Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Translate that: The interpreter's dilemma

At the end of a morning meeting with two clients in their New York City club, they invited me to stay for lunch. They had a lunch and afternoon meeting with a Japanese executive and his American contact. I will rarely pass up a free lunch and a chance to show off my Japanese, so I accepted.

The two visitors were investigating several American companies. The Japanese executive spoke fair English; his minder had no Japanese. Once we had all bowed, introduced ourselves, and exchanged business cards, we sat down at a dining table in a private room. In the small talk over drinks, the Japanese executive remarked politely that my Japanese was the best he'd met on this trip. The visitors added that they'd just come from visiting a company in Philadelphia.

One of my clients joked, "Well, as it says on W.C. Fields' tombstone, 'All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia.'"

At the guest's blank look, he turned to me. "Translate that."

Aside from not knowing the Japanese for "tombstone," I didn't know how to describe W.C. Fields or the significance of the words allegedly on the stone.

So I said in Japanese, "The president has just made a joke. Please laugh." Which he did, and we all had a pleasant lunch.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

What's the right word for "wife"?

In the Japanese short story I am currently translating with enormous help from my conversation partner, I bumped on the word for "wife."

A bride and groom at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo
In the story, the protagonist is introducing his bride of less than six months to his grandmother. He says, ぼくのお嫁さん ("Boku no oyomesan") "[This is] my wife."

I bumped on "oyomesan" because it sounded like a polite form that would be inappropriate for a younger person use to identify his wife to an older, and therefore senior, relative. For example, I've been taught that when speaking of another person's wife—"your wife"—you use "okusan" (奥さん). When you refer to your own wife—"my wife"—you use "kanai" (家内). One is polite, one is humble. One would never say, "Boku no okusan," so where does "oyomesan" fall in this continuum of politeness?

The dictionary is not a lot of help. The definitions include "a (young) wife," "bride," "daughter-in-law." It gives the expression "yome o toru" (嫁を取る) to mean "to marry; take a wife." I asked conversation partner about it.

She said that "yome," unlike "okusan" or "kanai," carries nuances of "the woman who will care for my parents, homemaker, and mother of my children." Apparently the other two words are much less freighted with meaning.

Because it has all those nuances, of course, it is impossible to translate without stopping the story. It's what makes translation impossible and, as I slog through it, so interesting.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

An engaging essay collection about Japanese culture and history by a long-time resident

Michael Hoffman's new book, In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan, is a fascinating and well-written collection of (mainly) essays. Hoffman has lived in Japan since
1982 and all but three of these stories appeared in the Sunday Time Out section of The Japan Times.

First, to translate the title. My dictionary defines "kami" (神 ) as "a god, a goddess a deity, a divinity, a divine being." And of course it may be plural, so in Japan we're in the land of the gods.

As Hoffman says in his Author's Note, the topics are somewhat whimsical. They came not from what he knew about the country and the culture but what he didn't know and wanted to understand. What is Zen? Who was Confucius? How did death come to seem, as it did for many centuries, as much more important to the Japanese than life? What was Japan's Jazz Age?

Hoffman admits up front that he is no scholar, and he relies on literary translators and scholars for his sources. (This means, of course, that a reader who wants to know more about a topic can hunt up Hoffman's citations for a deeper and fuller discussion.) Because he is writing for a non-specialist audience that lives, I assume, mainly in Japan, what the nineteen non-fiction stories may lack in scholarly depth they more than make up for in accessibility and charm. (He includes a brief play and a fable, neither of which I found as engaging as the essays.)

As an example of the kinds of provocative questions he attempts to answer, consider this: "Do the Oriental hermit-sage-poets of old, lonely and rootless, innocent and childish, wise with a wisdom they themselves call foolish, neither listening to reason nor, with any consistency, speaking, have anything to say to us of the wired world?" He thinks they do and suggests why.

The pages are studded with interesting insights sharply expressed: "In place of the Judeo-Christian notion—violated often enough but never lost from sight—that life is a gift, the Japanese have another notion, no less deeply embedded: that of impermanence. Flowers fade, cherry blossoms fall... Blossoms are not beautiful in spite of their transience. They are beautiful because they are transient."

Another example: "Empty space is an acquired taste. Americans aren't bred on it, and some, probably most, see nothing in it. One, writing in an expatriate Yokohama newspaper in 1881, observed, 'The Japanese are a happy race, and being content with little, are unlikely to achieve much.'" In the Land of the Kami has interesting things to say about Japan and Japanese culture and history. i.e., "Shinto defies a direct approach. It is easier to say what it is not than what it is, easier to say what it lacks than what it has."

A large literature of books by Westerners explaining Japan and the Japanese exists. Many of these are written by people who neither speak the language nor lived in the country for a couple years. Hoffman, through long residence and extensive reading, brings a depth and nuance to his essays that those books do not have. This is for anyone who would like to know more about Japan.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Great Wave—and its effect

In Tsunami Reflections: Otsuchi Remembered, Charles Pomeroy has written a fascinating book about the tsunami that hit the northeastern coast of Japan's main island, Honshu, on March 11, 2011. He is an unusually well-qualified foreigner to write the book; he has a degree from Tokyo's Sophia University; is a former reporter/writer, and after 50 years in the county clearly has deep, broad knowledge of Japan.

The book focuses on the small coastal town of Otsuchi where Pomeroy's wife Atsuko grew up; the tsunami erased their retirement home in the town's center; their sister and her husband died
in the disaster. It was not the first tsunami to hit the Tohoku coast; it had been inundated in 869, 1611,1793, 1856, 1893, and 1933. The last two killed around 22,000 and 3,000 people respectively. So when you live on that coast, you live aware that the Pacific is not always pacific.

Because Pomeroy and his wife had family and because they lived in Otsuchi, he is able to describe the town, the life, and his neighbors in convincing detail. "Known for the traditional architecture and folklore . . . the town likes to think of itself as the home of the mythical kappa ("river-child"). . . Kappa tales served to alert children to the perils of deep water, it is said, thus making riverside excursions safer for them." This is what ordinary, daily life was like before the tsunami struck.

As it happened, Pomeroy and his wife were in their Tokyo apartment when the May 11th earthquake struck, one of the five strongest tremblors in recorded history. While buildings shook in Tokyo, the ocean reared back off the coast, gathered strength, and came roaring back as wall of water that smashed virtually everything it met. And when the water receded, fires erupted from a kerosene supplier, from propane gas tanks, from overturned kerosene stoves, and fuel leaking from vehicles. This all "contributed to the incarceration of what remained of the town after the tsunami."

Tsunami Reflections reports Pomeroy's reaction to the news, attempts to reach the town, the cleanup effort, participation in a mass funeral (the authorities had to identify his sister-in-law by her DNA), the humanitarian efforts by volunteers and strangers, and what the local and federal government is doing to help the town recover. The giant funeral tent could hold only 2,000 mourners; "revised casualty figures showed 770 dead and 820 missing." Over 3,000 homes had been destroyed and because the government is raising the ground level eight feet and because it takes time for the landfill to settle, construction in the center of town cannot even begin until 2018. He touches on the Fukushima atomic plant's meltdown only in passing (it would be a whole other book).

Pomeroy has made Tsunami Reflections exceptionally reader-friendly by including maps, dozens of color photographs, and—a modern and helpful element—internet links to videos and photographs from the disaster. While I have no criticism of the text, I would have run fewer pictures and printed them larger. I found two places where earlier text was repeated word for word, and picture captions need not repeat what is in the text. But these are quibbles. It is impossible, I believe, for words or pictures or videos to adequately convey the reality. As Pomeroy says, " . . .no words could fully describe the desolation and . . . photos could only suggest the vast sense of loss. I was struck by the pervading silence. A neighborhood that had once echoed with the sounds of daily life—the excited voices of passing school children and the quiet chatting of neighbors, the clang of the warning bell at the nearby railroad crossing, the buzz of a jigsaw at the next door woodworking shop, the postman's motorbike, the chirping birds. No more. All was strangely silent except for the distant rumble of earth-moving equipment." I'm in awe that, given his losses, Pomeroy was able to write this powerful book at all.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

An interesting perspective on three American classics

Azar Nafisi, born and raised in Iran, wrote the best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran. Her new book is The Republic of Imagination: A Life in Books. It deserves to be as widely read as Reading Lolita.

Nafisi, born in 1955, has a doctorate in English literature from the University of Oklahoma (Norman), and taught English literature for 18 years in Iran. She and her family left Iran after the revolution, and she is now a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. She became an American citizen in 2008.

Because she is (was?) an outsider, she brings a interesting perspective to American literature and culture. She makes connections/associations that someone born in the culture is liable to miss, but that are obvious once someone like Nafisi points them out. For example, "I have often wondered whether there is a correlation between the growing lack of respect for ideas and the imagination and the growing gap between rich and poor in America, reflected not just in the gulf between the salaries of CEOs and their employees but also in the high cost of education, the incredible divide between private and public schools that makes all fine speeches by our policy makers—most of whom send their children to private schools anyway, just as they enjoy the benefits and perks of their jobs as servants of the people—all the more insidious and insincere."

In The Republic of Imagination, Nafisi discusses three novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and the works of James Baldwin. Throughout, she connects the books to her own life—the best friend who, pregnant, had to escape from Iran by horseback, the art history student who argued for a Southern consciousness, and more. Her comments and insights are thoughtful and thought-provoking. She argues, for example, that Tom Sawyer is the real villain in Huckleberry Finn. She also points out that "In fiction, every treachery and setback appears to serve some end: the characters learn and grow and come into their own. In life, it is not always clear that the hijacking of our plans is quite so provident or benign." She wonders about the effort to sanitize, to make our books (our patrimony) inoffensive . . . and discusses Twain's use of the n-word (which is so toxic I'm not going to risk spelling it out).

In her discussion of Babbitt, she points out that Sinclair Lewis's genius "was in capturing the spirit of modern advertising when it had not yet come to dominate the American landscape and define the soul of the nation." George Babbitt is a prime example of consumerus americanus, one who is "both attracted to the joys of freedom and frightened by its perils, for freedom does have many perils," and the best way to confront these threats "is not to avoid being free but to cultivate independence of thought . . . "

And while it is tempting to continue picking nuggets from this fascinating book, I am going to stop with one more: "Time and again, I have wondered if our current assault on literature, which so many like to think of as useless and irrelevant, is not a reflection of the desire to remove from the equation anything that it painful or distasteful to us, anything that does not fit our norms or make life easy and fall within our sphere of power and control. In one sense, to deny literature is to deny pain and the dilemma that is called life."

If you have never read Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, or James Baldwin, The Republic of Imagination is a useful introduction to the authors and the works. If you have read them, Nafisi's insights and observations are likely to send you back to read them once again—as they did me.

Monday, August 31, 2015

What libraries have meant, and will mean (perhaps)

The library, like the symphony orchestra, has always seemed to me to be one of the towering accomplishments of civilization. The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History, a collection of essays edited by Alice Crawford, is a marvelous survey of Western libraries and books from Greek and Roman times to today. Crawford is digital humanities research librarian at the King James Library at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and the essays were commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of the library.

It is a lovely book, handsomely designed with endnotes, author bios, bibliography, index, and an eight-page, four-color insert—illustrations of ancient and medieval book cabinets. The essays consider the social roles libraries have played across the age, as centers for scholarship, mazes, sanctuaries, archives, and repositories for hidden wisdom. As Crawford writes in her introduction, "Although they are arranged to follow the library's development through history, the essays aim to offer simply glimpses of what libraries were like at these times rather than a comprehensive history. They focus on what libraries were used for, why they were needed, why they were meaningful to the various communities from which they emerged, and provide impressions rather than analyses of their value in the changing chronological contexts."

Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at Kings College London, opens the book by noting that our first certain literary response to a library is in a raucous comedy by Aristophanes, first performed in 425 B.C. The book closes with an essay by James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, who argues that "librarians are becoming more rather than less important in this new age of instant electronic communication; and libraries as places have a key role to play in building and sustaining participatory and accountable democratic societies—the kind that have historically not fought one another." In between these two essays, we read about the growth of community libraries in England and Scotland, the library in fiction from Gilgamesh to Borges, the library in film (think "Ghostbusters"), the library in poetry, and more.

At least two profound shifts have affected the library in history. The first was the invention of printing and movable type. With the spread of printed books—inexpensive compared to hand-copied codexes—a library was no longer a way for Europe's richest to flaunt their wealth and culture.

We're in the middle of the second shift: the rise of the internet and digital copies. This means that something like the HathiTrust, founded only in October 2008 as a consortium of research libraries, now has more than 11 million volumes and is one of the 10 largest research library collections in North America.

As a novelist, I was particularly interested in rise of community libraries in 19th century England. The worthies in charge saw the institution as a tool of edification and moral enlightenment. Novels were a problem. Narrative fiction "seemed to be so constructed by manipulative and morally bankrupt authors as to sensationalize or whitewash bad behavior and encourage emotional incontinence among readers through blatant titillation. The other worry, closely related to the first, was that such literature was also simultaneously much more likely to appeal to and therefore to lead astray those vulnerable readers with the weakest constitutions, specifically women, the young, and—a fascinating Georgian perception—servants, as a consequence threatening not just public morality but also the social and political order." Shades of Seduction of the Innocent.

Clearly The Meaning of the Library is not a book for everyone. But for those of us who love books and have long loved libraries it is a stimulating and fascinating survey of "the library" in Western culture.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Science fiction that reads like science

Biogenesis by Tatsuaki Ishiguro is difficult to discuss. I thoroughly enjoyed the book's four stories and am writing this to introduce other people to Ishiguro's work, but I'm afraid I'm not skillful enough convey what makes the book so special.

Because, on the one hand, three of the four stories follow the form of a scientific report, not the most engaging short story format. (And I thought the last story in a more traditional form was not up to the level of the first three.) These could be accounts of research into actual plants and animals. There is very little action and the drama comes almost entirely from scientific discovery, investigations into a winged mouse that weeps blood tears and whose tiny "wings" vibrate and emit a faint glow in the dark...into a woman with pure white hair, no memory, and a body temperature of 75.2 F...into a plant
that seems to need both radioactivity and human blood to thrive...and into a marine creature with miraculous cancer-healing powers. This is science fiction with a focus on science.

What makes the stories so powerful are the very human actions and conflicts of the scientists and others—army officers, doctors, professors, assistants, and observers—as they struggle to understand the mouse, woman, weed, and sea squirt that do not fit into standard categories. But not only to understand, to have consequences from the research. Why, Ishiguro is asking, do some species survive while others become extinct?

He observes, "In and of itself, the natural world admits of no laws or consistent narratives based on hypotheses. Attaching meaning to the natural world's various phenomena and aligning them into convincing narratives merely serves human interests. No matter how quantitatively a law is expressed, it is a human application and nothing more."

Three of the stories are set in Hokkaido and in the recent past when the northernmost Japanese island was even more wild and uncivilized than it is today. Ishiguro was born in Hokkaido in 1961, has served as a lecturer at Tokyo University and as an assistant professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, so he is writing from inside knowledge. For example: "Adjusting the type and length of the primer as I went, I repeated the same steps nearly thirty times until finally, through trial and error, a single instance of synthetic reaction occurred. Using the automated DNA analyzer, I fed the resultant base strand into the computer. The results showed a perfect match for human (Homo sapiens) DNA."

The translations by Brian Watson and James Balzer, as the quotes above suggest, are fluent and clear. And Ishiguro studs the stories with interesting observations: "A progressive endeavor is rarely understood and when it comes to reporting on a rare illness, it is basically impossible if the messenger is not trusted. Were Yuki [the woman with abnormally low body temperature] to be transferred to some research facility, it is clear that she would be treated like a lab animal." In another story, the military allows the research to continue only because the army believes it will help the war effort.

Had an acquaintance recommended Biogenesis to me, I'm not sure I would have bothered. Now that I've read these unusual and powerful stories, all I can do is say I'm glad I have read them and to recommend them to others.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Hot and trending again! What fun!

This morning I posted another request that people nominate Death in a Family Business for the Kindle Press program on LinkedIn where, to my surprise, I am linked to something like 270 people. Some of the must have responded because a minute ago, I was "Hot and Trending," and the book's cover was one of the first site visitors see.
If somehow you haven't been to the site or been able to nominate my book, here's a link to the site:


Kindle Scout asks people who nominate a book to sign in to Amazon, a way I suspect to keep authors from stuffing the ballot box.

For those who have nominated my book, many thanks. For those who haven't (and have an Amazon account), I will be eternally grateful if you do.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

How two young New Yorkers find themselves on a Norwegian island

Rebecca Dinerstein has an MFA in fiction from New York University. The Sunlit Night is her first novel. I tend to approach first novels by MFA graduates with a certain amount of mistrust. The writing may be stunning—such descriptions! such metaphors! such similes!—while the characters and stories are juvenile and banal. Unhappy first love. College angst. Dysfunctional family. Each of these subjects of course can be literature, but a 24-year-old MFA graduate usually does not have enough life experience, skillfully expressed as it may be, to bring interesting depths to her work. That apparently is not Dinerstein's problem.

The Sunlit Night has two protagonists, Frances and Yasha. Frances is 21, a recent art school graduate, at loose ends when in the first pages of the book she breaks up with her wealthy boyfriend. She narrates her own story.

Yasha is 17, the son of a Russian immigrant baker with a shop in Brighton Beach, and a mother who apparently remained in Russia ten years earlier. Dinerstein tells Yasha's side of the story in third person. The shift from first to third person point of view is seamless and gives the novel a depth and richness it would not have otherwise had.

While the story begins in New York City—Frances, her sister Sarah, and her parents share a two-room Manhattan apartment; Yasha and his father live above the bakery in Brooklyn—the action shifts to Lofoten, an archipelego of six tiny islands in the Norwegian Sea, 95 miles north of the Arctic Circle and warmed by the Gulf Stream. The scene is both exotic and convincing; Dinerstein is the author of a bilingual English-Norwegian collection of poems, so she sounds as if she is writing from lived experience. For example, picked almost at random:

"The world was perpetually visible, so I looked at it... I saw the landscape in colorblock. The midnight sun came in shades of pink. The fjords rushed up onto white-sand beaches and the sand made the water Bermuda-green. The houses were always red. They appeared in clusters, villages, wherever there lay flat land. Mountains rose steeply behind each village—menaces and guardians. Each red house was a lighthouse, marking the boundary between one terrain and another, preventing crashes, somehow, providing solace."

How and why the American girl and the Russian-American boy end up on the same small island in northernmost Norway is both moving and plausible. Neither are characters dropped from Mars (individuals with no parents, siblings, or friends). Both have parents and lives beyond the island; both have challenges with which they must cope. Frances's parents, disapproving of Sarah's fiancee, refuse to go to her wedding and decide themselves to separate. Yasha's father dies and his mother shows up on the island with her lover.

Because there is no evil to overcome, no malevolent menace to be defeated, the thread running through The Sunlit Night is a profound question: How can one live in this world of other people? I thoroughly enjoyed and was rewarded by living in Rebecca Dinerstein's world, a world in which during a certain time of the year the sun never sets.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Pre-teen boys hide out in a 19th Century reform school

Aiden Sullivan and Charles Wheeler are 11 and 12 years old in Boston in 1889. Aiden, nominally Catholic, nominally Irish, has no father and a consumptive, dying mother. Charles, an orphan who has already done time for stealing a sandwich, is living by his considerable wits on the streets. They connect early and plausibly in Connie Hertzberg Mayo's fascinating new novel, The Island of Worthy Boys.

Mayo shows the boys' daily scramble to make enough money for food and, in Aiden's case, for rent to keep a tenament roof over his mother and little sister. Desperation finally pushes the boys into rolling drunken sailors on the waterfront, which works until it doesn't. One night, the drunk grabs Charles who has just opened the man's pocket knife, and, in horrible accident, plunges the knife into the man's gut. Worse, a woman happens out of an alley door, spots the boys, and cries havoc. Charles and Aiden now have to get out of Boston, but where?

With the connivance of a friendly whore and an accommodating minister, the boys pass themselves off as orphan brothers and are sent to the Boston Farm School on an island in Boston Harbor. That the school's policy not to accept boys with any kind of criminal record, which Charles has; that there is rampant anti-Irish feeling in Boston in the period, which means Aiden has to watch his accent; and that the school promotes a heavy Protestant Christian ethos to boys guilty of murder makes the island a refuge filled with tripwires.

At the same time, the school offers school, work, shelter, and regular meals. The book's middle section book dramatizes Aiden's and Charles's adjustment to school life as the reader knows this idyll is too good to last. As it is.

The Boston Farm School on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor was a real institution, and Charles Bradley, the superintendent of the school in the book, was in fact the superintendent from 1888 to 1922; his wife Mary was the school's matron. The school was finally closed in 1975.

Mayo has taken the basic factual information about the school and 1889 Boston society to create two engaging 12-year-olds in Aiden and Charles. The novel works so well I think because Mayo is able to evoke the times, the society, and the thought processes of the characters. We see the world through the eyes of Charles, Aiden, and Superintendent Bradley; they are all different, and they are all convincing, given who they are and what they want.

Although the two protagonists of The Island of Worthy Boys are pre-teen, which tends to cast a novel into the YA genre, I believe this is a book adults and young adults can find rewarding. Young people will be interested how Aiden and Charles fill their days in Boston, scrounging for pennies, and at the school, adjusting to life with 98 other boys. Adult readers will be interested in Mayo's evocation of 19th century assumptions about child raising, the era of "As the twig is bent, the tree will grow." Bradley turns out to be an unusually enlightened and kind reform school superintendent. I finished the book pleased and satisfied, and, perhaps more importantly, convinced that the lives Mayo has realized could have truly lived while the drama of their story carried me along.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

"The Stranger" from an Arab point of view

Albert Camus's The Stranger (in the Matthew Ward translation) begins: "Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe. I don't know."

Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation (in John Cullen's translation) begins: "Mama's still alive today. She doesn't say anything now, but there are many tales she could tell. Unlike me: I've rehashed this story in my head so often, I almost can't remember it anymore."

Daoud is an Algerian journalist based in Oran, where he writes for Algeria's third-largest French-language newspaper. His novel is a tour-de-force, has won a number of prizes, is being translated around the world, and will be the basis of a 2017 film.

Meursault is the name of Camus's narrator, a pied noir who seems to be without ambition, motivation, or inner life. When his boss in Algiers offers a bigger job, an opportunity to live in Paris and travel, he turns him down. "I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn't dissatisfied with mine her at all." That evening when Marie, the woman with whom he's been having sex, asks if he wants to marry her, "I said it didn't make any difference to
me and that we could if she wanted to." In the middle of the book, almost carelessly, Meursault shoots an anonymous Arab on the beach, then fires four more bullets into his body. The Arab is a stranger, and Meursault feels no more remorse for the killing than love for Marie or enthusiasm for his job.

Daoud's brilliant idea was to tell the story of the murder from the point of view of the dead Arab's  brother, who was a child at the time. He's now an old man, sitting in an Oran bar, talking to an unidentified and silent interlocutor, hashing and rehashing the murder. He gives the victim a name, Musa, and talks about the effect on himself and his mother, his anger at the unnamed author who wrote a book about Meursault, colonialism, his involvement (or not) in the Algerian revolution, his own murder of a pied noir, his failed relationship with a woman. I believe a case could be made that Daoud's narrator is a mirror image of Meursault. Except that this narrator is more engaged:

"I squeezed the trigger and fired twice. Two bullets. On in the belly, and the other in the necs. That makes seven all told, I thought at once, absurdly. (But the first five, the ones that killed Musa, had been fired twenty years earlier . . .)"

He, like Meursault, has interesting observations about life: "To tell the truth, love is a heavenly beast that scares the hell out of me. I watch it devour people, two by two; it fascinates them with the lure of eternity, shuts them up in a sort of cocoon, lifts them up to heaven, and then drops their carcasses back to earth like peels. Have you seen what becomes of people when they split up? They're scratches on a closed door."

One does not have to have read The Stranger to be fascinated and engaged by Daoud's narrator but reading it, then The Meursault Investigation can make the experiences seriously richer. I was skeptical about an unknown writer taking off on the Nobel Prize-winning Camus, but Kamel Daoud's novel, while offering its own rewards, can stand with Camus's. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Midwest Book Review likes "Girl"

The Midwest Book Review has posted their staff's response to my novel:

"The Girl in the Photo" by Wally Wood is a compelling novel about love and longing, regret and renewal. David and Abbie are a brother and sister who discover a surprising secret after the death of their father in the form of a photo of a young woman who was his lover decades before and half a world away. Even as they mourn their father, an eminent surgeon, David and Abbie question what they thought they knew about his life (and theirs) as they struggle with conflicting memories, unexpected emotions, and new possibilities.

A deftly crafted work of literary fiction, "The Girl in the Photo" is an inherently fascinating and deftly crafted read from beginning to end. Strongly recommended for community library General Fiction collections, it should be noted for personal reading lists that "The Girl in the Photo" is also available in a Kindle edition ($2.99).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Should you translate everything? Or what?

For my own education and entertainment, I am translating a book of Japanese short stories. Simply deciding on the best English word is a routine challenge. For example, my dictionary often gives several synonyms for a Japanese word. For example, 言い訳する can mean "to make an excuse, to explain, to justify." Those three English words are all similar, but making an excuse is different than explaining or justifying one's action. This means that the translator has to consider the context in which the author has used 言い訳する to begin to approach the Japanese meaning.

In addition to these common decisions, I'm stumbling over what to do about a Japanese word for which there is no English equivalent. At one point, the wife is preparing a bento box lunch for her husband to take to work. She asks, "Do you also want natto?" 

Natto on a bed of rice
I am going to assume that enough Americans have eaten in Japanese restaurants so that they know what a bento box is. But what about natto? How many people who have not been to Japan have tried natto? According to Wikipedia, it's "a traditional Japanese food made from soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis var. natto. Some eat it as a breakfast food. Nattō may be an acquired taste because of its powerful smell, strong flavor, and slimy texture." There is, as far as I know (and I like natto), nothing like it in the West, so what is a translator to do?

You don't want to send your reader to Wikipedia in the middle of the story. You don't want to translate the wife's simple question as, "Do you also want soybeans fermented with bacillus subtilis?" 

My solution, which I am not happy with, is to footnote the word: "Fermented soy beans in a sticky web." If this were a book, another answer is to include a glossary at the back. A third approach is to avoid the word entirely and omit the wife's question or have her ask, "Do you also want something on the side?" I'm not happy with any of these and I'd be interested in other thoughts. If you have an opinion, I'd be delighted to hear it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

What it's like to be psychotic

Elyn R. Saks knows what it's like to be psychotic and she wrote about it vividly in her 2007 memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. Her schizophrenia blossomed in her late teens and for twenty years she lived her life on two paths. On one, she was a high-achieving student, teacher, legal scholar, and tenured professor; a graduate of Vanderbilt University, Oxford University, and the Yale School of Law.

On the other path, she was a crazy woman, unable to distinguish delusion from reality, terrified by the voices in her head, babbling nonsense. What makes the book extraordinary is that Saks is able to show the reader what it's like to have a mind one cannot trust: "For some reason," she writes late in the book, "I decided that Kaplan [her psychoanalyst with whom she'd been working for years] and Steve [her oldest and closest friend] were imposters. They looked the same, they sounded the same, they were identical in every way to the originals—but they'd been replaced, by someone or something. Was it the work of alien beings? I had no way of knowing, but I was terrified."

Notice that in her psychosis she doesn't—she can't—question the reality of this switch. The two people closest to her have been replaced, and so she can no longer trust anything they say or do. No logic, no evidence will convince her otherwise. In this situation, psychoanalysis, the talking cure, is no help.

Fortunately there are drugs. Unfortunately the drug have side effects (although apparently pharmaceutical companies continue to improve the effectiveness and reduce the side effects). For years, however, Saks was convinced against all evidence to the contrary that she could control the voices in her head if she just tried harder. She was profoundly afraid of the drugs, both for the genuine harm they could do over time and because she would not admit she had a genuine disease that required drugs to ameliorate. She repeatedly took antipsychotic medication, felt better, and tried to taper off because she felt better and became an unwashed, babbling, terrified crazy lady.

The Center Cannot Hold is so powerful in places where Saks is almost entirely out of control, I wondered how she was able to write the book at all. This must be what it was like to have delusional thoughts about your therapist, who is only kind and helpful: "She is evil and she is dangerous. She keeps killing me. She is a monster. I must kill her, or threaten her, to stop her from doing evil things to me. It will be a blessing for all the other people she is hurting."

Because Saks is now a psychoanalyst herself, and because she has always been a high achiever when she could function, her memoir is both a personal story, which is fascinating, and a report on how people with mental health problems were treated in the 1980s and 90s, which is sobering. (One can only hope that the situation in American mental hospitals has changed.) She points out a classic bind for psychiatric patients: "They're struggling with thoughts of wanting to hurt themselves or others, and at the same time, they desperately need the help of those they're threatening to harm. The conundrum: Say what's on your mind and there'll be consequences; struggle to keep the delusions to yourself, and it's likely you won't get the help you need."

Saks was lucky. She managed to get the help she needed, and she's written a powerful book about a pernicious disease.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The American girl who gave Japanese women their rights

The Last Boat to Yokohama: The Life and Legacy of Beate Sirota Gordon by Nassrine Azimi and Michel Wasserman is a fascinating small book about an extraordinary woman. It includes an introduction by Gordon herself and an afterward by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who writes "It is a rare life treat for a Supreme Court Justice to get to meet a framer of a Constitution." In 1946 Gordon, 22 years old and a member of General Douglas MacArthur's Occupation staff, helped write the Japanese Constitution.

Gordon's father was Leo Sirota, an internationally famous concert pianist, born in Ukraine, a 1908 graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. A successful concert tour in Japan in the late 1920s led to Leo moving his wife and six-year-old Beate (Bay-AH-tay) to Japan permanently in 1929. By the time she graduated from Tokyo's American high school in 1939, she was fluent in Japanese, English, German, French, Russian, and Spanish. Given the international situation, college in neither Japan nor Europe seemed like a good idea and so she entered Mills College in Oakland, California.

Although her mother wanted to stay in the United States at the end of a visit to Beate in late 1941, her father insisted Japan would never attack such a big country and in November they took the last boat to Yokohama. While their lives did not change much during the first couple years of the war, by the last year, they were living in an unheated summer home in Karuizawa and bartering clothing for food and fuel.

Beate monitored Tokyo radio broadcasts for the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service of the FCC. In 1944 she joined the Office of War Information as a writer and translator into Japanese of its propaganda broadcasts. In 1945 she moved to New York City to become an editorial researcher for Time magazine. When the war ended, and she received word that her parents were alive, she was able to join the Government Section of the General Headquartrs, Supreme Commander Allied Powers, and return to Tokyo.

It was clear to the Occupation powers that Japan needed a new Constitution, one that would put it on a road to democracy. After two unsatisfactory attempts by the Japanese, MacArthur gave his staff nine days to write something acceptable. Beate, the only woman in the room (the title of her autobiography), contributed Article 24:

"Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with the equal rights of husband and wife as a basis. With regard to choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce, and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of individual dignity and the essential equality of the sexes."

While there have been attempts to amend the Japanese Constitution since it was promulgated in 1946, they have all failed. And women, who were expected to walk three steps behind their husbands, now walk with equal rights.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

David Rothenberg's remarkable fortune

Fortune in My Eyes
David Rothenberg's friend and literary agent told him, "Stop telling those stories and write them down." The result is Fortune in My Eyes: A Memoir of Broadway Glamour, Social Justice, and Political Passion, and while the writing is workmanlike rather than sparkling (he tends to name-drop) the life and observations more than make up for the prose.

A New Jersey boy who fled to New York City as soon as he could, Rothenberg began his work life as a Broadway publicist and producer. That life exposed him to the talented and glamorous. For example, at a small London dinner party he attended as the young protege of producer Alex Cohen, the guests included Ingrid Bergman, her daughter Pia Lindström, Sir John Gielgud, and the actress Joyce Carey.

In 1966, Rothenberg heard about a prison play by a Canadian writer, John Herbert. When he received a copy of the script, "I was up all night, reading and rereading Fortune and Men's Eyes. I was devastated by what I read" and resolved to produce the play off-Broadway himself. When he could not raise enough money, he "committed the cardinal sin of producing" and took out a bank loan to cover the shortfall himself.

While the first reviews were mixed, the play attracted enough business to remain open. A sociology professor asked if he could bring his 30 students and stay to discuss the play with the cast after the final curtain. A note in the program that night invited the entire audience to stay, and during the discussion one member of the audience shouted, "This is a lot of crap. These characters are all stereotypes, and I don't buy any of it."

In response, another man stood to say, "This play is so real that I thought I was back in my cell. . ." Rothenberg invited the man, Pat McGarry, who'd done 20 years to join the on-stage panel. McGarry convinced Rothenberg the play "was a mirror for the lives of men whose stories had never been told. Fortune was about the system's destruction of the spirit and how society would pick up the bill at a later date." The play led in almost a straight line to the founding of The Fortune Society in 1967 which helps ex-offenders re-enter society.

So Rothenberg's memoir is much more than an account of his brushes with celebrity. He has profound and interesting things to say about criminal justice in the U.S. He was called into Attica during the horrific 1971 riot that resulted in 39 men dead and hundreds wounded. While many of his heart-warming stories are about men and women who were able to turn their lives around after prison, not all are—just as in real life. For some former prisoners, life on the outside is too stressful.

With his theater contacts, Rothenberg was able to make The Fortune Society happen. Alvin Ailey, one of his friends, joined its advisory council. He offered tickets to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on nights they were not sold out, leading one ex-offender to quip, "When you get out of prison in New York, you get forty dollars, a baloney sandwich, and two tickets to Alvin Ailey."

Midway through the memoir, Rothenberg announces something many readers will have suspected: "I am a homosexual…gay…queer…whatever word is being used this year." Born in 1933, Rothenberg grew up in the time when no one talked openly about homosexuality and "fairy" was a gut-clutching insult. Caught up in the gay rights movement of the early 1970s, he came out to his mother (and includes the moving letter he wrote her) and to the The Fortune Society leadership.

He told his associates, all ex-offenders, he was gay, he was going on The David Susskind Show to announce it, and he was prepared to submit his resignation as the Society's executive director. "This was greeted with a long pause; everyone was looking at one another. Kenny Jackson broke the silence and asked, 'What are you going wear on television?'" Not the response he expected, and when Rothenberg suggested his coming out might affect the Society's support, one of the others said, "You've stood beside us for six years, telling us to be honest about our past lives. Why not give us the same opportunity to stand by you?"

The man has had a fascinating life and his memoir is filled with incident and anecdote. Nevertheless, it is difficult to tell what Rothenberg is really like, perhaps because for his first 40 years he had to mask what he was really like and the habit is hard to break. I would like some examples of regret, failure, bad judgment to provide some balance for all the glamor and success. Still, Fortune in My Eyes is well worth your time if only for Rothenberg's experiences with and observations about criminal justice.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Reality always wins

I've lifted the second half of Martin Grebel's book title to headline this review because it's something I believe. The book is Reality Check: In the Battle Against Reality, Reality Always Wins. Its a short book by a clinical psychologist arguing for reality, starting with the problem of our beliefs.

How do we know that what we believe is real? In many cases, how do we even know what we believe? Many of our beliefs are formed in early childhood, long before we are capable of judging whether they are true or not. And once we have a belief, especially one that gives us our sense of identity, we tend to ignore or discount any evidence that contradicts the belief and to accept without question evidence that supports it. For example, a child growing up in a very troubled, poor, and uncaring family "would almost certainly develop far more negative beliefs about life" than one growing up in secure, loving family.

Grebel notes that parents have complained over the years that their children don't listen or still act inappropriately no matter how angry they get or how they threaten. If the parents do not change their beliefs about how to moderate a child's behavior—a belief usually based in how they were raised—nothing will change.

Grebel notes that science—"an intricate, subtle, and complex system used in acquiring knowledge and applying it to the knowable world"—is the most reliable model for evaluating beliefs. Science relies on accumulating evidence to determine whether a hypothesis or theory (or belief) is valid or invalid. The challenge, of course, is to recognize both one's beliefs and the evidence that contradicts it. (We usually don't have trouble recognizing the evidence that supports what we believe.)

When belief systems are invalid, he writes, "they often produce long-term negative effects on our well-being, while also lowering responsiveness to our real needs, wants, and feelings. In these instances we pay a double price: loss of self and coping with negative outcomes." For example, people who are overly self-directed tend to believe their viewpoints are not only correct but are the only valid view. "They believe that being aggressive in pursuing their own goals is always legitimate regardless of any negative impact it may have on others." Others, impacted negatively, may reject or sabotage or avoid (or all three).

While I think highly of Reality Check, I thought it could have been even better with an index and with more examples from sources other than Dr. Grebel's on practice. As it stands, it is almost an essentials text rather than fully exploring the subject—when I would like more. Nevertheless, Reality Check should make you think (always a good thing), and I recommend it.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Nantucket Five-Spot: An interesting thriller, filled with plausible characters

Nantucket Five-Spot by Steven Axelrod is subtitled "A Henry Kennis Mystery," but it's more thriller than mystery because we know (or should know) at page 14 who the bad guy is. We just have to see how much mayhem he plans to cause on Nantucket island one summer at the height of the tourist season.

Henry Kennis, the narrator, is Nantucket's chief of police. (Axelrod thanks Nantucket Police Chief William Pittnam "for his continuing advice and support.") The book starts with a bang. In the first paragraph, Kennis and Franny Tate, a former love, are having a romantic dinner overlooking Nantucket harbor "when the first bomb went off."

Almost immediately, the island is overrun with state police, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the Joint Terrorism Task Force agents as Kennis and his officers are elbowed aside for crowd control and "support."

Of course, Kennis and his staff know the island and the year-round residents—and the residents know their chief, an important factor. Indeed, Nantucket itself is virtually a character in a book filled with characters, and Axelrod's characters have strong feelings about the island's changing landscape (the second bomb partially destroys a nouveau country club).

As Kennis says about a careless driver, "That's something I hate. People who drive like that. Sometimes I want to arrest everyone—throw them all in jail, impound their cars and their cell phones and their computers and their TVs, and give their stupid McMansions which they use two week a year to the homeless people who need a roof over their heads."

Nantucket Five-Spot is satisfyingly complex with a pulse-raising conclusion. And, perhaps because Axelrod has an MFA in writing from Vermont College, the writing often crackles: "He was a slender man with lots of well-groomed blond hair framing his hawkish face, blue eyes set tight together, sharp nose, thin lips clinched around his indignation, sucking it like a sourball. He spoke with a slight southern accent...." Another example: "For some reason she reminded me of my daughter, soberly explaining that popping all the bubble wrap would make it easier to fit the plastic into the recycling can, when both of us knew she just wanted to do the firecracker dance."

For readers like myself who trip over foreshadowing, the novel did cause me to stumble once or twice: "Just how catastrophically, tragically, fatally bad that choice had been she was going to learn before the end of this close and humid summer day...." And as I wrote a moment ago, the story is complex with wheels within wheels that might put off some readers.

But on balance, I think Nantucket Five-Spot is an interesting thriller, filled with plausible characters, and a plot that edges right up to but never quite tips over into the preposterous.