Nov 3 2020

5 Short Stories Reviewed in Short Length

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Here are 5 short stories written in the last 3 years that I have reviewed in the last 6 months. (You know you have nothing better to do than read fiction on election day!)

  1. Robert Garner McBrearty’s “A Morning Swim” (Missouri Review, Winter 2017) reviewed by Bookbread here.
  2. Chris Drangle’s “Animation” (Chattahoochee Review Spring 2018) reviewed by Bookbread here.
  3. John Elizabeth Stintzi’s “Coven Covets Boy” (Puritan Magazine, March 2018) reviewed by Bookbread here.
  4. Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s “The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling” (Chattahoochee Review, Spring 2018) reviewed by Bookbread here.
  5. Jim Bosiljeavac’s “There Is in This Dirty Night a Running Chase Off and Away,” (Craft Literary, March 2019) reviewed by Bookbread here.

Oct 28 2020

Short Story Review: “There Is in This Dirty Night a Running Chase Off and Away” (2019) by Jim Bosiljevac

typewriter

I don’t know what you call this style of narrative, but I’ve met it (or at least cousins of it) before. Of course, style is and isn’t substance. And all styles have their precursors, unchosen genealogies harkening back to nameless literary ancestors of yore.

What I see, as far as style goes, in Jim Bosiljeavac’s short story “There Is in This Dirty Night a Running Chase Off and Away,” (Craft Literary, March 2019) can only be called the pulsing hyperpresent of the narrative—a rugged intensity emitting, radiating through each pseudo-sentence of the story. (Bosiljeavac’s piece contains no commas.)

I first encountered this style, as many of us do, in the grade-school classic “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) by Ambrose Bierce. Later I saw in Conrad, particularly in “Heart of Darkness” (1899) and grew weary of it in Faulkner, even at his best:

It was as if the boy had already divined what his senses and intellect had not encompassed yet: that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness, men myriad and nameless even to one another in the land where the old bear had earned a name, and through which ran not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old, dead time, a phantom, epitome, and apotheosis of the old, wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear, like pygmies about ankles of a drowsing elephant;––the old bear, solitary, indomitable, and alone; widowered, childless, and absolved of mortality—old Priam reft of his old wife and outlived all his sons. (William Faulkner, Go Down Moses. (New York: Random House, 1947) “V. The Bear.” § I)

You can find this style in Ellison’s The Invisible Man (1947):

Around me the students move with faces frozen in solemn masks, and I seem to hear already the voices mechanically raised in the songs the visitors loved. (Loved? Demanded. Sung? An ultimatum accepted and ritualized, an allegiance recited for the peace it imparted, and for that perhaps loved. Loved as the defeated come to love the symbols of their conquerors. A gesture of acceptance, of terms laid down and reluctantly approved.) And here, sitting rigid, I remember the evenings spent before the sweeping platform in awe and in pleasure, and in the pleasure of a we; remember the short formal sermons intoned from the pulpit there, rendered in smooth articulate tones, with calm assurance purged of that wild emotion of the crude preachers most of us knew in our home towns and of whom we were deeply ashamed, these logical appeals which reached us more like the thrust of a firm and formal design requiring nothing more than the lucidity of uncluttered periods, the lulling movement of multisyllabic words to thrill and console us. And I remember, too, the talks of visiting speakers, all eager to inform us of how fortunate we were to be a part of the “vast” and formal ritual. How fortunate to belong to this family sheltered from those lost in ignorance and darkness. (The Invisible Man (New York: Random House, 1953) V, 86.)

Sometimes the pulsing hyperpresent style pops up in Jack London, sometimes in Camus (as in the 1957 short story “Le renégat”), and certainly in John Gardner’s Grendel (1971):

A severed leg swells up and bursts, then an arm, then another, and the red fire turns on the blackening flesh and makes it sizzle, and it reaches higher, up and up into greasy smoke, turning, turning, like the falcons at warplay, rushing like circling wolves up into the swallowing, indifferent sky. (Grendel, (New York: Knopf, 1971) I, 14)

This style that emphasizes an intensity of immediacy can even be found in Michael Punke’s The Revenant (2002). But when it comes to Bosiljevac’s story, I think one of the key paragraphs is toward the end, where—much like in Conrad’s Darkness and Bierce’s Occurrence, dream and reality, conscious and subconscious have folded over one another (perhaps bleeding into the metafictions of Stephen Dixon). Bosiljevac writes:

Owen! he shouts but it comes out Own! but he shouts it over and over and chases the sound down toward the white eagle and in his mind he begins to see things that are like memories but he knows he never experienced these things. He sees a man with a feather in his hair and blood smeared all about his face riding on a black horse and the man is slumped over with a spear run clear through him and he sees two bears wrestling in a muddy street and he sees a woman in a small farmhouse out in the country and she is telling a story to her child son about the young boy who was awakened in the night by a noise and runs out not knowing if he is in a dream or in real life but believing that his younger brother has been stolen by the devil. And in this story the boy chases the devil into the woods and across fields and through rivers and over mountains and he is carried forward by the rope that hitches his heart to his brother’s and because he doesn’t know if it’s real that a devil has stolen his brother in the night or if he has just been sent off by a dream.

Whatever you want to call that style, Bosiljevac has written an interesting, strong piece of short fiction. It is not completely perfect. I thought the naming of the children, in all their biblically onomastic glory, was a little too corny, too much like The Waltons going to bed. But other than that, what readers get is a potent, probing tale of night and sweat, suspense and silence. This is a writer (who apparently also spends some of his time in Austin) to watch out for.

The Waltons Say Goodnight


Oct 17 2020

Another Crumb Removed from a Work in Progress

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

Here is another crumb removed from a work in progress, but one perhaps worth sharing nonetheless. Long-distance relationships don’t always work, but long-distance perspectives are often useful for art and science:

Besides, “we are better able,” says Aristotle, “to contemplate our neighbors than ourselves, and their actions than our own,” (Nico. Ethics 09.09). This might even be one reason why Plato chose to write the final words of Socrates within the context of a conversation between two people outside of Athens rather than two members of the jury who sentenced him.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1934) (IX, ix) p. 559; Plato, Phaedo 57a in The Last Days of Socrates, trans. Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant, (New York: Penguin, 1993) p. 109.


Oct 14 2020

Currently Reading: October 2020

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Currently reading

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What I’m currently reading for October 2020:

  • Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Colonus, Antigone
  • Suzanne Butler, Vale of Tyranny (1954)
  • R. W. Harris, A Short History of 18th Century England: 1689-1793 (1963)
  • Michael Erard, Babel No More (2012)

Oct 7 2020

Short Story Review: “The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling” (2018) by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Upon first reading of Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s short story “The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling” (Chattahoochee Review, Spring 2018): the mythological and religious references (e.g. Rama, Buddha, Vishnu), all with origins from subcontinental Asia scattered (or carefully placed) throughout Bhuvaneswar’s story seemed forced—indeed intrusive to this reader.

Upon second reading: I could tell the mythological references weren’t simply decoration, nor did Bhuvaneswar crowbar them in to function as deus ex machina.

Upon third reading: I began to see how the mythological references explain the place Gopi (the main character in Bhuvaneswar’s story) has lost—or rather a place he probably never really had––in his conflict with coming from India to the United States. One gets a sense that if Gopi read this story, he would not see any significance in the usage and placement of the mythological tropes and nods in it.

Bhuvaneswar’s Gopi, moreover, is a terribly middling-man not unlike Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich. Both Gopi and Ilych are interested only in their own needs rather than those around them:

Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible…. At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them…. (The Death of Ivan Ilych [c. 1886] II)

Ivan Ilych, as one in whose sphere the matter did not lie, would have nothing to do with him: but if the man had some business with him in his official capacity, something that could be expressed on officially stamped paper, he would do everything, positively everything he could within the limits of such relations, and in doing so would maintain the semblance of friendly human relations, that is, would observe the courtesies of life.(ibid III)

Meanwhile for Gopi:

The cane could have belonged to a wandering Buddhist ascetic with nothing but outstretched palms and a cheerful disposition to see him through old age. In contrast, Gopi was seething, tired, resentful…

As he ate, he flipped through the newspaper she had brought, fingering each page as he read, since each proved that Lakshmi [his wife] had been thinking of him, and not of Shree [their mentally disabled daughter], when she bought the paper.

Both Ilych and Gopi are what the Christian West might refer to as “lukewarm”:

And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.

So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:16, Authorised Version)

While at the end of his life, Ivan Ilyich has a realization and a route to possible redemption for his mostly wasted life, at the end of Gopi’s story, however, Bhuvaneswar shows him remaining trapped in a cycle of anger and fear.


Aug 14 2020

This Monotony of Literature

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

In light of having recently finished Václav Benda (1946-1999)’s essays, with its theories of a parallel polis, and amid my preparing to soon read some published works from NewPopLit and Screamin’ Skull Press–both recent and independent publishing endeavors which seem in line with at least some of Benda’s thinking regarding such a parallel polis and culture–I came across this poignant passage from Benjamin Jowett (1817–1893):

After about a hundred, or at most two hundred years if we exclude Homer, the genius of Hellas had ceased to flower or blossom. The dreary waste which follows, beginning with the Alexandrian writers and even before them in the platitudes of Isocrates and his school, spreads over much more than a thousand years. And from this decline the Greek language and literature, unlike the Latin, which has come to life in new forms and been developed into the great European languages, never recovered.

This monotony of literature, without merit, without genius and without character, is a phenomenon which deserves more attention than it has hitherto received; it is a phenomenon unique in the literary history of the world. How could there have been so much cultivation, so much diligence in writing, and so little mind or real creative power? Why did a thousand years invent nothing better than Sibylline books, Orphic poems, Byzantine imitations of classical histories, Christian reproductions of Greek plays, novels like the silly and obscene romances of Longus and Heliodorus, innumerable forged epistles, a great many epigrams, biographies of the meanest and most meagre description, a sham philosophy which was the bastard progeny of the union between Hellas and the East? Only in Plutarch, in Lucian, in Longinus, in the Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Julian, in some of the Christian fathers are there any traces of good sense or originality, or any power of arousing the interest of later ages. And when new books ceased to be written, why did hosts of grammarians and interpreters flock in, who never attain to any sound notion either of grammar or interpretation? Why did the physical sciences never arrive at any true knowledge or make any real progress? Why did poetry droop and languish? Why did history degenerate into fable? Why did words lose their power of expression? Why were ages of external greatness and magnificence attended by all the signs of decay in the human mind which are possible?

Benjamin Jowett, “Introduction to Phaedrus,” The Dialogues of Plato in Five Volumes, Vol. I, trans. Jowett, (Oxford University Press, 1892; third edition revised and corrected) pp. 425–26.


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:


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

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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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