New Haven Review

Idle Notions and Unexpected Realities: Movie Tie-Ins at the Institute Library

In November, 2012, someone who knows me very, very well suggested that Best Video out in Hamden should merge somehow with the Institute Library in New Haven. "You could do some great stuff together," I was told. "Think of the programming potential." "You're right," I said. "That's a really interesting idea, especially because the sort of people who love the Library are basically likely to be the same sort of people who love Best Video." I know this demographic, having served on the board of the Institute Library for the last seven, nearly eight, years, and as a person who worked for Hank, when Best Video had a store in the old Yale Co-op on Broadway.

And now:

Back in 2012, encouraged by the idle conversation described above, I sent an email to a few people saying, "Hey, what if?" and heard crickets. One person said, basically, "Cute idea, but..." and nothing else. But now here it has come to pass that the Best Video Film and Cultural Center exists, with the assistance of the Institute Library, which is acting as a kind of fiscal sponsor for the enterprise.  Basically, the function that the Library now serves for the New Haven Review, it's now serving for the BVFCC -- ok, there are probably some differences, but that's my sloppy shorthand for it. I leave the details to the lawyers; what I'm thinking about, and celebrating, is my sense that the dreams of 2012 can come true.

The things that the Institute Library is, physically -- a time capsule, a museum of cultural oddities, a little tiny piece of history -- Best Video has always had in its movie collection. Best Video's stock is all over the place in terms of genre and time period, but to me, Best Video was the place where I could find all the old movies I'd heard of but never had a chance to see. When I worked for Hank, which was a thousand years ago, there were a lot of hours when I was, frankly, alone in the store with no customers, and I could play whatever movie I wanted as long as it wasn't obviously going to offend anyone who came by. So I watched a lot of movies from the 1930s and '40s and '50s (in addition to the new releases of the 1980s, which were a mixed bag, frankly). Hank had VHS tapes of just about everything in the world, or at least it felt that way; and if I was reading a book that made passing reference to some old Barbara Stanwyck flick, which in those days I often was -- well, all I had to do was pull it from the cabinet. Decades later, when I first walked up into the Institute Library, I swear to God I thought it was the set of a movie I'd watched on one of those days when I was just monitoring paperwork and waiting for the late afternoon rush.

The Institute Library is in color (mostly this kind of odd shade of green), but it goes with those old black and white movies I associate so strongly with Best Video. I am ardently hoping that movie and music lovers will rally around the BVFCC and keep Hank's establishment alive. But what I really want is a movie series at the Institute Library. I mean, for years I have been dreaming about this. I want a screening of "Auntie Mame" at the Institute Library. "The Thin Man." "The Maltese Falcon." "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit." It feels like, after years of talking about it idly, this may come to pass. There is no popcorn machine at the Institute Library, and there probably will never be, but as God is my witness, this engagement is wonderful news for Best Video, for the Library, and for everyone around here.

I was wrong in 1988. Bob Dylan Matters. OK?

So, in 1988, I was sitting in Broadway Pizza eating pizza and talking with some friends of mine who both happened to be named Dave. We were all people who cared a lot about music. I mean, a lot. We were the sort of people who went to record conventions to buy bootleg recordings of stuff, we spent hundreds of dollars collecting Japanese imports of, you know, whatever we were into. We were whack jobs. I worked at Cutler's Records, in those days. The subject of Bob Dylan came up. He had a new album out, and the Daves weren't drooling to get their hands on it, but they were saying things like, "yeah, I gotta get the new Dylan, I'll pick it up this weekend." And I snorted, "Bob Dylan is irrelevant."

This led to one of the biggest arguments about music I think I've ever had, and the Daves and I still talk about it today, when I run into them. Which isn't often, but this is New Haven, so, you know, it happens, now and then.

We laugh about it.

Dylan has proven to be important to a lot of people for longer than I could possibly have imagined, back then in June of 1988. Now, I personally still don't care much. I had a phase when I really enjoyed The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, and thanks to a college roommate who was obsessed with Blood on the Tracks, I came to really love that album too. But otherwise? I have to admit I don't really give a hoot.

Here's what I give a hoot about: Donald Brown's book about Bob Dylan. The Institute Library is hosting a book release party this week. Come on down. Maybe get the book. Here's why you should do this: because you know -- if you're a reader of the NHR's site -- Don is a smart guy. He's got a good sense of humor (something I find many Dylan types sorely lack). He's a really good writer. And... it's coming toward the end of May, and you need to get out more.

I'll see you there. I'll be the woman standing around arguing heatedly with whoever will listen, insisting that for my money, Lou Reed is more interesting than Dylan...

Here's the NHR / Institute Library site for reserving a spot.

And here's the amazon listing for the book, which already has some good review! (The book will be on sale at the party, slightly cheaper than on amazon.)


Alice Munro in New Haven Review

Congratulations to Alice Munro, 2013 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  One of the major living practitioners of the short story, Munro is the 13th woman to win the award for Literature, and the first Canadian, unless you count Saul Bellow, born in Canada but a U.S. citizen when he won. In Issue 9 of the New Haven Review, we published an interview with Munro by Lisa Dickler Awano, as well as Munro's story "Wood," originally published in 1980, then revised for a collection published in 2009, and reprinted here.

New Haven Review publishes original short stories in each issue; on our website, Noah Charney has been discussing short stories in a sort of playlist of classics of the form.

We salute the decision of the Nobel committee to honor a master short story writer, and we feel honored and greatly pleased to number a Nobel Laureate among our contributors.





Story Playlist 1: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

In the Summer 2013 edition of NHR, Noah Charney describes his decision to create and read through a “playlist” of 30 great short stories, written in English. Here on the website, we will be posting his reflections on each of the stories in turn. For the full list, see the essay “Story Playlist.” Noah welcomes comments on his comments, and feel free to suggest other stories that might be included.—Eds.  

Ambrose Bierce: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890)

It is always difficult to write about a work, particularly a short work, without including spoilers. This is no exception.

If you’ve not read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” you should really put this down, go read it, and then come back. The story is only about 3,000 words long, but packs a wallop into its few pages. You’ll want to read it twice. I know I had to.

We love magic tricks, whether in film or fiction. Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek” provides just such a magic trick, in the flip in its final line. Something happens in the last line that reverses our expectations and prompts us to immediately read the story again, to make sure that we understood the ending correctly, and also to check that the author did not “cheat.”

When it works, the “flip” is a hugely popular author’s trick, akin to an illusionist’s sleight-of-hand. Think of a film like The Sixth Sense, or take The Usual Suspects.

The first 9/10ths of Bryan Singer’s film, written by Christopher McQuarrie, leads us to think of the quasi-legendary criminal known as Kaiser Söze as a powerful, charismatic strongman, whose story is being hesitatingly told by Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey), a hunched, stuttering, limping low-man-on-the-totem-pole of criminal life, crippled by cerebral palsy. It seems that the haughty detective interviewing Kint has bullied him into confessing the truth, and is in complete control of the interview.

The great pleasure at the end of that film is when we suddenly realize, in tandem with Detective Dave Kujan (Chazz Palmintieri), that in fact Kint has been controlling the interview, cobbling together on the fly a plausible story, using words and names that he sees scattered around the detective’s office to weave a web of fiction. Detective Kujan realizes this too late, as Kint is already out of his office and on his way to disappearing from the law’s reach. The director then lets us in on one further secret that some of us may already have guessed: Kint is not an invalid at all. He is, in fact, Kaiser Söze.

As soon as I finished watching The Usual Suspects the first time, I immediately had to watch it again. I wanted both to see if I had understood it correctly, and to ensure that I had been legitimately fooled by the flip at the end. Was there enough foreshadowing of the ending? Absolutely. The film is laden with clues, once we know what to look for. The flip is honest, and brilliant. It takes an absorbing crime film and makes it an ingenious one.

This first thing I did, upon reading Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” was to double-check the publication date. That’s right, 1890. The story feels so modern—had it been published in 1990, I would not have been surprised. And that’s largely because of the “quick-cut” of Bierce’s flip.

Here’s the story: During the American Civil War, a southerner named Peyton Farquhar is about to be executed by hanging, for a failed attempt to sabotage a bridge near his Alabama home. As he is about be hung from Owl Creek Bridge, Farquhar looks down at the river below and imagines his escape. If only he could free his hands, he could slip the noose off his neck and dive into the river, evading the bullets of the soldiers standing guard.

Farquhar’s mind then leaps back to before his arrest. While making conversation with a soldier dressed in Confederate grey, Farquhar had learned that the Union Army would shortly try to cross a railroad bridge near his home, and that the bridge might be sabotaged by burning the driftwood that had gathered around the pylons supporting it. In a miniature flip—one that might cause us to question appearances—Bierce tells us that, while appearing to Farquhar to be a Confederate, the soldier was actually a Union scout in disguise. With that, we can put two and two together and understand that Farquhar, who had been itching to help the war effort, attempted the sabotage suggested by the enemy scout—and was caught in the process.

Back at the bridge, the plank on which he stands shifts, and Farquhar drops toward the river, the noose around his neck, his hands still bound.

Here Bierce freezes time and toys with our sense of perception. The world slows down, as Bierce describes everything that Farquhar feels and thinks in the few seconds of his freefall. Suddenly, Farquhar feels the noose snap tight, but his neck does not break. Before he is strangled, he feels the rope tear above him, and he plunges into the river. Perhaps implausibly, he manages to free his hands from the rope that binds them, while rising to the surface of the water, then dodges the first volley of bullets from soldiers. He then evades a cannonball fired at him and floats downstream and around a bend, just as a cannon-load of grapeshot pierces through the trees above him. He runs through the thick woods until, without knowing how he found his way, he is again at home, where he falls into his wife’s arms.

Had the story ended there, Bierce would have provided a wonderful adventure story, an escape from certain death and a homecoming, punctuated by the incredible realism of death (or near-death) in Farquhar’s mind. We see what he sees, feel what he feels, in an ultra-sensory experience marvelous in depicting the heightened clarity and subjective time-sense of Farquhar’s distress. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” would still be remarkable, and deserve its place in all the classes that assign it as a great example of story-telling.

But Bierce provides us with one more treat, the aforementioned flip. Just as we see Farquhar return home, improbably escaping death and running to his wife’s arms, Bierce whops us on the head with this: “Peyton Farquhar was dead: his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge.”

The entire escape occurred in Farquhar’s mind in the seconds of his free-fall, before his death.

It is important that Bierce makes his last line its own paragraph. If it did not stand alone, distinct from the previous paragraph, we might be thoroughly confused. We need that ever-so-brief pause that comes between the end of one paragraph and the start of the next. That pause is a key tool, governing both time and space. The space indicates the end of one place, where Farquhar is alive, and another, where he is dead. And the time it takes for our eyes to navigate the blank space takes us out of one narrative, that is still going forward with the “happy-ever-after” of the Farquhars, and into another, where a life has ended.

What Bierce offers us is a complete reversal of what we expected to read next. That flip encourages us to return to the start of the story, to make sure that the flip was legitimate. In retrospect, there are a number of clues that should have given us pause, and made us wonder what was really happening: the improbabilities of surviving the drop with one’s neck in a noose, of the rope breaking, of being able suddenly to free one’s bound hands, of dodging rifle fire, of the cannon being fired at Farquhar when we were told it was trained on the bridge, not the river, of Farquhar finding his way home through the woods. And there’s the tease of the false-flip, when Farquhar imagines how he might possibly escape, while he still waits, bound, upon the bridge. We think we see an example of mind over matter, that what the hero imagines comes to pass, only to realize that life, in Bierce’s hands, doesn’t work that way.

In case we were in danger of misunderstanding the situation, Bierce’s last line specifies that Farquhar suffered a “broken neck,” so there can be no confusion as to whether the last line could be the start of his surprise escape—it is, in fact, the end of it.

Games with time are popular now, as seen in films like Memento and Donny Darko, a film which uses a flip with time indebited to “An Occurrence.” Bierce showed his truly avant-garde prescience to write such a complicated yet hyper-realistic story more than a century ago.

The end of Bierce’s life might have been inspired by one of his stories. A renowned journalist for a variety of San Francisco newspapers, Bierce was covering the revolution in Mexico, accompanying Pancho Villa’s army as an observer, when he disappeared. Last noted in Chihuahua, he was never heard from again, his body never found. This mysterious disappearance has inspired a number of works of fiction and film, its suggestion of the uncanny worthy of an Ambrose Bierce story.

Jazz Singer Dianne Reeves: Women are 'the balance of the world'

ARTS & IDEAS FEST: Dianne Reeves is relieved I haven't asked the question journalists always ask. Until I ask it: How does she get along with two other divas in a tribute to the jazz world's greatest divas? Reeves, along with Lizz Wright and Angelique Kidjo, open the 2012 International Festival of Arts & Ideas with Sing the Truth!, a celebration of legendary women such as Odetta, Miriam Makeba, Abbey Lincoln, and many others.

"Oh, that's such a small-minded question," says the four-time Grammy Award winner who can sing anything. "They're always hoping for a cat fight. But we're sisters, mothers, daughters, the balance of the world. It seems like this would be a better place if women were in charge."

Which, in retrospect, seems incontrovertibly true.

Sing the Truth! has been touring for the last three years and Reeves has been with it the entire time. In the past, she has shared a stage with Dee Dee Bridgewater, a theatrical powerhouse, and Cassandra Wilson, an ingenious interpreter of American pop songs. In New Haven, she'll perform with Wright, a Georgia alto with roots in R&B, and Kidjo, a native of Benin steeped in Afropop and soul.

"We come from different places musically," Reeves says, but together they create a tapestry of jazz singing styles. "In the end, we rub off on each other. We want people to leave with anuplifted feeling, to celebrate the words of these great women and unite us in a spiritual place."

I suggest it's like leaving church on Sunday. "Well, we talk about a lot of other things, too, believe me," she says.

Variety is the spice of Sing the Truth!, which showcases the pioneering work of Odetta, Makeba, and Lincoln as well as the work of conventionally non-jazz composers such as singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell and Ani DiFranco. A good song is a good song, regardless of genre.

"Joni Mitchell's music reaches generations of listeners because it is beautiful poetry set to elegant music," Reeves says. "We have our favorites, then we talk about why we picked that music and why it touches us personally."

I saw Reeves perform in 2003 after she won the third of three consecutive Grammys, the only time a jazz singer has done that. What I remember is an exquisite performance by a musician who pushes away the tensions of the day and creates a space of tranquility and joy. In particular, I recall her singing Abbey Lincoln's classic "Throw It Away," a sensuous restating of "If you love something, set it free."

"Abbey Lincoln sang her truth," Reeves says. "In 'Throw It Away,' she says that all things in this life are passing through us, we can't own them, we must give to others."

Lincoln died in 2010 after a long illness, ending a groundbreaking life as a performer, actress, and civil-rights activist. She was featured on her former husband's seminal 1960 record, We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite. She stood out by writing her own songs when singers typically sang other people's tunes. Reeves along with Wilson and Bridgewater celebrated Lincoln's life at the Kennedy Center earlier this year.

"I knew her," Reeves continues. "I had many conversations wit her where I was really listening more than speaking. It was sage advice. It gave you an opportunity to heal."




What: Sing the Truth! with Dianne Reeves, Lizz Wright and Angelique Kidjo When: 7 p.m. June 16 Where: New Haven Green Tickets: Free Info:

Why are we doing this? Click here to find out more.

Kindling The Creative Fire: Alice Munro's Two Versions of "Wood"

Awano: You sometimes write stories about the act of writing itself.  Could “Wood” be read as a story about writing? Munro: That’s very interesting, and I don’t mind the idea at all.  I don’t write that way, but…

Awano: But you read that way.

Munro: And I do write as if clearly ordinary events are tremendously important, because that’s the way they seem to me.

From “The Tremendous Importance of Ordinary Events: An Interview with Alice Munro about two versions of ‘Wood,’” by Lisa Dickler Awano, New Haven Review


[T]he triumph of my life is that none of the environments I found myself in prevailed over me.

-- Alice Munro, from Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing up with Alice Munro, by Sheila Munro


Alice Munro writes about the ordinary outsider—the unhappy housewife, the child born with a large purple birthmark on his face, the Alzheimer’s patient, the small town protagonist who can’t or won’t fit into the community’s narrow perceptions of normalcy—and examines how that character—who may never stop longing for societal approval—does and doesn’t challenge convention, does and doesn’t risk rejection by peers, does and doesn’t act on desires to live a larger life than the one society offers.  Intriguingly, Munro's theme also applies to the lives of writers and the workings of the creative process, as an “outsider” mental experience that illuminates, deludes, cooperates and confounds, but which will never be reined in by the confines of practical, rational, repressive thought.

As a writer, Munro is known to be a tireless self-editor who will often continue to rewrite and revise her stories, even after they have been accepted for publication. “Wood,” which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1980, is a good example.  After nearly thirty years, Munro returned to this story.  The second version of “Wood” has been published in Too Much Happiness, Munro’s most recent collection of stories.

When the two versions are placed side by side, readers can see with what poetic precision Munro revised both large details, such as characterizations, themes and perspectives, and small ones—a rhythmic syllable here, a conjunction or punctuation mark there—as she shifted the point-of-view of the characters from middle-age to older, and heightened the story’s lyricism.  Like many of Munro’s stories, “Wood” is set in “Munro Country,” the Huron County farmlands of southwestern Ontario—“Sowesto,” as the Canadian locale is popularly known—where the author came of age and has lived much of her life.  While growing up in this practical-minded community, she played down her creative ambition so she would appear to fit in better with her peers.  Even as an adult, the author has said, she has lived a double life—that of a writer on the one hand, and a working-for-a-living wife, mother and community member on the other.  Similarly, she often writes a “double story” of sorts; shaping her universal literature from the overlooked lives of seemingly ordinary people, while all the while, directly or obliquely, writing about the process of writing fiction and the issues faced by writers as individuals and as members of society.

Munro’s literary protagonists don’t always appear to be engaged in literary work. They may be, for example, craftsmen like Roy, the protagonist of both versions of “Wood,” who is a happily married sign painter in the first version of the story, and an upholsterer and re-finisher of furniture in the second.  Some of the protagonists in these stories are akin to her real-life father, Robert Laidlaw, who began writing when he was around seventy years old, after a lifetime of supporting his family through physical labor.  Doppelgängers abound in Munro’s work, tying characters together across stories and collections, and when father and daughter characters appear together, they often appear to be doubles.

Laidlaw’s historical novel, The McGregors, which included descriptions of tree cutting, was published in 1979, three years after his death at age seventy-four.  Although a lifelong reader, he suffered from “natural Laidlaw timidity,” (Munro, S., 105), and was torn between his creative individuality and his desire for acceptance from his rural community.  He, like his daughter, described himself as having lived a double life.  At fourteen, he dropped out of high school, and became a trapper and fisher in the bush, thereby avoiding his father’s more locally sanctioned path of farming.

To put Laidlaw’s choice in context, one might read Munro’s memoirish story, “Working for a Living,” in which she describes the trees in the bush as community outsiders, so to speak, relegated to fringes of farmland:

There was no more wild country in Huron County then (in the first quarter of the 20th century) than there is now. Perhaps there was less.  The farms had been cleared in the period between 1830 and 1860, when the Huron Tract was being opened up, and they were cleared thoroughly.  Many creeks had been dredged—the progressive thing to do was to straighten them out and make them run like tame canals between the fields.  The early farmers hated the very sight of a tree and admired the look of open land.  And the masculine approach to the land was managerial, dictatorial.  Only women were allowed to care about landscape and not to think always of its subjugation and productivity. (“Working for a Living,” 130 )

Laidlaw later supported his wife and three children through fox and mink farming, and raised the animals in an intricate system of pens he designed and built behind the family home.  Similarly, in “Wood:”

Roy’s workshop is in a shed behind the house.  It is heated by a woodstove, and getting the fuel for the stove has led him to another interest, which is private but not secret.  That is, everybody knows about it but nobody knows how much he thinks about it or how much it means to him. (Too Much Happiness, 226; slightly different in New Yorker, 46)

The trees Roy seeks out for cutting are those that logging firms have rejected as not being useful or beautiful.  Roy looks for treetops left behind after logging, or trees targeted by the “forest management people” for removal, because they are “diseased or crooked or no good for lumber.” (TMH, 229; New Yorker, 46)

The physical setting in “Wood,” as in all of Munro's fiction, is psychologically revealing.  Descriptions in her stories serve a narrative purpose; what may appear to be a gratuitous diversion in fact propels a complex plot in ways that readers may not at first consciously detect.  Early in both versions of  “Wood,” a long passage describes trees in the Sowesto bush: ironwood, cherry, apple, ash, maple, beech, and oak.  At first glance, this cataloging may seem to contribute only atmosphere to the story.  But as Roy reflects on the trees’ appearances—the maple trees, for example, “always look like the common necessary tree in the backyard,” and the oak trees, “always look like trees in storybooks,” with “intricate surface(s), and the devilish curling and curving of the branches” (TMH, 230; slightly different in New Yorker, 47)—and as he contemplates how they grow and behave and make him feel, they become stand-ins for members of his community.  They remind us of characters we have met in Munro’s oeuvre who reappear in different manifestations from story to story, linking Munro’s works across the span of her sixty-year career.  And the trees as characters demonstrate Munro’s structural use of metamorphosis to achieve narrative compression; how she may use a symbol to convey a variety of meanings in the space of one story; or—as exemplified by Munro’s depiction of Lea, in the second version of “Wood,”—how her characters turn sharp narrative corners that cause them to react and change, more than once in a story, to the point of personal transformation.  Through such devices, Munro achieves, in short fiction, a range of events and a degree of character evolution that is novelistic in scope.

The creative protagonist in Munro’s stories, like the author herself and her father before her, leads a double life.  Publicly, Munro’s protagonist tries to satisfy the expectations of his community, influenced by a Scots-Presbyterian ethos that prizes highly controlled—or “useful”—pursuits like farming, so as not to be ostracized for challenging cultural “rules” of his small town.  This society scorns “fanciful” isolated interests, like wandering in the woods and harvesting wildlife or, by metaphoric extension, investigating the unrestrained, unconscious thoughts and feelings of human beings through the writing of fiction.  And it frowns upon those who draw attention to their own achievements: “Who Do You Think You Are?” is the title of Munro’s story in which a teacher punishes a student for “showing off” her academic skills to her class and mildly challenging the instructor’s authority. Accordingly, the artist must be discreet about her pursuit of the solitary, self-centered goal of discovering a unique voice or an aesthetic sensibility to fulfill a personal potential that serves no one and nothing other than the artist’s own vision.

The relationship between creativity and solitude is a recurring Munrovian theme.

[I]n a way [Roy’s] thoughts about wood are too private—they are covetous and nearly obsessive.  He has never been a greedy man in any other way …. Even what is worthless for his purposes will interest him …. He would like to get a map in his mind of every bush he sees, and though he might justify this by citing practical purposes, that wouldn’t be the whole truth. (TMH, 232; somewhat different in New Yorker, 48)

Munro’s daughter Sheila remembers that in the latter 1950’s, when the family moved into a home that reflected their upward mobility in West Vancouver, “[t]ucked away in the darkest corner of my parent’s dark bedroom [was] a small table with a typewriter on it.  That is where my mother [wrote]” (Munro, S., 47).

In the second version of “Wood,” Roy and his wife Lea manifest seemingly opposite impulses toward independence and togetherness that suggest conflicting desires coexisting within many of us.  Roy’s wife, who is initially a more outgoing person than he is in both versions, (in the second version she changes once she becomes ill), enjoys large family gatherings and working in a dentist’s office, where, in the second rendering of “Wood,” she is a “receptionist and bookkeeper” (TMH, 226). Munro loves word play, and as a “receptionist”—perhaps by metaphoric extension—Lea can be seen as a “receiver” of Roy’s and her community-members’ anecdotes or stories, as many members of Munro’s paternal family have been for generations.  For example, Scottish ancestor, Margaret Hogg, (mother of James Hogg, who wrote Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and was an acquaintance of both Wordsworth and Byron), recited ballads she had learned from her father and others to Sir Walter Scott for inclusion in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (Munro, S., 176).

Alice Munro herself has been a “bookkeeper” in various ways: always a writer, she has also been a librarian, and during her married-with-children years in Vancouver, she and her husband founded the still thriving “Munro’s” bookstore, where, her daughter Sheila tells us, “for the first time in her life, [Munro] could encounter the outside world with confidence...listen to people’s stories and then conveniently go home.”  At the bookstore, Munro developed social ease, as her father had done in his mid-thirties, among fellow workers at a foundry, and Sheila says of them both: “It was a huge relief, a liberation, to find oneself socially acceptable after all, after years of seeking to avoid some imagined humiliation” (Munro, S., 189-190).

In both versions of “Wood,” the “quiet” Roy works alone (TMH, 225, 227; New Yorker, 46). In the later take on the story, he once thought he might teach his trade to his wife’s niece—and this is implied in the first version as well, in which Roy and his wife helped to raise the girl.  But the niece has made different choices—and other choices have been made for her—and Roy enjoys solitude in his shed and in the forest.  In the 1980 version he is a painter of signs – or perhaps metaphorically speaking, of symbols, or mysteries; “the only one in this part of the country, and he gets more business than he can handle” (New Yorker, 46). The signs that farmers ask him to paint for their gates represent fictionalized views of modern farm life—such as animals set against backdrops of rolling hills—when in fact the livestock are raised in tight enclosures devoid of sunlight.

In the 2009 version Roy is an upholsterer and re-finisher of “furniture”—the outlooks, artifacts, and memories that furnish the cultural history of his society.   “He will also take on the job of rebuilding chairs and tables that have lost some rungs or a leg, or are otherwise in a dilapidated condition.  There aren’t many people doing that kind of work anymore…” the intimate third-person narrator notes (TMH, 225), perhaps commenting on the current decline in fiction writing in our society, as well as our cultural propensity to worship youth and perfection, and reject or replace what is broken or imperfect.

Munro, the constant re-writer, reinterprets, as does Roy, the signs and mysteries of the first version of “Wood” from her later-life perspective, and she literally “refinishes” the first take on the story by writing a new ending.   The author’s interest in re-imagining stories appears in various ways throughout her work.  Across stories and story collections, there exist many connections between Munro’s characters.  Situational templates, such as that of the protagonist who works alone in a shed behind the house, or that of a character who develops an all-consuming illness, reappear in ever-changing guises.  In each variant, the protagonist makes different and surprising choices that lead to the twists and turns of plot that uniquely drive the narrative toward its equivocal ending.

This manner of “refinishing” stories also illustrates Munro’s fascination with questions of memory, and her observation that we constantly rewrite the stories of our lives, at different times and from different perspectives, whether retelling them to ourselves or others.

Home furnishings are a recurring motif in Munro’s work—she often describes the contents of a room by way of revealing character and furthering narrative while setting the scene—and one of the questions she examines in her story “Family Furnishings” is the moral price of writing fiction.  This symbolism may have its source in Munro’s early years, during which her mother expressed her longing for beautiful things in part by trading fox furs for elegant furniture and fittings that the family couldn’t afford and didn’t value (Munro, S., 155).  Often Munro will describe characters’ possessions in specific detail to illustrate their psychological and social pretensions, contrasting these social fronts with the complex, ungovernable issues and emotions that lie beneath the surface.

Munro has said that she aims to “get as close as [she] can” in her writing to “what [she] see[s] as reality—the shifting complex reality of human experience” (Thacker, 334). Whenever the protagonist or reader lands on what seems a conclusive point-of-view in a Munro story, it is soon challenged by an equal and opposite perspective.  Characters confound their own, each other’s and the readers’ expectations, setting up psychological complications and narrative tensions that feel authentic.

Particularly in the 2009 version of the story, Roy and Lea’s marriage seems a close one, even though, in both versions of the story, Roy’s wife’s family has “limited interest” in him, for he’s a seemingly useless outsider: he isn’t a blood relative, he and his wife haven’t “contributed” birth children to the clan, and he “[isn’t] like themselves” (TMH, 227, New Yorker, 46). Yet in the second version, Roy and Lea “both [feel] that they [mean] more to each other, somehow, than couples who [are] overrun with children.” (TMH, 227).

Even so, in both versions of the story, Roy needs solitude, whether he works in his shed or in the wood.  In the earlier version, when he finds himself in trouble in the bush—alone, injured and fighting for his life—his anxious, fragmented thoughts turn to his wife’s niece and to his wife herself, and he seems simultaneously struck by both his worry and love for his family, and by the general incomprehensibility and inexplicability of human relationships.  He tells himself that “[n]obody knows what anybody else is thinking about or how anybody else is feeling …. Nobody knows how others see themselves,” and it seems unclear whether this is a wholeheartedly dismayed conviction about the limited ability of human beings to connect, or whether it is partly a rationalization that he uses to ease his fear and guilt about the possibility that he may not make it out of the wood and back home to continue to contribute to his family’s well being (New Yorker, 54).

In the second take on the story, in which Roy’s wife Lea develops depression, her illness seems to make it impossible for husband and wife to connect even when they are physically together.  Before Roy has his life-endangering accident, he turns to the depressed Lea and tries to communicate his fears to her, but feels she isn’t “paying any real attention.”  He thinks to himself that she’s “[m]issing the point.  But isn’t that what wives do—and husbands probably the same—around fifty percent of the time?” (TMH, 237).

And yet, at the end of the second version, we discover that Lea—even under the lid of her depression—has understood Roy’s needs better than either he or she consciously realized.  She surprises them both when she shows up in the wood to help save him when he needs her most.  Roy, in turn, is then surprised once more—this time by his own uncomfortable mixture of emotions as he allows his wife to assist him.

In Munro’s stories, the trouble that characters get into is partly self-inflicted.  In “Wood,” Roy’s first mistake is that he “thinks that there is very little danger in going tree cutting alone if you know what you are doing” (TMH, 230; New Yorker, 47). Roy’s view of nature as a predictable, humanly subduable force has no place in Munro’s Ontarian-Gothic world, in which 19th-century homesteaders were battered and scarred—physically and psychologically—by snowstorms and disease, and where “people can take a fit like the earth takes a fit” (“Fits,” 126 ). Roy’s underestimation—or denial—of the dangers of the earthly and the psychological wildernesses will threaten his life.

The expectations that protagonists and their fellow community members have for themselves and force upon one another loom large in Munro’s fiction, and the author charts her characters’ reactions when, for better or worse, an outcome takes them by surprise.  One day, after the first snow, Roy is in the forest looking over some girdled trees that he has verbally agreed, with the farmer who owns them, to cut down.  While there, he runs into Percy, a squatter, who has heard talk that this job has been promised to someone else, and that the lumber will go to the nearby River Inn, a hotel that caters to tourists and burns a “cord [of wood] a day…for show” (TMH, 234, 236; New Yorker, 49, 51). Roy and Percy imagine the dehumanizing, wasteful “big outfit” (TMH, 235) that may put Roy out of business.  As ever, in both versions of “Wood,” Munro explores the impact of contemporary commerce on rural communities, and touches on her mystical, Wordsworth-influenced feeling about the natural countryside in which she grew up, which, she has told me in interviews, replaced religion for her in her girlhood.  Also at a young age, Munro was inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, with its unreliable narrator.  Untrustworthy characters such as Percy, and folklorish characters, such as fairies, appear in various guises in Munro’s work, simultaneously attracting and repelling, or even horrifying the protagonist, leading him through delusion—or self-delusion—to sudden insight and revelation.

Major problems in Munro’s stories often result when a minor incident blows up into a serious matter.  Vacillating between believing Percy and dismissing his story as embroidered rumor, Roy returns home, and over the course of the day he makes the second mistake that will put his life at risk: he underestimates his own value. A victim of his own lack of confidence, he allows his conversation with this gossip to overtake his imagination.  Perhaps “Wood” here can be read as “Would”—as if Roy’s own self-doubt were holding him back from achieving his desired goal.  Convinced, without any outside confirmation, that he isn’t the chosen one, that he has lost the job to some company with which he can’t compete, he rushes to the bush the next day to beat his competitor to the take.

A Munrovian character’s life can change suddenly in a geographical setting that mirrors the psychological action taking place.  After parking his truck on the trail leading into the forest, Roy walks hurriedly toward the trees, muttering aloud to himself, imagining he is confronting his rival, and paying no heed to the lightly falling snow and the slippery leaves on the complex terrain underfoot.  In his distracted condition, he contemplates the untamed bush.   He remembers having recently read that the roughness of the wood’s floor dates back to just after the Ice Age, when “ice formed between layers of earth and pushed it up into odd humps….Where the land has not been cleared and worked the humps remain.”  But emotionally unbalanced as he is, he makes no connection between this memory and his present danger; he can’t hear his own subconscious voice warning him about the uncanny, Gothic wilds that surround him physically and psychologically (TMH, 238-9; slightly different in New Yorker, 52).

What happens to Roy now is the most ordinary and yet the most unbelievable thing, something that might happen to a “daydreamer” or a tourist, but hardly to one so experienced in the bush: he “steps carelessly,” then skids in the snow, plunges through brush, and falls, breaking his ankle (TMH, 239; New Yorker, 52-3). He manages to hold his saw at a distance from his body as he goes down, but he hurts himself when he flings his ax away; its handle hits the knee of his twisted leg.  Finding that he can’t walk or even stand up, “[h]e lets himself down as easily as he can and hauls himself around into the track of his bootprints, which are now filling with snow” (TMH, 240; slightly different in New Yorker, 53).

Roy has been crippling himself throughout the story; through his low self-image; through his insistence that nature is a controllable universe; through his deafness to his own intuition.  Munro’s protagonists often have to feel their way through their difficulties before they can understand them rationally.  Paradoxically, Roy’s shortcomings provide him with the complication that leads him to opportunity: forced to abandon his tools, and with heightened awareness of the dangers and mysteries of the bush, he begins to trust his wits, his instincts, and his imagination as he crawls through thickening snow, across the freezing forest floor and up a steep bank toward his truck (TMH, 240-1; New Yorker, 53-54). If he survives his humbling journey, perhaps reflecting on it later will guide him to a more complex, less self-deceptive appreciation of reality.  In his metaphoric dimension as an artist, perhaps his experience will lead him to find his voice.

The tension between loyalty to family members and the desire to pursue individual fulfillment tugs at Munro’s protagonists as surely it has at the author herself in the course of her life.  During her teenage years, Munro, already writing seriously, helped care for her mother, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease.  Her ticket to college came in the form of a two-year scholarship, and when that ran out, she promptly married, and had children in the 1950’s, when she felt societal pressure to put aside her writing and focus exclusively on her domestic roles.  Sheila Munro, the author’s eldest daughter, tells of her mother’s approach to writing while raising a young family in North Vancouver:

I think housework and writing have always coexisted for her in a kind of uneasy alliance, the one balancing the other….The room in which she wrote Lives of Girls and Women was a laundry room, and her typewriter was surrounded by a washer, a dryer, and an ironing board….I might find her reclining on the couch writing in one of her spiral notebooks when I came home from school, or scribbling away at the kitchen table when I came downstairs for breakfast.  She’d always put the notebook away without skipping a beat, in the same way that Jane Austen put her embroidery frame over her writing whenever someone came into the room. You’d think she wasn’t doing anything more important than making up a grocery list. (Munro, S., 28-9)

Although her characters often seem burdened by their domestic responsibilities to others throughout Munro's fiction, at the same time, particularly in her collection Too Much Happiness, protagonists may find personal salvation through the chance to be useful to others in practical ways—especially if they can somehow save another human being’s life.

In “Working for a Living,” a character reminiscent of Munro’s father tells his daughter of a life-endangering experience he had while heading home in a blizzard from his night job.  Caught in a snowdrift, unable at first to move his legs, he saved himself by recalling his family members—the young, the old, the sick—as well as the financial debt he would leave behind if he died; and these thoughts gave him strength to survive:

…[H]e pulled one leg out of the snow, and then the other: he got out of that drift and then there were no more drifts quite so deep, and before long he was in the shelter of the windbreak of pine trees that he himself had planted the year that [his daughter] was born.  He got home.

His daughter muses, “[D]idn’t he think of himself…didn’t he struggle for his own self?.... Was his life now something only other people had a use for?” (“Working for a Living,” 165-166).

In the first version of “Wood,” Roy worries about and financially assists his wife’s niece, whom the couple raised for nine years.  Now grown, she has five children and an unsteadily employed husband, a truck driver, whom Roy and his wife “didn’t even know she knew,” until she “quit” school to marry him (New Yorker, 48). In the second rendering of the story, when his wife slips into depression, Roy is “patient with this grave, listless woman who sometimes waves her hand in front of her face as if she is bothered by cobwebs or has got stuck in a nest of brambles” (TMH, 228).

Later, in both takes on the story, following his initial shock after falling and injuring himself in the bush, Roy turns to thoughts of his family members and his concern for their welfare seems to fortify him.  In the second version of “Wood:”

For some reason he thinks of [his wife’s niece], in her unbecoming red ski jacket and decides that her life is her life, there is not much use worrying about it.  And he thinks of his wife, pretending to laugh at the television.  Her quietness.  At least she’s fed and warm, she isn’t some refugee shuffling along the roads.  Worse things happen, he thinks.  Worse things.

He starts up the bank….He keeps going; he grits his teeth as if that will keep him from sliding back; he grabs at any exposed root or halfway-sturdy stem that he can see. (TMH, 241-2)

Also in the second version of “Wood,” it is Lea’s desire to find and protect Roy at the story’s end that lifts her out of her debilitating depression and enables her to drive into the bush in a truck, which, to the best of Roy’s knowledge, she has never before driven.  In fact, she stopped driving entirely after her illness began—but now she feels “driven” to support her husband physically and emotionally (TMH, 243).

It was only a few years after her father’s death, at forty-nine, that Alice Munro published her first version of “Wood” in The New Yorker.  The second version appeared, in Too Much Happiness, two years before her eightieth birthday.  The writer of the first is well into middle age; the writer of the second is old—and the protagonist’s thoughts about his own mortality have changed accordingly.

Near the end of the first version of the story, once he believes he will survive his ordeal, Roy realizes that Percy has been mistaken about the identity of the winner of the contract, whom he had vaguely remembered as being a carpenter, or a painter, or a paperhanger (New Yorker, 49). “The truth is that the paperhanger, the decorator, the housepainter doesn’t exist….It is Roy himself.  Not a housepainter—a sign painter” (New Yorker, 54). With this, it seems that Roy is able to acknowledge to himself that in addition to being a practical man, he is an artist.  As it turns out, the rumor that undermined Roy’s confidence was just a story within the larger story of “Wood”—and an example of how Munro uses both shifting points-of-view and story structure to explore her questioning of the nature of reality.  Reassured on this point, Roy’s “selective” memory “manages to turn everything to good account;” turning the “foolishness of the accident” into the “triumph” of a “successful crawl” toward the truck (New Yorker, 54). Roy convinces himself that he is finally “safe”—which is the last word in the first version of the story and an ironic promise that evil lurks in the midst of familiar, day-to-day existence.  The story ends with Roy still far from secure, yet, in middle age, perhaps he can still convince himself that he will be able to control his destiny.

In this earlier “Wood,” Roy’s wife, here named Lila, is a supporting character, who comes into her own in the 2009 version of the story, which explores the ways people do or don’t go on with their lives when they have lost the person or the situation they thought they couldn’t live without. Roy’s wife is described as an “easygoing,” capable, sociable woman in both versions of the story (TMH, 226-7; New Yorker, 46). But in the second take on the story, a winter’s “almost steady flu and bronchitis” leave her, now named Lea, exhausted, nervous, apathetic, and asocial (TMH, 228). A doctor gives her pills, her sister takes her for an expensive consultation with a holistic medicine practitioner, and her niece takes her to a reflexologist for treatment.  Yet nothing pulls Lea out of her slump.

Lea’s experience may have a biographical precedent in Munro’s life.  When the author was nearing thirty, at the end of the 1950’s, she felt overwhelmed by trying to juggle her familial roles with her writing.  She was still receiving rejections of her stories and felt commercial pressure to write a novel, which went against her creative instincts. Munro told her daughter, “I didn’t feel anything good was coming from me.  I felt my own gift hadn’t developed and maybe wouldn’t.”  Finding it increasingly hard either to write or do housework, Munro spent much of the day “in a morose state of inactivity,” until she stopped writing altogether, developed an ulcer and panic attacks, and was prescribed tranquilizers (Munro, S., 86-88).

Munro’s daughter Sheila believes her mother was being silenced by the “censoring” expectations of women writers; that she had to learn to resist the pressure to “tell the nice, conventional, moral story and, in its place, how to tell the truth of her experience as a woman” (Munro, S., 90). When, in the early 1960’s, Munro discovered how to use her personal material to achieve this aim, she broke through her writer’s block.

At the climax of both versions of  “Wood,” as Roy wonders whether he will survive or die alone in the wood, a “large bird rises out of the bush.”  The “sign painter” of the first version, and the “upholsterer and refinisher of furniture” of the second, “thinks it’s a hawk, but it could be a buzzard.”  In the 1980 version he thinks, “[i]f it’s a buzzard, it will have its eye on him, but he’ll have it fooled” (New Yorker, 54). Then he becomes distracted, and never returns to this question.  In the 2009 version, Roy manages no such self-delusion.  He wonders:

If it’s a buzzard will it have its eye on him, thinking it’s in luck now, seeing he’s hurt?

He waits to see it circle back, so he can tell what it is by the manner of its flight and its wings….[I]t is a buzzard. (TMH, 243)

Roy knows that loss and even death may be close at hand—but with this truth comes compensation and solace.  When, in the later version, he finally reaches level ground and can see his truck ahead, he sees Lea at the wheel.  She seems, when she greets him, restored to her old self.  Or perhaps she has become a new version of herself—unaware that she has gone through a period of depressive change, or that she stopped driving her car during her illness, or that, to Roy’s knowledge, she has never driven the truck.  As she skillfully maneuvers the truck into the turnaround, Roy senses “(s)ome loss fogging up this gain” of his wife’s vitality” (TMH, 245). Feeling somewhat overcome by a “warm wooziness,” (TMH, 246) he looks at the bush with new eyes, as an injured passenger seated next to a fully functioning driver. He notices:

[h]ow tangled up in itself [the wood] is, how dense and secret.  It’s not a matter of one tree after another, it’s all the trees together, aiding and abetting one another and weaving into one thing.  A transformation, behind your back. (TMH, 246)

He tries to remember another name for the  wood, but the precise word eludes him.  Again we see Munro working with an issue of memory: the complex interplay between a biological phenomenon, such as a “senior moment,” and our unconscious desires—some psychological reason that we may wish to forget something.

Finally, the literary-sounding word that Roy has been searching for comes to him at the end of the second version of Munro’s story:

Forest.  That’s the word.  Not a strange word at all but one he has possibly never used.  A formality about it that he would usually back away from.

“The Deserted Forest,” he says, as if that put the cap on something (TMH, 246).

Roy speaks as if he were putting the title on his own story.  Is the “forest” here Roy’s psyche?  If so, what has abandoned Roy’s mind?  His control over his own body, for one thing.  Will his creative inspiration and solitary ambition be diminished in the wake of this desertion?  And if so, is it possible he has “deserted” it and that he may be relieved to put it behind him?

In both versions of “Wood,” Roy is reduced to crawling along the forest floor, unsure about whether he will escape the wood alive. In the first version of the story, we can believe that Roy may make it out of the wood alone.  In the second version, Lea’s rescue of Roy suggests that he needs help now.  Does this reaffirm, in spite of his losses, that the newly significant connection between Roy and Lea is more positive than not?  It seems we are left—as we are so often in Munro’s fiction—on a note of ambivalence and uncertainty.

Ambiguity is a hallmark of Munro’s endings; she has told me in an interview that she writes because “[she wants] to get a feeling of mystery or surprise.  Not a mystery that finishes [the reader] off, but something that makes the character or reader wonder” (VQR 2006). At the end of a Munro story, readers are aware that things could turn out in a variety of ways for the characters.

Munro has often said, after publishing a new collection of stories—especially in recent years—that she won’t write another; that she has used up her material; that she would like to lead a more manageable life.  Fortunately for her readers, her 14th book is due out in the fall of 2012.


Lisa Dickler Awano has interviewed and profiled Alice Munro for The Virginia Quarterly Review and Vancouver Sun and been interviewed about Munro's work on national radio.  Other work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered and appeared in The New York Quarterly and Chicago Review.  Awano also organizes readings at The National Arts Club in New York City.

The 2009 version of "Wood," reprinted in The New Haven Review, and the full texts of Awano's interviews with Munro in NHR and in The Virginia Quarterly Review can be found by clicking the links below.



Awano, Lisa Dickler. “Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness,” Virginia Quarterly Review, October 22, 2010.  Book review

Awano, Lisa Dickler, ed. “Appreciations of Alice Munro,” Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2006, p. 91-107.  Interviews with certain of Munro's peers, among them Margaret Atwood, Russell Banks, Michael Cunningham, and others, presented as first-person essays.

Awano, Lisa Dickler. “An Interview with Alice Munro,” Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2006.  Interview about The View from Castle Rock and the craft of writing.

Awano, Lisa Dickler. “An Interview with Alice Munro,” Virginia Quarterly Review, October 22, 2010.  Interview about Too Much Happiness, and the craft of writing.

Awano, Lisa Dickler. “The Tremendous Importance of Ordinary Events: An Interview with Alice Munro about two versions of “Wood,” New Haven Review Issue 009 (Winter 2011), p. 46-67.

Munro, Alice. “Fits,” The Progress of Love. Vintage, 1985-6.

Munro, Alice. “Wood,” 2009 version, reprinted in New Haven Review Issue 009 (Winter 2011), 68-89.

Munro, Alice. “Wood,” The New Yorker, November 24, 1980, 46-54.

Munro, Alice. “Wood,” Too Much Happiness. Knopf, 2009, 225-246.

Munro, Alice. “Working for a Living,” The View from Castle Rock. Knopf, 2006.

Munro, Sheila. Lives of Mothers and Daughters: Growing Up with Alice Munro. A Douglas Gibson Book. McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 2001.

Thacker, Robert. Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives: A Biography. A Douglas Gibson Book. McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 2005.

NHR Library Event This Wednesday

Sure, the New Haven Review's books have been out for a while. But that doesn't mean we can't revel in their release a few months after the fact. In a dramatic rescheduling of an event that was snowed out in March (raise your hand if you're still glad this winter is over), the New Haven Review will be throwing a triple-decker reading from How to Win Her Love, Blue for Oceans, and Kentauros, by Rudolph Delson, Charles Douthat, and Gregory Feeley, respectively. The readings will be held at the main branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, at 133 Elm Street, this Wednesday, June 22, at 6 pm. Your correspondent, alas, cannot attend, but can say with reasonable certainty that participants will be prepared to celebrate afterward, so please stick around. And thanks again to Carol Brown at the library for graciously hosting the event.

Silent Movies and Live Music at Lyric Hall, Sunday, 7 pm

OK, so it's not, strictly speaking, literary. But neither, strictly speaking, are we. Ladies and gentlemen! The New Haven Review announces its first evening of silent movies, accompanied by live music, this Sunday evening at 7 pm. It will take place in the gorgeous old vaudeville theater inside Lyric Hall, at 827 Whalley Avenue—which, if you haven't seen it too recently, has been renovated so beautifully that it looks like something from czarist Russia. It is worth the $5 admission just to spend time inside that room.

The evening will consist of two short movies—each of them about 10 minutes long. The first one is a Georges Melies film called The Doctor's Secret; the second is an unbelievably collapsed version of Alice in Wonderland. You want to come just to see these movies. The music is provided by Dr. Caterwaul's Cadre of Clairvoyant Claptraps, which sounds like . (Full disclosure: Your correspondent is a member of this band.)

But wait, there's more! In addition, there will be some live music performed by the Claptraps and Tyler Bussey, a quietly soulful CT singer who reinterprets old songs in a style reminiscent, to this correspondent, of Sam Amidon. It's great stuff. Probably there will be a brief intermission, making for a thoroughly pleasant evening's entertainment. And if we really get our act together, we may bring appropriate refreshments.

Hope to see you all there!

Have a Happy New (Haven Review) Year

And here's what we're cookin' up for this year... New Haven Review is back for another year of merry. Our book publishing venture has so far garnered all sorts of fab publicity, like this here, and there have been successful parties in New Haven and New York. We have upcoming appearances at the New Haven Public Library (all of our authors, 6pm, Jan. 26), the Faith Middleton Show (Feb. 18, 3pm, Charles Douthat and Mark Oppenheimer), and Labyrinth Books (same crew, the next day, Feb. 19, at 4pm).

And our radio show, Paper Trails, featuring Mark Oppenheimer, Brian Slattery, Gregory Feeley, Binnie Klein, and others talking about books, debuts Feb. 13 on WNPR. Stay tuned for more on that.

Issue #7 is on the web here. (Have you subscribed? Are you a library or someone else with an expense account? Are you somebody who likes to support the arts? And likes to read good stuff? Will you please subscribe?)

Meanwhile, Susan Holahan's poems in issue #5 got honorable mention for the Pushcart Prize volume.

But best of all? Thanks to a generous donation, we can now pay our authors. So agents, publishers, authors--get the word out. Issue #8 is nearly full, but we are now accepting submissions for issue #9 and beyond. For more information, write to

Charles Douthat at the Poetry Institute

We, at New Haven Review, like the Poetry Institute, which holds an open mike reading every third Thursday at the Institute Library in downtown New Haven at 847 Chapel Street. This Thursday, December 16, at 6:30 p.m., they are featuring our personal favorite—because he’s one of our authors-- New Haven’s own Charles Douthat.

From the website:

New Haven celebrates the publication of Charles Douthat’s first collection, Blue for Oceans forthcoming from NHR Books.

Born in California, Charles graduated from Stanford University, raised a son and daughter in New Haven, Connecticut where he practices law. Charles began to read and write poetry during a long mid-life illness and today writes about the usual predicaments: family, love, time and memory.  Since then, his poems have been published in many journals and magazines.  A few have won prizes.  We’ve enjoyed his work at our open mic; Please join us to support Charles’ new venture:

About the potluck: Please feel free to bring an a small [room temperature] appetizer or dessert snack to share!

Listen Here, Fall 2010 Season

The Arts Council of Greater New Haven, New Haven Review, and New Haven Theater Company are pleased to announce the return of Listen Here, the weekly short story reading series in which actors from the New Haven Theater Collective read short stories chosen by New Haven Review editors. The Fall 2010 season of Listen Here will take place on Thursday evenings, from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m., with reading occurring on a rotating basis at Book Trade Café (1140 Chapel Street), Lulu: A European Coffee House (49 Cottage Street), and Manjares Fine Pastries (838 Whalley Avenue, on the corner of West Rock Avenue). September 23: Hardly Boiled at Book Trader Café, 1140 Chapel Street, off York St. Woody Allen's "The Whore of Mensa," read by Steve Scarpa Ethan Coen's "The Russian," read by Jeremy Funke

September 30: Short Shorts at Lulu, A European Coffeehouse, 49 Cottage Street, off Orange St. Yukio Mishima's "Swaddling Clothes" Katherine Anne Porter's "Magic," read by Shola Cole Leo Tolstoy's "Alyosha the Pot," read by Bennett Lovett-Graff William Carlos Williams' "The Use of Force," read by George Kulp

October 7: Homesick at Manjares Fine Pastries, 838 Whalley Avenue, on West Rock Ave! Ernest Hemingway's "Soldier's Home," read by Peter Chenot Betsy Boyd's "Scarecrow," read by Hilary Brown October 14: Crossroads at Book Trader Café, 1140 Chapel Street, off York St. J.D. Salinger's "For Esme - With Love and Squalor," read by Steve Scarpa

October 21: Fathers, Sons, Mothers, Daughters at Lulu, A European Coffeehouse, 49 Cottage Street, off Orange St. Steve Stern's "The Tale of a Kite," TBD Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing," read by Shola Cole

October 28: Halloween Special at Manjares Fine Pastries, 838 Whalley Avenue, on West Rock Ave! Joyce Carol Oates' "Where is Here?," read by Jeremy Funke Charles Lambert's "The Scent of Cinnamon," read by Erich Greene

November 4: Hello, Goodbye at Book Trader Café, 1140 Chapel Street, off York St. James Joyce's "Eveline," TBD David Schickler's "The Smoker," read by Steve Scarpa

November 11: Strangers in a Strange Land at Lulu, A European Coffeehouse, 49 Cottage Street, off Orange St. Anton Chekhov's "The Bet," read by Ian Alderman Naomi Williams' "Rickshaw Runner," TBD

November 18: Food & Drink at Manjares Fine Pastries, 838 Whalley Avenue, on West Rock Ave! Beena Kamlani's " Zanzibar," TBD Paul Beckman's "Another One of His Punishments," TBD November 25 Thanksgiving — no readings

December 2: Mere Children at Book Trader Café, 1140 Chapel Street, off York St. Sarah Orne Jewett's "A White Heron," read by Shola Cole Amy Hempel's "The Most Girl Part of You," read by Hilary Brown December 9: Close Calls at Lulu, A European Coffeehouse, 49 Cottage Street, off Orange St. Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers," read by Steve Scarpa Roald Dahl's "Man from the South," read by Jeremy Funke

December 16: Tall Tales at Manjares Fine Pastries, 838 Whalley Avenue, on West Rock Ave! Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," read by Peter Chenot Stephen Vincent Benét's "The Devil and Daniel Webster," read by George Kulp

Listen Here! on the Radio

If you were curious about how the Listen Here! Short Story Reading series evolved and how it's been going, then you'll want to hear this interview.

Our interviewer was Binnie Klein, author (Blows to the Head, check it out here) and subscriber!

The interviewees were New Haven Review publisher, Bennett Lovett-Graff, who picks the stories for the series, and actor and casting director Brooks Appelbaum.

Listen Here This Week: Isidoro Blaistein and John Cheever

The Listen Here! Short Story Reading Series rolls into its 7th week with readings at Bru Cafe, 141 Orange, Street, this Tuesday, April 20, at 7 p.m. Our Theme? “L’Etranger”

Our Stories? Isidoro Blaisten’s “Uncle Facundo” and John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”

Why these? Let’s start with a more important question.  Who the hell is Isidoro Blaisten?!  According to Wikipedia, not much.  Just look at the on him. He was from Argentina.  He wrote stories, essays, novels, and poetry. We discovered him in a lovely little book by editor extraordinaire Alberto Manguel, who included Blaisten’s "Uncle Facundo" in his edited collection .  Strangely enough, most of the stories collected ended up weak candidates for Listen Here (although there is a whopper of a tale in William Trevor’s “Torridge”), but Blaisten’s stood out not only for its darkly comic sensibility but for its thematic depth (most revenge tales tend to be slim pickings in the deep statement department) and originality in literary style and narrative mode (think magic realism). If his other tales are as good as this, Blaisten deserves better in the United States.

John Cheever always speaks for himself.  Perhaps one of the best short story writers in American letters—his prose is crystalline, his pacing is excellent, his diction is aptly nuanced, and his tales are often refreshingly original and insightful.  "The Swimmer" is perhaps best known for the that came of it, with Burt Lancaster in the starring role and cameos by Kim Hunter and Joan Rivers!  Like “The Enormous Radio,” it stays well within in Cheever’s comfort zone as criticism of America classism and serves as a fitting nod to the encroachment of literary surrealism in American writing.

Secrets of a Publishing Addict

I like to tell this story, having told it many times before. Sitting at home, I receive a call from a friend asking if I had seen that week's copy of , for which she then worked.

"No, I haven't. Why?"

"Well, there's an interesting article about this guy who started a local book review, like the one you and I thought about doing years ago."

And, lo and behold, so it was. Where I no more than dreamt, another made happen. Thus was the born. Fortunately, for me, its was also a fellow member. So when he entered the lobby doors, child and stroller in hand, I approached him.

"I saw the article about the New Haven Review of Books. I'd like to help."

"Oh, that's great," he replied. "Do you write?"

Do I write? That was a tough one, actually. "Sure, I write a little, but I'd rather be your publisher"—if you'll have me—I thought parenthetically. I had served as the publisher of a Jewish literary journal in graduate school and I wanted to return to that more distinctly literary scene after years in .

"Our publisher? You mean like sales and marketing and stuff like that…"

"Yes, stuff like that."

"Great! No one else wants to do that!"

Thus was a partnership born, and I was joined at the literary hip to an editorial collective of individuals wiser and more talented than myself—and with infinitely better connections, too.

But this was all fine by me. I like the business of publishing, from handling the filthy lucre to freaking out over missing a print deadline. True that in this endeavor I would have less occasion for the give and take of reading and responding to the lucubrations of the published and hoping-to-be-published. But would it be all too sickening to admit that I like fiddling with our circulation database, hounding subscribers for renewals, holding out my greasy palm for potential contributions, even filling out the occasional nasty legal form? Probably, but what can I say? I love it.

Publishing, for me, is in the blood—all aspects of it, from correcting misplaced commas to panhandling in the street for new readers.

So, ready to subscribe?

We Partied like It’s 2009

On Saturday night at the house of and we rolled out issue #4. It was a seriously good time, although I fear I made myself look like a dunce talking into little — I remember saying something about how the Paris Review may have more subscribers, but I have better hair than its editor. Which I don’t think is even true; from what I can tell in photographs, actually has a nice head of hair. I think I can sum up the party by saying that both NY Times deputy editor and Moira Darling, one of Brooklyn's premier knitters (she owns ), were both there. Also spotted: gonzo science writer (also with good hair, salt-and-pepper), memoirist (fabulous hair), journalist and master writing pedagogue (legendary beard), New Republic critic (precocious beard), award-winning science writer , memoirist and NHR board member (her hair is the stuff of urban legend), NHR contributor (her great hair is the least of her attributes).

Lest I forget: novelist short-story writer condom blogger noted chemist historian literature scholar and man-about-town Josh Safran.

At some point after the gin kicked in I was talking to somebody about Gay Talese’s about the Paris Review in its 1960s, Plimpton-edited glory days. As I remember the essay, Talese’s main point seems to be that while Plimpton, Mathiessen, and the others had some talent — especially for spotting other talent — their main genius was for creating community. Largely this was about parties at Plimpton’s place (where, Talese reports, women were treated like so much furniture), but more generally it was about using a magazine as the centerpiece of a world. As I was speaking these words last night, I realized — or hoped — that I could have been talking about NHR, right down to the middling talent of us editors.

Or such, at least, is the delusion-producing quality of gin.

Issue 3 Available Now

We are delighted to inform you that Issue 3 of the New Haven Review, featuring essays, fiction, poetry, and photographs from Jim Knipfel, Jess Row, Willard Spiegelman, George Witte, Stephen Ornes, Ian Ganassi, Nick Antosca, Joy Ladin, and Desirea Rodgers is available now. We'll have the entire issue online shortly, but if you'd like to have the actual journal in your hands—which, designed by Nicholas Rock, is truly a thing of beauty—please contact us. We'd love to hear from you. And thanks once again to all our contributors, subscribers, and supporters for making this possible. Brian Francis Slattery is an editor of the New Haven Review.

New Haven Review Summer Book Group at Labyrinth Books

Thanks to the generosity of , the New Haven Review is proudly hosting a summer book group in its New Haven store at 290 York Street. Each of the editors — Mark Oppenheimer, Tom Gogola, and Brian Francis Slattery — and one author from Issue 2 of the Review, Steven Stoll, will lead a discussion of a recent book that they have loved. The books are available at Labyrinth, but of course, having read the book beforehand isn't mandatory to coming to the discussions or taking part in them.

First up is Brian Francis Slattery (i.e., me) on May 28, at 6 p.m., leading a discussion of by Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya; an excellent overview of this slim, excoriating book appears on Labyrinth's . I chose the book because, in recent memory, I haven't read a book that left me so shaken for so many different reasons, and it's one of a few books that I recommend to anyone who will bend an ear to listen. I hope that you, dear readers, will all come whether you have read the book or not. The discussion is likely to range across freedom of information issues, war correspondence, the swiftly changing face of Russia today, and whether the conflict in Chechnya and the government's massive cover-up of it will come back to haunt it. There is so much to talk about.

The New Haven Review Summer Book Group will continue on July 2 [formerly June 23 — ed.], also at 6 p.m., with Tom Gogola leading a discussion of by Alex Ross. On July 23, again at 6 p.m., Mark Oppenheimer will lead a discussion of , the new novel by Richard Price. Finally, on August 13 at (surprise!) 6 p.m., Steven Stoll will discuss by David Harvey.

In sum, and for easy reading and marking of calendars:

New Haven Review Summer Book Group

May 28: Brian Francis Slattery discusses A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya by Anna Politkovskaya.

July 2: Tom Gogola discusses The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross. [As above, amended from June 23--ed.]

July 23: Mark Oppenheimer discusses Lush Life by Richard Price.

August 13: Steven Stoll discusses A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey.

All events begin at 6 p.m., at Labyrinth Books, 290 York Street, New Haven, CT. Hope to see you there.

is an editor of the New Haven Review.

The Billionaire Who Wasn’t

By Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2007)

On January 22, 1997, from a payphone in the San Francisco airport, Chuck Feeney gave The New York Times a story for the ages. Although he had appeared regularly on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans, Feeney was not, he revealed, the billionaire everyone presumed. This kid-done-good from Elizabeth, New Jersey—a Horatio Alger boy on steroids—had indeed built a great fortune by mastering the duty-free trade. But the recent sale of his company, Duty Free Shoppers (DFS), had forced Feeney to confess his great secret: he had given this fortune away. In , Irish journalist chronicles how Feeney quietly amassed astonishing wealth, and, with equal stealth, signed it all over to his philanthropic foundations.

O’Clery’s account reads like a spy novel. Feeney and his business partners succeed through cloak and dagger secrecy: closed bids for duty-free concessions (Hawaii, Guam, Alaska, Hong Kong), off-shore havens to shelter their cash profits from U.S. taxation. Feeney’s commercial savvy is also characterized by an uncanny intuition for profitable opportunities, a penchant for shop-floor management (well into his later years, Feeney is coaching the sales force), and remarkable care for employees and their families. These traits also underpin his philanthropy, which is characterized by fierce anonymity, opportunistic giving that seeks to amplify the power of his philanthropic buck (in places ranging from the U.S. to Ireland, South Africa to Australia, Vietnam to Cuba), and extensive vetting (“kicking the tires”) of potential grantees. Ultimately, Feeney says, he is driven by a basic desire to help others, learned at a young age from his parents.

Feeney’s is an extraordinary tale of entrepreneurial dynamism, no doubt—but even more of unusual beneficence. His “outing” presents a number of important challenges. First, Feeney embodies “inter vivos” charity—giving while living. This is significant in an era when, for many, wealth serves as a competitive “scorecard” (Feeney’s words) for success. In offering an equally competitive, alternative yardstick—charitable largesse—Feeney joins Gates, Buffett, and others in harnessing new resources for the disadvantaged. The second challenge Feeney poses is to the philanthropic sector, where foundations typically expend five percent of their assets each year. Feeney has called for a full spend-down of his within the decade: inter vivos in extremis. Though to date his foundations have granted nearly $4 billion to “vulnerable” people around the world, nearly $4 billion in assets remain. This means trying to give away—efficiently, effectively, entirely—about one million dollars a day. “Spending it,” he says, “is not a big problem. Spending it meaningfully is.” Understatement, ambition and optimism: vintage Feeney.

Georgia Levenson Keohane is a writer and consultant in the fields of social policy, philanthropy, and non-profit management. She lives in .