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Artomatic 2017

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I'll be reading at Artomatic 2017 this Sunday in Arlington! The story I'll be reading from was published by Viewscreen, a wonderful magazine that is preparing to relaunch later this year and that seeks to explore policy proposals through fiction.

Because of the plans to relaunch, "A Story Told Over Dinner" is not currently accessible through the Viewscreen website. However, you can find the full text here in the interim.

I am a bookmark

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I spent three days this month attending the AWP conference for the first time ever. It was here in DC, so how could I miss? I enjoyed seeing many of my favorite poets and writers read from their work. I was also excited to sneak onto the bookfair floor with a poem in The Writer's Guide and in the form of a bookmark produced by Barnacle Mountain Press.

Will I attend again? Hard "maybe." But I'm glad it came to town.

[INSERT CLICHE ABOUT STOGIES & PROXIMITY HERE]

Jacquelyn Bengfort

On December 8, I got the exciting news that I was a finalist for the 2017 Kathy Fish Fellowship, an annual offering from SmokeLong Quarterly.

This was my second year applying. Last year I made it through the first round of applications--78 of the approximately 300 SmokeLong received that and every year--so I decided to give it another shot this past fall.

While I didn't win, making it into the final 13 this time around was nevertheless quite a boost. (The winner will be announced in a day or two.) And, because the application included both published and unpublished work, I can tell you where to find some of my close-but-no-cigar stories. Surprisingly for this digital age, all of them came out in print/e-book format--not on websites!

"The Gun Season," Midwestern Gothic

"A Spell for Salvation," Candlesticks and Daggers

"The Swing Set," Unrequited

In fact, because "A Spell for Salvation" was picked up while my application for the KFF was out, only one piece from the application remains unpublished! I'll be sure to update you if it finds a home, though it could be a while--it is, by far, the oddest of the quartet.

This post contains affiliate links.

Forthcoming publications!

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I've had a run of good luck in the game of submissions! Just as my "forthcoming" section was down to one last item, I was pleased to receive several pieces of exciting news:

My poem/prose hybrid titled "A Spell for Salvation" will be published in Candlesticks & Daggers: An Anthology of Mixed-Genre Mysteries in late 2016. This will by my fourth appearance in one of Kelly Ann Jacobson's anthologies, and I couldn't be happier to get the chance to work with her again!

A short story, "Fruits," will soon appear in matchbook. Guys, matchbook pays, which is such a rarity, especially among online journals. Will I get rich from "Fruits"? No. But I will be able to buy fancy coffees for a week on the basis of a weird little story about produce, and that is pretty exciting.

"Dear Mr. Bortle," an open-letter-style essay, will appear in the fourth edition of Politics and Prose's District Lines. After appearing in the first two volumes and striking out with my submission to number three, I'm so excited to be back in these pages. District Lines launches are amazing events! Crossing my fingers that I'll get to read from my piece...

Another short story, "The Underdeveloped Character She's Been Spending Time As," is slated for publication in HOOT. If you don't know this magazine, they send out tiny stories on postcards and also publish them to their website. I have had a subscription for just over a year--it's a total delight.

Update: the streak continues. My poem "A Day or Two Before" was acceped for the Winter/Spring 2017 issue of The Writer's Guide, published by The Writer's Center of Bethesda, MD. The issue will be available at AWP this February.

I can't wait to share these pieces with you! Follow me on Twitter @jacib--that's likely to be the first place you'll find the links to read online or buy a hard copy!

My Latest Obsession: Librivox

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I'm firmly of my own time period. I don't really long for a simpler time; I don't think any time has been simple, and I'm a champion worrier, so I think I'd be fairly anxious in any given historic period.

But I do sometimes regret living in an age when people don't read aloud, much. Sure, I get to read plenty to the small fry in my life (and I'm not afraid to read chapter books to preschoolers, or Jane Austen to napping babies), but people over the age of five or six don't really sit around reading long books to each other, chapter by chapter, do they? It's faster to read silently, and easier to just flip on the telly.

That may be why I've suddenly become an avid amateur audiobook reader. Librivox is an all-volunteer operation, recording books in the public domain and making them freely available to listeners on the Internet.

Ok, so it's not sitting next to a fire reading Dickens of an evening, but it's good fun. It's the equivalent activity for our time. It's sharing a literary experience...only the living room is a lot bigger.

You can find my page of the Librivox catalog here.

Happy listening!

The Story Behind "Countdown (My Dear One)"

Jacquelyn Bengfort

If you've been following me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I spent Thanksgiving weekend live-tweeting my reading of Dear Robot: An Anthology of Epistolary Science Fiction. This new collection, edited by the talented Kelly Ann Jacobson, features 19 scifi shorts unified by their epistolary nature.

My story "Countdown (My Dear One)" is one of them!

Most often (at least in my experience) writers write things and then try to find a home for them. This story came about quite differently. I saw Kelly's call for submissions for Dear Robot and wrote the story in response. And to my happy relief, she accepted it.

I knew right away that I wanted to echo the countdown that signals the launch of a spacecraft. I also knew that the duration of a flight to Mars is roughly ten months, because I have written other stories about Mars missions (you can read another example here). It's also roughly the length of time it takes to gestate a human, something I recently did for the second time. I put all these things together, and the tale of Ethan Reisender, doomed astronaut, came out.

Initially I wrote it moving chronologically through time, but reversing the time structure was always my intention. I did, however, scrap the romantic notion that he was writing letters by hand and jetissoning them into space; my scifi-loving husband helped me kill that darling, and a quick conversation with him led to the memo that opens the story. And I got to fold in some authentic memories of my time in the Navy, which was also great fun (even if the resulting story is far from what most people would categorize as "fun").

For a chance to win a copy of Dear Robot and read it for yourself, comment on this or any other Dear Robot blog post by my fellow contributors or Kelly herself by midnight on Friday. Include your email address in the post (deconstructed as, for example, dearrobot (at) gmail dot com to thwart the spambots!). You can also check out Goodreads for another chance to win. Or just go ahead and buy a copy; it works out to less than fifty cents per story!

A Shade of Difference

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Political intrigue. Civil rights. Ethnic clothing. This is A Shade of Difference by Allen Drury.

"I believe in giving his head to an opponent who's riding for a fall," the President said. "It makes the tumble that much more emphatic."

The state of the project: If you're still with me and the New York Times Bestseller Project, I have two things to say to you: why? and...thanks, maybe? This review is not only well overdue, being that I finished reading this book a couple of months ago, it's also not the one I promised would come next. 1962 was apparently the year of my reading bete noir: the character list. Two of the three bestsellers that year are absolute bricks of books populated with so many characters that their respective authors mapped the whole lineage out up front. I've always been intimidated opening a book to a character list and am doubly consternated when I'm reading on my fairly old-school version of the Kindle e-reader, making "flipping back" for a refreshing peek all the more difficult. At this point, I have been pulled in so many directions with my reading list (speculative fiction! book club picks! manuals on housekeeping! meditation primers! everything Mo Willems has ever done! I have kids, after all) that I'm just hoping to get in the balance of '62 before the end of '15 and then start fresh in '72 in the next new year.

How I got the book: I purchased a Kindle e-copy.

The writer: Allen Drury was a political reporter turned successful novelist. Check out his Wikipedia page for a full profile.

The book: A Shade of Difference is the sequel to Drury's best-selling,Pulitzer-Prize-winning Advise and Consent, and here we come to an unforseen issue introduced by my way of approaching this particular set of books in this skip-hop way: had I just worked my way chronologically through the bestsellers, starting in 1942 and then following it with 1943 and 1944 and so on, instead of skipping from '42 to '52 to '62 with the intention of circling back to '43 after completing '82, then I would have read Advise and Consent first. You know, as Drury intended.

Anyway.

I was lucky that it was not strictly necessary to read the first book in the series first, although having read the second one first will certainly remove an element of suspense since the events of Advise and Consent are discussed in A Shade of Difference. (Then again, it will be years before I make it back to 1959's best sellers.)

This book's dual centers are the United Nations in New York City and the executive and legislative branches of the Federal government in Washington, DC. "Terrible Terry," the prince of a small fictional British colony in Africa, has come to the UN to force a vote for immediate independence for his country, and while in the United States inserts himself into the school desegration battle and the broader fight for civil rights for African Americans.

If you are a fan of political novels (not a subgenre I frequently traverse, myself), you will immediately see why Drury is still considered one of the finest American novelists in this arena. The book is filled with vividly-rendered wheeling-and-dealing that gripped me despite my relative lack of interest in the sausage-making side of politics. The novel is also a rich portrait not only of race relations but also midcentury gender roles, with the wives of the powerful wielding tenaciously the soft power of gossip and gatherings while the system as a whole is underpinned by an army of mostly undifferentiated female phone-answerers and nurses and typists.

And given Drury's previous career as a political journalist, the reporters are there in force, identified only by their newspaper or magazine (Washington Post says this, Ebony says that) and functioning in some way like a Greek chorus, providing an overlay of commentary and judgement throughout the novel.

What I couldn't get over, though, was how familiar it all seemed. Sure, the racism and sexism were more blatant and the concerns were Cold War-era, not asymmetrical Global War on Terror stuff, but it was all there. Even just the sheer noisiness of it all. They didn't have the twenty-four-hour news cycle in the sixties, but they did have morning and evening editions of the newspaper and those pages had to be filled. We haven't come a long way, baby.

Next up: I will attempt, for the third or fourth time, to take Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter out of the harbor. I have a Kindle e-copy and a hard copy out from the library in an attempt to deal with my inability to mentally juggle all the characters/toggle back and forth electronically between the novel and the character list that prefaces the book.

Rx: Prompt, Deadline

Jacquelyn Bengfort

You can read my short story "All That's Left of Cuba" on Midwestern Gothic's website. It's a finalist in round 1 of their summer flash contest!

The story grew out of a bunch of childhood memories, though it is, ultimately, fiction. What it really grew out of, though, was the magic combination of a prompt (provided by the magazine) and a deadline. When you have a 2.5-month-old and a 2.5-year-old, that kind of motivation can't be bought.

Write Enough Of These Things And You'll Have A Book

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I'm excited to share that I recently received an honorable mention in Easy Street's "Great American Sentence" contest. This result is officially the best I've ever had in any writing contest ever, so suffice it to say I'm jazzed. You can read my sentence, along with the other honorable mentions, finalists, and winners, here.

Now I just need to come up with [x] many more sentences and string them all together in just the right way...

An Arc in 95 Characters

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I write really short fiction. This is probably because the element of writing craft I find most difficult is plot. I think this stems from my personal aversion to conflict, but that's another post for another place (like an entry in a therapy journal or something).

Usually I just try to write and revise and not worry too much about any single aspect of craft. I'm not a "credentialed" writer--I don't hold a degree in creative writing, nor am I in pursuit of one. (That this lack of a degree seems somehow rebellious probably says something important about the American literary scene; I'd rather not get into that.) But sometimes, instead of just mucking about and seeing what happens, I do try to work in a more formal way on the weaknesses I perceive. Other times, though, I find calls for submissions and contests that make writing mostly very short things a strength, and that can be a lot of fun.

Two such recent opportunities came in the form of the Great American Sentence Contest, still in the judging phase, from Easy Street, a new online journal of books and culture, and a call for "Ad Stories" from online flash fiction magazine matchbook.

What are Ad Stories? They are stories that fit the requirements to run in the Google AdWords program: three lines, maximum 25 characters on the first and 35 (spaces included) on the latter two, followed by a link. matchbook has now published three rounds of such stories, which they do in fact run as advertisements, and I was excited to have one my ad stories, "Madeline And The Shark," chosen for Volume 3.

In all I wrote probably half a dozen of these stories, and submitted four. The biggest challenge in a form this unforgivingly brief is finding a way to fit in some sort of traditional narrative arc--some hint of plot--into a character span so short that it can be hard even to write an entire sentence. Still, I figured, trying to do so would both capitalize on my writing-short-things strength while exercising my sad little plotting muscles.

So I wanted to share how I tried to write these tiny stories, while also sharing my three leftovers.

First, the one that's currently live as a potential Google search result: "Madeline And The Shark." If you go to the matchbook website, you'll see that this story does not, in fact, even consist of a complete sentence. It's a title, plus a sentence fragment. This is the last of the Ad Stories I wrote prior to submitting, and it works entirely by implication. Based on what I've given you as the reader, you can make a few assumptions: 1) Madeline was the victim of a shark attack. 2) Madeline survived the attack (because the story is the act of remembering it). 3) Madeline is haunted by the attack (the memory of the attack seems to be sensory and its recall involuntary).

Here are the other three stories I submitted:

While at the time I was just writing, as I do, and striving to meet the technical requirements of the call for submissions, I've enjoyed looking at how each of these functions differently in restrospect.

"From When The Fish Died," for example, is essentially character-driven. You get a snippet of speech here, which is fairly revelatory (I think) of who the speaker is. You get the hint of a scene: at least two people, standing around a toilet, trying unsuccessfully to flush a dead pet. And you're left with a little something extra--while the speaker seems to be saying that either the fish or the silent owner is unlucky, he or she is having to deal with a toilet backup.

"History Lesson," meanwhile, works by massively compressing and simplifying a story that spans millenia: nothing less than the beginning and end of the world, with a single intervening event. Of the four, this was my personal favorite, and bears some similarities to another longer-but-still-very-short story I wrote last year and am working to place. Playing with time and the relative importance or unimportance of human events, plus thinking through the implications of mortality: some of my favorite things to do as a writer.

"Mirror Image" is my least favorite. Like "From When The Fish Died," it's character-driven, but without the speech element, I think we learn a lot less about the "he" in question. The "she" is completely reduced to an object, something to look at (or not). Still, we can get an idea of the relationship between these two people, and predict an unhappy future.

After reading through the other fourteen stories published alongside "Madeline And The Shark" a few times, it's been instructive to go back and more closely examine how other writers rose to the challenge. And looking at them again, I'm struck by how important the titles are, how even the title has to do a good deal of work to set up the story.

So that's my little miniature self-tutelage in writing super-short stories and trying to get them to arc. If you want to seek out "Madeline And The Shark" in the electronic wild, try these search terms: shark, shark attack, feeding frenzy, shark week, shark frenzy, shark sounds. If you do find it, please, take a screenshot and let me know; clicking on it costs money that will run out and cause the story to go into retirement, so try to avoid doing that! And thanks for reading.

East of Eden

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Suicide. Prostitution. Murder. Love. False accents. True wisdom. This is East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

"She's in Heaven," said Aron. "Why would Father tell a lie?"

How I got the book: the Steinbeck Centennial Edition has been on my bookshelf for an embarassingly long time and had not been read until now. Flog away, all ye better readers/human beings.

The writer: John Steinbeck. He probably doesn't really need to be introduced, at least not to anyone who took an English lit course in an American high school in the last several decades, but: a major American writer of the 20th century; wrote numerous bestsellers and won both the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prizes. For more, click through the link above to his Wikipedia page.

The book: it seems like something of a pointless exercise to review East of Eden, a book pretty much universally hailed as a timeless work of art, and so I'll keep this brief.

In short: this is a novel that should not work.

It has too many characters, many of whom are tangential to the main plot (such as it is) or are introduced very late in the story. It has a first-person narrator who is usually invisible to the point that you forget about him and think you're reading something written in the omniscient third, and in fact the narrator seems to be the author himself. It has a few long sections that are completely focused on landscape, and many of the incidents that occur are as lurid as anything you'll find watching a daytime soap--in some cases, a lot, lot worse.

And yet, it does work. Steinbeck pulls all of these loose threads and more into a whole that seems to capture the pointless, doomed, beautiful, necessary nature of life itself. There's a reason this book has been read, re-read, and re-issued, and that reason is pretty darn hard to explain.

In short, again: read it.

Don't be like me and purchase a copy only to let it languish on your bookshelf for years until you are forced to read it by means of an asinine project you've dreamt up for yourself. Don't be put off by the heft of over 600 pages. Just read the dang book.

Next up: WELCOME TO 1962! Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter is the next stop on this ride, and I've already got a copy out from the public library.

The Silver Chalice

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Adoption and slavery. Life in Nero's court. Miracles and magic. This is The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain.

You will never see His eyes. Never, unless you can clear your mind of everything save the desire to see them. You must love Him as we do. When you have that love, He will come out of the darkness and you will see Him as though He stood before you.

How I got the book: Purchased on Amazon.com for Kindle, $7.99. Like My Cousin Rachel, the book appears to have received recent cover upgrades, so I won't be tormenting you with any drawings of what I think the cover should look like.

The writer: Thomas B. Costain. According to Wikipedia, Costain was a journalist who transitioned to bestselling author of historical fiction in his late 50s. And here's an interesting nugget: four of his novels were made into feature films, with The Silver Chalice serving as one Paul Newman's film debut (he played Basil, the main character in the novel).

The book: More tolerable than The Robe; still not my cup of tea. Set in the years of the early Christian church, the novel follows Basil, a boy of low social standing who is adopted by a wealthy, childless man, only to be cheated of his inheritance and thrown back upon his wits and his talents, in particular his skill as a silversmith.

The book features many of Jesus' disciples, as well as Biblical and historical figures like Simon the Magician, Joseph of Arimathea, and the Roman Emperor Nero, all of whom interact with our young hero as he works to craft a reliquary for the cup used at the Last Supper. There's peril; there's romance; there are love potions; there are camels.

There's also what I'd like to here deem the "shaft of light" effect. Let me digress a bit. Several years ago, my husband and I purchased the DVD The Work and the Glory, which concerns the early years of the founding of the Church of Latter Day Saints by Joseph Smith. We aren't Mormon; it just looked like an interesting movie.

And it was an interesting movie. My only issue with the movie, in fact, was the shafts of light that made their appearance toward the end of the film. When anyone knelt down to pray, a shaft of light would break over his or her head. The symbolism was heavy, and it also nearly forced the watcher to take a side--to believe that the person praying was on the right path, that God was present in the moment, that something like a miracle was taking place. In other words, the film lost the veneer of objectivity and began very nearly to preach.

This is my essential problem with books like The Robe and The Silver Chalice. They have such a strong point-of-view that they limit themselves, and it comes down to metaphorical (or often literal) shafts-of-light moments. Incidentally, this same phenomenon did not occur in The Song of Bernadette, and I have to credit the lack of shafts of light in part for the strength of that novel.

That said, and this happens to me a lot, the last paragraph or so of The Silver Chalice was somewhat redemptive, despite following hot behind a shaft-of-light moment. That's because it spoke so beautifully to the historical moment in which the novel was written: 1952, the midst of the Korean War, the world still adjusting rapidly to the new reality of atomic war. I won't spoil it by quoting at length here. Let's just all agree that I'm a sucker for a strong ending, no matter how hard I had to work to get to it.

A few other notes on the novel:

-Gender dynamics in this book are pretty mad. There's a clear virgin/whore split between the few female characters who appear and I'm almost positive that it fails the Bechdel test (in fact I can only recall one conversation between women at all, and it concerned seduction tactics). There are also beautifully obtuse lines like "[t]he girl had supped with him; lightly, for she was mindful of the danger to the feminine figure in rich food" and "[s]even of them are girls, which is a tragedy." I also learned the phrase "hymeneal lamps." It's difficult to say how much of the weirdness can be attributed to early A.D. Roman Empire simulation and how much can be attributed to early 1950s America sexual attitudes.
-Camel-singing may be a thing; camels may not have the same standard humans have regarding human voices, though. And Costain was a sucker for dropping in other little informational tidbits, like the fact that sorbitio is a barley water considered cooling or that leaves of salsola have a salty flavor or that a rakhala is a concave saddle used on a camel. -There's a short but wild bit when the effects of cannabis use (in a paste form) are described. A banker takes a bit to "[restore] all of [his] powers at once" (basically, as an upper). It seemed...incongruous? Anyway, it got me interested in looking into attitudes about marijuana use in America over the course of history, which led me to this timeline.

Next up is John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden, the last of the bestsellers from 1952. I've been promised by a friend that I'm in for a treat, so stay tuned as I continue to slowly make my way through 50 years of New York Times #1 bestselling fiction.

My Cousin Rachel

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Cornwall. Love (or lust? or hate?). An unreliable narrator. This is My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier.

I looked on her in profile. She was always a stranger, thus...But full-face, when she smiled, a stranger never. The Rachel that I knew, that I had loved.

How I got the book: The DC Public Library. The copy I received was a 2009 reprint of the book, originally published in 1951. Thus I feel no compunction to remake the cover to suit a contemporary audience--numerous covers for numerous recent editions exist. Mine had a moody picture of an English manor home on the cover, which I think was wise--many feature a woman, and given the importance of Rachel’s appearance in the story, I think it is better to leave her wholly to the imagination.

The writer: Daphne du Maurier. I’ve long been a fan, having read her most famous novel, Rebecca, on at least two occasions over the years. Strangely, I never realized she had written other books, when in fact she was seventeen novels and a clutch of nonfiction books. (Full disclosure: I shrieked a little in excitement when I got to the list for 1952 and saw her name there. And I’m equally excited to read her again for 1962.)

The book: A gloomy, moody, claustrophobic first-person tale of passion and mystery. Unlike the last book I read for this project, the plot is very straightforward and holds, I would argue, only a few key surprises. All the tension here comes from our limited point-of-view, specifically that of Philip Ashley, sole heir of his cousin/guardian Ambrose, whose death abroad leaves Philip the head of a rich Cornwall estate while leaving Ambrose’s recently-taken wife, the distant cousin Rachel of the title, unaccounted for in his unchanged will.

Philip suspects Rachel is implicated in the death of his beloved guardian, but when she arrives at his home in Cornwall he quickly changes his mind, not only accepting her as family but coming to long for the older woman to become his own. His naivete, his limited access to information, his inability to consult with the deceased Ambrose about the circumstances of the latter’s death, his quashed suspicisions that begin once again to grow--these are the stuffs of du Maurier’s novel, and she deploys them to devastating effect.

To say much more would be to rob other readers of the enjoyment of this novel. Some may find it a bit slow, though I did not mind lingering in Philip’s troubled mind. In the project, this book proved the first unqualified delight, and I look forward to reading more of du Maurier’s novels.

Next up is The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain. Since this book is, it seems, mostly highly recommended by fans of The Robe, I’m anticipating a slog. But I’ll be rewarded with John Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden afterwards, so that’s some motivation. Until then, read on!

Drivin' Woman

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Meet America. And her sisters, Palestine, Arabia, and Andorra. This is Drivin’ Woman by Elizabeth Pickett Chevalier.

She was about to call out again, when she saw approaching around the parlor chimney, a weather-beaten Confederate soldier. He was perhaps thirty years old. Even in rags he was the handsomeest man America had ever seen.

How I got the book: Purchased from a used bookseller via Biblio.com. I got a nondescript hardcover edition from The MacMillan Company, which gave away none the book’s secrets--just the title and author’s last name. It came complete with a lovely bookplate on the page facing the inside front cover: a domestic scene of reading before a roaring fire, the original owners’ names in ink, and a quote, “Old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, old books to read,” attributed to Alonzo of Aragon.

The writer: Elizabeth Pickett Chevalier. Click on her name to read the brief Wikipedia entry. Drivin’ Woman was her first novel, though she’d been writing for the movie industry for over two decades when it was published and subsequently promoted as book similar to Gone with the Wind.

The book: Ok, so I’ll give Chevalier this much credit: the lady knew how to turn a plot, and she was not scared to give it a twist any time her main character begins to get a little comfortable. The book centers on America Moncure, who at the time of the novel’s opening in spring 1865 is pondering whether she can restore her family’s Virginia plantation in time to secure advantageous marriages for herself (teetering on the brink of spinsterhood at eighteen) and her sisters, teenaged Palestine, nine-year-old Arabia, and little Andorra, aged four.

She figures she has two years, “if she was not to break the family tradition that Collier women married before they were twenty.”

And by the end of the first chapter, all hopes of achieving that dream are dashed, though some measure of peace is restored to the Moncure girls and their mother and the few remaining former slaves in Chapter 2 by the return of an unlooked-for family member.

And so it goes. The novel ends in 1911, following America all the while (with often-inelegant switches of point-of-view that will drive readers with an eye for writing craft just a little bonkers) and on occasion a man of her acquaintance, Tugger Blake. What begins as a post-Civil-War novel somehow transforms into a labor-and-tobacco novel somewhere along the way.

I can’t say I exactly enjoyed this one. Especially in the early pages, the perspective taken of the Black characters who populate the edges of the story can make it truly painful to read, though the nasty racial commentary does fade out as you continue through the story. (It never completely disappears, though. There’s a blatant blackface incident painted almost as heroism almost three-quarters of the way into the book, and it’s not until page 602 of 652 that America concedes inside her own head that slavery may have been wrong and possibly evil.) It was difficult for me to read a protagonist with whom I so fundamentally disagreed, when the text betrayed no indication that she might be, to say the least, wrong-headed on this point. We are meant to be unshakably in America’s corner, but Chevalier makes that hard.

On the other hand, the later pages go into great detail about the tobacco trade at the turn of the century, and this part of the book proved especially fascinating to me.

And, like I already said, the plot twists aren’t exactly masterful but they are entertaining. My poor husband got to hear all about it: and you wouldn’t believe what happened next. Despite what I consider serious flaws in the novel, I can see why people in 1942 might have been reading it--especially caught as they were in the midst of their own war and uncertain of what will come when it finally ends.

Next up is My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier. When I saw this author’s name on the 1952 list, I was immediately excited, her famous Rebecca being an old favorite of mine. And I wasn’t disappointed. Stay tuned!

The Song of Bernadette

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Trying to recreate a review tragically lost during my recent website transfer. This is The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel.

When distances between men are shortened and their wealth of words increased, then will superstition, fanaticism, war, and tyranny disappear and it may be that the next generation or, at latest, the next century will witness the coming of the Golden Age…

Before I jump into the review, I want to apologize for the long break between posts. I actually already wrote a review of The Song of Bernadette, but I transferred my website and it was one of the posts that I lost (actually the only one I’m certain I lost). And I’ve yet to go back and manually add the photos that used to accompany the majority of my posts. I’ve actually read two more books for the project, but I’ve held off on those reviews until I could try to get something together for this book, which was actually great and deserves to be reviewed.

How I got the book: Purchased from a used bookseller via Biblio.com. I got the unabridged, softcover Pocket Book edition, complete with the original owner’s name and address penned on the inside front cover. I love used books. I wonder what Mildred on Cliff Street made of the story.

The writer: Franz Werfel. Click on his name to read the full Wikipedia article. Werfel, a Jewish writer born in Prague, was fleeing from the Nazis in 1940 with his wife when they arrived in Lourdes. He vowed that if he escaped he would write the story of Bernadette that he might “magnify the divine mystery and the holiness of man.” By May of the following year, safely ensconced in Los Angeles, he had done just that.

The book: A gorgeous tribute to the mysterious events that took place in the late 1850s in Lourdes. The Song of Bernadette would probably be classified as historical fiction that hews closely to the events that took place in 19th-century France: that starting in February 1858, fourteen-year-old Bernadette Soubirous, a poor and rather dull girl, claimed the first of several visions of a “beautiful lady,” later determined by the Catholic Church to be a true evocation of the Virgin Mary.

Like the other books from 1942, the pacing of this novel is slower than what it might be if written today. However, unlike the last two, I found myself unable to stop reading, thinking, and talking about it. Werfel handles the entire chain of events with such delicacy that it doesn’t seem to matter whether the reader believes in Bernadette or not. Despite its religious nature, this is not The Robe. Werfel does not try to convince you. He simply tells the story.

And it’s a fascinating story. Werfel doesn’t shy away, either, from the political elements of the story. Bernadette was, in fact, an embarrassment and a problem for the powerful men of Lourdes, who worried that the rest of France was laughing at their gullible peasantry as the crowds come to witness Bernadette’s ecstasy swelled into the tens of thousands. Their machinations are as intriguing as the question of whether Bernadette saw what she claimed to see. Bernadette’s thwarting of her detractors is delightful, as when “the State” sends a psychiatrist, with “both charm and a red beard,” to examine Bernadette for evidence of madness. She answers all queries with a simple manner and no sign of duplicity. Watching a teenager run circles around authority with such ease adds much levity to an overall quite serious work.

Werfel also uses some scenes to highlight the barbarism of the age in which he lived in a subtle but excruciating way. The quote above, regarding a Golden Age of man, takes much of its poignancy from our knowledge of what Werfel escaped in departing Europe, and its very innocence remains no less obvious or heartbreakingly sad in our own era.

In all, this book is the first in the project that I wholeheartedly endorse and urge you to read.

Next up is Drivin’ Woman by Elizabeth Pickett Chevalier, a novel set in the aftermath of the Civil War. After that I’ll be jumping forward into 1952, reading first My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier.

New tumblrs

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I finally thought of something to do with tumblr: organize and curate my collection of photos from around the city. I'm now the proud owner of five new blogs, each with its own theme. Head to my main tumblr to find the rest.

Gatsby? What Gatsby?

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I've said it before: like many a displaced North Dakotan, my life is based at least in part on a willful misreading of the character of James Gatz. And this is how I prepare for a rare night out with old friends. (This is a Twitter thread. It works best if you read it from the bottom, in the order each tweet was published.)

Bonus points if you get why I went with "trousers" over "pants."