Category: daily shorts (Page 1 of 2)

Daily Short: Margaret Atwood – ‘Wilderness Tips’ (S/T)

 

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My first Atwood short story. Fairly long approximately 6000 words long. This length allows a fair amount of third person P.O.V. switching as the ‘hidden’ narrator which feels a lot like Ms Atwood such is the strength of her voice to ‘inhabit’ each of the different actors on the stage. The stage in this instance being a particularly creepy ‘new money’ lodge built in the Canadian wilderness which is more David Lynch than Twin Peaks and makes one wonder if Atwood influenced the young Lynch at all.

The story even ends with a ‘almost’ drowning scene that could have come straight from a Lynch movie although Atwood is sufficiently skilled to leave the ending open-ended.

In between we are first introduced to post-war emigrant, gangster and falsely named ‘George’ who only reveals his Hungarian roots with an accurate Hungarian curse mid story. It soon apparent that all the ‘actors’ Atwood assembles are in some way symbolic and deliberately set against the ‘wilderness’ for a reason.

The three sisters (muses…goddesses etc) represent the three states of womanhood….aggressive,  academic and victim. Atwood’s seminal study of Canadian Literature ‘Survival’ focused on the victim theme in literature and also delineated a lot of the minor themes brushed up against in passing through this story. Atwood is no slouch in minor detail opening up wide vistas as in her description of the grandfather’s bookcase and the book which gives the story its title. (There is however no actual book called ‘Wilderness Tips’ apart from the author’s own which a neat trick to defeat all but the most diligent Googler).

The characters are not filled in too much but reflect the psychologies attached to them the least satisfying being the depiction of the office-bound ‘weak’ man of brother Roland. I never quite lost the feeling that Atwood was sermonising here and never sufficiently suspended my disbelief to get involved in the plot which boils down to bad man sleeps with all three sisters as he bound to by his nature.

Atwood isn’t above some sharp poking of the male psyche whenever able as the collection of essays ‘Curious Pursuits’ attests. Indeed the collection contains one essay actually titled ‘Writing the male character’ which makes Lionel Shriver look like a wallflower.

‘George’ is a sinister depiction of a lizard like consumer of both people and property. His inner thoughts do not quite ring true but Atwood is using a broad brush to make her point. George represents the ‘machine’ in the garden to paraphrase Leo Marx and like the serpent in this natural ‘Eden’ of the Canadian wilderness represents all that bad in the male destruction of nature.

‘Token Woman’ (her words) Atwood spits venomously in the essay about male character where she defends the depiction of ‘bad’ men rather than pandering to fake’new men’ well before the term coined. This fine if we sufficiently engaged to believe in the character but not when it a poison pen portrait or a stand in for a character as here. The most creative act he makes in the entire story is to have sex with the remaining not ticked off sister.

The female characters are interesting especially the ‘proto-feminist’ intellectual and therefore obviously least ‘sexual’ Pamela.  Is not Atwood  here demonstrating the kind of cliched viewpoints she so pointedly rails against? Set against her is the sexually voracious Prue and the demure,homely Portia……all obvious cyphers for states of mind. The rest of the stories in the collection famously depicted various literary figures who had helped or hindered Atwood and she settled old scores

Hints of this waspishness abound in Pamela’s sharp questioning of every word…’news or olds’, or in Prue’s ‘there is a need to be nasty’.  One can almost taste the scorn on the character’s tongue coming direct from the puppet master here.

Most interestingly one could read the entire tale as one woman’s various natures treading between the hunter gatherer and the home-builder. Maybe it is really an academic feminist essay on how does the female intellect prosper in the ‘wilderness’ of male dominated modern and literary life….outside of the steel and glass towers, the wars of blood and oil. In this respect Atwood seems to suggest with her ending that the women always compromise rather than fight and that is how it ends with the line..manifesto?

She would be invisible, of course. No one would hear her. And nothing has happened, really, that hasn’t happened before.

The women survive…which was the title of the literary study.. SURVIVAL in the real wilderness of words.

Daily Short: Raymond Carver – ‘Nobody said anything’ from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please.

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First published in 1973 as ‘The Summer Steelhead’ (Seneca review, Vol. 4, no. 1 (May, 1973) and later as ‘Nobody said anything’.

Smudging was widespread practice amongst Yakima fruit-farmers. Pollution stopped crops being frost-damaged. (Source: Carol Sklenicka: Raymond Carver – A writer’s Life 2009.)

In the original story the final lines are different referring to the half-fish:

“He looked silver under the porch light. He was whole again, and he filled the creel until I thought it would burst.. I lifted him out. I held him.”

In the version I have read from the collection Will You Please be Quiet, Please? (‘The stories of Raymond Carver’- Picador 1985) the story ends:

“I went back outside. I looked into the creel.What was there looked silver under the porch light. What was there filled the creel.
I lifted him out . I held him. I held that half of him.”

Despite Carver’s insistence that this not autobigraphy the details (all except the fruit-farming’) match his upbringing and he admits to several incidents that patched together form the story.

1973 was the year he took up ‘full-time’ drinking and also three years before the publication of the short story collection this comes from.

The change in title and ending may reflect the influence of Gordon Lish whom Carver had met by now.

The change of ending maybe reflects the bitter realism of his relationship with his father who had died in 1967. The ‘half of him’ may relate to the broken relationship and the pain of his childhood.

As he says in a memoir:

Then he died. I was a long way off, in Iowa City, with things still to say to him. I didn’t have the chance to tell him goodbye, or that I thought he was doing great at his new job. That I was proud of him for making a comeback.

       From My Father’s Life

the last line of Photograph of My Father also brings the two painfully together.

But the eyes give him away, and the hands that limply offer the string of dead perch and the bottle of beer. Father, I love you, yet how can I say thank you, I who can’t hold my liquor either, and don’t even know the places to fish?

To me the poems and short stories are two sides of the same coin. The poems have been criticised formally but they are more interested in ‘saying’ than the formal concerns of language.

To me this is essential Carver. Male narrative at its best. Undertones of ecological miss-handling serving as ‘burners’ under the male indiscretions, foolishness and blind stupidity.  Carver is all about how men fail and why they fail and why they cannot be saved from that failure.

He says in an interview that with this story he felt he had ‘tapped into something’ that something was the poetics of failure raised to a fine art.

Male egos as divided selves pulled apart by domestic bliss and terror as in his own life. Drink was the fuel for that burner and he doused himself in it for 4 years and almost succeeding in extinguishing his own flame just like his father. That he managed to stop the fires is a miracle.

I love Carver but I do not want to be him and write from that smoky place.

Daily Short: John McGahern – ‘Swallows’

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I have been collecting John McGahern books for twenty odd years. Like William Trevor and Frank O’Connor he was part of the Irish Parthenon of writers that just sort of there…like kindly uncles. Because of my focus on poetry to the exclusion of all else I had neglected them.

I hadn’t read any of them for years so it was with a little trepidation I opened a recently purchased copy of McGahern’s final edition of his collected short stories re-titled ‘Creatures of the Earth’ from 2006 that he had re-edited before his passing that same year.

The story I chose was a classic McGahern tale of three rural characters interacting. A police sergeant,a housekeeper and a visiting surveyor. Denis Sampson’s study of McGahern ‘Outstaring Nature’s Eye’ has a detailed analysis of the story and picks up on a Yeats reference to his ‘Coole Park 1929’ and swallows which also more prosaically refers to the Sergeant’s imbibing of whiskey.

I immediately fell under this tale’s spell. Not least because of the depth of ‘suggestion’ dovetailed by a craftsman into the ‘simple’ story. The poetic way the story unfolds like a well made bed is deeply satisfying. Sampson picks out the overall theme of ‘timor mortis’ lurking behind all three characters actions. Only ‘Biddy’ the deaf housekeeper is involved with the day to day and knows that will get her ‘ safely to the toe’, an apt metaphor for impending death, as she knits socks oblivious of art and the frustrations and failures of life around her.

The mirror must not be cracked before the last breath.

Meanwhile the sergeant and the surveyor both grasp at the lure of art in folk melody and Pagannini’s example but fall back into the workmanlike clutching at straws and dragging Roach into a boat…the day to day that need not even be eaten and is thrown back.

The collision of simple folk’s aspirations and dreams with reality like the young man mown down on his way to a haircut by a negligent ‘rich person’ is simply the matter of fact reality. It is how things are. We are none of us Paginnini nor Christ though we strive to be.

Beautiful deep and rich writing that continues on re-reading to unveil itself.

A bit like coming home. This is how to write.

Listen to your uncles now for we are all just creatures of the earth….

Daily Short: John Burnside – ‘Graceland’ from Burning Elvis

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‘His greatest fictional achievement so far; never before has he shown the horror and grace of consciousness better than in these gems’ (The Times – no author traceable).

When John Burnside started publishing fiction he was in the curious position of already being a well-respected ‘award-winning’ poet. So his dalliance with ‘fiction’ and memoir could be tolerated. In fact the dalliance was quite long term and he now has almost as many published books in fiction as poetry.

This collection from 2000 follows two novels,’The Dumb House’ and ‘The Mercy Boys’. Both garnered good reviews and this collection of short stories…more a collection of stories around a similar theme appeared to the above adulation.

I have only read the last story ‘Graceland’ as intrigued as to the Elvis fixation and the only review I found online quoted verbatim the last few lines suggesting the reviewer may possibly have skipped the stories in-between as well.

Burnside had just published the excellent poetry collection ‘The Asylum Dance’. There is nothing in this short story at that level for me. The dreamlike, strangely sinister, tale of a boy lost and vulnerable on an aborted attempt to find Graceland who is instead being led to a substitute (dream?) version where he tortured by a fake Elvis in an Elvis mask struck me as simply silly. More League of Gentleman than Poe.

Fake or unverifiable popular culture references to TV or film ooze from the paragraphs pores. I only found an obscure film that matched ‘Best years of our life’ starring Kathy Burke, and she didn’t look anything like the ‘Wendy’ here ,which left me a little bemused. Not having read the rest of the book it appears that it a linked selection that needs to be read together like Ford’s ‘Rock Springs’.

Overall  I felt like I was being driven around in a car tuned to David Lynch station ad infinitum but nothing more. Disappointing.

I checked out his memoir ‘Waking up in Toytown’ which far more clearly documents his life in the early 1980’s which catalogues his drug abuse and mental illness. This last story felt to me like a dispatch from the other side of that illness. Uncomfortable but not of itself satisfying like the poetry.

Not what I expected. The other books blurbs appear to offer no escape from this hinterland. Dark and bleak and full of strange furniture from the seventies but not somewhere I want to stay long…..a bit like Graceland.

Daily Short: Matthew Licht – ‘Dave Tough’s Luck’ from Various Authors: Fiction Desk Anthology

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Ok I do not like this. I do not like a short story that throughout refers to a mentally disabled young boy as a ‘retard’. I do not like constant referrals to physical slobbering and chimpanzees in reference to said boy even if it is a smart-arse crack at the ability of drummers too ( instead of banjo jokes?). The writer edited a soft-porn magazine called Juggs in New York and has been published twice by Salt which makes one wonder about editorial morality there too. I will avoid like the plague from now on.

Like a bad dose of Loaded or lads-mag the writing is OK but the obsessive drummer -speak (paradiddle diddle dum) is technically correct but like the characters fake names. Munger (rhymes with Hunger..please…)..oh yeah run that one by me again. I found the whole story tedious, morally ambivalent ..maybe it all a ‘in joke’ but if one spends ones days staring at large breasts I doubt it.

Oh and having worked with a musical prodigy who had downs syndrome and severe autism I can verify that my student’s ‘retardation’ included an ability to recall music note for note on one hearing way beyond most ‘able-bodied’ people.

In one sense then the story accurate in all others it a piece of shit.

 

Daily Short: Rick Bass – ‘Redfish’ from ‘The Watch’

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I purchased this volume when it came out back in 1989 or 1990. Probably as flagged up by Raymond Carver or the Granta anthologies of Dirty Realism. I remember being impressed at the time. Going back to the collection I started with ‘Mississippi’.

Like a Townes Van Zandt (both from Fort Worth Texas) folk tale this story of a rich oil prospector’s son and a working class kid hanging out fishing in the swamp and finally wrestling a snapping turtle out of the mud before returning it unharmed (an early sign of Bass’s environmental concerns) was as I recalled i.e. impressive. This continued through to last story in the collection ‘Redfish’ where the poetic description of a menacing seascape and the futile actions of the two dwarfed humans acting out their drunken attempt at fishing was againjust as powerful as I remembered. The white BMW digging itself deeper into the bay at Galveston is an apt metaphor for industrial ‘progress’ and doubly ironic in light of subsequent events offshore at the Deep Horizon Rig which about as poetic a name for a disaster as one could dream up.

Rick Bass’s ‘other’ Deep Horizon has subsequently extended to a deep environmentalism and a string of ward-winning books including a fair amount of well-respected environmental books investigating the impact of human degradation on different species such as wolves and bears.

The back cover mentions the collection as being like Richard Ford’s ‘Rock Springs’ and although three of the stories do contain the same characters  there is a deeper cohesion at work as pointed out in Curtis Smith’s article here: http://fictionwritersreview.com/essay/revisiting-the-watch/.

The cohesion is one of place revealed through man (and woman) testing themselves against both. That love of place and understanding human involvement has remained with Bass throughout and it a pleasure to return. I have one other Bass volume ‘Platte River’ his second book published in 1994. I have never read it since I purchased it in 1994, like some kind of time capsule, now I will.

For more on Bass visit this page.

http://www.narrativemagazine.com/authors/rick-bass

 

Daily Short: Arthur Machen – The Red Hand and Poundland

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The wonders of Poundland…..one of my favourite current book trawling locations where the cheap Wordsworth anthology above was available for yes a pound.

Today’s gem is a tale from 1895 by Arthur Machen who thanks to Wikipedia I now know has been an influence on a diverse range of writers including John Betjeman, Javier Marias, Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore!

The tale ‘The Red Hand’ attracted me because of its title and because Arthur Machen featured in the current British Library exhibition ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’.

Heavily indebted to both Conan-Doyle and Stevenson the tale is a galloping, coincidence led ambulation around Bloomsbury with a wealth of London detail ( explaining Sinclair and Ackroyd’s link to Machen) indeed the plot denouement depends on the criminal’s habit of walking the same route. One can feel Machen’s own interests in a proto-psychogeography here.

Once I got used to the use of the unlikeliest plot-forwarding coincidences which almost comical at times as Machen dispenses with what does not interest him. A sequence of a drunken woman depositing the key ‘mystic tablet’ into the investigator’s hands in a pub is by far the most ridiculous. One can still enjoy the chase and the atmospheric conclusion where the ‘supernatural’ finally intervenes. The devilish artifact ‘Pain of Goat’ referred to is actually a line from a sacred text to the Great God Pan and links to other stories by Machen a devout Christian by the way.

So if a fan of Sherlock Holmes or Stevenson…and leaning toward the macabre and supernatural Machen is your man. Not sure if I will be a major fan but there enough beautiful extraneous detail to prompt further investigation. For neo-gothic and fantasy types it essential. A cheap introduction thank you Poundland I shall be back especially as they had virtually the whole Wordsworth Supernatural series.

Here Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian on the man: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/10/arthur-machen-white-people-review

There is also a good article in The Quietus here:

http://thequietus.com/articles/08758-leave-the-capitol-the-weird-tales-of-arthur-machen

 

On a final note Mark E. Smith of The Fall a huge fan and apparently peppers his lyrics with obscure Machen references so now you know:-)

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/life-lessons-mark-e-smith-on-bullying-the-occult-and-why-stalin-had-the-right-idea-6260036.html

Daily Short: Mark Strand – Dog life.

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A strange one this and no mistake. Mark Strand who had arisen as poet in Sarah Jackson’s lecture is now discovered lurking in Shapard and Thomas’s 1986 anthology of the then recently termed,’Sudden fiction’ which now typically  called ‘Flash Fiction’.

The anthology I picked up in 1989 when fairly obsessed with post BASS* 1986 American Literature and many of the same individuals such as Carver, Barthelme, Coover, Wolff, Paley are present here

Dog Life is a slight, amusing yet somehow ephemeral take on male fidelity (I presume unless one meant to read the protagonist’s confessions as surreal realism and he actually was a dog). The male in bed (echoes of David Belbin’s Games in Bed here!) confesses that he formally a dog with dog-like instincts ….it hard not to read the list of conquests as anything other than male boasting and the female’s reaction of going back to sleep and forgetting about it just about sums up the tale.

Strand in this period up to 1985 had stopped writing poetry for ten years and the collection evidences a talent somewhat at sea by this example. Amusing but hardly on a par with his deep and melancholic poetry. He didn’t produce another volume of short stories nor a novel but did complete some children’s fiction and art criticism before returning to poetry in 1990. His comment in a interesting group of afterwords by the authors is oblique and not entirely convincing. He speaks of sudden fiction as ‘runtish’ which maybe sums up his feelings for it. I was no more convinced by his afterword than his story.

Far more significant is the development post 1986 (with the undoubted extra boost of the internet) of Sudden Fiction into Flash Fiction and the ensuing ‘movement’. A quick web search on ‘flash fiction’ shows that what was a curiosity in 1986 has bloomed into a veritable sea of algae with ‘Flash Fiction Day’, Competitions and even its own Wikipedia definition.

For what it’s worth it really isn’t anything more than very short pieces…rather than normal short stories. In my opinion it isn’t really a container for prose-poems that separate but can overlap if a poet feels it fits the term.

For me I come back to runtish….do I want to be a runt?

*Also the BASS (Best American Short Stories) 1986 edition edited by Carver probably a better place to look for where the entire short story was at this point.

Daily Short: Joy Williams – Dimmer

Joy Williams – Dimmer introduced by Daniel Alarcon

from Object Lessons: The Paris Review presents the short story (Heinemann 2012)

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http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6303/the-art-of-fiction-no-223-joy-williams

This is the hardest Daily Short story so far. Not only have I never read Joy Williams before I also had no idea of her background so the interview above, which is excellent, has filled in the gaps. I started this Daily Shorts idea confidently expecting to read and comment on a short story a day. That seems unobtainable now. Maybe one every two days maximum is a better target. ‘Dimmer’ is a challenge from the get go. Long, maybe closer to a novella, and stylistically wonderful but breaking most creative writing workshop rules from the start. Thirty-eight pages (roughly) of galloping, imagistic and totally riveting prose in which the main P.O.V. character ‘Mal Vester’, as Daniel Alcorn says in his introduction above, never speaks.

It is a virtuoso performance by a skilled narrator at top of her game. A product of Iowa MFA, who was in the same year as Carver and Andre Dubus (she actually worked with Carver’s first wife Maryann as a waitress) it was for me a revelation. I instinctively, perhaps the Australian setting, thought of Nick Cave (another preacher’s offspring coincidentally) or rather I thought of Cave reading Williams which makes sense.

There is a luminosity to the writing. It is packed with images that haunt like the father’s boots ‘hanging’ way before we find out he hangs himself in prose which scrupulously accurate yet not sensationalist but conveys the ‘meat’ of the action. The mother’s death in a shark attack is conveyed in one line about a pool of blood, big as a paper plate, floating shore-ward nothing more perfectly capturing the moment.

It slowly builds a picture of a ‘simple’ boy growing into adulthood who too ‘feral’ for the small Australian town he orphaned in. He is an instinctive, animalistic individual, almost an ‘Enfant Sauvage’. In a blisteringly dry piece of writing he is shipped to America and encounters another female ‘Wild Child’ driving for a living before the story disappears along with the beach-side dwelling they occupy in a cloud of questions. The lack of resolution is well handled clouding our knowledge of who responsible for the child-man and perhaps suggesting that nobody ever was.

Online forums suggest many readers regard her story as ‘experimental’ and difficult which I didn’t really see although maybe the length as mentioned above is beyond short story maybe a ‘Long Short’. As the story was published by George Plimpton in 1969 it very early for Williams and I have yet to encounter her later collections of short stories or novels. It may be stylistically different for that reason. It certainly feels more modern than 1969 and, but for some of the flight cabin details, could have been written yesterday.

In the interview she is wonderfully dismissive and grumpy…

What a story is, is devious. It pretends transparency, forthrightness. It engages with ordinary people, ordinary matters, recognizable stuff. But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensi- bility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes—which is Wallace Stevens, I think. As a form, the short story is hardly divine, though all excel- lent art has its mystery, its spiritual rhythm. I think one should be able to do a lot in less than twenty pages. I read a story recently about a woman who’d been on the lam and her husband dies and she ends up getting in her pickup and driving away at the end, and it was all about fracking, damage, dust to the communities, people selling out for fifty thousand dollars. It was so boring.

She recommends DeLillo as truly ‘avant-garde’ and two Russian contemporary (I presume) authors as follows…

DeLillo is first among them. A writer of tremendous integrity and presence. Mao II is an American classic. So, too, is White Noise, though it’s been taught to splinters. His later works are fierce, demanding. His work can be a little cold perhaps. And what’s wrong with that? The cold can teach us many things. Coetzee I admire very much. On a lighter note, the Russians. Vladimir Sorokin and his crazy Ice trilogy. The short-story writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

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I find her tone one I can trust and her involvement in Eco Politics and her ‘Earth First’ comments striking a chord. Ultimately she believes in a  certain ‘transcendentalism’ but not one bound by a particular religion. She is beautifully wary of formula and ends thus…

Yes, yes. Freedom is most desirable. Of course none of us are free. Our flaws enslave us, the things we love. And through technology we’re becoming more known to everyone but ourselves. What’s that phrase about certain writers being what the culture needs? Most writers just write about what the culture recognizes.

She is also interviewed for Bookslut here: http://www.bookslut.com/features/2008_11_013681.php

Daily Short: John Romano – King of the Wild Frontier

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Available online here:
http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/king-of-the-wild-frontier-0000346-v21n6

I recently picked up the Fiction issue of Vice magazine. http://www.vice.com/magazine/21/6

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Recommend these annual issues all of which are available online.

They have a tendency to lean toward the Lad/Ladette market but contain some interesting works. Especially from the film/fiction crossover area. This year’s issue also contains Nabokov’s unpublished Lolita screenplay and an essential Robert McKee interview…interesting stuff.

Amongst the more than interesting is this short story with photographs by Martin Parr ( allegedly… I cannot see the Pigs Head being in his style maybe more a late editorial decision to ‘Horse’s Head the story which unnecessary).

John Romano is a scriptwriter for TV (Hill Street Blues to his credit) and film and has a resume that includes Lincoln Lawyer (with Michael Connolly) and is an ex English Professor (Columbia) with one academic tome on Charles Dickens and Realism to his name. So no slouch and boy can he write…

Originally from Newark N.J. he lives and breathes the classic New Jersey Crime Family story and the wealth of detail is such in this short that it hard to tell if memoir or fiction or a rich mixture of both. Nothing is forced in the telling it glides as smoothly as the battered lime-green Buick Riviera which literally delivers the body-punch of the story and then its knock-out blow. I can say no more without giving the game away but please read this story. I cannot find reference to any more fiction online or otherwise and I suspect J.R. has a novel up his sleeve somewhere. This is brilliant writing in anybody’s book and would be a more worthy winner of the BBC short prize than the whole shortlist. He is presently working on a film for TV on the American Taliban about John Walker LIndh that Steve Earle sung about on Jerusalem…should be some film.

This is classic american writing at its best. There is not a word out of place and small working-class folk tales assume a menacing import only to be turned literally upside down. If I ever write something worthwhile it would have to go some to equal this.

Romano’s daughter is also a novelist/painter…..so it’s a family affair.

 

This is how ya do it.

For a fascinating insight into the literary qualities at work in American TV go here: http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/forums/art_of_prime_time.html

http://videolectures.net/mitworld_romano_ptt/

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