Tuesday, April 23, 2013

"From Up on Poppy Hill" - the movie

I've now seen the latest Studio Ghibli animated film, "From Up on Poppy Hill." It is set in Yokohama in 1963. The main character is a 16-year-old high school girl, Umi, whose father died when the supply ship he commanded struck a mine during the Korean war and whose mother is in America, studying. Umi lives in her grandmother's house with her two younger siblings. The house, overlooking Yokohama harbor, is a big, old Meiji-era building that has been turned into a boarding house.

Umi meets Shun, an editor on the school newspaper, and they begin a "relationship." I put that in quotes because they never kiss, hug, or (I think) even hold hands. Umi is virginal and Shun and his friends are chaste gentlemen.

The film has two story lines running simultaneously. One is the efforts of Umi's fellow students to save the building in which they have all their clubs; the other is the problem with Shun's paternity. There is no villain. No violence. Disappointments, but nothing serious (other than the father's ship being sunk, which happened ten years earlier). I won't spoil the film by saying more except that I did not go for the plot.

I wanted to see the movie because the Japan the animators illustrated wonderfully was the Japan I knew when I was first stationed there. Seeing the shops, the houses, the trains, the three-wheeled delivery trucks, the trams, of the period took me back. That's what it looked like, and I would not be surprised to learn that a great many older Japanese went to see it for nostalgia's sake.

I believe it is also an interesting film for Westerners for the picture it gives of Japanese student life (at least at that time in that place). Boys and girls all wear school uniforms. They help clean the school. They are involved with club life. The building they are trying to save holds not only the school newspaper office (printed by hand with an ink roller and stencil), but the astronomy club, the math club, the philosophy club, the archeology club and more that went by too fast for me to read their signs. Even when there are conflicting views, one participates with one's group.

I'm glad I made the effort to see it. "From Up on Poppy Hill" is a sweet film.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein is subtitled "The Art and Science of Remembering Everything." Perhaps more accurately, if less appealingly, it could be subtitled "How I Trained for a Year and Won the US Memory Championship."

Foer is a lively and interesting free-lance writer. His book is a sprightly trip into the history and current state of human memory and memory research. He describes the US and European memory championships (what's the use of being able to memorize a deck of cards in less than a minute if you can't use it to compete with someone?). He gives a general overview of memory issues today (are smart phones, electronic calendars, and Google killing our need to memorize and therefore our memories?). He meets an elderly man who has no short-term memory whatever. At the other extreme, he meets a savant who claims to have memorized six thousand books word for word. He visits the class of Raemon Matthews, an American history teacher at the Samuel Gompers Vocational High School in the South Bronx, who is teaching memory techniques to his students to help them pass the Regents exams and compete in the Memory Championships. And he interviews Tony Buzan who has built an empire and a fortune by teaching memorization.

"Everything about Buzan gives the strong impression of someone wanting to make a strong impression. He never swallows a syllable or slouches. His fingernails are as well cared for as the leather of his Italian shoes. There is always a pocket handkerchief tucked neatly in his breast pocket. He signs his letters "Floreant Dendritae!"—"May Your Brain Cells Flourish!"—and ends his phone messages "Tony Buzan, over and out!"

The "tricks" for improving your memory (of certain things) have been known for a couple thousand years. I don't think there is anything new about how to improve your memory, and Moonwalking with Einstein is not really a how-to book anyway. Foer does describe a some of the traditional ideas: associate an object with a place in a building (build a memory palace); connect numbers with objects; and repeat, repeat, repeat.

I had hoped I would learn some tricks to make my goal of reading Japanese easier—or possible. The Chinese characters used in Japanese are a challenge for most Westerners. Most characters have at least two sounds depending on how they are used; you have to know the number of strokes and the order in which they are written; and you have to know what they mean.

For example: 小 can be read as "ko" in 小川 ("kogawa" or small river) or as "chii" in 小さい ("chiisai" or small). It has only three strokes. The challenge grows when you encounter characters like 感、職、親、待、持. A man named James W. Heisig developed an entire system to help Western students of Japanese to memorize the characters' shapes and meanings; I don't think the system helps with the sounds, however, and there's nothing in Foer's book that will help either—except constant practice.

Indeed, in an Epilogue he asks if his year of intense training culminating in his win at the US championship improved his memory. "By every objective measure, I had improved something . . . Compared with my tests almost a year earlier, I could recall more lines of poetry, more people's names, more pieces of random information thrown my way." Yet a few nights after the championship he had dinner with friends, took the subway home, and only remembered as he was walking in the front door that he'd driven a car to dinner. "I hadn't just forgotten where I parked it. I'd forgotten I had it."

Nevertheless, the experience "had validated the old saw thgt practice makes perfect. But only if it's the right kind of concentrated, self-conscious deliberate practice. I'd learned firsthand that with focus, motivation, and, above all, time, the mind can be trained to do extraordinary things." Even learn to read Japanese.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason

Who could resist a novel titled The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning? Not I.

Tomislav Boksic, a Croatian hitman known to his friends and admirers as Toxic, tells his own story: Sixty-six murders for his New York gangland bosses, a sexy, compliant girlfriend, and a compulsion for neatness. When he kills the wrong man, he has to escape from the States, leaving behind the life he knows and loves. One step ahead of the FBI, Toxic murders a televangelist in a JFK men's room, takes his clothing, passport, ticket, and identity and flies where the ticket takes him, to Reykjavik where, as Father Friendly, he's met by an Icelandic televangelist couple. They have invited Father Friendly to preach on their station. Because Iceland has no gun shops and no tradition of contract killing, Toxic is, if I can coin a phrase, a fish out of water. Complications ensue.

Among the complications is Toxic's relationship with his hosts' daughter, Gunholder. Here is Helgason's description of her: "Her body is slim, with small breasts and a tight ass, firm as a fully inflated airbag. If she was the only woman in our platoon and we were stuck in the mountains for a month, I'd start dreaming about her on Day 1." The day on which he would begin dreaming about a woman becomes a running joke through the book.

Here's another taste of Helgason's prose: Downtown Reykjavik "...reminds me of my week in Switzerland, when my architectural studies too me to a small village in the Alps to research a brand-new skiing area. The week felt like a month. It was even calmer than the fucking Belarus. The only people out were some totally unfucked housewives with Gucci hairdos doing hundred-dollar lunches in the village restaurant. Their husbands spent their days in the city, lucked up in their bank safes. They reminded me of the queen of Spain, these ladies in fur and heels, as they slowly passed the jewelry stores (rich people always walk slowly, because of the deep pockets, I guess). They were all Day 26 types, but by the fifth day, I was on the brink of a mass rape."

According to the "About the Author" page at the back of the book, Helgason began as an artist, his work showing in galleries in New York and Paris. He published his first novel in 1990 and won international attention with his third, 101 Reykjavik. The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning "is his only novel written in English. The author's own translation was published in Iceland in 2008 and became a bestseller in Germany in 2010."

Perhaps Helgason's English is so lively because he's not a native speaker. I thought the prose and Toxic's views on people and events boisterous and vivid. My problem with the book is Toxic, the narrator. Helgason tries to explain (justify?) Toxic's attitude toward murder by making him a victim/participant in the Serbian/Croatian war in which terrible people did terrible things to each other. Nevertheless, I have a real problem with a protagonist who has only the faintest hint of human feeling. Sixty-seven murders by the time he reaches Iceland, with no remorse, even with a sense of professional satisfaction. And yet, and yet. I read to the novel's end to see how things could possibly turn out.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

Tracy Kidder is, of course, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning, National-Book-Award-winning, Robert-F.-Kennedy-Award-winning author of The Soul of a New Machine, House, Among School Children, Old Friends, Home Town, Mountains Beyond Mountains, My Detachment, and Strength in What Remains. 

Richard Todd has been his editor for thirty-five years. They subtitle this joint effort "The Art of Nonfiction," and add a cover line: "Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing an editing," which it is.

They discuss three major forms nonfiction forms: narratives, essays, and memoirs, but it is not really a "how to" book. (It does have, however, a  short, useful "Notes on Usage" section in the back.) They assume the reader is bright enough to draw his/her own conclusions from the anecdotes and examples they give of their writing and working lives.

One of the book's lessons: Be lucky. That Kidder, then 27, as an aspiring free-lance writer connected with Todd, then 32, an editor at The Atlantic Monthly, was extraordinarily fortunate. Todd was willing to work with Kidder for weeks, through dozens of rewrites, as they tried to hammer an article into shape. It is difficult to imagine any editor today spending time and attention on an unknown writer (or even a known one, but that may be caused by the writer's hubris, not the editor's overwork).

One chapter is titled "Art and Commerce." In it Kidder writes, "Think of the many wonderful writers who haven't earned a living by writing. Anyone who does earn a living by writing, and does not acknowledge the power of luck, has to be deluded." 

The last chapter, "Being Edited and Editing" is worth the price of the book ($26) to any serious writer. Here's Kidder on being edited: "Editing isn't just something that happens to you. You have to learn how to be edited. . . .Young writers are unlikely to possess the modicum of selflessness that a good editor must have, that makes it possible for one person to act in the best interests of another work." At one time, Kidder like many of us needed a first sentence to be perfect before going on and spent (wasted) whole days and nights getting nowhere. So he stopped doing that. He now writes first drafts as quickly as he can. "Writing as fast as possible would prevent remorse for having written badly. I would take every path that looked interesting, and keep myself from going back and reading what I'd written, let alone trying to fix it." [This is the NaNoWriMo approach to writing, by the way, and because I am putting the final touches on a novel that started as a NaNoWriMo project, I can testify that it works.]

Here is Todd on editing: "There are two kinds of pleasures for editors. One is acquisition, the collector's pleasure. The other is working with writers. It is like the difference between buying an antique car in mint condition or buying one that needs work . . . As a writer, of course, what you really want is someone strong on both counts."

A fascinating, generous, helpful book.