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.

Review: “The Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass

"I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river." Gass "in the heart of the heart of the country." P.179

“I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river.” William H. Gass “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Because of some administrative hic-cough, I was sent two copies this weekend of the same book: William H. Gass’ In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. I had not heard of it, although I recognized the name of the author (and immediately confused him with the novelist, William Gaddis). Having two copies, I gave one to my friend Tim Dougherty, who very well may be the best-read person I know.

Here was the text he sent me later that day:

John,

Thanks so much for the book. Gass’ “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is a seminal postmodern short story. The collection is one of my favorites, and the new edition blows my flea market paperback out of the water. And now I can throw that one away!

Who’d have thunk it.

So, on my train-ride to work the next morning, I read “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.”  The story is the final piece in a collection of the same name that includes two novellas and three short stories, but I went to the last story right away.
And it is everything that Tim’s message had intimated.

First it is broken into short chunks with headings such as “People” or “Weather” or “Places” or “My House.” It is a sort of stream of consciousness, movie-like postcard of a town in Indiana and the people who live there, and at the same time it is a self-portrait of the narrator who has lately lost love (through death or separation I am unsure) and who is both crushed and buoyed by the vastness of the Midwest.

But it is the language that is so remarkable, that stands out yet does not make a show of it. There are exquisite lists. This is the narrator describing a neighbor’s basement:

...stacks of newspapers reaching to the ceiling, boxes of leaflets and letters and programs, racks of photo albums, scrapbooks, bundles of rolled-up posters and maps, flags and pennants and slanting piles of dusty magazines devoted mostly to motoring and the Christian ethic. I saw a bird cage, a tray of butterflies, a bugle, a stiff straw boater, and all kinds of tassels tied to a coat tree.

And here he is describing the town itself in a section called “Vital Data”:

There are two restaurants here and a tearoom. two bars. one bank, three barbers, one with a green shade with which he blinds his window. two groceries, a dealer in Fords. one drug, one hardware, and one appliance store. several that sell feed, grain, and farm equipment. an antique shop. a poolroom. a laundromat. three doctors. a dentist. a plumber. a vet. a funeral home in elegant repair the color of a buttercup. numerous beauty parlors which open and shut like night-blooming plants. …

But it is his memories of the lost love and of lost childhood, the feelings of being trapped in a dying world, and his description of the decadent monotony of small town life that resonates the most, in which the fiction writer becomes one with the poet, and where the language becomes as integral to the story as the story itself, where inside and outside, the public and the private, that which is thought and  that which is felt, all merge into one.

It is majestic and memorable.

And I can’t wait to finish the rest of the collection.

Book Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders

To be truthful, I was put off by all the hype that surrounded Tenth of December when it was released back in January. Articles about the short stories and their author, George Saunders, were everywhere. All the major papers, magazines and blogs were praising, lavishly, both the collection and Saunders himself. All of sudden I was seeing articles about or by Saunders from years past, all floating to the front, all becoming part of this giant group-hug! He was compared to Twain and Flannery O’Connor, to Vonnegut and Pynchon, to Bartheleme and Welty. Even the late David Foster Wallace was corralled in for a blurb on the inner covers.

And now, I can say, all the hype was legitimate and deserved.  Tenth Of December is something special. 10thdecemberbookcover

The longest story in the book “The Semplica Girl Diaries” begins with a father, in the near future, starting a diary. As he begins, he recounts his fears and worries for his children, fears that they are growing up with so much less, materially, than their classmates. He also reveals his own anxieties about his failure as a provider of these consumer necessities. During the course of his journaling, the family is teased with a windfall and then pushed towards ruin. Oddly enough, strung throughout the story, literally, are third-world women who sell themselves in America as lawn ornaments, putting his own focus on material success in a very skewed light.

Other fathers–or father figures– appear throughout the stories. In the first story, “Victory Lap,” a young boy saves a girl who is being abducted. But he second guesses all of his heroic actions in terms of what his father would say about his getting involved and not completing his chores. At the same time, the perpetrator keeps worrying about his own father–and while carrying out his violent abductions–worries whether his father would be proud of the way he is doing things.

In a very short piece, “Sticks,” an aloof, mean-spirited and inaccessible father dresses a crucifix-like contraption for every holiday: Santa for Christmas, a groundhog for February 2nd, a soldier for Veterans Day, etc. When his wife dies, he dressed the pole as Death and makes a memorial to her. His own–and the sticks’–ending is seemingly inconsequential, but full of pathos nevertheless.

George Saunders

George Saunders

On the whole, Saunders’ stories are full of dysfunctioning families trying to succeed in a world of plastic values and overwrought commercialism. It is filled with simple people having difficulty coping in an increasingly complicated world. This world he describes is a bit off-kilter, but it all seems unnervingly familiar.  And his telling of these tales is enjoyable and unforgettable.

Life and death, hope and despair, pride and self-loathing: these are the topics that Saunders addresses but in a way that is funny as often as it is heart wrenching, a way that is wryly observed, emotional and thought provoking.

All that hype was well deserved after all.

I can’t write, so I read Denis Johnson…

…and now I know I can’t write.

At times I feel I’m kidding myself. Who do I think I am pretending to be a writer, a poet, a thinker?  I am just an everyday slug without the discipline to get anything really worthwhile done.  And discipline is what you need. How many times do we hear that just showing up is 90% of the struggle?  Just do the work, day in and day out, we are told, and the creation will come.

I don’t do the work.

jesus-sonAnd so as I sneak off for my hour-and-a-half, two hours, I try to jump-start my atrophied mind by reading for a while at first. Unfortunately today, I began re-reading Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a collection of eleven wise, lively, brutal, intense, truthful short-stories.

I’ve never felt so washed up in my life!

The first story,  “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” is riveting. It’s like a very bad car accident that you can’t turn away from. The narrator, the hitchhiker, has been on the road from Texas to Kansas City. The first driver fed him amphetamines and Canadian Club;  the second ride was a hashish filled bubble to the city limits; and the third ride was the fateful ride–a family of four with a nine-month old baby on the back seat, destined to be brutalized in a head-on collision. The narrator is flawed and generous and seemingly prescient, for he seems to know that it is this family that picks him up that will suffer. His final words long after the car accident and while being admitted to the Detox at Seattle General are puzzling–if not telling: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”

God, could it be Jesus’ son?

Much later in the collection–one could label Jesus’ Son an episodic novel rather than a collection of short stories with its single narrator and progressive (though disjointed) chronology–the narrator is in detox and is shaving another man. (The drugs they are giving him have steadied his hands to such a degree that he has taken to shaving fellow patients.) Here is part of the scene:

Just below one cheekbone, Bill had a small blemish where a bullet had entered his face, and in the other cheek a slightly larger scar where the slug had gone on its way.

“When you were shot right through your face like that, did the bullet go on to do anything interesting?”

“How would I know? I didn’t take notes. Even if it goes on through, you still feel like you just got shot in the head?”

But they aren’t Bill’s only wounds. “I’ve been shot twice,” Bill reveals. …”Once by each wife for a total of three bullets, making four holes, three ins and one out.”

This is the world of Jesus’ Son. There are bullet wounds and heartaches. There is addiction and abortion, love and lovelessness, disease and car-crashes and murder. Johnson once said about his stories “Some of us go to the movies to see everybody shooting each other, and then there’s another bunch who actually shoot each other.” It is this latter bunch that people Johnson’s stories. But in addition to “shoot[ing] each other,” they seek salvation, search for love, and try to survive on the wrong track that life has set them on.

Intense and unsettling, witty and thrilling, the stories are both unforgettable and beautiful.  Something any writer should aspire to.

So, Another Weird Coincidence…

So, I had sneaked out to this coffee house to do this wee bit of writing and reading. And I was considering saying something about the title–Jesus’ Son–and how it was taken from the Lou Reed song “Heroin.”  I had just decided against it when Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” comes on the sound-system and that sealed the deal.  When I mentioned the coincidence to the guy at the counter, he replied, “Lou is everywhere.”  I didn’t know, hah!

So, if you want, here’s a recent version of Lou Reed singing “Heroin” from where the title came:


Book Review: Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret

There is a weird zeitgeist about my reading these days.  I will pick up a book that I am unfamiliar with, because of a friend’s recommendation or a short review in the Sunday papers, and then all of a sudden I am seeing it everywhere.  I began reading Etgar Keret’s collection of short stories, Suddenly a Knock on the Door, after seeing it reviewed in the Sunday NYTimes two weeks ago (15 April). While I was half way through it, I was tidying up the house when a magazine from back in February fell open to a review of the book announcing its upcoming publication. I had read the review back then, but had forgotten completely about it. And then again on Wednesday in the Metro–the free paper given to commuters each day and hardly a go-to read for  literary suggestions–the book was advertised on the front page and reviewed inside. On Friday, a co-worker told me the library had called to tell him the book he had on hold had arrived: Suddenly a Knock on the Door.

What is with all the buzz?  Keret’s publicists must be very good.

And to a large degree it is worth it.  Keret’s thirty-seven stories (translated by three people) are short, zippy, and fun.  They straddle the world between stark realism (suicide bombers and bratty children) and magic (talking fish, pissed-off angels). The subject matter often seems to be fiction itself–the fictions of the literary mind and the fictions of liars.

The collection is bookended by two stories in which they author is forced to write a story in front of us.  In the final story, he is being filmed by German Television and they want to film him writing, want to record the actual creative process. In the first, he is being forced by three men–a terrorist, a poll taker, and pizza delivery man–who have invaded his home and demand a story. Violence is threatened if he doesn’t come through with a story they approve of.  When the narrator begins telling a story about what is actually happening at the time–the most current form of realism–the pizza delivery man demands something more magical: “Things are tough,” he says. “Unemployment, suicide bombings, Iranians. People are hungry for something else.”

And something else is what Keret gives us.

In one story, “Lieland,” a man is pulled into a world where all his past lies have come alive. The fabrications he has made up throughout his life in order to deceive his mother, his employers, his girlfriends all confront him in a world that is harrowing and freeing.  In “Unzipping,” a woman, tired of her current lover, finds a zipper in the man’s mouth, and unzips it to reveal a new person inside, who is indeed a different sort of lover. In still another, a woman has only slept with men named Ari–twenty-eight of them previously and now her current boyfriend and the landlord.

Yet all is not silliness.

The number of suicides and suicide bombings in the stories are many. One beautiful story, “Not Completely Alone” begins “Three of the guys she dated tried to commit suicide. …One of them even succeeded.”  The last paragraph begins “Four of the guys she dated tried to commit suicide. Two of them succeeded.”  It’s only after going back to read the first sentence that we realize the narrator is the fourth guy–and the second success. In another, a man’s life is completely changed after emerging from a extended coma that was caused by a  jumper landing on his head after falling eleven stories to his death.  In another story “Joseph,” a smarmy producer in a cafe boasts about his talent for reading people but is not clever enough to spot the sweating man with the bomb strapped to him.  After a discussion of final words by those who die a violent death, we learn of one bombing victim whose last words are the bathetic “Without cheese” as he orders a kosher “cheeseburger” in the story “Cheesus Christ.”

In “Pick a Color,” a black man is beaten badly when he moves into a white neighborhood. In the hospital, he falls in love with the white nurse who tends to him, and, whom, confined to a wheelchair, he marries  in a ceremony presided by a Yellow priest whose family also had been beaten because of their color. When the white nurse is murdered by brown men, the man turns to the Yellow priest for explanation, explanation of “the God who loves you and wishes you all the best.” When that God shows up, in a wheel chair like the black man, the explanation that God gives is not what any of us probably expected.

In relating these stories here , they seem much darker than they are upon first reading. The stories do zip by, some of them only a page and a half long.  There is much “smoke-and-mirror” playing with reality, turns with truth and illusion.  There is banality, as there is always in life, and there is beauty. A young son gives animal names to the prostitutes who visit the old man on the floor above…a dying man gets his dying wish for peace on earth…a mourning widow comes to some closure through cooking in her diner.

Nathan Englander, in the title story of his collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, has a character say that the difference between Israel and Miami is “the space” –that there is none in Israel.  In Etgar Keret’s collection (in which Englander translated seven of the stories), space is also the focus. Ketger looks closely at the spaces between lies and truth, between life and illusion, between hope and reality.  The stories are clever, witty, and fun. There are enough “wow” moments, enough times when you breathe out in relief or exasperation, and plenty of times when you simply smile knowingly to yourself.

In the blurbs on the paperback edition, there are statements by Salmon Rushdie, Amos Oz, Yann Martel.  But my favorite is by Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story. Talking about Keret’s novel The Nimrod Flipout, Shteyngart calls it “the best work of literature to come out of Israel in the last five thousand years… .” That’s quite a claim.  Maybe I’ll see if it’s in our library.

Book Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

  I was prepared not to like this book.  The hype was too much.  I had read a “life-style” piece in the NYTimes Metropolitan section about Englander, an interview with him in The Guardian,  a front page review in the NYTimes Sunday Book Review, another in the London Review of Books, and a handful of smaller reviews. The title and the author seemed to be everywhere.  And yet, I was wrong.  The hype was deserved–the eight stories in the collection are gem-like in their perfection. Solid, thoughtful, inventive, poignant and droll.

The title of the collection famously alludes to Raymond Carver’s story and collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  In Englander’s title story two couples sit around in a sunny kitchen drinking hard–just as they did in Carver’s story. The difference is that we are not in Carver’s Mid-West; we are in Florida, and Englander’s two couples are a secular Jewish couple who live there and a Hasidic couple from Israel, visiting after many years.  The conversation is tense, the husband uneasy with these Hasidic guests that he has just met, and the ending surprising and sad. (Go here to read Carver’s original story: “What we Talk About… and here to read it as it finally appeared with editor Gordon Lish’s revisions, “What We Talk About…”)

Several of the reviews I read mentioned how Englander’s stories seem to channel Kafka through Woody Allen, and the example they site is the story “Peep Show.” In fact, this Kafka/Woody Allen connection is what drew me to the collection.  In this particular story, a secular Jewish man walks into a peep show, advertising “live girls” and gets 5 tokens. Inserting the first token, he encounters several women, one of whom particularly arouses him. After the partition closes, he deposits another token, but this time, when the barrier opens, it reveals three rabbis from his past who begin to scold him; subsequent tokens reveal his scolding mother, his pregnant wife, and himself.

There are other stories that touch have a similar absurdity and wryness–particularly one about a gang of Long Island Jewish boys dismally failing to wreak revenge on an anti-Semitic bully and another about a summer camp for senior citizens–but overall this is not the tone of the collection. The final story “Free Fruit for Young Widows” and the second story “Sister Hills”  are memorable and distinct vignettes of life in Jerusalem.  Both have a historical sweep and a personal sadness. Both are extraordinary.

“The Reader” and “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” seem the most personal of the collection, and they too are brilliant. The language in these–as in all the stories–is clean and efficient, but beautiful and evocative.

As I said, I was a little put off by all the hype. But it was well deserved.  These are stories that will stay with me for a while and which I will return to often.