Birk’s ZERO GOD Weirdly Prophetic About Donald Trump

We at Calumet Editions published Tommy Birk’s political thriller ZERO GOD in 2016, but had no idea just how prophetic it would become with the advent of President Trump.

We can’t be sure yet if we have a president who is in fact a directly involved fifth columnist, but that accusation is certainly flying around after Donald Trump’s private Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin, recently.

In Birk’s political thriller, the main antagonist, at the time of writing a completely invented character, is controlled by an fascistic oriented, ultra-right religious group, based in Washington DC. No foreign collusion exactly, but plenty from within our own borders.

The novel is somewhat based on the findings of Jeff Sharlot in his nonfiction expose THE FAMILY. Which is an excellent companion read to ZERO GOD.

Please read ZERO GOD and comment.


One Day Submissions at Twin Cities Book Festival

‪Calumet Editions will accept submissions from authors at the Twin Cities Book Festival, at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Ambitious writers should introduce themselves, examine our books and meet a few of our authors. We are seriously swamped, so this is a one-day-only opportunity.

We will also have information about our new a la carte services for writers–AuthorScope. We are featuring a marketing package which takes advantage of a special network of nearly 1,150,000 Twitter followers, comprised mostly of book readers.

This is a great event for authors and readers and we hope you will become as impressed as we have with how RAINTAXI runs this unique get-together for Midwest writers. We will be there from 9-5 with two tables, and with authors Adrian Lee, Greg Gardner, Michael P. Amram, and of course Gary Lindberg and myself.
Please see http://www.calumeteditions for guidelines and info about CE.

On Rereading Ulysses on my iPhone

I have been accused of literary sacrilege for reading Ulysses on my iPhone. For a writer who has escaped the chronic error of believing that anything is sacred, I can honestly say that, although I’m surely not the first to have accomplished this, the experience has been nothing but rewarding.

I can’t claim to be a Joyce scholar anymore, although back in college I read all of Joyce and have since reread much of his work, not always with pleasure, though usually so.

Here’s how my favourite literary critic, the great Northrop Frye, describes my favourite novel: “If a reader were asked to set down a list of things that most impressed him about Ulysses, it might reasonably be somewhat as follows. First, the clarity with which the sights and sounds and smells of Dublin come to life, the rotundity of the character-drawing, and the naturalness of the dialogue. Second, the elaborate way that the story and characters are parodied by being set against archetypal heroic patterns, notably the one provided by the Odyssey. Third, the revelation of character and incident through the searching use of the stream of consciousness technique. Fourth, the constant tendency to be encyclopedic and exhaustive both in technique and in subject matter, and to see both in highly intellectual terms. It should not be too hard for us by now to see that these four points describe elements in the book which relate to the novel, romance, confession, and anatomy respectively. Ulysses then, is a complete prose epic with all four forms employed in it, all of practically equal importance, and all essential to one another, so that the book is a unity and not an aggregate.” From Anatomy of Criticism.

Ulysses is considered a ‘hard’ book, and is probably no longer ‘readable’ by the general public without significant training, and without some familiarity with the culture and history of the British Empire prior to the nineteen-twenties, when the book was written. So, although I’m going to write about Ulysses I’m not necessarily recommending it to everyone; I am however recommending that serious readers feel free to read literature, especially the classics, on their electronic devices.

I will relate a little about my rereading of Ulysses on an iPhone, and also about rereading in general, which I believe is essential–for serious readers, and especially for writers-in-training–when attempting to understand the classics.

Getting lost in the fictional life of the Blooms, who don’t own such a tool as a telephone, and have no inkling of the horrors that the century will bring, was always present in my consciousness as I read Ulysses electronically. I can’t say that this was the case during the times when I walked around campus with a thick, heavy tome of one iteration of Joyce’s masterpiece or another, struggling to wade through his dense, brilliantly conceived playfulness. One has to be able to ‘hear’ the characters in that strange place in the mind where the act of reading opens all the senses to intellectual empathy, otherwise reading Joyce becomes almost impossible.

When studying this book in college, despite having the right ‘ear’ for the language–having been born and raised in the British Isles–I still struggled with the text’s density and attempts at humour; sometimes I felt only the gods would understand this author. The long sections and intricately involved lampooning of English literary styles, usually forced me to read surrounded by various kinds of reference books. The difficulty was not helped by the awkwardness of trying to read the text closest to the binding, trying not to crack the copy’s spine as I bent it outwards. But I completed the assignment, and, following the advice of my professor, read the book again immediately. Naturally, the real pleasure gained from the text arrived on the second reading, free of all the support texts, but with lots of minuscule, penciled-in marginalia to remind me of what I’d learned.

In college ‘close reading’ had been necessary to write papers which would impress my mentors. It wasn’t easy and my eyesight suffered. This time, reading on the iPhone, each sentence and paragraph was much more in my control and I was forced by the technology to read everything closely. It was like reading with a microscope and I saw things that my brain had not accepted properly in prior readings. Small, buried details emerged, especially near the end when one’s reading of a paper copy tends to speed up in order to try and finish. I noticed with interest that Leopoldo Bloom had been baptized three times; I noticed, and rather disliked, the way Stephen Daedalus fades from the text after drinking cocoa in the abode of his spiritual father; I noticed the touch-in, easily missed within a speculative list of Molly Bloom’s lovers, that Simon Daedalus, Stephen’s father, may have had sex with her. Yes, admittedly, I can say that these details were not completely unfamiliar, but they had certainly not worked their way into my grasp of the book, which was my failing in that early reading because they are significant details, strategically placed as conclusive material to round out the book’s unity.

Scholars have squabbled about the seemingly small details of Ulysses for decades, and great academics, which only English majors have heard of, like Hugh Kenner and Chester G. Anderson, made their careers vacuuming up Joycian minutiae and wowing graduate students at academic conferences. Close reading then, is everything; complete understanding is to be strived for despite the impossibility of its accomplishment. Reviewers of all kinds should consider this advice, since the ability to read carefully, deeply and without personal bias is being lost in our time–a situation which MUST be ameliorated.
I had two main reasons to make this little personal study: I had recently released a novel, an ‘epic’ to be precise, in the romantic and–as Northrup Frye would call it–‘anatomical’ form, and was fascinated to see how my own process held up against that of Joyce (the book had been in process nearly as long). And, of course, I’m a publisher, and am eager to discover how future readers will consume what I have called here ‘serious’ fiction.

I was pleased and somewhat amazed to see that Ulysses had influenced my writing of House of Large Sizes enough that at least the attempt on my part to construct a unified ‘anatomy’ instead of a modernist ‘aggregate’ was at least structurally sound. Loosely basing the narrative on the Gilgamesh myth, I tried to write the book I wanted to read–an accessible and contemporary epic about decadence and sexual addiction in western culture. Others will judge whether or not I succeeded. I refer interested readers to Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton Univerity Press, 1957, for a full explanation of these terms.

Perhaps it’s a slightly outlandish concept at present, given the present political zeitgeist, but imagine how novels will be read on star ships headed to other solar systems; imagine how the first Martian settlers will consume the classics of their time. I suspect it will not be by holding big paper tomes, although, just like we love to read hand-written and illuminated manuscripts in our time, paper novels will become cherished artifacts in the future.

Despite some upsurge lately in the sales of ‘real’ books (a rather pompous misnomer), the eBook is here to stay and will be the main source of reading material going forward. Reading Ulysses will be much easier: touch the text anywhere and a fully animated annotation will pop up, possibly even speaking to you in the sexy voice of your choosing. Some brilliant scholar will have the job of developing this support material for the text, and his or her close reading will be the fundamental reason for the book’s viability in the Martian market place. Finally, there may be a place for English majors in the non-academic world!

Don’t worry, there’ll still be plenty of paper books here on earth–god knows I own several thousand of them–but the close reading necessary for deep understanding of our favourite texts is very much enhanced when you use your e-reader; so give it a chance, and get used to it–it’s an advancement that can only benefit the serious reader.


Available on Amazon

The Lord of Misrule meets the Eternal Boy

Sorry, I can’t help how life imitates art. I can’t help how the 2017 US president elect, to my mind at least, resembles some of the more odious elements portrayed in literature. I frequently use these elements in my writing and am loathed to harm their reputations by risking too long an association with a real life puer aeternus, a real life alazon, a real life Lord of Misrule.

Readers have asked me how intentional were the literary archetypes discoverable by the perceptive reader in my novel HOUSE OF LARGE SIZES. I answer that there may be some driven by my subconscious–god knows, I believe that is a massive part of the creative process–but for the most part I think the archetypes I tried to employ were deliberate.

I was pleased to see a review wherein the archetype of the puer aeternus (eternal boy) was noticed and briefly discussed. It’s pleasing to have the authorial usage of my academic heroes, Northrup Frye, Henry James and E.M. Forster discovered by close readers. Frye’s seminal work on structuralism, An Anatomy of Criticism, has been a teaching and writing guide during my entire career in the literary business, as has Forster’s Aspects of the Novel; so, as I developed House of Large Sizes it was natural for me to rely on what I had learned. I wanted to loosely base the book on the first known epic, Gilgamesh, whose main character of course is a classic puer; hence, the character Gilbert Pym.

A stickier issue is, which character in the my novel is ‘The Lord of Misrule’? And of course which characters are alazons and which are eirons? As the characters emerged they tended to choose their own roles, but some had to be nudged into shape like recalcitrant teenagers. I wanted a Lord of Misrule but didn’t want it to be too obvious. Overplaying these archetypes leads to lame characters and cliches, so it’s important to understand them well, whilst at the same time breathing their values obliquely into a novel’s homo ficti (fictional people). 

Writers may find some brief definitions helpful, both for developing the character constellation of their novels, and for identifying real-life power-mongers, who, like fictional characters, need to be laughed off the stage before they cause too much damage.

Alazon: A deceiving or self-deceived character in fiction, normally an object of ridicule in comedy or satire, but often the hero of a tragedy. In comedy he most frequently takes the form of a miles glorious or a pedant.

Eiron: A self-deprecating or unobtrusively treated character in fiction, usually an agent of the happy ending in comedy and of the catastrophe in tragedy. He is cleverer than he seems and acts as the skewerer of the alazon; he’s designed to take air out of windbags.

Puer Aeternus: An eternal boy, a grown male prone to unwise or childish pursuits. An adult lost in childhood. In fiction a Peter Pan character. In real life, politicians, executives and churchmen who, despite being promoted to positions of power, are guided by the boy in their psyches rather than the man.

Lord of Misrule: A fake official appointed to oversee Christmas festivities during the 15th and 16th centuries. Lords of Misrule were furnished with absurd hobbyhorses, dragons, and musicians to further the fun. Polydor Virgil says the feast of misrule was derived from the saturnalia, the disorderly Roman festival held in December. In real life Lords of Misrule sometimes win elections if the populace that votes for them is gullible enough. Letting them keep power always spells disaster.

I would welcome responses as to how these archetypes are used in House of Large Sizes. Write here, on Amazon, or on Goodreads.

Review of House of Large Sizes 

You  won’t read a novel that’s stranger, more fascinating, funnier or sexier than “House of Large Sizes,” which has to be on your reading list.
It begins in the Twin Cities with Gilbert Pym in bad shape. His wife has left him because he’s been having an affair with Estelle, wife of his brother George. His investments have taken a dive and he’s getting strange postcards from George, who’s in New Orleans preparing for an illegal sex reassignment operation after he was turned down by Minnesota hospitals. Gilbert, referred to as Pym, likes sex and there’s a lot of it in this book. As his former wife, Laura, puts it, “You’e a strange mixture — a pig with too much testosterone … and too many feelings.”

Early on, we also meet Terry, a vibrant, larger-than-life Irishman, and his wife, Vera, who have a secret connection to Pym. When Pym goes to New Orleans to track down George, he meets Terry and Vera, along with transgender people and cross-dressers who knew George but don’t know where he is. Pym finds himself caught in an underworld that includes a witch bent on revenge and a Mafia-type guy who’s connected to the shop where men go to buy women’s clothing.

This is a book to lose yourself in. It’s inventive, and the characters are unusual and likable (except for the witch who may or may not be able to transport herself through space). Terry, especially, is someone you’d like to meet, even though he has a prodigious ability to drink others under the table. And then there’s New Orleans, which somehow seems always mysterious, especially when voodoo is involved.

Leask was born and raised in the London area and graduated from the University of Minnesota. He has been a teacher, literary consultant and publisher, and co-hosts KFAI’s literary show “Write On! Radio.

-Mary Ann Grossman, Saint Paul Pioneer Press

Pioneer Press review of HOUSE OF LARGE SIZES

I’m very pleased to announce an excellent Saint Paul Pioneer Press review of my novel HOUSE OF LARGE SIZES. Mary Ann Grossman selected it a must for your reading list. She’s done a great job of pulling together and reviewing a number of books that would make great holiday reading.

I am so grateful. Here’s where to buy the book:

I want you all to  review books that you read. I want everyone to review books whether they like them or not. It’s like pulling teeth to get readers active; but in the new publishing-reading-authorship economy, reader participation is everything. 

I’m always the teacher, and have long known that if one reads a book with an expectation of reviewing it, the reading is more thorough and enjoyable and the resulting review has more depth and relevance; this can also lead to the reader getting back to his or her own writing. FB and social media is great but we all need to spend more time sharpening our intellects.

Books by Minnesota authors to savor on the long holiday weekend

Freedom from Lies

Certain people aren’t going to like this, and others will think knowingly It’ll never happen…He’s a dreamer. Well, right now we need a little dreaming, and we need it all over the world. 

We need to make corporate and governmental lying taboo, an anathema, something people are prosecuted for–jailed. In the USA ‘purgery’ is a felony. Why do we tolerate lies from our elites? Why should anyone, anywhere in the world, tolerate lies from their leaders? I’m not talking inauthentic opinions or ‘fudging’ the truth–that will never be stopped–I’m talking about deliberate, outright, bold-faced lies.

For most of human history leaders have got away with lying to the people, but after the 2016 Clinton-Trump election debacle, isn’t it obvious that if we fail do something about political lying, the center will cease to hold and our democratic way of life will become anarchic. The same can be said for corporate lying and the whole ‘truth-in-advertising’ issue. With the growth of social  media and multiple news sources, the old balance has shifted and now seven billion people are on the verge of chaos.

Humans always lie. I’m not talking about being brutally honest when the love of your life asks if that dress makes her look fat. Don’t say yes. You’ll have a bad week. But that is what I think of as domestic lying. It’s kind of normal. It’s not harmful or manipulative. It’s the opposite of corporate or political lying. 

Individuals and websites have taken stands in this direction, but these are perceived as oppositional to ‘the system’. We need our democratic representatives to introduce honesty legislation WITHIN the system. That way it would remain legitimate within the constitutions of the various governing bodies that would attempt this revolution. 

Let’s start a debate here about what has already been done and what there is still to do.

Reading “Nutshell” by Ian McEwan

I recently watched the film Genius and loved it for its depiction of the last great editor. Near the end Maxwell Perkins asks if editors improve books or just make them different. As an author and editor, and somewhat sharpened by this film, I bought the novella Nutshell and read it through my two specific lenses, partly with a view to answering that sticky Perkinsian question for myelf.

For many reasons I’m probably McEwan’s perfect critic; I’m uniquely aligned to write about this book since I appear to be uncannily like one of the characters–the poet-teacher-publisher-radio host, who is the under-threat father of the talking fetus narrating the story; and, we-two Ians both–have no inhibitions about delving into the verisimilitude of myriad bodily functions, the realistic and hopefully humorous descriptions of which make prudish readers cringe; Nutshell is designed as an intellectual page-turner, as is my just released novel House of Large Sizes. You may be thinking how dare this bozo mention the two novels in the same sentence. Well, I do, and here’s why:

McEwan is by no means the first to write from a pre-natal point of view. I don’t suppose anyone can begin any earlier in the birth process as John Bath did with his short story “Night Sea Journey,” but also, Gunter Grass, in The Tin Drum, has a go with his midget narrator remembering life in the womb. And to cap this I had some time ago started work on a narrative, a chapter of a larger work to be precise, which narrates from my mother’s womb. Needless to say when Nutshell came out I was quite miffed, but it’s my own fault for procrastinating. I’ll write it anyway, and endure the ridicule. 

I should also say that McEwan is probably my favourite author writing in English. The reason for my choice to write with great detail about sex is because he went before me with his brilliant early work. He has written perfect novels. But I don’t like it when my heroes write rubbish, even if the rubbish is elegant, erudite and as scaldingly entertaining as it is in Nutshell. And I don’t like it when critics let down their guard and piss themselves praising a novel without mentioning its glaring faults. 

Look, I liked the book and it entertained me. I kept turning the pages to find out what would happen to the character who bore a bizarre resemblance to myself. But when committing to read a novel I expect, along with the willing suspension of disbelief, some consistency, some internal logic. The intelligent talking fetus keeps narrating that he’s picked up everything from listening to the radio through the womb wall, since his mother’s an avid listener. Which she actually isn’t. Hilariously, the little bugger uses French and German phrases that few British readers, let alone American ones, would know. I know it’s supposed to be funny, yes, but the editor in me wanted to eradicate such nonsense and let the impossibility of the donee stand alone. McEwan’s trying create verisimilitude within the context of a fabulation. What the hell for? All it did was piss me off.  

As I read I longed for another of my favourites, now beastly dead, who is equally as capable of falling through the expositional floor—Saramaga–to be writing this. He would not bother to try and set up some half-cocked justification of a genius baby in the womb to be so articulate; he would simply do it and let the reader suspend disbelief and enjoy the obviousness of a ridiculous tongue-in-cheek premise. The premise comes across as silly, and doesn’t have to; he tries to justify like an amateur. The fetus has learned everything he knows from listening to the radio through the womb wall, and the mother’s erudite taste in listening has afforded him access to French, German and Latin phraseology, as well as given him a familiarity with phenomenological and structuralist referencing. Much as I loved that he mentions (page 73 of the American edition) one of my heroes, Rolande Barthes, I’m afraid that blew me out of the fictional dream, despite its humorous intent. 

The editor and the author combine in me to imagine a solution to this brilliant failure: Let the voice simply declare that it sees through its mother’s eyes. Why not? And her intelligence, gradually separating from the babe’s as it finds its own, what fun it would be to snap that intelligence into oblivion during the separation at birth. There’s an insane theory here somewhere. But, here I go, being an editor ‘improving’ the text; have I made it better or simply changed it? 

Imagine my version, based on the slightly less absurd notion that the great incunabula of life impression begins in the dark ages of the womb.

This is copyrighted, so no plagiarizing!

I will not attempt this in fiction, but in what in we call “creative non-fiction,” which in this case might be called fictoir.

FIRST DRAFT: He knew he was a he because he had been victorious in the invasion of the great She, which had been hard-wired into his every wriggle; he was the survivor, the one oiled in the wolf-bane of testosterone! And as he grew he understood with her that her eyes were his eyes; his mind, at least at first, her mind, but the masculine part of it, and oh how well that was hidden. If there are demons it is these little men now, us, him; how we long to beat our tiny fist on the soft door, and invade her world, and straighten out all that she hates. He knows she will call him Ian, a name she loves, and he knows he will be her prince because she wants a blue-eyed boy like the father and the old father and the one before that. She tells no one that she’s a Nazi sympathizer. She tells no one anything of the rage inside her against the stiff-necked bastards who directed her into this mess. Ian will help her; the little prince will sweep all before him. Just watch.

 And the intercourse! That stubby cyclops thrusting through the soft wall at the back of Ian’s neck. That swine she loves, this Henry Leask–I’ll get revenge on you, Mr Father! You will pay!

And when little Ian leaves Mother he preserves her insecurities in him, as well as her genetics, to roll around with the robust ones of the father: that weird balance of nature–grow from her but look like him—so, like that ogre Kronus, he won’t eat you. Like her, you struggle with rejection; therefore, you become a writer. And, as further punishment for being her son, you become an editor as well. Oy vey!

Once Ian had accumulated by a certain age enough gumption to examine his existence, he hitherto maintained an impression that he had known a lot about the world coming into it. (Natural enough to think that of course, but I’m hoping against hope that the same process will work the other way, that is after I’m dead and buried. I have no faith, but since I’ve been wrong so much in my life I won’t be surprised to be met with a scowling Jesus, who says, “Oh, it’s you. That was a bloody waste of time, wasn’t it? Get the hell in before I change my mind!”).

He remembers this: She watches with Mother on a small television before embarking a ship to Southampton. She’s very pleased to leave the stink of Bombay, but not pleased to go back to Richmond where all her abandoned children lurk in her dreams like zombies. When she sleeps Ian dreams with her, and learns to dream from her. As he grows, his dreams are routed in the pattern of hers. Therefore she lingers in him now, still alive. That massive engine of Hell rumbling far off in the distance like a heartbeat.

Then comes the ironic climax of our pre-natal text–the horror of being born. It is death, oblivion and separation from the mind of the mother. You are nothing again, a sperm adrift in the cold oxygen of the world, relearning everything, mindless without her. And the foul smelling father grasps you and carries you to the window to see the sky. Oh, the horror, the horror, the horror. 

McEwan and I, and maybe lots of other writers, are a little worried about sensitivity and ‘trigger warnings’: I put a tongue-in-cheek one on the copyright page of my novel House of Large Sizes, and he writes a whole paragraph, from the point of view of a fetus, on page 145. So be warned.

Feel free to review HOUSE OF LARGE SIZES using the same sense of fun to which I’ve subjected poor Mr. McEwan: