Consultation No.2: With James Joyce

We were very excited to, through the magic of imagination, talk with James Joyce about his writing, how he climbed down from the rarefied atmosphere of a classical education to wallow in the morass of humanity, as he put it over the telephone during our first contact with him for this talk. We were able immediately to divine that he didn’t suffer fools, so we tiptoed cautiously into his life and writing.


GFB: We understand that you were something for a rebellious student. (He held his cane between his legs as he considered the comment.)

JJ: Naughty, rather. Hardly rebellious. We would have bloody well felt the headmaster’s cane across our bums had we been outright rebellious.

GFB: There’s a difference, then.

JJ: Of course. We boys had no vision necessary for rebellion. We were simply feeling our oats, as you might have it, expressing without an objective, you see?

GFB: Yes, I think so, although I’ve never thought about the difference between the two as significant.


JJ: Such ability to discriminate is the difference between a cultured intellect and robust ignorance. One of the few benefits we gained from our approach to learning at the time.

GFB: I see. So let me skip ahead and ask you, when was it that you first came to view literature as a vehicle for personal rebellion?

JJ: What? Are you daft? I never came to view such a thing. I assume – or shall I – that you’ve read my Dubliners stories? (He began to twirl his cane, as if agitated.)

GFB: Sure have. As have almost every secondary school student of my era.

JJ: (Here, he relaxed and offered a weak smile.) And there you’ve struck the correct note. My era is different from yours, yours will be from the subsequent one. It’s the persistence of social habits that drives later generations mad. And so we writers challenge modes of thinking in what we put to the page.  If we didn’t, and later generations saw much change in attitudes, habits, and education, then our children’s children would go mad. That’s the trouble with religion, as I see it.

GFB: Trying to fit old ways of thinking into new social circumstances?

JJ: Quite so. We of dawning generations must feel something, and were we to stick with the tried and true, we would be known only for our madness.

GFB: Certainly no writer wishes that.

JJ: It’s a human trait to need something to believe in, and when the gods of our beliefs decay and turn to dust, we become caricatures of human beings. There’s no life in us, then.

GFB: Thank you so much, Mr. Joyce, for your insights. You have indeed been a giant in twentieth century literature.

JJ: Balderdash! The times compel us to do what small things we do. Were we not to accept our lot, what would come of us? Of our world?


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Consultation 1: With Victor Hugo




Note: Since I’ve gone out on a limb and blamed my boredom with (particularly) current American fiction on a sense of ennui on the part of the authors, this post begins a series of imaginary interviews with authors who did manage to pin down the passion of their time and commit that passion to characterization and story. I had planned to deal exclusively with American authors and their works, but I thought, Who better to start with than Victor Hugo and his monumental work, Les Miserables?


GF: Monsieur Hugo…

VH: Please call me Victor, won’t you? It’s not often that someone calls me out from this temporary state of blissful abandon to answer to the future. Or Vic. Either way.

GF: All right, Vic…

VH: Second thought, let’s make it Victor.

GF: Victor, I thought of you immediately for this project, because you come from passionate people, you lived in a passionate era, and you wrote perhaps the most passionate book in the history of European novels.

VH: (A long pause) Yes, I see what you mean. I suppose I wouldn’t have put that way, but you’re quite right. The richness of the novel, the personages who inhabit these works of art are all built on an undercurrent of passion.

GF: Please go with that if you will.

VH: Of course. All passion is built on love, you see? Amour. Even when you despise the actions of the landed elite, something in you is crying out with love, not just for the downtrodden, but for the elite themselves.

GF: How so? With the elite, I mean.

VH: But don’t you see? Love and hate always coexist, but love is always the stronger. Love isn’t always as showy, as demonstrative as hate and its flaming fireballs. Quite simply it endures. Take for example, my opus, Les Miz, as the philistines among you call it, in which I have my countrymen take down our monarchy and its wicked domination of the poor.

GF: I understand you watched it happen as you wrote about it.

VH: (Winking and smiling) So they say. Quite journalistic, don’t you think?

GF: Sure was.

VH: Permit me to preemptively reply to your next comment. You were going to say you Yanks have problems with novels that are -ah – too instructive, shall we say.
GF: Yes.

VH: But this is where your country’s overarching lack of subtlety comes into play. It was the characters, my friend, the characters! They and they alone gave my story its passion. The revolution was merely a backdrop.

GF: But your characters rampaged. They destroyed, they murdered.

VH: Ah, yes, they did. For love of France, for one another, for the simple human freedoms denied them. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Without love each stood alone against an oppressive regime. With it, they were France.

GF: All right, I suppose I can concede your point. But you can’t do ghastly things and call it love.

VH:  Yes, yes. But love is at the basis of it, you see? Regardless of its distortions.



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Let the Mothers and Fathers Speak


I’m afraid I’ve become jaded.

Rarely do the newest of fiction and nonfiction books, and even poetry, speak to me as they once have. Lately I’ve had to force myself to read them, something you might glean from the rare reviews I’ve been posting. What’s wrong? Is it me? Have I simply read too many books with recurring structures, the same-old character types, the obvious conflicts and resolutions?

Or is there something lacking in these recent, highly publicized books? Is this why reading them doesn’t excite me as they once did?

As a writer I’ve been on a crusade to adopt what I deem the most workable of the postmodern structures, but I will forever maintain that the story is paramount, whatever other tinkering I allow myself to do. We should realize that the term postmodern signifies a belief that modernity is ending, as far as literature goes, but that it says nothing about what replaces modernity in the society that literature reflects.

So am I being a curmudgeon when I diss a lot of the latest acclaimed writing? I don’t think so, really. I read other reviewers reactions to these novels, memoirs, short story collections, etc. What has been slowly emerging is a respect for the technicality of these literary efforts. Along with that, however, is a palpable dissatisfaction with some perhaps intangible thing in the books they try so hard to like and rave about.


So, what to do?

My answer is to go back to the masters of the past century. Mine is not a sentimental desire for what once was – although there’s a lot of that in the sensibilities that surround us these days. But I don’t think Twain, James, Cather, Hemingway, Faulkner, McCullers, O’Connor, et al, would have us dwell too long on the past. They didn’t, for the most part. But in reading those early works of modernity, you get a feel for the energy of their time, the way that energy affected lives. That’s what’s missing, I think; the passion of the moment in which we live.We writers need to be able to translate that energy, that passion, into characters and structures that all but dictate the story of our time.

And so what you’ll see of me here will for a time be my consultations with the mothers and fathers of twentieth century literature. I’ll write about their stories, but I’ll also try to speak to their underlying energy, the things that propelled those magnificent stories.

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This Time, It’s All In The Technique



I’ve had the experience of watching a movie in a local theater, the person in the row in front of me busy whispering aloud, explaining what transpires on the screen to his or her companion. Yes, such prattle may add to your own understanding of this cinematic event, but it’s damned annoying. And so we’ll talk soon here of the narrator of Amor Towles’ latest, A Gentleman in Moscow.

To be fair at the outset, Towles takes a lot of risks in this novel, in subject matter, in its telling, and in the story’s structure. And as with most risks, some of his work and some don’t. His protagonist, Count (now Comrade) Alexander Rostov, is now a waiter in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, an edifice to which he’s been confined by a Bolshevik tribunal for seeming not to have his politics right. The story thus reduces Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s Russia and its grand scape to a mere hotel, a device not unlike the trope of shipboard drama, from Moby Dick to Master and Commander.

Rostov, despite his demotion to waiter, seems affable in managing to live the life of one of Russia’s former uppercrust with few hints of typical Russian angst, within and without him. Until, that is, the child, Sofia, he’s been given responsibility to raise, grows to be a beautiful late teen and a talented pianist. Rostov’s concern here is Russia’s past and the way its previous artistic culture seems to be stunted by communism. He thus seeks to spring Sofia loose from such sociopolitical chains and seeks to place himself back in the good old days of a Russian aristocracy served by scores of quiescent serfs.

And to the writing: Towles’ strength here lies in his narrative passages, many of which display a literary elegance that’s to be admired. It’s at the periphery of these passages, however, where Towles segues into scene, that my earlier paragraph comes into play. He seems to feel uneasy about his dialogue (more on that in a moment) and seems compelled to have his narrator play the moviehouse busybody, explaining things that are likely obvious to the reader. Beyond annoying, it serves to diminish the effects of scenic activity and talk, and this is unsettling to say the least. His dialogue displays little in the way of advancing story or deepening his characters. Such storyline talk seems to this reader to be rather inane, uninformed, and not the witty bits of writing it was probably meant to be. Factor in his bratty narrator, and you get a plodding story with superficial characters.

In the end, I’m sad to say, it seems to this reader that Towles is more interested in creating an artsy piece of writing than in developing his story idea into something grand, something that could push this era’s haggard literary efforts into more memorable territory.


My rating: 15 of 20 stars

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A Modern Desultory Philippic


There are things that trouble me these days. Just to name a few:

  1. Too many things are going on in the world. Far too many. Can’t people live within their means? Can’t they help those less fortunate before things get too salty out there? Can’t we accept someone else’s opinions without hysterics?
  2. I have too little time to read. Or write. There are too few books out there worthy of my time, and when I ask someone what they think of my latest book, they say, “Whaaat?”
  3. Taxes are too complicated. And the money never goes for things I’d like it to.
  4. I’m aging way too fast.  That look in the morning mirror no longer seems like a photo – now it’s more like a movie.
  5. It’s too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.
  6. All the things I like to eat are bad for me and put weight on me.
  7. Everyone I know has too many problems –  health-wise and otherwise.
  8. I used to be 1-1/2 inches taller than I am now. I don’t like that.
  9. Going somewhere on a commercial airliner is miserable and cramped. And no one offers me a ride there in their Lear jet.
  10. I don’t go to movies much anymore. And if the guy sitting in front of me is wearing a long black overcoat he won’t take off, I’m outta there.


All this to say that 2018 is going to mean changes for me. I’m not sure yet what they are, but you’ll see some evidence of them on this blog. Now, I admit there are a lot of blogs out there. And mine may seem the least consequential one you’ve ever read. I’m pretty sure, though, that readership ups and downs will be paralleled by the number and attitude of my posts. Yes, the picture above is of me, taken on a particularly bad day. It takes readership to keep this blog going, so if you want me to clean up, make a big deal of it every time I post.


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The Rear View Mirror

Any blogger worth their salt knows to evaluate what (s)he writes about and knows to give potential readers something that interests them. The trick, of course, is to, well, trick them into digging deeper that they’ve gone before, making them think in new ways about their interests. I call that looking in the rear view mirror.


We’ve reviewed fewer books this year than in previous years, a trend that might continue. I won’t review pap, even though such work is high on everyone’s list. I will review books ranging from the occult to the historical, but only those that represent thinking in new ways. I don’t mind if the subject matter is all wet, as long as it presumes to have readers THINK.

If you’re a writer, I’ll do what I can to steer you away from bad technique, wandering astray, boring the reader in you. I’m not a fan of MFA program grads, but as long as these writers have something to say, I’m all in. While I don’t go about my writing and reading habits in a way that lies counter to the conventional, I’m always on the lookout for innovation, but innovation that informs and doesn’t annoy.

So if you’ve been a bit irked at the subtle changes in this blog, please hang in there. Life these days is all about change – just look back at the books reviewed here. You’ll see that change in what’s being written. I plan to change with the times, and I’ll do my best not to steer you wrong.

the one-2 copy

Oh, and by the way, I have a poetry book (cover above) coming out in February. I read some poetry and review even less, but that may change as well. Poets are the true visionaries – listen to them, read them. Stay ahead of the game.


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Anything You Want to Believe

before…,by Bob Fickes


51bgBXfbF1L._AC_US218_I have no biases when it comes to reading. anything from acclaimed history to channelled things from way on the far end of the bell curve. This book claims to be material channelled by author Fickes via the famed magician of Camelot, Merlin, and purports to be “the missing records of creation, the war in Orion, Lemur and Atlantis. One of the most cumbersome titles around, but that’s neither here nor there.

A lot of the text is repetitious and somewhat ho-hum when it comes to providing intriguing information and outright entertainment and a lot of it parallels the Biblical story of creation most of us are familiar with. If you read enough of this sort of subject matter, as I’ve done, you get the eerie feeling that there might be something to it. There are, in fact, a number of fairly well-respected archaeologists who are working the edges of conventionality, and if they’re to be believed, they’re disputing modern archaeological assumptions with fairly good data. So who knows.

At any rate this Merlin fellow shared the story, so why not read it? Right?


My rating: 14 of 20 stars


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