Friday, January 31, 2014

My Made it Moment

Another writer, Jenny Milchman, maintains an interesting site on her blog, Suspense Your Disbelief,  called "Made it Moments." She invites writers to answer the question "How did I know I'd made it?" in 300 to 500 words. It's an interesting challenge, and it made me think about my writing and my career as a writer in a way I don't usually consider.

First, I'm not sure how I would measure whether I'd actually made it. A front-page review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review? A National Book Award? A Pulitzer Prize? Do you ever finally "make it"? Speaking for myself, I hope not. I hope I continue to grow and change as a writer and an artist.

Nevertheless, Jenny's offer was too good to pass up. We all have moments that stand out from the buzz and press of events, and I managed to write about a recent one in my life. Click on the link above and and you can read it and the comments it's provoked. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

John Green does not need my support. The Fault in Our Stars is a massive best-seller and the movie version is due out this spring. According to his brief bio, Green has won the Printz Medal, a Printz Honor, and the Edgar Award. He’s twice been a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. But because some of you—and you know who you are—may not be regularly exposed to young adult fiction, you may not have heard of The Fault in Our Stars or dismissed it despite its popularity. This means you are missing something extraordinary.

The novel is told in the first person by Hazel Grace Lancaster, who sets the tone immediately: “Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.”

Hazel’s cancer has settled in her lungs and is currently being held at bay by a new drug. Her mother and Doctor Jim, who adjusts her meds, decide she needs Support Group, “a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness.” In Group, she meets Augustus Waters, another cancer survivor, whose right leg has been amputated. They become best friends.

Another of Hazel’s friends, although he doesn’t know it, is Peter Van Houten, “the reclusive author of An Imperial Affliction, the book that was as close to a thing as I had to a Bible. Peter Van Houten was the only person I’d ever come across who seemed to (a) understand what it’s like to be dying and (b) not to have died.” An Imperial Affliction book seems to end inconclusively and although Hazel has written Van Houten any number of letters to ask about the characters, he’s never answered. Gus is so taken by the book and so involved with Hazel, he uses his one wish from The Genie Foundation, “which is in the business of giving sick kids one wish,” to take Hazel and her mother to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten.

The Fault in Our Stars is a number of things, all done extraordinarily well. It is an investigation into feelings about death. It is a poignant love story. It is a comic novel (I laughed aloud at several points). It is a meditation on literature, what it means, what it can mean, and the difference between the writer and the writing. It is, I think, finally, an illustration of what it means to accept reality. As Gus says, “The world is not a wish-granting factory.” Despite considerable propaganda to the contrary (most advertising, fiction, movies, TV shows, songs, and more), he’s right.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Post Road Promises by Jim Ramsey

It’s the summer of 1979 in Greenwich, Connecticut. Steven Rollins, a town native, works as a reporter on the Greenwich Time after a stint on the Hartford bureau of The New York Times and the Hartford Courant. He’s a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism (one of the best in the country), in his late 20s, tall, single, living alone in a house he inherited. The house is on the former estate of Steven’s grandparents; now much of the land is the new high school and the big house is owned by a New York City banker.

Patty Callahan is in her early 20s, a striking blond who recently graduated from UConn with a double major in finance and psychology. She works as a teller in a local bank and as a part-time lifeguard at the YMCA. She is the sort of girl who is willing to expose herself to peeping Toms (a $10 floats down from the ceiling above where she is changing, a bill she returns to Building Supervisor without comment) and to use her body to promote an embezzlement scheme.

Author Jim Ramsey grew up in Greenwich and is a former reporter. He knows the newspaper business and he knows the Greenwich of the 1970—the ball fields, the bars, the shops along the Post Road, which runs through the town, the local politics—and he recalls the music and concerns of the period.

In the course of Post Road Promises Steven begins dating a young widow—her husband was killed in Vietnam—stumbles across information that tickles his reporter’s instincts, and, in an exciting development, spectacularly avoids a beating for a news story that had thoroughly offended one of the local characters.

Post Road Promises, as a debut novel, is a picture of a time and a place—a real time in a real place. I believed almost without exception that these people would have acted in this way in Greenwich, now one of the wealthiest towns in America, at the time. I’m not convinced that any young woman would have been as blasĂ© as Patty when she realized she was inadvertently displaying herself in the YMCA locker room. Perhaps with a little more background and motivation, Ramsey could have made her motivation(s) more convincing. That, however, is only a minor quibble in a book that offers other pleasures.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Musui's Story by Katsu Kokichi

The full title of this book is Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai. The author, Katsu Kokichi, who was born in 1802 and died in 1850, titled his autobiography Musui dokugen. "Musui," the name Katsu took upon retirement, means "dream-besotted;" "dokugen" means monologue or talking to oneself.

The book, as Teruko Craig, the translator points out in her introduction, is unique—"the autobiography of a samurai who was neither a scholar nor an administrator, and certainly not a model of feudal loyalty." Katsu was of low rank and poorly educated, but, by his account, a skillful swordsman and clearly had street smarts.

As a child, he was a scamp, running away from home twice, the first time when he was fourteen. He had stolen money from the household only to have it, his swords, and kimono stolen during the second or third night on the road leaving him in his underrobe. He lived rough on the road for two months, finally returning home to Edo (present-day Tokyo). Had he remained away much longer, shogunal officials would have taken measures to end the family line, that is reduce them to commoners.

Katsu begins his account with a Prologue that says in effect: I am going to tell you how you shouldn't live--not like me. Although, for some inexplicable reason, I have not been punished by Heaven for all my sins and misdeeds. He concludes, "My past conduct truly fills me with horror. Let my children, their children, and their children's children read this record carefully and savor its meaning. So be it."

Between his prologue and final reflections, Katsu gives a lively account of someone living mostly by his wits, married but a regular habitué of the Yoshiwara tea houses, running a protection racket, lying, cheating, stealing, brawling and scheming. It is a picture of a world that is both alien in its customs and expectations and obligations and familiar from dozens of samurai movies. A lot of fun.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Voices of Heaven by Maija Rhee Devine

This fascinating picture of traditional Korean life begins in Seoul in June 1949. The 40-year Japanese occupation ended with WWII, but the country has been divided in two, and there are Communist guerrillas in the hills. Eum-chun and her husband, Gui-yong, have been married for 15 years and are deeply, and passionately, in love. Eum-chun has been unable to bear a child and they have adopted a daughter, Mi-na, who is five years old when the book opens. At that time in that place, however, a daughter wasn’t good enough; Gui-yong needs a son (without one, his soul cannot get into heaven) and he brings a mistress, Soo-yang, into the house to bear one.

Maija Rhee Devine tells this family’s story, which stretches from 1949 to 2005, in chapters that shift from the point of view of these four main characters. We see that Gui-yong, although he adores Eum-chun, feels he has no choice. The two women, Eum-chun and Soo-yang, have less choice, although both are ashamed and deeply angry that they have to share a man. Mi-na is made guilty because she does not have a penis and because of her, Soo-yang comes into her house.

My buddies share C-ration candy.

In June 1950, of course, North Korea invades and the warfare within the household is reflected in the combat outside. (There’s a powerful scene in which North Korean soldiers search the house looking for food and contraband, and Mi-na discovers for the first time that her mother can deliberately tell a lie.) The war divides the family the way politics had divided the peninsula, and we watch the characters trying to find one another and to survive—Soo-yang now with a baby boy, Em-chun and Mi-na scrambling for food.

The novel “fills a gap in English-language fiction by painting an authentic portrait of Korea,” writes Kongdan Oh of the Brookings Institution. “The story’s characters are ordinary Koreans of their time—people with strong emotions, a commitment to family respect for tradition, and, less laudably, discriminatory attitudes toward. The dialogue is lively and crisp and the descriptions of daily life evoke the very sights, sounds, and smells of traditional Korea.” I found the book a moving and persuasive window into lives and times and places I knew very little about. Very worth reading.