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.


Mar 15 2020

Short Story Review: “The Bayside Blonde” by GD Dess

porticos in Bologna, Italia

[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.]

So I got around to reading GD Dess’s “The Bayside Blonde,” a short story published by New Pop Lit this past January. It makes for interesting, but exhausting reading. The same could be said for much of Proust, some of Ulysses (1922), and the great rant by the father at the end of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997).

By “interesting, but exhausting” as in Joyce’s Ulysses, I mean things like:

—Antisthenes, pupil of Gorgias, Stephen said, took the palm of beauty from Kyrios Menelaus’ brooddam, Argive Helen, the wooden mare of Troy in whom a score of heroes slept, and handed it to poor Penelope. Twenty years he lived in London and, during part of that time, he drew a salary equal to that of the lord chancellor of Ireland. His life was rich. His art, more than the art of feudalism as Walt Whitman called it, is the art of surfeit. Hot herringpies, green mugs of sack, honeysauces, sugar of roses, marchpane, gooseberried pigeons, ringocandies. Sir Walter Raleigh, when they arrested him, had half a million francs on his back including a pair of fancy stays. The gombeenwoman Eliza Tudor had underlinen enough to vie with her of Sheba. Twenty years he dallied there between conjugial love and its chaste delights and scortatory love and its foul pleasures. You know Manningham’s story of the burgher’s wife who bade Dick Burbage to her bed after she had seen him in Richard III and how Shakespeare, overhearing, without more ado about nothing, took the cow by the horns and, when Burbage came knocking at the gate, answered from the capon’s blankets: William the conqueror came before Richard III. And the gay lakin, mistress Fitton, mount and cry O, and his dainty birdsnies, lady Penelope Rich, a clean quality woman is suited for a player, and the punks of the bankside, a penny a time.

(Ulysses, IX [“Scylla and Charybdis”] )

Whether or not this kind of story-telling is your cup of tea, this kind of thing is what can be found in Dess’s “The Bayside Blonde.”

Shoptalkwise: Dess crams a lot of micro-narratives, pustulating plots and bursting conclusions in single paragraphs–but all through a well-controlled, well-modulated narrator’s voice–one neither excessively loud nor wanting in volume.

As a story, “The Bayside Blonde” is quite Aristotelian in terms of plot: it has a distinct beginning, middle, and end.

Overall, I don’t know if I “like” it per se, but it works. It doesn’t cheat readers of their time. I don’t feel “ripped off” for having taken the time to read it. And that’s more than can be said for a lot of short fiction slung around these days.

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New output, fresh from Bookbread dot com

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Jan 17 2020

Arcadia and Middle-Earth: Prose Plus Poetry in Sidney and Tolkien

After finishing C. S. Lewis’s (1898–1963) English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama) (1954) last autumn, I was curious to then read Sir. Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1580): a strange work of mostly prose, but interspersed with much poetry. I’d read Sidney’s Apology (1580) several times and mostly understood it, but the Arcadia was more ambiguous. When reading it, sometimes (at least the older version) felt like a medieval romance (like the first part of the Roman de la Rose [c. 1230]). At other times, the Arcadia felt like an ancient epic (the Argonautica (c. 200 BC) comes to mind). Either way, Arcadia is definitely not a novel, though it is a fantasy.

And it also reminded me much of J. R. R. Tolkien’s (1892–1973) works—another fantasy world told mostly in prose but containing much poetry. Both authors take these old literary forms and add something fresh to them by mixing them together. They are “fun,” even when their tones turn toward things serious. In this regard, they have mirth.

This freshness of song and speech also reminded somewhat of Miguel Cervantes (1547–1616) Don Quijote (1605, 1616), which contains a few handfuls of sonnets, and along these lines we might add Johanna Spyri’s (1827–1901) Heidi’s Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) (1880) and Heidi Kann Brauchen, was es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (1881) as well as John Bunyan’s (1628–1688) The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) with their Protestant hymns and songs intermixed with prose tales.

But the going-back-and-forthness between prose and poetry in Sidney’s Arcadia and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth mostly reminded me of classic Hollywood musicals. (I’m a South Pacific (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964) kind of guy.)

Post Scriptum

Finally, with feelings more of somberness than sadness do we wish Christopher Tolkien (1924–2020) and his kin the best as he now journeys westward toward the Grey Havens. His task as steward to his father’s work is now complete. And I expect the father to soon say to all around him, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”

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First edition…. RIP Christopher Tolkien

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Dec 28 2019

Heidi and Sidney: Two Views of Arcadia

typewriter

The title character of Johanna Spyri’s (1827-1901) Heidis Lehr und Wanderjahre (Heidis Years of Wandering and Learning) (c. 1880) and its sequel Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (c. 1881) lives in a true Arcadian paradise along the slopes of the Swiss Alps:

By now the sun was ready to go down behind the mountains. Heidi sat on the ground again and gazed at the bluebells and the rock-roses glowing in the evening light. The grass seemed tinted with gold, and the cliffs above began to gleam and sparkle….[1]

May had come. From every height the overflowing brooks were rushing down into the valley. Warm, bright sunshine lay on the mountain. It had grown green again; the last traces of snow had melted away, and the first little flowers were peeping up out of the fresh grass. The spring wind blew through the fir trees and shook off the old, dark needles, so that the young, bright green ones could come out and dress the trees in splendor. High above, the old robber-bird was swinging his wings in the blue air, and around the Alm hut the golden sunshine lay warm on the ground. [2]

Yes, as Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) has taught us beforehand, Heidi’s world is founded in that literary setting of poetic pastoral that so often can become (as Americans say) “tacky” with its kitsch motifs, followed by the inevitable banality in meaning behind them. As Johnson puts it:

In consequence of these original errours, a thousand precepts have been given, which have only contributed to perplex and confound. Some have thought it necessary that the imaginary manners of the golden age should be universally preserved, and have therefore believed, that nothing more could be admitted in pastoral, than lilies and roses, and rocks and streams, among which are heard the gentle whispers of chaste fondness, or the soft complaints of amorous impatience. In pastoral, as in other writings, chastity of sentiment ought doubtless to be observed, and purity of manners to be represented; not because the poet is confined to the images of the golden age, but because, having the subject in his own choice, he ought always to consult the interest of virtue. (Rambler no. 37, July 24, 1750)

Johnson is almost always right about this sort of thing. Still, it is good for children to read about the world Heidi lives in, for though it is a beautiful world, it is certainly not a paradise. Through her innocence and innate goodness, Heidi “was never unhappy, for she could always find something about her to enjoy.”[3] But those around her must struggle (and it’s important for children to read about this contrast, for depicting it is one of the things good fiction, for any age, tends to do).

There is, for example, the goatherd boy Peter, who has literally never eaten is fill, and a grand moment where he marvels when Heidi gives him some of her leftovers as they share a mountainside lunch.[4] And there is Heidi’s friend from Frankfurt, Clara, a girl (temporarily?) lame, perhaps from polio. Life is certainly not a paradise for Clara, which is one reason while Heidi comes to visit her. [5] There is the doctor who suffers melancholy and finds relief in the mountains. [6] And finally, there is Heidi’s grandfather, whom she loves dearly, but is someone who remains stubborn (for reasons never quite explained) in his unforgiveness toward the town beneath his mountain cabin.

But the Arcadia of the Heidi books is quite different from the original Arcadia (1580) by Sir Philip Sidney (1584-1586), which is a work that paints a world without children, but also a world full of young love and (occasionally) lust, as readers find at the end of Book III:

    Thus hath each part his beauty’s part;
But how the Graces do impart
To all her limbs a special grace,
Becoming every time and place,
Which doth e’en beauty beautify,
And most bewitch the wretched eye!
How all this is but a fair inn
Of fairer guest which dwells within,
Of whose high praise, and praiseful bliss,
Goodness the pen, heav’n paper is;
The ink immortal fame doth lend.
As I began, so must I end:
    No tongue can her perfections tell,
    In whose each part all pens may dwell.[7]

Upon encountering Sidney’s fictional work, I expected (as Johnson has taught me) green pastures and white sheep abounding. But here Sidney’s prose fiction rarely has anything to say about landscape. Instead there is a wild variety of poetry sprinkled throughout this strange prose creation, some of it beautiful, but some of it too rugged (in its style and structure) to be recited aloud with ease.

And I don’t know how reading these two highly contrasting works will ever make me a better writer (or reader), but after having read them, I do feel both better informed and thoroughly refreshed from the workaday world of Austin, Texas. As the doctor says to Heidi after recovering from his melancholy:

It is good to be on the mountain. Body and soul get well there, and life becomes happy again.”[8]

Happy New Year,

Christopher / Bookbread

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Picturesque at the family farm

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NOTES

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[1] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) in Heidi, illustrated Arthur Jameson, trans. Helene S. White [?], (Racine, WI: Whitman Publishing Co., 1944) I, iii, p. 36.

[2] Spyri, Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (c. 1881) in Heidi, illustrated Arthur Jameson, trans. Helene S. White [?], (Racine, WI: Whitman Publishing Co., 1944) II, vi, p. 183.

[3] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) I, iv, p. 40.

[4] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) I, iii, p. 32.

[5] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) I, vi.

[6] Spyri, Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) II, iii.

[7] Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia (The Old Arcadia) (c. 1580), ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones, (New York: Oxford UP, 1973; 2008) 210–11.

[8] Spyri, Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) II, iii, p. 164.


Dec 1 2019

Gogol, Dolly, and George Sessions Perry

Western book stack

Until recently, I’d never heard of George Sessions Perry (1910–1956), even though for the past several years I’ve made my way to his hometown of Rockdale, Milam County, Texas to eat barbeque and attend rodeos. Sessions was a writer, mostly of fiction, and most notably for his 1942 novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, a book which tells the story of a white tenant farmer family in the central-eastern portion of the Lone Star State.

There is a moment in the novel’s sixth chapter that particularly stands out: a scene where a family wants to send their daughter to school on a cold and rainy morning until they realize she has no coat. What follows is a three-page description of how the daughter’s coat comes to be produced—a scene somewhat moving in its intentions, somewhat sappy in its melodrama––somewhat reminiscent of the rugged practicalities behind the madness of the protagonist in Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 short story “Шинель” (“The Overcoat”), and yet also somewhat resembling the soft sentimentality running through the narrator of Dolly Parton’s ballad of a “Coat of Many Colors” (1971).

But it was a scene that made reading the book worthwhile, and I now find myself curious to encounter what else Perry wrote about.


Jun 12 2019

Reading in the Hospital

porticos in Bologna, Italia

C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) once confessed what his ideal reading situation would be:

Johnson once described the ideal happiness which he would choose if he were regardless of futurity. My own choice, with the same reservation, would be to read the Italian epic—to be always convalescent from some small illness and always seated in a window that overlooked the sea, there to read these poems eight hours of each happy day. (The Allegory of Love, (Oxford UP, 1936; Second Edition, 1946) 304)

Lewis is referring (I think) to Samuel Johnson’s (1709-1784) choice of Shakespeare:

Having fallen into a very serious frame of mind, in which mutual expressions of kindness passed between us, such as would be thought too vain in me to repeat, I talked with regret of the sad inevitable certainty that one of us must survive the other.

JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, that is an affecting consideration. I remember Swift, in one of his letters to Pope, says, “I intend to come over, that we may meet once more; and when we must part, it is what happens to all human beings.”’

BOSWELL. ‘The hope that we shall see our departed friends again must support the mind.’

JOHNSON. ‘Why, yes, Sir.’ Boswell. ‘There is a strange unwillingness to part with life, independent of serious fears as to futurity. A reverend friend of ours [Dr. Percy] tells me, that he feels an uneasiness at the thoughts of leaving his house, his study, his books.’

JOHNSON. ‘This is foolish in [Percy]. A man need not be uneasy on these grounds: for, as he will retain his consciousness, he may say with the philosopher, Omnia mea mecum porto. [‘All that is mine, I carry with me,’ Cicero, Paradoxa, i]’

BOSWELL. ‘True, Sir: we may carry our books in our heads; but still there is something painful in the thought of leaving for ever what has given us pleasure. I remember, many years ago, when my imagination was warm, and I happened to be in a melancholy mood, it distressed me to think of going into a state of being in which Shakepeare’s poetry did not exist. A lady, whom I then much admired, a very amiable woman, humoured my fancy, and relieved me by saying, “The first thing you will meet with in the other world will be an elegant copy of Shakspeare’s works, presented to you.”’

Dr. Johnson smiled benignantly at this, and did not appear to disapprove of the notion…. (Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 69, April 1778)

But compare Lewis’s preferred hospital to those in Thomas More’s (1478–1535) Utopia (c. 1516), where:

hospital patients get first priority—oh yes, there are four hospitals in the suburbs, just outside the walls. Each of them is about the size of a small town. The idea of this is to prevent overcrowding, and facilitate the isolation of infectious cases. These hospitals are so well run, and so well supplied with all types of medical equipment, the nurses are so sympathetic and conscientious, and there are so many experienced doctors constantly available, that, though nobody’s forced to go there, practically everyone would rather be ill in hospital than at home. (Utopia (c. 1516, 1551), trans. Paul Turner, (New York: Penguin, 1965) II, 61–62)

To be a patient in Utopia is to be a king: everyone attends to you. Compare Mayra Hornbacher: “Hospital policy is to impose the least level of restriction possible,” (Madness: a Bipolar Life, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008) 5).

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Jun 5 2019

Walking with Thoreau

In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau writes:

You must walk like a camel which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking. When a traveller asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered “Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.”

I’ve been in a Thoreau-esque mood lately. I’ve been gardening, photographing, paying closer attention to the nature around me, trying to figure out how this relates to my writing, wondering how it might make me a better writer.

Some highlights:

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Different day, different lizard

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An anole
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Wildflowers at the farm #wildflowers

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Green Lizzy #lizard

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Mar 27 2019

Thucydides and Our Refusal to Debate Neighbors-as-Enemies

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Thucydides and Our Refusal to Debate Neighbors-as-Enemies

Today I’m reading some things I haven’t quite got around to:

And in reading those things above, it reminded me of a passage toward the end of the manuscript to Thucydides‘ (460-400 BC) unfinished History, where he observes:

The Assembly and the Council of the Bean* still met notwithstanding, although they discussed nothing that was not approved of by the conspirators, who both supplied the speakers, and reviewed in advance what they were to say.

Fear, and the sight of the numbers of the conspirators, closed the mouths of the rest; or if any ventured to rise in opposition, he was presently put to death in some convenient way, and there was neither search for the murderers nor justice to be had against them if suspected; but the people remained motionless, being so thoroughly cowed that men thought themselves lucky to escape violence, even when they held their tongues.

An exaggerated belief in the numbers of the conspirators also demoralised the people, rendered helpless by the magnitude of the city, and by their want of intelligence with each other, and being without means of finding out what those numbers really were.

For the same reason it was impossible for any one to open his grief to a neighbour and to concert measures to defend himself, as he would have had to speak either to one whom he did not know, or whom he knew but did not trust.

Indeed all the popular party approached each other with suspicion, each thinking his neighbour concerned in what was going on, the conspirators having in their ranks persons whom no one could ever have believed capable of joining an oligarchy; and these it was who made the many so suspicious, and so helped to procure impunity for the few, by confirming the commons in their mistrust of one another.

Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, Everyman Library (New York: J. M. Dent, 1910) (8.66).

*The Council of the Bean was so-called because voted were indicated and tallied by a jar of differently colored beans.

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Mar 1 2019

What The Hell Does “Culture” Mean, Anyway?

What the Hell Does “Culture” Mean, Anyway?

Let’s ask Leo Strauss (1899-1973):

Nietzsche has a deeper reverence than any other beholder for the sacred tables of the Hebrews as well as of the other nations in question. Yet since he is only a beholder of these tables, since what one table commends or commands is incompatible with what the others command, he is not subject to the commandments of any. This is true also and especially of the tables, or “values” of modern Western culture. But according to him, all scientific concepts, and hence in particular the concept of culture, are culture-bound; the concept of cultures is an outgrowth of 19th century Western culture; its application to “cultures” of other ages and climates is an act stemming from the spiritual imperialism of that particular culture. There is then a glaring contradiction between the claimed objectivity of the science of cultures and the radical subjectivity of that science. Differently stated, one cannot behold, i.e., truly understand, any culture unless one is firmly rooted in one’s own culture or unless one belongs in one’s capacity as a beholder to some culture. But if the universality of the beholding of all cultures is to be preserved, the culture to which the beholder of all cultures belongs, must be the universal culture, the culture of mankind, the world culture; the universality of beholding presupposes, if only by anticipating it, the universal culture which is no longer one culture among many. The variety of cultures that have hitherto emerged contradicts the oneness of truth. Truth is not a woman so that each man can have his own truth as he can have his own wife. Nietzsche sought therefore for a culture that would no longer be particular and hence in the last analysis arbitrary. The single goal of mankind is conceived by him as in a sense super-human: he speaks of the super-man of the future. The super-man is meant to unite in himself Jerusalem and Athens on the highest level.(“Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections,” Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, (University of Chicago Press, 1983) 148–49.)

And:

Democracy is then not indeed mass rule but mass culture …. An illiterate society at its best is a society ruled by age-old ancestral custom which it traces to original founders, gods or sons of gods or pupils of gods; since there are no letters in such a society, the late heirs cannot be in direct contact with the original founders…. Hence an illiterate society cannot consistently act on its principle that the best is the oldest…. (Strauss “What is Liberal Education?” Address Delivered at the Tenth Annual Graduation Exercises of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. June 6, 1959)


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Feb 12 2019

What I Don’t Know

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

What I Don’t Know

From Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), a book that took me thirteenth months to complete:

The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally it is alien to our experience, but it is true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do…. [1]

the confidence that people have in their intuitions is not a reliable guide to their validity. In other words, do not trust anyone—including yourself—to tell you how much you should trust their judgment….[2]

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.[3]

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[1] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) 52.

[2] Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow 239–40.

[3] Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow 402.