Windy City Review’s Review of Englishman

Windy City Reviews | by Marie Becker, October 1, 2013

The Englishman and the Butterfly is an undeniably ambitious book, firmly enmeshed not only in literary references, but also in a distinct aesthetic sensibility. Asmussen is a published poet and English teacher, and the heft of this book comes primarily from the loving use of language and the deeply felt respect for the literary canon. The novel follows Henry Fell, a lonely and anxiety-ridden Oxford professor newly relocated to Boston on an academic fellowship. Henry soon falls in with the popular professor Geoffrey Hearne, the awkward and lumbering professor Christopher Moberley, and Julia, a PhD student who serves as the center of a erotic matrix which quickly turns dark and layered with envy, lust and grief, and from which no one will emerge unscathed, if at all. Throughout, these academics and poets (at least aspiring ones) quote, allude, and meditate as they attempt to make sense of what surrounds them, even as it shifts from everyday foibles and neuroses into overt horror. Throughout the book, the language is thoughtful and deliberate, creating its own kind of introspective lull. It’s easy to fall into the lyrical language of this book, a dream-like state that both depicts and recreates the temptations of seeing life through too distant a lens.

The same passion for literary language can also be seen in plot, which veers from satirical takes on self-absorbed academics to a woman in peril to moments of stylized noir to meditations on Zen Buddhism. These shifts in tone, while demonstrating Asmussen’s breadth of interest, also at times lead to some disconnect in pacing. Much as Henry Fell’s literary training has both trapped him and given him succor, The Englishman and the Butterfly sometimes stumbles under its own impressive scope and pedigree. Rather than illuminate, it can obfuscate. At one point, Asmussen slyly presents us with a transcribed interview between Henry and a frustrated police officer, who has no patience with Henry’s allusive—and elusive—answers to his questions, and the investigator’s frustration is not only palpable, but sympathetic, slicing through the indulgences of wit and meta-references that both the book and Henry so rely on. It’s a powerful moment in the text, but almost immediately falls away, leaving the roots of Henry’s eventual epiphanies that much more ephemeral.

Asmussen likens the book to a parable or fairy tale and in that sense, the language and imagery take significant emphasis over plot. Despite some twists that border on the sensational, the novel remains insular, deeply committed to Henry’s belated coming of age story, sometimes at the expense of clarity. In particular, the characterization of Julia was somewhat frustrating; despite being given point-of-view passages, she ultimately seems to function as a catalyst for the acts of the men around her, rather than a fully-realized character in her own right. The book struggled to solidly connect its plot points of intrigue with Henry’s emotional evolution, making his growth less satisfying and more solipsistic than it might have been. What does shine through, however, is a deep and passionate love for literature, and an earnest questioning of how we navigate between its comforts and its shortfalls. Even if Henry Fell’s epiphanies may be less than satisfying, the writer’s pursuit of them is an admirable one. Asmussen’s passion and intelligence make him a writer well worth watching.

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Fiction Books’ Review of The Englishman

Fiction Books | Review of The Englishman and the Butterfly by Ryan Asmussen, June 4, 2013


“The quality of the person will determine the quality of the happiness.”

“Whatever you see around you, whatever holds and loves you, is who you truly are.”

From the very first sentence of this debut novel, I was captivated by the skilled visual and descriptive use of language, which brought the characters to life and lifted them from the pages of the book, to enact the story before me. The dialogue, with its classical overtones, was clever, detailed and almost artistic in its ability and power to take me right into the heart and being of the individual characters and almost to their very souls, a profoundly touching and emotional journey.

My journey took me through the many and varied landscapes of both the physical and psychological complexities of this disparate and eccentric cast of characters, forced together purely by their shared love of the written word, as their lives become inexorably intertwined, in the clever, deadly, richly crafted and multi-layered story, which Ryan has set for them.

Each of them has ‘baggage’ which they carry with them from their early lives and which will influence their futures, as they are drawn individually and collectively into the morass of academia, three Englishmen and their American ‘butterfly’.

Without giving away too much of the story, the scene is set for a hauntingly lyrical and enchantingly romantic ‘pas de deux’, which quickly incorporates the rivalry associated with a ‘menage a trois’. This strained triangle of uncertain loyalties then becomes squared in the most dark and disturbing way. Something has to give and so it does, in a series of the most tragic, emotional and disturbing events, which all lead the reader to beg the question, ‘in reality, how much influence and control do we, as individuals, actually have over our own destinies?’

This is the one question, which appears to force our main protagonist, Henry Fell, out of his insular and insecure world of panic attacks, self doubt and ingrained parental influences, propelling him into becoming a more confident, self-fulfilled individual, when he realises that the meaning and understanding of life, which he has been so assiduously seeking and worrying himself over, is, after all, as illusive as the butterfly.

But does this transformation actually make Henry a better person, as he appears to blossom and flourish, as those he is closest to at this time in his life, wither and perish. He doesn’t seem fazed or concerned at the brutal demise of his compatriots, or indeed of the woman who opened his mind and heart to the possibilities that life may have to offer him.

So, who or what is the true butterfly … The woman who touches all their lives, sucks them dry like taking nectar from a flower, then moves on to the next unsuspecting victim, …  Henry, as he uses those around him, to help him discover his true worth and self, without thought or conscience for the consequences his actions … Or is life itself this creature with two faces, one minute so surreal and peaceful, only to turn in the blink of an eye, into a creature of destruction and sadness.

A truly amazing debut novel, from a gifted poet and academic, this review was one of the most difficult I have had to write and I almost feel that I need to go back and read the book again, in order to do it full justice, particularly the time which Henry spent alone in the cabin in the woods, as I feel that I might have missed so many of the slight inferences and nuances, which Ryan intended me, as the reader, to recognise.

On the other hand, I truly enjoyed ‘The Englishman And The Butterfly’, as both a great story and an excellent piece of descriptive, creative prose, which held me captive from beginning to end.

So what more can either reader or author ask for?

What are your thoughts about the question raised in the book …

‘In reality, how much influence and control do we, as individuals, actually have over our own destinies?’ …. 

I guess that if I were being totally and brutally honest, then I would have to accept full responsibility for shaping and influencing my own destiny, although of course it is always much easier and certainly more convenient, to hold somebody else responsible

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What Frogger Can Tell Us About Reading Shakespeare…

 [A repost from my Shakespeare blog, “Shakescene“]

I’ve found, in the course of more than a decade teaching Shakespeare, that AP Lit students still balk on occasion (more than) when it comes to consistently reading the textual notes. Some feel the effort it takes to read the text and then to read the notes is simply too confusing. They complain, “It takes me away from the reading. I get lost.” Others admit that, though they see the necessity of doing so, the effort of reading the notes is just too ponderous. Frankly, boring. They admit they’re lazy; they’d rather not do the work and sometimes suggest that they ‘get it’ without them (!)

At this point, my tried and true lecture (written about here before) rears its ugly head: “Guys, I need the notes. Scholars need the notes. Top scholars need the notes. I’m sorry: you definitely need the notes. The whole point of reading Shakespeare is to read Shakespeare, not just get the gist.”

On a more oddly positive, though wrongheaded, note, one memorable student once suggested that she actually felt a bit of shame in the practice — that to read those notes was “like cheating” — as if not to inherently understand every blessed word in the play was somehow tantamount to intellectual inferiority. My less than sensitive reply? “What, did you just step out of your time machine from Elizabethan England? How could you be expected to understand 16th-century London street slang?”

As we know, in the Folger Shakespeare Library editions, the notes are positioned on the left-side page facing the text: all one has to do is keep a steady finger on one’s place in the play and move one’s eyes back and forth, kind of like watching a game of Pong (for those of you old enough to remember). In some editions, there are footnotes, in some endnotes, both editorial choices, in my opinion, not as spatially helpful for high-schoolers as what we find in the Folgers. (Plus, sometimes we’re treated to wonderful woodcuts and other pieces of visual art to help us make further sense of a particular obscure reference — see illustration).

Yes, this can be difficult — especially when the notes start piling up like Tetriminos (look up that video game reference!), when your grip on an already challenging scene starts loosening — to hang in there and keep reminding yourself to slow down, take a breath, retain your focus. But that’s precisely the point. Training students to do exactly this, whether it’s with HamletGreat Expectations, or Their Eyes Were Watching God, is to train them to pay mindful attention to a text, a skill set that, once mastered, unlocks limitless educational possibilities. When misguided, struggling students default to the ‘strategy’ of hurrying up, the old ‘skim/scan,’ their impatience and frustration engenders more of the same… in both student and teacher.

We educators know full well that a great work of literature must be read with this patient degree of attention (indeed, the great Vladimir Nabokov once wrote something to the effect that one never, actually, reads a great work of literature, one can only re-read it). However — to complete a triad of 80′s video game allusions — our real task is to effect this realization in our charges, rather like the realization that Frogger experiences, having safely hopped across the busy freeway, congratulating himself on his slow and steady, ultimately successful progress. He knows now he couldn’t have done it with a headlong plunge into traffic. That risky maneuver can only end with one splattered on the road.

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Shannon McCloskey Allain Interview – Part 3

[Part 3 of 3 of an email interview — see McCloskey Allain’s long review of ENGLISHMAN]

The central theme of the novel seems to be the question of free will, how much control we have over our destinies, if any, and the acceptance of the mystery of our condition. Each character has his or her own take on this, from Henry’s belief you have some control (which exacerbates his panic when he feels he doesn’t), to Hearne’s blustery bravado & acceptance, to Kinnell’s search for enlightenment through being ‘in the moment’, to Julia’s reliance on literature and music to comfort and explain the human condition and tragically, Moberley’s descent into madness/violence. Have I missed any themes?

No, and that’s as good or better a job at describing them as I could pull off. The only thing I would add is what I was talking about before in the last two responses: the dead-end of finally relying upon language and literature to provide you with meaning — ‘in the moment’ is the only place we can actually be — instead of seeing the meaning in front of you. If this book gets picked up by a publisher, I’d like to include at the front, before Chapter 1, this quote from Morrissey’s “I Will See You In Far-off Places” —

Nobody knows what human life is.
Why we come, why we go.
So why then do I know […]

and Wallace Stevens’ incomparable “The Snow Man” —

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow; 

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves, 

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place 

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

These two do a good job, I think, preparing the reader for the spirit of the novel, and you can see how they fit into our themes. Unfortunately, because of copyright issues, I didn’t want to chance it for the Amazon KDP publication.

I’ll tell you one more thing. I see this book as something of a parable, even a fairy tale. When I was writing it, I found myself being pulled away from a straighter ‘realism’ and into imaginative/biblical/classical territories. I don’t think it’s a big, complex dish of fiction. It’s slighter than that, less ambitious by far; instead, it tries to be an incredibly tasty morsel, an appetizer you wouldn’t mind eating more of until it’s become your main course. It’s also obviously pretty farfetched, and that’s what it had to be: a meta-fiction of literature and literary tropes to talk about the futility of literature to take the place of life. Also, I don’t know if you caught this, but the writer of the novel is Henry himself: it’s the book he has in mind in the last chapter. And Henry is also a character in this novel, and I wrote the novel, and the “I” of Henry is, to some degree, the “I” of me, as well. So, we’re trying for worlds-within-worlds with this novel, or words-within-words, all of which to talk about multi-realities.

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Shannon McCloskey Allain Interview – Part 2

[Part 2 of 3 of an email interview — see McCloskey Allain’s long review of ENGLISHMAN]

The symbol of the butterfly appears through the book in various manifestations such as death (departed soul), freedom from torment (Moberley’s view), and change in course of Henry’s life and outlook. Perhaps you mean it to be a symbol for life in general, changing to accommodate the beliefs/situations of each individual character. I looked up the writer of the haiku (Soseki) and was not familiar with this work. Can you comment on the significance of the poem to your story?

The symbol of the butterfly (and a typical “English-man”‘s relation to it) is meant to be fluid, yet the manifestations you mention are spot on. It means something different in relation to each of the characters, as you say, but it also stands for the final unknowability of life, that sometimes suffocating ineffability. Soseki’s Zen poem, for me, informs us of the folly of, in the words of a Zen koan, pointing at the moon and mistaking our finger for the moon itself (words are “shadows” not “flowers”).

On one hand, we have the representation of life that we get through metaphor, say, which we need as thinking creatures, and on the other there’s the crashing through that artifice to experience life immediately, unmistakably, unadulteratedly. Kinnell symbolizes this kind of transformation, or at least the individual on the road to that kind of enlightenment. When the butterfly consumes Henry in Henry’s dream, it’s a foreshadowing of his future consumption of life, his acceptance of what in fact IS. It’s frightening, this complete and entire giving of self.

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Shannon McCloskey Allain Interview – Part 1

[Part 1 of 3 of an email interview — see McCloskey Allain’s long review of ENGLISHMAN]

Is the novel’s plot mirroring a particular Shakespeare tragedy? Even the spots of comic relief (Henry’s interrogation & the graveyard conversation with Randy) reminded me of a Shakespeare play. 

You’re very right to sense this. There’s no exact plot-to-plot mirroring happening (as far as I’m aware of), but there is, let’s say, a nod to Hamlet, especially in the sense of the play’s preoccupation with self-consciousness, identity, anxiety, death, graveyards, etc., and also with Hamlet’s arguable redemption by play’s end. Randy is, essentially, the First Clown of V, i. What I was going for was for Randy to be an answer, even a rebuke, to Henry’s (and, by extension, the other characters’, except Kinnell) intense literary self-preoccupations, their harmful self-miring in language and literature. Randy is the wise fool.

The interrogation scene hopefully demonstrates Henry’s gradual epiphany with respect to this self-miring: how he just can’t buy into framing his reality in that especially academic/aesthetic way anymore. Shakespeare, his London, Jacobean tragedy, flit through the novel in various ways.

By the way, the most fun I had in the writing process was when I was writing that interrogation scene. It just about wrote itself. And it cracked me up, laugh out loud, as I wrote it.

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Shannon McCloskey Allain’s Review of ENGLISHMAN

REVIEW of Ryan Asmussen’s The Englishman and the Butterfly
by Shannon McCloskey Allain

Why aren’t more thrillers set within the gray-stoned, ivied walls and stately, dusty-shelved libraries of academia? With their insular, analytical worlds, temporarily suspended from reality in the name of developing intellectual over practical experience, combined with egos, professional hierarchies and conflicting ideas, such a setting is perfect for a psychological thriller. Not since Donna Tartt’s A Secret History has it been used to such great effect. A briskly entertaining modern story with clever classical overtones and elements borrowed from Shakespearean tragedy, Ryan Asmussen’s first novel asks the age old question plaguing man since the beginning of time: How much control do we have over our own destinies?

Set in Boston, MA, at a nameless yet prestigious institution of higher learning, Dr. Henry Fell, after a harrowing plane ride from his native England to occupy his post as Distinguished Visiting Professor (specialty: Milton), finds himself thrust into a world decidedly out of his comfort zone. As the unfortunate recipient of hereditary panic attacks that cause him at times to lose consciousness, Fell’s comfort zone is quite small, and this exacerbates the tenuous control he senses he, or any of us for that matter, has over life. This is a state that both terrorizes and comforts Dr. Fell and infuses within the reader a feeling of uncertainty and tension through which to enter the story.

But into this new world he goes, at his own choosing, in response to the inertia of middle age and its penchant for prompting one to do something completely out of character, and encounters a set of delightfully complex characters to accompany him on his journey.  The department administrator, Julia Collins, young, brash and beautiful, perceptive but with less self awareness than she realizes (in the manner of the young), offers her first impression of Dr. Fell:

Inside a life routinely devoid of adventure, of actual living, Henry, she intuits, is probably suffocating without knowing it. He seems sadly unaware of how short of breath he is.

Then later she asks herself, “How soon before I sleep with him?”

The blustery yet beloved Professor Geoffrey Hearne (specialty: the Moderns, occasionally and reluctantly, Donne) who surrounds himself with the trappings of intellectual stardom while hiding from the more participatory past life he traded them for. The somberly anti-social Professor Christopher Moberley, (specialty: 18th Century British Literature), who harbors a haunting past full of secrets, a poetic soul as dark as it is disturbed and is not as harmless a social misfit as he seems. And finally the cheerfully introspective Professor Kinnell of the philosophy department, fresh from a stay at a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan, viewed as a bumbling eccentric by colleagues but providing a surprisingly lucid argument for such new-age ideas as a more reflective lifestyle, the benefits of meditation, trusting the cosmos, and living in the moment.

Such distinctive characters possessing colorful individual voices encompassing unique and often conflicting world views interact with a spontaneous feel with Boston as their stage, from Fenway Park to the ‘T’ to the Beacon Hill Stop n’ Shop, to finally (in another nod to Shakespeare) one of the many old graveyards that populate America’s most history rich city.  

Asmussen has a real talent for setting a scene, festooning it with expertly layered sensory details that lend credibility to the experience. One almost needs to grab onto the nearest stable object to get through his memorable, authentic description of a ride on the ‘T’ without losing one’s footing.

The approaching cars wheeze their way up the incline, iron scrapes against iron, sparks fly, a tortured series of noises punctuated by a horn sounds like the dying trumpet of an apocalyptic elephant. Unbelievably, the train screeches well past Henry and his fellow commuters and winds up stopping a good ten feet past the place it usually stops. Which means that the already crowded train will now be almost impossible to board. If he is lucky, he will be able to squeeze his way, bereft of a Tokyo subway attendant’s help, onto the car’s first few steps and then hold his ground manfully, avoiding the angry stares of the less fortunate and the elbows of the properly stationed, until his stop, eight dots up the line.

We are right with Dr. Fell as he navigates his new surroundings and interacts with his new colleagues, promptly falling in love with the American Julia to his surprise and enthralled when she returns the feeling. But as with all human interactions we can struggle to control our own behaviors but cannot control another’s, and it’s this precise lack of power over one’s own destiny Henry Fell fears and with friends like Julia, Professor Hearne and the sinister Moberly, he is right to. All is never what it seems and Fell comes to this grim realization in the first of three scenes in the Mt. Auburn Cemetery. He and Julia are there to look for E.E. Cummings’ grave and begin to argue when they are unable to locate it (Cummings is in fact buried in the Forest Hills Cemetery in the Jamaica Plains neighborhood of Boston). A panic attack ensues and when he regains consciousness, Julia is nowhere to be found. Instead of offering comfort when her lover comes to, she burdens him with disturbing news. Lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost spring to Fell’s mind, both a play on his name and a comment on free will:

And Spirits, both them who stood and them who faild;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.

Or as Fell himself later puts it,

We sit in rooms and silently decide our fates, Henry thinks, secretly hoping that fate is really leading us by the hand and doing the deciding for us. Free will, however, is only a convincing whisper.

Without the euphoria of new love to distract and center him in his surroundings, Fell tumbles into a state of depression, and lacking the comforting illusion of control all he seems able to do is react. Thus begins a chain of events that will change everyone’s life, foreshadowed by a discussion Henry has with Professor Kinnell in a coffee shop, where we find the philosophy professor far more wise than Fell was led to believe from less enlightened and certainly less honest characters. Here Kinnell defends his habit of practicing meditation.

And, as Vonnegut writes in Slaughterhouse-Five, ‘So it goes.’ On and on. Thought-monkeys continue to wave and chatter, tree limbs bend and snap, weak leaves flutter to the ground. I realize, for the thousandth time as I sit there and feel my legs ache, that this mind of ours does not so much want to settle into the present moment as it wants to traverse past ground or to step into the unknowable future. It wants to problem-solve. It wants to debate with itself. It wants to yell and blame. It wants to do almost anything but pay attention to the moment, to simply sit and be still, to be profoundly quiet. It wants to pick at old emotional scabs and cause itself pain. It wants to reexamine recent confrontations and come up with better arguments, possible comeback lines. It wants to forecast the weather. It wants to fantasize about the perfect woman. It wants to imagine the death of a certain friend and gauge its reaction. It wants to dream about sailing down the Nile at sunset. It simply wants. And we human beings, adrift on this ship of self, move about enacting in the flesh the desires of these thoughts which we really think are our own desires, when in reality they’re just as separate from ourselves as the strange woman is we sit next to on the subway.

From Julia’s suspicions of Moberley, to Hearne’s under-reaction to her concerns, to their decision to involve Fell which culminates in the novel’s surprising (if a little unlikely, but so is life sometimes) climax, from here on we are on a reactionary ride with each character trying to meet their individual needs, however selfish or harmful to themselves or others, while our Dr. Fell lies helplessly (much to his relief perhaps) in a coma. But to the author’s credit, he knows he can’t leave his hero unchanged after such a dramatic experience, and in Part II of the novel, entitled “Henry’s Dream” we sense this will be the case as Fell imagines in a gruesome tableau, being ravaged by the butterfly, the central motif of the book, symbolic of his acceptance of life in its mystery and chaos, and the ceasing of his struggle against it.

Part III of the book finds Fell better equipped to deal with the tragedies that have taken place despite being in a weakened physical state and suffering from amnesia. There is a priceless interrogation scene with a Boston cop with no patience for Fell’s bookish literary references that provides much needed comic relief, a welcome counter to the story’s darkness and a clever way to underscore his realization that he must stop covering himself in the armor of language and literature and embrace direct experience for once.

Fell:  I was just wondering about something.

Investigator:  What?

Fell:  When the typescript of this interview comes out, readers will have no idea what kind of tone I used in my replies, particularly when I replied with a yes. Playwrights often include adverbs of stage direction in their scripts to guide actors. Parenthesis bitterly, end parenthesis. Shakespeerean criticism was for a time largely concerned with those kind of questions of motivation since we don’t have that kind of direction in the foleeos. Bradley. People like that. We can only guess from the flavor of the verse. Don’t you think it should include adverbs?

Investigator:  [long pause] Are you intentionally being an asshole?

Fell:  No.

Investigator:  He said like an asshole?

Fell:  I see your point.

Investigator:  Assholishly?

Fell:  I understand.

It is this, the other central theme of the book, the dangers of relying too heavily upon language and literature to provide meaning in life that is the source of my most significant criticism. With a plethora of literary references as diverse as Milton to Nabokov, Thoreau to Vonnegut, Bob Dylan to Plato not to mention many others, one would have to be supremely well read to take much from them. But perhaps such all encompassing inclusion is purposeful, underscoring the author’s message that there are so many artists who have sought to explain the mysteries of life through literature that it might be best to not over-rely, experience life directly and develop your own philosophy.  Even so, sometimes the briskly moving plot is interrupted by excessive rumination such as Chapter 4 of Part III which consists entirely of Professor Kinnell’s unpublished manuscript, a treatise on the human condition. But such diversions thankfully do not detract too much from a clever plot and intricately painted scenes populated with eccentric, well drawn and fully dimensional characters.

Asmussen deftly handles an ambitious theme by setting his novel in a comfortable, controlled academic setting, a cocoon, if you will.  Isn’t that what universities are? A place of safety and comfort to develop different philosophies, theories and behaviors before deciding what you are most comfortable with, emerging and flying, like a butterfly, out into the world? The varying fates of the characters reflect which theories regarding free will the author believes most lucid, as well as the folly of over-reliance on language and literature to unravel the mystery further. The meaning of life, Fell has come to realize, as well as any one individual’s understanding of it, is (in another manifestation of the novel’s motif), as impossible to grasp as a butterfly.

He yearns for a time when, regardless of the consequences, he will be able to sit back and accurately assess his life. But he knows he will never have the requisite distance. His life will only offer itself up to him in a variety of immediately dazzling colors, infinite stretches of textures, and will stubbornly keep hidden the panorama of its true nature. His eyes will never be able to detach from the inch or so of canvas upon which they are fastened, step backward with backward moving legs, and take in the painting as a whole. The artist’s full and proper intent will remain a mystery to him, always.

Dr. Fell tellingly ends the novel in flight, back home to England, his unfinished Milton manuscript abandoned in his briefcase, the new fiction novel about his American experience he is now compelled to write forming in his head.  Gone is the disquieting anxiety.  The worst has happened and he has emerged intact, no longer fearing the mysteries of life and ready to figure them out for himself.

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Review of Midge Raymond’s “Forgetting English”

Former colleague, good friend, and one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet, Midge Raymond is also the author of a lovely, smart, touching collection of short stories entitled Forgetting English, winner of the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction.

I wanted to take this posting opportunity to share my delight with her stories in an effort to keep spreading the word about her considerable talent (by the way, in addition to her gifts as a storyteller, Midge is also a gifted writing coach: see her newly released Everyday Writing if you’d like some expert help with your writing life…)

Below are edited remarks of mine taken from a private e-mail to Midge (reprinted here with her permission), focused on each of the eight stories. No spoilers have been allowed to creep in.

To warm you up, let me quote only one of the great reviews Midge received for this book:

Forgetting English by Midge Raymond is an exquisite thematic collection of short stories. The stories describe women in exterior and interior transit. The characters face a myriad of crossroads such as, divorce, infidelity, unemployment, abortion, and attempted suicide while a moonlight mile from home.

Each story deftly details the characters’ impact and adaptation to their foreign surroundings. Raymond’s masterful prose transports the reader to various locales including Antarctica, Japan, and Tonga to name a few. Similarly, the author’s keen insights into matters of the psyche gave this reader much to ponder after each story’s coda. — Metroreader

1. “First Sunday”

I read the first sentence of this story aloud to Jenny and we both got a big kick out of it. What a fine way to begin a collection, with that sure touch of character placement as well as humor. This one got me on, if I may call it, a ‘linguistic level,’ in that its concerns with language (as evidenced in part by the section headings) felt very real to me. Also, I’ve been reading, of all things, a lot of Wittgenstein lately, so the paralleling of language with emotion and psychological barriers, etc. rang true. I like the positioning of this story re the collection because it sets up the reader thematically. And on that note, I appreciated that theme aspect, too; that here you have a range of tones and keys, but that certain melodies come back again and again.

2. “Translation Memory”

This one is among my favorites because of my strong pull toward Japan/my Buddhist background. The text shifts back and forth between words, as you say “liminal(ly),” which is a very Japanese/Buddhist achievement. Last few lines very strong. Playwrights talk about ‘curtain lines’ — the crucial last line at the end of an act or play — and you’ve got some great ones in this book.

3. “The Ecstatic Cry”

I feel that this one might be the ’strongest’ story in the collection. Let me define ’strongest’ (smile): the most artful and real blending of fact and fiction, of style and substance, of concretism and absolutism. I keep thinking of the idea of your signature story. We hate to sum up authors, but it is a challenge and kind of fun, too. This one may be it. It begins with “I stifle an urge to start cleaning it up.” Right away, we’re dropped into the mystery as to why. And then it keeps pushing you forward, not only into odd physical terrain, but also into odd psychological terrain. I think the first-person helps establish a firmer reality to make the fantastic even more grounded. Can you ground the fantastic? Yes…

4. “The Road to Hana”

The symbolic story. If you stripped this one down to its barest essentials, you could make a neat Freudian dream out of it.

5. “Forgetting English”

“[W]ords hiss and snap in her ears…” Again, we’ve got a nice dichotomy set up in this book between language-as-barrier and language-as-communication, and the cultural/linguistic divide. In these stories, women are in foreign lands with foreign men, and both aspects of foreignness provide transitional opportunities.

6. “Rest of World”

You can feel the spin of jet lag on this one. The pairing of the two ‘how-to’ books I found really funny, and sadly poignant. I was a little unsure about the sequence of voice mails, just in flat terms of realism, but again you have the ability to carry your ideas along without succumbing to the weight of them.

7. “Beyond the Kopjes”

One of my favorite sentences lives here: “Then she lies awaiting sleep, staring up at the ghostlike shroud of the mosquito net, feeling trapped and weighed down, even though it hangs far above her, so sheer and light that it flutters in the ceiling fan’s breeze.” Well, that’s life, isn’t it? A simple affair, really, when you see it for what it is, instead of what we cling to believing it is. I think there’s quite a lot of that feeling in the book. The difference between, for example, the way the animals in the story understand what to do with life, and what the spectators/tourists understand.

8. “Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean”

Being is acting, acting is being. When you do both well, you do neither. There, I’ve solved our modern dilemma of self and consciousness (smile). But this is what, in part, she experiences, as I read it, and what the book points to: that we are travelers even inside our own skins. That the idea of ‘foreign’ is only an idea, not the reality of things. We can either act or be. Other lands can reveal to ourselves who we are only if we stop our acting, and instead embrace the foreign inside of us. This may sound a little metaphysical/New Age-y, but I see it here in these stories. Cody’s right: you can turn your back on the ocean if you accept your part of it (or its part of you) and realize the lack of real difference.

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The Writer’s Ego or When to Self-Publish

The decision to self-publish, though it may seem like the harmless choice of an author continually, woefully rejected by agents, is not, in fact, an easy one to make. There is something – and I know you know this – called ‘the writer’s ego’ that stands monolithically between the struggling artist (for that’s what most of us believe, hope, we are, ‘artists,’ though we know for sure we struggle) and a vision of fame and financial stability we can barely make out beyond the peaks of our dogged perseverance. Before my mixed metaphor begins to run away with itself, let me admit, here and now, that I possess a writer’s ego and that its cri de coeur can be boiled down to this one simple statement, but a bravura one, like a triumphant press release flapping inside one’s head:

My work is much better than what’s typically self-published on the Internet. It deserves proper (read: traditional) publishing.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this attitude, I think, provided it doesn’t run away with you as a writer, turning you into an insufferable prima donna, stranded on your island of unread manuscripts and hardening heart. One thing we do not, as literary creators, want to turn into is yet one more bitchy artiste, and the best of us working in all genres are cognizant of this potential persona and do our best to avoid it. But the ego, at least when taken in child-size doses, can be a healthy spur to achievement (notice I didn’t write ‘success,’ which comes at its own singularly frustrating pace for most, if it ever comes at all, outside the forces of one’s will). It’s the ego, or whatever part of you it is that wants desperately to create, to be read, to last, that drives you to face the damning blank page, about which even the general public has probably heard too much. Kept in check, properly focused, the ego can move mountains. It can put your novel on that mythical library shelf in Kansas and speak to that reader as marvelous as any unicorn.

And yet, there is also vanity. Ecclesiastes had possibly the first and arguably the last word on the matter: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Impossible that this ancient Hebraic wisdom writer could have had Truman Capote in mind, but there it is. Vanity comes with the artistic territory, and the reason is this: if no one else thinks you’re brilliant when you don’t, you perish creatively. You must believe in your own gifts, passionately, simple as that, when, sadly and too often, no one else does, discounting a few devoted though biased friends/family members whom we love but can’t really trust in terms of criticism. Yet, in time, the weight of that popular neglect can turn the writer’s ego into something far more devastating than a candy-coated suit of armor: it can emerge, from seemingly nowhere, into that Kubrickian black hunk of stone or metal, or whatever the hell that monolith is made of, looming over our cave-dwelling ancestors in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The sun is blocked out, the stars can’t shine.

All of which to say, I too can be vain. You won’t see me strutting down Michigan Avenue, cut within an inch of my life in a bespoke suit, a modern day flaneur sans bamboo cane, trailing whiffs of cologne and expensive wine. You’re more likely to see me in Starbucks in a ragged pair of flip-flops. No coif, no jewelry, and, more profoundly and more akin to the message of Ecclesiastes, no lack of realization about the transitory nature of life. Years of studying and practicing Zen Buddhism have, if anything, taught me what I refer to as ‘me’ is merely part of a great whole, and no great shakes a part, at that. But, the ego has a mighty will of its own. And mine certainly comes into play when it comes to my intellect and my, ahem, writing prowess. It doesn’t, to take a contrary example, when it comes to my abilities in algebra or gardening.

I tell you this fact brutally honestly, surely to my shame, because for me and thousands of other writers like me the path to self-publishing has been paved with stones of anger, perhaps tears, and more than a little bitter self-recrimination. There is a reason it used to be called ‘vanity publishing.’

Yet, here I am, due to release my novel, The Englishman and the Butterfly, on October 1, 2012, not through a Big Six publishing house, not through a college/university press, not even through a small press, but through one of the many publishing channels available to everyone, regardless of influence or talent. A true democracy of literature. Or an unruly mob of the demos, take your pick.

Do I really believe my work is better than what’s published by Xlibris and Kindle KDP? I won’t say, out of more vanity (insert laugh here), and also from a legitimate understanding that I clearly haven’t read the majority of those books, print and e-, currently spinning around in that self-conscious cyberspace, nor can I say if there really exists a way to objectively contest value among works of literature (we’re heading into epistemological waters, here, it would be best to tack away from). I will suggest, however, you can probably guess the answer to that question, and that it’s precisely that supremely confident, probably misguided, voice in my head that prevented me for the longest time from uploading and getting on with my writing existence, after close to 30 literary agents turned my novel down.

And, what’s worse, much worse: that supremely confident voice eventually devolved into a monstrous, scarcely utterable question.

Is my work better?

Those agents, unknowingly, had sown some seeds.

In my more revealing moments of doubt as a writer, this question in time appeared on my lips with those dear, consoling people in my life, typically accented by that upward inflection – “I don’t know. Is my work better? – that italicized Is representing a suppressed lifetime of fear. This question frequently stopped me, forcefully, in the middle of typing, tearing through my concentration and that tissue-thin self-forgetting so vital to the first-draft process. It’s a question my roughly insistent subconscious whispered to me in the middle of the night.

Finally, one day, cloudy or sunny, you find you’ve had enough. You recognize the ego monolith must be torn down like Pink Floyd’s Wall, brick by brick, that it’s doing absolutely no one any good, that it’s time for an unsuspecting public to be burdened by one more possibly average, conceivably flat-out inept, novel. And you just don’t care you’re the author of that novel.

And that’s okay. And being okay with that is okay. It’s called letting go.

It’s time to place a bet at the table. I have the chips – not many, but a few. Perhaps a gambler like me, someone who’s spun fortune’s wheel a few times in the past, will get lucky. Perhaps, like every superb gambler, I’ve reached the point where my total winnings aren’t as important as playing the game to the best of my ability – to, in a wise man’s words, ‘be the game,’ which, paradoxically (but only outwardly), is the one sure and steady path to big winnings (just ask any Taoist master you see at the craps table).

Poor metaphors again. This is not a game, it’s a life. A dedication to a vision of literature, of truth. I’m being flippant because I don’t know how to be serious without being too serious.

It’s a life problem.

Read my book. Please. Let’s find out.

Thank you.


Hanson House
Cambridge, WI
Saturday, August 11, 2012

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Author Q&A: In Which the Author Spills Some Coffee Beans…

Here’s an excerpt from an author Q&A I submitted to a potential review site (which shall, for now, remain nameless). It gives you a ‘behind the scenes’ kind of flavor as well as providing you with some trainspotting details perhaps a few will enjoy…

How long did it take to write the book?

The novel was written largely over a period of several years in the ’00s, with minor adjustments in the ’10s; however, the bulk of the manuscript was written in 2005-2006.

What inspired you to write the book?

The original inspiration came at me directly in the garb of horror, if you can believe it. I envisioned something of a ghoulish tale centering around two of the existing protagonists, with blood and guts galore, probably stemming from my childhood love of “Weird Tales,” the short stories of Stephen King, the television series “The Twilight Zone”. There’s a only a bit of this retained in the novel, but the vision is, in some ways, central.

Talk about the writing process. Did you have a writing routine? Did you do any research, and if so, what did that involve?

I wish I could say this was a work born of a strict routine. The truth is it was written somewhat on the run, in libraries and coffee shops, my favorite places to work, during available hours. Research was largely as needed: a name here, a detail there. Nothing strenuous.

What do you hope your readers come away with after reading your book?

Difficult to answer this. Ideally, they’ll be transported to a place of their own personal imagining along with the characters, the settings, the ideas, making a world of the work on their own. At the same time, I think this novel, while not espousing any particular ‘message,’ does have something to say, hopefully of value, about life, literature, and the possibilities of a given moment. Honestly, I think there is something almost parabolic about it, as well, although that wasn’t my intention at the outset.

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