The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

IN SURREAL VIETNAM, AND BACK HOME IN THE UNREALITY OF THE U.S.A.

The title story of The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction (Houghton-Mifflin, 246 pages, from the Series: Looking Back at Literary Classics of the Past) comes first in the collection, a story cataloging all the different things that an American foot soldier, or “grunt,” carried during the Vietnam War. This includes not only entrenching tools, Claymore antipersonnel mines, assault rifles, the M-60 machine gun and grenade launchers, but also pictures of girlfriends, an illustrated New Testament (Kiowa, a native American and devout Baptist), tranquilizers (Ted Lavender, “who was scared, until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe”), the medic Rat Kiley (“a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books”). The grunts also carry lice, ringworm, and other hazards of the humid climate, along with dreams for the future and fear of death or embarrassment. Continue reading

Sama Seeker in the Time of the End Times: A Spy Novel, by U.R. Bowie

New Book Announcement

The year is 2002, the devastating attack of 911 in New York still reverberates. Osama bin Laden is in hiding. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld says, “If he’s alive, he’s somewhere?” In reply, President Dubya Bush squints and makes threatening gestures. The U.S. government marshals all its forces to find and kill the archenemy of Western Civilization. Urell L. Buies, Ph.D., a college professor with a sideline of decades in low-level intelligence operations, is recruited to work with Russian intelligence in Central Asia. The Russians promise they can find Osama. While in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, doing little more than waiting for something to happen, Buies begins writing a long account of his formative years and his life as a double agent. Or what he terms, ironically, “a double non-agent.” As the story of his life moves closer to present time, the narrative moves to the climactic point: the day the Russian helicopter goes in after Osama.

Once again, using a multiplicity of influences from classical Russian literature, U.R. Bowie creates a fascinating imaginative world. In a novel that looks backward to the nineteen century, backward to a Florida childhood in the forties and fifties of the twentieth century, then forward to events culminating in the assassination of Osama bin Laden in the twenty-first, we are offered wit, intelligence, richness of detail, quirky characters, and an impressive grasp of Russian history, literature, arts and culture. The echoing, overlapping stories—but, more impressively, a large array of characters—draw in the reader and lead gracefully to a powerful crescendo. The author deftly manages the trick of scope, hitting all the right notes to sound out the big picture, while making us hear, feel, and commiserate with the people at the heart of the interwoven tales.

Thoughts on Publishing and the Plight of the Writer of Literary Fiction

Lot of good ideas by V.N. Alexander, in her recent post on publishing; co-op publishing may be the future. For me the great innovation in book publishing is POD. V.N. Alexander’s article makes it crystal clear why pre-printing an entire run of books–I have, largely, literary fiction in mind–makes absolutely no sense anymore.

“Other roles of the traditional publisher have been effectively eliminated by technology.” Right. Then again, the author, through social media, is now expected to do all, or practically all, publicizing of the book. Who needs a publisher, then?

“The two most valuable services that traditional publishers provide are editing and proofreading,” but, as V.N. asserts, finding competent people to proofread or copy edit books is not that difficult.

Actually, there is one big thing that traditional publishers can do for a writer of literary fiction. They can get the writer IN with the literary establishment. This, ultimately, is the only thing that really counts. Once you are IN, your books get reviewed by Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Booklist. If you never get IN nobody ever knows you exist. And the huge majority of all writers who publish literary fiction will remain, egregiously, OUT. Continue reading

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (“Beati Immaculati”), Vintage Paperback, 1989, 278 pp., with an introduction (“An Interpretation”) by Mark Schorer, and the author’s dedicatory letter to his wife Stella Ford (January 9, 1927). The novel was first published in 1915.

 SERIES: LOOKING BACK AT GREAT WORKS OF LITERARY FICTION

The blurb on the front cover is from Graham Greene: “One of the fifteen or twenty greatest novels produced in English in our [20th] century.” Blurbs usually exaggerate. So too does this one, but it exaggerates in the wrong direction. The first time I read this book I thought, “This is the great American novel.” In rereading it again for this review, I have not changed my opinion. Continue reading

On Nikolai Gogol

There’s Gogol, and Then Again, There’s Gogol

Among others, Ivan Turgenev could not believe that The Inspector General, the greatest play in Russian literature and “one of the most subversive comedies ever to appear on stage,” was written by the same man who wrote the bloated and ingenuous sentences of the essays in Arabesques—and, later, the moralizing and preachy epistles, coruscating with derangement, in Selected Passages from Letters to Friends.

Of course, it was not the same man. The Gogol writing fiction was a genius, and that glorious fiction welled up from some genius of a neuron deep in his brain. The Gogol writing nonfiction was a sententious fool. As Karlinsky writes, “nonfictional Gogol is hard going: verbose, rhetorical, convoluted, and all too often beside the point.”

Gogol lived and wrote in the nineteenth century, but the most prominent theme of his fiction is a twentieth century theme: the illusory nature of all human identity. The man who wrote Gogol’s fiction is a twentieth century writer.
Continue reading

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft

“Every time the flight I’m on takes off. Or if I can hear a flight take off.” – From “Come As You Are,” in Harper’s “Readings,” April, 2019. From accounts of nonsexual orgasms documented in “Orgasm Range and Variability in Humans: A Content Analysis.” Study published in The International Journal of Sexual Health, November, 2018

Flights (Riverhead Books, 403 pages) is a fascinating, while quirky, eccentric book, often factual, non-fictional, often clearly fictional. The fiction is mixed in with the fact to the point that you sometimes cannot tell which is which. The ‘I’ narrator informs us early on that she

“started writing a book. It was a story for travelers, meant to be read on the train—what I would write for myself to read.” She continues as follows: “I was able to concentrate and became for some time a sort of gargantuan ear that listened to murmurs and echoes and whispers, far-off voices that filtered through the walls. But I never became a real writer . . . . In my writing, life would turn into incomplete stories, dreamlike tales, would show up from afar in odd dislocated panoramas, or in cross sections—and so it would be almost impossible to reach any conclusions as to the whole.” Continue reading

On Literary Fiction: Nabokov’s Influence on Updike

CARICATURES BY DAVID LEVINE

“Writing shows its influences by the contagion of rhythm and pacing more often than by exact imitation or ideas. We know that Updike read Nabokov in the nineteen-sixties by the sudden license Updike claims to unsubdue his prose, to make his sentences self-consciously exclamatory, rather than by an onset of chess playing or butterfly collecting.”

Adam Gopnik

U.R. Bowie