Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ripping my own book to shreds

If you love all things italiano, you may want to protect your innocence by avoiding reading Lost in the Spanish Quarter by Heddi Rebecca Goodrich (HeavyAsBricks Books 2013). This memoir set in a creepy Neapolitan ghetto might have you wondering what happened to the Italy you got to know so intimately on that romantic five-day tour. And whether you should risk booking a trip south of Florence ever again.

The book narrows in on a tight-knit group of out-of-town university students rooming in the decaying Spanish Quarter, to tell the disastrous love story between two of them – Rebecca, a free-spirited American student of linguistics who has lived in Italy’s seat of the Camorra since adolescence, and Elio, a geology major with inseverable ties to the provincial farmland he hails from. It’s clearly doomed, but don’t accuse me of spoiling the ending for you: the fact that the relationship crumbles is already clear from a present-day email – from Elio – on the very first page.

So why turn the pages at all? For some inexplicable reason, the book is a real page-turner, not unlike an illustrated encyclopedia of skin diseases, but with more dialogue. The graphic demise of this love story is at times excruciatingly pleasurable. And if you do have that tendency to develop a sick fascination with gore, you’ll also enjoy the verbose descriptions of the Spanish Quarter with its bursting bags of trash, raccoon-sized rats and the occasional transvestite prostitute indecently mopping the kitchen.

I think you get my earlier point about protecting your innocence. Where is the Italy we have grown to love? Where is the sunshine? Where are the catcalls to the foreign women? Why are the men speaking in such full coherent sentences? And why do none of them have moustaches? Where are the cappuccinos, the vineyards, the Speedos? With the exception of the heart-warming descriptions of dappled sunlight on Elio’s family farmhouse and those lovingly detailing the traditional salami-making process, for most of the book you’d think you were in Kabul. If you’re anything like me, reading this saga will leave you feeling as ripped off as if someone had just bumped your strawberry gelato onto the grimy cobblestones.

It’s a dangerous read in more ways than one. This 474-page memoir, interspersed with post-breakup emails bursting with run-on sentences, weighs as much as a brick. I can attest to that personally, after my copy fell on my foot while I was reading it on the toilet. (And that’s not even far to fall.) No doubt the book could have done with a bit more editing. For example, did we really need to endure that professor’s lecture on Indo-European languages? In other places, however, there just isn’t enough information. I mean, what on earth is a “mixed tape”? And what does “tre caffé” mean, anyway? No one wants to have to pull out a bilingual dictionary while on the toilet. In places, Lost in the Spanish Quarter reads a bit more like Lost in Translation.

With all these glaring offences, it’s at times hard to remember that this third-person narrative is, after all, a true story. And frankly, there are times when it’s just a bit hard to believe. I mean, c’mon, an American who speaks flawless Italian? A blonde Sicilian? A washing machine being thrown off a balcony? A free college education? I dare say the author has used a bit of fiction to her advantage.

However, I’d be lying if I said there was nothing redeemable about this book. I’m a sucker for a good love story, even if it does end in depression and suicide. The first kiss gave me the chills, almost as much as Elio’s mother’s coldheartedness. His collapsed lung nearly broke my aorta. And the punctuation was stellar. But you’ve been warned: read this dark memoir at your own risk, and if you do, hold on tight to your gelato.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A feel-good book review

The last book review I wrote was scathing. So was the one before that. Since then, I haven’t been asked by The Dunedin Times to write any more book reviews. Because, let’s face it, people don’t like to waste their time reading an off-putting review about a novel they’re now never going to buy because it’s “clichéd”, “one-dimensional” and about as uplifting as a “dreary winge”.

But for wannabe writers like me, scathing book reviews are far from a waste of time. They are actually beneficial. Because they remind us that if so much crap is published out there, deftly concealed behind fancy covers and catchy titles, then ours certainly deserves to be published too.

Prepare to feel good.

The Crimson Portrait, a historical novel by Jody Shields (Doubleday, 2007), is 361 pages long. Actually, oops, it’s 382 pages but I haven’t finished it yet. I don’t need to read the ending anyway: I already know all the characters are going to end up either abandoned by a lover or dead from an overdose of ether. I might have too, if I hadn’t stopped on page 361.

I won’t bore you with too many plot details and character names. Suffice it to say that a manor in the English countryside has been turned into a hospital for World War I soldiers with facial disfigurations, one of whom the freshly widowed lady of the house falls for. Other important figures are the sensitive lead surgeon attempting to rebuild the mutilated faces, a foreign dentist with self-taught techniques in facial reconstruction, and a female artist with the task of making lifelike masks to hide the soldiers’ monstrous faces from society.

You might think of this plot, “Sounds interesting,” or even, “I wish I’d thought of that!” But it’s a bit like the Belly Belt for pregnant women’s expanding waistlines: after spending $19.99, plus shipping and handling, you realise that behind the fancy and original concept is nothing but a tiny strip of elastic and that you would have been better off just wearing a longer shirt.

In fact, despite a few satisfying and literary-sounding lines to describe feelings – such as “fear snapped like a cloth in wind” – the reader soon realizes the plot is merely a pretext for an indulgence in visual descriptions of virtually everything under the sun (and even under the moonlight). Flower petals in the grass. Car lights in the night. Spatters of paint on a worktable. Chipped fountains. Mirror reflections. Reflections in vases. In spectacles. Dinner plates. Tablecloths. Curtains. Dresses. Floorboards. I particularly enjoyed the page and a half description of a mahogany headboard. Not to mention all the nuances of colors: crimson, maroon, khaki grey, silvery pink, viridian green, sulphurous yellow. As riveting as a Dulux catalogue.

On the other hand, the characters are painted in only a few rough brushstrokes. It took me to page 353 to learn that the doctor himself, a plastic surgeon, has a deep scar across his face. (Or was I just skimming too much?) And by page 361, I’m still not sure if the lady of the house – probably the protagonist – is a spoiled girl fallen prey to her hormones or a condescending and deceitful landowner capable of calling someone that she’s only just met a “stupid woman”. Whatever the case, I don’t like her. The same goes for the artist, who is either a meek and observant artiste secretly in love with the foreign dentist, or a coarse and bitterly married woman who relishes in ordering around the lady of the house so she won’t think of herself as “the Queen”.

But these discrepancies are nothing compared to the plot inconsistencies that plague the novel.

For example, the artist follows the dentist to a military hospital halfway across the country solely in order to be close to him. Then she pushes him away. Even though it’s over with her husband anyway.

In order to save his young disciple from the draft and certain death in the trenches, the doctor plots with the anaesthetist to maim the boy by shooting him in the hand. Even though the doctor had been training him to become a surgeon. Oops, wrong limb.

In these times of war, sugar is hard to come by, but apparently not art supplies like turpentine, colored chalk, clay, paper pulp, copper, silver and gold leaf. The last of which is best used for the time-consuming process of developing a paper-thin and exquisitely painted metal mask as a temporary fix for each maimed soldier. Because plain bandages are so expensive and hard to come by.

The lady of the house schemes for her lover’s mask to be crafted in her dead husband’s likeness, based on a photograph. Even though only half her lover’s face is disfigured and so an authentic mask could have easily been made by simply replicating the undamaged half of his face.

No one realises that the finished mask doesn’t resemble the soldier at all. Not the artist who had previously studied his face for days while sketching him. And not the soldier himself, who puts on the mask without even at looking at it. Thank goodness or the entire plotline would have instantly unravelled.

The implausibility of The Crimson Portrait reminds me of why I don’t read much fiction. Perhaps I should try the author’s two non-fiction books instead. I’m just not sure if I should start with the one about costume jewellery or the one about hats.

Boy, do I feel better now. You’re probably wondering if I feel at all bad about trashing someone’s work of art. Actually, I do a bit. But I’m also somewhat humbled by this long and bitter dissection. Because I know my own manuscript deserves it next.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

More children’s books translated for your convenience (Italian-English)

Eccovi un’altra traduzione fatta in casa di un classico moderno della letteratura per bambini. Tradotto dall’inglese in ventiuno lingue, esiste senza dubbio la versione italiana di Room on the Broom, ma non sono riuscita a trovarla su internet. E comunque credo che sarà difficile eguagliare il ritmo e la rima di questa mia traduzione. Modestamente.

Here is another homemade translation for you of a modern classic of children’s literature. Translated from English into twenty-one languages, there is undoubtedly an Italian version of Room on the Broom, but I haven’t been able to find it on the Internet. And, anyway, it would be hard to beat my rhythmical and rhyming translation. Humbly.

Allora se ti mancano, come nel mio caso, risorse bilingui per i tuoi sperimenti linguistici (detti anche “bambini”), stampa e incolla il testo seguente direttamente sulle pagine del libro originale. I tuoi sperimenti ti ringrazieranno.

So if you are lacking, as I am, in bilingual resources for your linguistic experiments (also known as “kids”), print out and paste the following text directly onto the pages of the original English book. Your experiments will thank you.

Room on the broom di Julia Donaldson, tradotto in italiano dalla sottoscritta

Room on the broom by Julia Donaldson, translated into Italian by yours truly

La strega aveva un gatto
e una lunga rossa treccia
e un cappello nero nero
appuntito come una freccia.

A lei scappò un sorriso
al gatto poi le fusa
mentre volavan nel vento
sulla scopa che sempre usan.

Ma una raffica di vento
proprio sul più bello
tirò forte e selvaggio
portando via il cappello.

“Giù!” urlò la strega
e sulla terra atterrarono.
Cercarono il cappello
ma non lo ritrovarono.

Ci fu un rumore nei cespugli.
La strega disse, “Lo senti?”
Poi un cane saltò fuori
col cappello tra i denti!

Lo posò delicatamente
e poi alla strega disse
(mentre lei il cappello nero
sulla testa lo rimise),
“Sono un cane bravo
che più bravo non si può.
C’è posto sulla scopa?
Mi serve un passaggio.”

“Sì!” urlò la strega
e il buon cane salì.
La strega batté la scopa,
la quale subito partì.

Volarono sopra i campi,
sopra vaste foreste.
Un vento tempestoso
soffiò sulle loro teste.
La strega ridacchiò
perché il cane era sciocco,
ma una raffica di vento
portò via il suo fiocco.

“Giù!” urlò la strega
e sulla terra atterrarono.
Cercarono il bel fiocco
ma non lo ritrovarono.

Poi con strido assordante
e un batter di ali – ecco
un bell’uccello verde
col fiocco nel suo becco!
Lo posò delicatamente
e poi alla strega disse
(mentre lei il bel fiocco
sulla treccia lo rimise),
“Sono un’uccello verde,
che più verde non si può.
C’è posto sulla scopa?
Mi serve un passaggio.”

“Sì!” urlò la strega
e l’uccello poi salì.
La strega batté la scopa,
la quale subito partì.

Volarono sopra le canne
e sopra fiumi belli.
Un vento tempestoso
gli scompigliò tutti i capelli.
Nel vasto cielo sfrecciarono
proprio come un siluro,
però cadde la bacchetta
che lei non teneva sicuro.

“Giù!” urlò la strega
e sulla terra atterrarono.
Cercarono la bacchetta
ma non la ritrovarono.

Poi da uno stagno
una rana del tutto fracida
per fortuna aveva in mano
la bacchetta magica!
La posò delicatamente
poi alla strega gracchiò
(mentre la strega col mantello
la sua bacchetta asciugò),
“Sono una rana pulita
che più pulita non si può.
C’è posto sulla scopa?
Mi serve un passaggio.”

“Sì!” urlò la strega
e la rana poi salì.
La strega batté la scopa,
la quale subito partì.

Superando le montagne
per la gioia lei saltò
così sopra le paludi
LA SCOPA SI SPEZZÒ!
Cadde giù il bravo cane,
la rana verde e il gatto.
Precipitarono tutti quanti
nel fango ad un tratto.
La scopa ormai rotta
in una nuvola entrò.
Un ruggito forte e brutto
la strega ascoltò.

“Sono un drago cattivo
che più cattivo non si può.
Strega con patate fritte
adesso mi mangerò.”

“No!” urlò la strega
mentre più in alto volò.
Il drago la inseguì
e tanto fuoco le sputò.

“Aiuto!” urlò la strega
e sulla terra atterrò.
Si guardò tutt’intorno
ma aiuto non trovò.

Il drago avvicinandosi
mostrava il lungo corno.
Disse, “Solo questa volta
mangio strega senza contorno.”

Ma mentre era sul procinto
di far di lei la sua cena,
vide nella palude buia
una terrificante scena.
Si innalzò dal fango
una bestia alta e nera
con piume appiccicose
e pure una criniera.
Con quattro grosse teste
cominciò ad intonare,
che più che una vera voce
era un urlo o un gracchiare.
Gocciolando di melma,
di fango e di fanghiglia,
disse,“Fila via, brutto drago! –
Quella strega è mia!”

Il drago allora si ritirò
e cominciò a tremare.
“Chiedo scusa!” balbettò,
“Ho fatto un’errore grave.
È stato un piacere conoscerLa,
ma ora devo scappare.”
E spiegando le grosse ali,
si mise subito a volare.

Volò giù lo sporco uccello,
la rana e poi il gatto,
finalmente liberando
il povero cane sfatto.

“Grazie, grazie!” gridò la strega
con la mano sulla guancia,
“Senza di voi di sicuro
sarei dentro la sua pancia.”

Con un sorriso, tirò fuori
il suo fedele calderone.
“Trovate cose da buttarci dentro
che faremo un minestrone!”
La rana trovò un giglio lungo,
il gatto la pigna di un pino.
L’uccello raccolse un ramoscello
e il cane un ossicino.

Buttarono tutto nel calderone
e la strega cominciò a girare,
e mentre girava bene bene
un breve incantesimo prese a fare.
“Zuppa, zuzu, zuppa, ZOPA!”
e s’innalzò dalla pentola

UNA MAGNIFICA SCOPA!

Aveva piscina e tre poltrone
per strega, cane e gatto,
e anche un nido per l’uccello
per tenerlo soddisfatto.
“Sì!” urlò la strega
e tutti poi salirono.
La strega batté la scopa,
e subito partirono.

Per l’originale inglese, vedi http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hx-SIqNN0SM.

To see (and hear) the English original, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hx-SIqNN0SM.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The super honest Christmas catch-up email

Dear beloved family and friends in my contact list (as well as all you others who I haven’t had time to delete from my address book, like my real estate agent and the last literary agent who rejected me – no hard feelings)

Sorry (again!) for the delay in sending you this Christmas email, but life has been so busy lately, as it has been for the past seventeen years. To save time, I could have just sent one of those electronic Christmas cards, but it would have been too impersonal. I could have gathered my family members around to photograph them forming the words M-E-R-R-Y  X-M-A-S with our arms and legs, but I’m not as flexible since I gave up yoga. Not to mention the fact that I probably don’t have enough family here in faraway New Zealand to get past M-E.

Most years I enjoy making you all jealous by writing about how we spent Christmas Eve on the beach, lying around in bikinis, frolicking in the warm shark-free water and picnicking on quesadillas and watermelon, while all of you poor souls are wearing three layers of socks, eating pumpkin and possibly even going to church. However, you’ll be happy to know that since then we’ve had nothing but rain. Our roof is leaking. The laundry takes days to dry. At least I’m getting really good at electrocuting flies with our swatting racquet.

But that’s an exciting sneak peek at next year’s catch-up email, and I really should just stick with what’s happened in the year that’s just ended.

Firstly, the little man has grown gigantic, but because he’s still three, he still likes to be carried. For someone as petite as me to lug him all over the supermarket or the zoo like that, with his arms wrapped tightly around my neck and his legs reaching past my knees and me huffing from the exertion, I look like a normal-sized woman rescuing a seven-year-old from a burning house. To ingratiate himself into being carted around, he tells me how beautiful I am. His father has taught him well.

In fact, this year our little boy has truly mastered verbal expression. But he’s still a bit confused about his bilingualness. Though born a Kiwi, the half-Irish half-American boy speaks Italian as his mother tongue: still, he insists that he speaks Spanish. “Pick Panish,” he says, and he won’t be contradicted.

I know most of you are bored silly with all this talk about our perfectly developing offspring, but this is a cheery Yuletide email so there won’t be any mention of the lack of parental supervision that led to our son wrapping himself in toilet paper, eating a cup of flour in the nude and painting his entire body and face with markers. For obvious reasons, I’m leaving out those pictures.

In fact, you’ll see from the attached photos that we have had an absolute fabulous year engaging in all sorts of healthy activities only made possible by living in paradise on earth: counting starfish on a black-sand beach, biking around a swan-filled lake, baking cinnamon raisin bread in the nude. Hope that doesn't make you too jealous. So that you won’t worry about us, I’ll leave out all the sour notes like our lost pregnancy, financial straits, and the kicking and biting fits (including our little boy’s). I won’t even start about the rising cost of cheese.

To save myself time, and you grief, I’ll sum up the first half of the year into a haiku:

new job, new band for Pops
no fear skinny-dipping
in post-tsunami swell

The second half of 2011 was exciting enough for prose. Some of you may not be aware that a flashing incident in a Washington D.C. park a year ago led to free flights for me and the little man to travel back to my hometown to testify against a pitiful one-eyed paedophile. The successful conviction was followed by two months spent with family and friends picking raspberries, viewing dinosaur fossils, playing the drums, catching fireflies, eating barbecued shrimp and collecting shells on the beach. Never had a flashing proved so magical.

After we got back to wintry Auckland, I found out that the paedophile had died in his jail cell. Karmically, I’m not sure where that leaves me.

Obviously, I did something good in a past life, though, because this year we got given the best neighbors in the universe. A lovely young couple with a two-year-old that has become best buddies with our little boy. Besides, they always have a spare clove of garlic or cup of mayonnaise, not to mention an assortment of awesome tools like power saws and those tiny little screwdrivers you need to fix your sunglasses.

So I count my blessings and try not to focus on the fact that my legs are untoned and that I still haven’t published my absolutely astonishing memoir that is destined to become a worldwide bestseller, if only I had a printer to prepare the query letters for literary agents who don’t accept emails.

Thank goodness you at least accept emails or this annual catch-up letter would never have made it to you. Because I’d be lying if I said that one day again in the future I’ll send individualized Christmas cards – in four different languages – complete with printed-out photos to locations all over the globe. The last time I had the time for all that nonsense, I was single and unemployed.

Thanks for reading to the end, even if you did do a bit of skimming, and I’m sorry I missed all your birthdays this year. I’ll try to do better this time around.

Blessing to you all…and oh, a very merry (belated) Christmas.

Hoping you'll forgive me,

Heddi