Tuesday, December 31, 2013

An insightful review of The Girl in the Photo

One mails one's babies out into the world with hope and fear. Will a stranger enjoy my book? Find it engaging? Worth reading? Or he find the story hackneyed, offensive, boring, or all three? If you want reviews, however, you have no choice but to mail off your baby and take your chances.

That's why I was delighted by the exceptionally thoughtful and insightful review of my novel in The New Podler Review of Books. I am impressed by how closely the reviewer, Bertha Thacule, read the book and pleased by the observations she drew from it. It is the kind of intelligent, well-reasoned, and positive (let's not forget positive) review every author hopes for.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Translator by Nina Schuyler

The translator in Nina Schuyler’s novel, The Translator (Pegasus Books, 352 pages), is Hanne Schubert. She is widow in her early 50s; her Japanese husband died of a heart attack several years before the book opens. She has two adult children: Tomas, a lawyer in New York, and Brigitte, with whom she has had no contact for six years and does not know where she lives. Hanne is multi-lingual; her parents were translators and interpreters and she moved around the world with them as a child. She makes her living translating Japanese fiction and teaching the language in a San Francisco college.

The book opens with a few pages of Hanne’s translation of a (fictional) Japanese novel. That novel had done well in Japan, in part because the author, Kobayashi, had revealed in an interview that the main character, Jiro, was inspired by the famous (fictional) Noh actor, Moto Okuro. We watch Hanne struggling to convey in English the improbable or incomprehensible Japanese. She understands the language well enough: “Yariba no nai ikidoori, meaning an unfocused anger. But also yaru se nai kimochi, a helpless feeling, or a feeling of no way to clear one’s mind… She pauses, baffled. How can Jiro be experiencing an unfocused anger and a helpless feeling? And just a moment ago he was frustrated. It doesn’t make sense.”

In the past Hanne has written Kobayashi for clarification. He had written back in Japanese, “I’m not the translator, you are!” so Hanne is on her own in her attempts to express not only the story's surface meaning but to convey the character’s deeper feelings. She spends more than a year living intimately with Jiro and finally sends the English manuscript off to the publisher and Kobayashi.

While waiting for a response, a bad fall and concussion puts her in the hospital. When she has recovered enough to talk, she can no longer speak English, only the language she’s been living with so intimately for the past year—Japanese. This inability to speak one language is apparently a rare, but real affliction. Fortunately her son Tomas speaks Japanese; both her children were raised to be multi-lingual like Hanne herself, but he is in New York. Because Hanne cannot communicate easily with anyone in San Francisco, she accepts an invitation to speak at a Tokyo literary conference.

After her Tokyo talk, Kobayashi confronts her: “You were supposed to translate my words, my story, not rewrite it and make your own story in the hopes of uniting mankind. I don’t know where you get your ideas about translation, but no author in his right mind would want you to translate his work. I put my trust in you to bring my story to the English-speaking world. My story. Not yours.” Kobayashi accuses Hanne of ruining his main character. “Turned him into an asshole…I am ashamed of what you did to my Jiro…. You should be ashamed….” If Moto, the person on whom Kobayashi based Jiro, were to read her translation, “he’d hate it.”

Hanne tries to defend herself : “‘If this Moto saw what I had to work with, he’d give me a medal.’ She loved Jiro! She understood this character better than Kobayashi did himself.” Nevertheless, Hanne is devastated. A reaction like this from an author means the end of her translation career. She’s particularly shaken because Kobayashi’s attack is so unexpected. She is trapped in Japan until her English returns—if it returns—and decides to find Moto himself to see what he is like.

To say much more would spoil the pleasure of the book, and The Translator offers a great many pleasures. There is the issue of translation itself. I have been translating Japanese fiction as a way to learn the characters and improve my fluency. I am regularly troubled by the possibilities a single phrase suggests. Schuyler gives an example: hito no kokoro no hana ni zo arikeru could be translated as “the heart of a man, like a fading flower” or “a flower that fades, like a man’s heart,” or “a single flower fading, like the heart of a man.” All three are correct. It suggests that translation is also an act of creation.

There is also the pleasure of watching the author explore the differences between Jiro, the character in the novel, and Moto, the real person. Jiro is not Moto and vice versa although Jiro and Moto share traits, features, attributes. The resonances between Hanne’s translated Jiro and the Moto Hanne meets are rich and rewarding.

Hanne Schubert is a fascinating character—intelligent, capable, passionate. At the same time, she like the rest of us, is a victim of her history. She’s been the best parent she knows how to be, but like the rest of us she’s made some bad decisions. She’s translated Kobayashi’s novel as faithfully as she knows how, but like the rest of us her experience has, in this case, misled her.

Moto, as a famous Noh actor, is also fascinating. He too is intelligent, capable, and passionate. But he refuses to be what Hanne expects, refuses to conform to her assumptions. And when we finally see him performing on the Noh stage, he becomes someone else entirely.

Nina Schuyler teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco. Her first novel, The Painting, was named a “Best Book of the Year” by the San Francisco Chronicle. If it is half as fine as The Translator, it deserved the honor. I am going to go look for it.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Going Native by Stephen Wright

Going Native, published in 1994, was Stephen Wright’s third novel. Meditations in Green (1983) was inspired by his experiences in Vietnam during the war. M31: A Family Romance (1988) is set among UFO cultists, who rely on an autistic child to communicate with aliens. Going Native is—more or less—a picaresque novel that follows a sociopath who abandons his Chicago family to travel to Los Angeles. It is not an easy trip. It is not an easy book. But it is a fascinating one, and, as I hope to show, one that says important things about modern American life.

The book’s structure is a series of independent chapters, each in a different place, each with different characters, all threaded together by one character and the green Ford Galaxie he steals.

Chapter One is a backyard barbecue in suburban Chicago. Rho prepares the meal; greets her guests, Tom and Gerri; sends the children off to bed with the baby sitter; her husband, Wylie, returns home; he and the other husband go to the local Feed ’n’ Fuel for charcoal where a robber has just been killed leaving the store, which becomes a story for the women when they return home. Here is Rho’s response to a question late in the chapter for a sense of Wright’s style:
“If Rho is expected to comment, she misses her cue. The diverse demands and unforeseen surges of the day, in tandem with tonight’s elevated blood alcohol levels, have driven her circuitry into a sputtering staticy condition near blown-out or worse, she’s phasing eccentrically in an out, her attention temporarily and fiercely magnetized by the oddest fragments of isolated fact, so while Gerri natters on, from bats and sex and reincarnation to—nothing hard now to amuse her audience—stale crowd-pleasers of lust and gaucherie among her wealthy clientele, Rho is pleasantly tuned to the resonant sound of hissing meat.”
At the end of the evening, Rho’s husband has vanished and taken Tom’s identity.

Chapter Two, in the same suburban Chicago neighborhood two middle-class crack heads smoke dope, have sex, come down, score more crack, get high, get violent, discover their green Ford Galaxie stolen. Such a précis cannot, unfortunately, convey the texture of Wright’s images of the filthy house, the couple’s drug-logic, their random memories, and the pleasure, despite all, of losing oneself in the drug.

Chapter Three takes place on the road west of Chicago as a hitchhiking drifter is picked up and dropped off and ultimately murders a long-haul trucker who was good enough to give him a ride but foolish enough to ignore his taste in music. At the chapter’s end, one psychopath rides with another—and neither harms the other. It's almost as if Wright is saying that the only way to be safe in this society is to be as murderous as the killers.

Chapter Four is set in a tatty motel in Colorado. The owner/manager has dreams of being a screenwriter, and we read at length about this misbegotten project. His wife is having sex with one of the local police in the motel parking lot. His teen-age daughter Aeryl—the two younger daughters are Beryl and Cheryl—dreams of running away with Laszlo to Las Vegas. At the end of the chapter, Aeryl and Laszlo take off with Wiley/Tom in the green Ford Galaxie. On the road, Laszlo has sex with Aeryl in the back seat and offers their host the sight of her naked breasts. Tom says he’s seen breasts before. Laszlo says not like hers.
“Their eyes met in the intimacy of mirror space. Laszlo’s angry blues glittering with the message direct and unmistakable: I, a man younger, stronger, braver than you have this minute, under your quivering old nose hairs, fucked a woman younger, sexier, more desirable than any you can ever hope to win, ergo, you must acknowledge the superiority of my force, the potency of my prick, so said stone eyes from a clearing in the wood.”
Tom and Aeryl abandon Laszlo at a service plaza.

The penultimate chapter is a tour de force as we accompany a moderately successful, 30-something-year-old couple, Amanda and Drake, travel into deepest Borneo with two native guides looking for something authentic, unspoiled, native. They therefore skip the longhouse they could visit upriver, which their guide books point out is nothing but a tourist attraction. They hike into the mountain to find a village where the natives still live in longhouses—filthy, stinking, buggy, uncomfortable, and the chief has an autographed photo of Jack Nicholson (an earlier visitor) in the place of honor between pictures of President Suharto and Jesus.

Virtually all of Wright’s characters are looking for something: excitement, fame, peace, money, adventure, sex, status. They are not satisfied, not content. He seems to be making the case that America has promised all this—fame, money, sex, and more—but hasn’t come through. His characters know that more is out there somewhere, other people seem to have it (whatever “it” is), but they don’t know how to get it. Wiley, fed up with his white-bread suburban life, wife, and two children, steals a car and heads west. Amanda and Drake, who seem to represent upper middle class life (they are successful enough to afford their trek), crave unique experiences and are willing to suffer to obtain them. But they are still tourists and still at the mercy of American insanity.

Going Native is an occasionally funny, occasionally bitter, occasionally ugly, always thought-provoking meditation on this American life.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Havana Lost by Libby Fischer Hellman

Havana Lost starts with a bang. It is 1958 and in the first paragraph Cuban rebels set off a bomb in the bank just up the street from the jewelry store where Francesca (Frankie) Pacelli is shopping. She is unhurt and is swiftly whisked away by one of her bodyguards. Her father is Tony Pacelli, a mobster, an associate of Meyer Lansky, and the owner of La Perla. Frankie is his 18-year-old, headstrong daughter.

In Part One of the book, Frankie turns down a marriage proposal from a childhood sweetheart but does give him her virginity. Nicky has to return to the States and college, and Frankie is supposed to follow but she encounters Luis Perez. “He wasn’t that handsome. He had thick, dark, unruly hair that refused to lie straight and stuck out at all angles, and his Roman nose was too big for his face. His lips were full, his chin unimpressive. His skin was olive, and in the dim light, appeared sallow. But it was his eyes—dark and smoky—and the expression in them that made it impossible for her to look away.” He is only a few years older than Frankie, and is a rebel. They become lovers, Frankie becomes pregnant, and, in the confusion of fighting the revolution, Tony’s goons grab her and spirit her out of Cuba.

Part Two begins 30 years later. Luis, now a general in the Cuban army, is stationed in Angola where, through a series of fortunate events he is led to—and makes a sketch map of—a deposit of columbite-tantalite. Coltan is used in electronics and as a character points out, “…imagine a day when you will have access to a phone you can take anywhere in the world, as small as a pack of cigarettes. Or an electronic device you can read books on.” The scene shifts to Chicago where the child of the liaison between Frankie and Luis is 32-year-old Michael, who has not joined the family business. Indeed, he was a military policeman during the Gulf War, speaks four languages, and seems to be drifting. He is sent to obtain a map of the coltan deposit from a man he does not realize is his father (Tony forced Frankie to marry one of the mob’s soldiers back in Chicago—a loveless affair). In Havana, Michael meets Carla a young, Cuban doctor. They become lovers, Carla becomes pregnant, and at the end of Part Two, she has to flee Cuba.

Part Three is now present day. Carla’s child is 20-year-old Luisa. Frankie has become head of the Chicago family on the (natural) death of her father. Unscrupulous men learn of Angola’s coltan deposit and the map and they will do whatever is necessary to obtain it.

This thriller is Libby Fischer Hellmann’s tenth novel and her third thriller to explore “how strife and revolution affect the human spirit.” The novel covers 50 years in a family’s life, and moves effortlessly from Cuba to Angola to Miami to Chicago. It is an interesting amalgam of love story (actually, several stories), modern Cuban history, and mob life. It is worth reading on several levels, and I am glad I did.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

What were they thinking? - " 47 Ronin"

Variety reports that a new $175 million blockbuster, 47 Ronin, has tanked at Japanese box offices. As the paper asks, "If a samurai movie can't work in Japan, where can it?" Except that The Forty-Seven Ronin is not just a samurai story; it is, says Variety, "a story famous in Japanese folklore (albeit with great liberties taken)."

In fact, there were 47 ronin. They were retainers of Lord Asano, who, in 1701, was asked by the shogunate to serve as a representative when imperial envoys came to Edo. Asano was to be trained by Lord Kira, who expected to be bribed. Asano would not bribe Kira, and Kira arrogantly refused to teach Asano what he needed to know. Provoked beyond endurance, Asano drew his sword in the shogun's palace and attacked Kira, who did not fight back.

Drawing a sword in the palace was a capital crime and Asano was ordered to commit suicide and his fief confiscated--making all of his retainers ronin, masterless samurai. Forty-seven of them, convinced the tragedy occurred because of Kira's arrogance, vowed to avenge their master's death. They dispersed, dissembled, and waited almost two years to convince both Kira's and the shogun's spies that they were resigned to the situation. On the last day of January 1703, they attacked Kira's heavily guarded residence, found him hiding in a toilet, and killed him. They then marched five miles to the site of Lord Asano's grave to present Kira's head.

The situation presented the government with a dilemma. On the one hand, the ronin had demonstrated loyalty to their master—a major value in the society. On the other, they had violated the law of the land. Private morality or public law? Although the public widely supported the action of the ronin, they were ordered to commit suicide. They did so and you can visit their graves in Tokyo today, as I have done.

Within three years, there was a puppet play based on the incident (Chushingura, or The Treasury of Loyal Retainers) and in the modern era more than 100 novels and movies have used the story.  Now Universal Pictures has made something called 47 Ronin with a sword-wielding Keanu Reeves.

Because I have not seen the movie, only the trailer (which is available from the Variety site), I cannot judge the movie fairly. Perhaps the story is closer to the original that the trailer suggests. Although having a Westerner play the leader of the 47 is a little bit like having a Japanese actor lead the defense of the Alamo. Perhaps there is room in the story for women turning into monsters, horsemen galloping across the landscape, helmets that resemble skulls, explosions of fire, CGI animals, and more. Perhaps.

But I suspect the profound questions of private morality or public law got lost in the special effects. I'll be interested in the reviews when the movie opens in America on Christmas Day.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Advertisements for Myself

Self-published authors have many reasons to self-publish, starting with the inability to interest an agent or a publisher in their work. Agents and publishers, of course, look at a manuscript as a product; it's something to sell. If they don't believe the product will sell, they won't represent it or publish it. The usual reasons they don't believe it will sell include: It's too much like something else on the market (or that we're about to publish). It's not like anything else on the market (so there's no market for it). It needs so much editing, it's not worth our investment to make it publishable (r.i.p. Maxwell Perkins). It doesn't appeal to me. There are a million reasons not to publish a book by an unknown author, very few reasons to publish.

Thanks to technological change, however, authors who could not find an agent or a publisher in the past and who had to lay out several thousand dollars and end up with a garage full of unsalable books—i.e., they went to a vanity publisher—can now publish their books for very little money, keep the books in print forever, and print one only when a reader orders it. Or, with an e-book, not print at all.

Self-publishing also means that authors have to do all the marketing grunt work themselves—finding reviewers and getting the word out about themselves and their books.  I have learned that many bloggers who review self-published books will, if their reading list is overwhelming, agree to an e-mail interview, and I have been taking advantage of every opportunity offered.

I have now been interviewed by HamletHub, A Writing Primate, and more that have not yet been posted, as well as been reviewed by reviewers who have put them on the Amazon site. I am grateful for these opportunities to let the world know more about me and my books.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Nutmeg Book Festival a success

The historic New Milford train station
I spent most of yesterday at what I hope will be the first annual Nutmeg Book Festival in New Milford, CT. The venue was the renovated train station, and 20 writers sat at tables around the room displaying our books. There was something for almost everyone, from young adult romance to mainstream fiction and from non-fictional inspirational anthologies to short story collections.

I cannot guess how many people came through during the day. There seemed to be a regular flow of women, men, and families, the majority I think looking for gift ideas. I had a wonderful time because I did not know anyone, neither my fellow writers nor any of the shoppers who stopped by my display, so it was an opportunity to talk about writing, books, my writing, and my books.

You can tell the author by his cap.
I don't believe you sell a book (I'm not sure you can "sell" anything these days, speaking as someone who's written an entire book on selling). And thinking back, I did not do my books any favors in that I talked more about their contents than asking about the interests potential readers might have. Nevertheless, I did manage to sell some books as did my fellow writers did around the room.

I was at least as interested in meeting the other writers and discovering both areas of common interest and points of difference. I learned about the Boroughs Publishing Group, which puts out e-book romances, charging $0.99 to $4.99 each, (and offering no advances to their authors). I talked to two writers who've had terrible experiences with Xlibris and with a writer who was pleased with the editing, book design, and cover design services she bought from CreateSpace.

The festival's organizers are already talking about the possibility of a second Nutmeg Book Festival next year. I think we all learned a lot from this first event, so if there is a second it will be even better.

PS: The New Milford newspaper, the Spectrum, ran a note about the event. The print edition has pictures. A lot of fun.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A found poem

A found poem is, according to Wikipedia, "a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry by making changes in spacing and lines, or by adding or deleting text, thus imparting new meaning" Once you become sensitive to the possibilities, little poems start turning up everywhere, like this one:

Welcome to
the big time
    wing lovers.
Get ready to
sit back and
be dazzled by
the bold taste of
Mighty Wings.

incredible spice and
massive flavor they’re
signaling in
a new era.

Be amazed at their
Delight in their
Gasp at their

And see for
yourself how
they can lead 
your meal to 
any day of
the week.

Powerful stuff, and right off a McDonald's tray liner. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Art Yes, but Not in a Vacuum

I made the distinction in my last blog post between writing for "art" and writing for a market. I argued then, and continue to argue, that trying to write for a market is a fools errand because no one knows what will sell. No one knows what the market will buy. (The exceptions, of course, are those writers who have established a market for their works: Danielle Steele, Dan Brown, James Patterson, Stephen King., etc., etc. The rule seems to be: If you want to write a best-selling novel, it helps to be a best-selling writer already.)

But if you are not writing for a market—and I don't think you should—if you have a story you want to tell, a vision you want to share, can you just put it down and send it into the world? I get the impression reading some threads that there are people who believe believe this. They feel their thoughts, feelings, perceptions are so fascinating that all they have to do make up sentences. It is an issue with which I have tussled all of my working life as a fiction writer: Just because I think a character is fascinating (often because the character has been based too heavily on myself) does not mean that anyone else thinks the character is interesting.

Everyone needs an editor, especially everyone who plans to self-publish his or her own fiction. Publishers Weekly recently ran a column by Betty Kelly Sargent making this point. She points out there are four kinds of editors: developmental, substantive, copy, and proofreaders. Four functions, all important.

She writes that substantive editors start their work once you have a decent first draft. "They help you find your voice and nurture it. They may ask you to rewrite a section or delete a character who isn’t bringing much to the party. They will ask all kinds of questions…your prose for readability, and your plot for plausibility. They suggest where to cut, to expand, to go deeper. They make sure you keep up the momentum, and point out where a character’s behavior doesn’t make much sense, or her dialogue doesn’t ring true." These are all matters that arise because we, the writers, have not been able to obtain enough distance from the work to see them. We need a skilled outsider to point them out.

Whenever I have taught fiction-writing, I have tried to maintain the attitude that the task of the students is to write whatever they want. Mine is to help them express whatever they want to convey in the clearest, most effective, most engaging way possible. Art yes, but unless it connects to another person it is a form of self-pleasuring.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Art versus Commerce

I belong to two writer's groups on LinkedIn, am a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and I regularly look at writer's blogs. Many of the people who review self-published books are self-published themselves and so  comment on the writing life. A question that seems to come up often is a version of, "How do I write a best-selling novel?"

In an earlier post, I suggested that no one knows what will sell. But if you are interested primarily in selling, then you write the kind of novel the market seems to be buying: a romance, a mystery, a thriller—something in a popular genre that a publisher understands and that a bookstore manager knows where to shelve.

The problem with that approach, it seems to me, is that your book won't be very good unless you love the genre and know its conventions so well you can play with them, thereby setting your novel apart from the flood of romances, mysteries, thrillers, vampires, zombies, and werewolves now being published. Unless your novel is extraordinary, you will have difficulty finding a publisher and engaging an audience. Even if it is extraordinary, it may not sell.

The other approach, of course, is to ignore the market and simply write the best book you know how, trusting that your work will find a publisher and readers. These thoughts were provoked by Alice Munro's award in October of the Nobel Prize in Literature. A recent search of the University of Texas archives turned up Munro's rejection letters. As The Daily Texan reported, "One letter written in 1968 by Knopf’s editor Judith Jones after reading Munro’s first book of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, said her book had nothing particularly new or exciting, and it could be easily overlooked. In another letter from Jones to Munro on her first novel, Lives of Girls and Women, in 1971, she credited Munro’s style but still rejected the novel for publication. 'There’s no question that the lady can write but it’s also clear she is primarily a short story writer,' Jones wrote."

Senior lecturer Brian Doherty, who taught a entire course on Munro, said, “[It’s] depressing when you consider so many writers change their approach to writing and their approach to literature in order to increase salability. You have to really respect the writers who labor in obscurity because they believe in what they’re doing even though they might not get notoriety or Nobel Prizes.”

So I guess the question I ask is: Is it better to labor in obscurity because you think you can sell to a market, or because you want—need—to tell a story whether the market thinks it's salable or not?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Book writing, publishing, promoting sources

Signing books in Newtown
In preparation for my talk at the library in Newtown, I created the following as a handout for the attendees, sites that can be useful in writing, publishing, and promoting your book:

www.nanowrimo.org This is NaNoWriMo’s home page. Register, which is free, and you have access to a wealth of writing tips, research help (under Forums), and a place to record your words every day to check your progress during November.

www.createspace.com Amazon’s self-publishing subsidiary. Register, and the site walks you through the process of registering your book, uploading the text and cover, and setting a price (all free). It offers extended distribution for a price, and has a link to the Kindle site to create a Kindle version.

www.smashwords.com I haven't used it, but it's a popular way to publish ebooks at no charge. The site offers a ton of info and there's a blog post you might look at if you're considering an ebook. 

http://www.theindieview.com/indie-reviewers/ This is a list of sites and individuals who review self-published books. To be on the list, reviewers have to be actively posting reviews, review ebooks, not charge for reviews, not be affiliated to a publisher, have submission guidelines for an Indie author to submit an ebook, and put a link back to TheIndieView on their site. Authors have to vet each site to be sure that (a) it is appropriate for their book’s genre and (b) their submissions follow the site's guide.
http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/diy/instructions/index.html Publishers Weekly Select costs $149 to buy a brief listing in this monthly supplement. With the listing, you can send two copies of your book, which PW may or may not review, and, if reviewed, may not be positive. A Kirkus Indie Review is $425, but you can keep it private if you don’t like it.

Type “self-publish” into a Google search box and you’ll have 2,080,000 results in less than a second. There are success stories and advice, and while no one knows what will sell, you can increase the odds of sales success by (1) writing the best book you know how; ideally a book you yourself would like to read; (2) hiring a professional editor to edit the book; this costs money but everyone needs an editor; (3) hiring a professional cover and book designer; again, this costs money; (4) following the publisher’s requirements; this can be free; and (5) doing everything you can think of to reach readers.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Jumpstarting my novel with NaNoWriMo

I will be speaking at the C.H. Booth Library in Newtown, CT, on October 30 at 7:00 about the process of writing and publishing. The talk is titled "How NaNoWriMo Jumpstarted My New Novel," and my friend and colleague Linda Strange has blogged about it.

The NaNoWriMo challenge is to write 50,000 words of fiction during the month of November, and I—and I expect friends—will be talking about the experience, which was like no other writing experience in my life.

The event is informal, free, and there will be plenty of time for questions. Tell any friend who has always had an itch to write a book to come on Wednesday, the 30th.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

See You at the Nutmeg Book Festival

On Saturday, November 23rd, I'll be participating in the Nutmeg Book Festival at the New Milford Train Station in Connecticut. Along with 19 other local authors, I'll be chatting with readers and signing copies of my two books.

If you're in the area, I hope you'll stop by and introduce yourself. This is a unique opportunity to talk with authors about their work and pick up some autographed books as gifts for the holiday season. See you there!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Kiku and the Girl in the Photo

The cover of the new novel features two of Japan's best-loved flowers: cherry blossoms (sakura, in the background) and a chrysanthemum (kiku, in the black-and-white photo).

Every fall, kiku festivals draw crowds in different parts of Japan and in the US as well (New York, Oregon, Ohio, Connecticut, North Carolina, and lots of places in between).

It's not just the colors and masses of blooms that please the eye. Many mum festivals feature elaborate mum "sculptures" created by training the flowers to grow around wire shapes or weaving mums into frames.

What's the backstory of this cover photo showing a pretty young lady next to a pretty kiku bloom? All I can say is the photo plays a pivotal role in the plot!   - MBW

Monday, August 19, 2013

At Last by Edward St. Aubyn

At Last by Edward St. Aubyn is the fourth novel about Patrick Melrose and his family; the others are Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk. You don’t need to read them to enjoy At Last although it would help.

St. Aubyn, like the characters in the novel, comes from a wealthy English family. He, like Patrick, was raped by his father as a child. He, like Patrick, is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Indeed, given the facts of St. Aubyn’s life, I find it remarkable he is alive and functioning, let alone that he writes brilliantly

In 2006, he told an interview from The Observer, “Once I started writing, I decided to stop the analysis. I didn't need it any more. But I knew it was good because I went to see my analyst after making a suicide attempt. I was very, very precarious and then I felt a lot better. I stopped feeling mad; there was some sense of order.” The reporter asked whether  writing its own kind of therapy? “If it does have any therapeutic value,” said St. Aubyn, “the only way to get access to it is to write without any therapeutic intent. You transform experience into, for want of a better word, art. I'm interested in structure and character. Otherwise it would be very boring for everyone else.”
Which is my feeling about alcoholic, or drug-addicted, or insane (or all three) main characters. Because they can do anything, have little or no self-awareness, and have little or no thought of consequences they are too easy to write, and as St. Aubyn says not interesting. It is, I think, the problem with fiction versus reportage. Our real lives are filled with accidents, extraordinary coincidences, inexplicable events. A novelist has to be careful about using these attributes of reality or readers are liable to feel cheated. Most readers expect a novel to make a certain kind of sense. A novel can do things reality cannot (for example, give us a person’s private thoughts, contradict known physical laws, invent impossible landscapes), but it has to make sense on its own terms. An extraordinary coincidence that becomes dinner table conversation in your lived life will cause a reader to throw your novel across a room.
An alcoholic, drug-addicted, or insane main character is easy to write because you have no constraints. The character by her nature doesn’t have to make “sense.” She can be one way today, another way tomorrow. Her primary wants can change five times on a page. She has no solidity, no verisimilitude. Somehow, however, through the glitter of his writing and our access to Patrick’s thoughts St. Aubyn manages to make him engaging and sympathetic.
The action of At Last takes place during a few hours of a single day—the funeral of Patrick’s mother and a family gathering afterward. While Patrick is the main character, the point of view shifts from character to character within a chapter and even on a page, although I had no trouble keeping up with who was observing what. I did have some trouble at the beginning of the book keeping the characters and their relationships straight,
I’ve mentioned St. Aubyn’s writing. Here are a couple examples:“Emily Price had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions.” “He knew as deeply as he knew anything that sedation was a prelude to anxiety, stimulation the prelude to exhaustion, and consolation the prelude to disappointment, so he lay on the red velvet soft and did nothing to distract himself from the news of his mother’s death.”
Most of the characters are thoroughly dislikeable. They are cutting, snobbish (with little to be snobbish about), and self-centered. The exceptions are Patrick’s two sons and his ex-wife. Part of the book’s enjoyment, of course, is the nastiness. But also St. Aubyn’s observations and descriptions. By the end, I felt that Patrick—now an orphan, now divorced, now sober, now (relatively) poor—has a positive future. Altogether satisfying.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tenth of December by George Saunders

George Saunders doesn't need me to recommend his work, but I will anyway. He's received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Tenth of December, his 2013 collection of stories, is the first of his seven books I've read. It will not be the last.

The ten stories are all different, all original, all amazing. Saunders does things in his fiction I didn't realize you could do in a short story. Like change point of view several times. Like use a corporate memo format with virtually no characters or dramatic arc and still have an interesting story. Like write a 32-page story with 15 separate chapters. As Karen Russell (Swamplandia) is quoted as saying, "[I] read Saunders because he alwasy makes me want to write. He reads like he's having such a good time and I love his humor so much. . . He was one of those writers—he just opened doors for me."

Because Saunders is so original, it is difficult to talk about the stories, but I will anyway. One of the things he does incredibly well is write as though he is simply recording a character's thought process: ". . . People were amazing. Mom was awesome, Dad was awesome, her teachers worked so hard and had kids of their own, and some were even getting divorced such as Mrs. Dees, but still always took time for their students. What she found especially inspiring about Mrs. Dees was that, even though Mr. Dees was cheating on Mrs. Dees with the lady who ran the bowling alley, Mrs. Dees was still teaching the best course ever in Ethics, posing such questions as: Can goodness win? Or do good people always get shafted, evil being more reckless?"

Saunders also manages to engage with topics that might seem too massive for a short story. "Home" is narrated by a Marine returning from combat; "Escape from Spiderhead" is narrated by a prison inmate who is being used as a human subject in drug tests. In neither story (in fact, in none of these stories) does Saunders draw any neat, moral lesson. Things happen. People make choices. Characters act or don't act. Readers are left to make of what they've just experienced what they will.

I agree with Karen Russell. Saunders makes me want to write. And read more of his fiction.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Girl in the Photo

My new novel, The Girl in the Photo, is about to be published. I'm at the stage of a final check of the printed page proofs. It looks fine on the screen, but there may be typos or formatting problems that I have not caught or did not translate from screen to page. Here, however, is the cover, designed by my brilliant and creative friend, Susan Brier of the WriteDesign Company.

We did not want to give away too much of the story away, so this is the description of the book: "In this novel about love and longing, regret and renewal, a brother and sister discover a surprising secret after the death of their father: a photo of a young woman who was his lover decades before and half a world away. Even as they mourn their father, an eminent surgeon, David and Abbie question what they thought they knew about his life—and theirs—as they struggle with conflicting memories, unexpected emotions, and new possibilities."

As soon as the book is available, I'll let you know.  

Sunday, July 28, 2013

No One Knows What Will Sell

I am putting the final touches on my new novel (now titled The Girl in the Photo) and am thinking about publishing, promotion, publicity--everything I can do to find readers. I self-published Getting Oriented and plan to do the same with the new book, but I follow the online discussions of the pros and cons of self-publishing versus traditional-publishing.

Recently someone posted the following on a thread I follow: "You've got an amazing, awesome, terrific book. It just needs a little editing and a good cover, and it'll be a hit. So someone says you should self-publish it in hopes of picking up a traditional publisher and getting published. A very common myth, and one many, many debut authors fall for." This provoked a lively and inconclusive debate. As one person wrote, "Today's publishing houses are parasites, not publishing firms. Back in the day,...publishers used to groom and nurture an author. For the past century they have simply latched onto the jugular and sucked the blood out of them to support their friends, family, prostitutes, and drug dealers. The only 'marketing' I've seen them actually do is blowing smoke...."

After more than 200 comments, it was clear that (a) a handful of self-published authors have been picked up by traditional publishers; (b) most of the people who comment on this thread are disgusted with traditional publishers; (c) many people think there is a trick (or a conspiracy) to publishing a best-selling book. I think there is a myth buried in the second sentence of the original post—with a little editing and a good cover your book will be a hit. If it were only that easy.

No one knows what will sell.

Like all generalities, of course, that's overstating the case. There are marquee authors whose books are virtually guaranteed to sell: Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark, Norah Roberts, Clive Cussler, Janet Evanovich, etc., etc. I'm talking about the unknown writer who has actually written an amazing, awesome, terrific book. Take the recent case of Robert Galbraith, the author ofThe Cuckoo's Calling.

Galbraith, even with a terrific book and an agent's representation, had trouble finding a publisher. Time magazine found one editor who admitted turning it down. The few reviews of The Cuckoo's Calling were positive. Publishers Weekley called it "stellar"; Booklist called it "absorbing"; Library Journal called it "totally engrossing." But in the two months after it had been published here it had sold only 500 copies.

Then the Times of London revealed that "Robert Galbraith" is J.K. Rowling, the book shot to the top of the New York Times best seller list, and the publisher ordered 200,000 more copies printed. 

All this tends to confirm my belief that your book needs a terrific story, excellent writing, careful editing, clean page design, a great cover...and luck to sell well. I am sure that E.L. James never expected her Fifty Shade of Grey to sell as well as it did when she first published it as a print-on-demand book. (One could, I suppose, use that example to show that a terrific story and excellent writing are not always necessary to be a hit.)

My plan is to write the best book I can, self-publish it with a professionally-designed cover, offer it to reviewers and at a cut rate to early buyers, and trust that readers will tell their friends, "You've got to read this."

Monday, July 22, 2013

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian by Wallace Stegner

Stegner's subtitle to this non-fiction history/biography is "John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West." It was published in 1954, and I picked up a copy at a used book sale after I had rafted through the Grand Canyon three years ago.

Because leading the group that first ran the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869 is how Powell is best known. It was an extraordinary three-month adventure into unknown wilderness, one so punishing that three of the party left just before the last major rapid to try to walk to an Indian or Mormon settlement and were killed by Indians. At the time, Powell was a 34-year-old, one-armed, former Civil War veteran. (He was Major Powell to men under him.)

But while Stegner gives a stirring account of that river exploration, his larger purpose is to put Powell's life into a larger context—that of the settlement of the West. After all, as William Gilpin, an old Western hand had pointed out in 1868, "The semi-arid plains between the 100th meridian and Rockies...were no desert, nor even a semi-desert, but a pastoral Canaan.... On the more westerly plains, though there was little surface timber, a beneficent Nature had so disposed the rooting system of the low growth that settlers were able to dig for firewood and find plenty." Water? Artesian wells would supply plenty, and anyway "rain follows the plow."

Powell—Stegner's hero—spent his life trying to bring some reality to this fantasy. He became second director of the US Geological Survey (1881–1894) and proposed policies for development of the West which were prescient for his accurate evaluation of conditions. He was director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution, where he supported linguistic and sociological research and publications.

He might have been prescient, but neither Powell nor any of the scientists he was able to engage were strong enough to resist enthusiastic homesteaders who wanted free land, monopolists who believed in free enterprise, land barons, water companies, Western congressmen and senators, and more. The West has been a patchwork of competing interests with incredible waste, spoilation, and litigation as smallholders fought the monopolists, the states fought the Federal government, and Federal agencies tried to reconcile the irreconcilable.

The problem was, and remains, water. There isn't enough rain to grow crops, so they must be irrigated from water flowing in streams and rivers. But who controls the water? Can a homesteader upstream dam the river and keep the water for himself? Can a state? A country? (There was talk of damming the Rio Grande.) Why not? In the East where there is plenty of rain, who cares? In the West, they care.

Because Stegner is a novelist, he is able to tell Powell's story—the political infighting, the struggle for government appropriations, gossip and misinformation—engagingly and enthusiastically. I can only quote Ivan Doig who said, "This book goes far beyond biography, into the nature and soul of the American West. It is Stegner at his best, assaying an entire era of our history, packing his pages with insights as shrewd as his prose."

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Room Where the Star Spangled Banner Cannot be Heard by Levy Hideo

This short novel in three parts (only a little over 1l0 pages) comes with high praise. From Nobel Prize winner Oe Kenzaburo: "Have we failed to catch the calm but earnest tone that echoes like music through Levy Hideo's prose? With his unique literary voice, this writer clearly represents a new kind of novelist for Japanese literature...." And from Tawada Yoko, author of The Naked Eye: "Discovering this book is like meeting a fascinating person. Never before and never since have I encountered such a magical book...."

The author, Ian Hideo Levy, writing as Levy Hideo, is the first white American to write a novel in Japanese. He was born in 1950 to a Jewish father and a Polish mother in Berkeley, California. He grew up in the United States, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan where he went to live with his father in the American consulate in Yokohama when he was 17. He went to Princeton, earned a doctorate there, and joined the faculty as an assistant professor of Japanese literature when he was 28. His novel was published in Japan in 1992, it was translated (by Christopher S. Scott) in 2011.

Start with the title, A Room Where the Star Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard. The Japanese title is Seijoki no kikoenai heya (星条旗の聞こえない部屋). "heya" is "room"; "kikoenai" is "cannot be heard"; and I had to look up "seijoki" which means "the Star Spangled Banner." (I was impressed that Japanese has one word for our national flag.) So the English title is about as literal as you can get.

The story is set in 1967, a time of student protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, and 17-year-old Ben Isaac is living in the Yokohama consulate with his strict father, Chinese step-mother, and 4-year-old half brother. He wants to learn Japanese and begins classes at W University. Ben becomes consumed by the language, the difference between what he's taught in class and what he learns on the street, the difficulties with reading Japanese, and the attitudes of the Japanese toward this blond, white American boy. He is befriended by an slightly older W University student, runs away from home, burns his identity card, and in the novel's third section finds work as a waiter in a Shinjuku restaurant.

As Scott says in his thought-provoking translator's introduction, "...Levy's work is about the struggle or productive tension between writing in Japanese and not being Japanese, or the dilemma of being a writer of Japanese but not a Japanese writer.... " Ben's father makes a familiar point when he tells Ben, "No matter how much you learn to speak their language, in their eyes you'll always be like me: a dumb gaijin who can't speak properly and never wanted to. Even if you go to the plaza in front of the Imperial Palace and scream 'Long live the Emperor!' in perfect Japanese and slit your stomach open, you'll never be one of them."

Perhaps not, and that tension between what Ben rejects—the America of his counsel father and his divorced and troubled mother—and what he wants—immersion in an entirely different language and culture—give the novel its power. As Scott says, "....it also looks back at postwar America and the sense of loss and disillusionment that the 1960s brought about. It is an elegy to a lost home, a requiem for a missing mother tongue."

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Out of Egypt by André Aciman

This memoir is so well-written I am almost embarrassed to write about it because I cannot write as well about the book as Aciman has written his story. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1951. The family spoke French, and also Italian, Greek, Ladino, and Arabic. His family were Jews of Turkish and Italian origin who settled in Alexandria, Egypt in 1905. As Italian citizens (who had never lived in Italy), they were not expelled after the 1956 war as were the French and British. They were expelled as Jews in 1964.

Aciman's father owned a factory, an uncle was a close friend of King Fouad (useful until the king was overthrown), his grandmother smuggled money out of the country in preparation for the day when the family would have to leave the country. The book is alive with characters, scenes,  incidents. It is both a moving account of childhood (Aciman's mother was deaf) and the portrayal of a lost world. The Alexandria that was an ex-pat playground for the English, French, and upper class foreign families like Aciman's is gone with the sirocco.

Among the elements that make the book so fascinating is something I didn't realize you could do in a memoir (which reflects my limited imagination). Aciman describes lives and incidents he could not possibly have witnessed: His Uncle Villi's experiences before and during WWII and his parents' courtship and marriage all occurred before Aciman was born. Because he is not limited to what he himself personally witnessed and experienced, he is able to put family stories and relationships into a context that would be confusing—and less interesting—without them.

What he does personally experience is fascinating. For his education, his father enrolls him at age nine in the best private school in Alexandria, Victory College (it had been Victoria College until Egypt beat the English and French in the 1956 war). As part of the curriculum, he has to learn Arabic--a subject he ignores completely until the day before he has to recite an Arabic poem in class. His father hires the son of a servant to teach André the poem:

"He blushed again, perhaps because our reversed roles made him feel awkward, but also perhaps because he suddenly realized that he would have to teach a Jew a poem vilifying Jews. He read the poem once to himself. Then, as my Arabic teacher would do in class, he spoke out the first few words, repeated them, and then waited for me to say them back to him. He did not explain the poem; no one ever explained the poems. They were always about poison, Jews, vengeance, and motherland...."

An extraordinary book. I'm glad I read it.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Flap Copy and Spoilers

I am putting the final touches on my new novel and thinking about what I should say about it on the flap copy or its equivalent. Flap copy are the words on the inside of a hard-back book's jacket. Publishers craft them carefully to interest book browsers; they are a sales tool, designed to sell the book.

Here, from a book plucked from my shelf, is a good example: "In Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, Constance Hale, the best-selling author of Sin and Syntax, spells out exactly what we need to know about verbs to write with confidence and panache. Combining the wit of Bill Bryson with the practical wisdom of William Zinsser, she synthesizes the pedagogical and the popular, the scholarly and the scandalous, to break down our most misunderstood part of speech...." This says: if you care about verbs, this is a book for you.

Paperback books of course do not generally have jackets, so the flap copy has to go on the cover itself and almost always on the back cover where it serves the same function—buy this terrific book. a A browser cannot pick up an e-book, however, scan the back cover, and absorb the sales message. As a result, we are seeing more and more book in which the first page behind the cover is the equivalent of the flap copy: what the book is about, who wrote it; and why you should be interested.

I usually do not read novel flap copy whether on the jacket or on the back cover or on the first page because too often it is either wrong—almost as if written for another book entirely—or because it tells me too much, or both. I want to be taken by surprise and delighted by the story and characters the author has worked so hard to create. I don't want to know before I start that the cask of Amotillado is a ruse to lure Fortunato to his death by being walled up in the wine cellar.

So there's my problem: how much should I say about the new novel? Too much and it spoils the story's effect. Too little and prospective readers have no idea what the book is about. I'm working on it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Eating Well in Japan

Guests on my tours in Japan often comment on the variety and quality of the food. Americans who are experienced only with Japanese restaurants here are surprised at what you can find. For one thing, although Japan is a relatively small country, there are major differences between, say, Kanazawa, Osaka, and Tokyo cuisine. For another thing, restaurants tend to specialize, so you get sushi and sashimi in a sushi restaurant, katsu in a dozen varieties in a pork restaurant, an enormous variety of beef dishes in a beef restaurant, etc. The Wall Street Journal has a fine article about eating in Osaka, not a city many American tourists would think of as a culinary mecca.

One dish and type of restaurant I've never seen here in the States (although I know they exist; I just looked up several via Google) is okonomiyaki, which is an "as-you-like-it" pancake that contains the customer's favorite vegetables and other ingredients, fried on a hot plate, and served with spice sauces. Friends took us to an okonomiyaki restaurant in Tokyo's Asakusa district where we cooked on the table right in front of us. Friends also took us to what they said was Hiroshima's best okonomiyaki restaurant in Hiroshima where the cooks prepare the pancake (and where we took the picture above). I am in no position to say whether it was Hiroshima's best, but I can say it was wonderful.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Hollywood of Japan: Eiga Mura

See the hand at left? That gives you a sense of scale: the 747 is less than 24" long!
This miniature airport and city are part of one of the more modern "sets" on the grounds of Eiga Mura, a low-key theme park in Kyoto. Rubbery monsters once roamed this very set, squashing buildings and grabbing 747s with their fake talons as the cameras rolled.

We were in no danger from Godzilla or Mothra the day we walked around the set more than a decade ago. For us, as for many visitors, the visit was a golden opportunity to watch a period drama being filmed in front of old-style merchant buildings. The actors were wearing period-specific kimonos and the samurai had their swords at the ready.

The attractions have since been updated to reflect the more contemporary ninja craze. Visitors are also invited to get made up and costumed in period fashion if they choose (see left). 

Hubby and I used to enjoy watching (with English subtitles) episodes of Mito Komon, the longest-running period drama on Japanese TV. Alas, after a 42-year run, this program ended in 2011. It seems that Edo-era period entertainment is on the decline these days. But Eiga Mura lives on, happily.
 - MBW

Monday, June 24, 2013

Captain Santa Club

In the middle of the Hiroshima business district is a unique store called Captain Santa Club--"for the people in love with the sea."

Sadly, we walked by before the store was open, but its web site is worth browsing. Sea-worthy T-shirts and caps for landlubbers are the mainstay clothing items here.

Jolly ol' Santa as yacht captain? Aye-aye!

At right, a recent image from the good Captain's Facebook page, which is quite active. - MBW

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Browsing Wordtanks and More in Akihabra

We saw these high-tech bathroom scales in one of the 250 electronics/appliance stores near Tokyo's Akihabra train station.

The scales do everything but Skype with your nutritionist.

We were in Akihabra because hubby wanted a new Canon Wordtank electronic dictionary. While he shopped, the rest of us walked through aisles and aisles of the latest gadgets for office/home, kitchen, and bathroom.

During the week, you have to dodge traffic and crowds to cross the street in Akihabra. On Sundays, the main street is turned into a pedestrian mall. If you're in Tokyo, this is a must-see area!
    - MBW

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Steam-Punk Meets Shiodome: Howl's Moving Castle Clock

Just steps from the hotel where we stayed in the Shiodome section of Tokyo is this steam-punk clock designed in the style of Howl's Moving Castle, the famous Studio Ghibli animated movie.

Installed in 2006, it "chimes" four times a day. We and dozens of other people gathered to watch the four-minute show, with glockenspiel music, secret openings, and characters from the movie moving around the clock as the seconds tick on. (We liked it so much that we came back a couple of times!)

If you haven't seen Studio Ghibli's latest release, From Up on Poppy Hill, hubby's review is here.
    - MBW

Friday, June 14, 2013

Memories of Japanese Baseball

Last time we were in Japan, we went to a home game of the Yokohama Baystars, who beat the Yakult Swallows in an early evening game. It was close, but a relief pitcher (from the Bronx!) clinched the game for the Baystars. Above, the view from our seats along the first-base side. What this photo doesn't show: The enthusiastic cheerleaders who periodically danced across the field and the tricked-out Toyota that brought the winning pitcher from the bullpen to the mound in automotive (sponsored) style. 

This past April, when Yokohama played Yakult again, player Tony Blanco smacked a home run to win the game for the Baystars--his 14th home run of the month. That got some people wondering about the sudden streak of home runs throughout the league. Turns out that Nippon Professional Baseball wanted to make baseball games more exciting, so it altered the ball to go further when hit. Hmmm. Sadly, it hasn't helped the Baystars all that much: They're down toward the bottom of the league, at least for now.
   - MBW

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Favorite Places: Edo-Tokyo Museum

One of our favorite places in Tokyo is the Edo-Tokyo Museum. When you enter the Edo section, you start at a replica of the famous Nihonbashi Bridge. From there, exhibits are arranged chronologically, showing the development of the old capital over the years, and ending with Tokyo's landmark hosting of the 1964 Olympics.

Last time we visited, we enjoyed the "please touch" exhibits in the Edo section. Want to feel like a peasant? Try these buckets on for size (hubby did). Want to feel upper class? Climb into one of the palaquins (Sis did).

Volunteer guides are available to escort you through the museum and explain the exhibits in English, German, French, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, or Russian. Our English-speaking guide was a young woman who was happy to practice her language skills with us.

Lonely Planet likes this museum...Frommer's calls it a "don't miss." The fictional tour group in Getting Oriented spent a few hours there, of course. When you go, plan for lunch at the Japanese restaurant on the top floor!
     - MBW

Monday, June 10, 2013

Japan Tourism, circa 1910

Marketing Japan as a tourist destination is nothing new. These fascinating photos were used to promote travel to Japan a century ago.

Hand-tinted, of course, from black and white photos taken by Tamamura Kozaburo, who set up a studio in Yokohama in 1883.

Kozaburo was known for "Yokohama shashin" which translates to "Yokohama photographs" but clearly, his photos were more wide-ranging. 

Below, Kozaburo's photo of the great Buddha at Kamakura, where we've been more than once. It still looks exactly the same, a century later.

I did not have the fictional tour group visit this Kamakura Buddha in my novel, by the way. Instead, because the group was spending time in Kyoto, I had the "leader" take them to the Buddha in nearby Nara. The Nara Buddha is actually bigger, not to mention being housed in a giant temple.

 - MBW

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Japan Old and New

What to do on your first day in Japan? The guests on the Japan Old & New tour led by Phil Fletcher in Getting Oriented landed in ultra-modern Osaka and were then swept back in time as they visited Kyoto, the old capital city.

On my first visit, more than 20 years ago, I braved the crowds of Tokyo Station to hop on a bullet train to Kanazawa, an old castle city on the west coast, where hubby (Getting Oriented's author) was in a language immersion course.

Most recently, I spent my first day in Japan having breakfast at Denny's (really) and then walked to Asakusa for a visit to the Buddhist temple of Sensō-ji. 

The photo above, from the Japan National Tourism Organization, shows the famous gate at this temple, through which millions of visitors throng every year.

For other views of Japan old and new, take a look at the stunning and artistic images named winners of a recent Japan Tourism Agency photo contest. This photo, for instance, gives a glimpse of one of the country's newest tourist destinations, the Sky Tree in Tokyo.

So what would you like to do on your first day in Japan?            - MBW

Monday, May 27, 2013

Japanese proverbs

I am currently translating a Japanese short story and in it one character apparently enjoys quoting proverbs (kotowaza / 諺). Fortunately for me, my Canon Wordtank 670 electronic dictionary includes the translations of what are, I suspect, as common in Japanese as "A stitch in time saves nine" or "A penny saved is a penny earned" are in English. In any case, here are two proverbs I've come across:


"A frog in the well knows nothing of the great ocean." And:


"It's better to be the mouth of a chicken than the rear end of a cow." Or, as we say in English, "It's better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond."

Thursday, May 23, 2013

I am finishing a new novel tentatively titled Mt. Koya. While the story is very different from Getting Oriented, Japan still plays a significant role in the lives of the characters. Because Japan plays such an important part, I wondered about a Japanese translation. My Japanese is nowhere good enough to translate it myself, so I wondered what would happen if I ran some of it through Google Translate. Here's the beginning of one of the chapters:

    I’m sitting quietly reading in a Tokyo coffee shop called L’Ambre and only vaguely conscious of the young Japanese woman at another table until she comes over to me and asks hesitantly, “Are you American?” It’s a raw early September Saturday and I’m off duty until eight o’clock tomorrow morning. I’ve taken the train up to Tokyo’s Shibuya station, a half-hour ride from Sagami-shi. I need to get away from the hospital and the Army for a while, if only to sit in a coffee shop and read a book or to walk around Shibuya, so different from Sagami. The big city versus a village.

Here's the result:


My Japanese is good enough to quibble with the translation. My biggest would be the woman's question, "Are you American?" That's what the translation says, but it seems too direct, almost impolite, for the situation. It really gets interesting, however,  when you ask Google to back-translate. To take the Japanese and turn it into English. Here's what I got:

     When sitting quietly reading a coffee shop in Tokyo called L'AMBRE, the conscious vaguely only of young Japanese woman in another table, to come on to me, until I request hesitantly she , "Are you? American?" It
      It's off duty until tomorrow morning at 8:00 I am that it is early Saturday September raw. I have taken the train to a half hour ride Shibuya Station in Tokyo, from Sagami city. In order to read a book while sitting in a coffee shop, to differ materially from the Sagami, only if you want to be walking Shibuya, I, for a while, you need to get away from the army and hospital. Village-to-large cities.

If there is ever going to be a translation, I think I'll need a human being to do it.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Middle Men by Jim Gavin

A friend recommended this debut collection of short stories. They are wonderful. Buy the book and read it.

I could stop writing now because anything else I have to say about Jim Gavin and the book is simply a gloss on the paragraph above. Middle Men—as the flap copy says—find themselves stuck somewhere in the middle, caught halfway between their dreams and the often crushing reality of their lives.

We read about a high school boy dreaming of a basketball scholarship, a young man who falls in love with an unsuitable woman, a game show production assistant dreaming of being a standup comedian, and a middle-aged plumbing supplies salesman coming to terms with the death of his wife. The stories are set in Los Angeles, mostly an industrial, lower-middle class, blighted Los Angeles. And while some of the descriptions of the stories sound grim, Gavin is too good a writer to let them be grim only. Here, for example, is a sample of the routine the aspiring standup tries at an open mic:

"I finally found the self-help book that's going to unlock my potential. It's called Mein Kampf . . . I've got the audiobook on my iPod and it really gets me going when I'm doing hills on the elliptical. . . Fine. Let's have some fun. We'll play the dozens. Here we go. You mama so fat…she died of complications from diabetes . . . More? Sure. You mama so stupid…she was declared legally retarded and made a ward of the state. Her kids are now in foster care. It's a vicious cycle people . . ."

It says volumes about a character who believes a routine with this material will lead to a career as a performing comedian.

One more sample. This is the head of marketing for a software company motivating his troops:

"I know things are a little…right now. But still. We're trying to create a go-forward scenario, so we have to get out in front on this. We need confirmation on how our brand is being structured. And if we're serious about sustaining an effective solution environment, then we need to create a strategy for platform leveraging that prioritizes integration. That's the reality."

The reality is that these are wonderful stories.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Life After Life by Jill McCorkle

Recently a friend recommended a new novel, Life After Life. She did not recall (or I did not retain) the author's name, but I did write down the title and took it out of the library. Reading it became an odd experience. The story seemed to connect in some way to my friend's report, but not well. I thought I'd misunderstood what she told me and kept reading.

Life After Life by Jill McCorkle—her tenth work of fiction—has an interesting structure. Set mainly in and around a North Carolina retirement center, every chapter is written from a different point of view, eight major characters. One of these characters maintains a journal of the last moments of and significant incidents in the lives of the elderly who die in her presence. Plus every dead person gets a page or two of poetic ruminations.

The characters range from a 12-year-old whose parents are on the verge of splitting up to an elderly former school teacher who knew virtually everybody in the small town in which the novel is set. The significant characters (or the ones with which I could identify best) were the elderly. The widow who has moved to this town and signed herself into this retirement home because it's the town her one great love had come from. The retired school teacher who spends her time making pictures for other residents to enjoy. The retired (male) lawyer who adopts a fake persona because he does not want to burden his child.

The lives touch and cross and split off and wind around. McCorkle asks a lot of her reader: that we keep in mind who is who, who is related and in what way, and who is doing what to whom. Nevertheless, I thought the beauty of the writing sustained my interest, and I am glad I've read the book.

It turns out, my friend was recommending Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, which was published a week after McCorkle's novel. It sounds like another good and interesting book. I'll try to look it up.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What to do in Tokyo

The Edo-Tokyo Museum, which shows 400 years of Tokyo history, from its founding to 1963.
I have actually been asked by tourists what there is to see or do in Tokyo. I am mildly startled by the question. It's a little like asking what is there to see or do in New York or London or Paris. Tokyo is a capital city. It has over 12 million people. It has something like 160,000 restaurants. It has temples, shrines, museums, theaters. One could live in Tokyo for years and not see or do everything it has to offer.

Recently, The New York Times ran one of its "36 Hours in . . . " Sunday travel sections featuring Tokyo. It told readers about some of the highlights—Meiji Shrine, Ometesando, Shibuya Cross (possibly the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world), the Edo-Tokyo Museum, Akihabara, Yasukuni Shrine, and more.

In a sense, it's an impossible story because everyone is different, and Tokyo could offer dozens of 36-hour tours, each satisfying a different taste. Certainly for someone who has never been to the city, the Times' suggestions are fine. But they barely hint at the city's wealth of possibilities.

The Nakamichi in Asakusa, which is where Japanese tourists go to buy souvenirs.