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 prĂ©cis 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.