Lore Segal, Master of the Short Story

Every now and then a story just hits you.  I’m sure you know what I mean – it hits a chord and stays in your mind.  In this case it is a short story called “The Reverse Bug” by a writer Lore Segal.  I actually listened to it on the New Yorker fiction podcast read by the author Jennifer Egan.  It was another one of those cases where I was in the gym and just stopped in my tracks as I listened and was simply awed by the events and complexities the author tied up and then unraveled.

As I writer, I tend to deconstruct stories as I listen to them or read them.  I am constantly thinking of how the writer evokes traits in the characters or about the subtleties of interactions between characters, or even of the structure of the story itself.  Sometimes something as small as an answering machine message explains a twist of a plot; or the fact that characters interrupt each other plays a major role in the unfolding of the drama.  Just these little bits of detail can have a major impact on the way a reader perceives the actions and the characters.

Segal, who is Austrian, escaped the Nazi onslaught as a child by getting on a kindertransport – a train of Jewish children sent to England.  This story is told from the point of view of a teacher who teaches English to immigrants at an institute of New York. Most of the characters are students in her class. One of the minor characters is autobiographical, but the rest are made up of sheer genius. The main action of the story actually happens outside of the classroom of immigrants, but takes place in a brand new auditorium inside the institute.  Segal is masterful at creating the plot devices that move the story forward.  Small details of the scene inside her classroom, which seem mundane at first blush, are actually foreshadowing the main action of the story.  The personality quirks that appear in the classroom, become magnified against the backdrop of the main action of the story.  The way Segal puts these devices together is nothing short of masterful.

This story, which asks important questions about the nature of torture, and the idea of pain – for both the villain and the underdog – uses the characters and their situations to force the readers to consider larger ideas such as genocide within the context of history, without giving the reader a moral hierarchy from which to base their thoughts.  The reader is forced to think for himself.

Every time I hear a story like this, I learn.  I learn about plot and characterization.  I learn about juxtaposition of events in a story.  I learn about using chronology to my advantage in writing the story.  What a gift!

Reading in Translation

Yesterday a few girlfriends and I went to see the movie “Eat Pray Love,” starring Julia Roberts and based on the book by Elizabeth Gilbert.  I wanted to see the movie, having read the book, and it was motivated to arrange a girls’ day out.

But the real impetus behind my interest was a conversation I had with a good friend a few weeks ago.  My friend is Korean, born in Seoul, but moved to Japan with her family in her mid-teens.  She went to International School in Tokyo, but then went to Boston University in Boston Massachusetts for her university education.  She speaks Korean, Japanese and English with equal fluidity, which never fails to amaze me.  On that particular afternoon when we were having coffee together, she was just finishing reading the book Eat Pray Love with the idea that she would then go see the movie.

“So in what language do you read?” I asked curiously.

My friend went on to explain that she was reading the book in its original English.  When I inquired as to why, she told me it was cultural.  She of course, went on to explain.  She began with Richard from Texas in the book.  There’s a certain cultural connotation of a guy from Texas that somehow doesn’t quite mesh with the idea of an Ashram in India where Gilbert meets him.  There’s a richness to their relationship that forms partially due to their backgrounds as Americans in a strange place.  But Americans understand that part of their dichotomy is because she’s a New Yorker and he’s a Texan.  There are certain societal norms inherent in the stereotype of the locations that my friend did not feel could be conveyed in another language.  “Sure there could be a word-for-word translation,” she said, “but how could someone explain the idea of Texas just with the word Texas?”  She felt the English would be true to the sense of the book, not just the words contained therein.

Yesterday, after the movie, the seven of us went to the Atelier Joel Robuchon for a beautiful French lunch.  “Now all we need to do is pray,” another friend said over appetizers, and we had a good laugh.

The conversation continued about the translation.  My friend explained that she reads the Japanese subtitles even while watching the movie in English.  The words just aren’t the same, according to her.  In many of the places when we all laughed, the joke was not carried over into Japanese.  She says that the Japanese are generally pretty placid movie-goers, but beyond their native reserve, the language barrier further separates them from the humor of the film, and sometimes even the sad parts.  I cried quite a bit during the movie, and my friend was sure that the Japanese audience members did not.

What’s the lesson in all this?  Well, frankly, one should read in the original language of publication, if at all possible, but not only for the words, but also for the richness of the cultural connotation.  It’s the author intent that has so much to do with making meaning.

But to be honest, another lesson is that a book, a movie and a lunch – including interesting discussion – between friends, is a great gift to any woman, and I for one, appreciate my girlfriends.

Reading on a Kindle


image courtesy of ebookreader123.com


Amazon.com’s Kindle has revolutionized the way people read.  Oh sure, there’s the Sony e-reader, or the Barnes and Noble Nook, and even the iPad’s app for that,  but none have come close to the sales and marketing power behind Amazon and the Kindle.

But I’m not here to do a marketing spiel – I actually, as you know, care about the act of reading.

Kindles and e-readers in general have a lot of possibilities.  There are search functions; one can attach a dictionary to look up words as he reads; the text goes bigger and smaller; the physical reader is lightweight and easy to carry, and books can be downloaded in a nanosecond!

But, I’m not concerned with the physical aspects of reading either; I want to talk about the ways in which humans make meaning out of what they read.

There’s surprisingly little research on it, from what I’ve found.  I’ve read a number of things on my kindle.  I’ve read a great book on motherhood, called Bad Mommy by Ayelet Wadlman and laughed out loud on the airplane.  I read the New Yorker Magazine on it since the Kindle subscription, at $4 per month, is significantly less than the physical subscription – and wastes less paper to boot.  I read the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Tinkers on it and I read the classic D.H. Lawrence book Sons and Lovers. (Many classics have completed their copyrights and are free on Kindle now…)   But I can’t get past one fundamental, problem.  The screen somehow impedes my ability to make the movie in my mind.

I am assuming here that the screen is the problem.  It could be the device itself and having to press “next” to turn the page instead of just turning it.  It could be the fact that I can’t go back to  re-read something as easily or that I don’t have a proper book cover, or I have no pages numbers – just a silly percentage representing how much of the book I’ve finished so far.

I feel like my brain has trouble converting the words onto the screen into feelings in my heart.  Writing is less evocative for me.  Words don’t have their full impact.

One successful novelist I know buys a physical book if she loves a story on her Kindle.  She then dives into the book to further her pleasure of the ideas contained therein.  I might have to agree.

I’m just spouting ideas out here, and would love the opinions of others.  I also need to do some hard research before I make my final word.  For now, the convenience of a Kindle – not having to buy and carry actual books – outweighs the drawbacks.  I may have to work harder to “see” the characters and feel what they feel, but I can do that in the name of ease.

Please let me know what you think.

Bailey Reading

As a writer and writing professor and VORACIOUS reader, it’s very difficult for me not to influence my children’s choices on books.  So when Bailey, age 11 – grade 6,  came home two weeks ago and said he needed to read “something historical” for a book report this month, my brain whirred at a thousand miles an hour.  I first suggested The Diary of Anne Frank, partially because I knew my friend Bonnie’s daughter Julia is reading it in grade 6 in Maryland.  But he nixed it, saying that someone else in class is reading it.  Then I handed him a copy of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Zusak’s book is technically in the Young Adult category of literature, but it’s something I read in my book club with a bunch of decidedly grown-up women.  It’s a story about a young girl in 1930’s/1940’s Germany who loses her mother and brother and goes to live with a foster family.  The family hides a Jew in the time Liesl, the main character is there.  Also in that time, Liesl learns to read, and falls in love with books, which she steals as often as she can from various sources.  The book is in the third person, but expertly narrated by a personification of Death, who at every turn, laments how busy he is these days.

Bailey wanted to read the book.  I’m not sure if at first he just wanted to please me, or impress his teacher with his choice, but after the first few days, he was reading it and understanding it, and getting into the language and rhythms of the story.  At first I was upset at myself because I unduly influenced him.  But then I realized that he loves the challenge of it – and both the teacher and I offered him an “out” if he didn’t want to continue with it after hte first few days of trying. Brilliantly, since the book is so good, he took it out of his school’s library to keep in his locker to read when he has time at school, and has another copy at home that he reads nightly.

So recently, since he has started this adventure, I put Sydney (age 8, grade 3) to bed, and then Bailey and I enjoy 45+ minutes together companionably reading.

What am I reading?  I read Susan Isaacs As Husbands Go and also A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick.  Both are excellent books, the former being a mystery, and the latter being a real character study about people and their motivations.  I’ve just started The Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

But what I’m reading doesn’t matter at all.  What I love is that we are both curled up at opposite ends of my big, brown, leather, library couch, sometimes under a blanket and sometime not.  Sometimes Bailey asks a question or sometimes he makes a comment about something he’s read.  But more often than not, it’s just companionable silence.

My son is growing up and I’m so proud of him – how hard he works and the choices he makes.  And selfishly, I’m really enjoying this little, precious time we have together.  It’s really my kind of time – reading.  I have a feeling that we’ll now be doing it long after this book report is handed in in two weeks.

The Key, But Not The Answer

Last week, Trisha Wooldridge and I spent quite a while discussing freedom, safety, education and other assorted issues on our blogs.  Yesterday, she wrote a particularly thought-provoking short essay on questioning as a response to those conversations.  She said that of the ideas that we discussed, that was the one that stood out to her the most.  For me, the idea to which I kept returning was that of personal choice.

Adults – especially American adults – have the freedom of choice for everything in their lives.  They can go to college or not; they can have children or not; they can get a job or not.  So many people feel stuck in their lives.  If only I could save more money, they say.  If only I could go back to school.  If only, if only. I am just cynical enough to believe that people can choose to better their lives.

But that is a double-edged sword, most people would tell me.  The single mother on welfare doesn’t think that she has any choices.  But that’s not what I believe. She could work full time and take online courses toward a degree which would net her a better job. I balance my cynicism with a basic belief in the human spirit.  With hard work, all things are possible.  “Can I be president someday?” my young son asks me.  I assure him that if he works hard enough, it is indeed possible that he could be president.  Stay in school; don’t get pregnant; don’t do drugs.  These are the things I tell my kids.  They have to make smart choices – it is my job as their mother to help them make smart choices.

The problems lie within the education system.  We take education for granted in the U.S. and even here in Japan where the literacy rate is well over 90%.  Not all people have the access to schools the way we do.  There are millions of children across the globe who do not have the opportunity to attend school, whether it’s because they have to work to help the family or it’s to dangerous or even too far to get to a school.  We need to appreciate the gift of education – what education gives us in the long run.  Throwing money at the problem is not going to help.  What is going to help is people choosing to value that education.  Parents have to choose to support the schools not financially, but with volunteer hours and belief in the system.  Tell the kids to behave in school. Model good behavior.  These are choices that parents and children have to make in order to succeed.

As I pointed out in the conversation last week, there are no easy answers to any of these questions.  But it is important to ask the questions, search for the answers and ultimately to make good choices.  Sometimes the right choice isn’t the popular choice, but doing what is right should trump doing what is easy.  And that, my friends, takes hard work.  But that’s a conversation for another day.

Reading to Write

By all accounts I read a lot.  I often read a book a week, in fact.  I read all types of fiction, some popular and some classics.  I enjoy the occasional “beach read” as my mother calls pulp fiction and I also love more complex works that challenge my brain to consider new ideas.  I read biography and non-fiction and I am always up for a good recommendation.  Book clubs are my passion and I belong to two of them.  The advantage of book clubs, I’ve found, is that they make me read books that I would not have otherwise considered.

A few months ago, a friend asked me if I write every day.  I sadly admitted that I don’t write every single day; sometimes the demands of my children and my charity work prevent me from writing anything more than a few scribbles in my journal.  My journal, I told him defensively, is always by my side and ready for a note.  But I am not one of those writers who forces herself to write five pages a day no matter what.

Beyond a noncommittal “hmm” my friend had no comment.  After the conversation though, I couldn’t get the idea of daily writing out of my head.

Then I realized that what I do every single day is read.  I read before bed; I read during lunch; I read during my kids’ activities as I shuttle them around; and I read voraciously when I travel, which I do often.  For a writer, this is just as important.

From the ever-popular _Girl with the Dragon Tattoo_ I learned a little more about description.  From the recent podcast of the work of the Edwidge Danticat I learned about the use of metaphor.  I read _Bad Mother_ by Ayelet Waldman on my recent plane ride, and besides being positive that she and I could be best friends in real life, I learned a great deal about memoir as a genre from her. I read the new novel _South of Broad_ by Pat Conroy and learned how location can play a huge part in how a story unfolds – and in fact, how the city in which a story takes place can even function as a character in the plot.  I have a lovely writer friend, Trish Wooldridge, who has taught me through her novels-in-progress about the genre of fantasy, which I would never have considered reading before reading her amazing works, but now add to my to-read list.

I keep a list of books that I want to read next to my computer, to which I am forever adding.

Authors need other authors to teach them the craft.  It’s something we writers are never done doing: learning.

So now when asked if I write every day, I can reply in the negative honestly, but add confidently that every day I am learning to be a better writer.