Friday, September 2, 2011

Novella: 'The Bayberry Years' (same universe as the short stories I just posted)

The Bayberry Years
By Nathan Turowsky


It was a cold morning at the beginning of December, before the snows but undoubtedly after the fall was through, and the narrow streets of the city were full of fog. Through the streets from the dreary banlieues of South Boston all the way up to the ancient brick mansions of Beacon Hill came a young man with a bag of groceries on his shoulder and a packet full of several pill-bottles in the pocket of his coat. He walked along the cobbles, not navigable by automobile traffic, and through the fog under the out-of-date streetlights til before him was the apparition of a thick dark wooden door.
            The house that he now looked upon was not one of the oldest ones in the neighbourhood but it was old enough to impress one who had grown up in a borderline tenement, last of the seven children of a very traditional Irish Catholic family. It was built of brick brilliantly red even in this sort of weather, with shaped and somehow reinforced stucco cornices and one granite gargoyle. The roof of the house was steeply pitched on many levels, so that looking at it from below was almost like looking at the jagged Western mountains that the young man had seen in his geography textbooks in high school. The roof—or roofs, rather; the roofs were slatted in black-tarred wood, which the mistresses of the house every spring had to hire a new contractor to repair.
            There was not much in the way of a front garden—most of that sort of thing was in the back. There was just a short walk between two lines of burgeoning boxwood shrubs up to the front stoop and the door. Other than the shrubs the only thing there to break the solid line from pavement to stoop was a mailbox, green plastic with the Boston Globe logo stamped on it in white, with its red flag now up as they apparently were awake and had put the mail out already.
            ‘Already…’ The young man laughed. They were ridiculously early risers for their age. It was rather endearing in some way.
            The mailbox had two names on it, other than that of the newspaper, affixed to it in durable black vinyl tape with white lettering upon it: I. Crowninshield and F. Greenleaf. Crowninshield and Greenleaf were names with true old-Boston pedigrees. John Caspar Crowninshield had come to Massachusetts in 1688 from Germany and founded a long and storied seafaring family; the Greenleafs were not so old or well-established as the Crowninshields but they were quite rich and had been for some time. There were not many living people with those names alive these days, though; the old hold of the Brahmins of the city had been weakened in the time of Honey Fitz and finally destroyed by the 1960s or thereabouts. The families still existed in name, most of them; but even some of those names were dying out.
            The young man did not think of this as he opened the door and went into the wood-walled front hall with its hanging sea-paintings and impossible and imperishable smell of cod. He, David Lenihan, was paid thirty-one thousand five hundred dollars a year plus some personal medical coverage out of some weird and wicked rich-people plan to make sure that the two old ladies who lived here were doing all right in their daily lives. It was a job that he liked a lot, mostly. The old ladies were gay but David had no real problem with this. It was actually kind of sweet, since early on they probably hadn’t had an easy time and they’d stayed together anyway. Isabel Crowninshield had been a high-ranking customs inspector at the Port of Boston until retiring about eight or nine years ago. Flora Greenleaf had been involved in patronage of the arts and had been involved in printing and publishing for a while, but apparently this career had eventually gone belly-up somehow.
            ‘David?’ came a soft, high, quavering, croaking voice from up the big dark-wooden staircase with the motorised chair on a rail affixed to the banister. ‘Is that you, David?’
            ‘Yes, Miz C,’ David called back. ‘Putting some vegetables an’ stuff away. Gonna refill your med trays too.’
            ‘Ah,’ the voice came again. ‘Good, good. After that, David, please come up here. Flora and I want to discuss a few things with you.’

All three Mattie and Ellie short stories so far

Red Leaf Travelling Blues
By Nathan Turowsky

Allowed by the conductor to get on the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus despite not having enough money and being at the very edge of the PVTA service area at best, they settled down into two isolated seats at the very back, their heads resting against the cold metal behind them as they listened to the power train’s almost maternal hum. They went through the fields south of Bernardston and down the old streets of Greenfield. Past there, they crossed the big river at Turners Falls, where it fell over the power-dam in triple cataracts. South of Sunderland they got off and looked down past Amherst to the distant humps of the Holyoke Range. The hills north of the Quabbin were blazing with foliage to the east beneath the morning sun.
            ‘So what’s new with you?’ asked one of them casually, clapping her hand down on her friend’s shoulder.
            Her friend cleared her throat and said ‘Not much. Not much.’
            ‘Oh, come on. I haven’t seen you in quite a while, you know, Mattie.’

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Short story: 'Heaven is Just One Step Away'

Heaven is Just One Step Away
By Nathan Turowsky

The wind blew in over the estuary and buffeted the grey paps of water around the lower rocks of the sea-wall, and at the brink of the drop into the brine she stood with the sounds of the weekend’s last shanties swelling in her ears. The wind blew her hair around her face like a shifting shoggoth of a curtain, lapping at her glasses with the soft black insistency of crows’ feathers. One hand was holding the two breast flaps of her coat together; the button had come off several days ago, when she was fumbling with her clothes after voiding some bad Chinese food in a PetroCanada bathroom in Sherbrooke. The other hand, whose fingers were splayed down against the palm like a folded wing, gripped a brochure that sagged with the weight of the fog condensing along the top edge. It was a simple length of white paper that had been printed and then folded up like an accordion. On the front it bore the legend ‘Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, La Fête des chants de marins’ over a picture of a sailboat.
            This woman with her corvine cast, a raven of the mountain fields standing amidst the gulls of the sea’s gullet, stood with her back to another woman, shorter, with some feline energy about her, who was running along the jetty to the sea-wall in hob-nailed shoes that she had used these past few years for hiking and moving about in treacherous circumstances. Such as, for example, sprinting full tilt down a stone spit soaked with the mingled leavings of sea and sky, the grey St Lawrence lapping only a few feet away to both sides. ‘Mattie!’ she cried as she ran. ‘Mattie, don’t turn your back to me!’
            Mattie was not actually turning her back to the other woman—Ellie, her dearest friend, the mate of her heart, though she would not tell Ellie so in as many words for fear of Ellie’s response. She had this fear for the same reason that she was facing away from Ellie now. It was an inarticulate, almost babyish horror that seized upon her at times like this, a horror at the idea of having to face anything that might reward her gaze by casting her away. She shivered as Ellie’s footsteps behind her slowed and then stopped, the last few wet slaps of boot against water and stone very close by to her left. She shivered and she would have liked to think it was the weather but she wasn’t going to fool herself with false roaring-boys’ bravado.
            ‘Mattie,’ said Ellie again, her thin, artificially tense voice cutting to the quick through the music of the water and the hearty tones of the singer in the white tent on the shore behind them.
            ‘I’ve decided,’ said Mattie, ‘that I really love this place, you know.’ Her voice cracked a little; again, she was not going to tell herself that it was the wind. ‘I think we could be happy here for much more than a few days if it came to that.’
            Ellie frowned, which made little difference to the actual cast of her face out here in the sea wind, and said ‘I really don’t think you realise the full import of what you actually did, Mattie.’

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Short Story: 'White Knife'

White Knife

When the merchant Master Rai came to the physician Master Ema’s house at the upper end of the village where the stream bubbled out of the mountains in a pale torrent, the snow was melting from the high slopes and the buds on the trees were just beginning to unfurl into tender pale young leaves. The physician’s house was set just aside from the stream, low and thatched, separated by a wide garden already bursting with early flowers and spices from the narrow but hard-packed road that went up from the village into the mountains’ hulking palisades. Master Rai came to the garden gate and swung it open with a boorish bang and went up to the front door, which went into the house by way of the apothecary, a perpetually dim room now lit through the slots under the eaves and at nighttime by water-lanterns and candles.
            The north wall of the apothecary was covered for the first six feet up, ending just about a handsbreadth beneath the slot at the bottom of the sloping ceiling, with row upon row on shelf upon shelf of small jars, some of native clay, some of Chinese porcelain or Dutch glass, bearing little paper labels on which Master Ema or his daughter had written the names of almost every manner of drug and medicinal herb in their small, spidery, nearly identical hands. On the south wall were anatomical charts from China and long lists and tables describing the properties of the ingredients on the north wall. In the middle of the room was a large low table; Master Ema was crouched over this table now, his thin back quivering in time with the work that his hands were doing. In his left hand was a lump of what looked like ginger, probably stored without air or moisture in one of the Dutch jars for the gods only knew how long; in his right hand was a short sharp knife that gleamed in the light from below the eaves. Every few seconds the right hand would come down on the left, cutting off another tiny chunk of ginger, which Master Ema would then almost mechanically pick up and cast into a small bowl.
            Master Ema was tall, over five and a half feet, and thin as a boating pole. His face was somewhat pinched, his nose long between the Chinese lenses in his oddly light eyes. Probably some of the blood of the furthest North ran through his veins. It took him well over a minute to notice Master Rai and several seconds beyond to follow through on his surprised grunt and look up from his cutting. By that point all but a little dirt-crusted butt of the ginger had been chopped up and put into the bowl.
            ‘Rai-san,’ Master Ema said. ‘I didn’t see you come in.’ He smiled. His smile was very thin and ironic and did not show even a hint of teeth. It was the smile of a man whose smile had to reassure without  being crass or accept without being unnerving. ‘What brings you here?’

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book: Shizuko's Daughter by Kyoko Mori

This is going to be a somewhat terse review, since I've had a long month, a long week, a long day, and am tired and using my godfather's computer because mine is in for repairs to the motherboard.

Back in the 1980s, Kyoko Mori, a Japanese immigrant working through college and grad school in the United States wrote various short stories, in English but with a very distinctly Japanese sensibility, about a girl called Okuda Yuki whose mother Shizuko commits suicide when she is twelve years old. There were different points of view in the different stories, with mostly 'Yuki chapters' but also some 'Hanae chapters' (Yuki's stepmother) and 'Masa chapters' (Yuki's grandmother). As time wore on the stories took on the character of an overall arc, which in the early nineties Mori welded into a novel that she titled Shizuko's Daughter, which follows Yuki's path through hatred and resentment of her father and stepmother to acceptance of her position in a family.

There's a lot to love about how Shizuko's Daughter pans out, such as the way it manages to be fiercely tradition-positive without being at all reactionary, the amazing relationships between the female characters, the snapshot of life in suburban seventies Japan (hint: It rhymes with Bevolutionary Boad), and the absolutely lovely writing (a sample passage, from a chapter in which Yuki, a runner in middle school at this point, develops her first crush on a fellow runner named Sachiko: 'The hurdler had long hair--Yuki imagined it would come down to her waist when she had it loose--which she wore in a thick ponytail, baring her long white neck. Her skin was fair even after a season of track practice in the sun. As she passed Yuki, she smiled, her lips curving upward just a little, not showing her teeth at all. Yuki smiled back and then looked down at her own knees....Her face felt hot.' From a chapter in which Yuki destroys a science lab project at her school to make an art project out of it: 'Moving silently, Yuki got the lid from the desk, washed and dried it, and put it back on the jar. The maple leaves and the pine needles had filled the jar almost to the top. She placed the jar carefully in the center of the desk among the scalpels and the microscopes. Then she took the empty colander and walked to the window, crawled through, and sat for a moment balanced on the edge, swinging her legs. She looked right and left. Nobody was in sight. First, she tossed the colander, which landed on the edge of the concrete path. The next moment, she pushed off with her arms and jumped out. She landed neatly on her two feet beyond the bushes and picked up the colander. Then, grasping it like a baton, she sprinted toward the woods for more maple leaves like clustered flames, pine needles that smelled of mountain air. Her ten minutes were long since used up. Miss Sakaki would fail her for today's assignment. Still, she would return in time to fill the tables with color. She began to smile as she ran.'). The book made me cry at many, many, many points, most of them in a good way, although the first four or so chapters of the book are truly dismal, as are both of the Hanae chapters.

Speaking of Hanae, she's another great thing about the book. She is so despicable. Initially she comes across as a stereotypical evil stepmother without much to her, but later we get to see what goes on inside her head. It is not pretty, but she becomes less of a caricature while remaining just as repulsive. It actually works really well.

The one issue that I have with the novel is the way a particular character near the end is presented. I don't have any problems with the character themself--in fact I actually like them a lot--but they come across to me as something like a Western lead character who stumbled into a supporting role in a Japanese story by mistake. If you read the book, and know me, you should end up with a pretty clear idea of who I mean and why I find what's done with them slightly (but not extremely) problematic, particularly given the focus on Yuki and Sachiko earlier in the book. It's a problem that could easily be resolved by either removing a single sentence, or tacking the character in question more firmly into Yuki's family somehow (this would work because of the tradition-positive and in particular family-based theme of the book), but as it is, what happens with this character leads to a somewhat uncomfortable lack of ambiguity in the end of the novel, and it just feels a little strange to me.

The best-written and most lovable character is probably Masa, Yuki's grandmother and Shizuko's mother. She doesn't appear much interacting with her daughter, since most of the flashbacks of Shizuko are Yuki's rather than hers, but it's obvious how very much she loved her. Shizuko has some flaws, most notably the fact that she killed herself despite having a preteen daughter who was very close to her (which is a pretty serious flaw, to be honest), but by and large she's presented as a very good, very loving person who had the misfortune to exist in (as they say) a world she never made, kind of like something between Anna Karenina throwing herself under the train and that guy jumping off the cliff early on in Madlax. Masa having raised Shizuko, and having a strong, fifty-year-long at the least relationship with her husband Takeo, and dealing with Yuki throughout an extremely unpleasantly (though understandably) self-pitying period in her early teenage years, and growing flowers and painting and doing crafts, comes across as pretty close to an ideal paragon of the values that the book espouses, but like Hanae in the other direction her point-of-view chapters make her a lot more interesting than a simple perfect exemplar would be.

Shizuko's Daughter is overall an incredibly good novel, the only problem that I had with it coming in one minor aspect of the role of one supporting character who shows up towards the end. This is considerably less problematic than I find the vast majority of things that I read. It's gorgeously written, with vibrant, engaging characters and images, and has an absolutely beautiful and very hopeful message in the end. And now what I really want is to find and read Mori's other work.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Occasional Thoughts on Japanese Women's Writing [That I Got All A's For]

Tadano Makuzu’s political opinions are in many respects very conservative by the definitions and standards of late Tokugawa Japan. Her religious and nationalistic views, which are refreshingly forthright for a woman of her time in their expression, are very tied up in kokugaku ideas. Her criticisms of the ruling class are not aspersions cast on its existence or its basic character but rather expressions of the idea that it does not use—and does not safeguard—its power in the right ways.
Makuzu opposes the perceived frivolity and sybaritism of some parts of the samurai class. She compares them unfavourably with the relatively spartan nobility of the Russian Empire and also critiques their unwillingness to fully engage in the production of public policy regarding such ‘non-Confucian’ topics as the economy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fractional short story, though part of ongoing novel project: 'Clapboard City'

Victoria Yarborough deposited another tray of buns in the oven and wiped her grimy face with the toreador-patterned handkerchief that she kept in the generous breast pocket of her smoke-stained off-white apron. She shut the oven doors, took several (of what would be) long loaves from Rab Ember, put them in the other big oven, and said ‘Alright, still. Time for a break, innit?’
           ‘A’righ’, Vicki.’ Rab grinned a wide-spaced, speckled grin and waved at her with his big brine-sheened hand. ‘Gonna go down the newsstands, I take it?’
            ‘Of course,’ Victoria said. ‘‘Sa new Prime Minister. Well…’ She paused and frowned and laughed. ‘An old Prime Minister, agin.’
            ‘What is it, third time?—fourth? I know ‘e’s served more ‘n wunst before.’
            ‘Third time,’ said Victoria. ‘I swear…feel’s like summat’s going to go horrible wrong quite soon in this country.—Well, it’s been four years. Baldwin’s going to have to go t’ the country again soon in any case.’
            She shrugged and walked out. It was useless discussing politics with Rab. He had a head for the lists of Prime Ministers and what they looked like and the common little facts about them but not much else. To be truthful, Victoria herself was not exactly a political genius either, though for lack of having the chance to rather than of being able, she thought. What she really liked, in the manner of finding interesting, was things like Boys’ Own tales of the great imperial wars. A more than passingly queer interest, she knew, for an East London baker’s girl to have. But the world wasn’t always going to be what it was now, was it? Some day, she knew, or thought she knew, or hoped she knew, all mankind from China to Peru would be laid out in the range of possibilities for her life before her.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Reviews of reviews, hip hip hurrah!

Hey friends! It's time for another instalment of One-Star Review of Books That Are Generally Considered Actually Quite Good!!!

[studio audience: yayyyy]

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories:

Flannery O'Connor has been hailed as a great short story writer and a great Catholic writer. While it's challenging to discern her Catholicism - at least from this collection - it's exceedingly easy to spot her use of racist language. Was she putting this language in the mouths of obviously small, ignorant people, a la Norman Lear and Archie Bunker, to teach lessons against racism? I certainly do not know enough to say.  As reported by J. Bottum in the October 2000 Crisis Magazine, "the bishop of Lafayette, Louisiana, banned the racist texts of Flannery O'Connor from the schools in his diocese....A woman known in her own day for her anti-racism now placed on the forbidden list on the grounds of racism." While O'Connor was hopefully not a racist, the bishop's removal of these works strikes me as having been wise, indeed. '

Yes. Censoring language used by fictional characters in books written fifty years ago is certainly 'wise'. I'm utterly blindsided by its wisdom. In fact...wait, no, 'blindsided' isn't the word I'm looking for; I meant 'I want to fucking throw up', sorry.
Also, 'challenging to discern her Catholicism'? Are we even talking about the same Flannery O'Connor?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My adventures on Wikipedia

>Kannazuki no Miko
>Japanese yen
>Bretton Woods System
>Monetary policy
>Federal Reserve System
>Nelson Aldrich
>Ambrose Burnside
>Battle of Fredericksburg
>Confederate States of America
>List of historical unrecognized states
>Anglo-Corsican Kingdom
>Italian language
>Italian American
>Irish American
>Joe Biden
>United States Senate special election in Delaware, 2010
>Christine O’Donnell

An observation, a simple observation.

Sarah Palin's Magical Mystery Tour is coming to my part of the country. I don't know who she thinks she's kidding but we're not frontier idiots here. They're not even frontier idiots in the frontier, because people in all places are smarter than she and her cohort give them credit for--and considering how dumb people are this is saying something. So she can get on her high horse and ride the fuck out of Dodge.

Ahem. That is all.