Jul 30 2020

Remembering John Lewis

I recently returned to this; the author James Farmer (1920-1999) grew up in Austin, Texas, where I live:


Jul 19 2020

Short Story Review: “Coven Covets Boy” (2018) by John Elizabeth Stintzi

Mark Twain in Athens

In short, John Elizabeth Stintzi’s short story “Coven Covets Boy” (Puritan Magazine, March 2018) is an amazing piece of contemporary short fiction.

My amazement at such a work makes it difficult to write about it with sobriety. Compounding that difficulty is the sheer difficulty of the text itself. For, like Allen Dulles’s description of counterintelligence as a hallway of mirrors [sorry, I can’t find the citation]—or perhaps more readers are familiar with the climax of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973)–Stinzi’s text contains stories inside other stories. Here readers will find refractions of narratives running on multi-vector trajectories.

In “Coven Covets Boy” readers encounter characters (mis)interpreting and retelling facts and acts from daily, various high-school scenes, scenarios involving notebooks, diaries, “fieldbooks”–– scraps of stories overlapping and interwoven within one another, much in the tradition of Borges, Calvino, Derrida, Eco, and even Tokarczuk—all this, and Stintzi still manages to have a coherent, linear pulse beating underneath.

There are in this story people who forget they are characters in these scraps of micro-stories, while others are unaware—still others are willfully (sometimes manipulatively) aware of the many, sedimentary layers of narrative they and their peers are involved in.

This story merits multiple rereadings and offers much to working artists as well as casual readers.

Huzzah!

https://www.instagram.com/p/CCzZNvhFrl1/

Jun 30 2020

Short Story Review: “Animation” by Chris Dangle

pencil shavings

I once knew a writer in the mid-80s, one of nondenominational Christian songs, and about the only lyric I can now remember (for I was then but a child) is “my life’s a vapor.”

This writer was in his twenties then; he later died in his forties (some kind of cancer, I heard about it third- or fourth-handed years later). So, like some poets, his lyrics (or at least the one I remember) ended up being prophetic.

So, when part of your childhood mindset is “life’s a vapor,” carpe diem and all that, it is quite natural to be suspicious of something that calls itself “flash fiction.”

I used to think flash fiction was just a gimmick to lure Gen-Z readers and writers into the ever nonlucrative world of modern publishing.

And there is Hamlet’s remark that “brevity is the soul of wit,” but he may be mad when he says it, and besides, not all brief texts, whether fiction or otherwise, are witty.

All that being said, I’m willing to reconsider things after reading Chris Drangle’s “Animation” (Chattahoochee Review Spring 2018), for here one finds intense, interesting brevity.

Here is a barest-of-bones narrative told seamlessly (or perhaps one should say “without fracture”)—like James Thurber’s (1894–1961) “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” (1939), the Ficciones of Jorge Borges (1899–1986), and some of Kafka’s (1883–1924) parables.

I shall now be more receptive to this genre (and may sometimes admit that even I make mistakes.)


May 10 2020

Five Books With Old, Interesting Covers That I’ve Recently Read

porticos in Bologna, Italia
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Recently read (c. 1964)

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1. There was a passage in the appendix to this book that reminded me, that while Nietzsche wrote The Birth of Tragedy, he also wrote a book titled Daybreak:

At what time of day did the plays begin?

At dawn. The dramatic poet for the day furnished a tetralogy of three tragedies and a satyr play. Finally the day ended with the performance of a comedy by one of the competing comic poets.

(Paul Rouche, “Appendix,” Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, trans. Roche (New York: Mentor Classics, 1964) p. 114.)

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Recently read (c. 1955)

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2. One thing that stuck out from reading this book was Ian Watt (1917–1999) explaining how the Elizabethans read differently than we do:

This contrast brings us to our final general comparison between modern and Elizabethan ‘light reading[’]. Even the word ‘reading’ suggests similarities which are misleading.

‘Able to read’ or ‘literate’ meant knowledge of Latin to most people until the eighteenth century. And even if ‘English’ were specified, ‘reading’ would still have denoted to an Elizabethan a process different from that commonly practised today. Most Elizabethan literature then received and still requires reading aloud, or at the very least pronouncing the words internally or sub-vocally. Even their prose novels and their sensational journalism were meant to be ‘interpreted’ into sound; that was the meaning they gave to the word ‘interpretation’. To some extent, at least, all their literature of entertainment was designed to embody the shame rhetorical and stylistic, as well as moral, values which are found in their lyrical and dramatic poetry. The modern habit of fast silent reading, combined with the development of matter which can be easily and swiftly absorbed by the eye alone, is perhaps the greatest obstacle between us and an enjoyment of Elizabethan light reading. Certainly it requires, as much as Spenser or Shakespeare, an alert attention to pauses and stresses, and to the pattern of sound and meaning, an attention which the Elizabethan unconsciously accorded. Only with this break from our present reading habits can we today recapture some of the qualities which the ordinary sixteenth-century reader expected to find as part of his pleasure and entertainment.

(“Elizabethan Light Reading,” The Age of Shakespeare, ed. Boris Ford, (Aylesbury and Slough: Penguin, 1955, 1960) 120.)

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Recently read (c. 1934, 1953)

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3. This was my second time to read this book, and I will return to again, because it covers a lot of ideas and times frames that overlap with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007). One thing that stood out on this reading was Willey making a triumvirate of Milton, Newton, and Locke:

The supremacy which Milton held in heroic poetry, and Newton in physics, belonged in philosophy to Locke. Moreover, his authority was not confined to this one sphere; indeed, the prestige of his philosophical work was itself acribable to the wide acceptance of his views on political liberty and religious toleration.

(Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background: the Thought of the Age in Relation to Religion and Poetry, New York: Columbia UP, 1935; Anchor Books Reprint, 1953) 264.)

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Recently read (c. 1964)

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4. While I’ve read various short stories by Chekov over the years, I’d never gotten around to reading his plays until now. And this moment from the first act of The Sea Gull (1896) was quite poignant on an initial reading:

ARKADINA: Now it appears he [Trigorin] has written a great work! Oh, really! Evidently he got up this performance and fumigated us with sulfur, not as a joke butt as a demonstration….  He wanted to teach us how one ought to write, and what one ought to act in. After all, this is getting tiresome! These continual sallies at my expense, these gibes, if you please, would try anyone’s patience! He’s a conceited, capricious boy!

SORIN: He meant to give you pleasure.

ARKADINA: Yes? Then why didn’t he choose the usual sort of play instead of forcing us to listen to these decadent ravings? I don’t mind listening even to raving if it’s a joke, but here we have pretensions to new forms, a new era in art. To my way of thinking this has nothing at all to do with new forms, it’s simply bad temper.

TRIGORIN: Everyone writes as he likes and as he can.

ARKADINA: Let him write as he likes and as he can, so long as he leaves me in peace.

(Anton Chekov, The Sea Gull in Chekhov: The Major Plays, trans. Ann Dunnigan (New York: Signet Classics, 1964) p. 117.)

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Recently read (c. 1954)

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5. Finally, I have yet to find much information about the author of The King’s Vixen (1954) Pamela Hill, though apparently she has written a few dozen novels. This one, her second, was pretty much a boring (but not bad) romance novel. There was, however, an amusing part about how speaking in allegory had become fashionable in early Tutor England:

“I came here to pay my respects to the farmer’s wife, and I find the goddess Aphrodite, risen from the waves and sojourning here, so that Phoebus shines the more brightly for her company,” [said Walter Kennedy]….

She [Jan] found his conversation amusing, being of a kind to which she had been hitherto unused. In France, and Italy where he had lately been, she understood that they talked thus in allegory, so that every woman was a nymph or a goddess and every action initiated by some virtue or vice.

(The King’s Vixen, (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1954) p. 39.)


May 7 2020

Short Story Review: “A Morning Swim” by Robert Garner McBrearty

bookshelf

Robert Garner McBrearty’s short story “A Morning Swim” (Missouri Review, Winter 2017) is an example of master craftsmanship of a prose storyteller:

(1) its opening paragraph immediately sets up one of the story’s two principle conflicts;

(2) there is careful handling of tone and the emotions that run from suspense, to euphoria, to anxiety, to rude humor (a cringe-worthy, Larry David-esque moment), to dark emotions of melodrama;

(3) the plot morphs from being one that involves an individual versus nature (shark, water) to one that invovles a conflict between two individuals (husband and wife). It then changes again into a (sub)plot of the individual versus their self (the swimmer).

With regard to themes, McBrearty’s story seems to oscillate from Wordsworth’s poem “The World is Too Much With Us” (1807) and how––

Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away,

––to then shift to the attitude, à la Marcus Aurelius, of advocating that one should cultivate an intimacy with Nature (III, ii). In doing so, according to Aurelius, one must reject one’s sense of injury—though that doesn’t mean laugh it off (IV, vii), but by rejecting it one carries out Nature’s bidding (V, i; see also V, iii). To quarrel is to go against Nature (II, xvi), for Nature is not evil (II, xvii). To live with nature means to live with others, which is a part of what “A Morning Swim is about.”

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Another short story review from Bookbread:

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Apr 30 2020

5 Short Stories to Occupy Your Attention

Western book stack

Here are five short stories I’ve recently reviewed:

The Bayside Blonde” by GD Dess, New Pop Lit.
(psychological thriller, dreamlike)

Earning Disapproval” by Shashi Bhat, The Puritan
(coming-of-age, teenage anxiety)

The Disappearance” by James Hatton, Popshot Quarterly
(science-fiction horror/thriller, dystopian)

Hunger” by Susan Neville, Missouri Review
(psychological thriller, dreamlike)

Plastics Factory” by Zheng Xiaoqiong, Sydney Review of Books
(job stress, isolation, futility of work)


Apr 27 2020

Pity for Poverty

typewriter

[The following was a major cut made to a book review I’ve submitted for publication. But I find the cut interesting enough.]

Even if we approve of a person who, from a sense of duty in charity, is sorry for a wretch, yet he who manifests fraternal compassion would prefer that there be no cause for sorrow. It is only if there could be a malicious good will (which is impossible) that someone who truly and sincerely felt compassion would wish wretches to exist so as to be objects of compassion. Therefore some kind of suffering is commendable, but none is loveable.

––Augustine, Confessions (3.3.3)[i]

BOSWELL. ‘Sir, I have not so much feeling for the distress of others, as some people have, or pretend to have: but I know this, that I would do all in my power to relieve them.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is affectation to pretend to feel the distress of others, as much as they do themselves. It is equally so, as if one should pretend to feel as much pain while a friend’s leg is cutting off, as he does. No, Sir; you have expressed the rational and just nature of sympathy.’

––Boswell, Life of Johnson, March 25, 1776

After reading, among other things, Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (2019), I find myself often wavering between the sympathies of Bishop Augustine, Dr. Johnson, and James Boswell above and the considerations below from longshoreman-turned-philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983):

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.

––The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)[ii]

I waver because for the past twenty years I have ridden the city bus to either school or work in Austin, Texas. As a straight white male alumnus of the University of Texas I have had on that bus the privilege to witness and encounter the less-privileged laugh, converse, fight, beg, pontificate, flirt, and sleep on buses and at bus stops. I’ve seen addicts, the unlucky, and the mentally ill ask strangers for directions to navigate the city, money for bus fares, cigarettes and lights, and even request prayer from strangers who—judging by the perplexions on their faces––seemed never to have prayed before. (But pray they all did!)

Yes, within this city I’ve stepped over a live body sprawled on the sidewalk, stiff and oblivious in a trance induced by the synthetic pseudo-cannabis called K2. I’ve handed my doggy bag full of fresh leftovers from lunch to the passerby beggar asking for something to eat. Very rarely (but not quite never) have I given a downtrodden individual a small amount of cash and a strong hug.

Occasionally I’ve traveled abroad and (again) witnessed and encountered les míserables in larger cities such as London, Paris, Dublin, and Berlin as well as smaller ones like Belfast, Oxford, Seville, and Bologna. Though I don’t recall any encounters with homelessness in Stratford, throughout my travels on the local bus and overseas I have, as Jacques says in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “gained my experience.”[iii] But the price for the “rich eyes” of a traveler means that, also like Jacques, I now possess the “poor hands” and empty pockets that so unimpressed fair Lady Rosalind. Such has been the life of writer Chris Landrum. Thus:

“We may have uneasy sensations from seeing a creature in distress, without pity; for we have not pity unless we wish to relieve them.”

––Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)[iv]

“Pity is one form of being convinced that someone else is in pain.”

––Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951)[v]

“The name of this intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention” is love.”

––Simone Weil (1909–1943)[vi]

NOTES

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[i] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (New York: Oxford UP, 1992) (III, iii, 1), p. 37.

[ii] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §11, p. 23.

[iii] William Shakespeare, As You Like It IV, i.

[iv] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, 18 July 1763.

[v] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001; revised Fourth Edition eds. Hacker and Schulte, 2009) I. no. 287.

[vi] Simone Weil, “Human Personality,” (1943), Simone Weil: an Anthology, ed. Siân Miles, (London: Virago Press, 1986) 92.


Apr 21 2020

Short Story Review: “Plastics Factory” by Zheng Xiaoqiong

pencil shavings

Short Story Review: “Plastics Factory” by Zheng Xiaoqiong
Translated by Isabelle Li

Zheng Xiaoqiong’s short story “Plastics Factory” (Sydney Review of Books, February 2019) is a strange work of fiction I keep returning to and rereading. I don’t “get” some of it; but all of it intrigues me.

There is, for example, a timelessness to this story. It was just as absorbing reading it before the pandemic as it has been during it. Or it could be read in the 1950s or the 2050s, before or after a great economic war, and still make sense.

Much like the ancient Psalms (such as 61), throughout “Plastics Factory” there is a voice that sometimes cries out in desperation but expects no response. It’s not always a loud cry; sometimes just a murmuring chant, quiet as the waters of a clear, thin stream:

… plastic beads melting, disintegrating, flowing into moulds, solidifying, being pushed out by mechanical arms, picked by us, placed in basins, on shelves, into tubes, sent to the fourth floor, assembled by us, and packed, before being taken away by container trucks, year after year, one piece after another. We are the same, our youth melted and dissolved, flowing into every finished product, packed up and taken away.

There is also a kind of culturelessness to the story: it could be set anywhere Seoul, Minsk, or Mexico City—there is a placelessness to it and there’s something pure about that. Reading Xiaoqiong’s story doesn’t feel foreign or translated. It doesn’t feel strictly like a “Chinese” story. It feels familiar, as when the narrator remarks:

In this place, I can’t find any room to accommodate a quiet, imaginative heart. Labour has crowded out all imagination and any superfluous thoughts or dreams.

And:

I believe the taste of labour is sourness. In my mind, toiling is tiring, and tiredness is sour. ‘Sour-tired, sour-tired,’ my mother, who toiled the field, had often said. Such sour-tiredness wafts from the loaders, surrounding their bodies.

I have a sour tongue: that I as a reader am not getting the author’s full intentions. But it’s my fault, not hers. Alas, I’m an unfair reader who wants to be pleased and pampered. Signs of a struggle betray my weaknesses. But the sourness is sharp, acute, memorable. I want another taste.


Apr 7 2020

Short Story Review: “Hunger” by Susan Neville

book spines

I don’t want to go too much into summary and specifics of plot when discussing Susan Neville’s short story “Hunger,” (Missouri Review, Winter 2017). The title speaks enough for itself in that regard.

Instead I will note some moments and lines that stood out and elaborate on why they did for me.

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At one point the unnamed narrator tells readers:

Maybe it was choice itself I wanted to rid myself of. Left or right? This way or that? Day in and day out, year after year, I drive in my little rat’s maze. Grocery store. Drugstore. Work. Home. But in what order? And what if I wanted to break out of that maze, as I sometimes do? (p. 31)

Readers learn only that this narrator lacks a sense of freedom, but not why. This idea that she’s stuck in a rat’s maze, either entrapped in vacuity or restrained by oppressive hegemony—she never tells readers, but it really stood out when I read it.

And this mention of the maze has both reminded me of what New Pop Lit editor Karl Wenclas has been getting at as a literary theorist and editor as well as led me to suspect that Neville is also trying to get at something similar as a writer (through the character of her narrator in this story): the need to break out of the maze––to shatter the cookie-cutter, foregone conclusions found in too many short stories these days.

Neville’s story has what Wenclas hints at in his phrasing of “new, different angles,” and how “in truth there are more than two sides to every story.” And Neville’s story has many sides, though I haven’t apprehended all of them fully (even after at least three enthusiastic readings). But she seems to have created something that Wenclas, myself, and others are looking for as readers, what Wenclas has formulated as “a faster, vastly more readable and exciting short story….” a “prototype so different from the standard.”

wood

At one point, Neville’s narrator tells readers:

One of the pleasures of life is that there is always so much to think about and attempt to understand. (p. 32)

This to me is a key to understanding why the narrator is almost overwhelmed by the abundance of detail she’s trying to share and the difficulty in expressing why she needs to share that abundance to her readers. They aren’t just readers, but readers-as-characters participating in the story by their close listening. But even an abundance of something Good can be overwhelming and requiring adjustment (Plato, Republic VII, 518) or worse, so poisonous as to necessitate countermeasures (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II, ii; II, vii; III, vii; IV, v).

Yet, at the end of the day, the reader doesn’t know beyond a reasonable doubt if Neville’s narrator’s thinking about life qualifies as excessive and overly abundant. (But there may be clues that I as a reader have as of yet unknowingly passed over.)

wood

The narrator of “Hunger” informs readers that:

I must have complete quiet in the car. I do not listen to music. I listen to my thoughts. (p. 33)

And this line reminded me of something I’d come across recently when rereading Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a novel whose narrator tells readers:

Sometimes I’ll turn on the radio and listen to a talk program from Boston or New York. I can’t stand recorded music if I’ve been drinking a good deal.

(Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five, (New York: Dell, 1969; 1971) I, 7.)

If one doesn’t listen to music when in the car for long periods of time, as Neville’s (seemingly sober) narrator appears to be doing—does that act of debarring oneself from art indicate excessive thinking? Vonnegut’s narrator seems to imply that excessive drinking leads to excessive thinking. One wants to say to the main character of “Hunger,” “If only she’d listened to music, then perhaps she wouldn’t feel so trapped in that maze she thinks she’s in.” But that may not be the case for this hungry character.

This notion of too much thinking and not enough music also reminds me of a passage from Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog (1922):

But they––incredible! incredible!––they never replied, behaved as if I were not there. Dogs who make no reply to the greeting of other dogs are guilty of an offense against good manners which the humblest dog would never pardon any more than the greatest. Perhaps they were not dogs at all? But how should they not be dogs? Could I not actually hear on listening more closely the subdued cries with which they encouraged each other, drew each other’s attention to difficulties, warned each other against errors; could I not see the last and youngest dog, to whom most of those cries were addressed, often stealing a glance at me as if he would have dearly wished to reply, but refrained because it was not allowed? But why should it not be allowed, why should the very thing which our laws unconditionally command not be allowed in this one case? I became indignant at the thought and almost forgot the music. Those dogs were violating the law. Great magicians they might be, but the law was valid for them too, I knew that quite well though I was a child. And having recognized that, I now noticed something else. They had good grounds for remaining silent, that is, assuming that they remained silent from a sense of shame.

(Franz Kafka, “Forschungen eins Hundes” (“Investigations of a Dog”) (c. 1922). trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, (New York: Schocken, 1971) 283.)

Notice that the dogs don’t just howl harmoniously; they make music so complex it can be forgotten.

wood

Finally, there’s the line by Neville from the daughter to her mother, the narrator:

I felt like I was being buried alive, she [the daughter] says and then asks, Where are you? I’m driving, I say, and there’s an uncanny valley sort of blip in her face as she continues doing whatever she was doing when I accidentally called her. (p. 33)

Yes, the daughter could literally mean, “Where are you, mother?” But sometimes asking “Where are you?” is a way of asking “What are you thinking about just now?” Readers don’t know where the mother-narrator is, or is going, for she never mentions a destination. The mechanic she visits functions only to keep her going, but she never intends to stop. It seems the means of her getting there have overcome the goal itself.

But is she being chased? Yes, some mazes have no exits, but I detect no monsters in this story. There is no evidence in the text that the mother-narrator is being chased by a Minotaur.


Apr 1 2020

Short Story Review: “The Disappearance” by James Hatton

Mark Twain in Athens

[Prefatory note: Here at Bookbread I’m starting a new series, one where I will review short stories I’ve read. I’ll try to review one at a time (in about one paragraph), but possibly intersperse those singular reviews with commentary that compares and contrasts various stories. But I want to keep the general focus on one-short-story-at-a-time. Most of the things I’ll review were written in the last five years.]

As of April 1, 2020, everyone is relating every experience, action, thought (including specific acts and overall habits of reading) to the fallout from the outbreak of the Corona virus.

We are so overly focused on this one moment in our lives that it distorts the relations of this one moment to all others we’ve experienced and all the ones left to come.

Our tunnel vision has blotted out the periphery.

We are tainted by the current Zeitgeist—our fingers are filthy from trying to properly pin the tail on the beast we call the Spirit of the Times—our worries follow wherever the tail may wag. And if we don’t pin the tail just right, we feel we’ll end up like Eeyore—a donkey detached from his tail, someone less than they once were.

I don’t know how to avoid relating everything back to the Corona virus, particularly when it comes to reviewing apocalyptic short stories written by contemporary authors.

I can only admit that I don’t know how to avoid it; I can only emit a sense of enmity toward it.

I must learn to bound—and by bounding get beyond the inevitable referent of the viral outbreak.

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I read James Hatton’s short story “The Disappearance” over a year ago when it was published in 2018 by PopShot Quarterly magazine, and I meant to write something about it then. Alas, it got put aside. (2019 was, for me as a writer, pretty much a year of “regrouping.”) But I’ve come back to the story, and due to present circumstances, can’t help but compare it (or relate it rather) to the ongoing quarantine and chaos.

“The Disappearance” is an apocalyptic story told by an omnipotent, third-person narrator during a time and place where, for its characters “in their secluded life here, miles from anywhere, it had all seemed so far away.”

There occurs a change of circumstances for the characters Tom and Catherine. Then they get used to the change. Then, more change occurs.

Despite obvious comparisons to the current situation, I thought “The Disappearance” a worthwhile story a year ago. Its theme of alienation didn’t have to be plague-induced in order to be potent.

Though it compares well with the present unpleasantness—reading Hatton’s story now also reminds me of when the days of the earth did not stand so still. And this reminding is, for me now, a kind of escapism from the lockdown we continue to undergo. Reading “The Disappearance” lets me escape back into an old feeling—“some old need,” as the narrator puts it, “to be moving towards something.”

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Catch and release

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The springtime anole iguanas are helping me forget about you-know-what.