Friday, September 24, 2021

There's not enough time. Now what?

How many weeks do you think the average person lives? Ask your friends to give you a number off the tops of their heads without any mental multiplication. If Oliver Burkeman’s experience and mine are representative, the number is likely going to be far larger than four thousand, which about all you get if you live to be eighty.

“The average human lifetime is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short,” writes Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Yet many of us (most of us) spend much of that time over-extended, feeling pressured to meet impossible societal demands—to “get everything done”—rather than optimizing our enjoyment of the time we have through meaningful work and building fulfilling lives with those we love. 

Burkeman has written to highlight the issue and suggest a mindset (because that’s what it takes) that stops using time instrumentally—“not as something we live in,” as a Guardian reviewer wrote, but to use time “as something to be got through on the way to somewhere else.” Spoiler alert: There is no somewhere else. This is it. This is all you get.

Until this past January, Burkeman was the author of the popular Guardian psychology column, “This Column Will Change Your Life.” He’s the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. He’s an Englishman who lives in New York City, and on the evidence of the book is writing to teach himself a good lesson.

Four Thousand Weeks proposes a blueprint for less stressful living. We must accept our finitude and make choices. A self-described recovering “productivity geek” himself, Burkeman invites readers to drop the futile struggle to carry off the impossible and focus on what’s “gloriously possible” instead. We need to escape the “efficiency trap” and make peace with “settling” because you will never have enough time to do everything.  

Burkeman asks five questions to help you simplify and attain a less stressful life:

Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?

Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet? (Perfection, I’ve learned, is the enemy of finished.)

In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?

In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing? 

How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?

Over and over Burkeman says things I’ve thought—or almost thought—but didn’t have the wit to express. “When you’re faced with too many demands, it’s easy to assume that the only answer must be to make better use of time, by becoming  more efficient, driving yourself harder, or working for longer—as if you were a machine in the Industrial Revolution—instead of asking whether the demands themselves might be unreasonable.”

That’s addressed to someone who has actually spoken to groups about time management—me. If you start with a false premise—I just have to get better at managing my time—the solution is bound to be flawed. “After all, it’s painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable and that you won’t have time for all you once dreamed you might do.” Ouch.

Four Thousand Weeks can be a bucket of cold water in the face as Burkeman points out repeatedly that time and human life is finite but wants and dreams are infinite. What adds to the current challenge is the effort by extremely clever people at Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and elsewhere to occupy more of our time. To inform, educate, and entertain. 

But think about the way you spend your days. Do you need to answer every request? When you sign off social media, has it enriched your life? Did you learn something you needed to know? Or was it intellectual cotton candy, sweet and fluffy, but empty calories. Or worse, that it gives a skewed picture of reality.

Burkeman says, ““The last year left many of us feeling utterly unmoored from our familiar routines. As we re-emerge, we have a unique opportunity to reconsider what we’re doing with our time – to construct lives that do justice to the outrageous brevity, and shimmering possibilities, of our four thousand weeks.”

Four Thousand Weeks is one of the most stimulating and useful books I’ve read in a long time. I’ve already begun recommending it on Twitter, an addiction I think I have under control. Now if I can just rein in my Facebook habit . . . .

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

What's the attraction of the woman in the purple skirt?

 Unlike much recent Japanese fiction in translation—The Factory, Terminal Boredom, Slow BoatThe Woman in the Purple Skirt takes place in a recognizable, relatively realistic if unnamed Japanese city. 

It begins, “There’s a person living not too far from me known as the Woman in the Purple Skirt. She only every wears a purple-colored skirt—which is why she has this name.” The entire story is narrated by a woman who (mostly) identifies herself as The Woman in the Yellow Cardigan.

The book’s narrator, who seems to have no family or close friends, becomes obsessed by the Woman in the Purple Skirt. They both sound as if they are in their late twenties or early thirties and are single. The Woman in the Purple Skirt commands a bench in a neighborhood park and disappears periodically from the park, presumably to work.

The Woman is a neighborhood fixture and indulges the children who screw up the nerve to tap her on the shoulder and run away, a game we sense the narrator finds charming while envying the Woman’s easy relations with the children.

The narrator plants an employment magazine where the Woman in the Purple Skirt will find it. She’s turned down a page and circled a listing, and after a few attempts to nudge the Woman toward the job, she finally takes the hint. She’s interviewed and is hired as a hotel housekeeper at the same hotel in which the narrator works.

The narrator had hoped that working together would enable her to be closer to the Woman, but it doesn’t work out. “The day after she completed her training, the Woman in the Purple Skirt was assigned to the thirtieth floor, where TV celebrities and idols often stayed. Each floor had specific cleaning teams, which meant I could hardly ever just pop by to see her. It was now extremely rare that I caught sight of her at work. In recent weeks, I was more likely to be able to get an idea of how she was doing from my sightings of her in the park and on the shopping street.”

Until the end of the book, the narrator stays as close to the Woman as she can—close enough to covertly pat the Woman’s butt and tweak her nose on a packed bus—but does not try to make friends. She notices the hotel’s gift chocolates the Woman shares with the children, the smell of the shampoo the hotel stocks in the bathrooms, the rides to work their boss begins to give the Woman.

With the narrator we watch the children play in the park, listen to the talk among the hotel employees, follow the Woman’s moods from a distance. All is not well at the hotel. The manager announces,  “Ten bath towels, ten hand towels, five bath mats, ten sets of cups and saucers, five wineglasses, five champaign glasses, and three teapots . . .. It’s not clear whether these items were taken by hotel guests, or whether they have bon missing within the hotel itself. . . .” Suspicions are raised. Gossip spreads.

Midway through the book I began to wonder where is all this daily minutia going? I’m not going to spoil it for you and tell you where it does go, but hang on for the ride. It’s terrific.

Natsuko Imamura was born in Hiroshima in 1980 where she attended high school. She later moved to Osaka to attend university. She wrote her first story, a novella, while working a temporary job. It won the 26th Dazai Osamu Prize in 2010. In 2017, Imamura received the 5th Kawai Hayao Story Prize for her 2016 book Ahiru, which was also nominated for the Akutagawa Prize but did not win. Her next book was also nominated for the Akutagawa Prize and also lost. In 2019, after her third Akutagawa nomination, she finally won with The Woman in the Purple Skirt. 

The Asahi Shimbun reports that after graduating college Imamura got a part-time job as a hotel housekeeper in Osaka. “She enjoyed the job of cleaning the hotel and she thought it was right for her. One she was told, ‘You should rest tomorrow,’ and she decided to write a novel. She began writing in a messy notebook that was in her house.” It became her prize-winning Koko Amiko, published when she was 29 years old. 

The Woman in the Purple Skirt is the first of Imamura’s four books to be translated and I would not be surprised to learn that the translator Lucy North (who is not credited on the cover—shame!) is hard at work on one or more of the earlier books. If they are as engaging and thought-provoking as The Woman in the Purple Skirt, I look forward to reading them.

Friday, September 10, 2021

But what if you kissed him? Or didn't?

 Lionel Shriver is one of those authors I know by name like Colson Whitehead, Paul Beatty, Jesmyn Ward but have never read. Therefore. when a paperback edition of her 2007 novel The Post-Birthday World leaped off the shelf and into my hands at a recent library book sale, I added it to my sack of treasures with silent apologies to Ms. Shriver for not contributing to her royalties.

What a great book! 

I may have ignored it when it came out because it’s fat and I’ve been avoiding fat books. It may be fat, but it’s not flabby and it held me through all 517 pages.

A May 2020 Guardian article says that Lionel Shriver “is a US-born writer whose novels include Big Brother, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 and the bestselling We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the 2005 Orange prize and was turned into a film by Lynne Ramsay starring Tilda Swinton. In 2014, she won the BBC national short story award.” Her novel, The Motion of the Body Through Space, is about a long-married couple whose relationship is almost destroyed when one of them becomes obsessed with exercise. Her most recent novel Should We Stay or Should We Go centers around an elderly couple bound in a suicide pact. In other words, her novels are liable to make readers uncomfortable as the books make them think.

Shriver herself says, “I wanted out of North Carolina, where I was born. I wanted out of my given name (‘Margaret Ann’—the whole double-barrel; can you blame me?), and at fifteen chose another one. I wanted out of New York, where I went to university at Columbia. I wanted out of the United States.” She now lives in London.

The Post-Birthday World centers around Irina McGovern, a children’s-book illustrator in her early thirties who has lived for ten years with Lawrence Trainer, a researcher/analyst who works for a London think tank and Ramsey Acton, a top-seeded snooker player. Ramsey is tall, exceptionally handsome, and wealthy from tournament winnings, product endorsements, and more. Irina and Lawrence are both ex-pat Americans, and Lawrence is fascinated by snooker and, by extension, Ramsey. They begin to meet socially every few months, and annually on Ramsey’s birthday.

On Ramsey forty-second birthday, Lawrence happens to attending a Sarajevo peace conference. Ramsey is recently divorced (his ex-wife Iris writes uplifting children’s books Irina illustrated). Lawrence encourages Irina to maintain a five-year tradition and have dinner with lonely Ramsey. She does. They return to Ramsey’s huge Victorian house for a post-dinner drink. Ramsey plays solitary snooker while Irina watches. When Ramsey finally joins her on his expensive leather-covered sofa, he reaches for her and—

And the story splits in two. In one version Irina returns to her flat, shaken but unkissed. In the second version she kisses Ramsey and is lost. The kiss is electric and when, a chapter or so later, they finally make love the sex is even more incandescent.

After page 41 the chapters alternate. Irina the faithful helpmeet to stable, reliable Lawrence, now regretting her timidity. And Irina the sex bestotted, obsessive lover. Ramsey is a stud, and I suspect Stiver had fun writing the book. “Ramsey Acton” is not far removed from “Ram Action.”

The Post-Birthday World is rich in scenes and activities that play off and resonate with one another as the two Irinas live with (or without) stolid Lawrence and intoxicating Ramsey. Striver also is able to do something I admire—articulate general observations—because her insights are thought-provoking and I can’t do it. Three examples:

—Because the unself-aware—which includes basically everyone—are impervious to uncharitable perceptions of their underlying motives, all these insights you have into people and what makes them tick are surprisingly useless.

—You didn’t have to love each other [your mother, your father, your siblings]; indeed, you could revile each other. But the one thing apparently not in your power was to demote a member of your family to the unimportant.

—For the spectator, there are two kinds of sportsmen: those you trust and those you don’t. It is likely the divide correlates with whether the sportsman trusts himself, but in any event watching a player in whom you have imperfect faith fosters anxiety. Watching the kind who has it, whatever it is, and knows he has it, is relaxing.

Striver drops these like raisins in a Christmas cake and The Post-Birthday World is the richer for them. All I can do is join the three pages of review quotes in the front of the paperback and encourage you to find a copy yourself.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Good advice for making presentations in business

The Authenticity Code is a book-length advertisement for the author’s business, Inside-Out Learning. This is not a criticism. I have written such books myself. But readers should know what to expect.

The target market seems to be relatively young, inexperienced businesspeople who are or who will be called upon to make presentations to senior executives, internal teams, prospects, customers, or other stakeholders. The book’s subtitle is “The Art and Science of Success and Why You Can’t Fake It to Make It” and it asserts that students who embrace the program’s lessons make more money as it “helps them ‘get to yes’ faster than any communication they make.”

Dr. Lamm-Hartman decided to present her process in the form of a parable rather than as a narrative with illustrative anecdotes from real companies. Instead, we follow “Ron Burk,” the vice president of sales for “World Wide Synergistics,” as he sets up a competition between “Rachel Hannigan” and “Joshua Armstrong” for a promotion to associate director of sales.

“I want you both to prepare a presentation that will convince me why I should choose you for this important position,” says Ron in Chapter 2. I’ve never worked in a large corporation; is this the kind of thing a VP of Sales would do? Is this a productive way to promote? Or would it lead to internal friction and resentment?

Anyway, Rachel and Joshua prepare, present, and fail badly. Ron therefore becomes their mentor to teach them Authentic Presence and Presentation Skills. “APPS is a program for people with professional advancement or leadership potential,” says Ron. “It helps you to crack The Authenticity Code™, which is Your Presence + Your Audience + Your Presentation = Your Success.” And while the full program is what Dr. Lamm-Hartman is selling, the book also offers readers several free aids they can read and try.

The book defines authenticity as “Your most powerful way of adding value is by expressing your unique gifts and talents for your chosen audience.” This of course is somewhat different from dictionary definitions of authenticity: “The quality or condition of being authentic, trustworthy, or genuine . . . Truthfulness of origins, attributions, commitments, sincerity, and intentions . . . The quality or state of being authentic; reliability; genuineness.”

For presentation success, you need an “Authentic Presence,” which is “how you affect others by the impression you make with your physical presence, your demeanor, your presentation of thoughts, and the general mode of conversation you have with others.” The challenge is to appear sincere, truthful, and genuine while presenting products, services, plans, or ideas about which you may have reservations but upon which your success—perhaps your future—depends.

The process is not quantum mechanics. Know your audience. Is the decision-maker “a people person, point person, party person, or planner person”? The book defines these four types and suggests the kind of language that appeals to or that each expresses. A point person says things like, “What’s the bottom line?” A planner person says things like, “Now, let’s look at this logically.” Most people of course do not fit tightly in a single category, but have a touch of one or more of the other elements. The book assumes you’re making a presentation to a decision-maker, not a relatively heterogeneous group. But in any case the advice is solid and basic: learn as much as you can about your audience before you open your mouth.

Know yourself. Which type of person are you? And if you’re basically, say, a party person and will be presenting to a point person, you’d better adapt your presence and your language to the other.

Know your content. Is it relevant to the audience and their needs?

Start strong by capturing the audience’s attention in the first minute. If you know the audience, you’ll know whether it’s better to start with a joke or a personal story.

Finish strong with a clear call to action. “Are the decision-makers motivated to do something.”

Dress the part. If it’s a professional setting, look professional. If it’s business casual, don’t be too casual. 

Welcome feedback and address questions. Meet the audience’s needs and objections without becoming defensive.

Because Dr. Lamm-Hartman does not, on the evidence of this book, write much fiction, casting the book as the story of Rachel and Josh’s journey to authenticity with Ron and the head of HR as mentors means that it’s filled with clunky, didactic dialogue and explanatory tags: “‘We appreciate your commitment,’ Rachel offered. ‘Yeah,’ Josh chimed in.”

Because I suspect, perhaps unfairly, the book’s audience does not read much quality fiction, however, the wooden writing and unlikely situation probably makes no difference to its target readers. 

Bottom line: The Authenticity Code™ offers the target market useful insights and ideas. If it helps readers improve their presentation skills, it’s done its job. 

Friday, August 27, 2021

Son of Svea: not an ordinary book about an ordinary man

You can read Lena Andersson’s Son of Svea as either a straight novel of Ragnar Johansson, a twentieth-century Swede, or you can read it as an allegory and commentary on twentieth-century Sweden. Or both.

The book is subtitled “A Tale of the People’s Home.” The translator’s single footnote helpfully glosses, “Folkhemmet, literally ‘the peoples home,’ is a Swedish term for what is otherwise designated as the Swedish welfare state.”

Ragnar was born in 1932, the year the Swedish Social Democratic Party won for the first time and changed the country forever. As the book says, Ragnar is a “man without cracks, but with a great split running through him, and in this he entirely resembled the society he populated and shaped.”

Lena Andersson is a columnist for Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest morning paper. Considered one of the country’s sharpest contemporary analysts, she writes about politics, society, culture, religion, and other topics. Her fifth novel and English-language debut, Willful Disregard, was awarded the 2013 August Prize, Sweden’s highest literary honor. Her other novel translated into English is Acts of Fidelity. These two book expose “the cruelty and comedy of romantic obsession,” writes Alexandra Schwartz in The New Yorker.

In a sense so does Son of Svea. Rather than the cruelty of and romantic obsession with another person, however, Ragnar’s infatuation is with modernity. “The modern age, to his way of thinking, was the epoch in which the human race attained the perfection that has been lying there waiting for it.”

Ragnar’s mother, Svea, never saw or heard from her father after age seven. He left for America and the grandmother with whom Svea and her siblings lived intercepted all of his letters. Svea was able to marry a man who operated a small trucking company, but hers is a life of cooking, cleaning, laundry. When Ragnar “thought about Mother Svea’s childhood he began worshipping the state. He based this on its self-evident superiority to human beings. In the state there was no room for passion or apathy.”

As a young man, Ragnar goes to Spain on vacation, his one trip overseas. It gives him the experience of a foreign society, which reinforces his belief in Sweden’s superiority. In vocational school becomes a skilled woodworker at government expense and lands a job as a woodshop school teacher, rejecting his father’s trucking business. 

His passion for the modern continues unslaked. “The chemists had experimented their way to every conceivable kind of tasty and nourishing food. The powder would be the servant of mankind and the liberator of women. . . Now, even those who could not make potato pancakes, savory cream sauce, or crema catalana could enjoy them on an everyday basis. Its powdered form also made it possible to produce perfect nutritional value.”

He is able to marry and he and his wife have two children, Eric and Elsa. The Johanssons join the government waitlist to move into the newly-built suburbs being erected all over the country changing the character of city life, and they eventually move into their new townhouse, which looks exactly like everyone else’s.

They throw themselves into youth sports—or Ragnar throws the children into them, bicycle racing for Eric; cross-country ski racing for Elsa. They eat family dinners and visit their grandparents. Life is good, certainly for Ragnar when one of the children wins another trophy.

Ragnar, who from birth has been a devoted Democratic Socialist, believes a person must contribute to the society in which he lives, but also that it is prudent to earn the ordinary comfortable life the government offers rather than attempt innovation or greatness or even social advancement. He rejects an offer to become director of studies at the school where he teaches.

He believes after all there is only so much room at the top, and most who try to get there will fail by design. Ragnar sees his mother Svea as a relic of the past, rejecting modern conveniences and constantly cooking, cleaning, and canning. His daughter Elsa represents hope for the future even as she gives up competitive cross-country skiing, a sport she never loved. Ragnar realizes that the world is changing from the paradise of his youth, and it’s getting harder to keep up.

Son of Svea is the story of an ordinary family (assuming such a thing exists) adapting to a constantly evolving world. As Andersson writes, “The country had sped like a javelin through the sixties, and by the seventies it was near the top of every list of national comparisons. It had the most day care places, the lowest income disparity, the greatest film director, the foremost children’s writer, the best slalom skier, tennis player and pop group, the most impressive gender equality, the highest taxes—all of them sources of real pride.” What could go wrong?

Lena Andersson does not argue (in Sarah Death’s expressive translation) that anything has gone wrong exactly. Rather she probes into and occasionally shatters notions of social class, family roles, and what it means to be ordinary in a world that is changing under our feet. Son of Svea is not an ordinary book.


Friday, August 20, 2021

What's happened to the dead mother's newborn baby?

One traditional suggestion writers hear is, “Write what you know.” And that’s where Margaret Mizushima started.

She lives on a small ranch in Colorado, has been married to her veterinarian husband almost forty years. When she decided to write a series, which became the Timber Creek K-9 mysteries, “I knew that one of the characters needed to be a vet. In real life, however, vets may solve medical mysteries, but rarely (or perhaps I should say almost never) are they involved in murder mysteries.  I decided that a veterinarian and a K-9 handler could make an interesting crime fighting duo—trio if you count the dog, and dogs should always be counted.” 

Deputy Mattie Cobb, her German shepherd partner Robo, and veterinarian Cole Walker have now been involved in seven police procedurals in the Colorado high country, the latest being Striking Range.

It opens with two exciting chapters. Mattie and San Diego cold case detective Jim Hauck visit a Colorado prison to interview the man who tried to kill Mattie in an earlier book and who may have killed her father thirty years earlier. When Mattie and Jim Hauck reach the Colorado state prison where they will finally get to interview him, he’s found freshly dead in his cell. There’s one clue: a map leading to Timber Creek and rugged Redstone Ridge. Mattie and Hauck photograph the map with their cell phones.

(Quibbles: What kind of prison needs an interview room with an adjoining viewing room and recording equipment? Would staff be locked inside the room during a prison lockdown? From the outside, yes, with instructions to stay put; but locked inside, no. Finally, no one—not a CO, lawyer, detective, visitor—brings a cell phone into prison. But perhaps they do things differently in Colorado and these pettifogging notes do not diminish the book's enjoyment.)  

While Mattie is visiting prison, Cole is delivering a litter of pups Robo has just sired. The description of the canine c-section is as exciting as anything in the book. 

Left to explore the map’s clue without him, Mattie, Robo, Hauck, and a local rancher journey into the burned forest surrounding Redstone Ridge. But before they can finish their search, however, they’re called to help investigate the death of a young woman found in a campground filled with elk hunters. Identification of the deceased points to her having recently given birth, but the infant is nowhere to be found.

As a deadly storm descends upon the mountains, covering everything with a layer of ice and snow, Mattie and her team search for the missing newborn. The storm batters the area, taking its toll on the team and forcing the sheriff to call in reinforcements. When new evidence surfaces that this is not the only baby to vanish under suspicious circumstances, they decide that finding the woman’s killer will lead them to her baby, making them even more desperate to solve the case.

Then Cole goes missing, stranded alone in the high country with a person that Mattie now suspects is the mastermind behind several murders, including her father’s. She and Robo take to the trail to find Cole–but the killer has a cold-blooded plan that threatens them all.

Among the book’s many pleasures: 

—Robo. He’s a character. He may not be much of a conversationalist, but he communicates clearly.

—The landscape. Mizushima’s descriptions of the high country and small-town life make me want to go there.

—The dogs and their handlers. Robo eventually is not alone, but is joined by K-9 dogs trained to search for drugs, or cadavers, or explosives.

—The relationship between Mattie and Cole and the other characters. Mattie respects and is respected by her boss, the Sheriff, and she works well with a detective who, unlike Mattie, is not native to Timber Creek.

—Finally, Mizushima creatively avoids the cliché of the villain threatening to kill the female cop in the last few pages of the book. 

You do not have to have read the earlier Timber Creek K-9 mysteries to enjoy Striking Range, however it will improve your pleasure if you do read Burning Ridge first. (I reviewed it here.) In fact, the series is entertaining enough, you might start with Killing Trail to see how Mizushima has been able to build and sustain this world and the people in it. 

Monday, August 16, 2021

Charles Johnson explores the way of the writer

Charles Johnson won the National Book Award for The Middle Passage, which is his best-known work of fiction. He’s published four other novels, two story collection, eight books of non-fiction, two books of philosophy, two books of drawings, and two books of children’s fiction. He has a PhD in philosophy, worked as a newspaper reporter after college, and taught creative writing at the University of Washington for more than thirty years. In other words, he’s been around the block—more than one blocks—a couple times.

The Way of the Writer is subtitled Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling. It is a combination memoir and guidebook. The forty-two chapters, some quite short, are organized into six sections: Who Is the Writer? The Process of Writing; What Helps the Writer? The Writer as Teacher; The Writing Life and the Duties of the Writer; Philosophy and the Writer.

The book is based on an email exchange between Johnson and the poet E. Ethelbert Miller who, at the end of 2010, “asked if he could interview me for an entire year.” They discussed Johnson’s interests: literature, meditation, Buddhism, teaching, martial arts, the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., contemporary and canonical writers, films, poetry, Sanskrit, my personal habits, American history, technology, sex, race, the state of black America, the love of dogs, science, philosophy the Culture Wars, comic art, fatherhood, and the literary world. The entire exchange is available in a 672-page The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson (Dzanc Books, 2015). The Way of the Writer is a 232 distillation of that.

While it is interesting to read how Johnson came to be a writer and to teach writing, aspiring writers will find the book filled with tips and suggestions for further reading. I have made a list of Johnson’s recommendations: Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination; E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel; Jean-Paul Sartre’s What is Literature? John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction; Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing; plus, novels and essays that illustrate his points.

He has stimulating thoughts on the craft. On words: “ . . . a writer with an expansive vocabulary is much like a visual artist with many colors at his command.” 

On sentences: “I’ve always seen the sentence and paragraph of units of energy to be released. So yes, I use long sentences for rhythm and music.” 

On first sentences: they are “as crucial as final or concluding sentences.”

On voice: “In developing a voice what the writer does is transform or personalize the expressive instrument—language—adapting and individuating it to fit his experience, his vision of the world.” 

On scene and dialogue: Ideally, it “should reveal character through the words the speaker uses and the specific cadence of his or her use of language.”

On plot: It is “the storyteller’s equivalent to the philosopher’s argument; its importance lies in it being an interpretation (one based on causation) of why the world works the way it does.”

I made a note of Johnson’s instruction to his writing students: “Determine what their protagonist most feared in the world . . . his or her deepest social fear. The one situation they most dreaded experiencing. The one event they would prefer to die than have to face. Then I told them they should maneuver their protagonist into exactly that situation to see what happens—if, in fact, he or she is destroyed by it, or is change by it and in what ways.” What a great way to think about a story.

Finally, he quotes Agnus Wilson’s “Four Rules” for writers:

1. There are no rules.

2. The first rule is wrong, so pay attention. 

3. You can’t write for an audience; the writer’s first job is to survive.

4. You can make no mistakes, but anything you write can be made better.

I would say those are worth the price of the book, and now I’ve given them to you free. There is, however, much, much more worthwhile in The Way of the Writer.

 

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Can an ex-offender go straight in a corrupt world?

 I’ve just read two mysteries back-to-back, one a cozy set in France and Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosbywhich is more thriller than mystery and set in Virginia. The experience gave me an opportunity to think why I enjoyed Cosby far more than the other.

True, I am comparing kumquats to cherries here. The cozy’s protagonist is a middle-aged English woman who buys a house in France and immediately finds a body in the swimming pool. This leads to an enormously complex puzzle involving feuding families, WWII betrayal, a dead card shark (whose decayed remains the protagonist finds on the house’s property), and a psychopathic villain who has been an innocuous minor character.

Cosby’s protagonist Beauregard (Bug) Montage is a middle-aged black man who spent five of his teen age years in juvenile detention for vehicular manslaughter and several years out of it as a getaway driver. He’s a master mechanic and a peerless driver (as police who tried to catch him could testify). Better even perhaps than his father who had to vanish after a job went sideways.

He’s gone straight. He misses the high of escaping from a job (it’s better than alcohol, better than drugs, better than sex), but he and his cousin are partners in a struggling auto repair shop. He’s married and the father of two sons. 

Unluckily, he’s behind on the shop’s rent which he will lose if he doesn’t raise the cash; his bitter, angry mother will be evicted from the nursing home to live with Beauregard, his wife, and the boys in their doublewide if cannot pay for her support; and his daughter by a teenage girlfriend needs college money. What does a former criminal do in such a situation?

In chapter one, Beauregard and Kevin participate in an illegal street race. Beau wins, but it’s a scam, he loses the $1,000 he brought to bet to fake county deputies, and he’s able to recover—with some violence—only $750. 

The chapter accomplishes several things seamlessly: We learn that Beauregard needs money. He can tell by the sound a car has a bad valve. He’s lightening on wheels. He’s able to recognize a rent-a-cop even with a gun in his face. He knows he’s been scammed. He knows where scammer would go to celebrate. He has no compunction about jamming wrench into the cheater’s mouth like a gag. He retrieves his $750 and doesn’t kill the guy. But now he’s $250 further behind.

Again, what does an ex-offender do in such a situation? One last job.

Beauregard teams up with a small-time white criminal who’s learned of a treasure of uncut, illegal and untraceable diamonds in a suburban jewelry store’s safe. Ronnie’s girlfriend knows how to turn off the alarm and the combination to the safe. Quick and out with Bug waiting in the car as the getaway driver. What can go wrong?

It should not spoil the book to tell you that things do go wrong, but thanks to Beauregard’s planning and exceptional driving skill, they escape unscathed. Ronnie’s fence buys the diamonds. Ronnie gives Beauregard his $80,000 share. He uses the money to satisfy the bank and save his business, to pay the nursing home, and to give his daughter enough cash for a year of college. And they lived happily ever after.

Spoiler alert: They don’t.

Last year, Cosby told a Los Angeles Review of Books interviewer, “I grew up in Mathews County, Virginia, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. While the setting of Blacktop Wasteland, Red Hill County, is not Mathews, it shares many of the same features. Red Hill is like a lot of towns in the rural South. Most of the jobs have left town on the first thing smoking. There is an unenforced social segregation. There is a black part of town and a white part. A wealthy part of town and a poor part. But the geographic details are important to the narrative too. Miles and miles of cornfields that separate you from your neighbors. Single-lane gravel roads that connect you to the main part of town like arteries where the light dies quick once the sun goes down. Red Hill is a dying town bleeding people.” This sense of place permeates the book. 

More significantly and what sets the book apart from the cozy are the characters. Cosby said, “I wanted Beauregard to be as fully formed a character as he could be.” He is. “I wanted to show that we are all multifaceted and full of different faces that we show to different people in different situations. Too often I think black characters are forced into supporting roles as either ‘magical’ characters long on wisdom but short on depth, or strong silent types that exist only as plot devices.”

Unlike the cozy in which I felt the author was moving pieces around the board to set up and work out the puzzle, Blacktop Wasteland’s story grows out of the place, the situation, and the characters’ response to their circumstances. The book is filled with violence, which, in my opinion, skirts with overkill, but the violence does grow out of what we know about these people and who they are.

Cosby has won honorable mentions in Best Mystery Stories and an Anthony Award for short fiction. Blacktop Wasteland is an impressive debut novel. I look forward to his next.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

A book for anyone serious about writing fiction

If you are unable to be admitted to the Syracuse University writing program (it accepts six students a year from an applicant pool of between six and seven hundred), the next best thing is George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.

Actually of course it’s Saunders who gives the master class, which is based on his twenty years of creative writing teaching. To illustrate what he wants to convey he uses three Chekhov stories (“In the Cart,” “The Darling,” “Gooseberries”), two Tolstoy stories (“Master and Man,” “Alyosha the Pot”) and one each by Turgenev (“The Singers”) and Gogol (“The Nose”).

Saunders advises reader at the beginning that none of the models he offers as a way to think about a story is “correct” or sufficient. “If a model appeals to you, use it. If not, discard it.” He is not trying to teach you how to write like George Saunders (or Chekhov). He is trying to teach you how to write a compelling story, one readers want to read.

Each of the stories he examines is, in its own way, worth studying for what the author does and how he does it. Saunders gives each a very close reading. Indeed he analyses “In the Cart” virtually sentence by sentence, one of his points being that the short story writer does not have room for words or sentences that do not contribute directly to the whole. So how does Chekhov do it?

The million-dollar questions Saunders wants to answer is: What makes reader keep reading? He believes happens through a series of expectation/resolution moments. “We read a bit of text and a set of expectations arises. ‘A man stood on the roof of a seventy-story building.’ Aren’t you already kind of expecting him to jump, fall, or be pushed off? You’ll be pleased if the story takes that expectation into account, but not pleased if it addresses it too neatly.”

Janice Hardy on her Fiction University blog has an interesting article that points out the difference between idea, premise, plot, and story. “Ideas are those moments of inspiration that first excite or interest us. The premise is a general description of the story you plan to tell, and what the story is about. The plot encompasses the core conflict. [The] story is . . . the internal struggle the character goes thorough to resolve a personal issue.” 

Saunders says that a story “frames a moment of change, saying implicitly: ‘This is the day on which things changed forever. A variant of that says, ‘This is the day on which things almost changed forever, but didn’t.”

One of the problems with my stories (one among many) is that they tend to be anecdotes. Time passes. Things happen. They often have interesting ideas and observations. But the main character does not change. Or, the character had an opportunity to change but didn’t. 

Chekhov said, “Art doesn’t have to solve problems, it only has to formulate them correctly.” Saunders says, “A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were.”

Saunders mines each of the seven Russian stories for what they can teach about description, pattern, repetition, facts in fiction, and the possibility of saying true things in a world in which “things happen in it that don’t and could never happen in the real world.” I.e., in Gogol’s “The Nose.”

How does a detailed description of a country inn, the furniture, a character’s face, or clothing add to the story? What does “a bloated face, a pair of sly, genial little eyes, and a fleshy forehead with deep furrows running right across it” really tell you about the character? We modern readers are sensitive to and impatient with data dumps. 

Saunders describes how he discovered he was a writer and how he works. He seems to be a pantser rather than an outliner, never sure where the story is going after he’s written the first sentence. He also believes in revision.

At the same time, he insists that every writer should find his/her own way. Hemingway may be a great short story writer but he’s already done what he can do. Writing in the style of Hemingway is still fake, no matter how skillfully done.

Rather he argues, “We can reduce all of writing to this: we read a line, have a reaction to it, trust (accept) that reaction, and do something in response, instantaneously, by intuition . . . In my experience that’s the whole game: (1) becoming convinced that there is a voice inside you that really, really knows what it likes, and (2) getting better at hearing that voice and acting on its behalf.”

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a splendid book for several reasons. As a writer, I have revisited older stories and think I now see why and where they fail. As a reading writer, I try to see the mechanism at work under the stories and novels I read; I believe I am now more sensitive to what is actually going on (or not). As a reader, I am delighted to be introduced to seven masterpieces by an experienced and knowledgeable guide.

Finally, I am inspired by Saunders writing. Anyone who is serious about writing fiction should own and read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain and return to it regularly for insights and inspiration.

 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

How do you make sense of your life?

Reader Alert! The following includes spoilers. Do not read on if you are the sort of person who is upset by learning how a book ends before you’re read it. 

Ordinarily, I avoid giving away an ending, but (a) careful readers of Luiz Ruffato’s Late Summer will know how the novel must end halfway through, and (b) the pleasure the book offers has little to do with how the book ends.

Ruffato was born in Cataguases, a small industrial city in southeastern Brazil. The novel is set there and, if the text is to be believed (and why not?), the town has fallen on evil days. The textile factories on which the economy was based have closed. The polluted and stinking river Pomba floods during the rainy season. Street crime is common.

The grandson of immigrants who fled northern Italy, Ruffato worked throughout his youth as a bar clerk, textile worker, street book vendor, and turner to supplement the income of his parents, a popcorn vendor and a laundress. He earned a journalism degree from the Federal University of Juiz de Fora, and later settled in São Paulo. 

He is the author of eight novels as well as short story collections, poetry, and essays. In addition to numerous Brazilian literary prizes, his works have received the Premio Casa de las Américas (Cuba) and the Hermann Hesse Literaturpreis (Germany), and have been published in thirteen countries. Since 2003 Ruffato has worked exclusively as a writer.

Late Summer begins with Oseias Moretto Nunes, an older (elderly?) Cataguases native returning to his home town from Sao Paolo on Tuesday, March 3, which could make it 2015. His wife has left him taking their son. He is sick, and he is tired. He still has two sisters living in the city; a third sister, Légia, is dead. And he has a successful and wealthy brother. His parents are dead. He did not return to the city for their funerals.

Oseias spends five days in the city, two nights his sister Rosana’s houses. Rosana is a school principal, visits New York City once a year, is fighting a furious if losing battle with the signs of aging, and is married to a doctor Ricardo. After the second night, Rosana leaves a note in her “teacherly scrawl”: 

“Oseias, I’m afraid this situation can’t go on. Ricardo has been patient, too patient. I don’t want to get into a fight with him at this point in my life. He’d appreciate it, we’d appreciate it, if you could find some other place to stay. Rosana.” He moves to a cheap hotel.

A former school chum is now mayor and Oseias attempts to see him, finally ambushing him one morning. The mayor is not interested in talking about old times and brushes him off. Oseias does  connect accidentally with a former art teacher who is now sick and penniless and who would like to talk about old times. Oseias is repulsed and escapes.

He visits his younger sister Isinha (Isabela), who is married to an affable drunk and has an ingrate and shiftless adult son who has at least two illegitimate children. Isinha, although poor and estranged from her Cataguases siblings, seems to have accepted her portion. She washes and irons his dirty laundry Oseias brings her. But in a house overflowing with children, Isinha has no place—or much time—for her brother.

João Lúcio, Oseias’s younger brother, having been given a leg up by an uncle, has been able to turn a local sawmill into a regional furniture manufacturer and himself into a rich man with a big house, a pool, a wife and a mistress. Caught unawares by his older brother’s arrival, he invites Oseias to spend the night in the guest room although he cannot stay with him. He has an unspecified appointment elsewhere. 

In the final pages, Oseias showers in João Lúcio’s house, dresses in his clean, freshly ironed clothes, destroys his driver’s license and ID, crushes the pills he’s been collecting for his condition (cancer?) to make a cocktail. On Sunday, March 8, he hides himself in the deep woods behind the estate and kills himself.

Late Summer is so vivid, so alive that it did not occur to me until much later to wonder how Oseias was able to tell his story in the first person—the only way it could be told and have the effect it has—if he were dead.

I can imagine some readers will be put off by the 277 pages of solid type, no paragraphs. The book’s design reflects Oseias’s thoughts and perceptions, leavened with dialogue, as they pour from him.

I can also imagine readers being put off by all the unfamiliar names of relatives, children, friends, associates, acquaintances. Julia Sanches’s translation from Portuguese is fluent and smooth however, so anything the reader bumps on is the author’s not hers. (For example, I had to look up “Cebion” to learn it’s a branded form of vitamin C.)

But you don’t read Late Summer to ask how a dead narrator can tell his story or for the plot. You read it—or I read it once I became acclimated to the lack of paragraphing—for a powerful evocation of a man trying to make sense of his life. To explain to himself how he came to be where he is. To attempt one last time to only connect with his sisters, his brother, his nieces and nephews, his childhood companions. 

You read Late Summer for a compelling portrait of contemporary Brazilian life. Ruffato’s evocation of Cataguases is not one that will please the local tourist office. (And I cannot imagine what the Covid-19 pandemic is doing to the town.) 

You read Late Summer because it extends your knowledge of what it is to be human.