Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

First, like many haiku, the meaning of Ozeki's title can shift as you think about it. It can mean "a tale or the present; until some other arrangement is made." Or it can mean "a tale for the time creature; for the living thing." Both apply.

Ozeki, a novelist who has published two other books and lives part time in British Columbia, writes half the novel's chapters in the third person from the point of view of Ruth, a novelist who lives on a small Canadian island north of Vancouver with her husband Oliver. In her acknowledgements, Ozeki thanks her husband Oliver.

Half the novel's chapters are written in the first person by Nao Yasutani, a 16-year-old Japanese girl living in Tokyo after growing up mostly in Sunnyvale, CA, where her father was a computer programmer. Nao is writing in English, but her diary contains Japanese words that Ozeki helpfully footnotes.

Back in Tokyo after the dot-com bust, Nao's father is suicidal and Nao finds refuge for a summer at a temple in the north where her 104-year-old great-grandmother, Jiko, is a Zen Buddhist nun. Jiko's son, Haruki, was conscripted into the Japanese military in 1943 and trained as a suicide plane pilot.

At the beginning of the novel, Ruth discovers a Hello Kitty lunch box in the beach wrack along the shore of her island. It contains Nao's diary and her great uncle's letters (written in French so the NCOs training the conscripts cannot read them). Ruth has been trying to write a memoir for ten years, and becomes caught up in Nao's diary, which involves bullying at school, her father's suicide attempts, her summer at her great-grandmother's temple, and more. Ruth also reads Haruki's secret French diary.

I hope these shards of information I've just sketched hint the complexity and richness of A Tale for the Time Being. Given my own experience with Japan, other things I've read, and Ozeki's footnotes, she produced a sense throughout the novel that this is what's it's like to live on a small Canadian island in the Northwest, to be a Japanese schoolgirl who has been contaminated by her life in America, to be a peace-loving 19-year-old conscripted by a monstrous war machine, to be a 46-year-old Japanese father unable to find a job, to be an elderly Zen nun. This is what it's like. These incidents are entirely possible. These are the tragedies of history . . . and of human character.

It includes the problem of time: What you are reading now came into existence in the past. I myself may no longer exist when you read these words. And if I were writing to ask for help, as Nao does even as she has no idea who might read her words, what would you be able to do? Particularly if you are on one side of the Pacific and I am on the other? If you are a novelist, you would make a story.

All I can recommend is that you find and immerse yourself in Ozeki's novel for a deeply moving and thought-provoking experience.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Americans by Tejas Desai

Good Americans is an interesting if flawed collection of nine short stories plus an Introduction designed to promote the book and justify the author's publishing it through his own New Wei Literary Movement and Collective. According to his website, Desai, the son of Indian immigrants, graduated from the Queens College MFA program with a degree in creative writing and literary translation in 2009.

The stories include "Old Guido," a first-person account by an elderly bigot (he reminded me of a nasty Archie Bunker) of his involvement with a teenage Hispanic girl; "The Apprentice" in which an adjunct professor becomes entranced by a Chinese masseuse; "The Mountain" in which two old friends use the occasion of a hike to try to catch up and reconnect; "Malta: A Love Story" in three parts follows a much-abused southern girl and three college buddies—an African-American, an Indian-American, and a White-American; "Bridget's Brother" reports a dinner between three young people, one of whom particularly loathsome; and in "Dhan's Debut" a journalist pursues a charismatic lawyer. The title story, "Good Americans," told in the first person, dramatizes the last night of a crippled Iraq veteran.

These are stories primarily of young men who do drugs, hold marginal and dead-end jobs (although many of them are college graduates). I found the most convincing to be the sons of Indian immigrants and who are trying to be both good sons and make their way in this country. In the introduction, Desai writes in the persona of a literary agent who is presenting this book, "Here was a fresh voice from the darkest recesses of the soul, a racist against all races who was aware of his affliction but was was a portrait of a stained and scarred America, full of the guts and glory of our nation: of greed, racism, buffoonery, elitism, false honor, straight out of the pages of Mark Twain or a Sinclair Lewis novel, but set in the 21st century, today." Well, perhaps some reader will find that.

Unfortunately, others will find that the book badly needed an editor. It is wordy, and often unconvincing. I felt the characters were often doing things not because it was in their makeup to do them but because the author wanted them to do it to make a point. Sixty-five-year-old Riny at first has only contempt for 15-year-old Taina. Then he finds beaten and unconscious in a Queens park, and not only takes her home but eventually buys her a cell phone. When she initiates sex and offers her anus, Riny is too squeamish for that, but not too squeamish to find a condom and take her virginity. A southern sheriff tells the non-white college boys not to look too hard for the missing Malta: "This ain't your little college town. We still hear talk about lynchings here. And especially given you're looking for your white girlfriend, A definite no-no."

In any event, this is presented as Volume I of "The Human Tragedy" and with more experience, Desai will in future volumes be able to smooth some of his writing's rough edges while retaining the passion and vision.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt

Let me start with the information that can put certain readers off: Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt is not new; it was first published in 1981. It is a young adult novel; the POV character is a 13-year-old girl. There is no sex, no real violence, and no villains, vampires, zombies, or supernatural beings. Still interested?

Homecoming is still in print. It is (my opinion) an engaging, entirely plausible story that holds the reader's attention (this reader's attention) from page 1 to page 372. (Did I mention that it's a thick book, but one you don't want to end?)

In the book's third paragraph, the mother of Dicey Tiillerman, 13; James, 11; Maybeth, 9; and Sammy, 6, tells the children to be good and to listen to Dicey. She walks away from their old car and disappears into the crowd at a Peewauket, RI, shopping mall. Their father had walked out on their mother shortly after Sammy's birth and the family had been living in what sounds like a shack on Cape Cod. When their mother lost her job, she decided to take the children to their wealthy aunt in Bridgeport, but, we readers come to realize, she breaks down entirely in Peewauket and abandons her children.

I think that Voigt did something very, very difficult. She managed to create four children, all individual (Dicey is the resourceful one, James the smart one, Maybeth the shy, silent one, Sammy the stubborn one), put them in an extraordinary situation, and have them behave the way I am willing to believe these children would act in the circumstances.

Once Dicey realizes they've been abandoned—their mother has vanished and she's not coming back—she decides they will walk to Bridgeport to the aunt's house. Perhaps they'll find their mother already there. They have hardly any money (obtaining money is a recurring and realistic thread throughout the book), and the distance does not look so far on a road map. The first half of the book covers the children's adventures on the road and what happens when they actually reach their aunt's Bridgeport house. It is hardly a spoiler to tell you that the house is not the refuge the children had expected. Nor is it the hell another writer might have created. Voigt is too subtle and the situation is in some ways worse because it is so credible.

The challenges the children meet and the way they overcome them (or not) are all believable. They meet real dangers including well-meaning people who would, in fact, cause them harm. They also meet decent people who help them. In a way, I am sorry I could not have read Homecoming when I was a young teen because I would have known children just like Dicey, James, Maybeth, and Sammy and would have been reading the book under my covers with a flashlight because I didn't want to leave their company. Nevertheless, even as an adult I'm glad a friend recommended it and I did not simply dismiss it as being for kids.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Sometimes Things Go Horribly Wrong by Adam Matson

Adam Matson has published an interesting collection of short stories in Sometimes Things Go Horribly Wrong. He majored in cinema and photography at Ithaca College with a concentration in screenwriting and says he has written around a dozen feature-length screenplays.

The 19 stories in the collection—all of them I found interesting—sometimes reminded me of exercises, a writer's efforts to try out different forms, points of view, voices, possibilities. Some seemed very slight. "A Typical Day at the Office" describes in considerable detail J.P. Waterman's life as an "office drone;" he comes to his cubical, fills his day; and goes home. That's pretty much it.

A few of the stories are quite short; "Beneath the Overpass" is three printed pages that begin, "Every time I drive out of the city I see him. I turn onto the highway that will take me home. I glance down. Beneath the overpass I see him standing. Same place, every time." A real man? A statue? Or an illusion.

Matson has two stories, "The Yellow School Bus" and "The Man in the Green Car" that taps nicely into unreasoned panic. What is it like to be eight years old and watch the school bus slaughter your neighbor students as it comes to get you? What if you know you are being followed by a malevolent man as you leave your girlfriend's house sometime after midnight? Matson shows you.

Many of the stories are truly imaginative: While a number of skanky people glide through Dallas airport security, the TSA detains and harasses an innocent, productive Muslim passenger. A middle-aged man considering his life discovers that people he thought he remembered never existed. A professional poker-playing cheat gets into the wrong game. A young man who has a unusual relationship with fire almost kills his girlfriend and himself in trying to attract her attention.

The lead story, "Dream On," exemplifies the book's title. A middle-aged construction worker on his way back to his worksite in his pickup innocently offers a ride to a teen-age girl. He is only doing a good deed, but things go horribly wrong. I found the story so powerful I was not sure I wanted to read the rest of the book. As it turns out, I am glad I did.