Sunday, March 30, 2014

Amazon reviews: Helpful or what?

I rarely look at Amazon reviews until I've read the book. After I've finished a book, I am curious to see whether—and how—other readers agree with my opinion and to learn why—and how—we disagree. This goes for whether I enjoyed the book or not. And I'm particularly interested in the top and bottom ratings. What is it about a book I thought was trash that other readers loved? And what is it about a book I loved (including books I've written) that some readers hated?

I've just finished a mystery by a debut author that I thought was extraordinarily weak. (The moment a character says, "I'll tell you [some key piece of information] in the morning," you know the next chapter will begin with the protagonist finding the character's cooling body.) I went to Amazon and looked at the 15 or 20 one-star reviews. I tended to agree with most of them including the person who wanted to know how a commercial publisher could have published such a waste of innocent trees. Interestingly, most of these critics wrote more than a one- or two-sentence dismissal of the book; they tried to suggest exactly why they did not care for it.

Which makes the more than 100 five-star reviews even more interesting. Without doing an actual count, it appears that the majority for this book are brief, generic, and essentially useless: "Thoroughly enjoyed the book." "Great read." "No plot holes."  "Great book." "Couldn't put it down." "Story was interesting." "Will look for the author's next book."

These, of course, tell you virtually nothing about the book, why the reader enjoyed it, or what she enjoyed about it. They are, in fact, all-purpose blurbs one could slap on any novel. Because there are so many of them and because they seem to follow a similar pattern, a cynical person might suspect they are not the considered opinions of readers who actually read the book. (I'm ignoring the whole issue of friends promoting friends' books.)

I am shocked! Shocked, I tell you! If you cannot trust the views of the people who post their views on Amazon, who can you trust?

My suggestion? Don't read the reviews until you've read the book.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tales from the Eternal Cafe by Janet Hamill

Janet Hamill has published five books of poetry; this collection of 17 short stories, Tales from the Eternal Cafe, is her first book of prose. Although, some of these are so short—only two or three pages—and so exquisite they could almost be considered prose poems.

Patti Smith in her introduction writes, "In the world of literature, the café has long served as a sanctuary for its conception as well as an escape from its blessed tyranny. In the tales offered here, one may picture the melancholic cafés of the nineteenth century, where the poet, drowned in obscurity, pens his masterpiece and downs his absinthe."

The stories, reflecting Hamill's globetrotting history, are set in Belgium, the Veneto, Turin, Rome, Cordoba, Tangiers, New York City, an abbey in the Pyrenees, Mexico, and India. They range in time from medieval France to today's Rome, and range widely in style and character, from first-person narration by Baudelaire's first publisher, to a letter from a writer who knows he is going mad, to a magical tale reminiscent of Héloïse and Abélard, to a fable of a girl chosen to be the bride the Water Spirit, the Great Python.

By the nature of any short story collection (and the tastes of individual readers) some stories seem stronger than others, some will appeal more than others. I thought the long story in the middle of the book, "Espresso Cinecittá"—a young woman press agent working on her movie director uncle's production of The Divine Comedy—a perfectly good story. Good enough to make me think that Hamill had personal experience with Italian cinema. But compared to the other stories in the book, it is not special, whereas many of the other stories are.

One example: "Ursula and the Sublime" begins with a faux academic introduction to the life and works of "Ursula Campion," a Romantic-era painter. The rest of the story consists of Campion's diary entries, snapshots that give quick glimpses of her life and loves. These are like quick pencil sketches and the reader has to fill in the details, which makes the story both rich and rewarding. A fascinating collection.

Monday, March 24, 2014

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk, born in 1952, is a Turkish novelist, screenwriter, and professor of comparative literature. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, and ten of his novels are available in English. I've been aware of his name for a long time (his first book published in the U.S., The White Castle, appeared in 1991) because he is a major literary figure who generally receives positive reviews, but until three weeks ago I'd never looked into one of his books.

I don't know if My Name is Red is the place to start because it is a rich, complex tapestry that spreads over nine days in Istanbul in 1591 and requires the reader's attention. Pamuk tells the story in an unusual fashion. A different voice narrates each chapter and the first, "I am a corpse" is that of a just-murdered illuminator who works on books commissioned by the Sultan, Refuge of the World. Other voices include a dog, a tree, a gold coin, death, the color red, a horse, and Satan. Certain voices central to the main story, of course, recur several times explaining, amplifying, observing the other characters and their actions.

Most of the human characters are miniaturists who specialize in Persian/Ottoman art: Horses, trees, flowers, leaves, human figures. One thread that runs through the book is the effect Western ("Frankish") painting will have/is having on traditional Islamic illuminated manuscripts. Do you paint the ideal world, the world as Allah sees it (a Platonic world of forms), or do you follow the Venetians and attempt to paint an individual, unique horse?

Another thread is the romance between Shekure, a presumed widow, and Black, who had loved her, left to make a career as a calligrapher and clerk, and returns twelve years later. Leaving his wife and two boys, Shekure's husband had gone off to the wars four years before the novel begins, has not been heard of since. How can Black marry her and bring her into his own house?

Then there is the murder that begins the book. The Sultan, who may have provoked the original killing because he commissioned a book to be illustrated in the European style (an affront to Allah), gives the workshop's master illustrator and Black three days to find the killer or he will use his own methods to solve the mystery: torture and beheading.

The novel, translated from the Turkish by Erdag M. Göknar and published by Knopf in 2001, does not read like a translation. Rather I found it to be fascinating introduction to a place, a time, society, and a culture about which I know virtually nothing. It is a world of religious tension. of coffeehouse storytellers, go-betweens, and devotion to an artistic tradition that is about to be swept away.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Death in Venice, California by Vinton Rafe McCabe

Full disclosure: Vinton is a friend of mine. We have been members of the same writer's group for several years. I watched this book evolve from first draft to final manuscript. He began it as a NaNoWriMo project and, I believe, had essentially finished it before the November 30 deadline with several thousand words to spare.

It takes off from, of course, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, and if you are familiar with Mann's book, Vinton's book will be that much richer an experience. But you don't need to know Mann, to appreciate the extraordinary experience of Death in Venice, California.

In Jameson Frame, Vinton has created a man of letters who is nearing the end of his alphabet. Jameson's reputation is based on three books, "Pennyweight," which was "largely allegorical and altogether humorless"; "The Antecedents," which was "his rather exhaustive and thoroughly sordid telling of his family history"; and "On Scrimshaw and Others," a slim volume of poetry elegantly published by a university press. Now in his mid-forties, with an independent income, and buffeted by New York crowds and winter weather, Jameson decides to treat himself to a sun-filled respite by the sea and flies to California.

In Venice, Jameson meets Elsa and Vera on the beach, a couple of bohemian housemates. They seem to find him enchanting and invite him to one of their wine-and-marijuana parties. They promote a relationship with Chase, a skateboarding nude-and-underwear model, who is lovely and who knows it. As Vinton writes: "If the source of his shifting personal power lay in his eyes, the source of the Nile that was his beauty was in his lips. Lips that countered everything else on his face. Full, feminine lips that pouted and purred, that were colored a perfectly, ridiculously pinkish pink, and shaped in a flapper's cupid's blow. Placed within the context of his dark masculinity—the purest white skin set against jet black hair that disappeared, along with the inky mesh of his scruff, in the night—the pinky pink lips, a set that might have been dubbed kissable in a television commercial were they located in a teen-aged blonde's face, were utterly, shockingly, endlessly enchanting when placed within the hard-jawed face of the youth."

Jameson is besotted by Chase who, apparently, sees the older man as an open wallet and a figure on which he can scrawl his own mark. In one of their first outings together, Jameson returns to his luxury beach-front hotel with a tattooed "V" on his leg. By the end of the book, Jameson is even willing to participate in Chase's "Big Art"—pornographic videos.

Death in Venice, California is, as suggested by the paragraph I quoted above, wonderfully visual; I marvel at the writing. It is also, I believe, a profoundly sad and moving story, the portrait of a man who either does not know himself or does not care what happens to him as long as he can indulge in a a beauty that can only bring his destruction. No matter. Even if Vinton were not my friend, I would recommend the book. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"The Wind Rises" by Hayao Miyazaki

Start with some facts. "The Wind Rises" is an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki, who is responsible for "Spirited Away," "Howl's Moving Castle," "My Neighbor Totoro," and other films created primarily for children. It is a highly fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi (1903–1982), the designer of the Mitsubishi A5M and its successor, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane. It was the highest grossing film in Japan in 2013.

Now some opinions. David Ehrlich: "Perhaps the greatest animated film ever made." Matthew Penney: "What Miyazaki offers is a layered look at how Horikoshi's passion for flight was captured by capital and militarism." And J. Hoberman: "True, the final scenes show a green field strewn with twisted fuselage wreckage. Cruel destruction… in Japan, that is. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Miyazaki’s pacifism but I’m appalled by his abstract vision. Like, how many tens or hundreds of thousands of real people in Asia and the Pacific were de-animated thanks to Horikoshi’s dreams?"

My thoughts: "The Wind Rises" is not for children. It is a complex story of an adult in a time and a place—1920s and 1930s Japan. Jiro Horikoshi dreams of flight, studies engineering, is sent to Germany, and becomes an airplane designer. He loves engineering, he loves creating aircraft, and he loves solving the problems of aircraft design. Unfortunately for Jiro, the only organization interested in aircraft design at that time was (I suspect) the military. Either design for the military, or don't design at all.

It seems to me then that the central question the film raises is something like: What is the individual's responsibility for the behavior of the state? Should Jiro not have designed aircraft because they were weapons? He had no say over how they would be used. As a patriotic citizen, doesn't he have an obligation to contribute what he is able—his education and talent—to the country? Can't we ask the same questions of the scientists who worked on the A-bomb and the H-bomb? Who are working today on better missiles?

I thoroughly enjoyed "The Wind Rises," because Jiro's Japan looked very much like the Japan I first saw and in which I was stationed for a year in a half. The streets, the shops, the houses, the factories had not changed a great deal between 1939 and 1957. (Much of it rebuilt, of course, after the war, but looking much the same.) Which raises my one concern.

There is a scene of Tokyo burning after the 1923 earthquake—fires across the horizon. There is almost an identical scene of Tokyo burning after the firebombing of 1945. Almost a visual equivalent, as if the firebombing was as much an act of nature as the earthquake. As horrific and criminal as I believe the firebombing was (which killed more people than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings combined), it was not an act of nature, and had Japan's leaders made different decisions in the 1930s, it would not have happened.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

The saints of the shadow Bible (from a song by Jackie Leven) were what a group of Scottish police officers in one Edinburgh station called themselves thirty years ago. John Rebus was a newbie at the time and, fortunately for him, was not entirely trusted or embraced by the officers.

Fortunately, because now, thirty years later, in a period of Scottish police reorganization, a revision of Scotland's double jeopardy law, and passions running high over Scotland's independence movement, the Solicitor General for Scotland is asking questions about an old case and the way the Saints handled it.

Add to this already rich mix a peculiar traffic accident that Rebus and his now-superior Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke investigate. (One mystery to me is why "Siobhan" is pronounced "She-vahn.") Rebus, who had left the force in an earlier book, one of nineteen Rebus novels, is now a Detective Sergeant. He still smokes too much and is too independent by half for most of his bosses.

And to make even more mischief, there is DI Malcolm Fox from two earlier Ian Rankin novels. Fox, an exceptionally precise and intelligent Inspector from Professional Standards (in the U.S., it would probably be Internal Affairs), has been charged with finding out exactly what happened thirty years earlier and why a police snitch apparently got away with murder.

I don't want to say much more, only that as faithful readers know Rankin's mysteries are both rich and complicated. Rebus, Clarke, and Fox are all interesting characters, and Rankin is able to populate the story with probably two dozen minor characters, all sharply sketched. One quick example: "The woman was young--midtwenties maybe. Dyed red hair and a short coat below which was a presumably shorter dress. Rebus though he recognized her from one of the photos [of showgirls] in the lobby. She'd had a footballer's arm draped around her. Perfume was filling the room, replacing the oxygen."

So the book offers at least two pleasures: a complex yet comprehensible mystery that we follow as Rebus, Clarke, and Fox attempt to tease out the threads of truth and writing that in a few sentences describes an action, a scene, a character, or all three. My one objection: Once I started, everything stopped until I finished. But that's a good problem.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Life Sentences by William H. Gass

The other day in the library I decided my brain needed a workout, so I checked out William H. Gass's Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts, published in 2011 when Gass was 87. He published a well-received new novel, Middle C, last year, so he's an inspiration to older writers everywhere. Born in Fargo, North Dakota, he taught philosophy for fifty years at Washington University in St. Louis, so he's not one of your East Coast pointy-headed professors. But professor or no, he's probably best known for Omensetter's Luck and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. He's known I think as a writer's writer, someone the rest of us read to steal as much as we can.

The Life Sentences essays are gathered under four headings: "The Personal Column," "Old Favorites and Fresh Enemies," "The Biggs Lectures in the Classics" (which cover form, mimesis, and metaphor), and "Theoretics." The final two Theoretics essays discuss the sentence, which Gass has obviously thought about much longer and harder than most wordsmiths. Here, for example, are  examples:

"The finer works of art are miracles in the sense that they are so unlikely to have emerged from the ignoble and bloody hands of man that we stand in awe of them, and that they have been written or built or composed at the behest of superstitions so blatantly foolish as to embarrass reason and cause common sense to snicker, is itself wondrous and beyond ordinary comprehension. However, the fact that a gay guy painted the Sistine ceiling is not nearly as dumbfounding as the papacy's protection of pederasts in spite of their official attitude toward such 'objectionable' practices—one of which ought to be the ceiling itself, for if anything is unnatural, for them, genius is."

All these essays are interesting (some more than others, which is inevitable), and I could spend considerable space considering Gass's comments on Kafka, Nietzsche, Henry James, John Gardner, Gertrude Stein, Malcolm Lowry, and Katherine Ann Porter. Rather, let me touch on Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian Nobel Prize winner. He was, Gass writes, "the perfect Nordic Nazi, a self-man man who came out of the back-mountain farms of northern Norway seeking to be recognized and praised; who ruthlessly achieved his goals,...yet a success who was fated to have most of the people he appreciably affected eager to forget him: a wish that was, until recently, largely realized in Allied countries."

Hamsun was a great hater; he hated intellectuals, Americans (he wrote, "Instead of founding an intellectual elite, America has established a mulatto stud-farm"), Lapps, tourists, rivals, women, the working class and clerks, and more. He supported the German occupation of Norway, "even when it begins its reign of terror there, arresting gentiles as well as Jews." He regifted his Nobel Prize to Joseph Goebbels. He lived to 92; his collected works number 27.

You don't have to be a good person to be a good writer. But I believe your world view—what you think of people generally, how you think the world works, what is moral and what is not—colors your writing. You cannot, finally, escape who you are. Hamsun sounds like a toad and his books like a nasty child's. Someone, thanks to Gass, I won't have to read.

Monday, March 3, 2014

36 Hours in Kyoto

Yesterday's New York Times Travel section had an interesting article in its "36 House in..." series. I found the Kyoto, Japan, article interesting because it recommends less famous but still extraordinary sites, all of which I've seen. It also recommends a number of restaurants and bars, none of which I know. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), Kyoto is filled with exceptional restaurants and bars and when I've been there I've tended to let serendipity take over.

The Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama
Two of the spots the Times recommends I would add to a visitor's "must see" list: the bamboo forest in Arashiyama and the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shinto temple with it hundreds of torii gates. Arashiyama is a district in north west Kyoto and is easy to reach by bus or train. In addition to the bamboo forest, there are a number of wonderful temples and a stroll garden in Okochisanso, formerly the estate of a silent movie star.
A Shinto priest purifies a new car at the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine
The hundreds of torii gates at the shrine form a tunnel up the mountain.
You can also reach the Fushimi Inari Taishi by train from central Kyoto but it requires a tricky change and I would recommend a cab. It's worth the expense.