The Journal of Failure – Week 5 of 2018

Goals

Reading

  • Goal – 100p / day, or 700 / week
  • Achieved – 776/700 – Success!

Writing – I Remember

  • Goal – 21 / week
  • Achieved – 12/21 – Failure

Writing – Fantasy Project

  • Goal – 1,120 words / week
  • Achieved – 0/1,120 words – Failure

Writing – Small Projects (Fragments, short stories, etc)

  • Goal – 12 minutes, 15 seconds / week
  • Achieved – 15 minutes, 20 seconds/12 minutes, 15 seconds – Success!

Writing – Large Projects

  • Goal – 24 minutes, 30 seconds / week
  • Achieved – 0/24 minutes, 30 seconds – Failure

Getting myself out there

  • Short story reviews – One (Two total for the year)
  • Submissions – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Rejections – Zero (One total for the year)
  • Acceptances – Zero (Zero total for the year)

Commentary

Nice to see the reading has picked up!  I had an ok start to the week in terms of reading, but a really strong finish.  I cannot in any way place this at the feet of my daughter, who decided, on Saturday night, when her father (me!) was looking after her on his own, that she would be hysterical for hours and hours.  Extremely unlike her, so I put it down to her missing her mother.  I did, too, but I didn’t cry about it…

Anyway, reading went well.  A good chunk of the reading was another massive fantasy tome, but I feel now as though I have done my dash with those for a little while.  I wanted January to be an easy reading month, and so it was.

February will be, I think, an exercise in Spanish-language literature, or tangentially related literature (eg Luke Stegemann’s fantastic The Beautiful Obscure (twitter)).  I am going to avoid rereads, I think – so no Aira, no Marías, no Bolaño, and so on.  I will dedicate a different month to rereads, and it would, I think, be a mistake to devote a month to Spanish literature only to read those authors I already know I love.  Instead, I want to discover new and interesting writers.  My mind is ravenous for exciting literature.

March?  Perhaps focus on a publisher.  For me, that would be either Dalkey Archive Press or Open Letter Books.  I’ve heard rumblings on twitter that Dalkey seem to be going through a rough patch, so perhaps my reading attention is better spent with Open Letter.  They are a fine, fine press.

In terms of writing, I didn’t do any fantasy writing or ‘long writing’.  The fantasy writing is intended to be a cleanser, a way of stretching muscles, a loosening.  It is not intended to be serious (though fantasy can be serious), so much as warm me up for proper writing.  There’s something very therapeutic in writing about kingdoms and made up fantasy nonsense, and so that goal exists to ensure that I write.  By that I mean, if I am having trouble putting pen to paper, then I will instead bang out a hundred words or so to do with some long forgotten gemstone or order of knights or what have you.  All of this is to say that it doesn’t matter too much if I don’t hit this goal if other writing is completed.

Long writing is a bit different.  That basically means novel and bigger – and I don’t have a clue at the moment as to what I’m writing in that space.  I have had on the backburner a novel about Rasputin coming to a small Australian town to wreak havoc (kind of a Master and Margarita blended with Distant Star), but it has, I think, been too long since I worked on that piece, and perhaps now it is lost to me.

The short writing was good, and I was pleased with the result.  I wrote by hand, which is very much my preferred method, even though my penmanship is horrific at best and chthonic at worst.  But I liked what I wrote, and I think it could develop into a full-blown story which deserves proper attention.  I am having some trouble, however, in avoiding echoing ‘funkytown’, which is a horrible story I read about on reddit recently.  Don’t google it.  Just don’t.  But it’s colouring the direction I want to take the story, and I think for the ill.  Everything I do permeates everything I write.

Each week I aim to provide an update on the Journal of Failure.  These reports are intended to provide an impetus for me to achieve as much as I should/more than I do, and also to provide a further ongoing record of my life, as it is. 

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The Journal of Failure – Week 4 of 2018

Goals

Reading

  • Goal – 100p / day, or 700 / week
  • Achieved – 386/700 – Failure

Writing – I Remember

  • Goal – 21 / week
  • Achieved – 12/21 – Failure

Writing – Fantasy Project

  • Goal – 1,120 words / week
  • Achieved – 0/1,120 words – Failure

Writing – Small Projects (Fragments, short stories, etc)

  • Goal – 12 minutes, 15 seconds / week
  • Achieved – 0/12 minutes, 15 seconds – Failure

Writing – Large Projects

  • Goal – 24 minutes, 30 seconds / week
  • Achieved – 0/24 minutes, 30 seconds – Failure

Getting myself out there

  • Short story reviews – One (Two total for the year)
  • Submissions – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Rejections – Zero (One total for the year)
  • Acceptances – Zero (Zero total for the year)

Commentary

I suppose I am pleased that I restarted the Journal of Failure with a full spread of failures across the board.  I had intended to achieve so much, and had given myself exceedingly achievable writing goals, but alas I failed to meet these.

On the one hand, I have a small child, and while she is amazing and incredible, she does take up a lot of time.  On the other hand, that is a total excuse and I expect the time spent browsing my phone or playing idle games would certainly be enough to write and write well.

The goals are small, particularly the writing goals, but the intent is to make them small and achievable (ha!), and then slowly increase them.  For example, reading 100 pages / day is eminently achievable, and once that’s done, I want to go up to 101 pages, etc.  The idea is that after a number of weeks of failing and succeeding and increasing, then failing, and so on, I should have a reasonable understanding of what is reasonable for me.

I expect that I will have to resume night-time writing.  My head wants to write in the morning, and my heart wants to write at night, and overall I think the best thing for me to do is ignore both and just get on with it.  I spend much of my life arguing with myself over the merits of either, while doing neither.

Here’s to a better week next week!

Each week I aim to provide an update on the Journal of Failure.  These reports are intended to provide an impetus for me to achieve as much as I should/more than I do, and also to provide a further ongoing record of my life, as it is. 

Short Story Review – Tanja Mravak – Meat (trans. Antonija Primorac)

The first section of Tanja Mravak’s Meat (trans. Antonija Primorac), which takes up perhaps a third of the entire story, is something of a love song to the varieties of food available, methods of cooking and types of diet.  It’s a paragraph of lists, it’s food, food, food, unctuous and fresh and cooked and clean, and deliciously detailed.  Scattered within are short descriptions of Magda, she of the ‘massive tits’, who, according to women would be ‘pretty if she wasn’t fat’, and according to the men, a rather jolly good time as she laughs, laughs, laughs.

She’d cook stews, Bolognese sauces, carbonaras. She’d fry potato chips, make crepes; twice a week she’d roast veal. She was beautiful, our Magda was; green eyes, olive complexion, full, brownish lips, thick hair, and button nose.

She diets, but it seems it’s more to try different foods and odd combinations.  It’s less about losing weight or health issues and more about celebrating the different ways in which food can be enjoyed.  And – I can get behind this.  I love food and spend much of my weekend time exploring new recipes and trying out interesting techniques.  For me, then, this was a very appealing opening.

People loved Magda, even men liked her, you know, really liked her. They’d take a fancy to those green eyes, those juicy lips, the button nose, but most of all they liked her laughter. She’d laugh and her belly wobbled, she’d laugh even on a diet morning while squeezing a grapefruit at the crack of dawn.

I was reminded somewhat of Günter Grass’ The Flounder – less the historical journey and more the physical pleasure of food and how it can help an individual connect to their body and provide a sensual outlet.

Enter the second section.

In this, Mravak more explicitly marries food with sensuality by way of the relationship between Vatro, a butcher, and Magda:

“There you go, miss, it’s as tender as your soul,” Vatro offered, growing bolder, too.

“Let me feel it,” laughed Magda. “Dear me, my mouth is watering, just from thinking about nibbling on it, imagining how much I’ll enjoy it.”

Vatro’s mouth started watering, too, and his own flesh stiffened a bit.

By this stage Magda, who has always been overweight, has become sufficiently so that when Vatro has sex with her he is in fact thrusting against her thighs and, upon completion, Magda is left to take care of herself or lie awake unfulfilled.  She’s happy, though, because the food is good and Vatro is himself a good man.

But it can’t last, and after a while they separate.  Here, Mravak escalates the speed of the story, whizzing through a bacterial infection, staying with her mother, losing close to 30 kilograms, marrying (!) someone.  The constant is food, and it’s no accident, I think, that as Magda’s weight goes down, the amount of words devoted to her decreases.  She’s less important as she loses her obsession with food, and by comparison the food itself takes centre stage.  It’s a story about food, and as soon as Magda loses her jolly belly, the story loses interest in her.

Meat is a short story by Croatian writer Tanja Mravak and was translated by Antonija Primorac.  You can read the story at Asymptote.

Author Tanja Mravak
Title Meat
Translator Antonija Primorac
Nationality Croatian
Publisher Asymptote

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

Short Story Review – Saša Stanišiç – A Classical Education (trans. Saša Stanišiç and Janet Hendrickson)

I offer, without context, a snippet from this rather short story which encapsulates, I think, the comedy and zaniness of the piece:

“Are you violating our security guidelines, Sir?” the stewardess politely screamed at me.

The polite scream.  The use of ‘Sir’ and ‘violating’.  The matter-of-fact tone of the narrator.  It’s all here, the whole story is like this, playing off the wacky with the ordinary.  It’s great.

We have, then, the narrator on a flight.  He becomes entangled in a conversation with a five year old girl who is adamant about making him suffer.  She says that her name is Johann Sebastian Bach and gives him the finger, and then following a series of ridiculous events the whole plane becomes convinced he is a predatory pedophile who has also attempted to rob the girl’s mother.  Everything happens at a massively fast clip, and overwhelmingly the sentence structure and word choices are calm, clear, slightly formal, and juxtaposed brilliantly against the absurdity of the events.

The mother is convinced her blonde angel doesn’t even know what lying is, and worse, I held the empty pack of gum in my hand. Also, “make music with me” sounded damn unsettling. No one would have believed me if I said that the little girl was playing a perverse game with me, as innocent as she looked and as unshaven as I was.

Beyond that, there’s little to say.  It’s a funny story.  It’s also very short – a touch under 700 words – and would, I suppose, be considered flash fiction, though it was written back in 2007 before that particular art form exploded across the internet.  It’s an encouraging format (generally it means a piece of writing under 1,000 words, though I have seen limits of 400, 700, etc.  Short, anyway) as it encourages a writer to jump, to explore, to take risks and to experiment.  Sometimes, this means a writer will write bad poetry and purple up their prose beyond blushing, but often – as in this excellent story – it will result in a wonderful, tight, fun, funny piece.

Highly recommended.

A Classical Education is a short story by Bosnian writer Saša Stanišiç, and was translated by the author and Janet Hendrickson.  You can read the story at Words Without Borders.

Author Saša Stanišiç
Title A Classical Education
Translator Saša Stanišiç and Janet Hendrickson
Nationality Bosnian
Publisher Words Without Borders

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

Short Story Review – Cheri Lewis – Open Hands (trans. Pamela Carmell)

The babies started arriving that summer.

It starts innocently enough.  Weird, but innocent.  A baby appears.  It’s dirty.  Small.  Perhaps abandoned?  Likely so, though there isn’t any indication of that.  No note, no clue.  But I suppose that is what abandonment means.  The narrator’s sister, who remains nameless throughout – and colourless in terms of personality, which is interesting – attaches herself to the baby and spends the day with him.

But this baby is not the only one to arrive.  There are more, and more again:

A week later, four more babies showed up: three boys and a girl. Sitting at the breakfast table early one morning, we felt a cold breeze. We turned and saw four silhouettes standing in the doorway, sunlight at their backs. Four faceless shadows studying us from outside.

We have entered into the realm of the strange, the weird, the menacing.  The word choice of ‘faceless shadows’ and ‘silhouettes’ is not accidental.  These babies are the harbingers of some doom, or perhaps they are the doom itself.

The family is divided as to what is happening. The sister is quite positive, but the narrator has their reservations.  A plague of babies is not a real thing, and yet here it is, more and more of them.  And there are older babies now, toddlers, really, and they are searching, searching, searching for something, pulling open cupboards and drawers.  Looking.

Mama kept her thoughts to herself as she listened to our arguments. She looked worried. She had lit a cigarette and was standing by the window, smoking and staring outside. “More are on their way,” she told us with conviction, “and that can’t be good.”

The onslaught of babies continues.  Soon the house is full of them, and there are still more to come.  The narrator’s sister remains sympathetic, caring for them, but everyone else is worried.  The tone shifts, the language becomes darker, less pleasant.  Babies are no longer considered loveable.  They approach an evil force.

Curiously, the narrator doesn’t quite extend themselves this far.  The language used changes, but the narrator remains dispassionate, above the fray.  They do not want the babies in the house, but beyond that, their wonder at the actual occurrence of so many new guests is, well, striking.  There’s something to be said for being nonchalant in the face of a surreal situation, but at the same time it lends a certain smallness to the story.  If the narrator is unable to work themselves up too much, then I, as the reader, may as well remove any emotional attachment myself.  This isn’t necessarily very fair to the story, but at the same time, the entire piece hinges on the impending sense of doom generated by the increasingly menacing situation and tone.

And then the story ends.  It ends with the sting of a joke, admittedly not much of one, and also with the sister’s disappearance.  She was, it seems, what the babies were searching for, which is odd given that she bonded with the very first baby, which means that the toddlers really didn’t need to go hunting through cupboards.  And yet they did.

Open Hands strikes me as a story that is more interesting as an idea than the story itself.  It would have worked well, perhaps, as an aside or an anecdote told within a larger piece, but it doesn’t work very well as a story that actually exists.  Having read it, now, I’m convinced that telling someone that I’ve read a story about an inundation of babies is far more interesting and thought-provoking than if they were to then read the story themselves.  There isn’t enough here, unfortunately.

Open Hands is a short story by Panamanian writer Cheri Lewis, and was translated by Pamela Carmell.  You can read the story online at Words Without Borders.

Author Cheri Lewis
Title Open Hands
Translator Pamela Carmell
Nationality Panamanian
Publisher Words Without Borders

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

Short Story Review – Martha Bátiz – The First Cup of Coffee

Please note – this short story collection was kindly provided to me by Martha Bátiz.  

Both of us would have suffered less.

I write this as the #MeToo movement becomes unstoppable in the United States as it topples decrepit old men with too much money and too much privilege.  Today, right now, there’s a possibility that a rapist will end up on the US Supreme Court, which is horrifying to me even though I am not an American.  We can see you, America, see what you are doing.  See what you haven’t done.  See what you are letting happen.

I don’t know where the #metoo movement will go, but I hope that all of the horrible men who cheat, steal, hurt, beat, rape, molest and destroy girls and women will receive their comeuppance.  I hope more strongly that the next generation of boys will grow up thinking such that behaviour is inconceivable in themselves or others.

Enter Martha Bátiz’s short story, The First Cup of Coffee.  It is not the first story to deal with domestic abuse, and it won’t be the last, but for me it came at a time when I was particularly primed to read about the hidden horrors inflicted upon women across the world.  And they are always hidden.  These men aren’t stupid, they know what they are doing; they can control their emotions until they are in the safety of their own home, and they are more than willing to turn their home into a place that is unsafe for the women in their lives.

But first, the plot – Greta has married Tobías, who is wealthy, at the behest, or at least encouragement, of her father.  Greta was fair of face and body but has become fat and ugly with age and wealth and circumstance.  Tobías restricts her movement, her communication, her employment, her access to money, her life.  And he beats her for any provocation, or no provocation, without cause, with cause.  It doesn’t make it right if there’s a reason, does it?

Oh, she fights back in the ways that she can.  She taunts him, she yells.  It isn’t an excuse for his behaviour or, even, a reason, as very often he’ll hit her before and during and after.  It doesn’t really matter if she insults him or not, though it can be somewhat cathartic for her.

“Don’t you want to have kids?” I asked him one day.  Man, did I regret that.  He said if I thought he wasn’t man enough to make me a bunch of kids, he’d show me how wrong I was, and he hit me.  He pulled down his pants and…nothing.  He couldn’t do it, just like on our wedding night.  He hit me so hard he had to take me to the hospital because my head split open.  Look, I’ve got the scar right here.  And no hair grows around it.

The text is matter-of-fact.  It is.  This is what happens and this is how Greta reacted and this is how she tells the story of her life.  Why dress it up?  Tobías himself comes across as a weak man, prone to astonishingly indulgent bouts of self-pity and -loathing.  At times, after abusing Greta, he will take out a gun and shoot himself in the head.  Click.  There’s one bullet, see, and the rest are empty – fate will determine if he should die.  Fate has determined that he will not die just yet, and that Greta’s suffering will continue.

Greta’s story is framed around drinking a cup of coffee, the first that she has ever had.  This follows on from a long bus ride and, we are reasonably certain, Tobías’ death – or at the very least her escape from him.  A new phase of Greta’s life has begun, and through the drinking of the coffee she thinks back on her life and her time with Tobías.

During these past few months I wouldn’t even wait up for Tobías, because I got used to him arriving in the wee hours of the morning.  I stopped worrying about him and asking him to install a phone in the house or buy me a cell phone so he could let me know where he was.  As if the master of the house was going to listen!  Not a chance.

Rather curiously, the beginning of her relationship with Tobías is glossed over in a very few words.  Her father wants it and so it is.  Done.  Arguably, it doesn’t matter, because the terrible and endless present of her abuse became the primary focus of her life.  There was nothing different over the years, not ever, just fighting, yelling, hitting, pain, suffering.  The permutations change but it’s the same, the same, the same.

This is a difficult story to read because Greta accepts her life – at least, up until she doesn’t.  It’s difficult because we’d like to think that, say, if I were in an abusive relationship, I’d recognise it quickly and – be out!  Begone, abuser!  And so our natural empathy for the victim decreases and fades.  If we think that way then we make it their fault, at least a little, don’t we?  And maybe a lot.

Greta’s personality appears more strongly during the framing story around the cup of coffee, representing that she has, finally, broken free from her abuser and can perhaps start to discover the woman she is today.  The other time she truly sparks into being concerns the life and death of her pet.  Here, because it is another life being impacted, Greta surges and says no to Tobías.  And how often do we hear of that, a woman presenting her face to be hit in lieu of a child?  Both too often and not often enough.

This is a strong story.  The clearness of the language means that the story needs to rely on the strength and impact of its plot and characters and here, Bátiz is quite effective.  I knew, because the story was narrated by Greta – and spoken to a nebulous ‘you’, which cleverly inserts the reader into the narrative, making them somewhat complicit in the silence, or not, of Greta’s life story – that she was not going to die, but nonetheless there were times when I worried and wondered if she would make it.

She made it.  At least for now.  But I wonder if the ‘you’ of the story, the reader – do we become complicit if we say nothing?  If we remain silent?  If we fail to listen to these women when they talk and rage and demand justice?

The First Cup of Coffee is a short story written by Martha Bátiz.  This collection was published by Exile Editions and is available from their website.

Other stories from this collection include:

Author Martha Bátiz (Twitter)
Title The First Cup of Coffee
Nationality Mexican
Publisher Exile Editions

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

Short Story Review – Basma Abdel Aziz – Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat (trans. Elisabeth Jaquette)

He was the Autocrat: the sole person in charge of crafting the Public Poli-Strings that structured citizens’ lives, and the only man with full authority over them. 

I am reminded while reading Basma Abdel Aziz’s short story, Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat (trans. Elisabeth Jaquette), of the first hundred or so pages of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, which shows, among other things, the last day of dictator Rafael Trujillo and how he ruled himself, and his people, with an iron fist.

The Autocrat, who is the primary character of this story, and who represents, in their mannerisms and actions, the ideal absolute ruler, has imposed upon himself immense measures of self-discipline in order to rule his country in the best way he sees fit.  Through edicts he calls ‘Poli-strings’ he manipulates the ways and mannerisms of the state, from very large changes to, well –

He also deleted words that society no longer needed, like “elect,”

This a serious story communicating through the gentle humour of the horrifically absurd.  Slowly, over time, the Autocrat demands more from his citizens, banning sugar in tea and calling it ‘health tea’, exhorting people to behave, to listen, to read his works, to follow him without question.  And they do – the country is stable.

And then his mother dies.

He didn’t understand how [his mother] could have died without his permission or authorization. Thinking about it wore him down. His eyes became red, and the twitch—which spread from his right eye to the left over the next few days—kept him from sleeping. Then his hand began to twitch when he was holding his pen, and this terrified him the most; he hadn’t written anything for a week. Without the usual decrees, the citizens became terrified too. Some began scouring the newspapers hundreds of times a day, hoping to find a term or Poli-String to set their minds at ease or alleviate their growing anxiety, but it was no use. They felt naked all of a sudden. There had been no warnings, no chance for them to adapt. No Poli-Strings to show them what was right and wrong, nothing to tell them what to do. They fell into a strange void, and the Autocrat suffered doubly.

The Autocrat, it seems, has fallen under the dictatorial sway of constant poli-strings, new rules, and changing requirements as much as anyone else.  He has come to believe in his own infallibility because, for so long, there was never any proof otherwise.  He attempts to combat death by editing the grammar of it away, while at the same time succumbing to the belief that he actually can.  Who is the slave and who the master?

It’s touching, in a way, that the death of his mother it was causes the Autocrat to crack and become mad.  It humanises him, though of course his response is to embed himself further into the reality-bending nightmare he has created.

The story ends as it must, though it is no less satisfying for it.  The Autocrat becomes fully unhinged, and his intense grasp on the nation and its people is proven to be so strong that the country does not, in fact, need him at all in order to continue.  His poli-strings can be, and are, written by another, and instead of celebrating with joy that a dictator has fallen, the country continues to participate in its own self-erasure, and the rest of the world continues to turn, leaving the nation behind, falling, lost.

Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat is a short story by Egyptian writer Basma Abdel Aziz, and was translated by Elisabeth Jaquette.  You can read the story online at World Literature Today.

Author Basma Abdel Aziz
Title Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat
Translator Elisabeth Jaquette
Nationality Egyptian
Publisher World Literature Today

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.