Murder and the Father of American Diplomacy

We all know Ben Franklin as one of the nation’s earliest Renaissance Men: scientist, printer, writer, businessman, scholar, politician, diplomat. Fireman. In David R. Andresen’s short mystery Murder in a Blue Moon Ben takes a break from his more gentlemanly pursuits, such as chess, to solve a serial murder in Philadelphia.

It’s fall of 1752, the American Experiment still a quarter century from Independence. Constable Geoffrey Hunter turns to his friend over glasses of Madeira to mull the facts of a case involving prostitutes with broken necks and surprised looks on their faces.

The short mystery develops quickly, clues tying the mystery together sparse, the time between each murder so great they go undetected for nearly a decade. The narrative style befits the times. We take our modern P.I. and dial the voice back to the 18th Century. Andresen succeeds at doing this without slowing the yarn or making it stumble:

I’m not known for being a quiet man, but much of my work required discretion and the rest was so much a simple litany of common greed, sin, and sheer folly that I found it best to spare him and me the despair and disgust so many of my duties as Constable entailed.

When our good Constable does unburden his heart of the details of his case,  it requires the author of Poor Richard’s Almanac to put this puzzle together.

An imaginative slice of early American life that’s a tad more lurid than average, Murder in a Blue Moon is a quick, entertaining read.

Writing Prompts, Spellcheck, and Academic Advice

51mb7-k9ztl-_sx331_bo1204203200_There are many, many reasons not to read Flash Fiction Funny while riding public transportation. The first and perhaps best reason is Taylor Mali’s The the Impotence of Proofreading, which will leave you bent over double and wheezing for breath, the workaday passengers all around contemplating the emergency brake at the back of the train.

In examining the pros and cons—mostly the cons—of relying on spell-check, Mali’s story reminds readers that ‘It only does what you tell it to douche. You’re the one with your hand on the mouth going clit, clit, clit. It just goes to show you how embargo one careless clit of the mouth can be.’ Continue reading Writing Prompts, Spellcheck, and Academic Advice

Short Stories from the School for Damaged Children

ARE-YOU-HERE-by-Brian-Booker-9781942658122Deep oppression pervades Brian Booker’s collection of seven stories Are You Here for What I’m Here For? (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016). The mood is confining, suffocating, maddening, the writing evocative of a heart pulsing beneath the floorboards of a cabin far from anywhere. Booker awakens—allays—awakens—allays—and awakens again profound tensions: Something is wrong. Everything is ok. But something is wrong.

Prepare to contend with psychic turmoil, ordinary figures sick in unusual ways: “…The bus didn’t come and Francie caught a chill. Then she got sick, lost her legs; they burned her toys in the backyard. She ended up in that school for damaged children, sweet Francie among the mongoloids and midgets…”

Francie’s case is bad enough. And this isn’t even Francie’s story. It’s Gina’s story, Gina who let her sister catch a chill while she—Gina—awaited the attentions of a lifeguard on the last day of summer: “Gina’s mother had never let her forget that day at the pool.”

The collection’s eponymous story relates Gina’s stay, many years later, a grown woman, at a Caribbean resort, her pursuit of escape, a quest for release from the damage of the past. She’s enrolled in Sun Club Be* (don’t expect to be told what the asterisk is for; you’ll have to use your imagination), which as the brochure explains, offers “An experience for our guests whose journey includes a health challenge.” A hotel, she imagines, that is in fact a hospital “attended by nuns in starched habits, a Caribbean breeze blowing in at the window.”

Nothing in Gina’s stay is concretely wrong; rather the malice lies beneath: She couldn’t shake the notion that behind the sunglasses Russell/Raoul had a milky white eye or a ghastly scar. ‘Then we shall see you in the theater,’ the hypnotist declares.

The settings include wide-ranging diversity: a wealthy Langley neighborhood in the shadows of CIA headquarters; a mountain resort for slope-side partying; contemporary seaside towns and long-forgotten histories of remote American settlements. Throughout, Booker’s eye remains as focused as it is true. Regardless of time or place the human condition holds the center, riddled with self-doubt and confusion as the body gropes blindly through the dark, recoiling in discomfort at the unknowable objects it touches.

It’s in this groping that Booker excels. He removes us from group therapy on the committed psych ward and plants us inside the lives and the minds of those committed at a time preceding incarceration. His stories are like glimpses into the broken lives before Chief Broom and Randall Patrick McMurphy and Billy Bibbit appear in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, all the terrible realities that drove the Chronics and the Acutes to the hospital in the first place.

Reading this collection feels like holding your breath until you need to breath, letting out a little, a little more, a little more, a little more. Disturbing, unsettling, portentous—then fading all to black.

Memoir: Set This Submarine on Fire

Memoir’s a tough genre. For memoir to appeal to a broad audience its got to succeed in one of two ways.

wildEither the voice asserts some irresistible quality: rich, engaging, dynamic, inspiring, insightful without being pedantic. Or the narrative relates circumstances of an extraordinary nature: the subject is a half-Kenyan young lawyer who rises to become the U.S. President; a soccer team survives a plane crash in the Andes by feeding on fellow passengers; a scientist’s submarine catches fire at the exact moment she discovers a new species capable of saving the planet.

So much the better if the voice and the sublime work in cahoots.

But in memoir where these traits are lacking altogether, we wind up with a book like Devon James Hoffman’s Wild Enough to Get to You. The narrative voice tends toward the abstruse, and the undertaking is a well-traveled road.

As a memoirist Hoffman’s first order of business is to bring clarity and coherence to his experience. He explains his efforts this way: “You may be disappointed to find that this book isn’t about my service but is, instead, about what my service was about.” The stories, he tells us, “may seem disconnected and eclectic, but they are my memoir. This book achieves its unity by following the journey of my changing paradigm, instead of my physical body.”

Original review in its entirety at Peace Corps Worldwide

Joe Camel, Still Cool

Yesterday a friend of mine posted our first-through-fourth grade photos online. Got me thinking about this old story in the hopper 20 years. I dragged it out and dusted it off and submit it now for your entertainment. It’s all about that first cigarette. This is to the memory of those no longer with us, Trevor and Chad.


SMOKE

camel-cigerettes-logoI ROSE IN THE DARK of a dead cold winter morning, my week serving Mass at St. Barnabas. Dad dropped us outside church with a dollar each.

After Mass we bought hot chocolate and Hostess Donettes at the 7-11. In the waning dark I followed Didi and Jack back across the street to the school behind the church. Jack stayed alone to eat on the fire escape; inside Didi went upstairs to the sixth grade classroom.

I offered Mrs. Kidney a Donette soon as I entered. She declined.

Mrs. K, the fourth grade teacher, was a Yankees fan. She called herself the walking dead that fall, eyes drawn and black as the Yankees chased and lost the pennant.

Cheeks tingling, I sat on the back counter beside the radiator. St. B’s was a steam-heated, wood-floored, high-ceilinged old school. The first floor ceilings were painted white and ornately carved, like wedding cakes. The ceilings upstairs were low, office-like, with fluorescent lights and Styrofoam rectangles. Moving from fourth to fifth grade, the ceilings closed in. I was drawn to the prospect of low ceilings as I was drawn to toads belly up in the sun. Horror. Fascination.

I dangled my legs, sweaty in corduroy, over the counter. Outside the drafty windows the frigid morning turned gray.

“How are your parents?” Mrs. K said.

“They’re fine.”

“How’s your sister?”

“She’s fine. She came early, too. To avoid the bus.”

“Ohhhhh, the horrible bus.” Her eyebrows rose in dark, sarcastic arcs.

“It’s not so bad.” I liked the bus, especially in the afternoon when the high schoolers got on. They boarded from another world, the world of long hair and black tees, studded bracelets and heavy boots, cigarettes rather than chewing gum. It was the world of the office ceiling and it fascinated me even as it terrified me.

Full Story

this is what i do when… #4

Summer fantasy surf quest 

ARE-YOU-HERE-by-Brian-Booker-9781942658122

In Episode 4 of this is what i do when i should be… we recap skateboard and bike camp, move operations up to the beach, and take a stab at that notorious dragon, Smaug. True to form the conversation allows escape from what we really should be doing, which is reviewing Brian Booker’s outstanding collection of short stories about broken minds and their cure: Are You Here for What I’m Here For? (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016). We should also be out catching as many waves as possible off New Jersey’s Long Beach Island in this week of perfect wind. Appropriately, the sea features prominently in Booker’s work, but the weather’s too hot and the waves too shapely for such a mental exercise.

Instead we riff on The Hobbit and contemplate E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, our audio book selection over the course of two long summer road hauls. It’s been a great season for reading, biking, and surfing—both land and sea.

NB: Between recording and publishing this episode, Vikram found his sea legs and stood up on the old man’s 7’6″.

An ounce of hope, a Fifth of futility

GodInNeonReview: God in Neon by Sam Slaughter

Sam Slaughter’s collection of stories features protagonists paddling up a great river of booze. Their strokes are futile, the current strong: with beer, tequila, whiskey, Old Crow, Jack, PBR. They struggle under the blurry burden of constant intoxication, their boozing not an act so much as a reality, like breathing. The booze, a unifying antagonist, is steady. Lurking. There.

God in Neon is filled with atheists at the bar looking for comfort but meeting instead with uneasy self-discovery.

One spits fire and chews glass as a Key West street freak; another lights up her favorite watering hole because the doc says one drink more will do her in. One doesn’t want the baby but doesn’t want his girlfriend drinking the baby to death (“Just because I don’t want it doesn’t mean it ain’t mine”); another contemplates his remorse over strapping dad to a wheelchair ahead of a night at The Package Depot, the saloon-cum-brownbag joint that unites them all. Another stuffs rabbits with fake Easter grass in hopes his son will talk to him. The boy keeps mum. Even silence is self-discovery.

Full review

Short Fiction–Swimming

Peace Corps Worldwide carried the following review of Karl Luntta’s Swimming from SUNY press.

One thing is certain for foreigners at work in much of Africa: the proverbs can be as colorful as they are vague, utilitarian as they are vexing. The truth can emerge—or remain obscured—with a single phrase. Truth, in these proverbs, lies in the eye of the beholder.

SwimmingThis principle is at work in the eight stories of Karl Luntta’s Swimming, each of which churns beneath the surface with traces of hidden truth. Whether his characters are far removed from the world we know—like Maag, digging his own grave at the edge of the Kalahari—or are much closer to home, Luntta’s characters bristle with both confidence and confusion. From Boston’s suburbs to an overnight train deep inside Botswana, the darkened room of a children’s sleepover to the cracking ice of a winter’s pond, Luntta gives us protagonists struggling to assign meaning to the world around them.

Full Review

For more on the work of other Peace Corps affiliated writers: PeaceCorpsWorldwide

Broadcasting the Poetry of Horror

Review–Gateways to Abomination

A parade of horrors files past in Matthew Bartlett’s Gateways to Abomination, accompanied by the strains of an otherworldly broadcast. The discord awakens both terror and fascination, makes our eyes pop even as we struggle to look away. The writing—poetic, detailed, traumatizing—gives lift to hairs we didn’t know we had at the back of the neck.

These pieces sprout mold, inedible and stinking, in the dark, damp forests of our worst imagining.

Gateways to Abomination

when i was a boy—a broadcast opens simply enough. It begins as a story about three kids who may well eat frogs. It ends in the immolation of townsfolk enjoying the rapacious company of a woman who’s chained her sons to a tree. Is it right even to call those boys friends of the narrator’s? “I once saw Christopher trying to strangle a tomcat and I jammed a thick branch into his ear until it spat blood and I handily convinced Alex to take the blame.” Among the debris of his arson the narrator finds numerous oddities, including “Three-eyed spectacles and a bucket full of feet.”

More

baseball and birthdays

Back in January my son asked me to write him a story for his birthday. Three months later I’ve put the finishing touches on a 32k-word novel, my first in the lit-for-kids line. Vikram turns 8 next week.

MLB

Among the themes (friendship, family, dreams) is baseball. With MLB opening day upon us, I thought I’d share a chapter. The excerpt treats Albert Newcastle’s baseball adventures with his newfound friend, the strange girl who wears boys clothes to school, Sylvie Perch.

Prior to the events of this excerpt, Albert (who has a hard time hearing) works with Sylvie (who has a hard time seeing) on a hitting strategy to overcome her vision problem: timing the pitch.

GAME DAY

The players lined up on the infield, hats off for the National Anthem. Albert stood beside Sylvie at the plate, the rest of the Cubs in blue jerseys along the baseline toward first. In yellow and black on the third baseline were the Pirates, Hartness twins included.

Sylvie had heard those two sing the Anthem in school: farts bursting in air, poop through the night, the stink still there. Disgusting.

The ballpark felt electric with excitement, crowds jostling at the concession stand. Players warmed up in the batting cages and bullpens by the gravel parking lot. Now and then a ping of the bat, the pop of leather, a mighty cheer from the fans watching other games on the four fields, the public address system announcing players’ names.

Read full