Author Archives: laledavidson

About laledavidson

I am a lifestyle blogger for Albany’s premier newspaper, The Times Union, and I teach fiction writing at SUNY Adirondack, where I was recently promoted to Distinguished Professor. My stories have appeared in The Collagist, Big Lucks, and Eclectica, among others. I was a finalist for the Franz Kafka Award issued by Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review as well as the Black Lawrence Chapbook Contest of 2015 and the Talking Writing Award for humorous writing advice. My story “The Opal Maker” was named Wigleaf top 50 (Very) Short Stories of 2015. The Ciphery was a finalist for the Heekin Group Foundation James Fellowship for unpublished novels.

Unraveling Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest

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Vellitt Boe

Does an overtly racist writer deserve the energy it takes to write about them?  I’m not sure. However, Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, based on Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, obliged me to read him. Turns out, her interest in Lovecraft is timely, so this month, I’ll focus on Lovecraft, and next month I’ll focus on Nebula and Hugo award winning Kij Johnson.

Lovecraft’s style in The Dream-Quest is annoying and boring. His prose is crammed with value-laden adjectives like terrible, shocking, frightful; his characters are flat and don’t evolve; there’s little dialogue, and there’s a lot of summarized action. Finally, he favors pretentiously and anachronistically twisted syntax.

Yet, when I enter Lovecraft’s land of “dream,” I feel like a person wading through a bog, sliding my foot along a hidden rail of oddly compelling, incomprehensible sense. His more polished stories remind me of Jorge Luis Borges.

 

Lovecraft,_June_1934

Lovecraft 1926

He prays to the gods of Kadath to go there, but they don’t answer him. He determines to go Kadath, “where no man has gone before,” to speak to its gods in person. What ensues are rambling encounters with Ghouls, Night-gaunts, Zoogs, and Gugs with no apparent progression.  The basic plot of Dream-Quest is that Randolph Carter (Lovecraft’s avatar) visits the land of “dream” and sees a “glorious” sunset city that fills him with “the pain of lost things and the maddening need to place [them] again” (Lovecraft 1).

Kentucky U. scholar Timothy Evans asserts Lovecraft’s antiquarian travel writing is key to understanding his fiction. He idealized his white, New England heritage, and he despaired of science, industrialization, and modernism. He loved America’s colonial landscapes, seeing them as the “real America” (forget the indigenous). His greatest horror was immigration and “miscegenation” (Evans 177, 188, and Klinger xl).

Alan Moore corroborates this in The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, where he urges us to see Lovecraft as a “barometer… of the fears…of the white, middle-class, heterosexual, Protestant-descended males” who were threatened by “the shifting power relationships…of the modern world” (Moore, xiii).

Sound familiar? Trump would seem to be a dumber, barely literate version of Lovecraft, engaging in absurd antics as he tries to reify a nostalgic vision of “the great white America,” while populating the White House with Ghouls, Zoogs and Thugs. But I digress.

Evans asserts that while Lovecraft’s travel writing explores the light side of his antiquarianism, his fiction explores the dark side, which, in my estimation, might partially redeem his fiction.

 

Maxfield Parrish

Maxfield Parrish

The fact that Randolph encounters ugly and dangerous creatures who kidnap, drug and almost kill him supports Evans’ assertion of the dark side of antiquarianism, as does Randolph’s interview with the “crawling chaos” Nyarlathotep, at the end of the novel.Certainly, Dream-Quest, is rife with bucolic landscapes rendered in misty-eyed wonder. The rejection of obsessive antiquarianism is evident when Randolph Carter encounters King Kuranes, who has dreamed up a replica of old Cornwall (Lovecraft 71). His warning that life in his fulfilled dream is actually unfulfilling suggests that Lovecraft – at least unconsciously—thought the same.

Nyarlathotep informs him (spoiler alert) that the city he seeks has always been his for the taking, for it is made of his childhood memories of New England. The gods of unknown Kadath have been hanging out there, and that’s why they didn’t let him reclaim it (Lovecraft 130). All he has to do is ride on a “monstrous” bird, alight among the gods, and remind them how beautiful their own Kadath is, thereby inducing them to leave his city (Lovecraft 135).

It appears to be a trick when the bird flies him into chaos where he’ll certainly go mad.

The duality of cats and Ghouls, the only friendly creatures in the land of “dream,” who save his life, is yet more evidence of Evans’ assertion.

When I opened the window to let in my own cat, she paused on the threshold, the perfect embodiment of duality. Cats are wild but domestic, cuddly by day, killer by night, and they always pause on the threshold. In short, they make the perfect guides between worlds, thus serving as a touchstone for reality. A fan of cats, Lovecraft depicts them thus in many stories.

Dogs are also dualistic creatures, wild and tame, happy, silly human companions who nevertheless eat carrion and feces. So, too, Ghouls, described as having dog-like faces, “glibber” and “meep” rather adorably, considering they are cannibalistic zombies.

If we view both Randolph and King Kurane as monological, the fact that dualist Ghouls and cats save Randolph suggests Lovecraft sees resolution in the dualism. One more point for Evans.

KadathHere’s where Evan’s interpretation ceases to work, though. Randolph, in the midst of being driven into madness, suddenly remembers he’s dreaming and can simply jump off the bird. Inexplicably–yet somehow consequently–the cosmos dies and is reborn (Lovecraft 140).

Then two conflicting things happen: On the one hand, maybe the dream world becomes real (italics mine):

There was a firmament again…for through the unknown ultimate cycle had lived a thought and a vision of a dreamer’s boyhood, and now there were re-made a waking world and an old cherished city to body to justify these things…

Randolf Carter had indeed descended at last the wide marmoreal flights to his marvelous city, for he was come again to the fair New England world that wrought him. (Lovecraft 140)

On the other hand, he simply wakes up:

Randolph Carter leaped shoutingly awake within his Boston room…and infinities away, past the Gate of Deeper Slumber…the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep…taunted insolently the mild gods of earth whom he had snatched abruptly from their scented revels in the marvelous city. (Lovecraft 141)

I must admit, I like the way Lovecraft’s prose deconstructs itself here, delivering and un-delivering a resolution at the same time by moving the dream into the real world, but characterizing the dream world as simultaneously “infinities away.” Jacques Derrida could have a field day.

Far from being a rejection of antiquarianism, the ending of Dream-Quest suggests that if you pursue your dream in with the right consciousness and a few friends in the unconscious, you can turn fantasy into reality, and it’s worth a brush with death.

The contradictory and inscrutable ending makes it impossible to ascertain just exactly what the story means, which is perhaps, the point of all stories, but most certainly this one.

That’s why, against all intention, I ended up liking it and look forward to rereading Kij Johnson’s Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe with it in mind.

 

Evans, Timothy H. “Tradition and Illusion: Antiquarianism, Tourism, and Horror in H. P. Lovecraft.” Extrapolation. Vol. 45, No. 3. by the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. 2004.

Johnson, Kij. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. Tor.com. 2016.

Klinger, Leslie S. “Forward.” The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Ed. Leslie S. Klinger. Liveright Publishing Corporation. 2014

Lovecraft, H.P. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. A Del Ray Book. Ballentine. 1990.

Moore, Alan. “Introduction.” The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Ed. Leslie S. Klinger. Liveright Publishing Corporation. 2014

Rottensteiner, Franz. “Lovecraft as Philosopher.” Science Fiction Studies, March 1992, Vol. 19, p117-121.

The Potbellied Virgin by Alicia Yánez Cossío

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potbellied virgin

One interesting characteristic of Latin American magic realism is that it often rejects the European and North American literary legacy of unified narratives. Unified narratives can sometimes unintentionally promote the hegemony of one class and culture. The Potbellied Virgin, written by Ecuador’s Alicia Yánez Cossío in 1985 and translated into English in 2006, is an interesting example of a communal narrative. The reading experience is fascinating though disorienting for a mind trained in North America or Europe.

Although Alicia Yánez Cossío is one of the better-known authors in Ecuador, only two of her books have been translated into English and she is virtually unknown in the United States.  The Potbellied Virgin provides a social history of Ecuador between 1900 and 1970 blending voices of the indigenous, the Catholic Church, descendants of the ruling Spanish aristocracy, Marxist revolutionaries, and the military.

The plot revolves around a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that is cared for by members of Ecuador’s white aristocracy, the Benavides family, specifically the women. Years ago, the Benavides came to the region and simply stole the land from the Pandos family, who were Mestizo landowners. The Mestizos were descendants of European conquerors who were born in South America and with whom some of the indigenous had married.

When the white Benavides laid claim to those lands, the Pando clan sued, but, in the words of the group narrative, “justice is slow and lazy when the rich man fights the poor” (94). Somewhere along the line, the Virgin statue becomes “pregnant.” The Pandos believe that the deed to their land and the proof of their ownership is being hidden on the Virgin’s dress, hence the belly. A series of military coups and Marxist revolutions ensue as the statue of the Virgin is bandied about amidst both carnage and humorous chaos, resulting in the spontaneous abortion of the deeds.

Yanéz Cossío uses four devices supplant the unified narrative. First, she makes copious use of proverbs, second, she slides the point of view seamlessly from the main characters to people in the crowd often with few identifying taglines, gestures or facial expressions. Third, she uses long plot digressions about things which have nothing to do with the main characters, but which sometimes reveal the animism of the indigenous culture or a bit of social history, a device often evident in García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. And fourth, she uses humor.

The fourth device is evident throughout the novel but mostly at the end, during a brutal yet comical military coup. Professor of comparative literature and writer Kenneth Wishina, quoting narrative theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, writes that the “absolute monoglossic unity” of narratives “can be destroyed by laughter which is rarely present in the majority of Ecuadorian Historical novels” but which is a “dominant motif” in Yanéz Cossío’s work (13).

Though people often hate “spoilers,” it will increase your enjoyment of this disorienting narrative to know that The Potbellied Virgin ends when one the Benavides’ female descendants runs off with one of the young Pandos who has become a communist, leaving his elderly relatives to sit in the village square as they have spent most of their life doing, unwittingly smoking the scraps of their land deeds, which are blowing about the streets after the coup. Thus the town will find liberty only in the intermarriage of their disparate voices and outlooks.

 

Cossío, Alicia Yánez. The Potbellied Virgin. Translated by Amalia Gladhart University of

Texas Press. 2006.

Wishnia, Kenneth. Twentieth Century Ecuadorian Narrative: New Readings in the Context

        of the Americas. Bucknell University Press. 1999.

 

Does Fantasy Dodge or Enhance Reality?

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Baby dragon? Or newborn lesser short-nosed fruit bat. Photo by Anton

Lately, I’ve been writing and reading realistic stories with a hint of guilt. Why guilt, you may ask?

Because I’ve been a staunch defender of the literary merit of fantasy, sci-fi, and magic realism, and because my turn to realism in middle age is accompanied by a bit of skepticism about the paranormal and a bit of boredom with its fiction, even as these genres are gaining status in the publishing world and as writers are beginning to blur genres with greater effect and fewer apologies.

In a recent interview with the New York Times Book Review, Samantha Hunt said: “’Magic’ is a tricky word. It separates the unexplainable from our daily experience. Yet eyeballs, snowflakes, quantum physics and birth (along with many other things), are magical and habitual. I prefer the word ‘science.’ I like to write about wonder found in the ordinary.”

Basically, she’s saying, reality is so amazing that she uses the concept of magic to call attention to it. That’s sort of what I do—use magic to externalize emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual truths – make metaphor materially (or at least verbally) manifest.

HubbleBut while I agree with Hunt that molecular structure is wonder-inducing, calling into question, as it does, the nature of solidity, I disagree that science equals the magic or the miraculous. The words “magic,” “supernatural” and “miraculous” specifically mean that which is beyond nature – that which has no rational explanation.

So why do we keep using it in fiction if what we are really talking about is our perception of reality?  Why, in the wonderful featured story, “The Thing In the Walls Wants Your Small Change,” does author Virginia M Mohlere use the tiny dragon to symbolize the

main character’s need to let her own inner monster out to fight the very real monster of her abusive, alcoholic mother? Why didn’t she just write a realistic story about that? Wouldn’t that be more complex to have the character fight her own battle, thus inviting the question of whether it’s right to fight violence with violence?

I don’t know if I can answer that question, but I’ll try: the tiny dragon is a more delightful, more beautiful, more loving solution to rancid reality. The dragon is allowed to be an animal. It’s right and correct for the dragon to bite and scratch the mother—because it is acting in accordance with its true nature, whereas it would be wrong for the narrator to do that because humans are supposed to transcend their basic nature, to transcend violence. The dragon construct, therefore, allows us to have both. It allows us to deal with a heavy subject in a light way.

But, at the risk of offending, I wonder when approaching my own writing on this score, if I’m dodging the difficult. If one goes much further down this road one might conclude, as some do, that all of fiction is a contrivance, and that only “real stories” are worth reading. Is there something wrong with relying on a construct? Is a construct the same as a contrivance?

Ursula Le Guin by Marian Wood Kolisch

Ursula Le Guin. Photo by Marian Wood Kolisch

Ursula Le Guin, in her essay, “The Critics, The Monsters and the Fantasists,” would object to this line of questioning. She says, to assert that fantasy is mere metaphor or allegory is to reduce it and negate its primary power, which is to point us outside the box of quotidian life, which she sees, I think, as an inherently good activity because it opens us up to tolerance for difference and to imagining a better life.

Of course, we all know how subjective reality can be.  And we’ve all heard the adage that fiction (good fiction anyway), is truer than truth.

I remain conflicted and curious about this issue, and ultimately, I think the world takes all kinds of fiction and needs all kinds. After all, there isn’t just one version or a willow, but thousands, and new ones crossbreeding every day.

Reblogged from Luna Station Quarterly

Fantasy’s Half Sister-Magic Realism

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Reeling for the Empire

“Reeling for the Empire” by Karen Russell. Illustration by Daehyun Kim

If you’re reading about dragons, chances are, you’re reading fantasy. But if you’re reading about women ascending bodily to heaven, you’re probably reading magic realism, or what New York Times reviewer Joy Williams calls “the new uncanny.”

Confused? You’re not alone.  The most common definition of fantasy is “literature in which magical things occur” or, as the Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms defines it, literature which creates its own coherently organized worlds and myths” (82).

Of course, magical things happen in both fantasy and magic realism, so that doesn’t help us. I’ve heard people say that the big difference is that in fantasy, the characters are amazed, stunned and shocked by the magical events, as when the glass suddenly disappears at the zoo in Harry Potter, and everyone screams.  In magic realism, by contrast, the characters react to the magical as though it is ordinary.

“Reeling for the Empire.” Watercolor by Margaret Sloan. https://mockingbirdsatmidnight.com/tag/reeling-for-the-empire/

Complicating both these definitions is the fact that the concept of reality is culturally defined. Orthodox Christians consider God and the Bible real. Atheists consider both fantasy. Roman mythology was at one time was considered real; now the word myth is synonymous with lie. Native American writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko write about things that most Caucasian Americans would call unreal, but which are very real to her.

reeling for the empire by sloan

“Reeling for the Empire.” Watercolor by Margaret Sloan. https://mockingbirdsatmidnight.com/tag/reeling-for-the-empire/

Gabriel García Márquez, the king of magic realism and author of the Nobel Prize winning 100 Years of Solitude, said, “Fantasy has nothing to do with the reality of the world we live in; it is purely fantastic invention, an inspiration, and certainly a diversion ill-advised in the arts” (quoted in Kroeber 130).

However, anyone who has heard a woman screaming in the forest and followed the sound into the mouth of a mountain lion will find the origins of fantasy very real. The flicker we all get in the peripheral vision, and secrets our parents tried to keep but which we all  felt,  is where ghosts come from. The amygdala is a crude but lightning fast instrument. So I have to respectfully disagree with the king.

I think the best way to consider the difference between fantasy and reality is to consider its impact on the reader. Tsvetan Todorov, a literary theorist famous for his treatment of the fantastic, said that magic realism disrupts the reader’s sense of reality whereas fantasy creates another completely enclosed reality. Whereas fantasy “imposes absolute closure” and “implies complicity on the part of the readers,” the literary fantastic seeks reader hesitancy” (Armitt 7). The story begins in the “real world” and when something unreal happens, and the reader is never sure if the cause is supernatural or natural, such as a psychotic break or a drug induced hallucination (Armitt 8).

The-Turn-of-the-Screw-LaFarge

Illustration from the serialization of “The Turn of the Screw” in Collier’s Weekly, published in 1898, by John La Farge

According to this definition, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is an example of the literary fantastic: did the governess see a ghost or hallucinate it? Did the ghost kill the boy, or did she scare him to death? The movie Pan’s Labyrinth is likewise an example: Is she alive or dead at the end? Did imagination save her or kill her?

However, this definition doesn’t work for the poster child of magic realism, 100 Years of Solitude.  No one doubts that Remedios the Beauty ascended bodily to heaven and that a man’s blood flowed out the front door, down the block, turned left and went into his mother’s house.  As Lucy Armitt says in her book, Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction, there are no “competing readings of the text… revolving around two choices, the psychological or the supernatural” (Armitt 8).

Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

However, you do feel ill at ease in Jorge Luis Borge’s short stories.  In “The Garden of Forking Paths,” you aren’t even sure that anything magical happens, it’s just an incredible coincidence that a spy randomly walks into the house of a man who has been studying his ancestor’s life work.  Is Borges just a bad writer, you find yourself wondering. Is this even a story?

That’s why you also need this other defining characteristic of magic realism to understand it.  Jon Evans says magic realism “draws from the well” of political disruption, violence and chaos, where the “surreal becomes normal and the insane becomes rational.”

Magic realism is often the intersection of culturally competing definitions of reality, and that creates an inherent tension. In the case of 100 Years, it’s the intersection of indigenous and Catholic culture. This is the kind of tension you find in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (the tension between White and Black culture) and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (the tension between Native American and White culture), even Karen Russel’s story, “Reeling for the Empire,” about Japanese women sold into slavery and turned into human silk worms by poisoned tea (the tension between the rich and poor).

Tiger Mending by Amy Cutler

Amy Cutler’s painting inspired the story “Tiger Mending” by Aimee Bender.

I’m not sure how I explain why I would put Aimee Bender and Amber Sparks in the category of magic realism rather than fantasy, especially as Bender has representatives of both in the same collection. Perhaps it comes down to a third distinguishing characteristic.

In fantasy, the magic is orderly and even predictable, rules apply.  In contrast –and this is why I prefer it–mystery lies at its heart of magic realism.  We don’t really know why the tigers come out of the forests with split skins, patiently waiting to be sewn back together by two sisters in Aimee Bender’s “Tiger Mending,” but the trope shimmers in our minds like an image on water, hard to grasp, unforgettable, and necessary.

Karen_Russell

Karen Russell

So I’d say a pretty good, all-inclusive definition of magic realism is: literature  which causes the reader to experience tension between competing views of reality, which is most often derived from violent political and cultural clashes, in which magical things occur, often with no clear explanation, and to which the characters in the story are often oddly accustomed.

Armitt, Lucie. Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005.

Bender, Aimee. The Color Master. New York: Doubleday, 2013.

Childs, Peter and Roger Fowler. Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms.  Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2006.

Evans, Jon. “Magic Realism: Not Fantasy. Sorry.” Tor.com. Tor Books. 23 October 2008. Web. 12 March 2014.

Kroeber, Karl. Romantic Fantasy and Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Critics, The Monsters and the Fantasists.” The Secret History of Fantasy. Ed. Peter S. Beagle. San Francisco: Tachyan Publications, 2010. 355-366.

Pan’s Labyrinth. Dir. Guillermo del Toro. Perf. Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López. Warner Brothers, 2006. Film.

Russell, Karen. Vampires in the Lemon Grove. New York: Knopf, 2013.

“Thursday, March 6, 2014.” The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. American Public Media, 6 March, 2014. Web. March 12, 2014.

Williams, Joy.  “The New Uncanny: ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ by Karen Russell.” The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Feb. 7, 2013.

 

 

 

Cone Oddyssey

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Walking in Saratoga Spa State Park last weekend, I came across this conelith. Did the cone fall from the tree, and via the mysteries of chaos and order, land upright? Or did some quixotic human being plant it here for the love of oddity and future passers by? Perhaps, as the narrator of Arthur C. Clarke’s “Sentinel,” which inspired 2001 Space Odyssey), surmised, “something from the stars swept through the Solar System, [and] left this token of its passage.” We will never know, but it compelled me to make this short film.

 

Music: Strauss, Richard. “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Greatest Classical Music in Movie Soundtrack. Opening music for 2001 Space Odyssey.

Radio Interviews

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I think I forgot to announce this on my website.

Here is the most recent, only eight months ago:  Writers Forum on Vox Pop, “Writers on Writing. Me and Barbara Chepaitis.

And here we are with“Family Stories,” on the Vox Pop’s Writer’s Forum. Not sure of the date. 2016?

WAMC.org

Cimarron Review

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Cimarron REview.jpgCimarron Review
Winter 2017
Issue 198
Quarterly
Review by Lâle Davidson

With prosy poems and poetic prose, Cimarron Review provides fodder for intelligent readers. Founded in 1967 and a member of CLMP, the magazine regularly nominates its writers to “notable contests.” The Winter 2017 issue is a clean, slim volume, the pages almost square and formatted with a lot of white space so the reader can breeze through. Of the 25 writers, 14 are male, and a different 14 had published one or more books, while 8 were either MFA graduates without publications, or had published in fairly unknown magazines.

Most of the poetry in this issue leans toward spare prose, sometimes based on a vivid anecdote that leaps deftly into philosophy. For example, Karen Skofield’s “Abbreviated Guide to Unusual Phobias” begins with a wry list of eccentric fears posed as questions, “If I abide crowds but not the man in the fringed vest…If children are welcome but identical twins cause sweating.” Then it builds to fears that have shaped civilization: “The fear that I will outlive/ my children is called parenting” and “A fear that the lion will never lie down with the lamb/ is called Revelations…”

Michael T. Young’s “High Dive” explores how body and mind navigates the laws of gravity, while Michelle Menting and Katharine Kaufman’s poems enter and exit dreams. Amy O’Reilly’s poem “Girls in the City” paints a vivid picture of girls playing sidewalk games that grow into adult despair: “…Like so many girls/ who become bigger girls. Fish in dim,/ shallow bowls. Their suns,/ wounds in the sky’s flesh…”

Just when you think you’ve figured out this magazines’ prosy esthetic, it springs a few poems on you which experiment with form, like Doug Ramspeck’s “Field Anatomy,” which is formatted like a double-spaced prose poem, but is written with choppy syntax and juxtaposed images, or a highly abstract poem, like Michael Hurley’s “Samuel Explains Departure:”

It will discredit you
to look too longingly
at a thing like this,

the way a laugh is
half
for the other person.

The poems make you work some, but not too hard before they yield rewards, which is always my personal preference.

In addition to the 25 poems, there are four short stories and two essays. The stories range between 8 and 14 pages, some straight up realism, and two that challenge.

Jessica Hollander’s “Oracle,” explores a relationship from a man’s point of view, whose emotions flicker on and off like the streetlight outside his apartment at twilight…”nervous about its judgment.” It finishes with a de rigueur unresolved but thought-provoking ending. Miriam Cohen’s realistic “Wife” deals with an old story in a vivid yet humble way, a woman’s rage at being cheated on, while William Haas narrates the downward mental spiral of a “one-hit wonder” in prose that is dense logic defying.

My favorite was Michael Biel’s “La Négresse,” narrated in first person, which starts out seemingly realistic, but gets stranger and stranger. The first person narrator tells the unlikely story of twins who turn out to be doppelgängers, who join him at a café in France. Narrated in tongue-in-cheek, false-British style, using words like “moue,” “chap,” and “a frisson of delight,” the narrator wanders farther and farther afield of logic, with observations, like, “I would have despaired of telling the two apart had I not noticed almost right from the start that Jack was right-handed and Jed was left… Shouldn’t all Jacks be left-handed? Marys right and Marthas left?” I’m not sure I understood it, but I think a send-up of narcissism.

That leaves me with the two essays. Both are richly figured, written by men dealing with male issues in not particularly male ways. “If It Had to Perish Twice,” contrasts childhood vignettes with adult vignettes to explore the complexity of intentional and unintentional racism and aggression. “A Man of Action” features the aggressions latent in a relationship of father and son.

All in all, Issue 198 of Cimarron Review delivers highly but subtly crafted mainstream writing with some boundary pushing pieces that provide fodder for the intelligent reader without demanding more than their due.

I wrote this review for NewPages.com, which posts news, information, and guides to literary magazines, independent publishers, creative writing programs, alternative periodicals, indie bookstores, writing contests, and more. Check it out here!

“My Sister’sLabyrinth” in Eclectica

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Eclectica Magazine published my my story “My Sister’s Labyrinth” today. It’s a companion story to “The Opal Maker” published by The Collagist and which was a finalist for Eckleburg Review’s Franz Kafka prize, and was also listed as one 2015’s top 50 by Wigleaf.  I like to imagine that this woman, after leaving her first sister’s house, decided to go in search of her other siblings and came to her other sister’s house.

Eclectica has been publishing online for 21 years and publishes “outstanding writing” that  “doesn’t fit” into easy categories.” They pride themselves on being one of the “longest-running and most consistent literary ezines on the web.” I’m honored to be part of this issue.  They also published my story, “Death’s Debut” in 2014.

I think I also mentioned somewhere else that my hand bound chapbook Strange Appetites won the Adirondack Center for Writing’s People’s Choice Award for book of the year.

Also, the charming Hillview Free Library at Diamond Point, NY, invited me to present “Two Paths to Writing Your Life: The Magical and the Real” on  August 23, 7-9.  I’ll read excerpts from two stories that used to be one and are both (very) loosely based on my life, “Hitting the Wall” and “The Gatekeeper’s Mistake,” in order to illuminate the uses of magical realism as well as the writing process. Powerpoint will be included and the lecture is open to the public.

Finally, I’ll be presenting a lecture at SUNY Adirondack’s Continuing Education Lecture and Lunch series for seniors,  “Ecuadorian Literature,” on  September 19, 2017, 11:30 – 12:45pm at the Scoville Auditorium on the main campus. While there’s a small fee for the day of lectures and the lunch, I believe the lecture itself is open to the public.

One Hundred Years of Solitude 50th Anniversary

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Yellow ButterflyWhen I grabbed Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude off the shelf to re-read, I didn’t realize it was the 50th anniversary. Stifling my academic urge to write a long literary analysis, I’ll just tell you a few things that struck me the second and third time through.

There’s very little dialogue in the novel. It’s almost all narration, more like a vivid summary rather than a series of scenes. He’s taking a leaf from his grandmother’s storytelling oral tradition, in which the beauty of the story is in its shape rather than the individual characters’ progress. Add to this the narrative’s digressive tendency and spiraling treatment of time, and you get transported.

The narrative describes event after event, covering years in a paragraph, pausing to provide half a scene, then galloping twenty years into the future, then spiraling back to whatever the present was, and twirling off in a different direction following another character’s trajectory. Sometimes, he’ll be talking about one character and he’ll digress into other character’s life and follow them up to their death, then return to the original time period, but not necessarily the original character, and then follow the line of another character, like he’s tracing the branches of an enormous tree, which of course he is, the Buendía family tree.

He doesn’t use the past perfect tense to make clear when he’s going into flashback, or the subjective tense to flash forward,  or any other signal when he returns to the main time period, as the famous first sentence exemplifies, encompassing three time periods, the first of which is never clarified: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aurelian Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (1). It isn’t until the middle of the book that we get to the rest of the firing squad story, and then it’s almost a side note.

This tendency casts the reader awash in time, and develops the novel’s theme of time’s circularity and stagnant pockets, much like the mythical book Jorge Louis Borges wrote about in “The Garden of Forking Paths.”100 Years

The novel traces 100 years in the town of Macondo, from its founding by the Buendía family, through 32 civil wars lead by Colonel Buendía, through the arrival of capitalist enterprises in the form of the banana company with the attendant immigration of white foreigners, prostitutes and gamblers. The arrival of the capitalists culminates in a massacre of thousands of labor union protestors which the government hushes up. Then the town is washed away by “four years, eleven months and two days” (320) of rain, ending in the wildly decadent but transcendently pure lovemaking of the last Aureliano with his own aunt.

Having just recently traveled to Ecuador and studied Ecuador’s history and modern novels, I see better how the absurdity and circularity of the novel is shaped by Colombia and South America’s history.

Just like Ecuador, Colombia was invaded by the Spaniards who imposed an oppressive feudal system on the indigenous people, and it was both oppressed and liberated by the Catholic church. While Ecuador had 17 different constitutions since its independence, Colombia had nine civil wars between its independence from Spain in 1810 and 1850. Then there was the war of 1000 days from 1899-1903 in which 120,000 were killed, and then another civil war, “La Violencia” between 1848 and 1957 in which another 300,000 were killed, all between the liberals and conservatives (Britannica).

This is what much of the novel is about, and perhaps explains the theme of solitude that is the clear center of the book, though I must confess I don’t quite understand how. In what way is/was Columbia any more cut off from the world than any other Latin American country? Was he implying that Columbia is somehow more inbred and isolated than most countries? Is the rise and fall of Macondo an analogy for the whole country or just for Columbia’s rural past? Or just a certain kind of family? Why does he say that the Buendías were a “race…condemned to one hundred years of solitude” with “no second opportunity on earth?”

Garcia MarquezThough there are characters in this novel, they keep repeating, as do their names, so there are many Aurelian’s and José Arcadios, and after a while they all get mixed up in your mind, underscoring the circularity of time.

I love the character of “active, small and indomitable” Úrsula, Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s mother, who lives to be more than 100, running the household and family business until she is blind. I love the story Remedios the Beauty, who ascends bodily to heaven, and I love Úrsula’s great granddaughter Amaranta Úrsula who has a genius “for erotic mischief” and arrives home from Europe “leading her husband by a silk rope tied around his neck” and who shouts with laughter rather than alarm when she finds the family home is total chaos.

Though I can’t pretend to grasp it all, I adore this novel because of the whimsical blend of history, farce, passion, and magic typified in this winding sentence: “Jose Arcadio Buendía…gathered the men of the village… and he demonstrated to them, with theories that none of them could understand, the possibility of returning to where one had set out by consistently sailing east. The whole village was convinced that Jose Arcadio Buendía had lost his reason, when Melquíades [the traveling gypsy] returned to set things straight. He gave public praise to the intelligence of a man who from pure astronomical speculation had evolved a theory that had already been proved in practice, although unknown, in Macondo until then…” (5).

I think I’ll have to read it again.

Gabriel García Márquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Harper and Row. 1970.

How to overcome reading resistance

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IMG_2880I never afford myself enough time to read. Yet it’s integral to good writing.  Guilty confession? Netflix is my nightly addiction.

However, when you truly give into an addiction for a good 25 years, it finally gets boring. I noticed this when I began to eat while watching… clearly the watching experience just wasn’t filling me up, so I was seeking other ways to connect.

So, why do I persistently resist reading when my bed is surrounded by stacks of books that I genuinely want to read?  I often buy a book thinking I’m buying the time and dedication to read it also. During the school year, I need most of my time to read for school, but I have no excuse for not reading in the summer. Actually, I have a long list of excuses.

First of all, reading is harder work than watching. The eye muscles have to do a complex activity of focusing, tracking, converging and using peripheral vision. The brain has to do a complex decoding process, then you have to create the images yourself, all the while managing your inner dialogue in response to the reading.

For some people, this process has become so rote that they don’t even notice they are doing it, like the way you can touch-type without knowing where the letters are on the keyboard, or shift gears in a car without thinking, or feed the cat and forget you did it.

For others, there is a cognitive or eye muscle coordination glitch somewhere along the complex process that creates a hardship of varying sizes. I suspect I have a slight eye muscle glitch, so that I have to apply myself and reapply myself whereas my avid reader friends do not. For others, it can be an information processing issue or a slight or severe dyslexia.  It’s important to note that dyslexia is a developmental issue that can be corrected over time.

Then there’s the problem of focus. If all goes well, you get into a dialogue with the thing you are reading, but that can take you a million miles away. Fifteen minutes later, you find yourself in the middle of a paragraph you thought you were reading but totally failed to absorb. You have to backtrack to figure out where your mind trailed off.

Then there’s emotional reactions. Sometimes, you decide you don’t like the author or the main character, and that makes you angry at the book, unwilling to slog through and glean what you can or figure out what it’s really saying.

Then there’s the problem of a physical reading position. Reading in bed sends me to sleep, and I’m always amazed at people who sit in straight chairs and read with head bowed. Add to that, I’m a naturally fidgety person, and sitting still too long literally hurts my bones.

I think the biggest problem, however, is that I unconsciously regard reading as wasting time. I don’t know where I developed that idea, coming from a family of two English professors who read constantly. I worry about reading taking over my writing time. But we all know that reading is essential for life – for being a responsible citizen of the United States, and for writers especially, to learn how others have done it, to enrich our creativity pool, and to avoid cliché.

So yesterday, taking a page from my mother’s book (I’ve taken a lot of her pages from her book), I set up one of those zero gravity chairs in the backyard. Feet raised, back raised, head supported, I pulled out One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia MarquezI enjoyed every minute of it. When I needed to take a break and rest my eyes or brain, I’d stretch my neck and look up at the teardrop birch leaves or cast my eyes over daisies and purple cone flowers.

I have been re-reading One Hundred Years over the past month. I have a copy on Audible that I listen to while driving or walking the dog, and then at night, when I pull out the physical book, I have to reread passages to find my place, discovering I’d missed things while I was listening. The next day, I’d re-listen to passages to find my place in the recording, and in doing so, I pick up all the things I missed while reading it on the page. It’s a great way to read the book twice as you go, which helps with keeping things straight, perceiving patterns, and remembering.

The sun faded from the sky as I read last night, and my cats came to sit quietly around me, one underneath my chair, and the other nosing the flowers and contemplating a blade of grass. My dog appeared beside me, and I calmed her whenever she began to bark. A slight breeze stirred the humid air, the last Aureliano made crazy silent love to a woman he later found was his aunt while the world of Macondo whirled into oblivion.

Even after the sun went down and I came inside, I had the satisfying feeling that I had done something deeply beautiful for the last few hours.