Penny Shorts–an online journal with an interesting spin.

Cynthia  A portrait by Moses Soyer (1954)

Cynthia
A portrait by Moses Soyer (1954)

On Wednesday morning I received a tweet advertising that my short-story “Don’t Crows Eat Corn?” was now available on the on-line journal Penny Shorts. And the tweet was accompanied by this stunning portrait by the Russian/American artist, Moses Soyer.

(Later, the editor Catherine Horlick said that “This portrait by Moses Soyer reminds me of Sandy [the protagonist in my story], although in fact the story is like a painting by Edward Hopper, who so brilliantly depicted subjects trapped by life.”)

The turn-around had been extraordinary. On Tuesday evening, I had received one e-mail accepting the story, another that attached a PDF of the proofed galleys, and a third asking for a photo and a short bio.

Even taking into account that the UK-based Penny Shorts was five hours ahead of me so that while I slept they were working preparing copy, it was a very quick and pleasant surprise.

The fledgling journal has an interesting “business model.” Readers can purchase individual stories for 50p (about 78 cents in U.S. dollars) or they can buy a variety of subscriptions that give them access to multiple stories during the course of the subscription. Agents and editors are given free access.

This was the text of the tweet that was set out:

J.P. Bohannon’s story ‘Don’t Crows Eat Corn?’ is new on pennyshorts. The day after her mother’s funeral, Sandy has to hide a bruise on the side of her head. http://bit.ly/1TCpHBr

And so, the link to the Penny Shorts web site in general and to my story in particular was tweeted out to the world. It was efficient–and quick–marketing.

As an editor, Ms. Horlick has been a pleasure to work with, attentive, professional and warm. Moreso than anyone else I have met in the business.  For those interested in reading or writing or both, you should visit her Facebook page or the Penny Shorts website itself.

Quote 45: “The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition … .”

Sabina's Bowler illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

Sabina’s Bowler
illustration 2015 by jpbohannon

The bowler hat was a motif in the musical composition that was Sabina’s life. It returned again and again, each time with a different meaning, and all the meanings flowed through the bowler hat like water through a riverbed. … each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Book Review: The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys

Simon Ley’s 1986 novella, La Mort de Napoleon was translated from the French in 1991 by Patricia Clancy. Twenty years later it was re-issued by The New York Review of Books as part of its Classics series. The decision was a wise one, for the novel is one that should be more greatly known. It is likely not to be forgotten by any who read it.Cover of NYRB Classics edition

The novel begins with these words:

As he bore a vague resemblance to the Emperor, the sailors on board the Hernamm-Augustus Stoeffer had nicknamed him Napoleon. And so, for convenience, that is what we shall call him.

Besides, he was Napoleon.

And so the story begins. Napoleon has been smuggled off his St. Helena-exile and replaced by a look-alike, a sergeant who in the past had acted as the Emperor’s double. The crew of the hunting-ship is unaware of the identity of the new man among them. They knew only that as a sea-man, he is pretty ineffective. The plan was that when the ship stopped in Bordeaux, Napoleon would be met by an agent of the vast conspiracy that had freed him. This agent would bring him to the organization that would then propel him once more onto the world’s stage.

Unfortunately, at the last moment, the ship is given orders to sail past Bordeaux and head straight to Antwerp. From then on, what occurs to the Emperor is both comical and poignant, heart-wrenching and hopeful. From his visit to the tourist trap that is now Waterloo–he visits two separate places where Napoleon slept on the eve of the battle, not recognizing either; gets in an argument with a tour-guide about the positioning of the Grand Army; and is arrested for forgetting to pay his hotel bill–to his return to Paris, we follow the emperor as he tries to regain his footing in the world.

However, return to Paris he does. Though not necessarily in the way he thought he would.

Having attracted the love and devotion of an old fruit seller, he demonstrates his genius by rallying some old loyal soldiers into a more efficient program of selling melons and cantaloupes. And on the night when he intends to reveal himself to an old campaigner, he is brought to a sanitarium filled with men who believe they are Napoleon.

And in the end he dies.

The novel is short and momentous and moves quite quickly, and yet with every sentence you realize that you are in the hands of a master. Ley’s language is at times sublime. Here he is describing the sun-rise on Napoleon’s last day on-board the Hernamm-Augustus Stoeffer:

The sky was divided between night and dawn–blue-black from the west to the zenith, pearl-white in the east–and was completely filled with the most fantastic cloud architecture one could possibly imagine. The night breeze had erected huge unfinished palaces, colonnades, towers, and glaciers, and then had abandoned this heavenly chaos in solemn stillness, to be a pedestal for the dawn. The highest crest of a windblown cumulous was already brushed with yellow, the first beam of daylight against the rood of fading night. …

The unrecognized emperor had by wakened by the African cook and brought up on deck to witness this scene. At the end of the novel, it is this scene that greets him in death.

And so we are left with a wonderful read that makes us ask the all-important questions: What is real? And what is true?  Is Edmund, the ineffective cabin-hand, actually Napoleon? Is Edmund’s belief that he is Napoleon any different than the inmates’ of the asylum in Paris? (We are told on page one that he IS Napoleon.) Are the stories passed on to the tourists at Waterloo any truer or less true than the jumbled memories of our hero? These are the fun little boxes that Ley opens up for us, and which ultimately makes The Death of Napoleon such a satisfying read.

Death Mask of Napoleon illustration © 2015 by jpbohannon

Death Mask of Napoleon
                                                                     illustration  © 2015 by jpbohannon

Movie Review: Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes) written and directed by Damien Szifron

A friend sent me a text the other day about a movie he had recently seen: Wild

Movie Poster for Wild Tales

Movie Poster for Wild Tales

Tales. His description was that it was “six vignettes on modern life and its frustrations.”  He later texted that he had been careful with choosing his words and with not wanting to be a spoiler but that “violence and vengeance” better captured the gist of the vignettes than “modern frustrations.” He also stated that he was going to go see it a second time the following weekend.

He was right in amending his description and in his decision to go see it a second time.

For it is a worthwhile film.

Written and directed by the young Argentinian filmmaker Damien Szifron and produced by the Almodovar brothers, Wild Tales is just that: Six wild stories about modern life pushed to the extreme.  An unhappy man takes vengeance on all the people in his past; a waitress is confronted with a customer who had ruined her father’s life; two men are caught up in road-rage gone to the extreme; an engineer fights against a DMV system that seems to indiscriminately tow cars; a wealthy man must deal with a world of bribery and corruption; and a wedding reception goes wonderfully wrong.

Seven characters from six of the "Wild Tales"

Seven characters from six of the “Wild Tales”

To give more detail would indeed be “spoiling” it, for much of the fun comes from the twists these tales take–twists that we probably saw coming, but that leave us incredulous that they did.

In each of these stories, there is frustration and violence and suppressed anger that we all can understand, and because of that, because of their vague familiarity, they become amusing. These tales are cartoonish episodes that seem all too real, and in our recognition of them we also find something that is both wince-evincing and laugh-inducing.

Of course, some of the narratives are better than others. One or two is a “one-liner”–a joke that is elaborately set up and then smacks us with the “aha” (or better yet the “oh no”) moment. And others are quite elaborate. But they all succeed. They all pull us in with their story–unique yet familiar.  The frustrations of modern life tempered by dreams of vengeance.

And if for nothing else, Wild Tales leaves us with one of the most memorable wedding receptions in film history.

Here’s the trailer for your enjoyment:

 

 

The Ethical Society: Deed before Creed

The Philadelphia Ethical Humanist Society

The Philadelphia Ethical Society

On Wednesday night I attended a rally to kick off the political campaign of my brother-in law Chris McCabe, who is running for judge in Philadelphia and who has now collected the 1000 names necessary to put his name on the ballot. The campaigning officially began this week.

The rally was held at the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia, an inconspicuous building on Philadelphia’s ritzy Rittenhouse Square. I had been there before.

Several years ago, I had been awarded a fellowship by The National Endowment for the Humanities to read “Texts of Toleration”–those works that promoted liberty, free will, and understanding. The opening reception was held at the Ethical Society. That both events were held here made sense: the pieces we were to read dealt primarily with the ethics of society and my brother-in-law is one of the most socially conscious people I know.

Deed before Creed

Deed before Creed

And now, I was here again.  I don’t know if I remember seeing the plaque at the front steps the first, but I liked what it said: “DEED BEFORE CREED.” In our modern world, we are too often reminded that belonging to a particular “creed” is no assurance that “goodly deeds” are to follow.  Certainly, we can point to most of the major world religions to find evidence of this.

And so, I decided to look into this place that calls itself “The Ethical Society.”

The American Ethical Society was officially started in 1877 in New York (as the New York Society for Ethical Culture) when Felix Adler gave a sermon that focused on the immorality of exploiting the underclasses–which at the time included women and labor. Adler’s European education informed his Kantian belief that morality could exist separate from organized religion.

Within ten years of the founding of New York Society, three other societies were established in the U.S., in Philadelphia, in St. Louis, and in Chicago.

*     *     *     *     *     *

In 1867, Matthew Arnold wrote:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

The retreating “sea of Faith,” the general Victorian uncertainties of the day, was the impetus for the foundation of the societies in Britain.  One can trace the American ethical cultural movement to various ethical movements in early Britain.  There was a South Place Ethical Society in London as early as 1793. It became a Unitarian chapel a few years later and is most noted for its strong support of women rights. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Unitarians moved out and the place became the South Place Ethical Society.

A few years after Adler had established the Ethical Culture Movement in the U.S., the Fellowship of New Life was established in Britain, bringing together some of the more innovative and brilliant intellectuals of its time. The fellowship did not last long, but was instrumental in finding the Fabian Society which had a large impact on British intellectual and social thought of the time.  Within years, however, there were four Ethical Societies in London and over fifty societies in Great Britain by 1910.

*     *     *     *     *     *

So what’s it all about?

As far as I can tell, the Ethical Society basically acknowledges and celebrates the inherent worth of all people. It emphasizes that moral action is not dependent on religious creed and that the betterment of self implies a betterment of society.

That all seems pretty good to me.

*     *     *     *     *     *

And then one of those weird coincidences.  Four days after beginning–though not finishing–this blog post, I read a review of two volumes of work by Bernard Malamud.  In the work they mention, that Malamud, the son of Jewish immigrants, wanted to marry the daughter of Italian Catholic immigrants.  Malamud’s father was highly against the marriage. (He did not speak to his son for years afterward.)  But they married anyway–at the New York Ethical Society.  It is a small bit of information, but it highlights the society’s pushing aside of parochial prejudices and celebrating a basic goodness.

Book Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami

colorless I used to think that it was only Americans who were so caught up with the experience of  “High School.”  I had believed it was an American construct, an over-idealized rite of passage that had spawned too many bad television series and “coming of age” films. I had believed it was strictly an American thing.

I’ve known many men for whom those “high school” years were the very pinnacle of their lives. It is those days that they keep referring to, those days by which they measure all others.  I mean I know men in their 40s and 50s, in their 60s and 70s, even in their 80s whose conversation invariably turn to the high-jinks and glories of their high-school days.

But I was wrong.

Haruki Murakami’s novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage revolves around five Japanese high school friends and the long-lasting effects of the decisions they made when they were twenty years old.  They are now in their mid-thirties; two are living in their hometown, one has moved to far-away Finland, one to cosmopolitan Tokyo, and the fifth one is dead, murdered.  The one-time connectedness of these five high-school friends haunts the hero, Tsukuru Tazaki.

Tsukuru–whose name is the only one the five which does not have a color attached and who believes himself to be “colorless–was abruptly dropped from the group when he was a sophomore in college in Tokyo. And he never was given an explanation, just the order to never contact them again.  The separation caused Tsukuri months of suicidal depression and then years of self-doubt, wonder, and the inability to relate to people. For Tsukuru, the five high school friends were an unprecedented harmony of spirits.  And yet there were several cracks in this group which he was too nice to notice.

Tsukuru’s name in Japanese means “one who makes things,” and indeed, that’s what he does. He makes railroad stations.  And in Japan, railroad stations are a very big deal and making connections is an intrinsic part of Tokyo life. Yet his treatment by his high-school friends has left him unable to make connections with people. There have been several romantic liaisons, but nothing serious and nothing he wished to pursue further. There was a friendship–tinged with a touch of homo-eroticism–that ended as abruptly as his friendship with his high-school mates. He was simply abandoned one day, his friend moving away from Tokyo with no forewarning and no intention of staying in touch.

And so we follow “colorless” Tsukuru as he tries to make his way in the world.

I needed a novel like Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. There had been too few novels lately that gripped me from the beginning and made me read obsessively until I was finished. And Murakami has done that for me before. While I can’t remember the exact plots of his Kafka on the Shore or NorwegianWood, I do remember the obsessiveness with which I read them.  I can remember jotting down notes, following up allusions, taking notes. I remember protagonists who were like Tsukuru Tazaki: thoughtful, introspective, aware young men, burdened by what they cannot change in the past and fearful of the uncertainties of the future. And I remember getting caught up in their sadness and their serious attempts to make sense of their world. Murakami’s novels are both thoughtful and fascinating, outwardly exotic and inwardly philosophic.

And also I remember the fascinating side-trips of information. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, there is an odd but brief discussion of the genetic dominance of a sixth finger; there is a continual look at the music of Listz, particularly the “Le Mal du Pays” section of his suite “The Years of Pilgrimage.”  It is a piece that the young murdered friend played often when they all were together, and it is a record that his friend Haida had coincidentally left at Tsukuru’s apartment before he had left him. Towards the end of the novel, Tsukuru visits one of his old high-school friends–still seeking enlightenment as to why he was so unceremoniously dropped–and the friend has the piece in her pile of CDs. The two reach some reconcilliation listening to Listz.

Watching the trains

Watching the trains

Watching the people

Watching the people

 

And then finally there is the subject of trains and of Tokyo’s public transportation. When Tsukuru needs time alone, when he is filled with angst and confusion, he goes to the train platforms and watches the trains and the people. There is a certain peace he finds in the uniformity and the precision which such a place exhibits, against what seems impossible odds. (Shinjuko Station handles 3.5 million passengers a day!)

I had skipped Marukami’s novel before this, 1Q84, for a variety of reasons. It was a mistake on my part and one I will rectify shortly.

 

You can listen to the very recording of Listz that Tsukura played on his stereo in his apartment here: