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Infinite Jest: The Swiss Army Knife of Beach Reads by Andrew Bertaina

Infinite Jest: The Swiss Army Knife of Beach Reads by Andrew Bertaina

It’s summertime, which means, like everyone else, you’re headed to the beach. And what better way to spend your time off than in an overheated car, while the children invent new ways of torturing one another in close proximity to you. Ah, the sweet open […]

The Shipwreck Survivor by Rebecca Lartigue

The Shipwreck Survivor by Rebecca Lartigue

It was like being dizzy, even when I was standing still. At first I hated the rocking of the deck, the rolling in my stomach, my eyes’ inability to still the world. After a few days I came to love the sea air, salted and […]

A Conversation with Richard Burgin

A Conversation with Richard Burgin

Interview by Nathan Leslie

Richard Burgin is a giant in the world of literary fiction. The author of three novels and nine short story collections, Burgin is also the publisher and founder of the acclaimed literary magazine Boulevard. In addition, Burgin has produced several interview books—one with Isaac Bashevis Singer and one with Jorge Luis Borges. He has collaborated with other authors, musicians, and artists, with a resulting short film, All Ears, co-composed with his son Richard Daniel Burgin. Burgin has won numerous literary awards and prizes over the years. I have long admired his short fiction, in particular.

Nathan Leslie: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I continue to be so impressed by your productivity. Your latest collection of short fiction, Don’t Think, is a tour de force. Talk a bit about the genesis behind the title story, if you could. It’s breathtaking.

Richard Burgin: Usually my fiction is about 60% imagined and 40% drawn from my own life. In the title story, “Don’t Think,” I reverse those percentages. While the specific incidents in the story are made up, the characters of the father and son are very much autobiographical. Happily, it seems to be the favorite story for most of the book’s readers.

NL: I notice you are still quite actively exploring the possibilities inherent in point of view. How do you decide upon a point of view when you are crafting an initial draft of a short story?

RB: I see no reason why 99% of stories are written in the first or third person. Why should the novel own that particular literary technique? When I write from multiple points of view I feel like I’ve achieved an ambiguity and richness that I can’t convey any other way. Establishing a point of view is however, often the hardest thing for me to decide on.

NL: Why the short story? You have written novels as well, but I find myself particularly immersed in your short stories. What draws you to this form especially?

RB: I began as a novelist and did manage to publish three novels: Ghost Quartet, Rivers Last Longer, and The Memory Center (which is found in the book Hide Island). But after a number of my novels got rejected, I found that I needed more publications to beef up my resume as a college professor seeking tenure. I realized I could publish four or five stories in the amount of time it took me to write one of my novels. Probably because I started as a novelist, I have numerous characters and scenes in my stories, a number of fully developed themes, and different points of view. Though I achieved more success as a story writer, the form is not as natural for me as a novel.

NL: Talk a bit about your writing schedule these days.

RB: I write generally in the morning when I first get up and I’m at my strongest.

NL: Which contemporary writers inspire you?

RB: Since I’ve edited a literary magazine, Boulevard, for thirty-one years, you can’t really expect me to name two or three favorites, can you? I can say three of the authors I haven’t published but would like to are William Trevor, Alice Monroe, and John Fowles.

NL: How about music? What have you been listening to recently?

RB: Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bill Evans, and Elvis Costello. I’m also working on compilations of my piano and vocal music (two of the albums, The Trouble with Love and Cold Ocean are available on YouTube).

NL: Do you find yourself reading reviews of your work?

RB: Sometimes, if it’s a very good one, I’ll give myself that little treat, like someone giving himself a dessert after a perfectly satisfactory meal.

NL: Do you find that the 21st century author has to spend more and more of his/her time working on promotional issues? It is certainly the experience of many authors—is this your experience, also?

RB: Yes, it’s a shame. The smaller the press, the more a writer becomes an unpaid employee of the company.

NL: Any thoughts on the current reading fees controversy? So many literary magazines now charge $3 or so for authors to submit their work, justifying the expense in one way or another. What do you think?

RB: I can understand the resentment of things being done a new way, but honestly it seems more of a win-win to me. The writer gets his or her work to its destination more quickly, it gets read and responded to faster for basically the same price.

NL: You have been at the helm of Boulevard for many years now. Is it still rewarding? Talk a bit about where you see Boulevard going.

RB: There’s nothing quite like the excitement (admittedly rare) of discovering a new unpublished talent. It doesn’t quite make up for any of the significant horrors of the world, but it’s still something. In addition to running a magazine and poetry and fiction contests, we have plans for the Best Essays of Boulevard anthology. (We’ve already done a best-of anthology of stories.)

NL: What is next for you? What are you working on?

RB: I’m focusing most of my attention now on a big book of my collective stories as well as putting my own instrumental and vocal pieces into CD form. That should keep me occupied for a while.

Visit Richard Burgin online.

How People Fall Off The Earth by Sarah Lilius

How People Fall Off The Earth by Sarah Lilius

We could blame this on . . . . . . . . . . . . .the weak gravity Like porcelain plates . . . . . . . . . . . . .children first, float . . . . . . . […]

Head under Water by Neil Serven

Head under Water by Neil Serven

If they liked you, they’d remember you. And every once in a while a kid pops back in to say hello. A little fuller in the face, a little more run-down. Out of the Army or Marines with erect posture, rounder head, clearer gaze. The […]

The Idea of Order at My Address by Jim Gustafson

The Idea of Order at My Address by Jim Gustafson

Beyond late hours of light
no singing, no music.
I can hear the water drip
from the downspout.
It is not the same sound
as ocean surf. No masts
rock to sleep in a harbor.

There are trees, though.
Their boughs, some moments
pretend to sway the way
small boats do at anchor.

Nor is there a woman
at a shore, indifferent to the ear
of anyone who listens to her song.
Her voice touching places
seldom seen.

There is an egret, though,
who jabs the soil and wades
through fresh cut blades
of my lawn. The bird makes no sound.
Only a Red-Tailed Hawk interrupts
the air with an aria to the woods.
It is clear. It is their world.

Tell me, if you know, why
when the hawk sang,
I turned and went inside,
and left the trees to listen
to keener sounds.

The Sea and the Honeycomb by Peter Shippy

The Sea and the Honeycomb by Peter Shippy

(for Bly, after Machado) On Sundays we take the last piece of honeycomb out of the wall safe and walk to the beach. As we stroll we recall what’s no longer here—a shadow that belonged to a tree we loved, that cafe with the good […]

X and Y by Chris Milea

X and Y by Chris Milea

The primrose will live on this planet for X more years; the main contribution to its desolation will be climate change or Y. More children are born every day than people who die; yet X children die daily because of Y. Sometimes, I know the […]

All of It by Kristen MacKenzie

All of It by Kristen MacKenzie

“I know the perfect place for you,” she tells me, phoning from the bath at her mother’s apartment in the city.

I am at the long, red-honey wooden bar at the only diner on the island, treating myself to fish and chips and a beer, pretending confidence; I haven’t grown accustomed to eating alone yet. The sign out front says “The Hardwood Store,” but you have to cross the street and go down the block to buy screwdrivers and light bulbs at a place called Island Lumber. That’s where we met.

I’d come in for chicken feed (always organic) and she, working the farm and garden counter, sold me an antibiotic to prevent worms in my flock. She had small hands that painted pictures in the air when she talked, hovering now and then over my arm without quite touching. I made my way to the register up front holding the medication, feeling like some other person had taken my place while we talked, the kind of person who might do any number of unpredictable things.

In line beside the bags of chips and jerky, my husband held up the bottle with its rows of fine print following the all caps WARNING.

“That’s an interesting choice,” he said, this man who had known me for thirteen years. The world around me snapped back into place and I was myself again. I tucked the bottle behind the beef jerky and bought my organic feed.

I hear the water rush away from her in the tub and I know she’s sitting up now, plotting my future.

“It’s not even on the market,” she says, “but I know the owner and I bet I can get you in for $500 a month.”

It’s after nine and the noise behind me of children who’ve just lost interest in their broken crayons and the photocopied pictures drowns her out for a moment.

“…beach…” is all I catch.

“A house on the beach for $500?” I imagine the crowd around me suddenly losing interest in their own conversations. My voice feels too loud, bouncing off the terracotta tiles underfoot.

The atmosphere in the diner begins to change quickly then, the noisy kids hustled out by their parents and the heavy door thumping shut behind them all. It’s quiet enough that I hear the water moving around her and against the tub as she changes positions.

“I could maybe talk her down to four if you do yard work.”

I crumble the greasy crust of fried fish, breathing in so deeply there’s no more room for anything.

She laughs at my silence and the sound of it is water-warm.

*

The armoire is red, Chinese antique; the couches are green leather and hard enough to bruise your backside when you sit down quick. One wall is all windows, forty rectangles lying sideways, each one holding a piece of water and sky. I can take in the whole house in the space of one quick breath, turn around, bare feet on cedar floors, and let the breath back out before I reach the rectangles again and count how many ways I’m lucky.

I still have a picture of her there, sitting on the end of the couch with her back to the view while she laughs at me and refuses to look at the camera. She’s wearing the shorts her last girlfriend didn’t like, and the white sneakers without laces I borrowed once that gave me blisters when I took her dog for a run. Her arm is extended across the top of the couch, and she looks bigger than she really is, in her tank top and summer haircut.

I can see the owner, Chinese and elegant with long hair and linen jacket, pacing with a phone call across the sharp blue rocks of the driveway, giving me time to decide, but I don’t need time.

The woman on the couch isn’t laughing anymore. She looks at me, smiling.

Please be mine.

*

It’s June when I move in; five hundred a month and no yard work, with a pair of kayaks included in the rent. We have one full month, a solstice, and a moon like the globe of a dandelion gone to seed, framed in the skylight. A month of firsts and morning-afters with late breakfasts eaten in the too-bright shine of sun on the water while we look at nothing but each other.

By late July the island is a jelly jar, and to breathe deeply is to paddle through the scent of blackberries and sunshine, every fruit full and hanging, trembling in the wind coming up off the water when the waves turn the color of parking lot oil-spill rainbows. But around certain corners, where the light has been too bright and the days too long, there’s a whiff of vinegar, and berries lay in flattened heaps beneath the vines.

Something has changed between us. She calls less often and when she does, silence begins to work its way into the conversation.

“When are you going to go kayaking with me?” I ask, unable to wait any longer for her next words.

“Soon,” she says, but it’s an apology, not a promise.

After she hangs up, I sit in my chair and watch the dark come across the water and the streetlights flash on the opposite shore: stop; go. Stop. I fall asleep with the window behind my bed open wide to the hill where the brambles sprawl, and I imagine I can hear them growing, stretching long arms to push against the screen and straight through. The pillow next to me still holds the shape of her head.

*

She’s gone before the leaves begin to change on the maple tree that hides my view of the mountain. I take the kayak out for the first time, alone, to get away from the memory of her on the couch, at the table in my bathrobe, asleep in my bed with only the top of her head showing from beneath the sheets.

When I stop paddling, the tide turns me around so that I face the shore and I see my little house, all of it, in a punch of rushing air, a joy that hurts. The sound of my laughter reaches across the water.

ditch weeds by James Butcher

ditch weeds by James Butcher

these are solid gold spectacles with the finest crystal lenses put them on (i said) the street is a blurry collage  * if you want to call it a collage it has to have a pink man a kodachrome woman a traveling carnival flyer and […]


My Diary

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-385-35349-6
Perfect bound, 309 pp., $26.95
Review by Matthew Miranda

The latest novel from satirist Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest, is ostensibly the story of a love triangle set in Auschwitz. But it’s more than that, and it’s Amis’ remarkable gift to take a subject and setting of such enormity and distill the characters and connections he creates. The end result is an absolutely stunning harvest of the human from the horrendous. This is literature that moves you where you need to be moved.

Over six chapters, The Zone of Interest alternates between three points of view: Obersturmführer Angelus “Golo” Thomsen, a womanizing mid-level Nazi whose status is due exclusively to his relation to an elite-ranking uncle; Paul Doll, a Nazi who oversees the arrival and ultimate fates of Auschwitz’s doomed arrivals while his wife and children grow apart from him; and Sonderkommandoführer Szmul, a Polish Jew whose life has been temporarily spared in exchange for his complicity in deceiving arriving Jews as to their fate and for pillaging and disposing of the bodies afterward.

Thomsen’s philandering is legendary and relentless, until he finally finds a woman he has feelings for—Hannah, Doll’s wife. At first, the attraction seems nothing more than carnal and fleeting; as Borges wrote, “There are those who seek the love of a woman to forget her.” But Thomsen possesses a complexity that reveals itself over the course of the story: a linear lothario early on, it’s soon clear there is hidden depth and breadth to his character. In some ways, he parallels Szmul: both men go along with the monstrous machinery of the camp because it is the only way they see to survive it. Thomsen remarks, “We went along. We went along with, doing all we could to drag our feet…but we went along. There were hundreds of thousands like us, maybe millions like us.” Like many of those millions, Thomsen ends up somewhere very far away from where and who he is.

Doll, despite his implicit involvement in the killings and being literally unable to avoid his surreality—the stench and logistical realities of the camp are his to contend with—shows none of the other main characters’ ambivalence, brushing aside uncertainty with a conviction that, over time, attenuates to desperation and drunkenness: “For I am a normal man with normal needs. I am completely normal. This is what nobody seems to understand. Paul Doll is completely normal.” As much as Thomsen evolves, Doll devolves, eventually losing his grip on inner and outer reality; his discovery of Hannah’s elusiveness and betrayals mirrors the slow realization that the German war effort and the future of the Reich are not at all in sync with what the propaganda posits. There are moments he catches a glimpse of truth, like when he permits one connection between the Nazis and the Jews: “Here…in the cremas, they’re dead. But then so are we, we who obey…” But as soon as such truths claw into his mind’s light, Doll buries them. Amis admits the difficulty in making sense of the why behind the Holocaust; many of us struggle so. Perhaps Doll’s mystery is the only truth he knows.

Szmul is Amis’ most ambitious character and his most remarkable. He is the highest-ranking and longest-tenured sonderkommando, one of the Jews tasked with keeping the Nazi ruse going by lying to Auschwitz’s new arrivals about what awaits them. But survival comes at a steep price: Szmul must witness the darkest synchronicities:

Fairly frequently, in the course of their work, they encounter someone they know. The Sonders see these neighbours, friends, relatives, as they come in, or as they go out, or both. Szmul’s second-in-command once found himself in the shower room calming the fears of his identical twin. Not long ago there was a certain Tadeusz, another good worker, who looked to the end of his belt in the Leichenkeller…and there was his wife; he fainted; but they gave him some schnapps and a length of salami, and 10 minutes later he was back on the job, snipping merrily away.

Surviving so long also makes him conspicuous to Doll, who, after realizing Hanna and Thomsen have feelings for one another, ensnares his prisoner in a cruel extortion. Szmul’s voice is the simplest and strongest in the novel; whereas Doll’s grip on the internal and external worlds deteriorates, Szmul sees each with devastating clarity. Remarking on the state of the Nazis once they realized the war was lost, he observed, “The Sonders have suffered Seelenmord—death of the soul. But the Germans have suffered it too; I know this; it could not possibly be otherwise.” Commenting on his own life, he said, “I’ll be thirty-five in September. That declarative sentence attempts very little, I know—but it contains two errors of fact. In September I’ll still be thirty-four. And I’ll be dead.”

Amis’ prose is masterful, and beyond telling the story, reveals the absurdities of control and chaos. There is a 108-word sentence distinguishing the fifteen different types of Nazi police, and there is melodious alliteration, as seen in Doll’s disdain for the sonderkommandos: “They’ll sit spooning up their soup on a stack of Stuke; they’ll wade knee deep through the mephitic meadow whilst munching on a hunk of ham.”

It is conspicuous that in a book as detailed as this (the eight-page afterword lists dozens of reference materials), the name “Hitler” never appears—he is instead alluded to as “the Deliverer,” “the Corporal,” and “the Chief”—and then, as German defeat nears, as more pejorative euphemisms. Is this another of the novel’s parallels? If the man first seen as a hero to some and a menace to others could become a fool and a monster over twelve years, how could the people and the continent he shaped be any less fluid?

That’s how alive The Zone of Interest is. It wakes you when you didn’t know you were asleep. The author weaves the characters’ lives together and spins those threads into the big-picture world like motifs in a symphony, each taking turns in the spotlight and as accompanist, culminating with Szmul’s breathtaking final words:

Although I live in the present…with pathological fixity, I remember everything that has happened to me…To remember an hour would take an hour. To remember a month would take a month. I cannot forget because I cannot forget. And now at the last all these memories will have to be dispersed. There is only one possible outcome, and it is the outcome I want. With this I prove that my life is mine, and mine alone…And, by reason of that, not all of me will die.