Sunday, August 27, 2017

What it's like to grow up on Washington's mean streets

I think Simba Sana's memoir Never Stop is worth two blog entries. This first is an introduction to the book, the second will be—if I can pull it off—a discussion of Sana's life lessons and philosophy.

Simba Sana was born Bernard Sutton in Washington, D.C. in 1968. His mother earned a bachelor's degree and a high school teacher's certificate in North Carolina. She began a relationship with a Herman Sutton, married him and divorced him when he moved from North Carolina to Michigan. She moved to Washington and at age 35 became pregnant. She stopped working and Sana knew her only as a single mother who would tell him nothing about his father. As an adult he tracked down Sutton, but apparently Sutton had separated from Sana's mother long before her pregnancy.

The first half of Never Stop is an account of growing up as a black child in the District's black neighborhoods. He and his mother were evicted from their apartment at one point and spent time in a homeless shelter. Sana hung out with the neighborhood kids and, as he got older, tried to avoid the turf of rival gangs. He says he managed to avoid much of the drugs and violence. Because he was so shy he managed to lose his virginity relatively late compared to the experiences his buddies claimed. He hung out at a local gym, learned to box, and as an adult he was much involved with world of boxing.

His mother converted to Roman Catholicism so that the Archdiocese of Washington would cover Sana's expenses at a private Catholic school. While he spent a lot of time on the streets and hustling to find work for pocket money and, later, to help his mother, his grades were good enough he was admitted to Mount Saint Mary's University in Pennsylvania. On graduation he took a job with Ernst & Young, the giant public accounting firm, although he'd become involved with the African Development Organization (ADO), a black nationalist/pan-African group.

As a young child living in a black neighborhood, Sana was barely conscious of color. Before he left for college, however, "several older black people gave me unsolicited advice about dealing with racism on campus." It wasn't the overt or blatant racism but the "emotional and psychological impact of racism . . . Implicit in their words was the idea that I needed something white folks had . . . I didn't adopt this view . . . I felt the streets of DC had been the toughest thing I'd faced, and that nothing white folks could ever throw at me would match up."

The second half of Never Stop is Sana's life as an adult: his career as an entrepreneur, his love life, his marriage, his involvement with boxing, and what happened when everything went smash.

Sana and an acquaintance from ADO began selling black-themed books from a card table. They expanded to a kiosk in a mall in Prince George's County, Maryland, and became Karibu Books. Sales were strong enough they rented as shop in the mall. The business continued to grow helped by Sana's tendency to be a workaholic. Eventually Karibu had four stores, almost 50 full- and part-time employees, and was planning a major expansion. It was perhaps the most successful black-owned bookseller in the country.

When the 2006 recession hit, however, it hit Karibu violently. Sales fell. Relations between Sana and his partner deteriorated. There was a question whether Sana would buy out his partner or vice versa. As a throwaway comment, Sana notes that in the year before the company's first-ever board meeting in 2007,  he had loaned the company $400,000 of his own money (!) to keep it afloat. Adding to his stress, he was enmeshed in a bitter custody fight with his ex-wife over the custody of their two children. Some 25 pages from the end of Never Stop he writes, "By 2009, my business and all of my money were gone . . . All the real estate I owned  . ..was facing foreclosure. Worst of all I wasn't seeing [my two children] Zendaya and Talib."

Never Stop is well-written (Sana had gone on and obtained a M.A. from Howard University in African Studies), but the second half suffers as Sana tries to explain—and justify—actions and decisions that even sympathetic readers will seem irresponsible. I think it's a problem with memoir in general: How to write about a failing business or a deteriorating marriage, say, without seeming like a patsy or a bully. Sana does not cut himself a lot of slack, particularly when he writes about a time when he had an uncontrollable need for sex and what he did to get it. But unfortunately it's possible to read the passage two ways: Ain't I a stud to have such a passionate sex drive? Or: Ain't I pathetic to be so overwhelmed by my need for sex?

While reviewers should never complain about the book the author didn't write, my own feeling is that Sana actually offers three memoirs in Never Stop, any one of which (or all three) could be strong and engaging: His life growing up in Washington; his involvement as a child and an adult in boxing; his experience as an entrepreneur with Karibu Books. Each of these filled out are interesting stories. Nevertheless, Never Stop did hold my interest and will give readers insights into a world(s) they know little about.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Margot Livesey shows fiction's hidden machinery

The director of the Michener Center for Writers, James Magnuson, has high praise: "There is no finer teacher of writing in America than Margot Livesey." Livesey has published eight novels. a collection of short stories, and is a professor of fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Tin House recently published her small paperback, The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing.

I suspect, based on the titles about writing on my shelves, that at a certain point in their careers most authors knows they have a book about writing in them. For many of us, writing about how to write is easier than creating one more goddamn novel. Also, for many of us who buy these books, it is easier to read about writing than it is to write. All that said, The Hidden Machinery is special and worth virtually any author's time. (The exceptions are those who know everything they need to know.)

Livesey's first essay begins with a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson: "Life is Monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. . . " What this means in practice, I think, is that even a 'slice of life' story
succeeds or fails not in how 'lifelike' it is but how carefully the author has been able to hide the machinery of fiction from the reader, and often from herself.

She writes, "I am using the phrase 'the hidden machinery' to refer to two different aspects of novel making: on the one hand how certain elements of the text—characters, plot, imagery—work together to make an overarching argument; on the other how the secret psychic life of the author, and the larger events of his or her time and place shape that argument." To illustrate, she uses works of E.M Forster and Henry James. This first essay caused me to consider (as best I can) the effect of my psychic life and the events of the time and place in the past about which I am currently writing—and the effects of current events.

Her second essay discusses creating vivid characters. "Vivid characters are not necessarily the sine qua non of memorable fiction, but they certainly a significant part of it and an enormous part of all fiction." (And as I wrote in my last blog post, they are critical in mysteries.) Livesey confesses that she has trouble creating characters that leap off the page, and has come up with a list of prompts, rules. and admonitions for herself and her students: "Name the character . . . Use myself or someone I know . . . Make her act . . . 'Bad' characters must have some strength or virtue: perfect pitch, the ability to recognize edible mushrooms . . . When creating a character very different from myself I often need to create her or him from the outside. I give the character a house, a job, activities, friends, clothes, and, in the course of doing so, I gradually figure out her or his inner life  . . ."

While it is tempting to continue quoting (my copy of the book has a dozen sticky tabs marking passages), I am going to stop myself with a few of Livesey's words about dialogue: "But if all dialogue does is appear natural, then its artifice is wasted. Good dialogue serves the story. It must reveal the characters in ways that the narration cannot and advance the plot while, ideally, not appearing too flagrant in either mission. And it must deepen the psychic life of the story. We should sense the tectonic plates shifting beneath the spoken words. There is text, and there is subtext. Too much dialogue without subtext can quickly become tedious."

The Hidden Machinery has ten essays that explore various aspects of both craft and theory of fiction. In addition to Forster and James, Livesey employs Jane Austin, Virginia Wolfe, Gustave Flaubert, Shakespeare and her own work to illustrate her points. In addition to the essays about creating characters and writing dialogue, she has an essay she titled "How to Tell a True Story: Mapping Our Narratives onto the World" and "He Liked Custard: Navigating the Shoals of Research"; either one alone is worth, in my opinion, the price of admission.

While these essays will be most useful to working and aspiring authors (Francine Prose blurbs on the back jacket, "If only I'd been able to read The Hidden Machinery before I began my first novel. It would have saved me so much trouble!"), any reader with a serious interest in fiction and how it works—or doesn't—can learn from Livesey's insights as an author and teacher.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

What makes a great detective—at least in fiction?

Not long ago I had lunch with an acquaintance whose hobby is genealogy. He had recently broken through a brick wall (genealogy talk for dead end) through the use of DNA. Having solved his personal mystery he remarked that it would make a good book. I didn't contradict him but a good book, mystery or otherwise, generally requires an engaging, memorable character. The mystery is secondary, almost irrelevant.

Which is why The Lineup, edited by Otto Penzler, is such a valuable book for anyone who wants to write a mystery. The subtitle gives the game away: "The world's greatest crime writers tell the inside story of their greatest detectives." It's the inside story behind Harry Bosch, Jack Reacher, Precious Ramotswa, Inspector Morse, John Rebus, Spenser and fifteen more fictional sleuths.

Otto Penzler is the proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. Several years ago, attacked by big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders and the online retailer Amazon (this was before Amazon drove Boarders to the wall), the Bookshop was struggling. "Not being wealthy," he writes in the Introduction, "partially by accident of birth and the failure of my parents to leave me an obscene fortune, I was faced with the increasing difficulty of supporting a business that was bleeding money—some months a mere trickle, others a rushing, roaring hemorrhage. To illustrate the level of desperation to which I had fallen, I called for a staff meeting . . . "

For several years, Penzler had commissioned an original short Christmas mystery from one of the authors he knows. The store printed the stories in pamphlets and gave them to customers as a Christmas present to thank them for their patronage. What about commissioning authors a biography or profile of their series characters, produce only 100 copies of each in hardcover, and sell the autographed, limited-editions to those collectors who also buy a book or five?

"More than two years after initiating this series—" The Lineup was published in 2009. "—we're still in business, which, against all odds, has picked up nicely. Many clients come in, call, or write each month to ask who will write the next profile, and then buy books in order to get a copy."

The profiles vary as much as the original books. But the articles are fascinating. Here's Lee Child writing about the creation of his Jack Reacher series: "Character is king. There are probably fewer than six book every century remembered specifically for their plots. People remember characters. Same with television. Who remembers the Lone Ranger? Everybody. Who remembers any actual Lone Ranger story lines? Nobody. . . " Also. "If you can see a bandwagon, it's too late to get on. . . "

Here's Ian Rankin writing about the creation of John Rebus when he, Rankin, was a 24-year-old graduate literature student. He became fascinated by contemporary literary theory, "enjoying the 'game-playing' aspect of storytelling. Eventually I would name my own fictional detective after a type of picture-puzzle, and the mystery of his first adventure would be solved with the help of a professor of semiotics. That's the problem with Knots and Crosses (and one reason I find it hard to read the book these days)—it is so obviously written by a literature student . . . It seems to me now that I wasn't interested in Rebus as a person. He was a way of telling a story about Edinburgh, and of updating the doppelgänger tradition . . ."

Again: While The Lineup should be of interest to serious mystery readers if only for all the books cited in its pages, it is invaluable for anyone who aspires seriously to write a mystery.

Monday, August 7, 2017

How do you defend the indefensible?

Delayed at an airport and finishing my last book, I browsed the terminal for a novel that would distract me from airplane malaise. I picked up a John Grisham, a brand name author, maybe not great literature but sure to please and who can focus on great literature while his flight is delayed . . . and delayed . . .and delayed?

Rogue Lawyer distracted, impressed, and engaged me through my wait, the flight, and then some. You know you're in good hands from the first paragraph: "My name is Sebastian Rudd, and though I am a well-known street lawyer, you will not see my name on billboards, on bus benches, or screaming at you from the yellow pages . . . I carry a gun, legally, because my name and face tend to attract attention from the type of people who also carry guns and don't mind using them . . . The law is my life, always consuming and occasionally fulfilling . . . ."

Rudd is a rogue lawyer, working alone, though he does have a bodyguard/driver/associate. He is "paid by the State to provide a first-class defense to a defendant charged with capital murder." Grisham does not identify Rudd's state or city (for good reason—U.S. libel laws) and one might wonder how well the state pays, but he gets by. Rudd does well enough, in fact, he's able to buy a piece of a rising cage fighting star. Watching cage fights is one of his diversions.

I thought for the first hundred pages or so that Rogue Lawyer was a collection of short stories, sort of a "My Most Memorable Cases." It turned out to be far more complicated and interesting than that however, as Rudd's old cases and new come to affect, influence, and shape one another. It's not really a mystery; in one of Rudd's cases an elderly man shot a SWOT cop thinking his home was being invaded. In another, an arena full of people watched a fighter commit murder. The mystery is whether Rudd will be able to save his client from execution or worse, life in prison without parole.

Rudd—and I am going to assume his creator Grisham—has a sobering view of police and prosecutors. Police routinely fabricate evidence and coach jailhouse snitches. Prosecutors withhold exculpatory evidence. (The Sunday New York Times Magazine of August 6, 2017 carried an article of such a case in Memphis; the innocent woman spent nine years in prison.) As Rudd ruminates, "Like so many, this trial is not about the truth, it's about winning. And to win, with no real evidence, Huver [the prosecutor] must fabricate and lie and attack the truth as if he hates it. I have six witnesses who swear my client was nowhere close to the scene when the crime was committed, and all six are scoffed at. Huver has produced almost two dozen witnesses, virtually all known to be liars by the cops, the prosecution, and the judge, yet the jurors lap up their lie as if they're reading Holy Scripture."

To even the competition slightly, Rudd has cultivated a source within the police department: "Spurio is a thirty-year veteran of the police force, a genuine, honest cop who plays by the book and despises almost everyone else in the department . . . Over the years, Spurio has refused to play the political games necessary to advance and has gone nowhere. He's usually hanging around a desk, filing papers, counting the days. But there is a network of other officers who have been ostracized by the powers that be, and Spurio spend a lot of time tracking the gossip. He's not a snitch by any means. He's simply an honest copy who hates what his department has become." So Rudd is a voice for honesty in a corrupt and lying world.

Rudd may work alone, but the book is filled with people. Rudd has a son, an ex-wife and her partner; he has his cage fighter and that family; he has to deal with his son's school teacher; and he has clients, ex-clients (including a mob boss Rudd was not able to save from an execution sentence), prosecutors, judges, and more. Grisham never has to jump into another character's head; Rudd tells the entire story.

Because I am no lawyer, I cannot critique the book's points of law. I do wonder about a prison system that is so porous that correctional officers are able to smuggle cell phones into prisoners. Also, in the prisons with which I am familiar, no one—not even an inmate's lawyer—can bring in a cell phone. But this is only a quibble. Rogue Lawyer offers a fascinating view of a subspecialty of the law, defender of the indefensible.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

But what was in Marilyn Monroe's unknown script?


John Herrick had an interesting idea: What if Marilyn Monroe wrote a screenplay while she was married to Arthur Miller? What if she gave it to a young friend, properly stamping each page with her thumbprint to prove authenticity? What if the friend, Del Corwyn, packed the script away and forgot about it? What if today, 72-year-old Del, now facing bankruptcy, discovers the script, which Marilyn titled “Beautiful Mess”?

That’s the armature on which Herrick builds his new novel, Beautiful Mess. If stories about Hollywood, the stresses of fame, the dangers of false gods, and a happy ending are the sort of book that attracts you, stop reading this review right now and add Beautiful Mess to your to-read list. You’ve been warned.

It’s not a bad book. I admire Herrick’s industry. He’s published four earlier novels and a book of non-fiction (8 Reasons Your Life Matters). Beautiful Mess comes with a reading group guide, interview with the author, and a stand-alone short story. In his answer to the question of what motivates him to select one book concept over another, Herrick gives three elements, gut feeling, commercial and target-audience appeal, and “potential to inspire or encourage the reader.”

Expanding on motivation number three, he writes,”The same collection of words triggers diverse responses among readers. It can serve as entertainment for one person. It might inspire another to reach for his or her dreams. And that same novel could uplift someone enduring pain or contemplating suicide. It’s such a privilege, and it’s like fuel during my writing process.” Which may account for my problems with the novel.

Herrick’s main character, Del Corwyn is an actor who almost won an Academy Award years ago. He has a big house in Malibu, runs every day to keep himself in shape, never married, has been living beyond his means, but seems to have no inner life. He was Marilyn Monroe’s friend when is was barely out of his teens and had an acting career that never went anywhere.

Del meets a 25-year-old actress, Nora Jumelle, who is up for an Academy Award for a breakout indie film. Nora is adventurous enough—or screwed up enough—to have a one-night-stand with Del. They agree a May-December relationship will not work (although reportedly the sex was fine) and become friends. Several of the chapters are written from Nora’s point of view.

Del meets Felicia, a minister of certain years (much more age-appropriate for Del) and they become friends. We never learn much about Felicia’s religious calling or what denomination she represents. Del and Nora happen to meet Tristan, a 30-something online wellness coach who makes a good living dispensing “Dear Abby” style advice anonymously and for money.

None of the four main characters seem to have families, friends, or much of a backstory. (Del does have an accountant and an agent.) Herrick, I suspect, started with his concept, then needed characters to move around to make the concept work rather than starting with the character(s) and letting the story grow out of their personalities and experiences.

Another problem for me is the Monroe script at the heart of the book. We never see it, although we do read Marilyn’s letter to Del when she gives him the script. People talk about it, how incredible it is, how the biggest studio in the country is willing to go all in to obtain it. But nothing, really, about it. It is a McGuffin, “a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a McGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot.” Alfred Hitchcock could get away without explaining the specific nature; I wanted to know more about Monroe’s script.

I also had problems with the writing. Here’s Nora regarding Tristan: “He inspired in her a sense of security, and as she sneaked glances at those blue eyes, her heart told her he was a a guy with romantic potential.” Dell regarding Felicia: “. . .Del could see in her eyes that her heart reached out toward his.” (In Herrick’s world, hearts are wonderfully articulate.) “Del invited Felicia to speak a blessing over their meal, then they began to partake.” Who partakes these days? And then there’s poor Nora; she cannot get a break. She attends the Academy Award ceremony dressed in Armani with Del as her date. However, “Little did she know, the following day, critics would balk at her attire and label her the ceremony’s worst-dressed attendee.”

As I said at the beginning, if the premise intrigues you, read the book. It intrigued me enough to read and review it, but I am afraid that on balance I came away from Beautiful Mess agreeing only with the title’s second word.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Two mysteries, one book, and too clever by half

I did not care for Anthony Horowitz's best selling Magpie Murders but I feel that anyone interested in writing and publishing should read it because, aside from the stories it tells, it includes a wealth of information about publishing, mysteries, and the writing life.

The book begins with Susan Ryeland, a British editor, introducing "Magpie Murders," a new mystery by Alan Conway, the house's most popular author. The next 213 pages (separately numbered, different type) is that manuscript minus the last chapter. The rest of the book is Susan's story of tracking down the missing last chapter and trying to understand why Conway has just committed suicide. Or has he?

Horowitz has (at this writing) written over 40 books including the teen spy series Alex Rider, which he adapted into a movie. The Conan Doyle estate commissioned him to write two new Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Moriarty and The House of Silk, both bestsellers. The Ian Fleming estate commissioned him to write the James Bond novel Trigger Mortis. As a television screenwriter he created and wrote Midsomer Murders and Foyle's War.

Alan Conway's "Magpie Murders," ostensibly the ninth in the August Pünd series, is in the style of Agatha Christie set in a 1955 English village complete with a brilliant, if opaque, private investigator; his faithful, much younger, sidekick; a helpful, if dim, police inspector; two murders, and a half dozen suspects with reasons to kill. That is, everyone but the actual killer which Pünd has to finally expose.

I did not care for either "Conway's" mystery nor the mystery in which it is embedded because they are both puzzle boxes with red herrings, lucky (or unlucky) coincidences, and—for me—unconvincing murderers. Interestingly, we learn that Conway himself did not care for the character and the series that had made him wealthy, and one of the book's many pleasures is learning the connections between Conway's life and his book.

I am in awe of Anthony Horowitz's ability to write in the style of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and others of the period. Here is "Conway's" third-person, omniscient POV introduction to Pünd:

"Dr. Benson examined his patient with a certain amount of puzzlement. The name Atticus Pünd was familiar to him, of course. He was often mentioned in the newspapers—a German refugee who had managed to survive the war after spending a year in one of Hitler's concentration camps. At the time of his arrest he had been a policeman working in Berlin—or perhaps it was Vienna—and after arriving in England he had set himself up as a private detective, helping the police on  numerous occasions. He did not look like a detective. He was a small man, very neat, his hands folded in front of him. He was wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a narrow black tie. His shoes were polished. If he had not known otherwise, the doctor might have mistaken him for an accountant, the sort who would work for a family firm and who would be utterly reliable. And yet there was something else . . ."

By contrast, here is Susan Ryeland's first person POV description of Alan Conway:

"I didn't like him. I'm sorry to say it but he just struck me as a bit of a cold fish. You'll have seen photographs of him on the book jackets, the slim face, the closely cropped silver hair, the round wire-framed glasses. On television or on the radio he'd always had a sort of eloquence, an easy charm. He was nothing like that then. He was puffy and a little overweight, wearing a suit with chalk marks on the sleeves. His manner was at once aggressive and eager to please. He wasted no time telling me how much he wanted to be a published author but he showed almost no enthusiasm now that the moment had come. I couldn't work him out . . ."

And here is a sample from the thankfully brief excerpt of the kind of book Conway would like the be known for:

"Lord Quentin Crump comes slumping down the staircase, lording it as he always does over the cooks and maids, the under-butlers and the footmen that exist only in his anfractuous imagination, that have in truth slipped hugger-mugger into the adumbration of family history. They were there when he was a boy and in some ways he is still a boy, or perhaps it is more true to say that the boy he was lurks obstinately in the fleshy folds that fifty years of unhealthy living have deposited on the barren winter tree that is his skeleton . . ."

I believe any aspiring mystery writer could study Magpie Murders to understand how a consummate professional describes character and place, drops clues, and propels the story forward, in this case both stories. While puzzle box mysteries are not to my taste (I agree with Edmond Wilson; who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?), I learned a great deal from the book that I plan to use in my own writing.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

History pokes its nasty nose into truffle country

Martin Walker is an interesting guy to be writing mysteries. He's the Senior Director of the Global Business Policy Council at A.T. Kearney, the management consulting firm. Membership in the Council is by invitation-only and the symposium is closed-door. Members include academic, corporate, and government thought leaders, who meet annually to discuss issues that affect the worldwide business climate.

He spent 28 years on the staff of The Guardian newspaper, working as bureau chief in Moscow and the US, European editor, and assistant editor. Passed over as editor in 1999, he jointed United Press International, is now editor-in-chief emeritus of UPI. He's a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, senior fellow of the World Policy Institute at The New School in New York, and a member of the board of directors of the Global Panel Foundation. Born in 1947, he and his wife have a holiday home in the Périgord region of France—truffle country.

And that's where Black Diamond, the third mystery featuring Benoit "Bruno" Courréges is set. Bruno is the police authority in the town of St. Denis, which is on the Dordogne River. There seems to be a problem in the truffle market in nearby Ste. Alvère, and Bruno is asked to investigate.

Black Diamond, which is one way to describe a good-size truffle, is an interestingly complex novel. Although it is set in contemporary rural France, the country's colonial history in French Indo-China and Algeria pokes its nasty nose into present-day affairs. And when Hercule Vendrot, Bruno's elderly friend, hunting companion, former secret agent in Vietnam and Algeria is found brutally murdered in the forest, that history has invaded Bruno's patch.

Bruno is an interesting cop. He's a gourmet cook (don't read this book if you're hungry), still plays rugby, and is former soldier who was wounded on a peacekeeping mission in the Balkans.  He's had an affair with a policewoman who's moved on to bigger things in Paris, and he has a relationship with an English woman who lives in St. Denis. He never carries his official pistol and "has long since lost the key to his handcuffs," but he also has good relations with the larger police organizations and knows the neighborhood and the people.

Given Walker's background, the book feels unusually rich. We learn not only about truffles—how they are found, graded, and marketed—but France's current challenge of illegal Chinese immigrants, friction between the Chinese and Vietnamese, and—not the least—what ordinary life in a French town is usually like.

Black Diamond satisfies my three criteria for a decent mystery: an engaging protagonist/detective, a convincing setting, and a plausible murderer. I'm going back to the first two Bruno mysteries in the series.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Why does Michiko throw the man under the train?

A successful mystery for me, I've concluded, is an engaging mixture of character, place, and plausibility. If the detective, the killer (you have to have a killer), and the supporting cast are not convincing, the mystery fails. If the author is able to evoke a place and the local culture—Bangkok, Tibet, Ghana, Sicily, places I know nothing about first hand—so much the better. Indeed, following an interesting detective around the landscape as he/she interviews witnesses, collects clues, and makes associations is almost all I want in a novel.

Which is why the plausibility factor spoils so many mysteries for me. Who is the killer? What are his/her motivations? (Pure naked viciousness isn't good enough.) Was the murder planned or impulsive? Generally I'm dissatisfied with elaborate puzzle boxes because I find them preposterous, the kind of mystery that concludes with the detective gathering all the suspects in a room and explains the steps that reveals the murderer.

Michael Pronko's debut, The Last Train: A Tokyo Mystery is doesn't do that and in fact is satisfying on all three counts: character, place, and plausibility.

According to his bio, Pronko has lived in Tokyo for twenty years. He has a BA in philosophy from Brown, an MA in comparative literature from Wisconsin, and a PhD in English from the University of Kent at Canterbury. He is a professor of American Literature at Meiji Gakuin University and has published three collections of essays about Tokyo. He says about The Last Train, "My book goes into the realities of Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, looks at the injustices of economics and the unfair position women are put into. It's not just 'set in' Tokyo, it's about Tokyo, in and of Tokyo."

The book begins by following a lovely, and determined young woman as she throws a drunken man into the path of the night's last express train.

In Chapter 2 we meet Hiroshi Shimizu, a police detective specializing white-collar crime, and his senpai, Takamatsu. A senpai is a senior, superior, predecessor, mentor; someone whose calls you take. The body on the tracks is a problem for the police: An American businessman. No sign of robbery. Unlikely to have simply fallen. Yet not someone who would kill himself. The American consulate is interested, as is the American Chamber of Commerce. Takamatsu wants Shimizu on the case because Hiroshi, after college in Boston and a romance with an American woman, speaks fluent English.

Pronko tells his story from the points of view of both Hiroshi and Michiko Suzuki, a woman strong enough and skillful enough in akido martial arts to throw a man in front of a train (and a former sumo wrestler through a plate glass window). Both are well-rounded and their motivations comprehensible. Pronko has lived in Japan long enough to understand the nuances of Japanese culture and behavior. We understand—if not agreeing with—Michiko's decisions, which echo those of the 47 ronin, the loyal retainers who took revenge on the lord who caused their lord's disgrace and death.

We follow Hiroshi and Takamatsu (until he ends up in the hospital after tangling with Michiko) and Sagamichi, the former sumo wrestler, as they visit the Roppongi entertainment district, goes to temples, corporate offices, and industrial wasteland in their effort to make sense of what they learn. In a set piece at the end, Hiroshi fights his way through the maze of Shinjuku Station, something anyone who has been there can empathize with. You don't have to know anything about Japan to enjoy The Last Train, but if you do, much of it will resonate—even learn something new as I did.

Monday, July 3, 2017

What happens if you just walk away from your life?

Am I the only husband who has thought once or twice about walking away from his wife and children? Just taking off and leaving one life behind for an entirely unplanned, unstructured, utterly free new life? That's what Thomas (no last name), a middle-aged, middle-class Swiss accountant does one evening.

He and his wife Astrid have just returned from a vacation in Spain to their small town in Switzerland. They are sharing an evening glass of wine in their garden when a squabble between the children draws Astrid into the house. After she settles Konrad and Ella, rather than return to the garden she goes to bed exhausted after the drive home. And Thomas walks away, leaving his wine unfinished.

So begins Peter Stamm's short novel To the Back of Beyond, his fifth. It is of a piece of his earlier work. The Financial Times wrote of an earlier novel, "Stamm eschews middlebrow concerns of plot and resolution . . . his narrative is centered on the ruptures in his main characters' lives and their consequences . . ." Stamm never gives the reader a neat, pat explanation why Thomas leaves. We can infer possible reasons from what he does, but different readers will make different inferences.

Astrid's first reaction is to lie to the children, lie to Thomas's secretary. When it seems he won't turn up after a day or two, she goes to the police.

The book has no chapters as such, but the narrative switches point of view as first we follow Thomas's peregrination, then Astrid's with almost no access to their thoughts. "Thomas imagined Astrid making two separate piles of clean and dirty clothes . . ." Is about as close as we get to his inner life.

Rather, we watch them do things and move through the landscape, often with precise and lovely descriptions smoothly translated by Michael Hoffmann: "Ahead of him grew his shadow as cast by the streetlamp behind, then it merged into the life of the one following, which cast a fresh shadow behind him, which in turn grew shorter, overtook him, and hurried ahead of him, growing all the while, a sort of ghostly relay of specters accompanying him out of the neighborhood, across the circular road, and into the business district that sprawled away from the village out into the flat land."

If "plot" is what happens to characters in a story, To the Back of Beyond clearly has a plot (pace Financial Times). Astrid does try to find Thomas. The police are as helpful as they can be, although as one sympathetic officer tells her, "An adult has the right to disappear." (Some readers, I know, will be put off by the novel's lack of quotation marks; others like myself will have no trouble following the dialogue.)

Among the novel's strengths are the questions it provokes in the reader: Is the life we're living the one we want? What motivates us to obey our routines? Can one person ever truly know another? In a sense the questions are unanswerable, but Stamm's To the Back of Beyond makes a fascinating stab at addressing them, at least for this very ordinary, but extraordinary, Swiss couple.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Following Elena Ferrante's extraordinary journey, Part 2

Elena Ferrant's Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey is a collection of letters and e-mail responses to interviewer and reader questions. In Part 1 of this blog, I wrote about her unusual relationship with her publisher. I now want to quote her extensively on writing, starting with her observation that "when you begin a story, you have to be the sole source of the story, you have to get lost in it, because there are no predetermined maps; and if perceptible traces of what you have learned from books remain, they have to be eliminated without indulgence, assuming it's possible. Because it's not always possible, nor is it good: writing is also the story of what we have read and are reading, of the quality of our reading, and a good story, finally, is one written from the depths our our life, from the heart of our relations with others, from the heights of the books we've liked."

It should be clear to anyone who reads her novels that Ferrante has written, if not for the ages (as if one could), but from as deeply within herself as she can. She is not interested in the well-plotted story in which all the pieces fit together neatly, all loose threads tied off by the last page. Nor is she interested (pace MFA programs) in "beautiful" writing. She wants to write a story that has the energy to create a world, "not because it strings together metaphors. . . . The problem, if anything, is the cult of the beautifully wrought page, a recurring feature that I've long struggled with in myself. Today I throw out the pages that are too written—I prefer the rough draft to the final version."

Frantumaglia is full of gems for working fiction writers like this observation about dreams in novels. They are "difficult to relate; as soon as you write them they force you to invent, to put in order, and they become false. In novels especially they are so shamelessly functional to the requirements of the psychological construction of the character that their artificiality becomes intolerable."

One of the questions serious writers ask themselves often when no one seems willing to publish their books is: Why write at all? Is it simply a form of self-pleasuring? Pure solipsism? Apparently Ferrante has always believed that a book will find its readers. Her international success has validated her belief. She asks therefore, is it possible to make an immaterial organism of language, ethics, stories, experience "a concretely narratable object, that is, to employ techniques capable of conveying that organism to the reader as one does with the wind, the heat, the feeling, the events that make up the plot? To control that noisy permanent fragmenting in your head, explore that transformation into words that lasts as long as the story lasts is, I think, the secret ambition of anyone who fully dedicates himself to writing."

She notes that writers ask themselves "what experiences do I know I can be the voice of"? But that, says is not the most urgent question. "The more pressing questions are: what is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what is the suitable tone for the things I know? These seem like questions of form, of style, all in all secondary. But I am convinced that without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing alive and true emerges."

As I hope I've indicated in this quick review I believe Frantumaglia to be interesting and inspiring for anyone seriously interested in serious writing, that is someone who believes she has something deeply truthful to say and wants to express it in a profound and profoundly honest way. The book may also interest readers of Ferrante's novels for her notes on her characters and why she has insisted on remaining anonymous. And asked whether readers can expect to see more from her, she gives perhaps the one rule of writing: "If you have nothing worth writing, don't write any more."