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.