Book Review: Paris in the Present Tense

Mark Helprin
Overlook Press / 2017
  • ISBN: 978-1468314762
400 Pages

It has been awhile since a novel has changed the way I think about the novel. But Paris in the Present Tense is a lyrical novel that has empowered my faith in the contemporary novel. Let's face it, it has been awhile since A Winter's Tale, when we first fell into the world of Helprin's prose and imagination, and while this book isn't as mystical, it is formidable in his prose and his storytelling.

This novel follows the life an aged cello player named Jules Lacour a cellist and teacher who is facing the end of his days and his life in Paris. And while there is intrigue, mystery, and all the plot points that have grown tired in contemporary fiction, this novel rises above all those expectations. Part of it is the nature of this older, wise protagonist and his vision of the world. But it also sits in the root of Helprin's prose and his ability to position you in the most complex moments of life and find more than just plot point, but more.

Jules is an older protagonist who is eccentric in some ways and contemporary in others. He is suspiciously healthy and can still run, swim, and row. His routines are simple, but his life complex and fraught with pitfalls. He lives as a renter on an estate, and he has a life that has shaped his romantic and often practical vision of the world. His life proves that things like love can still fill our lives through intimacy, music, longing, and fate. It is modern in terms of the world that Jules lives in, but it is also worldly in the connections to the past - through music, personal history, and dynamics of all those relationships accumulated over the years. There were times when the use of more flashbacks may have focused a few more things, but that isn't the point of this book. What we missed is left for the reader to contemplate.

In terms of the prose writing, it is exceptional. Helprin's writing is vivid and so well balanced. As I mentioned, this book is about a lot of plot points that (if I wrote them here) sound trite and typical of a thriller novel. But this novel doesn't run on the answers to plotted questions. This novel is threaded with an emotional quality that comes from Helprin's prose.

And sometimes, the phrasing of his writing just stops you. He writes "That kept me alive. For you, they would say it was trauma, but I wouldn't. I'd say it was simpler, that like everyone else you have a paradise you long to restore, but your paradise is also hell. Although getting back is dark and dangerous, you won't be deterred. Love draws you back. You can't escape." The push and pull of ideas and words is a constant tension. Helprin is constantly playing with opposites - or in this book lyrical dynamics. Paradise is compared with hell. Trauma isn't real unless there is something to lose. And it becomes this kind of vision of pushing and pulling words apart that makes this book feel less a plotted thriller and more like an epic love story.

During a war flashback, Helprin used his descriptive art to describe the sounds of troops moving. This is relevant because music, sounds, and shaping music is thematic to the novel. "The sounds of arrival and departure were always the same: straps slapping against metal, engines starting, tripods folding, the slides and bolts of weapons exercised after oiling, commands shouted, and upon leaving, the blast of a whistle followed by the revving of engines as the vehicles rolled off." One of the hardest parts of writing about music is that the novel lacks the ability to hear music directly. And writers then have to spend time describing the nature of the music without hearing it. While this novel deals with the essence of music, it doesn't stumble with long expositions about music, in fact - like his description, he turns troop movements, thunderstorms, and cafes into music that inspires the sounds of the music.

This novel is based on the later years of an older man - a many with years of experience and vision. When his daughter thinks he is getting senile because he can't remember the name of a film, he argues, "You learn to see with your emotions and feel with your reason. If at its end the life you're living takes on the attributes of art, it doesn't matter if you've forgotten where you put your reading glasses."

This novel is a very human, a very stunning testament to the complexities of living a full and meaningful life. Even with the best intentions, the world has different plans. This novel is about hope, love, and value in our personal history. It is a rare idea so elegantly placed in a contemporary novel.
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The Hollihock Writers Conference / August 25-27

The Hollihock Writers Conference will be held on August 25-27. It is a three-day immersive event meant to write, inspire, educate, and network with the writers, educators, publishers, and other writing community. This event is for all kinds of writers from new writers to published professionals looking to network. This year's keynote speakers will be Jabari Asim and Ken Liu.

This year I will be presenting on Experimental Novel on Sunday. This is a great opportunity that won't break the bank. All weekend tickets are only $69 -- which doesn't include lodging. Hotels and accommodations nearby make this a great space for new writers to meet and connect with a writing community. Check out their website and make plans.  




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The Staff Shortlisted for the 2017 Del Sol Press First Novel Prize

I am very excited to be a semifinalist for my novel The Staff in the 2017 Del Sol Press First Novel Prize. The winner will be announced in late August of 2017. 

Del Sol PRess seeks to publish exceptional work by both new and recognized writers, as well as republish literary work that we consider extremely significant and that have done out of print. Their approach is eclectic, but with an emphasis on original, unique, and accessible work with an edge. 



My sincere thanks to the nominating editor(s) and all the writers in the list. It is an honor to be among them all. Check out their website here

HERMOSA by Marisa Clark
MALHEUR AUGUST by Nancy Minor
MALL by Pattie Palmer-Baker
MARILYN & THE NEW YORK ITCH by Pat Ryan
OUT LIKE A LION by Robin Martin
THE BEREAVED by Emma Schrider
THE PSYCHOPATH COMPANION by Claire Ortalda
THE STAFF by Ron Samul
STORIES YOU NEVER TOLD ME: AN IMMIGRANT
DAUGHTER'S JOURNEY by Catherine Kapphahn
THESE THINGS HAPPEN by Jane Sadusky
WRAPPED IN THE STARS by Elena Mikalsen


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"Suppose We See It Like This...."

One of the most useful tools in writing is constantly writing to the muse. I've always been one to write a journal -- strictly on the concepts of the writing and what is moving around in my head. And while that sometimes distracts the writing process, it is important to map out some of the flow to capture it and make it useful later. Snapshots of the mind can help shape and form longer projects and ideas. 

From my writing journal, I've been able to ask questions (existential and practical)  about writing, thoughts, and visions of long-term projects (typically novels).  This ability to speak on the page is a meandering that I find indispensable. It is a conversation with the writing, and it is there that I've established my personal ethics and values in writing and thinking. My journal isn't a treaty on thought - but a vault of my own creation. I use it to remember books, write reviews, try out poetry, and even explore my own dreams. But it is always with the value that it connects to another part of my thinking. That is why my journal exists and that is how I prefer to use it. I can always write in my journal. There is no writer's block because it is merely snapshots not meant for anything more than building ideas. 

When I was reading I Heard Voices in my Head by Helen Vender in the New York Review Of Books (2/23/17), I was slapped in the face with a reminder of why process thinking is important to me. She explains, 

"In truth, what a meditative poem contributes to the history of consciousness is a reenactment in real time of the volatile inner life of a human being. Such a poem [refering to The Preludes by Wordsworth] does not present itself as plot or character portrayal or argument, but rather (in I. A. Richard's theory) as a hypothesis: "Suppose we see it like this." The poet's proposed hypothesis change "minute by minute," and include waverings, self-contradictions, repudiations, aspirations, and doubts; they are not offered as a philosophical system." 

This awoke something in me. As I mentioned above, I don't write in my journal to create a treaty of thought - it really isn't that formal, but to record the visions I see now, to compare them to the visions in the future. Keeping this record is both validating and useful as it grows outside of your mind, freeing this space for other connections. It helps that I can also keyword search it on the computer if I need to find something from the past.   

The complexity of self-rumination is a gift unto itself and that journal has been fascinating to me in that I can release these ideas. If I come back to specific ideas - then perhaps they need to find a place in a story or become part of a character. That being said, Wordsworth's relationship with Coleridge was also something that has always been connective. Coleridge was one of the masters of documenting his creative vitality in his journal, letting small fragments and parts eventually turn into his famous poetry. It is this awesome creative power that inspires me to see the worth in this idea that Wordsworth (in The Preludes). Seeing Wordsworth as someone who is considering the very nature of who he is through query and poetry, it is very connective to the ideas that Coleridge put fourth. In fact, one of the most influential quotes that changed my understanding of literature was the inscription at the beginning of The Rhime of the Ancient Mariner by a philosopher named Thomas Burnet. It reads: 


"I readily believe that there are more invisible than visible Natures in the universe. But who will explain for us the family of all those beings, and the ranks and the relations and distinguishing features and functions of each? What do they do? What places do they inhabit? The human mind has always sought the knowledge of these things, but never attained it. Meanwhile I do not deny that it is helpful sometimes to contemplate in the mind, as on a tablet, the image of a greater and better world, lest the intellect, habituated to the pretty things of daily life, narrow itself and sinly wholly into trivial thoughts. But at the same time we must be watchful for the truth and keep a sense of proportion, so that we may distinguish the certain from the uncertain, day from night." Adapted from Coleridge from Thomas Burnet, Archaelogiae Philosohicae (1692).*

This becomes the vision of the writer, thinker, and the creative mind. Your job is to see the unseeable. And then admit that to paper at all costs. While that may seem heroic - perhaps that is exactly what it should be, a call to define truth as something more than just what you know as fact - but something we desire, something we hope for, something that only fiction and prose can create. We don't need fact to create truth. We need a vision of "a greater and better world" even at the cost of losing some of our current world. It is sacrifice, it is purposeful, and it is the life of a creative thinker. Poets, prose writers and even visual artists should understand this important connection, even if it is unattainable -- it is still vastly and completely worth the writing down the ideas and words that will change you. It will shine light on the darkness. And we can ask that question, "suppose we see it like this" with thrilling and beautiful hope that someone will be willing to "see it like this," and will carry it forward.  


*Abrams, M. H. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York, NY: Norton, 1993

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Poetry Review / Body Politic by Rich Murphy

Body Politic 
by Rich Murphy 
Prolific Press Inc. / 2016 
ISBN: 978-1632750846


Language and politics have a symbiotic relationship in strange and creative ways. George Orwell knew this when he wrote about the language of politics and what that language does for our society. In Orwell's Politics and the English Language, he spoke about dead metaphors, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. The obfuscation of the real meaning and intention of politic actions are deliberately intertwined in language meant to confuse or misdirect. There was a time when I thought George W. Bush had an issue with language, and then came the Trump leadership with Tweets and strange jargon that means nothing from the leadership. Orwell mentions in his treatise that meaningless words are confusing and dangerous and "words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows the hearer to think it means something quite different." And he goes on to give the example of, "Marshal Petain was true patriot." Sounds like rhetoric I heard last month.
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Historical Vision Of Literature - Early Reviews

by Ron Samul 

Books have lives of their own. Sounds strange to think about it but books rise and fall depending on the very nature of their theme and the popularity of the author. I've been fascinated in reading book reviews of novels as they first arrive - first impressions. Part of my inquiry is to see if beloved books now were beloved when they arrived on the scene or if they have lived a sorted life among the shelves of the world. 

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Book Review / Kindred by Octavia Butler (Graphic Novel Edition)


by Ron Samul 
Creating a graphic novel experience is often a balance between images (graphic) and the novel (the story) and how they work together. Adapted to the graphic novel by John Jennings (illustrator) and Damien Duffy (editor), this complex piece of speculative history is constantly serving uncertainty and twists on every page. The story takes a writer from the 1970's who is inexplicably pulled back in time to save a child. The white child named Rufus is somehow connected to her. When she returns to the 1970's she realizes that she has only been gone a short time. As she continues to be pulled back to Rufus and his life, she realizes that she is being drawn back to a southern plantation where slaves are used to manage the house and tend the crops. Dana (and eventually her husband Kevin, a white man) must find their way in this oppressive and complicated past. 
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Tangible Text

Ron Samul 

A writer likes to tell stories, connect ideas, and bring about their vision of art. Writers like to use words to make something. And bound with that is the desire to have a tangibility to their texts. Books can have a physical sense to them, including their feel, the sound of the turning page, and the way they smell in different states of repose. Holding a text can be a preference. Some people just like to read physical books. But when an author holds a copy of their own book - does it suggest something more?

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Creative Visual Reference 2.0

Sitting through a workshop this winter, I was amazed that writers struggle to find information important to characters and other visual ideas. A student in the workshop mentioned that they were struggling to see their character specifically. I immediately thought of Robert Olen Butler and his book From Where You Dream. And in his book he mentioned that we shouldn't be stifled by the things we don't know - the small intangible things that we can't name. He suggests using a visual dictionary to help with some of these issues. These reference books help us name things that can help us be specific and clear in the writing. While I have one, I don't use it all that much. However, I had recently noticed a writer who was using Pinterest for references to her writing. And I was fascinated how this social media tool might reboot the idea that visual references can inspire us and make connections. 

Pinterest is a collection of images and other media organized through headings known as "boards" that help categorize how and why they are relevant to the collector. In terms of a writing tool, we have a wide range of purpose and focus. For example, writers might need to know "Civil War Uniforms" and collect pins to support the look and feel of both sides of the battle. The more specific a writer can be, the better suited they can make their finds on Pinterest. If you need shoreline cottages in Ireland, you can probably create a collection.  But there is more than just collecting things. Pins and boards can become relatable. 

When you see things (from different pins) that begin to relate to one another, you being to make connections. That can bring ideas together. From hairstyles, fabrics, wood joining, to dishes, Pinterest can help. And while we know excessive detail can be grueling, finding the right significant detail can carry a lot of weight in prose. This social media can help. 

If your purpose is to know the names of things, this won't be a good focus for you. But if you need to build visual relationships, to connect ideas, this might be the right space for you. What may be confusing is creating a visual for something you haven't actually touched or seen. For example, if you needed to know what an Egyptian bug swatter looked like, you will probably find it. Then you will have a sense of what these things looked like. It may also inspire you to look at why Egyptians had so many bugs around them to begin with. Hence, a new line of inquiry and perhaps focus could enter into your writing (dying of malaria is a significant plot point). 

Social media is typically a writer's worst distraction, but in this place, we should be considering different application, creations, and, connections to our craft. Sometimes, we find connection in the most unlikely things and places, and with a powerful search engine, this digital tool could change a phrase, a sentence, a page, or a story. It can also change the way we find inspirations and interconnections. 

What this social media platform creates is some foundational visuals that are important for writers, but not realized by the reader. This is a writers tool that is folded into the craft and transmitted through the story and words. You shouldn't notice specific pins or websites on the page, but the story is more informed, concrete, and subtle because of access to these ideas and visuals. 


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