Last Word

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Once a year I like to go back and review the books that I’ve read, choose 10 out of that group and share my thoughts. The trick is to remember all the books that I’ve read over the course of 365 days. Fortunately, we have Goodreads and the ever-wonderful CLAMS library system that lists books borrowed (but doesn’t actually tell you if you’ve read them or used them for coasters).

The other way of compiling a list is to, well, keep one. Unfortunately, this year I have been a bad keeper of lists. Despite the usual good intention of doing so, I haven’t and I make no excuse. I also haven’t been very good about adding my reads to Goodreads either. I’ve been trying to play catch-up for the past couple of weeks, but I certainly haven’t managed to log in all of the books I read this year, to say nothing of doing those mini-reviews that those of us of the writing profession enjoy reading so much. So when I look at my “shelf,” it appears as though I read every book only recently, as if most of the year was devoid of reading.

That leaves me paddling through the old memory pool and seeing what rises to the surface.

One of the things I have done reading-wise this year is to read more than one book of an author’s oeuvre, one after the other. This is only fun when said author is so brilliant and captivating that reading selections consecutively doesn’t disappoint. We have all had the experience of loving one book by an author, and finding the second just so-so. When the magic continues, it’s like finding a new type of cheese that you can’t get enough of. But, in terms of a ten best list, does it count to include two books by a single author? If so, it looks like I did a fair amount of doubling up on authors this year.

There is a saying in the publishing industry that it takes about seven books before an author is successful. Every consecutive book is built upon the writing of the previous, by which I mean that you learn something from each writing experience and take that education with you into the next book. (I speak here only of fiction, but I don’t imagine penning biographies or how-to books is very different.) With some authors the learning curve is dramatic and reading a new work and then a previous work can be disappointing. With the very best authors, their first work is better than anyone else’s seventh book. Once in a while, a first book is where an author should have stopped.

I was very fortunate this year to have found five authors all at the top of their game. I sampled earlier works and new releases; short story collections and full-length novels. I accidentally read consecutive books in reverse order and still loved the stories and characters and enjoyed having foreknowledge of where these characters were headed in the next book, like some literary psychic. What appeals to me about these authors can be summed up easily: their use of language transcends the ordinary.

Characters, plots, and settings can only get you so far. Yes, you can have a terrific read, but a great book depends on its author’s ability to tell the story with a new voice. I don’t mean layering on the similes, which can, for me, ruin a perfectly good book when the author tries too hard to be literary, obfuscating the story with too many of them. I mean telling a story to a reader, as if making eye contact.

Here then, in no particular order, are my top five authors and top 10 books that I read in 2011 (not necessarily published in 2011).

Barbara Kingsolver: “The Bean Trees” and “Pigs in Heaven”

Jane Gardham: “Old Filth” and “The Man in the Wooden Hat”

Ivan Doig: “Prairie Nocturne” and “Work Song”

Sally Gunning: “The Widow’s War” and “The Rebellion of Jane Clarke”

Margaret Drabble: “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: Complete Short Stories” and “The Sea Lady”

Other books of note that I read this year are the profound “Little Bee” by Chris Cleaves and the irrepressibly delightful “True Grit” by Charles Portis.

Wishing you all a happy, book-filled 2012.

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In thinking about Thanksgiving, I began to count the number of tropes associated with this most American of holidays. There is the wholesome family reunion trope; and, the equally popular, especially on the big screen, image of the not-so-wholesome family reunion. What can possibly be said about Thanksgiving that’s new, fresh, never been said before?

It’s a fairly recent holiday, as, say opposed to Christmas or Easter; purely secular, but with overtones of religion in the effort to remind folks to be grateful, and some family gatherings wouldn’t be complete without a member-by-member enumeration of what one is grateful for during the meal. The menu is given countless discussions in newspaper food sections and even more countless recipes for the main course and all the sides. The Butterball Turkey organization even has a hotline for Thanksgiving emergencies. Speaking of sides, when two families are blended by matrimony or civil union, invariably there is side-taking on what makes up the appropriate method of vegetable preparation. Baked, boiled, canned, or marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes? Hubbard, acorn, or butternut squash? My very first Thanksgiving with my spouse’s family shocked me when they served broccoli with dinner. Broccoli? Green vegetables in this most monochromatic of meals? It gave me pause, I’ll admit. Turnip has become a contentious issue in my own celebration. I ask: why? My spouse answers: why not? Does anyone ever really eat the stuff? It’s, gasp, tradition! Cue Tevye.

Our simplest holiday — no presents, no cards, no extreme spending — is also the symbolic reenactment of the most basic activity of human society: eating around the fire, safe for the night. If Thanksgiving was officially legislated in 1941 (yes, 1941), it had already been observed for eons every time family members returned from journeys, harvests were successful, daughters were married off, wars were ended; life, for the moment, was good. We all know about the Pilgrims and their somewhat apocryphal feel-good celebration, but it wasn’t until Lincoln set aside the fourth Thursday (without benefit of legislation) that the day became part of the fabric of the country. But oh how that original concept has mutated.

Thanksgiving has become the holy day of Macy’s balloon, marching band, and lip-synching celebrity-filled parade. Even more, it is the day when football fans gorge on rivalries and argue their spouses into serving dinner so early they can’t interfere with the televised proceedings. I’m absolutely certain that Abraham Lincoln had that in mind when he set aside the day for thanks and prayerful contemplation. He was a big Bears fan.

Possibly the worst new development attendant upon this essential feast day is now the advent of “black Friday.” Someone, somewhere, called the Friday after Thanksgiving Black Friday and the name stuck like a burr. I have no idea if the accidental coinage meant that those poor unfortunates who feel it necessary to start Christmas shopping on that day like it was some sort of starting gate are afraid of it, or that it means shopkeepers (real and Internet) look to that day to save them from being in the red. Probably both. In any event, it sometimes appears as though Thanksgiving was something to be gotten through in order to get to the main event, whether it’s football or Target.

As a writer, I could use the holiday in any number of ways, e.g. bringing the sentimental weight of it to characters, giving them a setting and scenario that might push a story forward, or end it. Or, I could do a journey story, characters striving to reach home in time to be with family. A dining table is one of the purest settings for conflict and/or the surprise announcement bound to twist the plot, second only to a funeral reception. Our all-time favorite movie is “Trains, Planes and Automobiles” and we rarely fail to watch it on this upcoming weekend. It is the sweet story of two disparate characters, John Candy’s Del Griffith, and Steve Martin’s Neil Page, forced by circumstance into partnership and the struggle not only to get home, but to find home. If I had any desire to be a screenwriter, I’d wish that I had written that one.

So, in honor of Thanksgiving 2011, I list, in no particular order, those things for which I am thankful:

Family, friends, health, living where I do, doing what I do. What? You were expecting something unique? Thanksgiving brings out the gratitude, and, unsurprisingly, it’s pretty much the same for all of us. Happy Thanksgiving.

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I’ve been neglectful. I haven’t written this column in oh, months. I am ever-so-casual about the Facebook obligations I incurred by signing up and having “friends.” And my website, blog, friends (the real ones), phone calls, reciprocal dinners, all suppressed by this tortured eight-to-twelve week cycle we call summer on Martha’s Vineyard. Has your house been the locus of family? Do you crave the quiet routine of a winter morning? Are the demands on your wallet and calendar almost more than you can bear? Get in line. I’m there. Oh, and add a job, and the pressing need to come up with another book idea into the mix.

Last summer I did something quite extraordinary. I took a pass on all the major summer events: Illumination, the Fair, the Fireworks. I continued the trend by eschewing this year’s Fourth of July parade. Nothing bad happened and I actually didn’t miss any of those traditional must-dos. It was like not participating in the two major holy days of the year and yet not being struck down — with either guilt or divine retribution. To us here on the Vineyard, those three above-mentioned events have taken on the air of nearly religious importance. Why else do we refer to this particular week as “hell week”?

However, there is a fine line between consciously choosing to not do something, and making that itself a tradition. It is so easy to become lazy, to forget going to the beach because it means dragging on that bathing suit (ever wonder why we still call them bathing suits, when we no longer say we are going bathing in the ocean?) and finding the only dry beach towel in the house and then having to squeeze in a quick run to Tony’s to get the bread so that we can make the sandwiches that would actually be easier to eat here, on the deck, under the big umbrella with the birds flocking around the feeder in avian bustle. Last summer I only got in the water four times. Not good. People in those SUVs from Connecticut pay lots of good money to have what I have whenever I want it. Shame on me.

Unfortunately, writing too has become that one more thing to think about. After completing the upcoming novel, it was, as I’ve noted here in this column, really hard to get into another one. I felt tapped out, fresh out of ideas, weighing the temptation to simply stop doing it. The very idea of committing words to the screen seemed insurmountable. Sort of like having climbed to the top of the Statue of Liberty, I discovered that there were more stairs to conquer. Shoot, let me just walk back down. I really don’t need to see the view. Like in skipping the Ag Fair, I was unremorseful about not working on a new idea. Besides, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it again. Maybe the reason I didn’t have a viable idea was because I needed a break.

Or, so I thought.

Evidently, for me, writing is more like an appetite than an outside influence. Having lost my appetite for doing it, and thinking that maybe, like forgoing Illumination and Tivoli Day, it wouldn’t hurt to take a break, I have discovered that I’m ready to go back to it. A literal midnight awakening with the right concept startled me out of my inertia. The break wasn’t such a bad thing after all; but, it couldn’t become permanent.

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Just when I thought I had a little break coming, I get an email from my agent with that taunting, teasing, termagant of a question: so, what are you thinking of for “the next one?”

In the words of Snoopy: arrghhh. Here I was, enjoying a well-deserved (in my opinion) hiatus from writing. I’ve been avoiding all creative finger-on-keyboard activities including, but not limited to, this column and my blog. I’ve submitted and had blessed the next novel, the writing of which had not been an easy experience. The story got messy and the ending eluded me for more than a year. Issues resolved, tweaks tweaked, and final words laid down on the electronic page, off it went and I raised my head to notice that the sun was shining and I suddenly had a couple of extra hours in my day. Oh, what to do with them? Taxes, okay. Clean house, maybe. Get my barn chores done in the morning? Oh, yes, please. Then, the Email of Darkness.

Hey, I’m not complaining. Not really. I am extraordinarily blessed to have another chance at doing what I really do love to do, and I absolutely understand that. But even Mark Twain must have enjoyed the break between “Tom Sawyer” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” I just thought I’d have longer to recharge the batteries.

The question is, what am I thinking about for the next one? Such a good question. One I’d like to answer fully. If I had an answer. Maybe what I need is a palate-cleansing of sorts (refer back to my last column which was devoted to the food/reading metaphor), a little mental sorbet to clean out the residue of the last manuscript.

Where are all you people who come up to me with ideas? This happens fairly regularly, someone says to me: I’ve got a great idea for your next book. My response is usually tepid, but polite, because I believe that if you have a story idea, it’s your story. At least this far in my career as a novelist, I’m eschewing the role of hired gun in the belief that fiction really can’t be ghost-written, as memoir and autobiography can. It’s got to come from within. It’s a mystery how that happens, but it isn’t something that can be loaned like a pair of socks. Here, I like these, but you wear them. Nonetheless, sometimes a germinal idea comes from someone’s offhand remark, or a newspaper article, or a glimpse of a stranger’s face.

This is a true story, and one of my favorites: My mother resides in what she calls the old folks’ home, but is actually apartments for seniors. Rent includes meals and, for reasons I cannot fathom, these mature adults have assigned seating. (I suppose so that the staff can discreetly keep track of who’s coming down and who might need checking on.) My mother and her table mates have come up with, not a story, but a title. They cheerfully chirp to me: “Chips, No Pickle?” Apparently, that singular phrase is repeated daily by the wait staff, echoing the residents’ preference for potato chips and dislike of the pickle spear. And they think this phrase would make a good book. Some of these people are retired professors.

If I were to write the book that would adhere to a title as quirky as “Chips, No Pickle?” I would have to live in the old folks’ home because what they are envisioning is their experience transformed into a story, sort of a “Waiting for God” American version. I wish it was as simple as coming up with a good title. Most of the time, the title is chosen after most of the book is written because the book is what evokes the right title, not the other way around.

Story ideas come to me in mysterious ways. They arrive like lightning bolts or fish. A phrase, a whimsical thought, a notion suddenly strikes and I get this little frisson of excitement. I have a fish on the line. Can I land it, or will it get off my hook and swim away into the pool of discarded ideas? Is it just a nibble, or is there a striper there that will be big enough to keep? (For the record, I don’t fish, so if this metaphor strikes you as weird, I apologize.)

So, what’s next? Stay tuned… I feel an idea coming on.

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I woke up thinking of the nature of reading. This is probably a result of overindulging in reading over the past few weeks.

I have had a little open time while my editor reads the latest version of the new book. During the hour that would normally be filled with writing, I got to consume the written word. Even without the spare time, since the beginning of the year I’ve worked my way through a glut of reading material languishing on the coffee table, just waiting for me to pull them off the pile: “Room,” “The Irresistible Henry House,” “True Grit,” Jim Harrison’s wonderful “Returning to Earth”; Ivan Doig’s “The Whistling Season” and “Work Song.” (I love finding authors and feasting on their entire oeuvres as I am determined to do with Doig.)

But I speak of the nature of reading, that it is an appetite. Just look at the words I used in that first paragraph: overindulging, glut(ton), consume, feasting. We have an appetite for croissants, and another for activities. I have no appetite for police procedurals, but relish a well-written historical novel. We hunger for a good book. We have our fill of one genre before sampling another. The metaphor goes on and on.

Reading has another metaphorical association — love. We all know someone who is described as a passionate reader; or, someone with a love of books. There are bookstores and blogs that pair the words, “book” and “lover” in their names. My favorite gets in both the appetite and the amour: Book Lover’s Gourmet in Webster, MA. Is it any surprise that bookstores have become cafés offering the physical appetite edible treats along with the intellectual holdings for the hungry mind? I have a taste for the works of Jane Austen but no desire for those of Tom Clancy.

We read for as many reasons as there are distinct genres. For erudition, entertainment, experience; for information and opinion.

Who among us hasn’t admitted to reading the back of a cereal box when desperate? It’s as if, once you learn how, you are compelled forever more to assign meaning to linked letters. Obviously, this doesn’t hold true for everyone. I certainly know folks who’d rather sit staring out the window at the opposite brick wall than read a book.

Reading is, perhaps, an acquired taste. Once acquired, it can be teased into a craving satisfied only by the assurance that there is an unread book on the coffee table at all times. For some people, this acquired taste blossoms almost without effort from earliest days; for others, it grows out of a gateway drug — like comic books read on the front porch on a summer Sunday afternoon.

Whatever your taste, there are books out there to satisfy even the most particular of reading palates, and writers earning a living by cooking up plots and characters to serve their reading public. Some, like the late Phil Craig, even combine the two, listing the recipes that show up in the story at the back of the book like edible end matter.

Yum!

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I really admire poets. Imagine being able to take a concept or philosophy, say, Heaven and Hell, Good versus Evil; Love, Despair, Disappointment, Rain, and box it up into a few lines that tweak the reader into saying, “Yeah, I get that. Really cool.”

I don’t know how they do it. It must be a little like a chef making a reduction sauce, cooking and cooking until the essence of the flavor pops. It takes me somewhere in the vicinity of 75,000 words to do that. Poets hone their words into micro-razor sharpness. Nothing is wasted, not when you have the constrictions and limitations of a prescribed format like quatrains or iambic pentameter. Billy Collins is one of my favorites, mostly because his poetry has a sense of humor about it. Another is the wonderful Connecticut poet Donald Hall. Forcing an entire story into six or ten verses and evoking the same human connection as a 300-page novel — that’s writing.

As I am no poet and have no idea how it’s done, it is no surprise then when I say that the hardest writing I do is when faced with a birthday card awaiting an appropriate sentiment; i.e., how to differentiate what is essentially the same message everyone else in the group is writing into something more clever and pithy than, oh perhaps, Happy Birthday? Of course, it depends a tad on who the card is for; what the degree of relationship requires of the felicitation. I’m not talking about a birthday card for a family member, but those cards that are sent by a group — co-workers or folks in the same club. The same can be said of get well cards. How many different ways can one say, “get well?” That’s where it would be nice to be a completely clever writer, instead of one who needs to think long and hard about each line. I have actually crafted greeting card sentiments on blank paper, literally practicing. And then I usually screw up my handwriting and it looks dashed off and insincere. If I was a poet, I feel as though I would have the wonderful instinct for stating the obvious with flare.

The other panicky writing moment is when I’m signing books. I have for years tried to come up with something more interesting than “All best wishes.” But when you’ve got a book thrust in front of you and a perfect stranger is smiling down, someone with whom you have no history, no connection (except deep gratitude), what epigram is most appropriate?

I could steal one of those sayings from those hand-painted signs that proliferate in some gift shops: Laugh, Love, Live. Or, Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life (popular in my youth). But that doesn’t seem fair. Nor, frankly, always appropriate. If I’m lucky, I have a moment or two to chat with the buyer and then I can make a stab at writing something less shopworn than the above-mentioned “all best wishes.” What does that mean anyway? Sometimes I get lucky and the book is a present for someone else and then I can write Happy Birthday and feel like I’m saying something useful.

I just read a piece in the New York Times by Judith Newman about email sign-offs, another slippery slope in the arena of short and appropriate messages. In her article, Newman frets about the “personality signifiers” at the end of emails; what replaces the formal “sincerely” in an email? Popular now: “xxoo,” “Carpe Diem,” “Stay happy.”

I confess that I waver between signing everything, “best,” “all the best,” or “cheers” because it seems more friendly than signing an electronic message with “sincerely.” Of course, like birthday cards, the sentiment portrayed by the signature line is usually dependent on the recipient. I hardly ever use the little Xs and Os with business emails. Sometimes I go for another language — ciao, a beintot. Sometimes I skip it altogether, especially when the email chain goes over five or six replies.

Perhaps it is the haiku that is the best resort for these various occasions necessitating only brief sentiment.

“Yours truly” is old-fashioned; now we sign off with/an emoticon.

Or,

“On this happy day/May you blow out your candles/in one wishful breath.”

This is hard….cheers!

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Once in a while I’m talked into doing something that really pushes me out of my comfort zone. My comfort zone is actually very tiny, so it doesn’t take much to push me out of it. Usually I find that once outside, I’m okay, that the experience is worth the anxiety that precedes it. I always get nervous before a book talk. Will what I have to say sound interesting, or will my audience, if I’m lucky enough to have one, fall asleep or figure out some way to get out the back door? I prepare, I try to keep to my notes, but I’m always happiest when I get to the reading out loud part and the Q&A. I like dialog, not soliloquy. Usually book talks end up fun and I get to meet readers face-to-face and mostly they don’t throw stones.

So when I was flattered into teaching a two-hour seminar at the Cape Cod Writers Conference this August, I allowed the anxiety to build up to life-threatening proportions. I began my lesson-planning months in advance and still couldn’t relax. I had offered to teach a wholly made up course called “He’s Such a Character.” The idea was to help neophyte authors to write good characters — round not flat. For the first time I was faced with trying to explain what it is I do. I also realized pretty quickly that I needed to use other authors to make my points. Which meant homework. I copied pages out of books, but to understand character development, you have to copy the whole book.

How do I demonstrate the principles that I rarely think about while I’m working, in clever and meaningful ways? I pictured myself lecturing to a room full of bored people wishing that they’d skipped this class. I needed to provide a coherent, useful, interesting, multi-level talk with exercises. I live with a teacher. I went to him. He didn’t seem to think this was a big deal. I was freaked out.

Nonetheless, I pulled together what I thought was a pretty good lesson plan. I had stuff to say and exercises to give. I psyched myself up and headed to Craigville on a beautiful August day. Craigville, for those of you who haven’t been, is lovely place, and the conference center is set in a community much like our Campground, except that houses are far more substantial, i.e. winterized houses, not cottages, and the Tabernacle resembles more a barn than an iron tent. The view is spectacular, looking out over a pond on the one side and the ocean on the other.

I could almost relax and enjoy the place except that I had this pesky class to give. Years ago I “taught” a class at Featherstone and I remember that my first class was fraught with nerves, and I blabbed on and on, and I doubt that my suffering students actually learned anything, but they were kind. Now, here I am, six books later, well-established in my writing career and, you guessed it, I blabbed on and on and used up my pages of lesson plan in about ten minutes.

The circle of unfamiliar faces stared back at me, clearly wanting wisdom and the key to success. The breeze from the ocean kept blowing my notes off the table. I didn’t know whether to stand up or sit down. I begged them for examples of character types. I implored them for character traits. I used the flipchart, pretending like I knew what I was doing. I went around the room and asked what they were writing. For reasons I can’t fathom, four of them were writing memoir. Do you need character development in memoir? Isn’t that supposed to be the truth? I gave them the first writing assignment and wondered if I could get away with having them write for half the class. That didn’t seem quite fair, so they got 15 minutes. The conversation got better as they each read their pieces that were designed to show characteristics. Some weren’t bad. Some…well, less said the better.

At the end, I don’t think that I actually got my point across, and that what I was able to share was nothing they hadn’t already known from other classes or from experience. But what I learned is that teaching is without doubt one of the hardest jobs in the world. Mind you, I didn’t have to reprimand anyone for spit balls, but getting a student’s attention, keeping it, and imparting useful information without lecturing for two hours is darn tough stuff.

I hope that I didn’t do any long-term damage to my 11 writing class students. Take what you need from what I said and leave the rest.

As schools reopen and teachers gear up for another school year, mazeltov: You are my heroes.

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I started to write this column from a hotel in Santa Fe, N.M. We’ve been on our second western vacation, this time circumnavigating the Grand Canyon as well as visiting many of the other famous sights the west has to offer: Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon (via mule), the Grand Canyon. Painted Desert, Monument Valley, Canyon De Chelley, and so on. We ventured along the High Road to Taos, a “scenic” byway that has to be one of the most beautiful roads in America.

Along the way, we stopped in a mission village called Chimayo. It was as close to going to old Mexico as I can imagine. Adobe churches, dusty street, a man selling homegrown chilis; dogs wandering around and, of course, tourists. The air was filled with the scent of spice, dust, and sage. Art galleries abounded. The man selling coffee in the only café was also the artist in residence responsible for the amazing paintings on the walls of the Church of El Nino, a memorial chapel for children. The sound of bells ringing, in a fairly random, no-particular-reason sort of way, only added to the sense that we were no longer in the U.S. The only thing missing was a goat, but I feel certain one was nearby.

But it was the language that caught my attention while in the West. In Kayenta, Arizona, which is smack in the middle of the Navajo Nation, we heard the language of the Navajo people being spoken in everyday conversation, and ate frybread with our Mexican food.

We live in a place where our town names are taken from the places where the English settlers came from, with maybe “New” appended to differentiate it from the original old English village. We are raised on the Pilgrims and the Tea Party (the original, not the recent political invention). In the Four Corners region, place names are flavored with indigenous language, Spanish, or physical description. We stayed in Kayenta, Arizona. We drove into the San Francisco mountain range. We took pictures of the eponymous Mexican Hat rock formation in the village of that name. I’m just not certain how Tuba City got its name.

We certainly hear foreign accents and languages where we live, especially in the summer, but in the West it is the norm to overhear a family speaking a cross-pollinated Spanish-English. It’s a polyglot world. I was in a little shop in Santa Fe when the owner’s young son asked her something in Spanish, with the clear English words “beef” or “chicken” in the question. I simply wonder why those two English words were used instead of their Spanish equivalents, but I guess when you’re ordering from Taco Bell you go with the menu. She wanted beef.

In the West, the language, like the food, is thick with the spice of the Spanish and Old Mexican flavors. Rio, Paseo, Calle, Verde, Mesa, and even Canyon (from Cañ;on). In Santa Fe, one half of a main thoroughfare is San Francisco, the other half St. Francis Street. We have a conceit in our part of the world that we invented the United States. In the left half of the continental United States, Spanish explorers and, in due time, settlers from Old Mexico, settled these mountains and valleys, after, of course, wresting the property out of the hands of the local indigenous peoples. The culture hasn’t changed, only moderated. But the Mexican culture is evident not only in place names, but in the objects germane to life on the range — lariat, bollo — and food— chili, chimichanga, sopapilla. And in the architecture, where in the vast nearly treeless spaces of this country the predominant architectural style is based on adobe.

From the preponderance of western hats, i.e. cowboy hats, instead of ball caps, to the, to be frank, size of the people, the West is a much larger place than what I’m used to. And size does matter. When you have to travel hours, not minutes to get to a town with a grocery store, your concept of time and distance are altered.

If you read Tony Hillerman, who was sort of the Phil Craig of his region, he has his characters driving all over the map to investigate crime one interview at a time. We were on that map, so to speak, and, even driving at the allowed 75 miles per hour, it still took a long time, from my perspective, to get from Kayenta to Bluff, Arizona. If you were trying to accomplish anything more than touring, you couldn’t possibly get much done in a day if it takes two hours to get from one place to another and then have to go back home. I really don’t understand why he has his characters doing so much driving when they have phones, but I guess that’s because his stories are as much travelogue as they are mysteries.

And this column is certainly a travelogue. Glad to be home.

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Four-legged fans Cobi and Nikki rose to the occasion when Susan Wilson signed copies of her new book, "One Good Dog," at a recent benefit for the Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard. The event was sponsored by the The Bunch of Grapes bookstore. Behind Ms. Wilson are (from left) shelter manager Lisa Hayes, Katherine Welch, and Stuart Nathan. — File photo by Niki Patton

I was dragged into the modern world of intimate strangers when I signed on for a Facebook account. The original reason was so that I could denigrate the phenomena from a position of actually having used it. I had no intention of really becoming a Facebook adherent. Times have changed and, as I have noted in this column, so did my attitude, particularly when my book came out and the marketing folks at my publishing house created a page just for the book. Suddenly I was devoting inordinate amounts of time to checking my wall posts, reading other people’s remarks, butting into conversations that seemed interesting to me, and otherwise losing a lot of creative time to this social networking, all in the name of marketing. I had a ready-made excuse to waste time.

Then I got phished. For those of you who have ever been mugged, that’s what this was like. In fact, the reprobate who phished me wrote an email, as if from me, to my “friends,” claiming that I had indeed been mugged and needed twelve hundred bucks sent to me at Heathrow Airport in order to get home. The appalling thing was, this letter didn’t just go to my real friends it also went to my no less real, but not quite real friends.

My “real” friends quickly decided that this was a bogus email because, and this does make me feel moderately better, the spelling, syntax, and punctuation of this fake email was so poor, they knew it couldn’t be from me. Nice. But the worst thing that happened was that the son of a gun managed to change my passwords so that I no longer had access not just to my Facebook account, but to my own email account, my lifeline. I love email because I can edit what I say. As my alert pals noted, my emails are punctuated and the grammar is correct. The written word is my comfort zone and I have control over it, unlike talking, when I often fail to make my point.

Suddenly I was unable to communicate with anyone. Quelle horreur!

Maybe too much of my communication is dependent on email, but thinking that I had lost all of my email addresses for those people I don’t frequently communicate with, like classmates, really rocked me. It wasn’t that I was truly cut off; I could always pick up the phone if it was necessary. But those people who know me well know that I am not a phone person. Email was invented for people like me who truly dislike making phone calls. I always assume that the recipient of my call is being disturbed. An email is enjoyed at leisure, a phone call is disruptive. I hate being rude, ergo, I love email. So when Mr. Hacker phished my primary source of communication, I was freaked out.

Then a strange thing happened. I relaxed. I no longer had the obligation to answer anyone’s email, comment, or wall post. I was free! For about 48 hours I basked in the sure knowledge that I had no way of communicating with anyone and I could just sit down and read a book, forget the unanswered emails lurking just out of reach. It was a snow day on vitamins. It was all out of my control.

Another unexpected benefit was hearing the voices of those friends who picked up the phone and called me to say that they’d encountered the bogus me. I talked with an old school chum I only see once a year. I got calls from family. I chatted, in the old sense, using my voice. I hate making phone calls, but it was very nice to get a few during the dark period of my exclusion from email.

I considered staying off the Internet. I really did. But, like so much that has become part and parcel of modern life, like double lattes and microwaves, I couldn’t give it up. Once Yahoo and Facebook accepted that I was me and not the bogus me, and reinstated my accounts, I was back at it in minutes. It felt good to be back. Yahoo!

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I had the most interesting email conversation with the woman who is doing the Brazilian Portuguese translation of “One Good Dog.” Professor Regina Lyra emailed me with a question about a reference to the actor Lawrence Olivier and we “got talking.”

As she writes: “Translation is, sometimes, a sort of puzzle and maybe that’s why it’s such a fascinating craft. I’m also a professor of literary translation at the Catholic University in Rio and these are the kind of difficulties that surprise my students as well, although they have been reading translations all their lives. As a matter of fact, readers do not give translation any thought, unless it bothers them, preventing the illusion that the book has been originally written like that — in other words, when the translation is bad.”

One of her first problems was that there is a specific word for the term sister-in-law, which created difficulty as the difference between sister and sister-in-law is a key element in the plot and without it, a lot gets lost.

Lyra writes: “The solution that came to me, after a sleepless night, was: ‘If only she’d been attentive enough with regard to that critical, essential, defining information when she listened to the message and then transferred it to the slip of paper… Sterling’s sister — and not his sister — had called suggesting a surprise party.'”

The Olivier reference that gave Prof. Lyra a little pause was, as she explains: “There are also the cultural differences. For example, the name of Lawrence Olivier is familiar to people of my generation, but not for most of the younger generation, so I also changed that for: ‘my performance was worthy of an Oscar.'”

I had never given much thought to the challenges posed to the translators of American fiction into Portuguese, French, Spanish, Norwegian, or any of the other languages my books have been translated into. I guess, being the poor language student that I was, I thought that it was a word-for-word process. Not so. This is an intellectual Suduko exercise. Evidently, America idioms are not always comprehensible in other languages. For Prof. Lyra, translating the sentence “on the other paw” was its own challenge. Because the familiar, to Americans, idiom “on the other hand” means something, substituting the word paw isn’t incomprehensible to the reader. But, because the sentence didn’t actually have the word “hand” in it, not only was it hard to translate, but the joke is lost too. She writes: “The same goes for some alliterations, like ‘greasy wheat sheaves in a breeze,’ for which, as of this moment, I haven’t yet decided what to do. That’s what the adage ‘lost in translation’ is all about.”

Good translation from English or into English requires more than an excellent comprehension of the language — the words — but the more instinctive quality of understanding the culture into which the words are being translated. It’s not just language; it’s also customs, experience, national identity, and nuance. As a reader of translated works, such as the outstanding “Out Stealing Horses” by Per Petterson (“Ut og stjæle hester”), a 2003 Norwegian novel that was translated into English in 2005 by Anne Born, I was unaware of the transition between the author’s language and the words on the translated page. That’s good translation. I even thought that at the time. On the other hand, I have read British authors whose work has been “translated” into American English that absolutely stunk because it was so obvious, and obviously unnecessary. It’s why some books do well in some countries but not others.

What’s really cool for me are the translations of the titles of those of my novels I was lucky enough to have sell in other countries. “Beauty” became “Passion Interdite (Forbidden Passion)” in France. “Hawke’s Cove” has become “Salatut tunteet (Hidden Feelings)” in Finnish, “Verao na Enseada (Summer in the Cove)” in Brazil and J”estrabi (Hawk)” in Slovakia where I became Susan Wilsonova. I kind of like that. I can’t wait to see what “One Good Dog” becomes.