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.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee

This 1999 novel is narrated by Franklin Hata, a retired businessman living in a expensive suburb of Westchester County, north of New York City. He's in his 60s, never married, estranged from his adopted daughter, Sunny. He has sold his successful business, Sunny Medical Supply, to a "youngish New York couple," and he lives in an exceptionally appealing Tudor-style house in one of the best sections of town. "Doc" Hata is Asian, but in the 30 years he's lived in "Bedley Run," he's had only "a few small difficulties from time to time, but it was always just the play of mischievous boys, who enjoyed making faces at me in the shop window, or chalking statements out front on the sidewalk, even going to far as to slather axle grease on the dumpster handles."

On page 5, Hata says,"I think one person can hardly understand why another has conducted his life in such a way, how he came to commit certain actions and not others, whether he looks upon the past with mostly pleasure or equanimity or regret. It seems difficult enough to consider one's on triumphs and failures with perfect verity, for it's no secret that the past proves a most unstable mirror, typically too severe and flattering all at once, and never as truth-reflecting as people would like to believe."

That gives a sense of the book's tone. Good old Doc Hata—affable, self-effacing, helpful. Against which you have his life. Born in Japan of impressed (virtual slave) workers from Korea, he was able to move in with a Japanese family because of his intelligence and ability, and became a Lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army station as a medic in Malaysia during WWII. As Lt. Jiro Kurohata (which means "black flag'), he is responsible for making sure the Korean "comfort women" are fit to service the troops in their remote outpost, which gets bypassed by the war.

Perhaps as an effort to atone for his wartime actions, Doc Hata bribes adoption agency staff to adopt a Korean orphan girl and tries, as a single father, to give her a good, middle-class life. But this is America, and she becomes an American teenage girl, rebellious, angry, self-destructive. As soon as she can, she gets out of the comfortable home Hata has created for her.

I found the book astonishing. There are certain scenes—a confrontation between teen-age Sunny and a local policewoman, Lt. Kurohata challenging his superior officer in Malaysia, among others—that are incredibly powerful. When Lee wrote the book, he was the director of the MFA program at Hunter College in New York City. I am now going to look up his earlier book, Native Speaker, and his more recent The Surrender. I have already read, and recommend, his Aloft.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton

The Lock Artist (the book was an Edgar award winner for Best Novel of the Year) is Michael who writes down his story. He's been mute since a tragic and horrific event in his childhood. He's not deaf; he simply cannot talk no matter the provocation, positive or negative. As a late teen, he discovers he has a talent for opening locks, all kinds of locks. Tumbler locks, padlocks, combination locks. He falls in with evil companions and complications ensue.

The novel's time organization is fairly complicated. Michael begins telling his story contemporaneously; he's in prison and decided to tell his story. Chapter Two then jumps back to September 1999. Chapter Three jumps to 1991; Chapter Four and it's 1999 again, but later. This alternating between chapters showing how Michael became a lock artist and what happened once he had the skill to open anything locked can sound confusing but Hamilton identifies each chapter with a place and a date and keeps Michael in one place and time per chapter and I had no trouble following the continuity.

Writing the novel as what amounts to a series of flashbacks enables Hamilton to maintain the tension and keep the reader's (this reader's) attention. Why can't Michael speak? How did he learn to crack safes? Who are these bad guys and what's going to happen? By starting his story several years after the crucial events, we know Michael survived, but it was a near thing.

Also structuring the novel the way he has enables Hamilton to portray Michael as more sinned against than sinner. True, he participates in crimes (that's why he's pulling a 10-to-25-year bid), but they weren't his idea. So he's a criminal, but he's also sympathetic.

He's also more than a mute safecracker. He's an artist who could have been—and may be when he gets released—a successful graphic novel illustrator. He's a teenager who will go along with a bad idea because he wants to show he can be one of the guys. And he's a young man who falls in love with a girl he cannot help but disappoint.

It's an interesting book. Michael is an interesting character. The bad guys (most of them) are not pure evil. And the situations in which Michael finds himself are—given who he is and what he can do—believable. What else do you want from a book?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Butterfly's Child by Angela Davis-Gardner

This novel is the author's answer to what happened to the child of the geisha Cio-Cio-san and Lieutenant Pinkerton. At the end of Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly (based on David Belasco's play which was based on an 1898 story by John Luther Long), Pinkerton and his American wife have come to Nagasaki take the 3-year-old child back to America. Butterfly kills herself and the opera ends with the child waving an American flag over his mother's body.

Angela Davis-Gardner spent a year in Japan as a visiting professor at Tokyo's Tsuda College and has published three other novels. She has clearly spent time researching turn-of-the-century Nagasaki, the setting for Butterfly's story ("chocho" with a long "o" is the Japanese word for "butterfly"). The novel wants us to believe that Butterfly, Pinkerton, his wife Kate, and Benji, Butterfly's child were real people. It means that at some point she has to explain how Puccini happened to hear the story of this tragic incident in Nagasaki to write his opera.

For this version of the opera's continuation, Davis-Gardner has Pinkerton and Kate carry Benji to the family's Illinois farm where Pinkerton grew up and where he is now going to live, having given up the Navy for some reason. Pinkerton is not a very good farmer and Kate was not brought up to be a farmer's wife. Benji has blond hair and Japanese eyes, so Pinkerton and Kate have to lie to their neighbors about who he might be. In the first half of the book we watch Benji grow up, Pinkerton struggle with the farm (and alcohol), Kate suffer through childbirth and townspeople's gossip, and Keast, the local veterinarian, befriend Benji. I was about to give up on the book when a crisis causes Benji to run away.

The second half of the book follows Benji across the US and to Nagasaki where he searches for any information about his mother, and I found these adventures lively and convincing. Along the way, he picks up Japanese (which of course he had not been able to speak), a Japanese "father," and several true friends. Meanwhile, back in Illinois, Pinkerton and Kate continue to suffer, eventually losing the farm.

In the paragraph above, I used the word "convincing," but I'm not sure that's correct. For all of the author's research into early 20th century Illinois farm life, the San Francisco earthquake, geisha traditions, Nagasaki geography, and much more, by the nature of things she's not writing from the inside. She wasn't there, and therefore the book—like most historical novels—feels thin or artificial to me. She never convinced me that these people in this place at that time would have thought, acted, and spoken the way she's portrayed. It's not that she's wrong, but that I cannot believe in these characters. I was never able to suspend my disbelief in the story of Butterfly's Child. That may be unfair, and another reader disagree entirely. The back cover has eight opinions disagreeing with me right there, but I'd be interested in hearing other opinions.