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.