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I want to write a little about Ookiku Furikabutte, a Japanese manga (also made into an anime series) by Asa Higuchi. In short, it’s about high school baseball, it’s nineteen volumes long so far and not even close to finished (I hope; also, this is by no means an uncommon length for a manga series), the art is somewhat on the crude side, but obviously as a deliberate style choice rather than through lack of talent, it’s funny and touching and realistic (mostly) and goes into more detail about baseball games than even I can deal with.

The story centers on the baseball team at Nishiura High School, which has never had a baseball team before; hence there are only ten team members, plus student manager, supervising teacher, and coach, and all the players are sophomores (Japanese high schools are 10th-12th grade). Their ace pitcher is Ren Mihashi, who makes up for slow pitching speeds with incredible control, and comes in completely unsure of himself because of the way his teammates in junior high treated him. Catcher Takaya Abe, strong-willed and short-tempered, recognizes Mihashi’s gifts and commits himself to getting the best out of him, never mind that Mihashi is absolutely terrified of him most of the time. The others are neat people too, and they come together quickly into a strong team, both on the diamond and in their mutual bonds; I like best the story lines which show us the team just hanging out together.

We also get to know numerous other teams who are Nishiura’s opponents; honestly I have trouble keeping them straight, but each has its own personalities and its own issues. The two I don’t lose track of are Motoki Haruna, a brilliant pitcher who played with Abe in junior high school and parted less than amicably with him, and his laid-back, observant, only moderately gifted catcher, Kyohei Akimaru, one of my favorites (I have a thing about catchers in glasses). They turn up in and out of Nishiura’s orbit, following their own story.

Anyway, there you have the basic outline. At the moment in the series, Nishiura and Haruna’s school, Musashino Daiichi, have both lost in the summer prefectural tournament, meaning their hopes for the national tournament (Koshien) will have to wait till next year; they’re getting busy training again. Volume 19 is full of delicious bits, but—well—a lot of people write fanfiction about this series slashing any number of the main characters (mostly Mihashi/Abe and Haruna/Akimaru), and I have to say this volume makes it hard to NOT see them that way, even if one wanted to ;) . Examples follow.

Just for one thing, apart from Mihashi and Abe sharing a hotel room (on a team trip, two beds, very innocent), we get the two of them alone in a room while Abe has his shirt off TWICE in one book. Once is in the hotel room, Abe emerging from the shower with a towel across his shoulders; the other is in the school weight room earlier on. Thanks to Abe’s one-track baseball mind and Mihashi’s, um, quirkiness, I would not say that sexual tension was a prime feature of either scene, but it’s entertaining. Oh, and at the team retreat we get the endearingly domestic scene of Abe waking Mihashi early so they can make breakfast for everyone (and it turns out Mihashi’s the one who knows what he’s doing in the kitchen, he even gets up the nerve to yell at Abe about dumplings).

What else? Abe and Mihashi go to talk to Haruna (with Akimaru standing by) just after the latter has lost his big game. Abe and Haruna end up yelling in each other’s faces, rehashing the past, with Mihashi wide-eyed and Akimaru obviously taking mental notes; and then the scene ends on a silly note with Mihashi blurting out “Haruna-san, c-c-can I feel your muscles?”

Akimaru’s teammates, rhapsodizing about how playing on a team with Haruna has made them feel they can aim for the sky; and Kyohei Akimaru standing there while they talk at him, wondering “How could they think I make a difference to him? Teamwork…confidence…dreaming big…?!” as if he’d never heard the words before and wasn’t sure he wanted to hear them now. This is both why I like Akimaru so much and why I think this is such a good manga in the first place; individuality which doesn’t fit into any of the expected patterns.

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I want to talk about the four Melendy books by Elizabeth Enright: The Saturdays, The Four-Storey Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two. These concern the varied adventures of the four Melendy children, Mona, Rush, Miranda (Randy), and Oliver, growing up in New York and then the countryside in the 1940s. Elizabeth Enright does something that should really be very difficult in the Melendy books, and makes it look easy: she tells her stories from the viewpoint (in tight third-person) of children ranging from six to sixteen, without ever lowering her narration to become simplistic or sentimental or limited, and likewise without ever dragging the reader out of the perspective of the child in question. “Child” seems like the wrong word: Enright’s Melendys are people, among whose characteristics are being eight or eleven or fourteen, but who are never simply defined that way.

They grow up a little at a time over the four books, and this is most visible in the youngest, Oliver, who begins as a six-year-old with the limited perspective and abilities thereof, and by the last book is tough, humorous and capable, well able to skewer his dreamy sister’s flights of fancy. Artistic, accident-prone Randy may be the least practical of the family, but she is brave (going out to Meeker’s farm with Rush in the middle of the night to investigate the fire) and never lets her romancing blind her to the realities of life. Like her older siblings, she understands that artistic brilliance, for instance, comes through hard work. (Randy’s arts are drawing and dancing, but somehow it’s easy to imagine that she will be the one who grows up a writer and records her family’s exploits as we are reading about them, like Titty Walker in the Swallows and Amazons books.)

Mona, the oldest, is a genuinely gifted actress whose family prudently keeps her down to earth, giving her scope to express her talent without making her into a spoiled princess. The closest to the adult world, her share of the books decreases gradually as they continue. Rush, though, holds center stage (or shares it with Randy) through at least the third book. A polymath who enjoys physical activity as much as reading and who looks forward to a career as pianist and composer, Rush’s intellectual and practical curiosity as well as his unfailingly sarcastic good humor are among the things that most make the books come alive.

Rush provides two of my favorite moments in the whole series. One comes late in The Four-Storey Mistake, when Rush reports on a disastrous piano lesson he has just given: “Judge Laramy, I just socked your son. I socked him pretty hard…” to which the judge replies “If socking is included in your technique of education, well, that’s none of my business as long as they really learn.”

The other is near the end of Then There Were Five, when all four Melendys are packed into their old surrey to meet their father at the train station. Willy Sloper, their handyman, is driving (how could I not mention Willy earlier? Unflappable, Brooklyn-accented, able to turn his hand to anything, and with a fondness for tootling on the recorder) and reflects aloud on the way people’s characters settle as they grow older, leading to being “farsighted when you look at the paper, and kinda nearsighted when you look at the truth—“ Rush picks up and elaborates enjoyably on the theme, only to be shocked by Willy’s peaceful declaration that “you ain’t got no character at all yet…All of you. Just a lot of little jellyfish.” Rush, Mona, and Randy plunge into silent and serious analyses of their own characters, while Oliver placidly contemplates fishing.

I loved the Melendy books as a kid, but it’s particularly delightful to find that they are still enjoyable as an adult, with precise characterization and satisfying, natural yet lively dialogue, and an authorial voice which moves from humor to serious emotion with a steady, subtle hand; full of details of time and place which glow; and with just enough plot arcs to hold the discrete episodes together. I could go into endless details—Rush’s opera-going experience in New York, the tower room at Mrs. Oliphant’s country house, the manicurist’s escape to New York City which she tells to Mona, Randy’s creek-found diamond and what she does with it, the alligator, the four windows of the cupola, the old newspapers on the walls of the Office, Mona and Rush and Randy with their feet in the stream, Oliver’s caterpillars, Jasper Titus’ cakes, Rush and Mark’s terrifying late-night adventure, Randy and Oliver’s detective adventures… so wonderful. More people should read these.

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Well--I got my first random-check-result report from the translation company I work for, and generally got a good grade, but one comment made me laugh out loud. "This phrase is a remnant of your British English. In American English we wouldn't use this expression...". Nice. Clearly a misspent childhood reading British kids' books had a lasting influence on my unequivocally American self. 
Translation for money is a new and remarkable experience. (Precious little of it lately, what with summer and an evilly competitive system, but there you go.) People will pay money to have damn near anything translated, right down to Facebook posts and very intimate chat sessions. Master's theses appear with sources attributed to the author's first name. Mathematical proofs involve Greek letters and logical oddities. One woman posted an innocuous abstract in psychology with the request that it be translated so as to be "as difficult to understand as possible." Occasionally it's tempting to add a note pointing out the author's academic failings, but sadly that is not what one is paid for. Technically translator and client are supposed to be anonymous to one another, but often it's easy to figure out from context the name and position of the people involved. One short piece required, without the client's awareness, a reading knowledge of Korean to figure out a correct spelling. A young woman set out to be Japan's foremost female potato geneticist. During a long essay on the psychology of dog-owners, I kept typing "god-owners" instead. A lady wrote an introductory note of great courtesy to her daughter's parents-in-law. 
I usually refuse to take on legal translation, because the whole document has to be written in a particular style, a dialect if you will, and I'm just not qualified. To my surprise, though, medical translation has proved to be more accessible than I thought. I won't do jobs related to individual patients' treatment--if a minor mistranslation is going to screw someone over, I don't want to be the translator responsible--but research papers and abstracts by doctors and nurses are pretty much within my reach. (Who knew, not me: nurses are out there researching like nobody's business. Right on.) The technical terms yield to the application of an online dictionary, and after that it's just a matter of making it grammatical. Almost like solving a puzzle, and satisfying in that way. 
If people would pay me to translate novels and historical/sociological nonfiction, I'd be in heaven, but ain't no such luck coming; still, it's fun to mess around with these in my spare time. Language works in your favor the more of it you know.
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a peaceful afternoon at home, pretty much.
I have some work (for money) I could be doing, nothing exciting or dramatically lucrative, but work is work. I'll do some later. It won't go away.
I have some work not for money I could be doing, two or three different things, translating and writing, which I would like to do too. Maybe I'll do some later. 
I have some work maybe eventually for money I could be doing; it's mostly done and waiting on a couple of transliterations, but it could use a last check. Maybe I'll do it later.
You can see how motivated I am. It's not my fault. Honestly. Cramps are a good un-motivator. Still, unlike the work, they will eventually go away.
In the next hour, though, I should a) wash the dishes, so I can put tonight's rice on, and b) play the cello a little bit so I don't suck at tomorrow's rehearsal, or so that I reduce the degree to which I suck at tomorrow's rehearsal. With kind T next to me to live up to, and nerd/arrogant M and sweet but distant A over at the first violin desk looking down on me from the heights, it would be good to not suck as much as possible.
If I get these two things done by six, I can sit down and watch the baseball game on TV. Except that it's the Tigers against the Giants, and the Tigers lately are heading for the bottom of the league at speed. I'd like to think they'll get better when they get Kyuji back, even just from the psychological boost, but I ain't betting the farm on it. (Go away, LJ grammarcheck. I know "ain't" is not grammatically correct. I am using it in full cognizance of that fact. And if you don't know from Kyuji either, what have you got for me?)
Good things: I got two "good reviews" from work clients today, one at each site, suggesting that I'm making some people happy. The translation site review was from a lady or gentleman who'd sent in a paragraph from the end of a novel/short story to be translated, which pleased me very much--I'm a literary translator at heart, never mind all this e-business, periodontal disease, constructivism and conflict, lawsuit about refrigerators stuff.
I had very weird fragments of a dream last night, in the interstices of a long, ragged thunderstorm going on outside: something that might make a story at some point, centered around one visually and emotionally vivid image.
Okay, girl, the time has come the Walrus said: time to get moving. Here I go. 
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Various comments on my first couple of weeks doing some English classes at the school for the deaf. Just self-introduction stuff so far really, with the junior high school kids. They are cheerful and pleasant to be with so far; junior high schoolers share general characteristics regardless of whether or not they can hear. A wide range of academic ability, hearing ability, speech, etc. 
The school is the prefectural school for the deaf, not to be confused with the municipal school for the deaf. Actually, I think having both of them may be unique in the country; I wonder why they don't merge. Possibly because, in the past, the municipal school was known for being more open to the use of sign language than was then standard; like most places, Japan used to have an emphasis on oral education. Now, though, the prefectural school (and most public schools for the deaf in Japan, I think*) uses what it calls total communication, meaning that students learn both sign and speech, and while they are encouraged to use their voices, the first priority is communication by whatever method works. (They also use this confusing thing called cued speech, hand-gestures to supplement lip-reading sort of, which doesn't seem to exist outside deaf schools.) 
The teachers know at least some sign. The hearing teachers I've seen use their voices, the blackboard/overhead projector, and supplementary sign. There are at least a couple of deaf teachers; I sat in on a young deaf woman teaching a Japanese (for native speakers) class, in which she spoke and signed. Several of the kids have cochlear implants, which do not seem to be the destructive force to the deaf community that they were feared to be, since the kids are still attending schools for the deaf...? Don't know enough about that to get into it.
I am, they tell me, the first foreign teacher ever. Sheesh. So I spoke and used my beginner's sign and wrote English and katakana (phonetic Japanese letters) and Japanese all over the blackboard, and the kids helped each other, and it all worked out somehow so far. (I would never use katakana in a lesson for hearing kids, but here it seems only fair to give them a hint of the sounds that confusing English spelling represents, since they don't have the aural model to follow.) The hardest part for me is figuring out how to react helpfully to the kids whose speech I can't understand at all. Some speak very clearly, others are (to me) entirely unintelligible, and I'm not sure how to get better at understanding them.
Pronunciation is, as with hearing Japanese kids, kind of a bugbear. Consonants aren't so bad--lips tight shut for a final M, biting your tongue for the th sound, and so on, and unlike hearing kids they're used to thinking about what they do with their mouths. How to teach vowels that don't exist in Japanese, though, man, you got me. I'm also torn about what to do when I speak English to them--expecting them to read lips in English seems like an unfair extra layer of difficulty, but if I speak English while signing, then they can watch the signs without having to understand the English at all. Reading/writing, no problem, but where does the balance fall?
Hopefully I will manage some follow-up posts about individual kids, but right now it's as much as I can do to keep names and faces straight, having only had one class with each group. Yuji who's a subway geek (I brought him a map of the NYC one), three Yukis and two Daikis, shy Aya with gorgeous long hair, Mayako whose family's Korean, the two eighth-grade boys who couldn't stop elbowing each other in excitement...
Some of the more academically gifted ninth-graders will probably go on to hearing high schools, I'm told. It strikes me that this has to be one of the most terrifying things they'll ever do in their lives. Going from a small school where they've known their ten or fifteen yearmates literally from babyhood (the deaf school's programs start before age one**), where everyone is deaf and deafness is taken for granted, where even the hearing teachers know some sign and are used to communicating with deaf people, to a large hearing high school where they don't know anybody, they may be the only deaf student, and most of the students and teachers will never have met a deaf person--wow. That's bravery. And most of them make it work too.
Well, instead of rambling on about this I should go and look up the signs for "snow," "apples," and "rainy season." More later, I hope.
 

*Almost all schools for the deaf in Japan are public, usually one per prefecture. The only exception I know of is the Japan Oral School for the Deaf, which is a private Christian school in Tokyo, founded by the parents of Ambassador Edwin Reischauer, and as its name suggests strictly oral. They cheat, though--their admissions page suggests that they encourage applications from hard-of-hearing kids rather than the profoundly deaf, and being a private school they are not required to accept deaf kids with multiple disabilities either. Not that it's a bad thing to have that environment, just that I don't think it's appropriate to make as if it's the best form of deaf education while only trying it out on the kids it's most likely to work with.

**The baby/toddler programs involve the children playing together with supervision from staff and mothers; it means the kids get early intervention for speech, hearing and sign, and young mothers can learn general childcare stuff, talk to their peers, learn to sign, and get a handle on having a deaf child. I've seen a lot of hearing young women coming in and out, signing and speaking to their toddlers. My only quibble is what happens to working mothers, single mothers especially, and where all the fathers are.
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so I mentioned I've been reading, and occasionally writing, fanfiction. Having seen that people write real-people-fic about baseball players, mostly having them sleep with one another, I'm very sad that there aren't any fics in English about Japanese baseball. I am being horribly tempted to write a fic slashing Yuki Saito with Masahiro Tanaka. It would have a nice built-in plot arc, thank you Koshien finals fifteen-inning tie etc. etc., would in fact be ridiculously easy to do (allowing for the fact that, you know, I don't really know what either one of them is like as a person, nor am I likely to, and so their inner lives would have to be pretty damn fictionalized). But nobody would get it. Sigh. 
Another question: is it ethical to write fiction about real living people doing things they don't do in real life? (Historical fiction of whatever kind I have no problem with, as long as it's well done. Fiction about dead people with living relatives who knew them is a little dicier, requiring some respect.) I'm inclined to feel, well, ethical, no, not really. If I were famous, I wouldn't be thrilled to find that people were writing fiction about my sex life. Unfairly, I feel like I'd have a slight ethical edge writing about Yu-chan and Ma-kun in English, since the chances that they could or would read it would be extremely minimal.
Well, it's all just doodling. Back to the daily round.
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There's a neighborhood in Osaka which is not like anywhere else in the city. For many years the city's flophouses have been concentrated there--cheap pay-by-the-day lodging houses, Single Room Occupancy kind of places, catering to day laborers mostly working construction. Because the city has done its best to shaft these people over the years, especially during periods when the economy's down and there's no work, this neighborhood has a history of riots. It's changing somewhat now, as day-labor work in general dries up and the long-time laborers grow older, some of them on pension. Backpacker kids from abroad come there to sleep cheap, artists are moving in (not so much in a SoHo-esque gentrifying way as to work within the existing community) and people reexamining the whole idea of the place.
I've walked through it a few times (it's quite a bit south of where I live) and found it very different from other neighborhoods--all lodging-houses (big ones with names like Hotel New Japan, little old-fashioned ones with names like Moonflower Inn and shoe-boxes in the front hall), box-lunch-for-a-dollar places (100 yen, that is), soda vending machines priced at half what they are elsewhere, tiny grimy long-established bars, coin laundries and storage-locker storefronts, religious establishments of unclear affiliation at a much higher frequency than you'd see elsewhere. And people camping out on the sidewalk, some with what seems like a full set of furniture, some literally huddled in doorways. Mostly men, middle-aged to older, populating the streets. I've been glared at and looked at curiously and hit on (very gently) and, when I passed through around New Year's, given a handful of tangerines. 
One of the reasons I know something about the history of this area is a book that came out last year, edited by some postdocs from Osaka City University, with contributions from all kinds of people involved with the area--long-time residents, artists, lawyers, priests of both the Catholic and Buddhist variety, cartoonists, labor organizers, city employees, you name it. Not so much personal testimony as a careful examination of the history of the neighborhood through the twentieth century, its problems and quirks and troubles, and how things stand now. Blessedly free of the "Japan Sentimental" tendencies you see so often around here, just factual and informative, and interesting because the material itself is interesting--at least if you're at all interested in Osaka, urban studies, poverty, modern history, labor, aging, religious activism, construction, you name it.
So I read this book and thought, hmm, this should be available in English. You know? I could do that. And this year, having gained myself some extra time, I plunged into a cafe in the neighborhood mentioned in the book, and said something along the lines of um, I want to translate this. who should I talk to? Amazingly enough, they were able to put me in touch with the City University guy who was the editor within the same day, and he was very nice (and, um, sort of my type) and said it was a great idea and he'd talk to the publisher. And it looks like something might actually happen. Details not yet clear, but the publisher said he'd like to do it too, so... We'll see. As they say, be careful what you don't ask for, you might not get it.

jushin

Apr. 28th, 2012 05:53 pm
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I've kind of thought this was true for many years, but yeah, this is just about certain, really: my truest function in life is to be a reader/watcher/listener. Not very useful, but what gives me the most joy and fulfillment, much more than creating/interacting in any context myself.
I'm swimming in the good stuff right now, more or less by chance convergences. Some good people's fanfic that I want to go back and (re)read, mostly by the ladies (I think) known as raven and Philomytha. (If Lois McMaster Bujold knew what was best for her readers, which I have to say she mostly does, she would just tell Philomytha to put all her fanfics together and send them off to the publishers, with a note saying "Publish this as Illyan's Book and send half the royalties to me and half to Philomytha.") Oh, and there's the genuine Ivan book coming up too.
Baseball on TV tonight: Atsushi Nohmi pitching against Sugiuchi, which could be a spectacular pitcher's duel--or just a mess. You never know with baseball, which is one of the fun things about it.
An old recording of my dad's orchestra doing the Mephisto Waltz, which just, oh my goodness. There's not a lot of Liszt I really like, but that piece, well, at the risk of vulgarity, if you are feeling you have not met your quota of orgasms lately then just go listen to it.
Inspired by other people's LJs (irnan and elizabeth_hoot), I went and got the Star Wars trilogy (the real one) out of the video store. I'm only halfway through A New Hope yet, but my God, I'd forgotten just how good these things are. Cheesy and campy, sure, but what they're trying to do they do absolutely brilliantly. And it doesn't hurt that young!Harrison Ford is handsome, and Mark Hamill, well, I understand some people grow out of Luke Skywalker eventually, but apparently not me. Good looks with a rock-solid base of sweetness which I can't think of seeing anywhere else. (And excuse me, LJ, I thought this was the hangout of geeks, why is Skywalker getting spellchecked?) 
Not as many new English books as I'd like--I was disappointed with the crop when I visited home this March. Still, there's the new Bujold due and also a new Pamela Dean supposed to come out sometime in the not-too-far-future. I wish a long-lost great-aunt of Rosemary Kirstein would appear and leave her a large sum of money so she could quit her day job and WRITE MORE.
Anyway. We honestly should not complain. I shouldn't, anyway. Life contains many many glorious things. 

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Last week was hanami with the orchestra--sitting under a blossoming cherry tree in a local park, theoretically admiring the flowers, in practice eating and drinking and chattering. Even with a group of people I'm relatively at ease with, like the orchestra folks, it's hard for me to spend a long stretch of time in a large group--I never know what to say, who to talk with, how to move around among clusters of people, what I should be doing or saying. So as often before, I solved the problem by assigning myself childcare duty. T, another cellist, was the organizer of the party, and his wife Y was also there with their two kids, Yuka and Nao.
Yuka just started third grade; she's tall for her age and skinny, with a wicked grin and a habit of perpetual motion, good at drawing. Nao, a year and half younger, is on his way into second grade; he's more compact than his sister and much quieter, on the autism spectrum. I think his parents deal with this as well as any family could. They don't (as many families in Japan still do) try to ignore it--"How dare you say my kid's autistic? He's just very individual! He's perfectly normal!" This attitude, among other problems, means the kid doesn't get the help he or she needs. Nor do they make a big family tragedy out of it--"Oh how awful this is, it's shameful, it's terrible, we'll never have a normal life again." T and Y just say, well, Nao is autistic and that's part of how he is, we'll get him the special care he needs and in the meantime have a happy, ordinary family life. And this seems to be getting the best results it could--Nao is obviously a smart kid, very affectionate with his family and communicating with them, even willing to let an outsider like me cuddle him occasionally. I see him probably once every couple of months, and at first he's always standoffish, but after a while he'll hold out a hand for me to take.
I know things aren't as easy as T and Y often make them look--I've heard T talking with an older woman who also plays cello with us, who has a daughter in her twenties with agoraphobia. "We worry about when Nao's grown up, when we're getting older, if he needs taking care of and we can't do it. If we might end up in a family suicide..." Me, with my love for happy endings, I like to think, well, Nao's gotten so much better even since he was three or four, and he's bright and he's not completely uncommunicative, he'll be okay, won't he? Nobody knows, of course. As the fond outsider, I like seeing the love in their family, and want to think it will add up to love and stability in the future. 



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Gotta have 'em sometime.

1) My mom. Enough said.

2) I succumbed to the Dark Side and wrote fanfiction. Almost the first one I've ever written, definitely the first I've ever put on the internet for other people to read. (For a fanfic fest, so there were some built-in readers.) And people liked it. Not everybody, I'm sure, but several people wrote sweet appreciative comments. I think I will end up writing more, because it's so damn easy and fun compared to the original stuff. Makes me feel as if I'm cheating on my Y and his world, but--call it finger exercises. 

3) The Monday night band at the Village Vanguard. Sixteen people creating a basement full of pure powerful focused delight. You know the first line of the Ode to Joy--Freude, schöne Gotterfunken? A guy I know once memorably mistranslated it into Japanese as something like "Fun and beautiful and holy explosion!" and that's pretty much what happens with Dick Oatts--who apart from being a hell of a sax player has the sweetest smile I've ever seen--and John Mosca and their colleagues. This time John Riley the saturnine drummer was off, sadly, but the pianist was a gifted young guy with a lion's-mane of hair, the bassist a young Chinese-American guy with that placid, happy, just-walkin'-the-line expression good jazz bassists tend to have, and they did LOTS of Thad Jones. Love it.

4) While at my mom's place, I collected a bunch of her cassette tapes to rerecord onto CD; among them was one of my dad playing jazz piano that I haven't heard in years and years, if ever, though I have other recordings of his. Having lost my dad is not a good thing, but being able to hear his "voice" on the piano--and occasionally, his literal voice on the recording, it was a pretty casual gig--makes me pretty damn lucky among people whose fathers are gone.
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I was thinking about books which are focused on a thirteen-year-old, and (sometimes) meant for readers of about that age, but in which the adult characters are more compelling to me. The three examples I’d like to discuss are National Velvet (Enid Bagnold), Growing Up Weightless (John M. Ford), and King and Joker (Peter Dickinson).

National Velvet is, of course, one of those books that’s always getting described as a “much-beloved children’s classic” etc etc. I think that does it a gross injustice. It was written as a children’s book, and I certainly read it and loved it when I was a kid—but the language is complex and many of the themes, now I think on it, not child-directed at all. The main story may be standard horse-book fare (Velvet, the youngest and plainest of four sisters in an English village between the wars, wins an uncontrollable horse for a shilling and rides it to victory in the Grand National), but nothing else is. In particular, when I reread it now I find myself increasingly fascinated by Velvet’s mother, the onetime Araminty Potter. At nineteen, Araminty swam the English Channel (“against the tide, in a terrible dirty night in a storm…it was a bigger thing than anything that’s been done since”), but when we meet her she is the wife of the local butcher, mother of five, fat and stolid. We never see her as an unsympathetic character: Velvet adores her, and Mi—the down-to-earth young man, short of dreams for himself but full of them for Velvet, who makes Velvet’s horse-dreams real and whose father was Araminty’s trainer—all but idolizes her. She and her husband, interestingly, show us one of the two romantic relationships in the book. Araminty and William are anything but the golden-haired couple their oldest daughter Edwina and her Teddy are, both middle-aged (when I was a kid I thought of Velvet’s mother as vaguely “old,” but the math suggests that she’s only thirty-nine), overweight, sunk deep in daily life, undemonstrative; but the understated conversation (“Love don’t seem dainty on a fat woman,” she says, “…you always was a nice chap”) they have late in the book shows the solidity of their relationship, and gives to the narrow-minded, unimaginative William another dimension in his love for an unconventionally attractive woman.

Growing Up Weightless is science fiction, of course, young adult or not depending on your reading. It’s a book with many facets, set on a recently independent Moon. The point-of-view characters are Matt Ronay, at thirteen ready to choose his future career and desperate to get away from his politically significant father’s influence, and his father Albin (usually referred to by his last name), a reluctant politician whose true vocation is music. I have always found Albin Ronay’s story more interesting, maybe because I was already into my twenties when I discovered the book—if I’d been ten or eleven, I might have found Matt and his friends more compelling. Frustratingly, Ford never tells you exactly what he’s doing in any of his story lines, it’s all guesswork and hints, but we might piece together the story of a once romantic young Albin who was ready to give up his life for the Moon colony, and who instead gave up his lover—another man—to marry and produce the next generation. And who then found himself gradually drawn away from composing and conducting, his other true love, to struggle with the morally dubious politics of keeping the colony going. (“Is that what you think you’ve been doing? Compromising yourself for twenty years?”) The no-right-answers complexity of the life Ronay has ended up with, based on the best of intentions, emphasizes Matt’s thirteen-year-old naiveté.

I hesitate a little to add King and Joker to the list, because I find its thirteen-year-old heroine, Princess Louise, more interesting than Velvet or Matt—readers of this blog, if there are any, will know I hold Peter Dickinson in the highest esteem—but still, it’s similar in a way. Louise is the second child of King Victor II (was it?) in a subtly alternate 1970’s England; the book is a mystery involving the truth of Louise’s parentage and her introduction to the confusion of adult relationships in general—damn, I can’t even begin to summarize it, but it’s a coming-of-age novel in a way as well as a murder mystery, and like all Dickinson’s best is rich and subtle and deeply interesting. One thing I have noticed on repeated reading, though, is how central the character of Louise’s father King Victor is. King of England since age ten, short, bald, highly sexed and attractive to women, a qualified doctor of ferocious intelligence, short-tempered, affectionate to his family, ruthlessly cynical and realistic—it’s in some ways typical of Dickinson to make even his secondary characters this extraordinary.

I’ve been reading fanfiction lately, as I mentioned somewhere, and I wish I were a good enough writer to attempt fanfiction for any of these books. Imagine a novel centered around Araminty Brown (what were the options for a physically powerful, enduring, taciturn, working-class girl in 1905 or so? How did she come to train for the Channel swim in the first place? Did she dream of other futures than the one she got?) or Albin Ronay (he gets half a book or so, granted, but I still want to know what happened before and after) or King Victor (all the things in his life that Louise, as his daughter and still a young teenager, didn’t or couldn’t see). Writers should live twice as long as other human beings.  

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I have three people on my mind right now; I've never met any of them, and one of them has been dead for almost twenty-five years. As good a time as any to write about them.
Last night I was listening to Lohengrin on the radio (every year between Christmas and New Year's, NHK radio plays that year's Bayreuth season, one opera a night, starting at 9 pm and lasting into the wee hours) and the title role was sung by Klaus Florian Vogt. God damn but that man can sing! Last year and for a couple of years before he was Walther in Meistersinger, and I wish they'd kept him there, I like the music better. Even in Lohengrin, though, that voice carries me away. I've heard it described as "a Mozartian tenor of Wagnerian dimensions," and that's not far off; in a way it's almost like a male alto or soprano, only anchored in the tenor range. His high notes sound as natural and easy as the rest of the range. Crystalline. I wish to God he'd branch out and make some more recordings--I'd give anything to hear him sing the Dichterliebe, or the tenor solo in Verdi's Requiem. Or even the title role in Candide, although that's really more for a high baritone than a true tenor. Hell, anything, if he'd only record more.

It may not be quite fair to say I've never actually met the second person on my mind, since we have in fact communicated by email. Hara Takeshi is a Japanese nonfiction author who writes mostly about trains and emperors and the connections thereamong (that can't be a word, can it?) and the remarkable range of historical, sociological, personal, and literary ideas and happenings which can be connected to trains or emperors or both. Two pieces of trivia: one, he has the same name as Inspector Takeshi Hara of James Melville's Otani detective series, a policeman subordinate to Superintendent Otani who is depicted as sweet-natured, scholarly, and unexpectedly attractive to women. Both first and last names are common, and in any case the fictional Hara Takeshi made his appearance well before the adulthood of the actual one, but I like the coincidence. Two, he seems to be a genuinely nice person--as noted above, I wrote him a fan letter by email and got a prompt and pleasant response, and a colleague who sent him an academic paper reports a similar experience. His train books are funny and thoughtful, formidably researched, with the author's interest and excitement and concern coming through every line--but never dwelling too much on the author himself. Nor is he limited to trains: a book about the strange socio-politico-educational happenings which inflected his fifth- and sixth-grade experience remains subtly shocking and inspiring, in a backwards kind of way, no matter how many times I think back over it. It's immensely exciting to draw parallels between that book and his biography of the Taisho Emperor (ruled 1912-1926), having to do with ideas about the individual and the group, and the mixed horror and seduction of becoming part of the group, and the unwitting correspondences between the far left and the far right, and ... okay, I'll leave off for now and try to write a paper on this later!

The third person on my mind is dead. His name was Takanori Ohira; he was born, probably in Osaka, probably in 1954. He attended the Osaka Education University Attached Tennoji High School, he won or placed highly in at least two national competitions as a violinist while in his teenage years, he went to Tokyo University and while there was concertmaster of the university orchestra, he spent time as a visiting researcher at a certain Ivy League university probably in the early 1980s, he became an assistant professor of metallurgy at Tokyo University, and he committed suicide in 1987.
Almost all the information I've just listed comes from a bout of Internet research; Google is amazing, for good or ill. Only the first and last facts, his name and the manner of his death, are what I had before. Why is he on my mind now? Well, because I was listening to the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, and I remembered, as I always do, my father talking about it. When Takanori Ohira was studying in America, my father was the conductor of the university orchestra where he was, and they did the Tchaikovsky concerto together. "Any audience will applaud after the end of that first movement," he would say, playing me the tape. "Taka was really a fantastic violinist. It's too bad..." . My father died eleven years ago, of natural causes--if cancer is natural--and I miss him. Thinking of him, and of people out of reach, I got to want to know more about Takanori Ohira. I wish I could meet someone who knew him. I wish I could have met him. His career, both musically and scientifically, describes pretty much the highest arc any Japanese might aspire to, and I wonder if his death was "because" or "in spite of" or something more complex. ご冥福を祈る。
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I'm hoping to have more time next year to use on translation-for-pleasure, and I want to start with the Yuriko-Yoshiko letters, mentioned here before. 1924 to 1929, Chujo Yuriko, up and coming young novelist, and Yuasa Yoshiko, budding Russian translator, enjoying a Boston marriage in Tokyo and then Moscow, with excursions elsewhere in Japan and Europe. I'll put their love letters up against most anybody's.
Right now I'm trying to make a chronological list of all the stuff to be translated, letters and diaries, based on the Yuriko complete works (and you ain't kidding about "complete": there's an older and a more recent edition, and I was able to pick up all thirty-six volumes of the older edition for about sixty dollars total a few years back) and on a compilation which Kurosawa Ariko edited a few years back (unkindly, a year or two too late for my MA thesis on the topic). Kurosawa-sensei focused mostly on Yoshiko's side of the exchange, hitherto unpublished, and so I'm going through Yuriko's diaries in the complete works to find what else I want to put in. I haven't read them in a long time, except for scattered excerpts, and I'd forgotten how damn good they are, funny and thoughtful and sad and contemplative and energetic.
I have real problems with Yuriko's later years, when she got caught up in Communist ideology (not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but I don't like the way it worked out in her life), nearly died for it in prison, and wasted her remaining, shortened life on a dictatorial bastard of a husband. But I love the years she spent with Yoshiko, in her late twenties and early thirties, when her mind was at its sharpest and widest open.
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I was so pleased with the name of this recipe, until the Monty Python-esque undertones occurred to me. Well, this chili is by no means expired, although you could stick some daisies in it for a garnish if you wanted to. "Ex-" is because it started out as my best attempt at chili and ended up more than halfway to a kind of pseudo-Middle Eastern bean stew. The "pink" is because it's basically white chili but with some tomatoes in it.

Take a small onion and three or four garlic cloves; chop them fine and sauté until "wilted." Add a couple of boneless chicken breasts, chopped into very small pieces. (No reason not to use dark meat or even chicken on the bone; the end result would probably be even more flavorful, I just don't like messing with the bones.) Season with a very generous shake of cumin and another of cayenne, a sprinkle of oregano and coriander, and a few squirts of harissa. When the chicken is more or less cooked through (shouldn't take long), add enough chicken broth to cover, about half a can of chopped tomatoes, a can of white beans, a small can of sweet corn, and some more of the spices in similar proportions. (More serious cooks  would probably use the non-canned variety of veggies; so sue me.) Stir everything up together, heat through and simmer on a low flame.
After ten or fifteen minutes, add about a quarter cup of cornmeal. This will make the chili thicker and more inclined to stick to the pot, so stir fairly frequently and add more chicken broth at intervals. The total simmering time should be about forty minutes. Finally, in a separate pot make two cups of couscous (follow ingredients on the couscous box) and serve the chili over the couscous, with lavish amounts of sour cream on top. Serves two. Since I live alone, I like to make it on Sundays--when I have time to sit around and simmer--and eat the leftovers on Monday, so that the promise of good food at home keeps me going through the Monday workday.
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This is just observational data, but in the context of LGBT matters in general, transgender issues seem to be more to the forefront in Japan than in the States. I'm not sure why. Maybe partly because there's a long tradition in traditional Japanese theater of men enacting women (see kabuki) and more recently vice versa (see Takarazuka); maybe partly because there's a somewhat higher proportion among Japanese of people whose physical type permits them to be gender-ambiguous (more than once I've sat across from someone on the train and been completely unable to guess what gender they might be); maybe other factors. Who knows. I'm cisgender and it's not my field of study, but it would be a damn interesting thesis for a grad student somewhere. (Note: the spellchecker on here can deal with "transgender" but not "cisgender." ?)
Anyway, I noticed that two of the better Japanese novels I've read in the last couple of months were on transgender themes. One, titled something like The Singing Frog Princess, is YA or middle-grade, aimed probably at younger teenagers; it's about a ninth-grade boy who realizes that he likes girls and also wishes he could be a girl. He finds out that he can sing in a girl's voice (like a countertenor, I guess) and secretly records himself doing so. The "mystery singer" becomes a hot property at school, and the expected complications and repercussions ensue. I kind of wish the author hadn't taken pains to have the boy check out GID (as it's still unfortunately called in Japan) and decide that's not exactly what he's got; but when the book ends, he's got a girlfriend and an understanding best friend and is pretty sure that, at the least, he's going to go on singing in a "girl's" voice. Various possibilities are left open.
The other novel is a mystery which won one of the bigger first-novel-mystery awards, called Disappearance/Gradation. (No, that's not a typo for graduation.) The plot, centering on a high school basketball team, is sort of complicated, but there's one character who turns out to be apparently a girl and physically a boy (due to androgen insensitivity syndrome, which I just had to look up the English for; you learn something new every day). More centrally, the two main characters present to the reader as male (the narrator) and female (the narrator's sidekick, or rather the person whose sidekick the narrator is). By the end of the book, you learn that their actual genders are the other way round. I had guessed almost right away about the latter character, mostly because of an ambiguous name for which the author carefully didn't supply pronunciation (kanji/Chinese characters which could be read as either Mayu, a girl's name, or Masayoshi, a boy's). When the narrator's gender was spelled out, though, my first reaction was "Hey, that's not fair!" and my second thought, "Oh man, this would be absolutely fucking impossible to translate." Being the narrator, this character naturally uses the first person pronoun. Japanese has a million first person pronouns, well, many, and the one the narrator uses is masculine. Likewise, his/her speech patterns in general are masculine, especially when set against his/her friend's pointedly feminine usage. Without any palpable evidence to the contrary (not even a noticeably androgynous name, like Yuki or Mizuki or something), the reader automatically takes the narrator for a boy. This effect would be damn near impossible to accomplish in English.
Anyway, at least in the fictional sector, Japan seems to be thinking hard about transgender ideas lately. Hope for the best.
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More on this so-called volume-four-that-will-never-be-finished-at-this-rate. I decided, mostly just as a writing exercise, that my main characters need a sex scene. They've been living together for, what, three years now? and have an eighteen-month-old daughter, so yeah, they have undoubtedly engaged in this pursuit in the past, but I haven't actually observed them doing it. And I figured it would be good for my knowledge of them to write about it. (Also, having been in escapist mode lately, I've been reading a bunch of fanfiction on the net, and my goodness but people who write fanfic like to write about sex. If you were an alien preparing to visit Earth, you could get all the sex education you needed, and then some, just from reading fanfic. Except you'd end up thinking that about seventy-nine percent of Terran sexual activity was between two men. Which would certainly be interesting, if not strictly accurate. Anyway.) 
The mechanics are not the problem. Sex scene or not, I don't propose to write anything X-rated. (I'm not morally opposed to it in most contexts, it's just not what I like to read, hence not what I like to write.) The thing is, I keep feeling as if I'm invading my characters' privacy. Hey, this thing is private between the two of them, I should get my voyeuristic ass out of there (as it were). Which, since I'm the Author otherwise known as God, is not how I'm supposed to feel. But....he's making love to her, not to me. They don't think anybody is watching them, and it makes me feel guilty that they think they're unobserved and they're not.
How idiotic is that? 
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I got a one-hundred-year-old book in the mail today. It’s The Cheerful Prisoner (or The Optimistic Prisoner, if you prefer, there isn’t a standard translation that I know of) by Sakai Toshihiko. He was a socialist, journalist and translator, born in 1870 and died in 1933; I just read a biography of him and fell madly in love with him. Someone in Tokyo was selling this book, in its original Meiji 44 (1911) edition, for six thousand yen—about sixty dollars, and in absolute terms a ten-thousand-percent markup on the original price of sixty sen. (One yen=100 sen, prewar.) It’s in surprisingly good condition. He published it just after a two-year prison term for being a naughty socialist, in effect; it’s mostly letters he wrote to his wife from prison. Unlike most of his comrades, Sakai was highly uxorious—faithful to his first wife until her death, and to his second wife until his own. Tameko, the second wife, supported herself while he was in prison, raised his daughter Magara (a feminist activist in her own right), and though not an active socialist herself, dealt (with a rueful expression most of her life, I imagine) with her husband’s left-wing shenanigans. It helped, probably, that he had an active sense of humor in all contexts, was a feminist himself, and—again unlike most of the other left-wingers of the time—was robustly competent at daily life, not allowing idealism to take undue precedence over practicality.  
He reminds me irresistibly of my friend T—the skill at both thinking and living, the slightly black humor, the eye-of-the-storm calmness which other people inevitably turn to for support. It’s never occurred to me to fall in love with T, but possibly I should consider it. 
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 So, given the blessing of summer vacation I've been spending more time on the volume-four-that-will-not-allow-itself-to-be-written. Most of the recent stuff has been a moderately soul-baring conversation between T, a fictional character of my invention, and K, a person who exists in the real world, although I have never had the honor of meeting K and he'd probably be horrified to find himself appearing in a (would-be) mystery novel. I did have a lot of fun going through his semi-memoir, which was published a couple of years ago and is excellent, and coming up with little bits of information and attitude to help myself out. (Once or twice he "said" something fictionally which I then found in his real text, making me do what in this country we call a "guts pose.") 
Apart from the hard work of trying to make it ring true, this has actually been a fun conversation to write. T and K have been through the same long-drawn-out hell, and have in some ways come to know each other intimately, but it's only recently that circumstances have allowed them to speak frankly together--and in their mutual mother tongue for the first time. So there's a lot which remains unsaid because a) they both know it and b) they're both so much in the habit of not saying it. One of the challenges is to make sure the reader knows it without making them say it.
I wish I could finish this damn thing and make somebody read it, because I'm trying to do a lot of things I've never done before, and I'd like some feedback (as long as it wasn't along the lines of "This whole thing is misbegotten and I don't know why you think you're a writer," which would just make me cry in a corner somewhere.) Getting it finished, though, looks to be a very long way away yet.

I just had a shattering realization, though. The main plot--not T and K, they're a side story, bless them--turns partly on a character who hasn't appeared before and whom I'm struggling with. I'm just not as interested in her as I should be, and if I don't care about her, the reader isn't going to do so either--and is certainly not going to give much credence or sympathy to the protagonist as he semi-unwittingly allows his association with her to screw up his life. And, oh man, you know why I'm not as interested in her as I should be? That I just shatteringly realized? Because she's a woman. 
As the avatar-picture hints, I'm a woman myself, and I don't think I find women intrinsically less interesting than men, or less worthy of being written about, or anything like that. But, oh brother (goodness, how male my interjections are), if I'm trying to create a complex, messed-up, hopefully interesting character, I do seem to find it a lot easier and more interesting to do if the character is a man. 

I wonder why. Maybe it's that I'm about eighty percent straight and I like having a kind of romance with the character as I write of them. (Joan D. Vinge says in an essay somewhere that in her Snow Queen series, she ended up falling in love with BZ Gundhalinu and letting him take over a lot more of the series than she originally intended, and I can see that, especially as I was always a bit in love with Gundhalinu too.) More than that, though, I think it's very much that I'm not a man and so it's fun for me to be one on the page for a while. Many of the authors I've studied in grad school, Japanese women roughly contemporary with Virginia Woolf, made a practice of writing autobiographical novels. As one of them, Hirabayashi Taiko, commented on the others (and herself): "Some people say that the fact that so many of their novels were autobiographical proves that they didn’t have enough imagination. But these women’s imaginative power was already being given full play in their lives. ... They wrote their novels after living out their plots for real.” I think it was important for them, at that time and in that place, to do just that, but--as Gershwin says--not for me. My life is not as interesting as theirs, but in my case, either way I'd find autobiographical fiction kind of a wasted opportunity. I have to be me all the time anyway. If I'm writing a novel, I have the chance to be someone else, all kinds of someone elses I'll never get to be in real life. Why not take advantage of that?

One of my favorite mystery writers of all time is the great Peter Dickinson. I want to write a full post about him sometime soon, but I was rereading Hindsight lately, and thinking that if I had never read another Dickinson novel this one would give me serious qualms about his thoughts on women. Then it occurred to me that it's one of a very few among my favorite Dickinson books to have a male protagonist. Almost all his books I like, as it happens, are narrated or centered on women and girls. Poppy Tasker, Lydia Timms, Princess Louise, Letta Ozolins, Margaret Millett, Lucy Vereker, Rachel Matson and Jenny Pilcher, Doll Jacobs... there are exceptions, but I wonder if Dickinson doesn't find it interesting, in the same way I've described above, to experiment with writing from within a woman's personality.
I should be so lucky, of course, as to write books one tenth as good as his, but one has to start somewhere.

Anyway, after all this waffling, my problem is that it's just occurred to me: well, if I like writing about men better and I'm better at it, should I just take the plunge and make this damn uncooperative character a man? I've already had my nose rubbed in the fact that the protagonist isn't going to sleep with her like I originally meant him to, and it wouldn't affect any of the other plot elements significantly. Well. Maybe one. The one major female character I really like writing about is the protagonist's long-term girlfriend, who in earlier volumes has been a semi-protagonist herself--maybe because she's a bit of wish-fulfillment for me, maybe because I see her through his eyes to some extent--and it would affect her take on the whole situation if Troublesome Character were to become a man.
Argh, argh, argh. Why do I get myself into these things? 
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 [Writing this entry to escape from the volume-four-that-won’t-let-itself-be-written, damn it.] I have excellent memories of the time I discovered Lois McMaster Bujold and the Vorkosigan novels. I was in college—I think it was the summer between junior and senior years, and I was cat-sitting for a professor and his wife, staying in an apartment nearby and dropping by their house every day to feed the large tabby female, who was interested in me only as source-of-food, and the little black-and-white male, who was much friendlier. Their house was nice and cool, and the professor’s wife had a large SFF collection which she’d told me I might make free of. So I spent a lot of afternoons that summer sprawled on the couch with a novel, a bag of candy, and a cat walking back and forth over my knees, and that’s when I encountered Miles Naismith Vorkosigan.

Bujold seems to me unusual in that she does the hard things really well and is less successful at the easy ones—by which I mean that the books which are basically Miles-has-an-adventure-somewhere are fun, good comic/dramatic space opera and well written, but no more than that. I’m thinking of, for instance, Cetaganda, The Vor Game (except maybe the Gregor parts, which I should go back and read again), Diplomatic Immunity, and Cryoburn (except for the epilogue). On the other hand, the books where the protagonist—Miles, Mark, Ekaterin, Cordelia—tackles immensely difficult, life-changing events are brilliantly successful, with tremendous emotional power coming through without sentimentality or melodrama. I’m thinking more than anything of Mirror Dance and Memory, both unequivocally superb, but I would add to this category both Cordelia books, Komarr*, and even A Civil Campaign. I might even include, as a very long prelude to Mirror Dance, Brothers in Arms.
About this volume in particular, I would note its consistent balance on the edge between drama and farce. None of the Miles books are short on humor, sometimes slapstick and more often a brisk wryness which comes out even at the darkest moments. (See, for instance, Ivan Vorpatril’s solution to Miles’ near-suicidal depression early on in Memory.) I challenge the reader, though, to find even one full scene in Brothers in Arms which is not both manic-funny and plot-advancing serious. Even Miles and Galeni’s captivity involves Miles semi-involuntarily maddening his captors through his excellent memory for works of literature, and the protracted chase through the pumping chambers is a sort of bedroom farce with stunner fire standing in for sex.

Bujold has made it known that she’s working on a new Vorkosigan book which will feature Ivan prominently, something I look forward to a great deal—and hope, according to the notes above, that it will involve enough tumult for Ivan to make it stand with the best books in the series. I wouldn’t complain, either, if it featured his, um, not-quite-stepfather prominently too: I am particularly fond of Illyan. If there are to be other books featuring secondary (?) characters, I’d love to see a focus on Gregor and Laisa—we get these tantalizing glimpses of Gregor’s “off-duty” personality during his courtship, but never get to see much more of him, and there has to be a lot more to say about Laisa. And surely we haven’t seen the last of Mark and Kareen?
I prefer my books character-driven, and these are—that is to say, the characters drive magnificently complex, sometimes ridiculous, occasionally tragic, usually quite inevitable plots. Miles has enough personality to carry several books entirely on his own, which fortunately he is not called on to do—not with his splendid supporting cast. Oddly enough, until the advent of Ekaterin I tend to find his girlfriends among the least interesting characters of the series (jealousy, perhaps?), but Ekaterin’s deep-buried toughness, her focus on getting done what must be done and her unshaken humanity and humor all make her Miles’ match. Mark combines serious interior confusion, in every possible sense, with “Jacksonian” venality and an almost painful, childlike sweetness. Ivan, snide, lazy, and foppish, is in fact sincerely devoted to Miles, and the expression of that friendship and loyalty can be among the most moving moments in the books. Kareen’s sunny personality and unorthodox problem-solving skills are nicely set off by her sister Martya’s lightly venomous tongue. Duv Galeni is a masterpiece, uncategorizable.
It’s a nice, understated touch to make Aral Vorkosigan—the series’ explicitly stated exemplar of masculinity—also, as his wife puts it, “bisexual, but more generally attracted to men, or rather to soldiers.” Her husband’s various motivations, which Cordelia understands and takes for granted, are not always clear to Aral himself; and this goes along with the secret kept even from Miles about the death of Prince Serg to show us how much of Barrayar’s modern history, general and personal, is—as Cordelia says of the Vor caste—built on, or of, illusion, or perhaps subject to interpretations far beyond the obvious.
Cordelia herself is the touchstone of the books, a source of sanity and integrity for everyone who encounters her—“pouring out honor like a fountain,” as Aral puts it—without being placed on any unnecessary pedestals. She is undoubtedly the foundation of Aral’s successful later career, and the means of Sergeant Bothari’s preserving his own peculiar version of emotional stability; she engineers Drou and Koudelka’s marriage (the scene where she plays Baba is both moving and laugh-out-loud funny, not to mention its sequel thirty-some years later featuring Mark and Kareen); she does her best to raise Miles as Betan as he is Barrayaran, and in the long run succeeds; she gives Gregor a perspective certainly unique to any Barrayaran emperor in history. Quite early on in the books, she offers a summing-up of much of the series, in a line that for me ranks with Eleanor Roosevelt’s “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” “I’ve always thought—tests are a gift,” Cordelia says. “And great tests are a great gift. To fail the test is a misfortune. But to refuse the test is to refuse the gift, and something worse, more irrevocable, than misfortune. Do you understand what I’m saying?”



* Komarr’s name is funny if you speak Japanese. It sounds an awful lot like the verb komaru, which means to be in trouble, to have a problem, to find something unacceptable, or as an older student once translated for me, to be screwed. This adds an interesting nuance to Barrayar’s relations with Komarr throughout the series.

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 [You know it’s bad when I’m writing away at notes for the volume-four-that-is-never-going-to-let-me-finish-it, and in between fragments on character development and thematic connection I keep finding the words Oh fuck me, it’s hot!. I do have the air conditioner on, in despite of all pleas to conserve electricity, and it’s not THAT bad YET—better than New York is right now, and a lot better than it’s going to be in August—but, oh man.]
I’m reading a beautiful YA novel-in-poetry called Orchards, by Holly Thompson, about Kana, a half-Japanese girl from upstate New York who goes to spend the summer on her mother’s family’s farm in rural Japan after a classmate commits suicide. (Was that enough summary?) I cried the first time through, and even after a couple of months and a couple of rereads it still makes me tear up a little. The writing is lovely, poetry elegantly constructed from everyday details, and the strength of the characters’ presence—and that of the setting—balances perfectly with the gentleness of the story arc.
Why did I cry over it? Partly the story itself, Kana’s grief and guilt and the ways she learns to cope with it, worth shedding tears for. Also, though, I think I had some envy for Kana too—with her strict and nurturing Japanese side of the family, and their tangerine orchards, solid and traditional but making it in the modern day. I’ve lived here now for going on ten years, and make no mistake, there is a freedom in being a white-skinned foreigner here that I would never have if I were physically, ethnically Japanese, no matter where I’d grown up. I know I’m doing some grass-is-greener. But…

There’s an expression in Japanese, kuni ni kaeru, which just means “go back to [one’s home] country.” I often hear it, mostly from people asking me am I going back to America for summer or winter vacation. A couple of generations ago, though, the same expression was frequently used to mean “go back from Tokyo to the rural area where one was born,” roughly, with other big cities sometimes subbing for Tokyo. It goes without saying that this isn’t a universal pattern, but even these days, at New Year’s and at the summer O-Bon holiday, the news invariably shows crowded bullet trains outbound from the city, with a quick platform interview with the nearest cute kid: “What are you going to do over the holiday, hon?” “I’m gonna play at Gramma and Grandpa’s place!”

I have a close friend, about fifteen years older than I am, who grew up in Toyama on the Japan Sea. Toyama Prefecture doesn’t get a lot of English-language press (although Toyama women are historically tough and awesome: look up the Rice Riots); it’s mostly a slice of land with the seacoast on one side and high, impressive mountains on the other. Growing up in this relatively isolated context, my friend developed strong the-bear-who-went-over-the-mountain tendencies. He became a policeman first, and that community-oriented profession turned out to be his way out—he eventually came to work security for the UN and the Foreign Ministry. They love him there, because he’s good at his job, and because he requests the tough places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve visited his Toyama home, and been invited back by his kind parents—we exchange New Year’s cards. He’s recently hit fifty, but I can’t imagine that even in his declining years he’ll choose to settle back on the far side of the mountains.
Another friend of mine, a fellow student from grad school, is the only son of a farming family in Nara. A committed and original scholar and researcher, he surely has a promising career as a professor ahead of him. He’s also one of the best amateur photographers I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering, and many of his photographs are of the family farm—greenhouses and new-picked vegetables and tractors and rice-paddy snails, his grandparents and parents, sometimes his older sister and her husband and his four-year-old nephew. He chose to leave the farm and go to college and then grad school, get a doctorate yet, and I don’t know if he’ll ever go back to stay—hard choices waiting, I guess, as his parents grow older—but the photographs are developed in the light of his love for it, and he wouldn’t be him without this place he comes from.

Family and stability, safety, history that belongs to you (geography, too), your own personal origin story, the place where when you have to go there they have to take you in, roots. These things come as a matched set with tradition, conformity, demands, responsibilities, narrow closed viewpoints, lack of opportunities, sacrifice. I’ll admit it, I would give anything to have a place here in Japan where I had family and roots and history; but if I had it, the demands and the narrowness and the sacrifices would be all mine too. Kana’s story, the one I’ve been reading, doesn’t leave that out either. Anyway, we don’t get to choose. As it works out, I find myself frei aber einsam, as a flutist I know is fond of quoting. In my life there may still be a time when things turn around the other way. We’ll see what happens.
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