Friday, December 19, 2014

What does it mean to be human?

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler does not need my endorsement. It was short-listed for a Man Booker prize and nominated for Nebula Award for Best Novel. Barbara Kingsolver gave it a positive review on the cover of The New York Times Book Review when it was published in June 2013.

It is the story of Rosemary Cooke, her sister Fern, her older brother Lowell, her psychologist father, and her mother. It's an unusual story because Fern, virtually the same age as Rosemary, lives for the first five years of her life as part of an experiment to learn the effects of being raised within a human family— and the effect having a non-human "sister" has on Rosemary. But rather than tell you more about the story, let me tell you some of the reasons why I enjoyed the book so much:

1) Rosemary addresses the reader directly. She begins chapter 1: "So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996...In 1996, ten years had passed since I'd last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn't told you that, you might not have known." Fowler tells us her story in a friendly and engaging voice and never has to resort to another point of view.

2) The story is plausible. I believe that Rosemary's memories of growing up with Fern could be a five-year-old's memories. I believe in her life as a college student at UC Davis. I believe everything that happens to her and the people around her could have happened.

3) The novel reports a healthy amount of scientific information about experiments into language acquisition and the differences between humans and chimps.

4) The characters, even the minor ones, seem fully drawn. (I'd like to study to see how Fowler does it because I would like to be able to do so myself.) These are people you could know.

5) The structure of the book is interesting. It is not a straightforward chronological account, and I can imagine that certain readers would be put off by this. I found it fascinating, however, by the way Fowler gives the reader information. For example, we don't learn that Fern is a chimpanzee until page 77. (There, I've spoiled it for you. But read the book anyway.)

6) The novel addresses good questions: What does it mean to be human? What are the ethics of experiment on animals? Do animals have any rights? Should they? Can we trust our memories? (No.)

A remarkable novel. Read it for not only the reasons I've just given but for your own pleasure.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

An engaging journey from belief to freedom

Reportedly, the Jesuits say, "Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man." The idea being that if you can indoctrinate a child early enough, he/she will never question the underlying belief system.  

John Van Dixhorn says, "It strikes me as a tragedy, even a form of abuse, that my radiant intelligence, available to all healthy children, could create an adult of feeble intelligence because I was indoctrinated into a belief system before I could think for myself. By the time my intellect awakened, I was already imprisoned in that belief system." His memoir, Prisoner of Belief, is an account of how he broke free. The subtitle gives away the story: "One Man's Odyssey to Reclaim His Soul—from Evangelical Minister to Searching Psychologist."

Dixhorn, now in his late 70s, was the middle of nine children, brought up in rural Wisconsin, and raised in the Dutch Reformed Church. Religious training dominated his life, a Calvinism that dwelt on the perfection of God and the imperfect and deprived nature of man. When his grandfather was dying, John blurted, "Grandpa, I know I'll see you again in heaven." The old man rebuked him, pointing out that only God determined who would be in heaven. He learned about sex from watching a bull service a cow, and was mortified by his own sexual thoughts and desires—mortification the church encouraged. His Youth for Christ leader told boys that "masturbation was sinful and that he could tell if we were masturbating, because the whites of our eyes would yellow."

Dixhorn studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and was ordained with the Evangelical Free Church of America. As such, he was committed to a belief in biblical inerrancy; the Bible as the word of God, without mistakes, without contradictions. If there is an apparent contradiction, the fault is with the believer, not the text. Unfortunately, "the gospels are not biographies of Jesus but statements of religious belief written by Christians for Christians." Gradually, although Dixhorn was a pastor to churches in New City, NY; Naperville, Il; and Orange, CA, his doubts about the Bible and questions about his beliefs grew. And he saw how belief could torture parishoners.

The son of a couple in the church was sent to Vietnam during the war. The boy's parents were naturally concerned, but his mother was comforted by a verse of scripture she read the day the boy left. "She felt it was a sign from God that he would keep her son safe." He didn't, and Dixhorn met regularly with the parents for months to help them in their grief. One day the mother made an individual appointment. "She knew why God had not spared her son, and it was destroying her emotionally." She'd had a secret abortion at sixteen—not even her fundamentalist father knew. She'd killed her baby, and that's why God had taken her son. Knowing her Bible, she said, "David had a man killed in battle and God took his baby. I took my own baby, so God had my son killed in battle." Dixhorn was trapped: "How could I comfort her and honor the Bible at the same time?"

In time Dixhorn realized that he had "cherry-picked my own way through scripture all the time thinking I was taking the Bible at face value.... How could I be a true, Bible-believing Christian without acknowledging that biblical writers presented very different and contradictory views of God. How could I follow the teachings of a God that advocated something I knew was wrong, even downright evil?" He couldn't and eventually left the ministry, earned a master's degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and a doctorate in clinical psychology. He did post-doctorate work in psychoanalysis and became a certified psychoanalyst in California.

I found the book to be a engaging intellectual journey and the paragraphs above barely hint at the story's richness. We come to realize with Dixhorn that fundamentalism—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Communist, Fascist—is anti-intellectual and totalitarian. "My own experience and self-reflection gives me better insight into the motivations and pain involved in giving one's self over to a totalitarian system," he says. "As a psychologist I can listen more deeply to the religious and ideological ruminations of my patients." He sounds like a fascinating and caring man.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What's the right thing to do?

Michael Shaw Perry has published Moral Dilemmas, Identity, and Our Moral Condition: A Guide for the Ethically Perplexed.  Perry is well-equipped for such a discussion. He earned a BA in philosophy from Dartmouth and an MA and PhD in philosophy from Johns Hopkins. Apparently an over-achiever, he also obtained a JD from the University of Michigan Law School.  His book reflects his "personal and intellectual struggles with the framework for ethical thinking and trying to figure out how to live a purposeful, fulfilling life." It is not light reading.

Ethics, says Perry, "is the study of how one ought to structure one's life and it is from this that ethically correct actions follow." When one is faced with a moral dilemma, ethics can help us understand the right thing to do. Perry says there are three kinds of moral dilemmas:

1) The pedestrian—the kind of daily choices we have to make, between, say, going to a child's birthday party or finishing a project at work; between telling a cancer patient she has six months to live or saying nothing.

2) The theoretical—push a fat man off a bridge to his death to stop a runaway trolley that will otherwise kill five people tied to the track? I.e., that is should you kill one person to save five?

3) The critical—a dilemma in which someone, through no fault of her own, must make an impossible choice. I.e., a mother in a concentration camp is told to choose which of her two children may live. Fortunately, such dilemmas are rare if only because there is no satisfactory solution.

After discussing moral dilemmas generally, Perry clears the ground of earlier philosophical approaches to ethics by discussing the weaknesses of theological, deontological, consequential, and value-based approaches. While each of these may have value in a specific situation, history has shown that they are not universally applicable—and philosophers like Plato, Bentham, Mill, Kant, and others have tried to develop an ethical theory that would be universally applicable.  Perry argues, cogently, that such an approach is bound to fail because they leave a gulf between the theories and "our moral condition as we find and experience it."

Perry's approach is to ground ethical behavior in identity. "I am a human being and as such have various needs, interests, and obligations. I respond to reasons, show sympathy with others, desire certain ends, feel affinity with my fellows, etc." Moreover we often have many other identities: child, brother, father, husband, citizen, employee, manager, and many, many more. Some of these identities you can never shed. You are still someone's child even if your parents are dead, even if you were an orphan. Other identities are more transient. You may be a member of the PTA, but you can drop out without serious consequences.

With these identities, says Perry, come ethical norms and obligations. These are perhaps clearest for people like doctors and lawyers, professions for which the norms and obligations have been hammered over time. It means that a doctor, a lawyer, a psychologist, a police officer, a President may perform an ethical act in that role that would be someone who is not a doctor, a lawyer, etc.
It also seems to mean that ethics are culturally bound. That is, an act that would be unethical for a businessman in one culture (offering a bribe, for example) may be perfectly ethical for a businessman in another—same identify, same act, different ethical norm.

As I said above, Moral Dilemmas is not easy reading. It would have been helped with more concrete examples, less passive voice, and a good editor. (The chapter about ethics and lawyers is among the most lively and accessible.) Nevertheless I believe the book is worth the effort to absorb if only to help clarify your own thinking about the right thing to do in what seems to be a moral dilemma.

Monday, November 24, 2014

What makes Micahel Connelly so great?

I've written enthusiastically about Michael Connelly in the past, so I am not here to praise his latest Harry Bosch mystery, The Burning Room, but to sketch some of the reasons why I think he's one of the best crime writers in America.

1) He knows where to start the story for maximum dramatic effect. Here are the first two sentences of the new book: "It seemed to Bosch to be a form of torture heaped upon torture. Corazon was hunched over the steel table, her bloody and gloved hands deep inside the gutted torso, working with forceps and a long-bladed instrument she called the 'butter knife.'" We are watching an autopsy that initiates an investigation into a 10-year-old shooting.

2) He limits the point of view to Harry Bosch. The reader knows only what Bosch knows. This means Bosch has to learn things from his partner, a young detective named Lucy Soto, and from other people. So the book is crowded with names and places, but we are able to keep track easily and the flow feels natural.

3) His account of LA police procedures and politics ring absolutely true. Because I do not know Los Angeles well, I cannot tell whether places are where Connelly says they are—but I suspect they are. Using real streets, neighborhoods, and locations lends the book authority and verisimilitude.

4) The puzzle Bosch has to solve is both complex and plausible. He is working on a both a 10-year-old shooting and a 21-year-old arson case and the action stops long enough for Bosch and his partner to compare notes, or for Bosch to report to his superiors on his progress, which helps the reader keep track of what's going on.

5) Connelly is able to introduce history (back story) naturally without interrupting the story's flow. For example, Bosch and the reader learn the details of the arson case by reading about it from departmental records. At another point he is talking to a retired detective about an old case and he recalls "the infamous 1997 shoot-out in the streets outside a Bank of America branch in North Hollywood." Bosch played only the most minor role in the incident (part of the team securing the crime scene after it was all over), but the memory has its role.

6) His characters are neither paragons of virtue nor embodiments of evil. Bosch is, in some ways, a loose cannon, although he will get a search warrant when he needs one. He's doing his best to be a good father to his teenage daughter. When Bosch and Lucy meet a neo-Nazi ex-con witness, perhaps the most unpleasant character in the book, the guy seems more pitiful than viscous for all his vitriol.

7) He does not rely on coincidence to help the story along. I believe there is only one incident that might be considered coincidence in the entire 388 pages (a news story that happens to appear on the back of a news clipping Bosch is reading). But it is so natural few readers would question it.

8) The dialogue is crisp and at times funny. For example, a reward has been offered and Bosch gets one of the tip callers who says: "I want to register for the reward."
"What do you mean 'register,' sir? It's not a lottery. Do you have information that can help us?"
"Yeah. I got information. The shooter is named Jose. You can mark it down."
"Jose what?"
"I don't know that part. I just know it's Jose."
"How do you know this?"
"I just do."
"He was the shooter."
"That's right."
"Do you know this man? Do you know why he did it?"
"No, but I'm sure you will get all of that once you arrest him."
"Where do I arrest him?"
The man on the other end of the line seemed to scoff at the question.
"I don't know that. You're the detective."
"Okay, sir, so you are saying that I need to go out and find and arrest a man named Jose. No last name, no known whereabouts. Do you know what he looks like?"
"He looks Mexican."
"Okay, sir, thank you." Bosch hung up the phone, banging it hard into the cradle. "Douche bag," he said to himself....

9) The descriptions of places and people are crisp and to the point. For example: "Ojeda was sitting at a small table. Seeing him in the cold light of the room, Bosch saw that he was a handsome man with a full head of jet-black hair, smooth skin, and a trim built. There was a weariness or sadness in his dark eyes...."

10) He saves a final twist for the last seven pages of the book. It's entirely plausible, a complete surprise—and I'm not going to spoil it here. Read the book.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence

Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence is David Samuel Levinson's first novel (He published an earlier collection of short stories, Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will.) It is set in small fictional college town in upstate New York. The plot involves three main characters:

—Catherine Strayed, the 40-something-year-old widow of Wyatt, a promising writer whose first novel was mercilessly savaged by the famous critic Henry Swallow. Catherine works in a bookstore in town and is slowly recovering from Wyatt's accidental(?) death. She seems to be drifting through life and to be terribly passive.

—Henry Swallow, a late 50s professor and critic who was Catherine's lover when she was his student. He has become the head of the college's writing program and, although it was his review that apparently destroyed Wyatt's writing career, Catherine rents the cottage on her property to him. He seems to be randy old goat on which age, lust, and liquor are taking a terrible toll.

—Antonia Lively, a 23-year old writer who is Henry's current squeeze and protégé who has followed him to the town. Antonia has written a best-selling book presented as fiction but based closely on her family's history. Antonia insinuates herself into Catherine's life because she would like to plunder it for her next shocking best-seller. She is a bright young thing escaping a disfunctional family.

Because this is a novel about writers, writing, and critics, Levinson has some interesting things to say about the subject. For example: "Good fiction lies to get at the truth," Wyatt used to say. "Good journalism tells the truth to gae at the lies. It's only great literature that does both. It presents a world in which the two aren't just intertwined, they're inseparable."

Here is Henry speaking to a writing class: "If I can see the writer in the work, then it's clear to me this writer is more involved with his own story than with imagining a fictional one. This is a fiction class, where you will share and evaluate one another's stories. Notice the use of the word 'stories,' because that's what I expect from you—stories, not journal entries or personal essays or chapters from your Great American Novel that also double as your autobiography. Fiction is about character. Fiction is never about you."

As a writer, I find all this—and especially Henry's long (too long to quote) indictment of contemporary publishing—fascinating, but I wonder how many readers who are not writers care.

I also wonder how many readers will be put off by the way Levinson tells the story. He begins with a first-person narrator who sets the scene. The next 100 pages are told in third person as the narrator reports the thoughts and words of the characters, thoughts and words to which the narrator could not have had access.

Which is why I was jarred when, on page 108, a paragraph begins, "I myself wasn't at Leland's to hear Henry's denunciation...." Who is the "I" here? Who is telling this story? (We eventually find out, but I was more put off by Levinson's tying up the loose threads than satisfied.)

One curious contradiction within the novel is Henry's view of fiction quoted above and Antonia's (and the stated position of the novel itself; i.e., this really happened). Antonia's seems to be that fiction is only thinly disguised fact. If Antonia cannot learn the facts about Catherine and Wyatt's marriage, she cannot write her book. She cannot make anything up. What does she think of Henry's pronouncements?

So although I had problems with some of the characters and their motivations, and in general do not respond well to novels set in made-up places, I think Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence is a very creditable first effort and well worth reading.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Adventures in Japanese - III

To slowly, slowly improve my ability to read Japanese, I have been translating a book of short stories that my conversation partner bought me on one of her trips home. This is not "literature." The author, Hirao Okuda, is appealing to a popular audience. Nevertheless, the book contains sentences that are well beyond my ability to turn into English. For example:

絵里 は 鼻 の 奥 が つんときた。

Stick with me for a moment, and we'll go through it. 絵里 is a girl's name, Eri. 鼻 means "nose." 奥 means "inside," so 鼻の奥  means "inside [her] nose." つんときた  means "to become irritated" or "struck by a pungent odor."

So, my translation, which made some sense in the context (Eri is talking to her brother in his hospital room): "A pungent odor was in Eri's nose."

Google Translate's version: "Eri the back of the nose was Tsunto come."

My native-speaking Japanese conversation partner says the sentence means, "Eri felt she was about to cry." (The irritation in her nose is the precursor to crying.) Who knew? 

Notice that the only word in common between the original and my partner's translation is "Eri."

What all this means is that not only am I slowly learning to read, I continue to increase my respect for the scholars—Donald Keene, John Nathan, Ted Goosens, Philip Gabriel, Jay Rubin, Juliet Winters Carpenter, and more—who are able to translate Japanese into lively English. What they are able to do is astonishing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Let's hear it for more reality!

On one of the groups I follow, a member wrote, "Those who say ghosts do not exist and anything paranormal is the product of a fanciful mind should really think again. Chances are you will eventually have an experience that you cannot chalk up to perceived normal reality." She went on to cite an anecdote that made her point that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

I agree with Shakespeare, but I exclude the paranormal, and said so. She asked why I was so skeptical about the paranormal, adding, "I would say it is because no truly paranormal event that you could not explain has ever happened to you. However, for me it has. I have seen spirits on a number of occasions throughout my life, not to mention other paranormal happenings."

In my defense, I said I find reality so rich, to interesting, so rewarding that I'm not interested in the unreal—other to be curious why so many people find the paranormal so rich, so interesting, and so rewarding.

I know that many people believe they have seen spirits on a number of occasions. They have had a genuine experience and assigned meaning to it. I do not doubt, I do not question the experience. I believe the experience is real. I do question the meaning they have assigned to the experience—that what they have seen (experienced) is a ghost or a spirit.

One might respond to my skepticism by asking, "But what else could it be?"

I have no idea. There is far more to reality than I can understand or explain. But a paranormal experience by definition cannot be explained by logic or science. All that says to me is that logic and science are, in certain situations, limited; we do not know everything.

But we do not have to drag in ghosts, spirits, or the supernatural to explain the experience. We simply have to say, "We don't know."

Saturday, November 1, 2014

How Freud Became Freud

Adam Phillips, an English psychoanalyst and general editor of the new Penguin Modern Classics translations of Sigmund Freud, has written a concise biography, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, which follows Freud up to the age of fifty.

Interestingly for someone whose life work was explicating a patient's biography, Freud was against anyone writing his. Indeed, when he was 30 he wrote his fiancee that he had destroyed all his notes, letters, scientific excerpts, and manuscripts of his papers to frustrate future biographers. This, Phillips points out, from a man "with no distinctive professional achievements . . . a man [who thinks he] will be worthy not of one biography but of many."

Phillips does his best to put Freud into his place and times. Although Freud was a secular Jew, he was conscious of his Jewishness (and a sister died in the Holocaust) and worried that psychiatry would be seen as a "Jewish science." He was trained as a doctor, but had little interest in medicine. He was far more interested in language, in the stories people tell about themselves, and in writing his books. He presented himself as a scientist, but his books—Interpreting Dreams (1900), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905) and others—are hardly scientific.

However, as Phillips writes, "[t]he facts of a life—and indeed the facts of life—were among the many things that Freud's work has changed our way of thinking about. Freud's work shows us not merely that nothing in our lives is self-evident, that not even the facts of our lives speak for themselves, but that facts themselves look different from a psychoanalytic point of view." I found it interesting that while Freud listened to his patients for hidden meanings, symbols, buried fears, unacknowledged lusts, and more, working on the theory that these existed, he seems to have been arrogant enough to believe he himself was exempt from them. That, indeed, he could successfully analyze himself.

Yet, the psychoanalyst, Phillips writes, "is a historian who shows us that our histories are also the way we conceal the past from ourselves; the way we both acknowledge it and disavow it at the same time (to disavow it is, one way or another, to simplify it; to acknowledge it is to allow complication)." Freud showed modern people "how unconscious they were, how removed from a clear sense of their own intentions, how determinedly ignorant they were about their own pleasure." As a result, Freud argues, we are fundamentally divided against ourselves. We no longer know what is in our best interests—or even what our best interest might be.

For a short book (162 pages), Becoming Freud is both expansive and profound. Because Freud and his ideas have had such an impact on 20th century thought, Adam Phillips has done us a service by writing about the man and his thought so effectively.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Adventures in Japanese - II

Once I was stationed in Japan and leaving the Army camp on pass most weekends, I was able to pick up enough Japanese to function with phrases like: "Where is the . . .toilet . . . train station . . . bus stop?" "I would like . . . a coffee . . . a beer . . . a check." "How much is it?" "How do you say this in Japanese"? (pointing to an object). Asking for directions to the train station in acceptable Japanese sometimes meant of course that the answer came back in rapid and incomprehensible Japanese. So I learned the phrase "Do you speak English?"

But while learning useful phrases was not hard, written Japanese seemed impossible. I was told that while Japan has something like a 99-percent plus literacy rate, the written language is so difficult that school children cannot read an ordinary newspaper or a magazine until middle school.

Written Japanese uses hiragana, katakana, kanji, and occasionally the alpahbet. The hiragana and katakana characters represent sounds. Hiragana is used for verb endings, grammatical markers (like English prepositions), and certain common words. Katakana is used these days for foreign words and for emphasis. Kanji are the originally Chinese characters that may be used for their meaning or their sound (or both). So the word "Japan" can be written four ways: にっぽん、ニッポン、日本,  and Nippon.

I wanted to learn to sound out hiragana because train station signs, which included the name of the station, the last station, and the next station, were in hiragana. If I could read that the train was stopped at しもあかつか and the next station was なります, I would know to be ready to get off.

The letters across the top show the sounds, so the characters in the second column from the right are pronounced ka, ki, ku, ke, ko.
The hiragana and katakana syllabaries each have 46 characters. The chart above illustrates the hiragana. One Saturday afternoon, I took the train from camp into Tokyo, parked myself in a favorite coffee shop where I could sit all afternoon for the price of a single cup of coffee, made up flash cards, and spent more than four hours memorizing. Because these only represent sounds, and because characters are similar (め、ぬ、れ、ね、わ、ろ、る) it was not easy, but by the end of the day I could read and write almost all 46 characters.

Once I could, I began sounding out everything I could read. Being able to sound the hiragana out did not mean I could understand the words, but it was a start. And on the way back to Ikebukuro Station, I spotted a bus poster advertising 味の素. I could not of course understand the two kanji characters, but beside them were small hiragana (called furigana) that gave the pronunciation—あじ の もと, or "Ajinomoto," the brand of monosodium glutamate, a word I did understand. I can still vividly recall the shock of recognition, the sense that it was possible to grasp what had been incomprehensible. What a rush of delight!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Haruki Murakami's evasive fiction

Haruki Murakami, perhaps the contemporary Japanese novelist best-known to Western readers, has a short story, "Scheherazade," in the October 13, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. It begins (in Ted Goossen's translation), "Each time they had sex, she told Habara a strange and gripping story afterward."

Habara, 31, seems to be under house arrest or internal exile in a provincial Japanese city. The woman with whom he has sex is 35, "a full-time housewife with two children in elementary school (though she was also a registered nurse and was apparently called in for the occasional job)." It's not clear whether bringing Habara groceries twice a week and servicing him sexually is part of the job. Nor do we learn her name. Habara calls her Scheherazade because she tells him stories that always break off before the end, as does Murakami's own story here (another reason for my frustration).

We don't know why Habara is stuck in the house. He watches DVDs and reads all day—no newspapers, no internet, no television, and presumably no radio. We know nothing about his earlier life, his family, even his feelings for the woman. "Scheherazade" takes place entirely within the house, giving a claustrophobic feeling.

On The New Yorker's website, Deborah Treisman says, "If Scheherazade is a lamprey eel, dependent on other creatures for her survival, Habara refers to himself as a desert island, isolated and self-sufficient. Do you see him that way? Could he survive with no human contact?"

Murakami responds, "Habara is a man who has experienced an irrevocable turning point in his life. Was the turning point moral, or legal, or was it a metaphorical, symbolic, psychological kind of thing? Did he turn the corner voluntarily, or did someone force him? Is he satisfied with the results or not? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. The instant he turned that corner, though, he became a 'desert island.' Things can’t go back to the way they were, no matter what he does. I think that is the most important aspect of this story."

The reaction of this reader however is a feeling of being cheated. It seems to me that an irrevocable turning point in a life is a story and to evade it is to evade the artist's responsibility to say something meaningful about the world. Treisman asks, "These two characters’ lives intersect seemingly at random—or at the whim of some unnamed person. What made you think of throwing them together in this situation?"

Murakimi responds, "I occasionally think that, in our heart of hearts, we all may be seeking situations like this one—where our free will doesn’t apply and (almost) everything is determined by someone else, where each day must be lived according to the conditions that someone else has laid down. There are people who may already be living that sort of life, to a greater or lesser extent, without even knowing it." In fact, as a volunteer teacher in prisons, I've met hundreds of people who must live each day according to conditions that someone else has laid down. For most of them, it's not a lot of fun or very interesting.

I did not believe for a moment that Habara or his "Scheherazade" embodied anything "real." I thought the situation was interesting (I thought it was a writer's wet dream: be alone to read, watch DVDs, write, and have a complaint woman provide the groceries and regular sex without any responsibility), and I thought the story Scheherazade tells about a youthful infatuation interesting, but (and this may well be my lack of imagination and bias) I found the story irritating and ultimately meaningless.

Adventures in Japanese - I

A Kyoto yakitori chef prepares a meal.
I have been engaged in (interested in? consumed by?) the Japanese language for a long time. Although I doubt I will ever return to Japan, I continue to meet weekly with a Japanese conversation partner and continue to learn slowly, slowly the characters with a goal of eventually being able to read a magazine or newspaper. I will never be fluent. I cannot, for example, understand a news broadcast. But my spoken Japanese is good enough to function as a traveler in Japan.

Because I have been learning and using Japanese for a long time, and because I find the language so interesting, I plan to write about Japanese and some of my experiences with it in a series of periodic blog entries, this being the first. I hope that if you have observations or questions, you will take a moment to comment.

Like many Western visitors to Japan, I was disoriented when I got off a troop ship in Yokohama harbor years ago and discovered that, while Japanese shops, posters, and billboards were a riot of writing, I was entirely illiterate. I might also have been deaf and dumb because everything I heard was only noise. On the one hand, it seemed impossible to learn enough to, as a friend said, "exchange ideas." On the other, Japan is filled with children who have learned the language, so it cannot be impossible.

Indeed, I learned almost immediately how to say "hello," "thank you," and "how much?" As a GI, I didn't need much more; the Japanese I came in contact with spoke (some) English. While the Japanese education system requires several years of English study (and did so right through WWII)—and I have a story about English instruction in a moment—in my experience, few Japanese are comfortable in English and appreciate the foreigner who has bothered to learn some of their language. The Japanese are not, generally, language snobs unless or until you gain native fluency, which will never be my dilemma.

The story: One time in the 1950s was on a train somewhere in the countryside. At a stop, a group of schoolboys and their teacher came into the car. I was an American in civilian clothes, fairly unusual at that time and place. The boys crowded around me and dragged their teacher over to sit across from me. He was clearly embarrassed by what the boys insisted. Because I spoke virtually no Japanese, I could not help him much. Finally, by consulting the pocket dictionary I always carried and the dictionary he had in his brief case, were able to establish that (a) he was the boys' English teacher, and (b) I was the first person he had ever met for whom English was his native language.

While I know that the level of English-language instruction in Japan has improved dramatically in the last 50 years, I also know that for many Japanese English is a trial and a burden. An American who is able to speak some Japanese, even poorly, therefore has an enormous advantage in gaining access to the "real" Japan, whatever that is.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What one guy learned exiling himself in, of all places, Kalamazoo

Ordinarily, I do not care for stories about alcoholics (they tend to follow the same pattern) or about writers (as I writer myself, I don't find their challenges very interesting), which means I tend to have even less sympathy for stories about alcoholic writers. Exile on Kalamazoo Street by Michael Loyd Gray is an exception.

It is the story of Bryce Carter, a 51-year-old novelist with a drinking problem. He's been successful enough to have published three novels and sell one for a screenplay that brought in enough money he could buy a small house in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He's taught creative writing in college. When he found himself going down for the third time in the Whiskey River, he exiled himself in the house, resolving not to step one foot outside the door until . . . well, maybe never. His sister who lives in town buys his groceries and delivers them and, at his request, captures a black cat that becomes Black Kitty, Bryce's constant companion.

Because he is always home, Bryce is a sitting duck (fish in a barrel?) for visitors. These include a former drinking buddy who does his best to push Bryce off the wagon, a Presbyterian minister who would like to save Bryce's eternal soul, a 23-year-old former student who has an adorable shaved vulva, a former academic colleague, and, eventually, two Hollywood flunkies dispatched to nudge Bryce into writing a screenplay based on his third novel—which is by his account "a self-indulgent mess by a self-indulgent drunk . . . a 500-page leviathan that lurches finally into incoherence about a man searching for his soul." (Exile on Kalamazoo Street is 151 pages and while somewhat self-referential and somewhat self-indulgent, it is neither incoherent nor a mess.)

The novel begins with a chapter of Bryce sliding enthusiastically into Whiskey River in a local bar, but Gray writes without apology or explanation. Good! The rest of the novel covers the months Bryce spends in exile with Black Kitty and his interactions with his visitors. His sister has sicced the minister on him: "But I couldn't be angry with Janis, my younger and only sister, a dutiful mother, freshly divorced, who believed unflinchingly in the magic the church might wield on wounded people as surely as I doubted it. Janis was an onward marching Christian soldier. But she just wanted the best for me."

Bryce is a writer, but he does not write in his exile. For one thing, he is still recovering from his third novel. Speaking about it to the minister, he says, "Many critics said there's no story at all, Reverend. I recall my agent telling me that if it sold, it would because there wasn't another book quite like it. Turns out that's a good reason why no other books are quite like it." Much later, after he's been hired to write the screenplay, "I thought of the irony of being tasked to write a film about a man with the ability to travel the world [he's won the lottery] searching for some eternal truth. I thought of truth as just a word and a good idea, but something that did not really exist. There were actions and reactions, statments and replies, but there was little that could be called truth."

And yet. And yet. I believe Exile on Kalamazoo Street is filled with truths large and small. That, and Gray's dialogue, descriptions, and the opinions he attributes to Bryce make the book delightful. Unlike the typical alcoholic memoir ("How I overcome terrific odds to overcome my drinking), this novel is a fascinating fictional account of one man's experience of internal exile. I was willing to believe every word of it.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Here's an intriguing puzzle set in Victorian London

Because I am creating fiction myself, I tend to read novels two ways simultaneously. I read for the story, and I read to see how the author does it. Because I am currently writing a mystery, I was interested in Anne Perry's Blood on the Water, my first exposure to her work.

Blood on the Water is Perry's nineteenth Victorian-era novel to feature William Monk, commander of the Thames River Police. (She has another 27-novel Victorian mystery series featuring a married couple plus five WWI novels and 12 Christmas novels; she's a prolific lady.) Readers of the series have followed Monk, his wife Hester (formerly a nurse during the Crimean War), and Scuff, an orphaned mudlark they took in. While it is not necessary to have read the first eighteen novels in the series to enjoy Blood on the Water, I believe the experience would be richer and more enjoyable.

The novel starts with a bang, literally. On page 2, Monk and one of his officers are on the Thames at twilight watching a pleasure boat filled with party-goers returning from an excursion when "there was a shattering roar and a great gout of flame leaped from the bow. Debris shot high into the air and the column of light seared Monk's eyes. Instinctively he ducked as the shock wave struck, and pieces of wood and metal pelted into the water around him and Orme with deafening splashes...."

So there's your mystery. Who would blow up a pleasure boat killing almost 200 innocent passengers? Why would someone do such a thing? And while this is a case for the River Police, higher authorities immediately give it to the Metropolitan London police who, in fairly short order (the British press is in full cry, demanding results) identify the perpetrator, try him (we see the trial), and condemn him to death. But we're only halfway through the book. I'm not going to say more about the story because I don't want to spoil it for potential readers. I will say that it held my interest to the last page as Monk and friends worked to uphold British justice.

Which is a theme throughout the book: The idea that justice is possible, that the system is not corrupt, that British barristers and solicitors hold themselves to an ideal of equity—because if they don't and the people do not trust the law and its administrators, civilization is not possible.

Perry tells her story from the limited third person point of view, so we are with Monk on the water rescuing survivors of the blast, with Hester doing her own investigations into the event, and with Oliver Rathbone, a disbarred lawyer and apparently a significant character in earlier books. (One of the series writer's problems: How much do you have to repeat for new readers; how much should you refer back to earlier cases? Enough, I guess, to remind faithful readers of the earlier books and to help new readers understand context, not enough to bore faithful or new readers.)

As someone who knows nothing about English courts except what he's seen on television, Perry's descriptions of the—you will excuse the expression—thrust and parry between prosecution and defense barristers seemed convincing. She is also particularly good a using characters' reactions to other people and to events to convey mood and feeling. Here for example is Hester looking at the jurors:

"From her place in the gallery, Hester could see that many of them had now lost all certainty as to who was lying, mistaken, or driven by motives one could only guess at. Looking at them, studying their faces, she could see that this was not a situation that sat well with them. There were unanswered questions regarding the first trial. How could so many mistakes have been made, and then compounded? It was anxiety she saw, and rising fear. They glanced at one another and then away again hastily. They moved minutely as if unable to find a comfortable position...."

If you would like to spend some time watching Monk and his friends work out an intriguing puzzle, try Blood on the Water.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Worried about the culture? So is Clarence Page

Clarence Page has been a columnist for The Chicago Tribune since 1984. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1989. Cultural Worrier: Reflections on Race, Politics and Social Change, Selected Columns 1984-2014 is just what the title says it is: a collection of Page's newspaper columns organized by topic and by date within a topic.

Page is black and has been accused of being a conservative by liberals and of being a liberal by conservatives. Based on what I read in these columns, however, I don't think either label will stick. Rather, Page as a good journalist uses facts to make observations and to draw conclusions. One might argue with his conclusions (I didn't), but the 172 columns here are thoroughly grounded in reality. Page is not a mouthpiece for one ideology or another.

In describing his approach, Page says, "I try to set my moral compass to what's best for America's families, not what's best for a particular political party or interest group. My perspective hasn't changed much, but the world has. I've always portrayed myself as a good Midwestern, middle-of-the-road voice for the sensible center. I am amused when people paint me as a hard-core liberal or hard-core conservative, based on the same column!" I suspect he is less amused when whites call him a racist for criticizing a "white" ideas and blacks call him an Uncle Tom for criticizing a black figure.

The scope of the chapters is exceptionally wide: Breaking News; Gaffes, Goofs and Gotchas (reducing political discourse to jumping on one careless statement); Weaponized Umbrage; Bill Cosby's Culture War; Political Language Arts; Diversity Anxiety; Profiling: The Acceptable Prejudice; Giants Worth Remembering (among them Justice Marshall, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Coretta Scott King, and more); Crime and Cures; Prison Pipelines, Reversing the Flow; Obama World vs. Palin Nation; Tea Party Cultural Wars; How the Party of Lincoln Lost People of Color; Black Conservatives Offer Remedies, Too; Big Ideas: A Pursuit of Whatever Works; Marriage Slips Out of Style; Wooing Women's Votes.

Page says, "I write about racial issues more often than most white columnists do"—which is one reason why this book is so valuable to this white, middle-class reviewer. "But when I write about climate change, mortgage defaults, student loans, the obesity epidemic, the future of public education, are those racial issue? Maybe not on the surface, but my experience informs my awareness of how differently those issues play out in white communities compared to communities of color."

For example, Page writes about a 1996 speech Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan gave to a gathering of black journalists where he said, "White folks did not hire you to really represent what black people are really thinking, and you don't really tell them what you think because you are too afraid. A scared-to-death Negro is a slave, you slave writers, slave media people." Page says not everyone was impressed. Many were annoyed that Farrakhan would "stereotype black journalists as broadly, ignorantly and destructively as any white editor ever has. Nowhere in the Farrakhan journalism lecture was there a word said about the possibility that one could maybe sometimes disagree with Louis Farrakhan and still be black."

Because the columns stretch from 1984 to 2014, many by necessity reflect history in the making and are valuable to remind readers of old battles, some won, some continuing still. My only quibble with the book is the lack of follow-up. Occasionally I'd like to know what finally happened. How did the situation turn out?

Nevertheless, Cultural Worrier is a stimulating and interesting collection by a careful and thoughtful commentator on American life, black and white.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Why write at all? Kelly Luce's answer

Kelly Luce's first book is a collection of short stories: Three Scenarios in which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. I bought it because I have a consuming interest in Japan and things Japanese and because the book won the Indifab Editor's Choice Prize for Fiction, i.e., the best independently published book of fiction in 2013. (The publisher is Austin (Texas)-based A Strange Object; Three Scenarios is its first book.)

Kelly Luce
While not all the ten stories are equally engaging (what story collection has all winners?) they are all interesting in their own way. Most of the stories are told by or featuring Japanese characters who act and sound Japanese—not, I think, an easy thing to pull of. There is a tendency when Westerners write from the inside of a foreign sensibility (and the Japanese sensibility is very foreign) to impose Western assumptions, expectations, attitudes on the characters or to write as if they are incomprehensible exotics. Luce does neither. Her characters for the most part are recognizably human in a recognizable world.

To give you a sense of Luce's scope: Mrs. Yamada sees kanji characters burned into her toast and realizes they can tell how a person is going to die, which is not any more strange that seeing Christ's face on a piece of toast. Middle-aged Masahiro and his younger wife go to a seaside in for their honeymoon and begin to secrets about themselves and each other. A young woman goes to a temple festival while mourning her lover. A retired professor invites a former student to be tested by his "amorometer," which measures one's capacity to love.

To give you a sense of Luce's writing, here's the opening paragraph of "Ash": "The year we lived in Japan, the volcano at the edge of town hiccupped, covering everything in six inches of of heavy golden dust. The sky turned yellow, with clouds so low they were like ceilings. No one could remember anything like it." Although Luce is working on an MFA, her writing does not suffer from what I would call the MFA disease: overly sparkly writing, the kind of writing that calls attention to itself by its garish—if apt—metaphors and language.

Luce has a "More to read" section on her blog in which she has included several interviews about herself, her writing, and Three Scenarios. I was so impressed by the stories that I wrote her with my own questions, which she answered:

How did you happen to go to Japan? 
I went in 2002, as a teacher in the JET Program, which places assistant English teachers in public school classrooms alongside a Japanese teacher of English. I didn't know much about Japan, but I wanted to go somewhere different and far away--to get a sense of the world's bigness. 

What did you do during the three years you were there?
I worked as a JET teacher in Kawasaki for about ten months, then spent a week in jail, then moved to Tokushima City (Shikoku) for two more years, where I ran an English immersion program for children ages 0-10. In Tokushima, I joined a professional Awa Odori dance troupe, learned to surf badly, hitchhiked, developed a love for konyaku jelly and Chu-hi, and sang hours upon hours of karaoke (sometimes alone.) Tokushima's also where I met my husband. 

What stands out about your experience in Japan? Can you tell if that had any effect on you as a writer and if so, what?
My time in Japan was formative. The experience of living abroad, in a country where I was (at first) functionally illiterate, dumb and deaf, taught me to observe. Making my way through stressful and uncomfortable situation--culturally, linguistically, logistically--on my own taught me confidence in my abilities to learn and grow, which gave me the tenacity to keep writing even if I failed. Japanese art, music, philosophy, and the notions of subtlety, the beauty of the ephemeral (mono no aware), and wabi-sabi sunk deeply in as if they belonged there.

Why did you go for an MFA? What do you think was the major benefit of the MFA experience/expense?
I almost didn't. I went to my first MFA program right after I returned from Japan, in 2005, simply because I didn't know what else to do with my life. I dropped out after a semester because between teaching, classwork, and the part-time job I took to supplement my stipend, I wasn't writing. What I really wanted was to live someplace beautiful, and write as much as I could until I either got better, or got sick of writing. I moved to northern CA and got a part-time nanny job and lived in a cabin in the woods for about seven years. While there I joined a writing group, read a lot, and went to writing conferences. It was a piecemeal self-education. I don't have teaching aspirations, so I figured there was no point in getting an MFA, especially if it would be costly. There was one program, though, that I occasionally applied for because of the generosity of its support. After three attempts and ten years, I got in.

I am incredibly lucky to be at the Michener Center for Writers, which not only gives its students three years to write, but also pays them to do so without requiring them to teach. It's impossible to exaggerate the benefit of this. On top of that, there's the friends I've made, and the opportunity to study with Elizabeth McCracken and Michael Adams and Rachel Kushner, and being involved with the very active wider Austin literary community. 

What is the first thing (or among the first things) you ask another writer?
Who's a woman writer you've discovered recently whose work you admire? 

Do you have a regular writing schedule? If so, what is it?
So much of writing is thinking, incubating. In that sense, I suppose I do write every day. I observe, mull, take notes. It sounds trite, but it's a way of life. So, no, I don't have a set schedule, and I don't write fresh words every day, unless you count tweets and emails.

Do you keep a journal?
I keep notes that I add to daily--scraps of conversation, funny sights, intriguing news stories--and I keep a journal when I travel. I also write a lot of emails, all of which I save, and which serve as something of a record of my thoughts and feelings. I haven't written a daily journal strictly for myself in a long time.  

What book(s) have you read recently that you think others should try?
So many great books have come out recently! Thunderstruck, by Elizabeth McCracken, is an exquisite story collection, and just nominated for the National Book Award. Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is strange and unique and beautiful. Nina McConigley's Cowboys and East Indians is a wonderful story collection that just won the PEN Open award. And I've read two of Rose Tremain's novels recently--The Road Home, and Sacred Country, both of which were stunning.

Why do you think you do it—write at all?
It's the only way for me to know what I think. 

I recommend Three Scenarios to anyone who is interested in reading a new, original voice.

Friday, September 19, 2014

An extraordinary novel by Alistair MacLeod

Recently I wrote about Alistair MacLeod's collected short stories, The Island. The collection was so good, I was reluctant to begin his novel, No Great Mischief. For one thing, he reportedly worked on it for years and I was afraid he might have worked it to death. For another thing, it is billed as a family saga and I am not much interested in family sagas. (My failure, but there it is.) Finally, what could MacLeod say about life on Cape Breton that he had not already said—and said with incredible power and grace—in the stories?

A lot.

No Great Mischief is an extraordinary novel. It is narrated by Alexander MacDonald, a middle-aged Canadian orthodontist who grew up on Cape Breton. It begins with Alexander's visit to his much older, alcoholic brother Calum in a Toronto flop house. It ends with Alexander and Calum returning to Cape Breton. In between we meet the extended family; Alexander has a twin sister, three older brothers, grandparents, cousins, and friends. We hear the family stories, how the first Alexander MacDonald left Scotland, his first wife dead, his new wife dying on the voyage, arriving in the New World with his twelve children, one of whom had given birth along the way. We hear the family stories and we watch Alexander's parents and oldest brother die one March evening as they cross the ice to their home:

"Everyone could see their three dark forms and the smaller one of the dog outlined upon the whiteness over which they traveled. By the time they were halfway across, it was dusk and out there on the ice they lit their lanterns, and that too was seen from the shore. And then they continued on their way. Then the lanterns seemed to waver and almost to dance wildly, and one described an arc in what was now the darkness and then was still. Grandpa watched for almost a minute to be sure of what he was seeing and then he shouted to my grandmother, 'There is something wrong out on the ice. There is only one light and it is not moving.'"

Alice Munro says, "You will have scenes from this majestic novel burned into your mind forever," and I can only agree. The Cape Breton winters, working in a uranium mine, migrant workers picking seasonal produce, the primitive existence of Alexander's older brothers who sleep with loaded rifles under their best and shoot at deer if the moon is right:

"And if the shot were true, they would race down the stairs, fastening their trousers as they ran, and gather their long-bladed knives from the waiting kitchen table. Out in the field, lit by the 'lamp of the poor,' they would cut the throat of the still-thrashing deer so that the blood would run free and not taint or ruin the valuable meat. They would work quickly and efficiently, disembowelling and skinning and cutting the carcass into quarters, their knives flashing in and out of the body's cavities, severing the grey ropes of the intestines and separating the still-shuddering redness of the heart. Later they would pack the meat within buckets and lower it into the well as a means of basic refrigeration...."

As The New York Times reported, No Great Mischief is a multigenerational story that intertwines the fates of Cape Breton's fishermen and miners with those of their Scottish forebears. It reflects MacLeod's abiding concern: the tensions that pervade a community caught between the pull of tradition and the pressure of assimilation. The narrator has forsaken his island roots for a life of bourgeois discontent and the novel is enriched by Gaelic speech, old Scottish songs, and evocations of the land and the sea. Unbelievably moving.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

An oldie but goodie from Stephen King

A couple weeks ago, someone in a LinkedIn group recommended the movie "Stand By Me" as the archetypical coming of age movie. I don't know that I've ever seen it, but I knew I'd never read the novella on which it's based, Stephen King's "The Body," one of four novellas in Different Seasons. Viking published the book in 1982 when King was 35, and he wrote "The Body" in 1975 when he was about 28.

The ages are significant because in "The Body," King is recalling himself and his world as a 12-year-old boy in a small Maine town. In some ways, the story is simple. Four buddies about the same age hear about the body of a boy who has been missing, decide to go to find it, and become heroes because they found the missing boy. Because the dead boy had apparently been hit by a train, they will follow the train tracks on foot for the thirty miles to reach the body. On the way they have a number of adventures including spending a night in the woods. I don't want to say much more, because if you have not read the story, I recommend it and do not want to spoil it.

"The Body," however, is much more than a boy's adventure story. It is a story about time and change and loss. The first two sentences of the story proper are, "We had a treehouse in a big elm which overhung a vacant lot in Castle Rock. There's a moving company on that lot today, and the elm is gone." The elm is gone and the narrator's youth is gone.

The narrator identifies himself as Gordon Lachance, a successful mid-thirties writer of horror stories, much like Stephen King. "The Body," which is not a horror story and has no supernatural events, does include two samples of "Lachance's" work, a student short story that the narrator criticizes more harshly than I would have, and a more polished story that "Lachance"sold to Cavalier magazine. Although these have nothing to do with the adventure of finding the dead body, they work within the story's context, adding depth and complexity.

And King has interesting things to say about writing and stories: "The only reason anyone writes stories is so they can understand the past and get ready for some future mortality; that's why all the verbs in stories have -ed endings . . . The only two useful artforms are religion and stories." One of "Gordon's" 12-year-old buddies tells him "Those stories you tell, they're no good to anybody but you, Gordie. If you go along with us [his three friends] because you don't want the gang to break up, you'll wind up just another grunt, makin C's to get on the teams. You'll get into High and take the same fuckin shop courses and throw erasers and pull your meat along with the rest of the grunts . . . Nothin'll get written down. Cause you'll just be another wiseguy with shit for brains."

The story does show its age in phrases like "Do you dig?" "If anyone was rankin out my dad—" and more. And there's an occasional stretch that does not work for me: ". . . as I said it some guy pole-vaulted in my stomach. He dug his pole all the way into my balls, it felt like, and ended up sitting astride my heart."

Nevertheless, I am glad I followed up on the recommendation and have read it. If you haven't, it's worth looking up.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

How to know when you're writing something real

Matthew Thomas, a former high school English teacher, who reportedly sold his first novel, We Are Not Ourselves, for more than $1 million said something interesting in the September 7, 2014 New York Times Book Review.

"I learned not to look away at the moment when I should be paying the most attention. The closer I got to the heart of a scene, to the really difficult material to write, the emotionally challenging stuff or the exchange in which the conflict is made most explicit, the more I'd look for a way out of writing it. This was out of fear, obviously, because you don't want to run up against your limitations in craft, intelligence or heart. It's much easier to duck the really vital material, but it kills what you're writing to do so, kills it instantly."

As one who has avoided writing the emotionally challenging or conflict-laden, I know whereof Thomas speaks too well. It also explains why so many memoirs and amateur novels are so unsatisfying. The author has ducked and by doing so killed the work.

Monday, September 8, 2014

What if a critic hasn't played fair?

An acquaintance asks, "What do you do if the critic hasn't played fair? What do you do about negative reviews?"


Do nothing in public. Don't try to correct the record (unless the review has clear factual errors, and even then stick to the facts). Don't try to justify or explain yourself.

Privately console yourself that the reviewer is an idiot.

A case in point: Here is one of the 24 one-star Amazon reviews for a book I thought was a masterpiece: "Extremely hard book to read and understand what was going on. Could not even finish it. Could have been summarized in two pages with life principles it was raising." This reader is an idiot.

I am not alone in my admiration. The book has received 509 four- and five-star reviews, by the way.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Moscow Bound, a thriller set in Putin's Russia

According to his biographical note, Adrian Churchward lived and worked in Moscow, Budapest, and Prague as an East-West trade lawyer between 1984 and 1998. He was "one of the few Western lawyers working in the day-to-day arena of President Gorbachev's liberalization process of perestroika and glasnost."

Scott Mitchell, one of the two point-of-view characters in Moscow Bound, is a young British human-rights lawyer who is living and working in Moscow. When the book opens, Scott, flying back to Moscow, has just won a significant case against the Russian army in the European Court of Human Rights for its crimes in Chechnya. This has had two effects: Scott is a hero to Chechnyians (which gives him at least a few people he can trust in Moscow's house of mirrors), and he has pissed off the Russian army (which removes him from the plane under guard and interrogates him).

Now add a gorgeous young Russian mother, separated from her oligarch husband (powerful enough to dine occasionally with Putin). Ekaterina, who with good reason does not trust the Russian government, asks Scott to help her find the father she never knew, someone spirited away by the KGB years before. Scott reluctantly decides to help her.

Now add a second POV character, Lieutenant-General Pravda of the GRU, military intelligence. A body has been fished out of the Moscow River, someone who Pravda knows should not have been in Moscow, someone who has been assassinated in a particularly suspicious manner. When an elderly pensioner is murdered in the same way, Pravda, an honest and patriotic soldier, realizes an explosive military secret is at risk.

The book is a lot of fun and I gobbled it down. How is it possible for an English human-rights lawyer, even one who speaks fluent Russian, to penetrate the various circles within circles to find a long-vanished father? What is the connection between the GRU and the murdered men? Who are the puppet masters above Pravda and his competitors in the Russian Federation Security Service? If you can't trust the government, if you can't trust the police, if you can't trust the military, how can you live?

Moscow Bound may be Churchward's first novel, but he handles the various threads competently and his knowledge of Russian life in the 21st century adds depth and color to the story. I noticed only one or two unfortunately convenient coincidences among the events, and there seemed to be one or two threads that he never tied off—although that may be my fault because I was having so much fun on the ride and wasn't paying attention. Nevertheless, it's a thriller set firmly in a world very much like our own, one of my criterion for a book worth my time.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Here's a letter to make your day

A friend writes, "I just finished The Girl in the Photo. I have so much to say about it, but I'll try to be articulate and succinct as I write about my reactions and feelings.

"First—congratulations on producing a novel of such subtly and complexity, one that weaves family life, travel, death, love—all into one well-crafted tapestry. This book is even better than the last one, which I enjoyed immensely.

"One major thing that I really like here is that you don't have to rely on pathology, violence or deviance to create an interesting story. Like the Barchester novels by Trollop (which I love), you manage to make happy people interesting.

"Of course, by happy I don't mean free of problems. I'm sure you understand that. It takes a lot of wisdom and humanity to take 'regular' folk and weave a great plot around them with all the insight and compassion that you do. I stayed up half the night a few days ago in order to finish it. The ending was SO satisfying.

"I especially like the way you balance the two main characters, Abbie and David, with neither predominating, so that the reader can see things from both their perspectives. I like the way you use the father's memoir, leaving it up to the reader to interpret the facts about his life by placing his story against those of the other people who knew him, and letting us get a fuller picture of his personality.

"I like the way you so delicately handle the American-Japanese cultural issues—with just enough explanation so that the average American reader can sense some of the important differences. AND I like your description of life and values of the '50's while deftly switching to the 21st century.

"I like the political commentary and the way you touch on religion, music and atheism. Well, the list goes on."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Here's a resource for writers and readers: Forward Reviews magazine

Forward Reviews magazine, "The Indie Books We Love," showed up in my mailbox the other day causing me to wonder whose list the publisher has bought. This Fall 2014 issue is Volume 17, suggesting the publication has been around for over 15 years but I'd never heard of it.

Although I didn't count the number of reviews, the magazine is what it says it is: 150 reviews of fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, poetry, romance, body/mind/spirit, memoirs, and more. The audience seems to be libraries, bookstores, book clubs, and book lovers. The advertisers are virtually all publishers; the largest by far is Author House and its various brands with 16 full pages. Which makes me think the reviews are trustworthy (or at least not pandering to the advertisers) because I did not spot a review of an Author House book. (Nor, for that matter, did I spot a review for a Createspace book.)

The publishers for the most part are firms I'd never heard of: Annick Press, Kregel Publications, She Writes Press, Publishamerica, Cypress Creek Publishing, Shadown Mountain, Greenleaf Book Group, Thoughtful Publishing Company, Rane Coat Press, Forest Avenue Press, Cavankerry Press, Word Horde, and more and more and much more.

I looked up five or six of the names, trolled through their websites, and felt as if I were exploring a whole new world of publishing about which I had known nothing. These firms are between the big publishing companies and the self-publishing independents. They do not, it seems, offer advances, but they do perform a publishing company's traditional function: editing, copy editing, proof reading, cover design, book design, and some promotion (after all, that's how Forward Reviews learned about their books).

A year's subscription—four issues—is $19.95. If you are a committed bibliophile looking for largely unsung books or an author looking for an independent publisher, Forward Reviews may well be worth the price.

P.S. I was interested enough in one of the books mentioned that I have ordered it and will, in time, be posting about it.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Fairy-Tale Success by Adrienne Arieff and Beverly West

The subtitle of Fairy-Tale Success is "A Guide to Entrepreneurial Magic." I don't know about the magic part, but it certainly is a lively, interesting, and practical guide for young women who are thinking of starting a business.

Adrienne Arieff is "a PR, digital, and marketing communications professional." Her co-author, Beverly West, is "an author, developmental editor and new media producer." They use the Cinderella story as the scaffolding on which they construct the book so chapters have titles like Reveal Your Noble Roots (know who you are, what you like, how you want to live); Wish Out Loud (vision statement, business plan); Make Practical Magic (funding); Summon Your Fairy Godmothers (networking); Hear Ye, Hear Ye (harnessing social media); Make a Grand Entrance (launching your brand); Keep Your Eye on the Crown (staying focused); When the Clock Strikes Twelve, Don't Panic (dealing with setbacks and obstacles); and If the Glass Slipper Fits, Wear It (enjoying success).

The book is written for young women. Indeed, sampling their own recipe the authors quote their own vision statement: "We want to write and publish a book that raises awareness about the opportunities for young women to become entrepreneurs in today's economy. We want to create a platform for young entrepreneurs to connect and engage with each other both on- and off-line...." All their inspirational examples and interviews—and there are several dozen—are from young women who have had or are having business experience.

Every chapter follows the same pattern: a chunk of the original fairy tale, a discussion of how it relates to the chapter's material, interviews and anecdotes from young women, quotes from well-known businesspeople, and the chapter's concluding principles. I found the advice solid. In Chapter 8, for example, dealing with setbacks, Arieff and West write: "Don't speculate. No matter how sure you are about something, don't suggest that you know things that you may not. The worst way to respond to a crisis is to create another one based on false information that you are presenting as truth. So know the facts and don't stray from then. Don't assume, or imagine, or believe, or guess, or wish. Only say things that you objectively know to be true, once you've gathered the facts and checked them twice." Good advice for all of us at all times.

I was also struck by a "Words of Wisdom from Fairy Godparents," these from Virginia Romerty, CEO of IBM: "I learned to always take on things I'd never done before. Growth and comfort do not coexist."

My only quibble is with the throwaway line about SCORE in the "Resources" section: "If you find yourself in need of mentoring from en entrepreneur who's already been through it all, SCORE can help you find a mentor." In fact, SCORE's counselors can and will do far more to help a prospective entrepreneur develop business, financial, and marketing plans. SCORE is an affiliate of the Small Business Administration, and its services are free.

Nevertheless, if you know a high school or college student who is leaning in toward business, Fairy-Tale Success can be thought-provoking, inspiring, and useful.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Hawaiki Rising by Sam Low

Hawaiki Rising is a fascinating book. Its accurate subitle is "Hokule'a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance," and author Sam Low tells all three stories: Hokule'a, canoe's creation, mishap, and ultimate success; how Nainoa Thompson learned to navigate the Pacific; and canoe's the effect on Hawaiian culture.

In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl floated on a balsa raft from Peru to the Tuamotu island in the south Pacific to show that Polynesians who settle the Pacific islands came from South America. An interesting theory, but wrong. Modern research has show that the Polynesians share a genetic heritage with the peoples of southeast Asia. So how did they get to these dots of land scattered over thousands of square miles of ocean?

Early Western explorers in their square riggers discovered native canoes, some 100-feet long, that could sail circles around their ships. They had fore-and-aft rigged sails that allowed them to sail upwind. But of course they had no compass, sextant, chronometer, or chart, the western tools of navigation. Nevertheless, in 1973 a group of men and women on Hawaii decided to build and learn to sail a 60-foot-long version of one of the early ocean-going canoes—the Hokule'a. To sail it, they recruited one of the last native navigators in the world, Mau Piailug from the island of Satawal.

The author, Sam Low, who has sailed on three voyages on the Hokule'a, does a fine job of explaining to the layman (this layman, anyway), how Pialug and later Nainoa Thompson find their way from Hawaii to Tahiti using nothing but their knowledge of the stars, ocean currents, weather, and the natural world. If you see birds, you are within 100 miles of land. The book is illustrated with photographs, maps, and drawings to help clarify the principles. (When distance between the star Edasich and Pherkad is the same as between Pherkad and the horizon, you are a 5 degrees south latitude. There will be a test later.)

In 1976, the Hokule'a sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti, Mau Piailug navigating. There was so much tension and dissension between the white and native Hawaiian crew members that Piailug quit the project and flew home to his native island. This voyage was documented by a National Geographic film crew in a chase boat, which had to have changed the dynamics of the trip somewhat. Nainoa joined the Hokule'a for the return trip to Hawaii and in time resolved learned to navigate as Piailug had learned.

The canoe became a symbol of Polynesian skill and intelligence. In the 1980, archeologists discovered the ruins of a 1,300-year-old village on Hawaii, including pig bones—those people brought their animals with them and planned to settle. Low sketches the baleful effect the missionaries followed by the white traders had on native Polynesian culture. "The old ceremonies were stopped when the church came," Mau is quoted as saying. "That's why I don't like the church, because when the church come, when Christians come, everything is gone. Missing. The people follow the Christians. That's no good. Why are we going to follow customs from outside? Why we throw away our own customs? They throw away medicine, they throw away magic and now it's too late to try to pick them up again. Everybody who knew the old customs has passed away."

At the beginning of a second voyage to Tahiti, the Hokule'a capsized in a storm and one of the crew was lost at sea attempting to swim to one of the Hawaiian island. The canoe was almost lost, but was towed back to O'ahu, refitted and—under Coast Guard pressure—slightly redesigned to be safer. In other words, Low's book is not a report of one bright moment following another. The Epilogue does report however that in the years between 1980 when Hokule'a sailed successfully from Hawaii to Tahiti with Nainoa as navigator, and 2007 five more ocean-going canoes were built and 16 men had been trained as navigators.

Hawaiki Rising is a fascinating history, biography, and adventure story that describes a culture and way of life that was almost lost.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Island by Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod died in April this year (2014) at the age of 77. The New York Times obituary reported that he was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, the son of a coal miner, in 1936. His parents were Gaelic-speaking Cape Breton natives who had moved from the island to seek work. When Alistair was 10, they moved back to Cape Breton. MacLeod worked as a logger, coal miner, and fisherman, earned a teaching certificate from Nova Scotia Teachers College, two bachelors  degrees from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia; a master’s in English from the University of New Brunswick; and a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. He published his first short story in 1969, his last in 1999. Island contains all sixteen of his stories.

Sixteen stories in thirty years. John Updike may have written sixteen stories a month. But what MacLeod lacks in volume he more than makes up for in quality. While I did not find every one of these sixteen equally accessible, I found the least engaging story to be superior fiction.

They are all set on or off the coast of Cape Breton. Most of them are set at a time before electricity, telephones, and mechanized farm equipment. The characters a miners, tunneling into coal seams; fishermen and lobstermen, taking small boats onto treacherous waters; and farmers, trying to raise and bring in enough hay during the short growing season to sustain the animals through the brutal winter. Two of the most powerful stories—"In the Fall" and "Winter Dog"—convey a complex and intense relationship between animal and human, a relationship far more profound and complex than a woman's with her house cat, a man's with a pet dog.

MacLeod's descriptions of the natural world are marvels, almost poetry. For example,

"It is hard to realize that this is the same ocean that is the crystal blue of summer when only the thing oil-slicks left by the fishing boats or the startling whiteness of the riding seagull mar its azure sameness. Now it is roiled and angry, and almost anguished; hurling up the brown dirty balls of scudding foam, the sticks of pulpwood from some lonely freighter, the caps of unknown men, buoys from mangled fishing nets and the inevitable bottles that contain no messages. And always also the shreds of blackened and stringy seaweed that it has ripped and torn from its own lower regions, as if this is the season for self-mutilation—the pulling out of the secret, private, unseen hair."

And within this natural world of implacable ocean, scarred landscape, and brutal winters, the characters live as best they can. The men impregnate their wives repeatedly, drink, and fish and log and watch the seasons change. The women have five, six, a dozen children, garden, cook and mend, and wait for their husbands and sons to come home from the sea, from the mine, from the logging camp. In more than one story, MacLeod is able to portray an entire life, virtually from beginning to end, choosing and describing those key moments that gave the life its shape.

Let me quote three other writers because they say what I think better than I can say it: Colm Tóibin: "These stories have slowly become famous for their control of tone and cadence and for MacLeod's ability to handle pure, raw emotion." Michael Ondaatje: "Alistair MacLeod's stories are as regional and universal as the work of Faulkner or Chekhov. And they are, I think, as permanent." Thomas Curwen: "Like the great writer W. G. Sebald, MacLeod wanders across the landscape he claims as his own and lets the wandering reveal its meaning, content to know that the deeper you pour yourself into a reaction, the more you transcend the particulars and give the stories a universal sheen, an intimate gloss. It is a triumph of detail slowly spilled over the pages. MacLeod's deepening sense of the world and of the people whose lives he is responsible for gives each scene its bittersweet poignancy."

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Submission by Amy Waldman

Amy Waldman, a former co-chief of the South Asia bureau of The New York Times, had an interesting idea for an novel: What would happen if the winner of a competition for the 9/11 Ground Zero Memorial design turned out to be Muslim?

The novel begins with the jurors debating the merits of the anonymous submissions, finally settling on the design of a garden. Only when Paul Rubin, the patrician, former CEO of a major bank and responsible for the competition's management, opens the envelope that identifies the garden's designer does anyone involved realize they've chosen one Mohammad Khan's design.

Khan is an entirely secular, American architect, raised in Virginia, an employee of a top New York architectural firm (that did not know he was entering the competition). He is in his mid-thirties, single, and with a best friend in the firm is already planning to establish his own practice. Winning such a prestigious commission, of course, will make his name.

Awarding a Muslim's design for the Ground Zero memorial would also—in the view of many good Americans—desecrate the memories of those who died in the tragedy. In fact, some can see the garden as honoring the Muslim terrorists. It's a situation in which no one can be neutral.

And in The Submission, they're not. Waldman has a large cast and tells her story from several points of view: Mohammad Khan who entered the competition in good faith, won fairly, and is now being attacked for being the child of immigrant parents who are almost as secular as their son. Claire Burwell, the wealthy widow of a senior executive killed on 9/11, who fights for the garden's design. Rubin, friend of the governor and mayor, trying to control and maintain reason in a uncontrollable and unreasonable situation. Sean Gallagher, brother of a Brooklyn fireman who was killed, and for whom stopping the garden becomes a quest. Alyssa Spier, a young reporter on the make, who breaks the story of the Muslim's design and becomes a tabloid star. Asama Anwar, an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant, whose husband died in the attack. Mix together with a female NY State governor with her eye on national office; a Fox-news-style talk show host; a very modern, very secular, very sexy female lawyer with an Iranian background; a paternal Bangladeshi who can interpret American life and English; a Muslim American Coordinating Council, and more, and the stew is almost too rich.

The situation is interesting, the writing is professional, the ending is a stretch but plausible, but I found I was able to put The Submission down and felt no real compulsion to pick it back up. Part of the problem may well be my reading habits and taste. Part of it may be that 9/11 is so traumatic that no book can deal with it adequately. Part of it may be the challenge of making such a diverse cast of characters be both compelling individuals and representatives of the difference forces at play in the situation. While Mohammad Khan is hardly a cardboard symbol around which the others revolve, I don't feel Waldman gives us enough to make him live off the page.

Nevertheless, The Submission is a better-than-average novel. Waldman devotes herself to important questions and themes, one of which is that frightened people do terrible things. A lesson about which it's worth being reminded.