Saturday, June 23, 2018

"Murder to the Metal": Dispoilation in Cleveland

Annie Hogsett sets up an interesting situation for her "Somebody's Bound to Wind Up Dead Mystery" series. In the first book, Too Lucky to Live, (which I have not read and which is not necessary to read to enjoy Murder to the Metal), Thomas Bennington III a blind professor at Cleveland's Case-Western Reserve University buys a lottery ticket to show a young friend that it's a waste of money and unfortunately wins the $550,000,000 MondoMegaJackpot. At that point, Tom has already met Alice (Allie) Jane Harper, who narrates both books. Complications ensue.

When Murder to the Metal opens, Tom and Allie are an item. They have hired Otis, a Cleveland ex-cop and PI for round-the-clock security (with that kind of money, they need it), and have moved into a lakefront mansion. They've decided to establish the T&A Detective Agency and use the jackpot winnings to help clients with cases the police do not regard as serious and worth more than a cursory investigation.

Like the disappearance of Lloyd Bunker, the boyfriend of Loretta Coates, a librarian at the Memorial-Nottingham Branch of the Cleveland Public Library (a real place) where Allie had worked part time. Here's Allie's description of her: "She was mid-forties and pretty, but her attractiveness was impaired by the fact that she looked worried. A lot worried. Most of the time. Her blue eyes were perpetually widened by concern. Her eyebrows tucked in toward each other in a tiny wrinkly frown. Her lips, a lovely bow when she relaxed enough to smile, stayed pursed up . . . "

Tom may be blind, but has "honed his remaining four senses and added on what he calls the 'blind man Spidey sense.' That one has proved to be almost superhuman from time to time. But mostly, he's just really paying attention . . ." An interesting theme running through the book is that Tom is aware of things other people miss or ignore.

By necessity, Allie and Tom must deal with the Cleveland PD in the person of Tony Valerio, who has already had dealings with with them. He says:"I'm going to say one more time that getting mixed up in official police business is a leading cause of death amongst wannabee P.I.'s"
     "I would take that very much to heart, Tony, if I wanted to be a P.I. I do not."
     I felt comfortable with this. It was even the truth, for a change. I wanted to do all my investigating while standing safely in the shadow of my real P.I., under the protection of his gun, with no need a tall for any gun of my own. I wanted the investigating done by me to be more of an intellectual adventure. I'd already been shot at once and I hadn't like it.

I hope I've conveyed the flavor of Hogsett's writing, but if not and because it's so much fun, here's another as Allie describes the lakefront mansion Tom has rented for them: ". .  . nothing prepared me for occupying a rental house the size of Times Square. Nine thousand plus square feet is, like, five metric tons of feet. I could have dropped our entire small-tow shuttle into the master bath. Given that we were renting and the true owner spirited alot of his irreplaceable items into climate-controlled storage, much of the house consisted of immense, gorgeously aneled, heavily fireplaced but under-furnitured spaces that took a while to merely walk through."

Murder to the Metal has an engaging narrator, an interesting cast, and a complex and plausible plot once you accept that a blind professor can win a mega-million jackpot and that bad people will go to considerable lengths to steal it. But then, of course they would. Read and enjoy.

Friday, June 22, 2018

What does it take to inspire you to write?

The Avon Free Public Library in Avon, CT, is running a Local Author Festival this summer, the fifth year in a row that the staff has promoted Connecticut authors. I have just participated in a fiction author panel in which six of us answered questions about inspiration (or Inspiration).

The June Fiction Author Panel at Avon Free Public Library
Questions like: Where do you get your ideas for a story? What do you do when you're not inspired? Do you write every day? Do you do any research in writing your books? How do you choose character names? And more.

I am always interested in hearing other writers answers to these perennial questions. After all, there is no one answer. Ideas come from everywhere, anywhere—personal experience, news stories, reading, conversation. I am hard put to say exactly where a story idea originates, although every one of my books and short stories has some connection to my own life.

And when we're not inspire, some of us write anyway—a journal, a letter, an essay, a poem. And some knit, read, watch a movie.

Not everyone writes every day. One panelist has written one book and has no plans to write another. The working writers on the panel, however, are doing something related to writing—researching, recuperating, recharging—when they're not.

Because it was an opportunity to share tips and thoughts with other writers, I thought the experience was valuable. I hope the people who attended our panel got as much out of it as I did.

Who should raise the baby?

"Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down."

So begins Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere (which is how the firemen discovered the Richardson house when they arrived) .

Ng herself grew up in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland; it is almost a character in the novel; and because I set one of my novels in Shaker Heights, I picked up Ng's novel and got sucked into the story of Mrs. Richardson (as she is identified almost throughout the book), and her four children, Trip, Lexie, Isabelle, and Moody. Mr. Richardson, a corporate lawyer, exists mainly to provide the family's six-bedroom house, cars for the children who can drive, and other material goods.

The year before the fire, Mia, a photographer and single mother, and her daughter Pearl had moved into a duplex rental that Mrs. Richardson owned. Because Pearl is a student as Shaker Heights High with the Richardson children, and because Mrs. Richardson is both Mia's landlady and a generous soul, she hires Mia to clean her house and the families begin to interact. Among the many pleasures of Little Fires Everywhere are the scenes of contemporary high school life in an upper class mid-western suburb which ring absolutely true to me.

Ng sets up an interesting dilemma at the heart of the novel. Suppose a pregnant, young, Chinese immigrant woman is abandoned by her boyfriend. Desperate and without resources she leaves her newborn at a fire station. The child is rescued and given into the care of an upper middle-class white couple who, unable to have a child of their own, have been frantic to adopt. Almost a year later, the birth mother, now with a job and resources, wants the child back. The white couple have been waiting for the adoption to go through and want to keep the infant. Who should have the baby? Her single mother whose prospects are limited? Or the white couple who can give the baby all the love, opportunities, and material goods she could ever want?

There is another dilemma underlying the novel: Is it better to accept stability and material comfort than to risk an uncertain/unstable life as an artist? Mrs. Richardson has made one decision, Mia the other. And each woman's decision, obviously, affects profoundly the lives and characters of her children. What makes Little Fires Everywhere so special is that Mrs. Richardson and Mia have made their decisions almost without thought—much the way real life works for most of us. Only when our house is burning down do we realize that actions can have unexpected consequences.

Monday, June 18, 2018

What happens when an earthquake shakes a nuclear power plant

Meltown by G.P. James raises the issue of a willing suspension of disbelief. It posits a three-unit nuclear power plant, the "Bear Mountain Nuclear Energy Site" on the Hudson River about thirty five miles north (and upwind) of New York City. At the beginning of the novel, the plant is shaken by a 6.4 earthquake along the Ramapo Fault and all hell breaks loose.

Because there is in fact a three-unit Indian Point Energy Center nuclear generating facility on the Hudson River about thirty-five miles north of New York City that sits a mile from the Ramapo Fault, it requires no suspension of disbelief to think that an earthquake could damage the plant. After all, look what happened at Fukushima in Japan.

Meltdown is the story of plant supervisor Trace Crane who is in charge when the earthquake hits alternating with the story of his wife Avi's search for their four-year old daughter, Brooklyn, who was in day care. With widespread damage throughout the area, phones are down or jammed, bridges have collapsed, buildings destroyed so Trace and Avi cannot easily communicate.

The novel is set up a a conflict within Trace: Prevent a nuclear meltdown and protect 20 million people in the metropolitan New York are from exposure to deadly radiation or save his wife and daughter? Okay, I can understand that. I don't think it's a genuine dilemma and Trace is not presented as someone for whom the conflict seems genuine. In fact, when we first meet him, he doesn't sound appealing:

"Trace rocked back in his ergonomic desk chair, his five-eleven, two-hundred-and-seventy-nine-pound body testing the hydraulics . . . He had a boyish quality defined by the pudginess of his roseate cheeks, his freckles, and the jocular contortion of his lips. There was light in his eyes. Even when he was livid a touch of glee showed through; not much stripped him of joy. However, Trace had entered a dark period over the past couple years. His face was flat most of the time, eyes, dim, lips bowing convexly. Stress, anger, and annoyance hung heavy in his jowls, ebullience springing free in unexpected smatterings of rising cheeks . . ."

He and Avi have his a rough patch in their marriage. She is a consultant for green energy and he of course knows that nuclear, properly controlled, is safe. Adding to poor Trace's burdens is the knowledge that he should have agreed with Avi when she wanted to move away from the plant even if it meant extending his commute.

James is good and convincing in describing Trace's efforts to control the damage. He has to deal with his boss who at one point tells him, "You'll give a damn when your investments turn to dust by Monday. This affects all of us! The second the accident was announced and the market opened this morning our stock dropped five points. When the news gets out about the decommissioning and phaseout talks in Washington we'll probably drop another five. That's about thirteen billion in losses in less than twenty-four hours. We're a whale with a really big harpoon in us."

I can believe a corporate executive will worry more about the stock price than anything else. What I could not believe—and it's key to the story's consequences—is that the governor of the State of New York would give an order about a damaged nuclear facility. A governor who, presumably, is not a nuclear engineer and has no concept of possible consequences (really bad). Worse, that Trace obeys the order rather than quitting on the spot, finding Avi and Brooklyn, and heading upwind.

Of course, if Trace had quit, it would have been another book and Meltdown as it stands is a cautionary tale of what could happen (might happen? will happen?) and its effect on a few of the key players in such a disaster.

Friday, June 15, 2018

You need the research, but you need something more

Jennifer Egan does something very, very difficult and makes it look easy in her novel Manhattan Beach. She does a ton of research and almost never rubs the reader's face in it.

Egan was born in 1962. Manhattan Beach begins in the late 1920s and ends in 1944. So she has no personal experience of the New York waterfront during the 1930s and 40s, New York nightlife during the period, the Brooklyn Navy Yard when it was building, among other ships, the battleship Missouri.

What she has is the story of Anna Kerrigan, a young woman who becomes the first civilian diver in the Navy Yard; her father Eddie Kerrigan, a bagman for a corrupt union official who abruptly disappears from Anna's life; and Dexter Styles, a nightclub owner who straddles the world of the Mafia and legitimate Wall Street banking. The book is written from the three very different points of view as the reader follows the story's threads.

The book begins with Eddie bringing his 11-year-old daughter Anna to Dexter's palatial Manhattan Beach home. Eddie has a proposition for Dexter, an arrangement that has a profound impact on both their lives. By the time Anna is 19, Eddie has vanished without a word to his daughter or his wife. It leaves a hole in Anna's life that she tries to fill by connecting with Dexter, the man her father had met when she was eleven.

Manhattan Beach is an extremely rich book. Rich in character, rich in place, rich in atmosphere, and—something you realize only toward the end—rich in plot. What happens to Anna, Eddie, and Dexter rewards and satisfies. I plan to read it again to see if I can see how she does it. You need the research, but you need something more, and whatever it is, Egan's got it.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

What I did on my summer vacation

What do you do at a translators' conference? If it's the week-long Middlebury Bread Loaf Translators' Conference, from which I have just returned, you work your buns off.
Classes, lectures, and social events during the translators conference were held in The Barn
on the Middlebury Bread Loaf campus in the Green Mountains of Vermont.
You can start with an hour-long yoga session at 6:30 a.m., (I started with breakfast at 7:30) and end with readings and socializing at 10:30 p.m. In between there are lectures, workshops, talks, and meetings. To be admitted, every one of the fifty or so translators at this year's conference submitted a translation and its original. Translations of literary fiction and poetry, and the underlying assumption is that the translator knows the language well enough to understand the original. You don't—for the most part—try to re-translate a work.

For one thing, who could? My workshop leader was Bill Johnston who teaches literary translation at Indiana University, who has published over 30 book-length translations from the Polish, including poetry, prose, and drama, and who (by the evidence in our workshop) has a reading knowledge of French and German. The workshop to which I was assigned did have translations from French and German, but for the rest we were pretty much on our own.

Our workshop considered two translations from Japanese (mine was one), two from French, two from Spanish, and one each from Swedish, Vietnamese, and German. Each translator read a paragraph or so from the original to give the group a sense of the sound of the piece and then discussed any problems/questions/issues she/he was having with the translation. Some of us—and I include myself—felt that the work we'd submitted was relatively polished. It did not read like a translation.

I was mistaken. By the time Bill and the group had finished discussing my prose, my first page and a half were covered with red edits. One key lesson learned last week: When you're having a problem with the English, the solution is not to return to the original but to spend more time, thought, tears, and sweat on the English. As one of my fellow translators said, "Take it all the way to English."

So the translation workshop turned out to be as much a writing workshop as a discussion of translation. What makes a good translation? How close should you be to the original? Not so close that the English sounds clunky or unnatural. Not so close that the dialogue sounds as if spoken by aliens (unless of course the characters in the work are aliens).

There is an argument to make it "translatorise" so a reader can follow along with the original, but how many readers what to do that? It's hard enough to find readers for a translation at all—Elena Ferrante, Steig Larsson, Haruki Murakami being exceptions—why make a reader work? And anyway the translations of Ferrante, Larsson, and Murakami are engaging English novels.

In my next post, I'll talk about some of the practical issues surrounding literary translation. I.e., how do you get published?