail why a book succeeds for you or fails for you.

By the way, I read The Book Thief through. It convinced me that this is what it might have been like to be a pre-teen at that time in that place. Which, for me, is a lot.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Japanese ramen museums

The Sunday New York Times travel section recently ran a "36 Hours in Osaka, Japan" feature.  The writer recommended as among the city's highlights the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum. It's "an entertaining pilgrimage site for noodle lovers that is named after the inventor of instant ramen — yes, that’s a statue of him outside. Mix and match flavors and ingredients to create a personalized cup of instant ramen at the My Cup Noodle Factory, or purchase one of the limited-edition varieties from a vending machine in the tasting room."

I've never been to the Osaka museum, but I've visited the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum twice. ("Rauman" is the way the museum spells it.) It's only about half an hour from downtown Tokyo by train, and an easy walk from the Shin-Yokohama station. It features a large hall that recreates the Tokyo of 1958, the year instant ramen noodles were invented. Surrounding this two-story hall are branches of famous noodle restaurants from around Japan, each featuring a local specialty.

The museum's ground floor has a detailed explanation of noodle manufacturing (in Japanese), the history of ramen, and a gift shop. While this is an exhibition tailored for Japanese visitors, you don't have to be able to speak Japanese to enjoy the ambiance, the feeling of 1958 Tokyo, or to order a very nice, and not very expensive, meal. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison

I've been aware of Jim Harrison for a long time, exclusively through positive book reviews. The man is prolific, over 31 books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Born and raised in Michigan, Harrison currently divides his time between Montana and Arizona. He has a B.A. and an M.A. (in comparative literature) from Michigan State University. He is a writer worth knowing.

Returning to Earth was published in 2010 and I found it interesting on several levels. Four people tell their own stories, Donald, K (for Kenneth), David, and Cynthia in four virtually equal segments. Donald, half-Chippewa/half-Finn, is married to Cynthia; they have two children, and Donald is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.

K is (I believe) the son of David and his ex-wife Polly. (I believe, because the book is stuffed with characters and, while I had no trouble keeping them straight, I did have trouble keeping their relationships straight).

David and Cynthia are siblings, children of a wealthy landowner/industrialist on Michigan's Upper Peninsula where most of the action takes place with side trips to Chicago, New York, Montana, and Mexico.

The story is simple: Donald dies and his survivors have to live on. But of course that's like saying life is simple: you're born, you live, you die. A lot goes on in between, and Harrison, while helping to know the four narrators intimately, touches on Native Indian beliefs, the ecological rape of the Upper Peninsula and the effect on the local tribes, relations between siblings and parents, the pressures of sex, life in the woods, how one comes to accept the inevitability of death (or not), and more.

I found the book exceptionally rich and interesting. Here, almost at random, is K musing on his parents: "At the time I looked at them as childish in their refusal to accept that life was chaotic and inconclusive. Life is slow and I watched movies to know immediately what happened next. I even made notes on what the characters might be doing during scenes in their lives that weren't in the movies. Parents often only see what they wish to see. Polly never knew that my sister Rachel and a girlfriend had sold nude Polaroids of themselves for money to buy marijuana. Clare [his step cousin] sent me some money and I managed to buy the photos back from a half dozen boys. With two of them it took money and physical threats. My sister thought of herself as a free spirit and couldn't care less. She asked me, 'Why are boys always embarrassed when you give them what they want?' A solid question, I think."

Another solid question: How have I missed reading Jim Harrison for so long?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Meeting with a book group

Last night, I was a friend's Meet-the-Author guest at her book group's monthly meeting. The group has been discussing books for at least twenty years, and they recently decided to read the books of local authors and invite the authors to the discussion. I was the third this year (which may reflect the literary activity in my little town).

The nine women liked Getting Oriented, but had trouble with all the characters, keeping them straight at the beginning of the book. (The tour guide, ten guests on his tour, his boss back in Chicago, and more.) They didn’t have any suggestions on how to fix that, nor was it a problem once they’d read into the book; it’s just that there are a lot of names to keep straight. But they recognized that too few people on a tour would also be a problem with veracity. My friend had printed out my book group guide and whenever the conversation flagged, she asked one of the leading questions.
They wanted to know how I constructed the book. I said that having the tour gave me a structure and a movement through time. I also said that I’d originally tried to keep every chapter rigidly to a single day, but it was clear that was too strict and now events from one day slop over into the next chapter where it makes sense. I did not know how the book was going to end when I started, and I wrote a biography for the main characters so I knew something about them.
They said my love of Japan came through clearly, and felt they’d learned a lot about the country in the book. At the same time there was enough of a story to pull them through; it is not simply a travel guide. They wanted to know why I had the sex scene in the book. I said I wanted to show the main character’s gradual recovery from his depression, and being sexually attracted to a woman (and doing something about it) was one way to show his being on his way to recovery.
They wanted to hear me speak Japanese, which I did. (On the other hand, as I pointed out, I could have said almost anything and how would they know?) Two school teachers had exposed their students to Japanese and calligraphy, so they were interested in the language.
Two women said they'd like to write and I talked about how to start (get up early, sit at the desk, and do it). One woman asked about writer’s block. I said what I believe: It's a symptom, not a disease, and once you recognize the disease, the block tends to go away. Usually, I think, it’s a symptom of fear—fear of failure, fear of offending someone, fear of revealing too much. My suggestion and cure for writer's block, which I have suffered: Realize every first draft is crap, and just write without thinking. You can always go back.
For show and tell, I brought my hanko and an ema, like the votive prayer tablet I'm holding in the picture above, and some pictures from Japan showing real places the fictional tour visits. I inscribed and stamped books the ladies had bought and told stories about tour-leading that aren't in the book. I had a wonderful time.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson

The Pulitzer Prize committee did not award a fiction prize this year. The New York Times Magazine editors invited a number of writers to make their own recommendations, and Gregory Cowles, an editor of the book review, suggested Jean Thompson's fifth novel, The Year We Left Home. It is extraordinary.

It begins in a small Iowa town in January 1973 (Thompson labels each chapter with a place and date) and ends outside the same town in June 2003. Over the 325 pages and thirty years we watch an ordinary family's four children and a cousin grow, change, get married, divorced, have children themselves, deal with death, and try to live as the country changes around them.

Thompson uses a limited third person point of view for each chapter, and each chapter is a different person, at different time, and set in a different place. They could, it seemed to me, almost be short stories (she's published five story collections) except that we follow virtually the same cast of characters through the entire book, and things that happen in one character's life resonate and connect with another character's. Moreover, she's done something very difficult to do (I know because I'm trying to do it myself in my new book): She's made each point of view character an individual, with individual perceptions, attitudes, and personalities.

Not only that, but she's been able to use the larger events of the period—the Vietnam War, the emptying out of small Midwest towns as family farms failed, the Reagen assassination attempt, the dot-com bubble, and more—to indicate how they affected these individual people. On the one hand, Thompson is not heavy handed about these influences; on the other, her characters are living in a recognizable world of news, television, and pop culture, and social change.

And Thompson is brilliant in sketching a relationship in a few sentences. A character thinking about his wife: "At some point in their life together he had assumed the burden of making her happy. Her most familiar mood, what he thought of as her default position, was one of exasperated suffering. Which he must attend, coax, tease, and try to reason away. He would never be entirely successful; at best she would only be not unhappy. But he would always be obliged to try."

One more example, a description of Norwegian relatives: "They lived out in the boondocks, what his father called Jesus Lost His Shoes territory, and their church still held services in Norwegian the third Sunday of every month. Most of them farmed. They believed in backbreaking labor, followed by more labor, and in privation, thrift, cleanliness, and joyless charity. If you wanted a tree taken down or a truck winched out of a ditch or a quarter of a cow packaged for your meat locker, you called a Peerson. If you wanted lighthearted company, you called someone else." If you have write exposition, that's the way to do it.

I don't know if The Year We Left Home should have won a Pulitzer Prize (I plan to read the other recommendations). I do know it's a wonderful book.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lost in Place by Mark Salzman

It sometimes feels as if everyone wants to write a memoir. Libraries and senior centers offer memoir-writing classes. The growing interest in genealogy, aided by TV shows like "Who Do You Think You Are?" and "Finding Your Roots" and by the ability to do research on the internet, also encourages people to record their memories so future generations will have more than raw data. After a certain age, writing a memoir can seem like a way to make sense out of—or at least impose some order on—your life. Heck, even I've tinkered with the memoir.

But while it is one thing to record incidents and experiences for one's family, it is something very different to expect strangers to be interested. Unless one has led an extraordinary life of public activity, most people's experiences are just not that interesting. At the same time, I believe that even the most ordinary life can be made interesting by extraordinary writing. (The ideal, of course, is a memoir of an noteworthy life by a brilliant writer. But there are not many of those.)

Mark Salzman's memoir, Lost in Place, is subtitled "Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia;" he grew up in Ridgefield, Connecticut. It covers his teenage years, from age 13 in 1972 to age 18 or 19 in 1979 or so. He published the memoir in 1995 when he was 36. It was his fourth book. His first, Iron & Silk, a memoir of teaching English and learning martial arts in China was exceptionally well-received in 1986. His third, The Soloist, a novel was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. He's no slouch as a writer.

And that's what kept me reading through his adolescent experiences in learning kung fu, the cello, experimenting with pot, applying to Yale to avoid the last year of high school (and getting admitted!), smashing up his mother's car, and star gazing with his father. Of his father, he writes: "Every morning he left the house looking as if someone had tied a hundred-pound sandbag across his shoulders, and every evening he came back looking as if the sand had gotten wet." Of his kung fu teacher's demonstration of control, he writes, "...two of us [got] on our hands and knees while a third, wearing no shirt, lay on his back on top of us with a watermelon on his stomach. Sensei would blindfold himself, do some loud breathing exercises, then split the watermelon with a samurai sword. It became an especially dramatic feat from our point of view if we could smell liquor on his breath as he did his breathing exercises."

Salzman's life is not special except, of course, that every life is special. Reading the memoir stirred up memories of my own adolescent fantasies, dreams, and angst. I think he would like to leave the reader with a message, the answer to the unanswerable questions: "How do we live if we know we must die? Why bother with any of this, since none of it will matter when the sun burns up and the earth turns into a cold cinder? Why bother with anything?"

The best answer is probably still: "Because bothering is still the best game in town." Not, I suspect, an answer Salzman found while still an adolescent searching for enlightenment before he could drive, but a satisfying way to end his book.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Wood Beyond by Reginald Hill

I came to this British mystery writer via television. We have been watching the Dalzeil/Pascoe A&E Television series on disk and have found them to be superior to most TV crime shows once acclimated to the Yorkshire accents. In my experience, if I like a movie I will then like the book even more. (It seldom works the other way; if I like a book, the movie is then usually a disappointment.)

Detective Superintendent Andrew Dalziel (prounounced Dee-ell), Chief Inspector Peter Pascoe, and Sergeant Edgar Wield are the team that solves the crimes. The each have distinct personalities and histories. Dalziel is a former rugby player, overweight, not formally educated but street smart. Pascoe is formally educated, happily married and, in this book, has a young daughter who's trying out words like "bloody!" and "fucking great, dad!" Wield is gay and living with a partner; his sexual orientation has given him a interesting perspective on the police, on suspects, and on his duties.

I found Hill's writing superior to most writers, mystery or mainstream. Three random examples:

Dalziel, in his car, is talking to Wield who stands in a pouring rain: "Dalziel...was not a man totally insensitive to the comforts of his inferiors, but the sergeant was swathed in oilskins and the Fat Man could see no reason why the torrents Niagaring around their folds should be diverted to his vehicle's upholstery."

"The nineteenth century had brought the city [of Leeds] closer [to the village of Kirkton] and the twentieth had completed the job, with tentacles of urban sprawl running out like rivulets of Vesuvian lava, threatening, touching, consuming, and finally passing on, leaving a dead and dusty landscape in their wake."

"In appearance the head teacher was far from formidable. With her flowered dresses, flattish shoes, bare legs, bobbed hair, and round, smiling, glowing, almost makeup-less face, she wouldn't have been out of place at a Betjeman tennis tourney."

The Wood Beyond is a mystery; by the end we've got three bodies, and that's not counting the 70-year-old remains that start the investigation. But it's far more than a straightforward mystery puzzle, because Peter's grandfather had been in The Great War and we read large parts of his war diary. By the time we are well into the book, we want to know about the bones animal rights activists have discovered on the grounds of a pharmaceutical research facility, why one of the activists has been apparently killed, what actually happened to Peter's grandfather in the war, and how all these threads tie together.

Because the story is more complex than many novels, mystery and otherwise, the book demands attention. Friends say they could not get through it because of the complexity and because there is a certain amount of Yorkshire dialect and locutions ("owt," "nout" "I were born...." etc.). I, however, agree with the reviewer who said, "Hill's Dalziel/Pascoe novels are enjoyable as much for their characters as for their complicated, suspenseful mystery plots."

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I sometimes see other people make mistakes in their thinking. They misinterpret evidence, draw mistaken conclusions, ignore key facts. They do this entirely unknowingly. They are not aware of their mistakes until they've stepped on the rake of reality and it has hit them in the face. It does not take a large leap of imagination, however, to believe that if other people make unconscious mistakes, so do I.

Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in psychology, has written Thinking, Fast and Slow, to alert readers to the challenge of thinking clearly. For example: "You see a person reading The New York Times on the New York subway. Which of the following is a better bet about the reading stranger?
"She has a PhD.
"She does not have a college degree."

Kahneman argues convincingly that we humans have two systems of thinking. One is quick, intuitive, and emotional; he calls this System 1. The other is slower, more deliberative, and more logical, System 2. Most of us have to use System 2 to compute the product of 17 times 24. Because System 1 is fast, it is prone to make mistakes. In the above example, everyone who intuitively guesses that the Times reader has a PhD is mistaken. When you (reflexively) consider how many people have PhDs and how many people ride the New York subways, you realize the better bet is that she does not have a degree.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is filled with examples like this to illustrate how the way our minds work can trip us. The book reports on dozens of experiments to test effects. Kahneman and his friend and collaborator Amos Tversky one rigged a wheel of fortune so that it would stop only at 10 and 65. They would spin it and ask unsuspecting subjects to write down the number at which it stopped. They then asked: "Is the percentage of African nations among UN members larger or smaller than the number you just wrote? What is your best guess of the percentage of African nations in the UN?"

A wheel of fortune has nothing to do with anything. The participants should have ignored it. But they didn't. "The average estimates of those who saw 10 and 65 were 25% and 45% respectively." Why? Because of an "anchoring effect," and Kahneman clearly explains it and provides more examples from daily life.

For a book filled with the results of psychological experiments and some fairly sophisticated statistical theory, it is remarkably clear. Kahneman suggests where we can and cannot trust our intuitions (pace Malcolm Gladwell) and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. We can never avoid mental glitches, but we with work we can reduce them and, perhaps in situations where it really counts, take the time to let the lazy System 2 do its work.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

House by Tracy Kidder

I've finally read Tracy Kidder's 1985 account of a house that an architect designed and four carpenters built for an affluent, successful couple in Amherst, MA. Kidder had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for The Soul of a New Machine, the story of designing and building a new computer, and he has now published at least seven other books, including Among Schoolchildren, Hometown, and Old Friends. These are nonfiction, but Kidder writes like a novelist—and with a better eye and language than many. An example taken at random:

"All around them, the hills and field take on a deepening green. The bulldozed ground dries out and at the center, the gray-walled rectangle and the blond wood that rises from it, in arrays of intersecting lines and planes, look more than ever like an assertion about order. The carpenters, in jeans and T-shirts now, roam the perimeter in ones and twos, bringing lumber and tools and coffee to the shrine. Richard declares he no longer feels the stiffness that his joints acquired in the first week of framing. 'We're gainin' on it!'"

House offered me at least three distinct pleasures. First the joy of reading a writer in perfect control of his materials; a writer who with a phrase is able to convey a situation, a relationship, a person. Second, my admiration of Kidder's job as a reporter; he seemed to be the proverbial fly on the wall watching and reporting—and he has not changed a name in the book. Third, as a volunteer carpenter who has built houses, I enjoyed retracing the steps in a house's construction, from foundation to baseboards.

But, of course, the book is not really about—or not only about—designing and building a house. It's largely about relationships. The relationships between the couple paying for the house, Jonathan and Judith Souweine, and their friend, Bill Rawn, the architect who designed it. Between the architect and the lead carpenter, Jim Locke. Between and among Jim and his three partners. Between the Jonathan and Judith over design decisions, and between the couple and Judith's parents from whom they bought the land and are building next door.

The relationships involve class. Jim and his partners are blue-collar craftsmen; Jonathan is a lawyer, Judith has a master's and a doctorate in education. The relationships involve money, often with considerable tension and bad feelings. Bill, the architect, may see things one way; Jim see them another; and the Souweine's a third. This was Bill's first independent commission, his first house, and because he was building his practice in Boston while the house was under construction in Amherst, there were inevitable misunderstandings.

Anyone who is thinking of having a house built should read the book, if only to be prepared for the challenges she'll have to face. And anyone who is looking to enjoy a wonderful piece of reporting should read House just to enjoy Kidder's insights, information, and prose.