We mourn the loss of Dactyl Foundation advisory board member Angus Fletcher.
Epistemological Poetics: A Walk with Angus Fletcher by VN Alexander
In 1994, considering a course on the “Literature of Nature” at the Graduate Center of the City University New York, initially I thought it be would too pastoral for my tastes—in those days I thought I was interested in art not nature—and I almost passed it up, but the fates intervened in the form of Linda, the all-knowing and benign department secretary, who said to me, “It’s Angus Fletcher,” and, without waiting for my response, wrote my name down on the roll. In this propitious way, I was introduced to the distinguished Renaissance scholar, whose methods fitted perfectly with his subject and whose work has been, ever since, a steady spring of inspiration. In manner as well as appearance, Angus might be described, with his vibrant white hair and beard, as a classic sage. He tends to think aloud in class—about Faust’s contract or the contrapuntal voices of a fugue or Whitman—and encourages students to join in as his wanders in his mental lake country. Joan Richardson has called Angus Fletcher “a magically gifted teacher in whose presence we hear what thinking feels like.” Indeed the synesthetic experience of his poetic logic was always instructive, leading inevitably to the unforeseen vista. Memories of 1994 recall that at some auspicious point in each ninety-minute session, he would suddenly deliver an inspired oration that would leave us all physically moved. To come upon such depth and breath of erudition is to feel precisely what García López de Cárdenas must have felt when he unexpectedly came upon the Grand Canyon. [continue...]
November 1, 2016
Marcella Faria earned her MSc in Biochemistry at the University of São Paulo and her dissertation subject was the controls in mammalian cell cycle. She earned a Ph.D. in Biophysics at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, studying the artificial modulation of gene transcription. She has been a Post Doctoral fellow at The Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) and at the Collège de France in Paris always interested in the molecular controls of cell fate transitions. She has held a young talent grant leading her own research group at the University of São Paulo, and has been an associated researcher at the Butantan Institute in São Paulo. She contributed more than forty scientific articles in indexed journals and book chapters, edited two books, supervised students, and is in the editorial boards of Current Medicinal Chemistry – Central Nervous System Agent, Journal of Biosemiotics, and Cadernos de História da ciência do Instituto Butantan. In 2017 she will be joining Dactyl Foundation as a invited researcher to work on multidisciplinary projects, with special emphasis on word games in cell biology, and the various concepts of “fate” adopted during the 20th century in literary fiction and in cell biology.
The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind by Billy O’Callaghan
Posted on October 10, 2016 by Dactyl Review
What to say about Things we Lose (New Island Press, 228 pages) a book that stunned me, time and again. I might call Billy O’Callaghan a “writer’s writer,” if that term did not immediately consign a writer to obscurity. (In the USA, Richard Yates is often referred to as a “writer’s writer,” and until the movie Revolutionary Road, few people, apart from those who taught in MFA programs, knew his name.)
I would like to invent a new way to describe what I think Billy O’Callaghan will leave as his literary legacy. I would call him a “human’s human” (with a pen) or an “explorer’s explorer” of our dreams. I would call him a poet of the spirit. Or, maybe, to use a more prosaic analogy, he is a housekeeper who assiduously dusts the cluttered rooms we keep closed, even from our conscious minds. Continue reading →
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
Posted on August 1, 2016 by U.R. Bowie
Like many who have read this first novel, written by a young woman still in her twenties, I marvel at the very existence of the The Tiger’s Wife (Random House, 338 pages).
How could someone this young have written a narrative this complicated, this full of insights into human nature, this teeming with art—this GOOD? I have read several reviews of the book online and I marvel once again at the caviling, the failure to appreciate the book on the part of some reviewers. Have American readers become so inured to the genre of “domestic literary realism,” this dull, insipid stuff that dominates the publishing world these days—stories of ordinary Americans doing ordinary things, told, for the most part, in flat ordinary language—that they fail to appreciate something with genuine verve and brilliance? Continue reading →
Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, translated by Miriam Schwartz
Posted on July 25, 2016 by U.R. Bowie
So here we have one more translation into English of Anna Karenina (Yale University Press, 754 pages) the greatest novel ever written in the history of world literature (my opinion, but not only mine). The publicity announcements and blurbs make big claims for this book. Marian Schwartz, a renowned translator with extensive experience, “embraces Tolstoy’s unusual style—she is the first English language translator ever to do so.” Hmm. “Clearly a labor of love—over a decade in the making—this translation is the most accurate Tolstoy we have in English.” Hmm. Marian Schwartz “bequeaths us not a translation at all but Tolstoy’s English original.” Huh?
Such grandiose blurbery places quite a burden on the shoulders of the translated text. Let’s see if the text can bear such a heavy weight. Continue reading →
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Posted on July 20, 2016 by U.R. Bowie
I’m ten years late getting around to reading The Road (Alfred A. Knopf, 287 pages), but since it has to rank among the most powerful pieces of American fiction written in the past ten years, it remains more than worthy of discussion.
McCarthy here tells a tale of “nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.” We’re in the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction. Bad times have descended upon the U.S. and the whole world, consequent upon some enormous Catastrophe. We are never told what happened—it could have been a nuclear war—but one thing is obvious: something really big has blown, leaving ash all over the earth and floating through the air. Apparently most animals are extinct, and the few human beings who survive face fellow humans who are, largely, living beastly lives. Continue reading →
The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon
Posted on July 17, 2016 by U.R. Bowie
A literary truism: good comic writing, any comic writing that professes to call itself literary fiction, must be undergirded with a firm foundation in seriousness. Nikolai Gogol was/is the greatest comic writer in Russian literature; his works are profound. Vladimir Nabokov wrote the following about Gogol’s long story, “The Overcoat,” widely considered the best story ever written in Russia: “The diver, the seeker for pearls, the man who prefers the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach, will find in ‘The Overcoat’ shadows linking our state of existence to those other states and modes which we dimly apprehend in our rare moments of irrational perception.”
Too many contemporary American writers of literary fiction are under those umbrellas on the beach. If they are swimming at all they are swimming in the shallows. There are depths to be plumbed through the art of writing creative fiction. Why not plumb them? Is it too risky? Is it easier to wade into tepid waters and potter around there? Time to take a deep breath and dive down deep now, modern American author. Time to stop your “shit-swimming” (Hemon’s term, taken out of context) in the literary shallows.
The Making of Zombie Wars (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 307 pages) begins with Hollywood silliness—amateur screenwriters pitching ideas to one another in a Chicago workshop—the idiocy and mindlessness of Hollywood (and of the whole U.S. A.), lurks in the background all the way through to the end. Practically all of Hemon’s books with American characters in a U.S. setting present a picture of our country teeming with idiots. This novel is set in 2003, just as we were embarking on what will surely go down as one of the most idiotic foreign-policy decisions of the twenty-first century: the invasion of Iraq. Continue reading →
Going Dark: Selected Stories by Dennis Must
As I read Going Dark, Selected Stories by Dennis Must, (Coffeetown Press, 170 pages) I saw a realistic foundation in each story. Here is a recognizable world with real people suffering real-life anguish. What interested me, however, was the way the author then handled time, space, and imagination. To come to grips with it, I had to invent a literary term—lyrical surrealism—to distinguish Must’s work from fantasy which, to my mind, means dragons and dragonspeak, time warps, elves and men with long beards carrying oaken staves and speaking some dialect of incomprehensible origin.
Continue reading →
Posted in just literary fiction | Tagged magical realism, surreal writing style
Minimum Maintenance by Carolyn Colburn
The protagonist and narrator in Minimum Maintenance (Bonnie’s Mews Publications, 240 pages) by Carolyn Colburn is a thirteen-year old girl named Sugar, named so because her mother didn’t want to say “shit” on camera. Sugar bumps along in the wake of her untethered mother from Minneapolis to Up North to Montana, Oklahoma, Nevada and parts in between, smoking cigarettes and joints, working on a tattoo and making fleeting friendships along the way. The title indicates the nature of Sugar’s childhood along the back roads, where dead cars pile high and outliers hang onto reality for dear life, doing what they do with drugs, booze, guns, sex, and hair dye.
Continue reading →
Posted in coming of age | Tagged gritty literary fiction, nonlinear narrative
The Conductor by Sarah Quigley
It is easy to understand how The Conductor (Vintage, 303 pages) stayed on the best seller list for weeks and weeks in New Zealand. The story is compelling, and Sarah Quigley knows how to tell it. Against the background of the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War Dmitry Shostakovich is writing his Seventh Symphony, struggling to finish it while German bombs are falling all around him. Meanwhile, the main character, Karl Il’ich Eliasberg (1907-1978), the second-rate conductor of a second-rate orchestra, goes about his life of quiet desperation, unaware that circumstances are coming together so as to place him at the center of history.
Continue reading →
Posted in just literary fiction | Tagged postmodern literary fiction, realism in fiction
Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon
I’ve read all of Aleksandar Hemon’s books. They have been blurbed and reviewed by the most enthusiastic of blurbers and reviewers: “dazzling, astonishingly creative prose” with “remarkable, haunting autobiographical elements.” The latest Hemon offering, Love and Obstacles (Riverhead Books, 210 pages), is a series of short stories, most of which continue in Hemon’s now familiar reminiscent strain. They amount to a kind of Bildungsroman, the story of a guy from Sarajevo who comes to America—in a word, Hemon’s own story, and therein lies the problem. Or, to put it more precisely, there may have been no problem when he started writing in this nostalgic, reminiscent vein, but by now the problem is obvious. What I’m writing about below is, primarily, that problem.
Continue reading →
Posted in just literary fiction | Tagged innovative writing style, striking metaphors |
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis
The Betrayers (Little, Brown & Co, 267 pages) begins with a Russian expression on a young woman’s face. A pretty blonde woman working as hotel clerk in Yalta is berated by a young woman from Israel, who insists she be given a room. The clerk “endured the assault with a stiff, mulish expression. A particularly Russian sort of expression, Kotler thought. The morose, disdainful expression with which the Russians had greeted their various invaders. An expression that denoted an irrational, mortal refusal to capitulate—the pride and bane of the Russian people.”
Continue reading →
Posted in just literary fiction | Tagged character-driven story, realism in fiction, unassuming literary style |
One of the many great events scheduled for the Millbrook Literary Festival.
The 8th annual Millbrook Literary Festival will be held on May 21, 2016, from 10AM to 5PM, carrying on the vision of Festival founder Scott Meyer, who sought to engage the local community, share his love of books, and encourage writers.
The 2016 Festival will feature nationally recognized authors, including Lauren Belfer, K. L. Going, and Valerie Martin, and introduce up-and-coming authors such as Owen King, the graphic novelist son of Stephen King. The Festival will support our talented local and regional writers with a workshop meet-up, a publishing panel, book-to-screenplay writing panel, and a new writing award in honor of Scott Meyer. With funding from the New York Council for the Humanities, we will present Peter Meineck, offering a program specially designed for veterans and their families. Our many community development programs include a panel with Fountains residents sharing their experiences with young readers and, as always, our Young Writers’ Showcase, as well as a number of fun children’s panels. Many more authors and illustrators will be participating throughout the day at the Millbrook Library on Franklin Avenue. See our website for updates on participating authors.
We are seeking your financial support to make this year’s Festival a success. Here are some details about our projected budget:
$1,200 tent, table, and chair rentals
We are expanding this year to provide space for more authors.
We’ve got most of this covered. Thank you, Millbrook Tribute Gardens!
$300 Projects for Children and Young Adults
We’ve already got this covered. Thank you, Millbrook Rotary!
$100-$500 Honoraria for Authors
We want to attract talented authors to the Festival and reward them for their valuable contributions. Help us recruit more exciting authors for 2016.
We’ve got some of this covered. Thank you, New York Council for the Humanities and Millbrook Free Library.
$1,200 Signage / Community Outreach / General Overhead
Yard signs, fliers, posters, radio and print ads, and etc.
$250 Scott Meyer Award
Open to any local / regional author. See writing award details on our web page.
Help launch this annual literary award to honor our Festival founder!
This year the Dactyl Foundation (dactylfoundation.org) will be helping raise money for programming and outreach by accepting your tax-deductible donations on our behalf. Donations can be made online at the Festival website or by sending a check payable to “Dactyl Foundation,” with “Millbrook Literary Festival” in the memo section, to Millbrook Literary Festival, P.O. Box 1349, Millbrook NY 12545.
We also have opportunities for businesses to advertise in our printed Festival program. Please contact me directly if you have any questions at email@example.com. On behalf of the committee, I thank you for your support for the Millbrook Literary Festival. Your generosity will be acknowledged in the Festival program and on our website millbrookliteraryfestival.org
Chair, Millbrook Literary Festival
Sea of Hooks (McPherson & Co) was nominated by Barbara Roether, author of This Earth You’ll Come Back To. In her review of Hill’s unusual novel, Roether writes, “There is a paradox that floats through the Sea of Hooks, which is that the experience of reading it is almost the opposite of how it is written. That is to say, while the story is told in its short collage-like segments, their effect is an almost seamless classical narrative. The way sections move from multiple perspectives, dreamtime, real-time, then meld together with such cohesive and penetrating storytelling, is a testament to the author’s insightful eye for detail and character.”
We can say that Sea of Hooks is a long narrative prose poem, which may be the essence of what it is to be a literary fiction novel.
Continue to Dactyl Review.
The wild horses in The Wild Horses Of Hiroshima (240 pages) are certainly intriguing, as with the title and cover art, and play a strong role at the story’s end by appearing in the streets of Hiroshima to wander about as a healing force, cared for by the citizens. They derive from the imagination of a novelist who is also a character in the novel, who is also creating a narrative. The horses seem to emphasize purity and nobility, pounding through the city in herds, a shield against nuclear war and against the violent nature of the human species itself.
This novel inside the novel begins approximately half way into the story, following a background beginning with the atom bomb attack on Hiroshima and its hideous devastation. A young American man has been a penpal with a young Japanese girl, and after the war, he goes to Hiroshima to find her. They marry and move to New Hampshire, bearing a son, Yukio. Yukio becomes a strong, husky young man who survives the attack of a bear which kills his father. He and his mother, Miyeko, return to Japan where he becomes a sumo wrestler. Time passes and he retires to write novels. The novel within a novel begins, with occasional returns to the exterior story of Yukio and his mother, plus Yukio’s geisha, Satoko. [continue...]
Throughout most of our lives, we can ignore our fears about the threat of non-existence that yawns beyond the casket with as much reality as the non-existence out of which we came into our cradles. But when facing death, our own or that of a loved one, we feel compelled to review the idea of after life. Believers ratchet up their beliefs and atheists, like Hal in Jim Snowden’s Dismantle the Sun (Booktrope, 324 pages), hang tough.
According to conventional wisdom, atheists are imaginary creatures. No one (except other atheists) believes they exist, certainly not in the foxhole of impending death. This is why deathbed conversions are expected, even in the most “literary” of end-of-life novels, despite the fact that one of the accepted roles of a literary fiction author is to question how we make sense of our lives. If most novels have the same after-life-affirming answer, I wonder if these novelists are really asking themselves the question, or merely posing it rhetorically for the sake of a denouement. Every deathbed conversion, it seems to me, is another failure to actually question the meaning of life.
Snowden’s courageous refusal to backslide into belief for the sake of an emotionally “satisfying” ending makes him a strong contender for this year’s Dactyl Foundation Award for Literary Fiction (nominated by Paul Xylinides, see review). If the award were given for lack of sentimentality alone, Snowden would win, hands down. The novel is about Hal Nickerson, a high school teacher in Michigan, whose wife Jodie is dying of cancer in the dead of a Great Lake winter. Defending his individuality, Hal largely resents others who try to console him with their own death stories: how accurate was it for them to mix their “pain with Hal’s, as if they and the rest of humanity were manufacturing some sort of agony hash? Surely every death had its own, flavor, its own texture and temperature.”
Continue to Dactyl Review.
In the last two weeks of the year, Dactyl reviewers posted seven excellent reviews of some very fine works of fiction. Thanks to all those who participated in Dactyl Review in 2015.
Sea of Hooks by Lindsay Hill
Posted on December 31, 2015
Lindsay Hill casts a magician’s spell across his Sea of Hooks (McPherson, 348 pages). On the surface his world is rendered in bright pixels of quivering light, while underneath a seamless narrative undercurrent pulls us into the mysterious depths of experience. For the reader willing to dive under, this journey is unforgettable.
Sea of Hooks is, on the one hand, a fiercely original Bildungsroman set in San Francisco in the 50’s and 60’s. Christopher is an overly imaginative boy, part Holden Caulfield and part Little Lame Prince, who lives in precarious affluence in a darkish Victorian on the edge of Pacific Heights. His delicate, high-strung mother is obsessed with Japanese culture and dead by suicide in the first paragraph. Dad works in finance on the Pacific Stock exchange, until he doesn’t anymore. There are prep schools, bridge games, Dickensian neighbors like the wise and wonderful Dr. Thorn; along with house fires, a very nasty tutor/pederast from Stanford, a trip to Bhutan and encounters with Buddhist monks. Hill’s rich prose makes us feel Christopher is someone we have always known, a boy who lives in a house we have been to, whose eccentric mother we’ve had tea with, whose city we are walking in. Continue reading →
This Earth You’ll Come Back To by Barbara Roether
Posted on December 30, 2015
This vivid, lyrical, character and place-based story (McPherson, 250 pages) begins with Rose Healy Koehner’s youngest daughter, Stephanie, searching a rural Ohio cemetery for Rose’s grave in 2008 while the deceased Rose watches from above and embarks on her life’s story told in the first person. The prickly, fondly contentious, mother-daughter relationship is apparent from the start in the underlying current of criticism that Rose levels at her daughter:
“Course you couldn’t find it right away…You should have used the sense God gave you and asked your brother…Why you always insist on making things hard for yourself I’ll never know; but it’s just like you to take a simple errand and turn it into a full-blown crusader pilgrimage.”
Stephanie, the youngest daughter of Rose’s ten children, has returned home after decades of wanderings, having run away at an early age, in part as a result of abuse that her family refused to confront. Continue reading →
Emma Who Saved My Life by Wilton Barnhardt
Posted on December 28, 2015
Every once in a while a reviewer receives a book he puts on the shelf and just wishes it would go away. Emma Who Saved My Life (St Martin’s, 496 pages) is that kind of book.
Cursed with what is arguable the worst title ever given a novel ( and double-cursed with a depressingly ugly dust jacket), it had press releases that touted it with superlatives that would make Gore Vidal blush. It’s in the fist person and has one of those woesome post-adolescent narrators. Worse, it’s a first novel by a guy named Wilton who is at Oxford working on a doctoral thesis about Henry James.
Eventually I opened it and started reading with a promise to break off after the first chapter (or 10 minutes) and go mow the lawn. When I reached Page 75 I realized that I hadn’t been counting either chapters or time but was totally caught up in this stunning, witty story of a young man’s attempt to become a New York actor.Continue reading →
Isaac: A Modern Fable by Ivan G. Goldman
Posted on December 27, 2015
How should we suppose poor Isaac felt — son of a father all-too-willing to sacrifice him at the suggestion of some voice in his head? Christians are wont to overlook the obvious horror and absurdity of the Biblical tale. According to some (less awful) Jewish interpretations of events, it was perhaps Satan, as an agent of God, who spoke to Abraham, which would make more sense to those who imagine God to be not quite so sadistic. Either way though, what kind of man would this traumatized son become? In Isaac: A Modern Fable (Permanent, 223 pages), Ivan G. Goldman has arranged it so that Isaac, after the mishap at the altar, has been granted the gift of eternal youth. The identity of benefactor is not clear; the gift may be from Satan or from Jehovah. Isaac himself has never been able to decide, as his immortality and eternal youth often seem to him like a curse.
Goldman’s Isaac has spent a couple thousand years bouncing around from identity to identity, never amounting to much, despite his miraculous powers of longevity. Continue reading →
Dead Woman Hollow by Kass Fleischer
Posted on December 19, 2015
In these Instagram days it seems any book can find itself tagged a #ForgottenClassic a little more than an hour after its published, and so the best books have to await the time when we find them, just beyond the nearest rise, waiting for us when we get to them. Kass Fleisher’s Dead Woman Hollow (SUNY Excelsior Editions, 194 pages) is one of the latter, a book for the ages, published just short of four years ago as I write, a historical novel in three parts and with two intermezzos, titled “Before” and “After” respectively and perhaps unsurprising. But that’s all that’s unsurprising about this tightly woven, triple-stranded, tragic yet transcendent, even triumphant, ages-of-women chronicle set in the mountains of twentieth century Appalachian Pennsylvania.
It’s a hard book to describe though an easy, and compelling, read. NPR luminary and poet Andrei Codrescu describes it as “tak[ing] its place alongside True Grit, My Antonia, and Deliverance,” a list that will strike the careful observer as taking a bloody turn at the end.Continue reading →
Wanderer Springs by Robert Flynn
Posted on December 13, 2015
Up in that part of state just east of the Cap Rock, south of the Red River and west and north of Wichita Falls is a region of the country the residents continue to call “East Texas,” although, even at 70 mph it is hours from Amarillo, Lubbock or Spur, a half-day from San Angelo and Odessa, and a long, hard, hot day from Ozona or El Paso.
It is a part of the country that rhetorician Jim Cordon once called “terra incognito,” forgotten by most of Texas, ignored by everyone else. It is a hard land, filled with rattlesnakes, mesquite, winters that freeze livestock and people, summers that dry the ground so hard it cracks.
It is an area where sandstorms, “blue northers,” tornadoes, floods, droughts, insects and wild animals are the norm, and where the greatest accomplishment many folks can boast about is their ability to seek prosperity in an environment that is at its best inhospitable and at its worst hostile. Continue reading →
California Rush by Sherwood Kiraly
Posted on December 11, 2015
Ted Williams once said that the hardest thing in the world was to hit a baseball with a bat. The second hardest thing, he continued, was to throw baseball where a batter couldn’t hit it with a bat.
Williams might have added that the third hardest thing to do is to write an original novel about baseball. Oh, it’s been done. But for every home run such as Ron Hays’ The Dixie Association or Ray Kinsella’s Field of Dreams, for every Bull Durham and The Natural, for every book by Ring Lardner, Jim Bouton and Lawrence Ritter, there are volumes of strikeouts. Continue reading →