Monday, April 29, 2013

Janice Steinberg

Janice Steinberg is an award-winning arts journalist who has published more than four hundred articles in The San Diego Union-Tribune, Dance Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. She is also the author of five mystery novels, including the Shamus Award–nominated Death in a City of Mystics. She has taught novel writing at the University of California, San Diego extension, and dance criticism at San Diego State University.

Steinberg's latest novel is The Tin Horse.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading.  Steinberg's reply:
The Lotus Eaters is one of those books that makes me glad there are still at least a few bookstores where one can browse and touch. Somehow this novel by Tatjana Soli escaped my notice when it came out in 2010; I missed the raves in the New York Times and elsewhere. But I spotted it in Warwick’s in La Jolla and was drawn by the cover photograph: a limpid bay that, close in, is tightly packed with fishing boats, but further out loses definition; water and sky dissolve into a dreamlike mist. Similarly, Soli’s story offers both richly detailed everyday reality and the sense of entering a dream.

The Lotus Eaters takes place in Vietnam during the American military involvement there, from the mid-1960s through the fall of Saigon in 1975. Helen Adams goes there in 1965 as a freelance photojournalist, though she’s such a novice that initially she has to ask for help loading film into her fancy new camera. Shortly after she arrives, she gets involved with an older, experienced photographer, Sam Darrow. The attraction is sexual, but Helen is also interested because Sam is what she wants to be--a star war photographer.

Helen does achieve stardom. She forces herself past her fear and goes with soldiers on patrol in a countryside described in sensual prose: "They fanned out and moved quickly down the gentle grass slope, their long, loose strides stirring up hundreds of greenish yellow grasshoppers that jumped waist-high in their path." She learns her craft. Her work makes the cover of Life magazine.

She also bears witness, her photographs showing U.S. soldiers caught in a war in which they couldn't tell who was an enemy and who an ordinary villager; a corrupt South Vietnamese army; and the destruction of a land and a culture. The reader sees this not only through her eyes but from the viewpoint of Linh, a Vietnamese who is first Sam's and then Helen’s assistant--and later Helen's lover. There's a romantic triangle of sorts, but it's subtle, the mood set by Linh's reserve.

Unlike Helen and Sam, Linh has no choice about living in the midst of war. His losses are enormous, and among the many things that make The Lotus Eaters an important book is the telling of Linh's story--initially in nightmarish fragments in his memory and spoken, for the first time, to Helen.

As Soli says in a reading guide interview, only a handful of women photographers covered the Vietnam War, and she gives the marvelously imagined Helen a web of motivations that push her toward the battlefield. Helen yearns for a "bigger, more important" life than she could have in her Southern California suburb. There's a thrill-seeker in her who comes to feel most alive when she's in-country. Her late father was a career military man, and her brother was an early Vietnam casualty--though these family building blocks struck me as a bit obligatory.

What most convincingly drives Helen is her ravenous ambition. She wants to be a star, and the way to do that is by photographing war. Her craving for personal glory--even as she recognizes the "ghoulishness of pouncing on tragedy with hungry eyes"--is revealed so nakedly and honestly that I want to place garlands on Soli’s brow, one novelist to another, in admiration.
Learn more about the book and author at Janice Steinberg's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Tin Horse.

--Marshal Zeringue