Tuesday, July 6, 2021

KALEIDOSCOPE – Beate Sigriddaughter

When first I discovered the thrill of magical beauty I was a child, too young to
comprehend what had happened  -- still am, in fact. Oh I was smart enough back then to know that inside the little cardboard tube were mirrors and pieces of colored glass, which, when I peered into the small end and tapped the tube, those pieces would rearrange themselves into patterns so surprising, so glorious they rivaled the windows of the Lutheran church my mother took us to on Sundays and holidays. It wasn’t only the kaleidoscope’s mechanics that intrigued me, but something beyond, something deeper and subtler, some sublime transformation that in my small, random way I was able to bring about by myself. Beate Sigriddaughter’s new collection, Kaleidoscope, reaches me in much the same way, but with intricate strings of words instead of colored glass. Instead of tapping on a cardboard tube, she launches each new configuration with a clue that pulls us into a world so private and intimate we sometimes feel she’s describing our own.

This from the eponymous poem, Kaleidoscope, cuts straight to the heart: “It seems life has always been a marriage of huge hunger and surprise at what is on the menu. She is tired of the wounds she has to feel, many of them not even her own. A colored glass kaleidoscope at least delivers beauty with each nudge.”

With pursuit of beauty the overarching theme, overwhelming disappointment is a close companion. She ascribes the root causes of this disenchantment to culture and its conditioning, and male supremacy is the most damaging. In Power, she tells us she’d hoped “to mend the feelings of a boy broken to conformity, to coax a man from the cold prison of entitlement and hollow objectivity. . .to melt a politician's heart, to fashion a language of joy from the worn-out syllables of sorrow, to tread a path for women and men to honor each other in peace.” A sudden revelation eventually dashes these hopes.

While it might seem Sigriddaughter’s outlook is grim, without hope for beauty to assert itself and maybe save our species from extinction, Kaleidoscope also gives us joyful music, and sparks of wisdom and encouragement. “everyone wants to be heard while no one wants to listen” rides in the same coach as “Ditch perfection. Sanity is not inevitable. It must be chosen. It must be earned. Sing until the music cradles you. . . .”

But don’t get to taking comfort for granted: “Her soul is trapped in a cozy habit of acceptance.” Let your guard down, and her feisty spirit can bite you: “Everybody pays homage to conflict. Even the poets now participate. They swagger. They provoke. They shout in your face. How orthodox everybody has become. Secretly she cavorts with clichés, the sweetness of what millions before her have loved, fairy wings, gossamer gowns.”

Here she slips a little irony into our coffee, along with a Machiavellian sweetener: “if you. . .omit the fact that tantrums actually are far more often heeded, you will harvest a pleasing creature, plump with obedience and silent waiting for approval.”

If the cure for the world’s sorrow is unreasonable happiness, she plans “to be unreasonably happy in her stridently unnecessary life.”

Poems about facing a hostile world with barely muted sarcasm might seem too bitter for enjoyable beach reading this summer. Yet, maybe that’s just the way the kaleidoscope shows its face to me. I might be seeing only those parts I want to see, missing greater depths of Sigriddaughter’s penetrating insight and subtle writing. Should this be true, just feeling the infinity of layers in this book has kept me fascinated well beyond my initial reading. These poems will not be forgotten anytime soon. 



Friday, June 25, 2021


Had I not already known who wrote The Long-Legged Fly I would have been shocked to learn it was not Walter Mosley introducing a new PI series with “Lew Griffin” taking over the sleuthing business from Easy Rawlins. I’d never known of Fly’s author until two days ago when I read a short-story of his in the Bill Crider tribute collection, Bullets and Other Hurting Things. The story was so good, so different, I immediately looked up its author on Amazon and downloaded the first in his Lew Griffin series. It was a thoroughly absorbing though surprisingly quick read, living up to the good and different writing that had snagged my interest in the Bullets story, and I finished it in several hours. But as I approached the ending I began to wonder if I had mistakenly downloaded the last book in the series instead of the first. My wonderment was rewarded so smoothly, its unexpected end-twist so cleverly executed and the first chapter of the series second so teasingly and brilliantly presented that I vowed aloud to myself to read every last one of them.

So you can see I have to be somewhat careful what I reveal in this review so as not to give any spoilers away, and so I shall try.

I must confess I'm still so dazzled by the authentic feel of Fly that I’ve studied the author’s photo more than I do usually with writers I admire, this time to try to determine if he’s a light-skinned black – so light as to pass for white. One of Amazon’s customer reviewers of Fly says flat out “he’s a white guy.” I’m pretty sure he is white, but. . .his writing is so unusually good and so authentic I don’t really care. Just curious. Also guessing maybe this ambiguity might be why, as some critics point out, the author hasn’t reached the popular success of novelists he clearly outshines. Perhaps there’s an instinctive reluctance to too enthusiastically embrace the work of a white guy who writes like a black guy. Who knows. We people! Disappointingly chicken-hearted, we can be, distinguishing the real from the more comfortable appearance.

Fly is set in New Orleans, which may be why some reviewers compare him with James Lee Burke. I would disagree, although each writer’s work has a constant poetic feel other crime writers only try sometimes to attain. I’ve read pretty much all of Burke’s work. Admire him greatly, and, in fact, will read anything by him I can find. To me, though, Fly is leagues beyond Burke’s best, in its poetic sensibility, its characters, the inescapable genius at its core. Its plot is rather simple: a series of “cases,” involving the hunt for missing people. Mostly Griffin ultimately fails, or he finds them too late to save them from whatever disaster they were facing, losing a vital piece of himself with each vocational failure. Fly covers much of a lifetime, starting in 1964 and winding up in the present when the book came out in 1992. About the only missing modern feature coming to mind is the lack of smart phones — even simple old fliptop cell phones – and that’s an afterthought that never occurred to me during the reading.

Here’s a small sampling of what I found so riveting and internally explosive in Fly:

In a notoriously wild city, the Channel at one time and for a long time was the wildest spot of all, scene of bars with names like Bucket of Blood, showers of bricks for encroaching outsiders, police killings. Whenever it rained, which in New Orleans was damn near always, water poured down from the Garden District just uptown onto the poor, low-living Irish here, which is probably where the name came from.

Forget the Longs and political machines, forget the Mafia, the Petroleum Club, the Church or city hall: roaches are the ones who really run New Orleans. Our proudest product, our veritable raison d’être. No one does roaches like we do. Ought to be a statue of one out there on the river where everybody could see it, big as a building.

Other people’s roaches, other place’s roaches, run for cover when you turn the lights on. You ever seen any different? But not here, man. New Orleans roaches are more liable to drop to one knee and give out with a chorus or two of ‘Swanee.’ They’re the true Negroes, roaches are, the only pure strain that’s left, maybe. You know what happened in all them woodpiles.

That’s from the 1964 section. Here’s one from 1990:

“There isn’t anyone like me, Lew.” I looked at her then, the way she held the toast, looking at it slightly cross-eyed, and I knew she was right. It’s never ideas, but simple things, that break our hearts: a falling leaf that plunges us into our own irredeemable past, the memory of a young woman’s ankle, a single smile among unknown faces, a madeleine, a piece of toast.

And here’s a poem fragment I found on the author’s webpage (he’s also a poet, a professor, a musicologist, a reviewer, a biographer, and undoubtedly a few other things that aren’t coming to mind). The fragment:

What is left for us, here
among our families, books and friends,
but to go on as we must.
There will be no more Tolstoys.
There's only the chance to do
what remains:
Find beauty, try to understand, survive.

from "To a Russian Friend"

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]


Wednesday, June 23, 2021


I'm not going to tell you. Sorry, nary a hint. You'll have to find it on your own. Ordinarily that shouldn't be too hard, considering there are only twenty stories. The catch is each story’s so damned good it might come down to flipping a coin to determine which is your favorite. The thing about mine is it’s so different it caught me by surprise. Some of you might disagree that being different is enough to win the contest, and ordinarily I would agree. But that is only what caught my eye. The story itself then went ahead and did its job on me. I shall probably never see crime fiction quite the same ever again. So why not tell you? Why make you work for it? First of all, reading these stories isn’t work. It’s pure pleasure. Secondly, my preference might trigger contrariness in some readers, and I wouldn’t want to do that. Sheriff Rhodes wouldn’t do that, nor would Bill, his creator.

Bill Crider left us three years ago, and this collection, Bullets and Other Hurting Things, is a tribute to his memory by fellow writers. I knew him through the several Sheriff Rhodes mysteries I read of the eighteen he published, and through his blog, on which he participated daily and where he befriended all who stopped by to chat.

Many of the contributors to this book are well-known crime writers themselves—Bill Pronzini, Sara Paretsky, Robert J. Randisi, Patricia Abbot, and Ben Boulden, to name those I immediately recognized. Boulden, whose longtime blog, Gravetapping, was tapped to take over Bill Crider’s short-story column in Mystery Scene magazine after Bill left us.

One of the contributors is Bill’s daughter, Angela Crider Neary, whose story, High Time for Murder, eased the Crider style into a new generational milieu. In an introduction to Bullets and Other Hurting Things, Ms. Neary tells us her dad was mysterious in his own right: “Bill Crider was a man of mystery. Not just in the sense that he was the author of dozens and dozens of mystery novels and short stories, but by virtue of the fact that he was often a quiet and private person — even around his own family. So, even though I’m his daughter, I’ll confess that I know less about him than I wish I did. As he was coming into his own as a writer and expert in the area of crime and mystery fiction, he didn’t share a lot of insights into who he was with me. . .I find out something new about him every time I read an article or a work of fiction he wrote. . .He once told me that he was much more comfortable speaking in front of a large audience than being in an intimate setting with a few people he didn’t know well. Invariably I had to warn boyfriends who met him, ‘He’s very quiet. Don’t take it personally’. . .”

Bill Crider

Hardboiled/noir author Rick Ollerman, who edited the collection, said he invited the contributors here to “write about small-town crime, hard-boiled PIs, or really just anything they thought Bill might have gotten a kick out of.” I’ve no doubt Bill would have gotten more than a kick out of these stories. I sure as hell did. And these stories introduced me to several writers new to me, writers I intend to look up and read more of their work. Too, the nostalgia bug bit me while reading this collection, reminding me it’s time to download more Sheriff Rhodes mysteries.

Did I mention Graham Greene? I don’t believe I did. He’s long gone, as well, and by amazing coincidence I’ve just reread The Quiet American, and was reminded again of his subtle, genteel style while reading one of the stories in Bullets and Other Hurting Things. In fact, by gosh, that’s the one I mentioned up above, the one you’ll have to find on your own. There. A hint. The only one you’re getting from me!

[For more Short-Story Wednesday links check ]Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog


Friday, June 18, 2021

HEARTS AT DAWN – Alysa Salzberg

Hearts at Dawn is a fairy tale told by one of the fairies—or witches, as she tells us, "or some more accurate sort of non-mortal." She doesn't give us her name, possibly out of shame, because, using the witch side of her powers, she once did an "awful awful" thing, and now spends the entire book trying to rally our support in making amends.

Our fairy/witch narrator starts her story recounting a silent duel between her and her mentor, a gorgeous raven-haired beauty who captures the eye of the tall, dark, handsome (of course) Charles Rush whom our storyteller—admittedly plain and with “disaster” hair--had her eye on. Rush and mentor marry, and have a baby boy. Consequently our nameless non-mortal, crushed and maddened with rage, conjures a curse against the child, Orin, that when he turns twelve he will become a monster. And he does.

Elongated hands with claws. “Hooves at his feet, dark fur everywhere, a muzzle overgrown with teeth. . .

“Even in the haze of my anger, I did try to be merciful,” she tells us. “This was only something that would happen at night. . .he could live perfectly normally when it was light.”

And so it comes about. But before this happens, while Orin is still a baby, his father tires of the raven-haired beauty, and she leaves them. Disappears. Charles marries again, this time into a moneyed family, and he and his new bride soon have another son, whom they call Joseph. The half-brothers grow up to be pals, and, when Orin is 24, they move to Paris. Their father, Charles, had wondered if his first wife had bewitched him. Visits to doctors and mystics, however, provide to clue to Orin’s nighttime monsterhood. He and Joseph hope to find their mother in the City of Lights, and possibly an antidote for Orin’s curse. The two take separate suites in the Grand Hôtel, but see each other daily. Orin spends his nights alone in his room studying books that might shed some light on what he now understands must be a curse. He’s a half-time werewolf, it seems, and a mild-mannered one, at that. He’s learned by now a half truth: that the way to undo the curse is to fall in love. As our narrator read in an ancient tome, “Give your heart to another and have their heart. Love and be truly loved.” In a form not visible or audible to Orin, she can only hope to communicate with him by calling upon another witch, which she does, but chooses one who bungles the job. Yet, even had the “madwoman” gotten it right.

Orin’s main obstacle is a fear of getting romantic with anyone. Far as he knows his condition doesn’t include violent tendencies, but how can he be sure? We see him fall in love the instant he sees his neighbor, who runs a photography studio on the same floor as his room. But he avoids her. Uses formal French to address her, instead of her name, and turning or walking away after a brief, polite exchange.

Their first meeting occurred in front of Claire’s studio, near the room he was about take. Claire had just stepped in the hallway. “A woman with a messy chignon. . . short in stature, with a pleasantly proportioned, somewhat generous figure.” Her laugh while talking with a customer in the doorway charmed him. “An extraordinary laugh, a perfect kind of joyful music.” Yet, whether or not he even knew her first name, he continued addressing her, “Mademoiselle Turin,” each time tickling her perplexity button the more:

Claire was standing in the hallway by her studio door. She stared straight at him, her eyes meeting his. Transfixed by fear, Orin stared back at her for a moment. In the woman’s eyes, there wasn’t fear at all, only perplexity and revulsion.” Over the next days she begins peeking through his keyhole at night. A pretty smart cookie, she eventually figures things out, but continues discreetly pursuing her curiosity and arguing with herself that OK, she loves him, but what about this monster business at night? No partying, no strolling the boulevards. She understands the absurd chill, and he’s kind and nonviolent. She couldn’t love him if he were, she knows. But would he trust her to be with him at night? Would he even share his terrible secret? She also had never found love before. Until now.

Complementing this suspense-building, incrementally advancing fairytale romance is its setting. It is Paris, but it’s the mid-19th century Paris under siege during the Franco-Prussian War. Food goes scarce, forcing people to stand in breadlines for hours. Many start killing rats for the meat. Not even household pets are safe if they’re caught outdoors. Cats being the most vulnerable because of their independent nature, the Grand Hôtel’s resident feline, Hippolyte, has Claire and other residents worried. I won’t risk a spoiler here to even hint at how Orin steps up and gets Hippolyte, out of Paris to Claire’s brother and his family where they live relatively safe from catibalism. Everyone knows Orin is now Claire’s hero, but the two still keep a tentative distance between them. She pretends she doesn’t know his secret, and he continues to call her “Mademoiselle Turin.”

Author Alysa Salzberg acknowledges she’d always been intrigued by the classic Beauty and the Beast fairytale, but doing a modern version wasn’t her first intention. But browsing in Paris’s Bibliothèque Drouot, she came upon a book about the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussion War. Despite being a Paris resident, and a writer for many years, she admits being only vaguely familiar with that episode in French history. She found the book fascinating reading, and then started writing about it.

Alysa Salzberg

I learned so much from it, but what stayed with me most strongly was what a weird time that four months was if you were living in Paris. And then, somehow that thought twined itself around a story that’s always floating through my head, my favorite story: Beauty and the Beast.

Are the endings the same? Similar? A modern twist? I cannot honestly say, as I’m not familiar enough with the classic version, nor have I seen the Disney animation--or any of the film or theatrical productions.


I do know how Hearts at Dawn ends. A suggestion: read this review again as close to midnight as you can, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find the answer. Or you can ask Google right now!


Tuesday, June 1, 2021


He’d been in the tub the better part of an hour, Calvin had. The duty water had long washed most of the shit off and carried it down the drain, leaving only a trickle from the shower head above the spigot knob he was unable to reach with enough leverage to push all of the way in to choke off the damnably taunting trickle. Now, awakening from a short nap and remembering he’d somehow gotten himself turned around and was facing the drain and water source, he hoped his muscles were sufficiently rested for another one-handed assault on the wall-bolted steel handle located waist high were he standing. He assisted the pull with the other hand pushing against the tub bottom. The bicep-to-shoulder muscle burn urged him for several heartbeats, until it pooped out. Again.

Taft had help

He lay back. Maybe with a little more rest he’d risk tearing something—tendon? heart muscle? Brain vein? One final herculean strain, if it didn’t kill him might get him at least to his knees. Then he could roll against the side. Maybe drape a leg over onto the bathroom floor. The goal at this point was to sit on the tub edge as a first step to eventually standing. Seemed sensible considering his seemingly critically limited options. Time for another nap. . .quick one. . .get the subconscious involved, maybe flash some new thinking into the cerebrum.

Quickly dominating his slide toward another nap was the concept of critical, which led a dive of notion fragments to the “quiet room” for triage screening. It reappeared shortly, still pack leader, but toting a flag with the word thinking.

Much to ponder with those two words conjoined, he suddenly knew. Critical thinking was a phrase he’d only recently memorized as its familiarity grew to dominate the more learned Facebook discussions. It struck him at first as unnecessarily contrived, redundancy giving serious hue to common sense. And the word critical alone, in most applications, left a vaguely threatening taste in his throat. He’d long known he was a right-brainer, indifferent to math and less interested in logic than intuition. He knew it was optimum to have them agreeing, and he knew he courted danger relying on only one. But at the moment he felt gratitude recognizing it was not too late for a little left-brain help which indeed surfaced, as if beckoned, as an archival memory of having watched two or three episodes of an old TV series called “MacGyver.” The series hero, MacGyver, of course, is a plucky type with a head full of science. Calvin remembered a scene or two where MacGyver helped girls out of impossible situations using everyday simple objects as tools—e.g. hairpins, and/or shoelaces. Calvin had neither within reach right then, but his merely thinking about thinking like this shifted his respect to antidotes from the toxins borne in fear of panic.

  On the verge of another flash-nap, he experienced the eureka recognition he’d been using the wrong muscles, and understanding this with logic proudly affirming his embarrassed intuition, Calvin zoned out and allowed the nap to build energy for one last burst. His newly invigorated neurons closed ranks during the downtime, joining both brain hemispheres to ward off a worst-case fixation that refused to cede its voice: how long could he expect to survive in the tub before. . .

He lived alone, voice out of reach of anyone, cellphone in another room, days away possibly before Jack, the only visitor who braved the Great Pandemic occasionally to see him, might appear with a hot meal from Shirley. Jack had a key. Seeing Cal’s truck out front and getting no response from the apartment he’d surely open the door enough to give a shout. Embarrassment be damned.

Suddenly the horned skull of Jumpin’ Jack Flash appeared indelible in the forefront of his cognitive deliberations. A true boo moment, tainted with the irony he knew he, Calvin, could die regardless—stroke, heart attack, or any of a myriad of mysterious vital failings of a body grown worn and weak from age and inactivity. It could happen anytime, anywhere without so much as a flick of warning. But to be found naked, alone, in a bathtub? At best Mr. Flash had a sense of humor, albeit mitigating the boo effect by rendering the scenario too ludicrous to take root. Calvin almost laughed aloud. He flexed his muscles, concentrating mainly on those in the right arm, the one that might have ruptured itself pulling on the steel wall handle. Now, of course, with MacGyver’s critical thinking assistance, he knew to push with the arm was his main physical strength. He’d barely used those muscles in his desperation to wrench himself to his knees. First step was to reverse his geography to enable maximum purchase of the tub’s sturdy edge. Once realigned he clamped a death grip on the edge. Then, splaying his left hand on the opposite edge for balance, and filling his lungs with what he accepted could be his last conscious breath, he pushed. . .


Saturday, May 29, 2021


Roger Loring doesn’t give a big cahoot if the menu’s changed, so long as it doesn’t take half a day to reach a live human voice.

He’s back, badass as ever! So badass Loring is that I’m going to repeat his latest book’s title so I can hyperlink it to his Amazon book page so he doesn’t come after me with his nine-iron for leaving out an important marketing tool. Here, then, with no further ado: LISTEN CAREFULLY as OUR MENU has RECENTLY CHANGED. There! If that won’t mitigate the retired high school teacher’s potential rage should he detect so much as an imagined nuance of inattention to details in this review, I’ll trade my keyboard for a mega-screen TV and cede the word-slinging game to the pros. I might even start calling him “Rog,” buy a growler of my neighborhood brew pub’s seasonal beer, and invite Loring to watch October’s mad basketball playoffs. Oh, the hell I would. I’d pass on hoops, maybe catch a few Packer games—unless, o lort. he’s a Vikings fan, and I’d just as soon not even know that, at least until this review is posted.

Having embedded a pretty big clue above identifying perhaps Loring’s all-time favorite sport, I await breathlessly for the questions to arrive. Not giving a hint in this paragraph, as I wish to mildly rebuke readers who’ve been merely skimming up to now without seriously noticing the review’s clever wordsmithery, and also to encourage those who might have overlooked the hyperlinked title of the book under discussion (I’ve italicized the word hyperlink as a courtesy to the many of my Luddite cohorts possibly baffled by this unfamiliar word among the many they may find in the baffling new digital society Roger Loring’s latest book—title hyperlinked above—lampoons for baffling so many of us in certain age groups who’ve yet to discover the welcome face of His Amazing Highness Mayor Google presiding over there next to the bar).

Taking a giant leap of faith, I’m assuming no one who’s read this far has any doubt about the meaning of the book’s title, even those trusting souls who listen patiently to the endless recorded messages requiring of them to push this or that button on their phones, always with the hope each button will deliver them to the coveted live human voice, but only to find in many if not most cases they’ve been routed to the exit door and a replay of the endless mechanical loop starting the whole process over again. Here’s Loring’s frank opinion of what are called Automated Phone Systems (APS): “I feel that the now widely accepted model for business customer service—and I don’t want to be too harsh here—is annoying, stupid, intolerable, heartless, self-serving, impractical, and, in case you missed it, annoying. And to make sure you get it I’ll say it one more time. Automated answering systems are annoying.”

And he’s not just whining. He fights back, gives these Scroogey corporations a dose of their own inhuman parsimoniousness. If you’re calling Loring from a heartless, penny-pinching, indifferent, etc. corporate office, here’s what you can expect to get:

You have reached the Loring residence. This call would be monitored for quality assurance if Roger cared about quality. He doesn’t. If you would like to hear this message in English, press 1. To hear this message in Spanish, press 2. To hear this message in Chinese, Russian, or Pig Latin— what are you thinking? To hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s rap version of this message, press 3.”

This being the title story is also the first in the book, leading the first of three sections organized by general topic. The first section is titled Welcome to My Life. In the interest of encouraging you to buy the book, thus averting a nine-iron furor from its author, I shall give you mere tidbits as enticement, such as this quote from the story Clearing the Clutter: “The only two items that thrift shops refuse to accept nowadays are encyclopedias and leisure suits.” Taking a snarky swipe at a younger generation, Loring opines, “Young people today pretty much judge the value of something by whether it fits into a USB plug or can be downloaded.” Personally I think that’s a tad harsh, but I’ll not so much as consider raising a stink over it.

My favorite title in this section, The Long Goodbye, also had me nodding like a bobblehead during descriptions of the difficulties his wife and her family exhibit trying to disengage from a long phone conversation or a visit in person to the Loring household. Because of gender implications with this topic, I shall tiptoe quietly away and let you figure out for yourselves what it is all about and whether it should be reported to the Commission Investigating Suspiciously Incorrect Troglodytian Gender Outrages Before They Reach Debate Status on Facebook. Perhaps to balance the political implication of The Long Goodbye, Loring has added Cook, Grill, Whatever. Do You Want a Beer?

This section also includes If I Ever Write a Detective Novel, This Will Be the First Chapter, which I read and was crushed to find at the end, in all capital letters: TO BE CONTINUED. . . (BUT PROBABLY NOT BECAUSE I HAVE TO CALL PEOPLE TO SEE IF THEY WANT AN EXTENDED CAR WARRANTY. THAT’S MY DAY JOB.) 

And leaving fortune cookies in mailboxes, I suspect. . .

The book’s second section deals with the media, the mere word of which upsets me so cruelly I shan’t even give you any of its titles. Except one: An Abundance of Pundits, if only for the rhyme.

The third section is about sports, aptly titled The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Defeat. Its stories include Loring’s personal history as a young athlete and confessions of his attempt to recapture some of that youthful prowess in his more mature years, such as today.

This is the place in my review to revisit the admonition I delivered up top to those who may still be wondering what is Loring’s all-time favorite sport, the answer can be found by closely scrutinizing this story, titled Old Guys Playing Basketball. Once you’ve figured that one out, answered the question you had up top because you merely skimmed the second paragraph of this review, you qualify for the bonus answer to the question of a second sport Loring expounds upon. You can answer it yourself by reading I Can Hit That Shot, which starts out, “There was a time when I seriously considered turning pro. Okay, I just had a dream about turning pro, or maybe it was a hallucination. Whatever it was, the truth is that my **** game was never at a level where I should have considered, dreamed, or hallucinated about being a pro. In fact, I should never have been allowed to buy **** c***s.

So there you have it. If you guess both sports correctly you can proceed to the story titled Trash Talk—something I must point out I have never done, and am still in a low-level state of sub-hysterical shock to see such words in published book.

It just now occurred to me in my low-level state of sub-hysterical shock that I have not yet revealed the titles of Loring’s first two books. This might well be a residual effect of seeing the words “In your face, chump” or “You can’t guard me, chump” on a respectfully printed page. The books? Ah yes. The first one is WHY MEN DON’T ASK for DIRECTIONS, which I am still afraid to read. The second one I’ve not only read but reviewed, and I’m hyperlinking the title (without feeling the need to italicize hyperlink, assuming you all are up to speed on that one) for your convenience. Here then is I DON'T TEXT WHILE DRIVING, WALKING, or STANDING STILL.. One click and you're there!

For links to more short-story collections, click SHORT STORY WEDNESDAY.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

TRACKS – Peter Cherches

Surprising me as I finished Tracks, Peter Cherches’s retrospective of the music that awakened and nurtured his soul, and trying to imagine producing a film version with a musical theme that might capture the mysterious allure of melody and lyric for the human sensibility, I came up dry until the very last sentence of the finale, the part that gives us data about the author: “His first album as a jazz vocalist, Mercerized! Songs of Johnny Mercer, featuring Lee Feldman on piano, was released in 2016.”

Merely reading the album title instantly mercerized me, summoning two irresistible ear worms—Moon River and Skylark—that set up residence and began dueling for my exclusive attention. I suspect when they realized apparently neither likely would prevail by end of day, they shrugged, winked at each other, and soon were combined in a delicate orchestral improvisation of the merged Mercer classics, leaving me convinced beyond further discussion I’d found the background theme for my Cherches film. I’m even hearing occasional Mercerish riffs from the weird, imperial sax of Thelonious Monk. Peeking ahead in Track’s chronology, I learned Cherches wrote lyrics to 18 Monk compositions for his (Cherches’s) first concert as a jazz singer, in 1987. Genius, anyone?

Leaping back to the beginning, Cherches traces his seduction by music to “Beatlemania,” a time he calls a perfect storm: The music and “a pair of eight-year-old ears.” He suggests “that’s about the age we begin to form a real sense of our musical preferences, as we start to get both a refined sense of our own selves as well as our place in a social set and the cultural marketplace (even if we’re not aware of it at the time). Music becomes essential to our identities as well as the soundtrack of our generation.” Should any studies exist claiming otherwise, he adds, “I don’t want to know about them.”

Nor, should anyone ask, do I.

“Once the Beatles hit the charts. . .a portable radio was an essential accessory to the lives of myself and my friends. We’d have it tuned to WABC or WMCA while we played punch ball and stoopball and Chinese handball [don’t ask me]. For a more private listening experience in the pre-Walkman days you’d either have a mono earphone that looked like a hearing aid or you’d hold the speaker up to your ear. At night, you’d put the transistor radio under your pillow for surreptitious listening. That’s how I heard Jean Shepherd’s Saturday night routines from the Limelight club in Greenwich Village, one of my earliest storytelling influences.”

 Peter Cherches

By early adolescence the antennae of his musical curiosity were tickling jazz. He knew of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and before he’d had a chance to hear them play he already knew Davis was “possibly the most famous living jazz musician, and that Coltrane had a reputation for playing really ‘weird.’ Weird interested me. I understood weird. I was a weird kid.” His first album, Milestones, featured both artists. Coltrane, who hadn’t yet reached his improvisational apex, disappointed Cherches’s thirst for weird. When that summit arrived years later, Cherches heard it sail right over his musical head. Coltrane’s album Om, convinced him “the guy had totally lost it. All these years later I’ve come to understand that I just haven’t found it yet. And that I might never. And that’s all right.”

Meanwhile, as his tastes continued to grow in jazz, his grip on pop—in particular rock and roll—remained unwavering, albeit its corrupted wobbles through occasional episodes of The Partridge Family, and certainly not for the music, which he characterizes as “really, lame, bullshit bubblegum. . .” Nope, better sensibility by far hath our then-sophomore teen, who does allow a fierce infatuation then for Susan Dey. Pretty clear now he believed at the time it was true luuuv, and oh, I’d bet my favorite Fleer’s baseball cards Cherches’s face acquired a rosy tint as he wrote this section (For the record, my first TV flame was Annette Funicello--and my face is always red).

Here’s a tip for anyone interested in writing songs—lyrics, that is—from Lee Feldman, a Cherches collaborator when he began performing, singing in clubs, writing lyrics, and recording. Cherches asked Feldman what he thought worked best in a lyric. “He said strong visual imagery was the thing he most looks for, the picture that can crystallize the sentiment.” This comes in a piece on Motown, with a heart-rending anecdote about the conception of I Wish It Would Rain written by Rodger Penzabene for the Temptations. Cherches explains the background and consequence of these lyrics so poignantly the diamond-hard crystal their sentiment becomes could draw blood from the heart of a zombie.

Plunging headlong into the blues, Peter Cherches gives it to us straight: “I became a blues-mad adolescent, feverishly collecting records from all corners of the blues.” And he goes on to prove here his soul’s not at all shy to admit he and his crowd preferred the Ten Years After recording of Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl, primarily, he says, for guitarist Alvin Lee’s pyrotechnics but because of a boldness the group displayed in the song’s vocal refrain: “‘I want to ball you, I want to ball you all night long.’ Teenagers are very impressed by musical pyrotechnics (as well as balling), and we devoured Ten Years After’s Ssssh album that included the tune.”

Citing a U.S. Supreme Court Justice as to what makes a jazz singer--“I know it when I hear it”--Cherches proclaims Mark Murphy “the quintessential jazz singer. . . a fearless singer. He took the kinds of chances that would sound ridiculous on lesser artists. His rhythmic fluidity was virtually unparalleled among male singers, and his scat singing convincing even to a scat skeptic like myself. Murphy would treat the changes of a tune like a lover in a complicated relationship: he might caress them at first, settle into them, and then challenge them, push them—playfully, of course. He could bend a tune, a lyric, to his will while knowing full well he was still respecting the composition, in his own sweet way. Murphy stretched the limits of a song while maintaining the integrity of the melody and lyric even as he radically altered what was written (I tried to think of a way to paraphrase this—really I did—but I’m embarrassed to admit I am not a fearless paraphraser, no way, no how. Not with something this good).

Afraid my concentration in this review on Cherches’s musical development has shirked his parallel growth as a widely published writer of short stories and nonfiction prose. Billy Collins didn’t miss it, though. The former U.S. Poet Laureate wrote, “To Gödel, Escher, and Bach we might consider adding Peter Cherches.”

Anyone wish to debate Mr. Collins?

Saturday, May 8, 2021


 Three figures stood on the road with their backs to the sun, but only two cast shadows. Cattle clustered in the distance, their caretakers watching from the slanting shade of the terebinth trees, and even further beyond were sheep with their shepherds. At the crest of the hill before them, birds circled the gates of a walled city where even the land seemed to fall silent. Each mudbrick structure stood washed with flares of sunset that gave a burnt illumination to the little metropolis. . .

The year is 1415 BC. The three figures are there to determine the fate of the “little metropolis” before them. It is called Sodom. We, of course, know this scenario will not end well for the Sodomites or the residents of its sister city, Gomorrah, as the Bible tells us so. But the many contributors to this historic document, some of whom give us poetic eloquence in their narratives—at least in translation—had not yet acquired the literary craft element of showing instead of merely telling. Jane Lebak takes us back with the hidden camera of her celestial imagination to those BC/CE days, inhabiting biblical characters, mortal and spiritual, with doubts and blunders big and small, joy, unbearable grief, and sometimes annoying little personality traits: a good place to mention the Archangel Gabriel, whom today we would pop-diagnose as “on the spectrum,” for driving everyone crazy with his/her analyses of everything. I repeat, everything. He/she?

Gabriel can be either male or female, perhaps humanity’s first exposure to cross-gender identity. One of the three charged with determining the fate of Sodom, Gabriel appears in human form as woman. She’s with Michael, another of the heavenly inner circle of angels, appearing today as a man. The third figure and fellow inner-circle angel, is Raphael. He remains in spiritual form, fully winged but invisible to humans.

Their mission, should they accept it, is to scout around Sodom looking for people of good character. If they can find at least ten they won’t have to burn the city down, including its population. Evidently this deal was given only to Sodom, although Gomorrah’s fate hung on her sister’s.

Far as I can tell, having read the Old Testament’s King James translation only once, Lebak sticks to scripture on public details. This was my sense reading An Arrow in Flight. To confirm my hunch l scrolled to the top and read an account of her preparation. As a high school student interested in ecclesiastica she found Gustav Davidson's Dictionary of Angels, and studied it on her lunch breaks. “It was amazing to sort through all the myths and stories.” She credits an article by Geoff Miler in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly: "Raphael the Liar: Angelic Deceit And Testing In The Book Of Tobit." She went to the Prophet Ezekiel (16:49) for a description of Sodom’s sin, which she pluralized with the visible two of her angelic scouts experiencing them personally.

"How did it get this bad?" Michael says as he and Gabriel head into the city, Raphael hovering along behind. "I understood the Flood, but that was everyone. How can only two cities deserve destruction?" He suggests their approach as poor and needy travelers might persuade the Sodomites to respond with compassion “and then we won't have to destroy the city after all."

Gabriel dismisses that possibility: "Your assertion is that it's easy to derail an entrenched self-centered focus. That may not be the case. . .it may no longer be possible here to raise moral children" [felt a chill reading that]. Indeed, the instant they set foot in town young males begin appearing, on rooftops and behind windows. “Gabriel's nose wrinkled. ‘Three men on a rooftop just noticed us. They're obnoxious.’ Michael led her to a shadowed portion of a mudbrick building and looked about the square where four streets intersected. ‘The men left the building top,’ Gabriel whispered. ‘Four men are watching indecently from a ground-floor window.’"

Soon, as if vultures homing in on wounded prey, a small mob of young men move on the two strangers, cornering them in a dead-end alley. Without their angelic powers, Gabriel and Michael are virtually helpless. Raphael is there more as a witness, not permitted to interfere. He can only watch.

"‘Sweetheart,’ said one, coming too near, ‘welcome to Sodom.’ Gabriel shoved the man. Michael drew his knife, but the men rushed him. At the sounds of a fight, Sodomites poured from their houses. As though the original eleven were not too difficult to handle, now two dozen interested onlookers surrounded the fight, laying odds and placing bets.

At the far end of the alley, Gabriel screamed. Michael lunged for her, but six attackers pressed him back against the wall, and he took a punch to the gut. Four men had Gabriel's arms and legs pinned. Even as they brought her to the ground, she struggled. Above the men's laughter sounded Gabriel's calls for help. Michael pushed forward, but the gang shoved him back against the wall. ‘You're next,’ the closest man said. ‘She's just the appetizer.’ She kicked. Michael twisted. There were just too many. . .” They escape only after Gabriel calls upon help from above, summoning a blinding light that dazzles the punks so deeply they do the zombie shuffle going away. They spend the night at the home of Abraham’s nephew and his family. Name of “Lot.”

Lest you mistake this setup for something from the superhero pages of Marvel, bear in mind the astronomical budget that would be required here just for special effects and to pay the cast of extras. Each resident of Sodom and Gomorrah has a personal guardian angel (as does every star in the firmament, but that is another movie story). Sadly these angels have no direct power, serving only as advisers, the kind that sit on one shoulder trying to turn us from the temptations of demons on the other. For the record, we learn there is an infinite number of unemployed angels, as well. They’re everywhere. Everywhere. Presumably the film version of An Arrow in Flight, should one come to be conceived, could employ digital wizardry to multiply the beatific faces and heavenly wings of what the industry now calls “background.”

O lort, I see I’ve spent the better part of this review on the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, and haven’t even gotten to the denouement! And it’s only the first episode in the novel! But it sets the stage for the real story: Gabriel’s year-long punishment for having made a small mistake—small by my measure, but. . .well, here’s what happens: Given a much later assignment, hundreds of years after the Sodom/Gomorrah saga, Gabriel must burn the city of Nineveh to the ground. Poor damned Gabriel, instructed to gather fiery coals from the ground and cast them over the city, allows another angel to hand him the coals, which he then scatters over the city. This alone—not picking up the coals himself, as ordered--deeply annoys the power upstairs, who banishes Gabriel to wander the land for a year in human form learning human ways and the importance of strict obedience. During this probationary separation from the heavenly realm, Satan and his multitude of demons constantly appear and hover around Gabriel like gnats on an August afternoon. All Gabriel can do if he—he’s Mr. Gabriel now—finds himself out of his depth is to call for help, that being Michael, who appears instantly to drive off the tempters.

There are adventures ahead for our chastened cherub, and we are along for the ride. The odyssey concludes with a reunion in which Gabriel must keep to himself the memory of having helped an earlier generation of the family. Here it can get a little complex, tightly plotted, with voices shifting from angelic to human and back. I became so rapt I started mouth breathing. 

An Arrow in Flight, is the first of a series of books and stories featuring heaven’s seven top archangels. My initiation to the series started at SevenArchangels: Annihilation. Click on that title for my review.