Appreciating Gabriel Garcia Marquez: the reality of magic…

Garcia Marquez’s use of magical realism as a literary style gave him  freedom in a repressive culture…

Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 2002 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Any appreciation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died last week at age 87, will likely drift into a discussion of the literary style he championed throughout his long career: magical realism. Though the style is probably most strongly associated with Latin American writers (besides Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis BorgesIsabel Allende, and Carlos Fuentes are all considered predominantly magical realists) in the public mind, it has a longer history than one might think, and its primary practitioners all point at a small (and not necessarily immediately considered together) group of writers as influences on their work: Lewis CarrollFranz KafkaWilliam Faulkner, and Miguel de Cervantes are all cited regularly by Garcia Marquez and his fellow magic realists as influences.

Magical realism, as practiced by Garcia Marquez in his classic One Hundred Years of Solitude, allows the author to discuss the turbulent history of his native Colombia through the family history of the Buendia family. Continue reading


Donald Barthelme’s Snow White and the Postmodern Moment…

Reading Barthelme’s Snow White reminds us that PoMo is about uncertainty as much as it is about anything…

Snow White by Donald Barthelme (image courtesy Goodreads)

Donald Barthelme is a name closely associated with two of postmodern literary fiction’s most important structural/stylistic innovations: flash fiction and collage. While his reputation was built on his short stories - and Barthelme is celebrated for his innovations to that form – he also wrote novels (really, anti-novels) which, in Barthelme’s case, are constructed pretty much the same way as his stories: resistant to anything as bourgeois as a narrative structure, Snow White is composed of dozens of brief vignettes designed to force the reader to engage the text as a text. Thus, Snow White becomes not simply a retelling of the classic fairy tale, it also serves as a commentary on the fairy tale and its structuralist elements.

Barthelme’s characters have more in common with the Disney version of Snow White than with the original fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm. The dwarfs do not have names related to their predominant characteristics such as Sleepy, Grumpy, Bashful; they have ordinary names – Bill, Dan, Clem. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Nature in Focus: Sharp Eyes by William Hamilton Gibson

Once upon a time readers actually wanted to learn from books…

Sharp Eyes by William Hamilton Gibson (image courtesy Goodreads)

After a spate of book reviews for new found writer friends, this essay takes a look at a book from the 2014 reading list Sharp Eyes: A Rambler’s Calendar of Fifty-two Weeks Among Insects, Birds, and Flowers  is a series of descriptions and discussions of weekly nature walks. It’s one of those wonderful late 19th century “educational” works that does its best to disguise itself as entertainment.

The book is an interesting relic of the late 19th century’s “naturalist” movement inspired, in part at least, by Henry David Thoreau. Naturalist, illustrator, and writer William Hamilton Gibson offers his observations of the New England woods around his Connecticut home. Sharp Eyes is heavy with mini-lectures in botany and entomology (one wishes for more about birds since those are for this reader the most interesting chapters) but Gibson writes in the literary journalist style of late 19th century American magazine work, so even the most tedious science lessons are larded with references to poetry and philosophy that leaven the scientific descriptions and explanations…. Continue reading


Book Review: Alligator Stew by C.D. Mitchell

C.D. Mitchell understands the “Dirty South” better than many who trumpet their knowledge of it…

Alligator Stew by C.D. Mitchell (image courtesy Goodreads)

In my recent essay on Richard Ford as an influence on my own writing I wrote about  dirty realism, a style associated with a group of authors, several of them Southern. Besides Ford, I mentioned Ann Beattie and Tobias Wolff. (One might also include Jayne Anne Phillips, though her West Virginia roots might lead some to question her Southern bonafides.) The characteristics that distinguish writers who work this side of the literary street (including this guy, though his interest seems to incline to turning the style of dirty realism on rather different sorts of characters) are also characteristics of C.D. Mitchell’s work. In Alligator Stew, however, Mitchell, like any good artist, takes the dirty realistic style and runs with it, making it his own and linking it to classic Southern storytelling.

Mitchell’s collection of stories focuses on the small town of Delbert, Arkansas, a town very near one of the major North American fault lines, the New Madrid. Continue reading


Richard Ford’s Rock Springs and the Light it Provides…

“We have to keep civilization alive somehow.” – Richard Ford, “Communist”

Rock Springs by Richard Ford (image courtesy Goodreads)

Aspiring writers choose role models for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes, as with those who’d emulate Byron or Baudelaire, it’s the attraction of the daring or Bohemian (or both) lifestyle as much as (in most cases, more than) the work. Sometimes, as with Hemingway or Salinger or Vonnegut, it’s the self-delusion that one can write (stylistically) as they do easily. If an aspiring writer sticks with it and develops a personal voice, the role model takes on another role: that of fondly remembered (and, perhaps, regularly returned to) mentor.

That is how it is for me with Richard Ford. I first encountered his work shortly after I’d completed my doctoral studies in writing. That was through his “breakout” work (as Wikipedia terms it) The Sportswriter. While that book was wonderful and led me to seek out more of Ford’s work, its most important function in my life was that it led me to the Ford book that I treasure most, his collection of stories called Rock Springs. Continue reading


Book Review: Dismal Key by Mitch Doxsee

A thriller with a serious message that is also a model of what YA fiction can be…

Dismal Key by Mitch Doxsee (image courtesy Goodreads)

Mitch Doxsee’s thriller Dismal Key walks an interesting line.It certainly can meet the criteria for Young Adult (YA) literature; its protagonist, McCluskey Harvey, is 16 and in the course of the novel develops his first serious romantic relationship. And, as in any good coming-of-age story, the protagonist learns powerful life lessons about himself and what he will/will not do, no matter how evil the opponent he faces.

But Dismal Key is also a powerful tale about a sinister and under-reported crime; the kidnapping of adolescent girls for the sex slave trade. How Doxsee manages to weave together a story about a teenager’s annual summer visit with his grandparents with a riveting (and frightening) thriller about human trafficking and a serial killer that doesn’t feel contrived (unlike some popular YA works) is a credit to the author’s seriousness of purpose.

Doxsee chose the subject of human trafficking because of his first hand experience working with some of its victims while doing mission work in Amsterdam during his college years. Continue reading


ArtSunday: S— Rock Stars Say…

“I was always wondering did they like me or did they like my songs.” – Neil Young

The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Quote Book by Merrit Molloy (image courtesy Goodreads)

Had some errands this week that took me close – too close – to my favorite used bookstore. My wife had a doctor’s appointment later that day and since I had come away without anything to read, I, of course, bought a couple more books.

Hi, My name is Jim and I have a problem with books….

Anyway, I ran across the marvelous waste of time, The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Quote Book by Merrit Molloy. This slight volume (you can finish it in a couple of hours tops with breaks for whatever you need to take breaks for) is larded with quotes ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. And as you read you can guess which musicians will say which types of things. Continue reading

Book Review: The View from Inside the Mirror by Louis L. Gibbs

To be a good writer, be a good student of your genre…this is especially true for poets….

The View from Inside the Mirror by Louis L. Gibbs (image courtesy Goodreads)

Louis L. Gibbs’s book of poetry, The View from Inside the Mirror, surprised me. I never know what to expect from a poet whose work I do not know, especially a “newbie” to the genre. This is Gibbs’s second book, but his first was a novel so I was not sure what to expect. Often when self-taught writers move from, say, prose to poetry, their early work suffers from what one might call the “curse of the learning curve”: even if they have developed a solid level of proficiency in one genre that does not guarantee that they have done the spade work necessary to move to another genre successfully.

Luckily for readers, Gibbs has done his homework. The poems in this book show us a writer who has not only taught himself about poetic technique (he plays with both poetic forms and with typography), we discover a still developing poet who has immersed himself in reading poetry that technically, thematically, and philosophically gives him the sorts of influences and models that he needs to grow as an artist. That in itself is refreshing.

Continue reading


WordsDay: Thomas Jefferson – Benign Anarchist

“I am an Anti-Christ/I am an Anarchist…” – John Lydon 

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Joseph J. Ellis’s excellent study of the character of perhaps the most beloved and certainly the most enigmatic member of that group that we think of as the Founding Fathers, is called, aptly, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Ellis’s work is not a biography of Jefferson (he readily admits that there are thorough multi-volume treatments of  Jefferson’s life that are, for all intents and purposes, definitive). Ellis tries – and in large part succeeds – in pursing another, certainly elusive, goal: an explication of Jefferson’s character.

Like any human, Jefferson was a person of contradictions and inconsistencies – as Ellis illuminates in this work. What originally attracted Ellis to this project, it seems, was not the desire to point out Jefferson’s flaws but instead a sincere desire to understand how, in spite those inconsistencies and contradictions, Jefferson has long been and remains (with the possible exception of Lincoln) the most popular icon of American political thought.

Continue reading


Book Review: The Honduran Plot by Horton Prather

Sometimes heroism is an act of faith…

The Honduran Plot by Horton Prather

Horton Prather’s The Honduran Plot is a political thriller that violates many of the conventions of the genre. The hero, Jake Grayson, is a college kid, a computer geek who has none of the usual “tough guy/superhuman killing machine” characteristics of the typical protagonist of this kind of thriller. The motivations for the plot’s action are those that one might associate more with a work such as the classic Costa-Gavras film Missing: idealistic young man disappears in a Latin American country and friend tries to find him. And the elements of the story that are reminiscent of political thrillers – corrupt politicians and military leaders in a Central American country attempting a coup designed to allow them to enrich themselves by using their country’s geography and facilities as a conduit for powerful drug cartels – lead not only to fast paced action and thrills, but to insights into self and belief for several of the characters.

Continue reading

The Further Updated 2014 Reading List…

Well, as Sir Francis Bacon tells us, reading maketh a full person..

Even more books (image courtesy

In spite of my avowal to finish my latest book and against the better judgment of my optometrist, yet again I’ve added to the 2014 reading list and the updated 2014 reading list. Some of these selections have come to me through meeting other writers at book festivals. Others have come through speaking to writers’ groups – and meeting other writers there. And then, of course, there’s my evidently incurable penchant for stopping by bookstores “just to look.”

As always, all of these new additions to the reading list will get their 15 minutes of fame/infamy/nonsense via essay. Sometimes I’ll write about the book; other times I may write about the culture that encourages such a book to exist. Always, I’ll try to offer, like the intro to my hometown radio station WLOE’s broadcast services for the Early Avenue Baptist Church used to say, “enlightenment and edification.” So, on to the additions: Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Book Review: Danger in Blackwater Swamp by Saundra Kelley

Suspense, yes…but an awful lot of thoughtful – and realistic – romance, too…

Danger in Blackwater Swamp by Saundra Kelley

Danger in Blackwater Swamp by Saundra Kelley is one of those interesting books that benefits from having an identity crisis. Its principle desire is, I think, to be a standard offering in the suspense genre. Instead it winds up being only partly a suspense tale (to the author’s credit, it will bring readers to the edge of their seats at multiple points in the narrative); with – or without – the author’s permission, it also offers us a set of mature, engrossing characters in the protagonists who have lived and loved and lost – and who may (we begin to hope as we get to know them) get to love again.  As I read this book I found myself reminded of Anthony Trollope’s dictum about the characters he (or any writer) might create. To paraphrase, Trollope observes that characters have to do what they have to do – and it’s up to the author to be wise enough to allow characters that freedom. Lucky for readers, Saundra Kelley is an author that wise.

Continue reading

Book Review: Fields of Gold by Jim Stephens

A historical romance that offers typical historical accuracy – and atypical romantic complications…

Jim Stephens’ Fields of Gold is a long book – of course, it covers more than three decades in the central character’s life, so there’sthat. This historical romance (as the author terms it) is also a saga of sorts. The interesting (and perhaps problematic) thing about that is that the bulk of this 466 page opus covers only six years. Now granted, they’re six of the most extraordinary years in the history of Western culture – 1939-1945, the years covering World War II. But the fact is that the author’s treatment of these six years comprises more than half the novel. That accounts for pretty much all of the “history” part of the book. The “romance” part spans the entire book and offers a complicated love triangle involving the main character, one Mathew Weldon, scion of an American banking family, an English brewer’s daughter who teaches him about true love, Joanna Barton, and an American torch singer who finally wins his heart (sort of – that’s one of the novel’s cruxes), Suzanne Swift.

Weldon is a typical spoiled rich boy. He also has no respect for women. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky and the issue of near-greatness

To paraphrase the philosopher, to be near-great may be to be misunderstood…

This essay will no doubt illuminate some of my idiosyncrasies as a reader and writer.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Anyone who has devoted him/herself to reading and writing, whether as vocation (as I and some others have) or as avocation (as many more others have), occasionally has those times of reflection when we look back over our pursuits and spot occasional gaps in our literary educations. You know what I mean: we look over one or another of those lists of “greatest books” or “books everyone with a functioning brain should read” and note a work that makes us say, “How have I overlooked that book?” If you’re like me (and I hope your neuroses don’t extend, as mine do, to thinking you should have read every writer mentioned in, say, The Norton Anthology series), you then find yourself scrambling to address your perceived gaps in your literary education. Such, such is the nature of a certain kind of literary OCD.

It’s in that spirit that I added the book which is the subject of this essay to the 2014 reading list. Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky is one of those books that gets quoted often, and referred to oftener by its admirers. And it is a book with some memorable quotes. At least one deserves inclusion here. Here’s the most famous: Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

WordsDay: Rich Tosches’ Zipping My Fly: Compilation Errors…

Sometimes a compilation reminds one that, to paraphrase Sesame Street, “Some of these things are not like the others…”

Zipping My Fly by Rich Tosches (image courtesy Goodreads)

The next book from the 2014 reading list was supposed to serve as a light refresher from my literary and “social/critical” reading choices. Rich Tosches’ collection Zipping My Fly falls roughly into the pattern of most creative nonfiction about the sport of fly fishing. But unlike the wonderful John Gierach’s humorous yet meditative works such as Sex, Death, and Fly Fishing or the late, lamented Harry Middleton’s equally enjoyable On the Spine of Time (a book especially close to my heart because Middleton fished the trout waters of my own beloved Smoky mountains), Zipping My Fly, a mélange concocted of columns Tosches wrote for the L.A. Times and supplemented with pieces he wrote for magazines (and perhaps solely for this collection), fails to connect.

Tosches’ book fails on a couple of counts and it’s important to note these both to be fair to him and as counsel to others who may be thinking of using collections of past newspaper/magazine columns or blog pieces to construct a book. This can be done successfully, but some thinking, revising, and editing may be in order. One wishes Tosches had done some of the aforementioned for this volume. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature: things we can do with words

A darling of literary fiction can actually write a pretty intriguing book -keep the dictionary handy…

To move from the wildly popular Hunger Games to Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker is quite a leap for any reader – but, I’ve made it. So this entry from the 2014 reading list is an essay that will look at what characterizes literary fiction. And how it can be both rewarding and a little maddening to engage with a master practitioner of the form.

Of course, the chief characteristic of literary fiction is that it has that amorphous (and arguable) quality known as literary merit. As a rule, the sorts of things that give literary merit are complex characterizations, realistic situations and emotional expressions, and some attempt to get at that problematic goal called truth. (The truth in this case falling more likely into that category of activity that Aristotle terms phronesis, or ” gaining cultural truth,” rather than scientific/observational discovery which the great philosopher terms theoria.) But I suppose it would only be fair to Aristotle to note that he does say that art (which great literature is) is itself another activity, poiesis. Okay, enough of this – I’m beginning to sound like Nicholson Baker. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Money Games: The Hunger Games and how young adult fiction rules publishing…

The real “hunger games” are those played by people who already have much (maybe too much) trying to figure out how to get more…

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (image courtesy Goodreads)

Nothing that I can possibly say will make any difference in how the majority of readers feel about Suzanne Collins’ mega-successful novel The Hunger Games. That said, having read this representation of the cynicism that pervades the publishing/film/corporate tie-in mentality of our “arts culture,” as I enter into this discussion, I alert readers that I have, after due consideration, come to two conclusions about The Hunger Games: 1) this book is NOT a critique of our culture in any real sense; 2) this book is aimed at children – and cynically exploits them.

First, perhaps, we should consider the cultural milieu into which The Hunger Games was born. 

The unexpected and overwhelming success of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy series about youthful wizards, the Harry Potter books, unleashed a torrent of publishing (and book marketing) aimed at a newly identified demographic: “young adult” (YA) readers. (Perhaps the most telling aspect of Rowling’s story is that the publisher who chose to accept her work for the American market was Scholastic, a children’s publisher of classics such as Weekly Reader.) Continue reading

ArtSunday: Larissa Takes Flight, by Teresa Milbrodt – review

In which we learn that saving the world is not so very different from selling shoes when one stops and thinks about it…

Larissa Takes Flight by Teresa Milbrodt (image courtesy Goodreads)

The always interesting Teresa Milbrodt’s latest story collection, Larissa Takes Flight, is what the publisher calls a “pastiche novel.” I know something about these having published a couple of my own,  so I feel relatively qualified to ramble on a little about this work in my own inimitable, if slightly eccentric style.

Larissa – and her adventures – cover two wide swaths of American culture: Milbrodt’s own special blend of the mundanity of  current American life with the epic (or, perhaps, mock-epic) and legendary which one writer colleague has called “Midwestern Mythic” as well as the author’s take on life as part of that sociological group we most often see referred to as “Gen X.”

The book is composed of a series of 58 flash fictions (though some are better considered short-short stories) that cover most of the areas of daily experience in the 21st century (“Larissa Loses Her Job,” “Larissa Gets a Credit Card,” “Larissa and Computer Problems”). Of course, given that “Midwestern Mythic” thing I mentioned, there’s plenty of unusual goings on (“Larissa and the Closet Monster,” “Larissa and Vampires,” “Larissa and the Genie”). Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Review: The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, by Teresa Milbrodt

A cyclops and an odyssey reveal that life and coffee turn out to be better when richer and more exotic…

Teresa Milbrodt writes in a genre that a fellow author calls “Midwestern Mythic.” Her recent novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, certainly fits her genre well. We meet multiple cyclops (maybe cyclopes), go on an odyssey, find a miracle, and even visit a pub with the all too weightily Homeric name The Three-Headed Dog. As in her first book, Bearded Women, Teresa Milbrodt’s The Patron Saint of Unattractive Women explores the discovery of what it means to be “different” – and to accept being different as normal.

The unnamed protagonist, a woman of 37 who is a cyclops by birth and a coffee barista by – well, maybe by birth, too. An only child, she lives with her difficult parents – her father is an especially adamant sort who has largely lost his sight to glaucoma and yet is sure he sees things clearly (yeah, he’s a sort of an anti-Tiresias) and her mother is – I guess you wouldn’t be wrong to call her a hybrid of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, and Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s spouse. The protagonist, like any good cyclops, spends a lot of her time thinking she’d just like to be left alone. Continue reading

Mapping Utah by Denny Wilkins

How we find our way: Denny Wilkins’ Mapping Utah – a Review

Knowing where you’re going takes all the fun out of getting there…

Mapping Utah by Denny Wilkins (image courtesy deadlines amuse me)

Kara McAllister is lost and she knows it. That’s why she is drawn to a strange Rand- McNally map of the Inter-mountain West that she finds in a Powell’s Bookstore in Portland as she is running away from a failed relationship, a successful career – and herself. How she comes to find a new relationship, a new career, and, ultimately, herself, is the central narrative of Denny Wilkins’ first novel, Mapping Utah.

It’s Kara who is the protagonist of this work. That must be understood before the novel’s achievement reveals itself. There are plenty of antagonists: bad guys who would ruin delicate wilderness areas for their petty amusements, corrupt police and politicians who sell the public trust, bad lovers who see their relationships as conveniences.

But there’s only one Kara. And it’s her deconstruction and reconstruction that drives Wilkins’ novel and makes Mapping Utah more than a ripping good yarn – which it is, by the way.

This is a book with romance, geology, action, botany, suspense, technology, politics, weightlifting. There’s a way in for almost any reader, in other words, no matter how escapist or academic or transactional (think “how to”) his/her tastes might be. Continue reading