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Showing topics in Cara's Cabinet of Themes and Curiosities, Novel Writing Advice Videos - Who Has it Right?, Crime Reads - Suspense, Thrillers, Crime, Gun!, Writer Unboxed - The "Connect Kitty" Approves, The Fantasy Hive - A U.K. Wonderland, Women on Writing - WOW and WOW!, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and The Paris Review - A Literary Wonderland posted in for the last 365 days.

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  1. Past hour
  2. A Sunday afternoon in early spring. We’d spent the morning quiet, in separate rooms—me in my office, writing; Molly on the bed in the guest room, working too, so I believed. I’d pass by and see her using her laptop or reading from the books piled on the bed where she lay prone, or sometimes staring off out through the window to the yard. It was warm for March already, full of the kind of color through which you can begin to see the blooming world emerge. Molly didn’t want to talk really, clearly feeling extremely down again, and still I tried to hug her, leaning over the bed to wrap my arms around her shoulders as best I could. She brushed me off a bit, letting me hold her but not really responding. I let her be—it’d been a long winter, coming off what felt like the hardest year in both our lives, to the point we’d both begun to wonder if, not when, the struggle would ever slow. I wished there could be something I might say to lift her spirits for a minute, but I also knew how much she loathed most any stroke of optimism or blind hope, each more offensive than the woe alone. Later, though, while passing in the hallway in the dark, she slipped her arms around me at the waist and drew me close. She told me that she loved me, almost a whisper, tender, small in my arms. I told her I loved her too, and we held each other standing still, a clutch of limbs. I put my head in her hair and looked beyond on through the bathroom where half-muted light pressed at the window as through a tarp. When we let go, she slipped out neatly, no further words, and back to bed. The house was still, very little sound besides our motion. After another while spent working, I came back and asked if she’d come out with me to the yard to see the chickens, one of our favorite ways to pass the time. Outside, it was sodden, lots of rain lately, and the birds were restless, eager to rush out of their run and hunt for bugs. Molly said no, she didn’t want to go, asked if I’d bring one to the bedroom window so she could see—something I often did so many days, an easy way to make her smile. I scooped up Woosh, our Polish hen, my favorite, and brought her over to the glass where Molly sat. This time, though, when I approached the window, Molly didn’t move toward us, open the window, as she would usually. Even as I smiled and waved, holding Woosh up close against the glass, speaking for her in the hen-voice that I’d made up, Molly’s mouth held clamped, her eyes like dents obscured against the glare across the dimness of the room. Woosh began to wriggle, wanting down. The other birds were ranging freely, unattended—which always made me nervous now, as in recent months a hawk had taken favor to our area, often reappearing in lurking circles overhead, waiting for the right time to swoop down and make a meal out of our pets. So I didn’t linger for too long at the window, antsy anyway to get on and go for my daily run around the neighborhood, one of the few reasons I still had for getting out of the house. I gripped Woosh by her leg and made it wave, a little goodbye, then hurried on, leaving Molly staring blankly at the space where I’d just been: a view of a fence obscured only by the lone sapling she’d planted last spring in yearning for the day she wouldn’t have to see the neighbors. *** I corralled the chickens to their coop, came back inside. In Molly’s office, where I had a closet, I sat across from her while changing clothes in preparation for my daily run. Molly spoke calmly, said she’d just finished reading the galley of my next novel and that she liked the way it ended: with the book’s protagonist suspended in a stasis of her memories, forever stuck. I felt surprised to hear she’d finished, given her low spirit and how she’d said she found the novel difficult to read, because it hurt for her to have to see the pain behind my language, how much I’d been carrying around all this time. I told her I was grateful she’d made it through, that I wanted to hear more of what she thought after my run, already anxious to get on with it, in go-mode. My reaction seemed to vex her, causing a little back and forth where we both kept misunderstanding what the other had just said, each at different ends of a conversation. She remained flat on the bed as I kissed her forehead, squeezed her hand, then proceeded through the house, out the front door. Coming down the driveway, I took my phone out to put on music I could run to and saw I’d received an email, sent from Molly, according to the timestamp, just after I had left her in the room. (no subject), read the subject, and in the body, just: I love you, nothing else, besides a Word document she’d attached, titled Folk Physics, which I knew to be the title of the manuscript of poems she’d been working on the last few months. I stopped short in my tracks, surprised to see she’d sent it to me just like that, then and there. Something felt off, too out of nowhere—not like Molly, or perhaps too much like Molly. I turned around at once and went inside. *** During my brief absence, she’d already risen from the bed, up and about for one of only a few times that day. I found her in the kitchen with the lights off, standing as if dazed by my appearance, arms at her sides. She seemed to clench up as I came near, letting me put my arms around her but staying taut, hand on my chest. She hesitated when I asked if she’d finished her manuscript, wondering why she hadn’t mentioned it. Yes, she said quietly, she guessed it was finished, a draft at least but no big deal. I told her I was excited to get to read it either way, that I was proud of her, and squeezed her tightly one more time, then let her go. She seemed to hover there in front of me a moment, waiting mute for what I’d do next. I asked if after my run we could go to Whole Foods, pick up something to make for dinner together, and maybe watch a movie, have a nice night here at home. She said yes, that sounded good, and I said good, I’d see her soon, then one last hug before I left her standing in the kitchen in the dark. *** On my run, I followed my usual route around our neighborhood without much thought. I’d always liked the way the world went narrow in this manner during exercise, as if there could be nothing else to do but the task at hand, one foot in front of the other, counting down without a number. I don’t remember seeing any other people, then or later, though I must have; in retrospect, the smaller details would fade to gray around the corridor of time sent rushing forward in the wake of what awaited just ahead. Near the end of the run, I decided to extend my route, turning around to double back the way I’d just come, adding on an extra half-mile on a path that took me past the entrance to the gardens where Molly and I would often walk in summers. The sidewalks in this part of the neighborhood were cracked and bumpy, requiring specific care not to trip. I pulled my phone out to see how far I’d gone and saw a ping from Twitter telling me that Molly had made a post, just minutes past—a link to a YouTube video of “The Old Revolution” by Leonard Cohen, including her transcription of the song’s opening line: “I finally broke into the prison.” I liked the tweet and thumbed the link immediately, opening the song to let it play, happy to imagine her selecting the closing soundtrack for my run home, just a couple blocks away now. “Into this furnace I ask you now to venture,” Cohen sang, backed by a doomy twang. “You whom I cannot betray.” *** The song was still there with me in my head as I arrived back at our driveway, where looking up from halfway along the path toward the stairs to our front porch, I saw a shape against the door, covering the spy hole—a plain white envelope, affixed with tape. My body seized. From early on in our relationship I’d had visions of Molly picking up and leaving just like that, deciding on a whim and without warning that she preferred to be alone. Running up the steps, already flush with adrenaline, a pounding pulse, I saw my first name, Blake, handwritten in the center of the envelope’s face in Molly’s script. Immediately, I wailed, devoid of language, too much too fast, real and unreal. Inside the envelope, a two-page letter, printed out. I stopped cold on the first lines: Blake, I have decided to leave this world. Then there was nothing but those words—words to which I have no corollary, no distinct definition in that moment, as simple as they seem. Every sentence that I’ve tried to put here to frame the moment feels like a doormat laid on blood, an unstoppable force colliding with an intolerable object in slow motion, beyond the need of being named. Before and after. *** Out of something akin to instinct, I forced my sight along the rest of the letter, not really reading it so much as scanning for a more direct form of information, anything she’d written that might tell me where she was—which, near the end of the second page, I found: I left my body in the nature area where we used to go walking so I could see the sky and trees and hear the birds one last time. Then: I shot myself so it would be over instantly with certainty and no suffering whatsoever. This time when I screamed it was the only word that I could think of: No. I must have sounded like a child jabbed in his guts, squealing. I knew exactly where she meant—I’d run right by it, just minutes before, perhaps a couple hundred yards away. I might have even crossed her path while on the way there had times aligned right, had I known. A sudden frenzy of possible options of what to do next swarmed my brain, none of them quite right, devised in terror. *** At the edge of the sidewalk, I stopped and tried to think if I should go inside and get my keys and drive to where she might be, or if I should run there fast as I could, still in my running clothes, already half-exhausted and slick with sweat. Each instant that I didn’t do exactly the right thing felt like the last chance, a window closing. Finally, I took off running at full speed along the sidewalk, shouting her name loud as I could, begging her or me or God or whoever else might be able to hear me: No, please, Molly. Not like this. No matter what I said, there was no answer; no one on the street around me, zero cars. Ahead, the sidewalk seemed to stretch so far beyond me, no matter how fast or hard I ran, as if growing longer with every step; all the houses shaped the same as they were always, full of other people in the midst of their own lives. As I ran, I tried to scan her letter, held out before me with both hands, already wadded up in frantic grip, scanning through fragments of despondent logic that felt impossible to connect with any actual moment in the present as it passed. “Everyone’s life ends, and mine is over now,” she’d written in present tense about the future, which was apparently in the midst of happening right now—or had it already happened? Was there still time? I felt embarrassed, sick to my stomach, to feel my body’s power giving out no matter how hard I tried to maintain the sprint, forced instead at several points to slow down against the burning in my muscles, sucking for air with everything I thought I knew now on the line. *** I couldn’t find her in the fields. The grass was high and muddy, and my running shoes kept getting stuck, sucking half off me, as I worked my way along the path between the unkempt plots of wild grass left overgrown through the winter and the vacant patches where in the spring ahead flowers would bloom Everything felt blurred, moving much faster all around me than I could parse. I was still screaming her name, begging her to answer, to be okay, but my voice just disappeared into the strangling silence. I searched the spots where last summer we’d returned daily to watch a mother duck care for her newborn flock; the bank of reeds where hundreds of frogs would often sing till you got too near; the grown-together pair of trees Molly said she thought would resemble us in our old age someday. I kept calling her number, listening to it ring and ring until the default voicemail recording came back on, asking in an android woman’s voice for me to leave a message. Maybe in the memory on Molly’s phone now there’s a recording of me huffing and howling, just before I really understood that there was no way to go back, that nothing I could say or want or do could reverse what had taken place. *** The longer she failed to turn up, the more I felt a desperate possibility that it wasn’t already too late—that she was out here somewhere, and I could save her, and yet no matter where I turned or how I shouted, nothing changed. I realized I should call 911, holding the phone up to my face while rushing through the mud into the far end of the gardens, clogged with the trees. After what seemed endless ringing, an operator’s voice came on the line, firm and professional, and asked for my emergency. I heard the words come out of my mouth before I thought them: My wife left me a suicide note and I can’t find her. The operator asked me where I was, how they could reach me, and I kept trying to explain, uncertain how to be specific with the location of the gardens, of no immediate address. I can’t find her, I need help, I kept repeating in frustration when I couldn’t seem to get it right, please come and help me. The operator reassured me the police were already on their way, someone would be there very soon. In the meantime, she stayed with me on the line as I hurried through the trees to where the gardens reached their end amid a sort of bog, studded with thickets and obscured patches, brambles, shrubs, so many possible places to end up. Every time I called her name, it felt a little less like her; as if what those syllables had meant to me for so long no longer bore resemblance to itself, and in its place, a widening hole, larger than all else. *** Reaching the end of the bog area, I turned around and started back toward the street. Close to the entrance, along a patch of land where some local group had planted food, I saw two women coming down the slope toward me, one near my age, the other probably her mother. I could see at once they looked concerned, had come down to the area for a reason. “Did you hear a gunshot?” I begged of them in a pinched voice, desperate to hear a different answer than what I thought. Yes, they said, they had—and I felt something deep within me break—ambient anguish so overwhelming I should have fallen to my knees but could no longer remember how. Like having the skin ripped off your head and being asked to run a marathon on live TV where the finish line ends in a lake of burning bile. It’s not that time stands still in such a moment—it’s that there’s nothing you can do to make it stop, and every second lasts forever even as it’s over, as if what you’d once thought must be impossible has become the organizing principle of who you are. With someone else speaking for me now, I asked how long ago they’d heard the gunshot. They said ten minutes. I asked in which direction, and they pointed back the way I’d come. “Are you missing your dog?” the younger woman asked, as I turned to hurry where she’d pointed. “My wife,” I said, over my shoulder, and heard her groan, say, Oh my God. *** I was completely frantic now, even more incensed with the task of finding as the world surrounding bent to blur; all possible locations interlacing in my periphery like abstract glyphs, beneath one of which, somewhere, was Molly’s body. Between my clearer memories of this transition in time’s fabric, huge, wide blank patches, a jagged space in how I’d been that simply no longer exists. I remember moving away from where those women were as through a vortex, past cracks widening within my vision, the sound of my inhale like a black hole. As I hurried back along the gardens’ path again, expecting at any second to come stumbling onto blood, I noticed another form there with me parallel, a man hurrying along the massive drainage pipe that laced the property, trying to help. Back near the far end of the trees, he shouted at me for her phone number so he could call, too, as if she’d answer him instead of me. The only numbers I knew by heart were mine and my mother’s, I realized, stopping to stand there scrolling through my contacts till I found hers, then shouting it across the thickets for anyone to have. Right then, standing in the middle of a forest with my phone out, I felt as far as I have ever felt from salvation; like all the minutiae life is made of was nothing more than illness and detritus, empty gestures, worthless hope. What if I never found her, I imagined, already able to imagine countless variations of the desolation just ahead; what would life be, in this hole, where space-time seemed stretched far beyond the point of breaking, no longer even scrolling forward, but just flapping, tearing skin off, empty space? I could already imagine it just like that—the nature of reality, comprised in violence made so innate you don’t even need to find your loved one’s body to realize, with every passing moment, that you can’t go back, and that what’s ahead is little more than an endless and excruciating blur. I could barely think to lift my feet, but I was moving, through somewhere so far beyond adrenaline it felt like the world had finally actually gone flat, my blood replaced with poison, choking on it, being dragged. Somewhere above me, though, if something was watching, it would have appeared like I was strolling by now, taking care to admire the minor aspects of the terrain, laying my wide eyes on anywhere the weeds and branches might obscure the truth from being found, a secret place that so far only Molly knew the shape of. *** Then I saw. There in the wild grass, just off the path obscured by saplings. Her body on her back facing the sky. Eyes closed. Completely motionless. A handgun clenched between her hands against her chest. Hair pulled up in a bun. Her favorite green coat. Her face blank of expression, already paling. A tiny, darkened wound punched in her chin, near to her throat. A single fly already circling the hole, lurking to feed. I knew at once that she was gone. Something else about me in my brain replaced the rest then, taking me over in that instant, clobbered blank. As if the atmosphere had been ripped off and all the air sucked out around us. Like the world was just a set that’d been abandoned long ago, and I was the only one still down here wandering around. I heard me tell the operator that I’d found her, that she wasn’t breathing. My voice was steady, somehow, already cleaving onto facts. I heard me say that I was not allowed to touch her, right, because this was a crime scene. Because she was without a question dead. My wife was dead. Molly was dead. The operator told me yes. She told me they were having trouble placing my location, but someone would be there soon, so just hang on. I took a step back from Molly’s body, standing over it for just a moment before putting my hands over my face, turning away. I didn’t need to look any longer to see the way it was, now and forever—her image scraped into my brain, drained of all light. I tried to take a knee and instead fell on all fours, no longer screaming but just wailing, for her, for Mom, for God, but choking on it, out of breath, as meanwhile the white-hot silent sun above us burned, an open all-unseeing eye. *** I have no idea how long I lay alone there in the dirt—forever, it would have felt like, but also as if no time at all, as time meant nothing now that there was nothing left to fear. Nothing left, either, to hide me from the blank above, all one long clear pale blue, the surrounding land flat and sandwiched in around me, as in a hole cut through a map. This can’t be real, I kept insisting aloud to no one, simultaneously devastated and enraged, moaning for help and for erasure, anything that could intercede. I felt a sudden buzzing near my right eye, then, the hum of wings and then a landing, and a pinch. I slapped back at the place where I’d been stung, on my right eyelid, inadvertently hitting my own face in place of the bee, already moving on now, having delivered its weird joke. I’d never been stung before but as a child, too young to recall but by my mother’s story of the memory—how I’d stepped on a dead yellow jacket and lost my mind, more scared than hurt. I think I howled then, almost like laughing, pawing at the expectation of a swelling while looking back at Molly’s corpse, as if this was some strange punchline we might share—something just stung me, what the fuck—not yet having felt it sunken in yet that she could no longer respond. “A bee sticks the young king’s hand for the first time,” I’d realize later she’d once written in a poem, as if already having known. “Alone on a slope where apples are rotting / under boughs in a sweet acid smell // and he’d like insects to cover him / for the effect it had on the other children. In rain / minnows feel the pond grow.” *** When the cops arrived, they found me on my stomach, talking to myself. There were two of them, a medic and an officer, and at first they maintained a distance, testing me out, as if I were a criminal or wild animal. Without needing to be asked, I aimed my arm at where Molly’s body was and the officer went to it, the other staying with me, not kneeling down but standing over, asking questions I can’t remember to repeat. Something else was speaking for me now, a part of me that didn’t need the real me to keep going; as if I wasn’t really there, but in a maw. I heard myself call out after the officer to verify what I felt certain I had seen: That she was dead, right? Were they sure? Calmly, clearly, he said yes, simple as that, a legal fact. Was she pregnant? the medic asked, nodding just so when I said no. I could tell they could tell I wasn’t in my right mind when I asked if they could tell where she got the gun from, and if so, would they please be sure to let me know, please? As if there were anything that I could do about it now, or as if at any second someone might come up and tap me on the shoulder, apologize for the confusion, and lead me back to my real life. Instead, by now, other police had begun arriving, masses of them, so it seemed, coming as if out of nowhere to take part in the production, right on cue. Someone put up the yellow CRIME SCENE tape around her body. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to turn my head, to have to remember her there with all the cops huddled above her with their tools. Everybody else around me was all business, working around my open moaning, bawling, barking, with eyes averted, as if at once trying to give me space and do their job. I felt so helpless there in my detainment, never officially told to stay in one place but also knowing that I must, sitting on my ass in the dirt weeping through hubbub, no certain guide but by the law. These people are just at work, I remember thinking, They must feel so thankful they’re not me. What else was there to say? I knew they knew, as best they could, how no consolation could change the fact, and that therefore there was no reason to try to touch me, offer warmth. We were just here to take part today in what the day had produced all on its own—a kind of programmatic existential framework I imagined Molly finding sick satisfaction in, another brutal lesson from the void. *** I wasn’t sure who I could call—for years, my go-to would have been Molly or Mom. The absence of both options doubly underlined the absence of any place to call my own, right then and there. It felt insane, pathetic even, to call our therapist, and so that’s exactly what I did, unable to imagine any other person who’d be the one to force out of my mouth for the first time the awful truth.. Against my ear, my phone felt like a wormhole, sucking my air out as it attached me to the world beyond my reach. Maybe if nobody heard the news, it would undo itself, go back to how it’d been just hours earlier. But our therapist picked up—only my therapist now, no longer ours, I understood, trapped in the midst of the ways words sometimes alter their intentions, right in stride with all the other shifting details of your life—and I heard the words I didn’t want to have to say come flooding out: Hello, it’s me, Blake; I’m very sorry, but I didn’t know who else to call; Molly shot herself today; Molly is dead. I don’t remember what she said, quite; only the texture of the saying, the sound of the voice there on the line held far away, someone who knew us both and understood the impact of those words more than the other people all around me. I could see my body moving and hear the sounds that left my mouth, left with nothing else to do but play the role of my new self. I should call my sister, we concluded, after talking it through, like jumping forward through the hoops of future time arriving, point by point, like any day, though once I’d done that, sharing the news with someone hundreds of miles away, I feared it would become realer somehow, a final terrible seal forced popped. People would know soon, then it’d become gossip, old news, word of mouth. There’d no longer remain any way, then, that I could hold off reality from taking course, filling in around me where I was not. *** I wasn’t allowed to leave the scene. Instead, I was asked to tell and retell my story of what happened over and over, first to one detective, then another, then another, like hellish Matryoshka dolls with badges and guns. I could feel their eyes searching my eyes, reading me as I told the story as best I could. They asked if I’d had any sense that this could happen, which made me feel embarrassed to say yes, trying to explain in so many feeble words Molly’s persona, her personal history, her cryptic poetry. “I like poetry too,” one detective interrupted with a grin, somewhere between considerate and dense, like we weren’t really talking about what we were talking about. I had to hand over Molly’s letter, which I’d been clutching this whole time, messy with mud and crumpled up, now considered evidence. This letter was my last link to her mind, I felt, therefore to any frame that might be found to explicate her reasoning, and now I had to hand it over, following procedure like some suspect on TV. I begged them to be sure to return to me, to not let it end up missing, aware at the same time in my periphery of the handling of the body of my wife, the hunt for facts, none of which could ever change what had just happened, much less whatever might come next. *** I was busy reiterating my story for another detective when across the mud I noticed Matt, one of my oldest friends, running toward me. The look on his face, the sound of his voice, the way he hugged me to him: now there was no mistaking what had occurred, no way to keep it separate from the whole rest of my life. I felt my limbs go limp to be embraced, as all of what had kept me upright no longer needed to hold on. At the same time, still in shock, I felt my body holding back there on the cusp, not letting me implode yet, as somehow the world continued on. I could touch my face and feel it there, part of my body, but who was I, and why, and how? Had what just happened actually happened, or was I living in a hell world, an exact model of how it’d once been with just this one major detail brought to change? Like any second everybody would start laughing, including Molly, who’d get up and come to take me in her arms, without a need for explanation besides to say that she wasn’t really gone. Then they’d roll the sky back, too, and show me everything else I hadn’t known yet about my life, about existence. Instead, I listened in as Matt spoke up on my behalf, asserting that I should be allowed to leave as soon as possible and go home. Hearing him say home, however, reminded me that the word already clearly no longer meant the same as it last had, and in a way, that felt more frightening than standing out here in broad daylight at a crime scene, where at least there was a formal process underway. What choice did I have, though, but to keep going, unless I was ready, willing, and able to die too? Yes, that made sense. Molly was my wife, my love—shouldn’t I go with her, having failed her? Why should I be allowed to survive beyond this day? Already, in thinking back, I felt an undeniable desire that instead of doing the right thing calling the cops, I’d instead taken the gun from Molly’s hands, laid down beside her, and, as if somehow in her honor, doubled down. At my most dire, any other option outside of that, now and for some time, would bear the tint of a pitiful formality, tempered only by conditioning, as if all we really are is just the shadow of what we’re not. *** I didn’t want to get mud all over the inside of Matt’s car. I remained formal and polite even in zombie-mode, relieved at least to have something else to do. Back at our address, I trudged up the same set of concrete steps where I’d only just been standing when I discovered her suicide note taped to the door, a hanging haze there like the fumes after explosion. The front face of our house looked like a facsimile, designed to trick me into believing I existed—a secret feeling shared between me and it alone, as to most anybody else, outside my mind, it was just another piece of property. I imagine that’s how haunting works—only those who know can parse the signal linking the residue of history to how we are, what we’re becoming amid our slow transition, step by step. I sat on the stoop with my head in my hands, trying to remember how to think, or not to think. I was focused, mostly, on her letter, getting it back, so I could read it in full, over and over; as if, like Molly, only work could save me now. Matt volunteered to go back down and ask for information, if I’d be okay on my own, and I told him that was fine, that it might be good for me to have some time alone now, so I could feel the way I felt beyond the reach of other eyes. I was well-accustomed to this aloneness, this want for independence, having already accepted as natural law that no one could ever reach me but myself, the bells and whistles of attention that made most others seem to feel better were for me more a nuisance than a balm. As he drove off, I went inside and closed myself inside the bathroom, walking right past my reflection without looking, not wanting yet to have to see, and past the mostly pastel-colored painting Molly had made in college and hung here, as if for forever, having planned this ending to our story all this time. I stripped my muddy running clothes off and turned the shower on hot and lay face down on the tile beneath the spray. I can’t remember what words I made, only the texture of my voice, mumbling in monotone under my breath as if to anyone who still might hear me from Beyond, the same way that I had once, as a child, tried to comfort myself mimicking Mom’s lullabies. *** When Matt got back, he handed me a brown paper bag containing Molly’s letter and her phone, along with the business card of the investigator for the Medical Examiner’s Center and a second note by Molly found on her body, scrawled on the back side of a small envelope: VOLUNTARY EXIT. I am an organ donor. My husband Blake Butler (my phone number) I took Molly’s letter into my office, closed the glass doors. I knelt on the floor and read it from beginning to end once and then immediately again, trying to find some kernel of her voice there, something alive. These were Molly’s final words, I realized, believing in them as some form of access to her brain—despite how out-of-sync they seemed, like a lost child trying to figure out how to explain her situation to herself while standing front and center in harm’s way. Here was what she had left for me to hear. A widening terror within me renewed itself with every breathless word and hard return, underlined by an undeniable form of failure, hers and mine. If only I had one more chance to hold her, I imagined, to tell her everything she meant to me no matter what. If only I could tear this paper up, as if it alone had been the cause and not the receipt. Any chance to contradict her logic, though, to reach beyond it, had been not only lopped off at the hilt, but imminently infected by the violent silence of the world—including the matted, jagged sunlight pouring in now through the windows, getting all over everything we’d ever had, nowhere to turn but toward the absence. From Molly, to be published by Archway Editions in November 2023. Blake Butler is the author of nine book-length works, including Alice Knott, 300,000,000, Sky Saw, There is No Year, and Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia. In 2021, he was long-listed for the Joyce Carol Oates Prize. He is a founding editor of HTMLGIANT. View the full article
  3. Today
  4. Cardiologist Doug “D.P.” Lyle kept telling himself he would write a novel someday—someday when he finally retired. His biggest problem was he loved his career and had no plans to retire. Was this just an excuse not to write? He finally asked himself the age-old cliché: “If not now, when?” Now finally won out when he was about to turn 50 and “someday” became his second career. He wrote. And wrote. For ten years he wrote, enduring 27 drafts. Finally, he completed his novel Stress Fracture. It was his first professionally published novel, although he’d self-published an earlier one. He’d also had several non-fiction books published on forensics topics for writers—he is a doctor, after all. (Poison, anyone?) Lyle is a natural born storyteller from Huntsville, Alabama whose Scots-Irish storytelling chops seeped down through Appalachia. “Down there, if you can’t tell a story, they won’t feed you,” he says. “They just put you behind the barn.” “Swapping lies,” is how he describes it. “I had always wanted to write fiction simply because I had stories I wanted to tell but I was never sure I could.” “I took some classes at the University of California-Irvine and then joined a couple of writing groups and wrote a lot. I also read dozens of books on writing and attended many writers’ conferences where I heard others speak on how they construct stories and write dialogue and create characters, and all the other components of good writing. So, I basically learned from books and from people and from there by simply sitting down and writing. The latter is probably the best teacher.” He began writing at odd times, before going to the office or hospital, or in the evening. “I got the bug and couldn’t quit.” It took him two and a half years to complete his first novel, or so he thought. “I was learning.” A year into his work, he befriended Bay Area book agent Kimberly Cameron at a San Diego State writers conference. “We hit it off and became friends long before we worked together.” When Stress Fracture was completed 18 months later, he sent all 138,000 words to her in a big box. “I thought New York Times best seller list, here I come…She felt differently. ‘There’s a story in here somewhere,’ she said, ‘I just can’t find it.’” She said she would read it again if he would rewrite and pare down. So, he did, and she rejected his second attempt. He rewrote it again and again. “I set it aside for two or three years and kept coming back to it.” He changed the location, title, and protagonist. “The only thing that stayed the same was the bad guy and the real story plot.” The fourth version—now titled Stress Fracture—he sent to Kimberley. It was down to 85,000 words. She called a week later. “I finally produced the book that met her standards.” Even though it had morphed into a much more sophisticated version of his original attempt, “It all started with one story that I would not let go of. I think that’s a lesson.” And, he learned, “It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. I just assumed, like everything else in life, if I wanted to do it, I could go do it…Some of it’s very naïve to think you can do anything you want to do…Those are lessons you learn. I assumed if you can tell a story, you can write a story. It’s a whole other kettle of fish…I don’t think it gets easier over time.” In between novels, Lyle has used his medical knowledge to write non-fiction craft books for fiction writers eager to get their murders correct. He answers all types of questions about poison, gun shots, blunt force trauma, and more. His writing brought him to the attention of Hollywood, where he has consulted on numerous crime procedural shows and movies. And yet, he always returns to his love of writing crime fiction. Writing a novel, he says, is like handling a critically ill patient in intensive care with numerous medical issues going on simultaneously. They’re referred to as “circling the drain” because the doctors could lose them at any moment, says Doug. “You have all of these things in the air and must weigh your choices because it will affect organs differently. Writing a novel is the same thing. They all mesh—all of the moving parts. “You can’t mess up one of them—no bad dialogue, bad narration, bad plot, stupid characters. You must get all of these components working together smoothly. You can kill it so easily by ignoring one component. Scribbling out a scene? Most writers can do that in their sleep. But putting it all together is extremely hard.” And just as important, Doug says, is plot sequence. Writers must understand when to release every tidbit of information at the proper time in their story. It sounds simple but realizing when the right moment is to add a certain piece of critical information to a crime novel keeps reader interested and the story moving. It’s difficult. “Novice writers,” he says, “put everything in the first chapter.” “Ain’t no crying here,” he says. “Writing is blood sport.” It’s certainly not for the faint of heart. So, if it’s so tough, why bother? “I mean, what other job could you have where you can grab a cup of coffee and sit down and kill a couple of folks without even getting dressed?” he says. “And you get to play with so many cool imaginary friends.” “I like sitting before the computer screen and making up stuff. And I think that is an important lesson for all writers—you must enjoy the process to be successful. If you don’t like sitting down and putting words on the page and constructing a story, then you should do something else because it will only be frustrating and maddening if you’re not having fun.” “A lot of it was his perseverance…he just kept trying,” says Cameron. And that is the difference between those who get published and those who don’t. ___________________________________ Stress Fracture ___________________________________ Start to Finish: 10 years, two months I wanted to be a writer: Age 40 Experience: Cardiologist Writing Time: 10 years (27 rewrites) Agents Contacted: One Agent Responses: One Agent Search: One Writer’s Conference First Submission to Publisher: 2003 Time to Sell Novel: Two Months First Novel Agent: Kimberley Cameron First Novel Editor: Christy Philliippe First Novel Publisher: Medallion Press Inspiration: James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard Advice to Writers: Writing is an art and a craft. The first draft should be the art and the revisions the craft. Write fast. Edit slowly. Website: www.DPLyleMD.com Like this? Read the chapters on Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Tess Gerritsen, Steve Berry, David Morrell, Gayle Lynds, Scott Turow, Lawrence Block, Randy Wayne White, Walter Mosley, Tom Straw. Michael Koryta, Harlan Coben, Jenny Milchman, James Grady, David Corbett. Robert Dugoni, David Baldacci, Steven James, Laura Lippman, Karen Dionne, Jon Land, S.A. Cosby, Diana Gabaldon, and Tosca Lee. View the full article
  5. Set largely during covid lockdown, Sing Her Down introduces Florida, recently released from prison due to issues with overcrowding, thus finding herself with a second chance at life. Pursued by a woman named Dios, also recently released from the same prison, Florida has to reckon with her own past and what the future might hold in a world that seems to be on fire, the pandemic only intensifying the sense of desperation that permeates Florida’s world. Florida skips parole and travels out of state to find her most prized possession, a car she left behind when she was locked away—only Dios, and Florida’s own true nature, can’t seem to leave Florida alone. Sing Her Down proves Pochoda can occupy any voice, any time, any place, pushing her characters to the type of reckoning that would make Flannery O’Connor proud. Ivy’s brightest gift is her ability to morph into anyone and anything, occupying a different type of person as easily as she might cover any landscape, making her home in any and every fictional universe imaginable. Sing Her Down is Ivy’s most brilliant work yet, and Ms. Pochoda shows no indication of stopping her rise any time soon. Ivy, who found a natural home in crime fiction with Visitation Street, sat down to discuss with me how she fell into crime fiction, a genre which suits her spectacularly well, especially in answering the questions which interest her most, and exploring the people she wants us all to find a part of ourselves in. Matthew Turbeville: Ivy, I’m so excited to interview you for CrimeReads. I have loved your fiction since reading Visitation Street. You have a voice that’s so distinctively yours, much like Megan Abbott, Alafair Burke, and Attica Locke. Which writers have most informed your writing and shaped you most during your formative years? Which books and authors do you continue to turn to for inspiration? Ivy Pochoda: I think the book that inspired me most now is Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. Jonathan and I are different in age, but he grew up two blocks from where I grew up. When I was first trying to write, I thought you had to write super wild imaginative, made-up books, and I tried to write these super wild books, and then I read Fortress of Solitude. I found out you can write a book about your neighborhood, and you can make it poetic and beautiful, and take the small things that occur to you on a daily basis and turn it into art and fiction. It sort of changed my life. I went from trying to invent crazy, wild stories to writing more closely observed fiction about what was going on outside my window. For me, that was a game-changer. I reread Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson routinely. There are small moments in that book where he has the most poetic and beautiful observations about gritty things and finds the most beauty and joy in the most desperate and down-and-out characters. I look at those two books quite a lot, and at Zadie Smith’s NW. I admire her amazing use of dialogue and language and flexibility with form. I love how she summons that neighborhood in northwest London, which is something I do and something Jonathan clearly does. Also, it’s no secret that I reread Blood Meridian a lot! There are also so many new books I’m inspired by—one example is Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth. I love seeing how she stacks all those stories together into a novel. MT: You write crime fiction, which is such a great match for your gritty voice and your ability to slip into worlds outside your own. Has your fiction always had such a crime fiction slant? What do you feel is so inviting and enticing about crime fiction, and how did you make the move into writing in this genre? IP: It was a complete accident. When I wrote Visitation Street, had been inspired by Fortress of Solitude and wrote about something outside of my window, and at that time I was thinking my book was a combination of this and Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. To my surprise, when it was sold to my publisher, they told me it was crime fiction. I thought I was writing straightforward literature, and my editor asked me, “Well, what did you think was happening? You wrote a book where two girls go missing on page one, and you find out what happens on the last page—that’s a mystery.” Back then, I didn’t know anything about the crime community. I thought I was going to be marginalized and no one is going to respect the writing—not the story, but the writing. I feel like it’s the luckiest thing that has ever happened to me in my writing career. Win awards, write a best-seller, who knows, but the fact that this book moved me into the crime community is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. The people! I went to the Edgar Awards recently, and the love in that room, for everything from cozies to hard crime to procedurals, it’s the most supportive community out there. Obviously, it has some problems. We need to do better with representation and embracing diversity and new voices, but it’s way ahead of where it used to be and other genres. I love crime fiction because people love to read it and it’s not a chore, and people embrace it. It gives you the flexibility to mess around with tone or structure or form, and it’s super fun. It doesn’t necessarily have to be cut and dry murder and white guy PI who solves it! Now we can write about all sorts of things, and the crime doesn’t have to be the center of the story. MT: It really feels like the crime fiction community is a family. IP: It really is. MT: I love the idea that you write fiction that allows women to be as violent as in the fiction of authors like Cormac McCarthy. It helps dispel this notion that women don’t have a certain violence to them, and it steers clear of the only violence from women appearing in movies where actresses like Charlize Theron wear make-up and fat suits in order to play a villain. But even in your novel, characters like Florida change their names to allow themselves to slip in and out of this more chaotic, sometimes sinister world. What is the importance of allowing Florida to move in and out of her own violent persona, and how do you avoid the notion that women who enact their own forms of violence must necessarily become villains? IP: I feel like one of the things that’s in this book, not in Florida but in Dios’ character, is code-switching. Dios is a Latina girl from Queens, who is given a scholarship to a really ritzy predominantly white school, and from there, she has to negate her sense of self, which is not why she’s violent, it’s just something that’s happened to her. It’s funny you bring that up about Florida, because she’s also code-switching. She feels like to be safe and survive in prison, she has to pretend she isn’t that person that she was before she committed these crimes. The secret is she is that person. To survive, she has to dissociate, and she is not able to embrace who she really is and almost allows this persona to be created for her. I’m glad you brought up Monster because we are so able to embrace violent women if they are violent because men have done something to them. We only can understand women’s violence if it’s put through a male gaze or male lens. I wrote my thesis in college on Macbeth and Oresteia, and when Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon or when Lady Macbeth commits various acts of violence, the vocabulary that the playwrights use is very anti-maternalistic—“unsex me now,” “rip this baby from my breast”—there’s no baby! When Clytemnestra is talking about her strength, she is framing it as the nurture has been ripped from her. We can only talk about this by keeping men in the picture or keeping women rebelling against their feminine nature in the picture, and we love Aileen Wuornos’ story because she is a prostitute and she has been raped and men have done this to her. We love stories where women have been attacked or their kids were taken away from them by a man. We forgive violent women if their violence is inspired by some original male violence, but we cannot deal with violent women who are violent under their own sail. It’s infuriating to me. These women exist, but we never tell their stories. MT: One of the most compelling aspects of your writing is your ability to inhabit multiple voices all at once. Reading your work is an amazing experience, where I’m looking to engage with multiple characters who are beyond me, but finding some of myself in every character. When you write, how do you go about tackling the different voices and narrative strands of each character to keep them individual and distinct? IP: Let me tackle that in two parts, because it’s really interesting what you said about identifying with yourself in every character. That’s exactly the point. I want to go back to Visitation Street. When I wrote Visitation Street, there was like all these different characters: a drunk white musician, a Black girl who’s getting in trouble at school, and others. What I thought when creating these voices is how they’re all having a problem or there’s something going on in their lives, and I had to figure out how I would react in those situations. I put a little bit of myself in all of them regardless of race, class, gender. I found something that they were reacting to, like the failed musician—I put some of my own disappointments in there—or the girl who is having issues with her best friend, which is really about me growing up. Identify with yourself in every character, that’s exactly the point. These people are not nonfiction–they are fictional people–and I do like to have a whole cast of characters people can find points of identification with. Someone like Dios, who is both from a disadvantaged background and goes to a ritzy college, is beautiful, violent, well-read and misunderstood. The reader should be able to find one thing they can relate to, whether it’s “I went to a fancy college” or “I am misunderstood” or “people deny me my strength because I’m a woman,” and there are all these things that make up a person. We should have more empathy for people in our lives, so I like to create characters who are fully rounded so we can find points of identification in them. Now, as to the voices. There comes a point in your writing career where you can say, “I can just do it,” and I can just do it. I remember Jennifer Egan talking about A Visit from the Goon Squad, and she said, “I went running and I ran, like, eight miles and I forgot to pick up my kid from school and the whole plot appeared to me,” and I thought, “bitch, you’re lying!” But the voices just come. This book is a little less voice-heavy to me than my other books and these voices change. I was really inspired by Blood Meridian and that open ending, and there’s this distance in this voice, and I sort of wanted to make it Dios’s voice, so that voice just started talking to me one night, and that sounded like an kind of overly educated person who’s a criminal, and I kept listening, thinking of what she would be saying, riffing on Blood Meridian in my head as if a woman was narrating it. When creating voices, I give every character one thing they’re obsessed with. So, Dios is obsessed with Florida and women being denied their own power, and Florida has her obsession about the car and the tree. I circle their voice around their obsession, and I can sort of find them. MT: I remember meeting Jennifer Egan at a literary festival and I remember her saying something along the lines of how she rarely wrote from a woman’s point-of-view because she didn’t want her own self to bleed into her characters—and I love that you do not seem to give a shit about that. IP: It’s funny you say that because Wonder Valley only has one woman in it, and when it came out, I got a lot of pushback on that book. I was in conversation with Megan Abbott, and she asked, “What are you doing next?” My agent was sitting in the front row, and I sort of had These Women in my head, but it wasn’t about women, it was about people surrounding this serial killer. I remember saying, “I’m going to write this book” (and my agent was so worried about the all-male thing in Wonder Valley) “and it’s going to be all these different women’s voices around a serial killer,” and I remember thinking, “Fuck, now I have to do this, and I’m not good at writing women,” and I wasn’t. The women’s voices in Visitation Street are young, they are in their teens, and that I can do that. But with These Women, I remember thinking, we need to go really deep into voice. Like with Jennifer Egan, the characters are going to be inspired by things I’m thinking but I don’t need my character in these voices. And it’s so hard! MT: I remember reading that Toni Morrison often wrestled with characters and their voices, ones who wanted to be heard much more than she wanted to permit them to be present on the page. Do you ever wrestle with characters who may want to take over the page or even over a whole novel? How do you tame the voices that are so commanding for your readers? IP: Julianna’s voice in These Women was the easiest part of that book for me, and I had no problem writing it and could have gone on forever. Dorian’s voice, which opens the book, was really hard, and I kept working on Julianna and writing more of that perspective but had to make it balanced. So, when I can hear somebody like that, I understand her outlook on the world. I knew she wanted to take pictures. I knew she didn’t understand why some art was more valued than other art because she’s wondering why her pictures would never be shown in a museum like Larry Sultan’s work—a photographer who shot behind the scenes of porn shoots. Julianna’s voice was really powerful, and Dios talked a little too much in earlier versions of Sing Her Down. I had to peel it back because the danger with Dios talking too much is that I don’t want to explain her or justify what she is doing. I just want her to do it, so I had to have her talk less so I didn’t get into any explanation or back story of why she’s doing what she’s doing. MT: Do you write all the scenes with certain voices at once, or are you able to go back and forth? IP: I can go back and forth, but I try to write them in complete blocks. Like in These Women, I wrote all those sections fully, and then I went back and edited them, just because I want them to tell their complete story. But with Visitation Street and Wonder Valley, I have alternating shorter chapters, so I can go back and forth. MT: Do you have any specific methods you use to go about writing outside of yourself? IP: I try to find something in each character that is me. When I was writing about Skid Row in Wonder Valley, that’s very much not just inspired by but about the people I worked with in Skid Row. I try to tell their story but not make it mine. I try to respect wherever the story is coming from. I don’t know if that gives me permission to do it. I try to find a story that I feel comfortable telling about my characters, what they are going through, but I’m not speaking to the whole experience of whatever race, culture, community that person comes from. MT: Moving from each of your books to the next, they’re all completely different. When you write a book, you’re truly setting out to write something unique and individual. Are there any rules you have to avoid writing something you’ve done before? Are there characters you want to revisit in future books? IP: I revisit Ren from Visitation Street. He is in Wonder Valley, has a one-second shot in These Women, and he’s the muralist, although is not named, in Sing Her Down. My characters live on. I teach my students that these people don’t end when the book ends–try to think of them existing in the world after the story you’re telling about them concludes–and I think that makes it easier to write the book and they stay alive for me. Jonathan Lethem and I had a conversation about this, and he said, “hell no, when I’m done with a book, these people cease to exist.” I can see it both ways. But my characters—and some of them are dead—live on in me. When I start thinking of a book, it often has something to do with the previous book. Recently, I started writing something that I’m not sure I’m going to use. Blake from Wonder Valley was living in Mexico by himself, and I wrote twenty pages about him. I think I’m going to use it in my new book, but maybe not. One problem I have writing a new book is I often feel like I’m writing my last book, and it takes me a while to get out of that. MT: What do you think is the most important point of writing a novel, especially a crime novel? IP: I think it’s different for different books. I often don’t know the full story of my book when I set out to write it, but I like to think of my books as a three-dimensional panorama, with all these different perspectives looking at a single event. It’s figuring out how to build that sphere, and I like to create a community of characters to see how they interact. For me, that community of characters is the most important thing. MT: When you write, do you start with the crime or the character, the setting or the story? IP: Character and setting for sure. I had no idea what the crime was in this book. Wanted to open with a super violent scene of women being violent in prison and that’s all I knew. And that’s not the crime in the book, it’s just some other act of violence. Then I figured out what it was about. MT: I remember reading that scene and thinking, “Wow, I love this, but oh my gosh.” IP: I thought long and hard about that, but said, “Let’s just go for it.” MT: What are you working on now? What’s next for the great Ivy Pochoda? IP: I’m writing a short story now, then writing a horror novella based on The Bacchae, and I also have an idea for a novel that I hope to start in the new year. I thought I was going to wrap up writing about Los Angeles with this book, but I thought one more. It’s darker, but it’s also a more about love and family and apocalyptic violence. *** View the full article
  6. The 1920s was a decade of strict social hierarchies, with huge divides between wealthy elites and poor workers, bias against immigrants, racial segregation, and laws against homosexual activity. But the free-for-all nightlife of the Jazz Age was built around embracing everything naughty, illegal, and new. This meant that at night, many of those strict hierarchies came toppling down. Prohibition was created by the Eighteenth Amendment, and it ended the nationwide production, import, transport, and sale of alcoholic beverages… in theory. In reality, it was easier to get a drink during Prohibition than it was after. When liquor was illegal, it was unregulated, and speakeasies served their customers at all hours of the day and night. They were where young and old, rich and poor alike headed to socialize, dance, drink, and flirt. Which one you went to could depend on who you were and how much money you had. The most upscale speakeasies were restaurants and performance halls where politicians, debutants, and movie stars went to see and be seen. Photographers and journalists would attend, chronicling the parties and scandals in newspaper columns. One of the most well-known society journalists of the Jazz Age was Lois Long, who wrote for The New Yorker under the pseudonym “Lipstick.” She would drink, dance, and party at the most fashionable places in New York City, then go straight to the office the next morning to write her columns, which thousands of readers kept up with to either plan or daydream about their own exciting nights out on the town. But not every speakeasy was a glamorous destination for the elite. Many of them were more like the bars of today: places where the wealthy, middle, and working classes could all mingle over a drink. Nightlife in the Jazz Age encouraged mixing across racial lines as well, though American society was otherwise strictly segregated. In major cities like New York and Chicago, some of the most popular spots were known as “Black & Tans.” These nightclubs were usually found in cities’ bohemian and Black neighborhoods, and they as were famous for their racial integration as they were for their innovative cocktails. In the Amsterdam News, a Black newspaper in Chicago, a journalist wrote that, “the night clubs have done more to improve race relations in ten years than the churches, both black and white, have done in ten decades.” (The cocktails themselves became popular as a way to hide the taste of subquality liquor, like Chicago’s infamous “bathtub gin.”) Jazz Age nightlife also got a boost from a thriving queer subculture in America’s major cities. In New York, Greenwich Village and Harlem were known spots for queer nightlife. Some of the biggest public events in Jazz Age New York were the Masquerade and Civic Balls hosted by the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows at Hamilton Lodge in Harlem: annual public drag balls that began in the late 1800s but reached the heights of popularity in the 1920s. The LGBTQ community, some of them traveling in from other parts of the country to participate, didn’t hide themselves at these events. The New York Age often announced the masquerade winners by name and noted that, “Scores of males of pronounced effeminiate [sic] traits gracefully disported themselves in beautiful evening gowns. They might have been mistaken anywhere for fascinating shebas.” Female attendees also were likely to attend in drag, and more than one newspaper characterized masqueraders as belonging to “the third sex.” The Hamilton Lodge balls, as they were often known, weren’t just a gathering spot for the queer community. They became a major part of New York’s social calendar for all classes, orientations, and races. The Odd Fellows were a Black fraternal order, but many newspaper articles written about the Lodge Balls noted that attendees of all races and classes were there “looking for a thrill.” “Color prejudice was thrown to the winds,” noted a writer for The New York Age in 1927. Thousands of people came out for the party; in 1926, The New York Age estimated that 1,500 people attended. By 1933, that estimate had grown to 6,000, and the police and fire officials had to be present to maintain order. For those worried about ending up on the wrong side of the law, private parties were safer than public events or speakeasies. It was legal to finish alcohol that you already owned when Prohibition went into effect, so individuals could claim that they were just sharing their own “provisions” with friends (though this excuse became less believable the longer Prohibition went on). And parents in communities around the country would often host parties and dances for their young people to keep them out of trouble—though, just like today, plenty of teenagers snuck in their own booze. If you were in a major city during Prohibition, though, there was a good chance your nightlife put you on the wrong side of the Eighteenth Amendment. But that was one of the reasons that so many people who participated in that nightlife were willing to mingle across lines of class, community, race, and sexuality. No matter who they were or how much money they had, they all had a few things in common. They enjoyed a night out. They probably liked jazz music and dancing. And they were all willing to break the law to have a good time. *** View the full article
  7. The appeal of the procedural is built upon a simple human desire: we love to solve problems, and we love to watch others solve them. Even better when solving a problem feels like revealing a hidden connection beneath the skin of the world. In a class I teach on the procedural genre, we start with Poe and Doyle and Collins and Sayers and work our way to Mosley and French. We watch the Spielberg-directed pilot episode of Columbo, which is (apologies for the fifty-year-old spoiler) about a murderous mystery novelist. We watch the crass pilot of Law & Order: SVU, studded with homophobia and transphobia, and then we read Carmen Maria Machado’s hallucinatory novella “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU.” We talk about the girls with bells for eyes who haunt Machado’s Benson and the doppelgänger detectives Abler and Henson, whose lack of trauma renders them inhuman. We discuss the way viewers who have survived sexual violence, or those who fear it, speak of finding comfort in the show’s promise of responsive law enforcement while recognizing it as brazen copaganda. We read Auden’s “The Guilty Vicarage” and more recent criticism about crime fiction: the old theory of the genius detective as righter of wrongs and restorer of order, and newer interpretations that highlight the conservatism of the form. This is the darker side of the procedural’s temptation: how seductively it can align us as readers or viewers with the moral cleansing the detective promises. My first crime novel, Killingly (coming out in June!), is less a whodunit than a howdunit and a whydunit. It’s a historical novel, set in 1897. In writing it, I found a new way into the joy of investigation that drives the procedural: not to solve a crime, but to puzzle out real facts that bring a mystery to life and fit a story into their constraints. Historical research requires its own procedures. Following a citation to the next source, paging through paper-clip-rusted documents in manila archival folders, constructing careful search queries that drop you into online subcultures you might never have stumbled across otherwise. You bless train lovers who’ve posted old rail timetables, collectors selling period-appropriate Boston police belt buckles on eBay. First you’re the detective, sifting through evidence; then you’re the storyteller, solving the narrative problems that evidence produces. I learned about the missing girl when I was a grad student, working as a research intern at the Harry Ransom Center, a marvel-filled concrete building where UT Austin has turned oil and gas money into a world-class collection of rare books and manuscripts. (For the most delightfully nerdy procedural ever, which presents a funhouse mirror version of the drive to acquire literary treasures, see one of my favorite novels, A. S. Byatt’s Possession.) I didn’t find the girl’s story in a manuscript box; I was doing research for a patron with a genealogical query, skimming desperately through the New York Evening Journal on microfilm. LED TO DEATH BY HER CHILD OF FANCY, a headline blared, and I yanked the dial on the microfilm reader to a halt. A student named Bertha Mellish had disappeared from the campus of Mount Holyoke College in 1897, and three years later, her family’s doctor was giving long, speculative interviews about her fate to a Hearst paper. This was, frankly, too weird not to pursue. I visited Mt. Holyoke’s Special Collections, which holds a small amount of material about Bertha’s disappearance, along with her classmates’ scrapbooks and letters. I’d attended Smith, another women’s college only a few miles away, but I learned quickly how different the schools had been in their early days. Most importantly, the girls at Mt. Holyoke didn’t bring maids with them, which meant the fictional companion I’d begun to imagine for Bertha had to be a student. And she had to have a secret, something that endangered her, as well. Initially, I set myself an impossible task with this book. I created this central fictional character, and I wrote toward an ending that, if it happened, was not documented—but otherwise, I tried to stick to all the known historical facts. It was a kind of constraint. I wanted to set myself problems to solve, as if shifting between multiple perspectives with an active narrator guiding the action wasn’t complex enough. Eventually, I realized I needed to make small adjustments, to stop being so strict about the known timeline. To show how research can feel like detective work, here’s an example of one of those changes. In real life, Bertha’s sister and the family doctor were called to Florida to identify a living girl who might be Bertha. That trip offered plenty of texture and detail, but its length and placement slowed the action too much. I chose to raise the stakes and tighten the pace by having Florence and the Doctor travel a shorter distance to identify a body, instead. Like a detective, I drew a radius around Killingly, the resonantly-named town in Connecticut where Bertha grew up. I needed a train line that ran near water, between two points in New England, and a small town along that train line. Poring over those wonderful old train schedules and Google Maps, I chose Auburn, Massachusetts—perhaps partly because my mom lived in a different Auburn for a time as a kid. To figure out who might escort my characters to see a body, I needed to determine what sort of policing the town had at the time. Skimming through A Historical Sketch of Auburn, Massachusetts, from the Earliest Period to the Present Day with Brief Accounts of Early Settlers and Prominent Citizens, the name “Mellish” startled me awake. Bertha’s father John and his siblings had grown up in a nearby Massachusetts town; I’d forgotten. But I hadn’t known that George Mellish, Bertha’s wealthy uncle, lived in Auburn with his wife for years before moving to New York City. In 1897, the empty house he still owned at the center of town was serving as the town library while a new city hall was constructed. The family connection would make the local authorities solicitous; it would explain why the police of a tiny town across state lines would immediately think of Bertha Mellish when they found a girl floating in a local pond. But I still had to figure out where the good citizens of Auburn would store an unidentified body. I’d learned that the town had a constable or sheriff, likely no dedicated police building, and certainly no police morgue. Here we enter the land of disturbing search terms: things like “nineteenth century America burial practices,” “1890s morgue police,” and “storage for dead bodies 1890s.” That’s how I discovered the suitably grisly concept of the holding tomb. Auburn’s cemetery had one, as did any place, I imagine, where winter would freeze the ground too cold for digging. The dead had to rest somewhere before they could be interred. In pictures online, the holding tomb looks dignified and silent, like a little mausoleum. Heavy stone. You wouldn’t guess it was just a waystation. I think of this novel as New England Gothic, and through historical research, I found exactly the right details to flavor this scene—details I could never have imagined. I put Bertha’s sister and the doctor at its dark doors. I walk them inside to see the body. And afterward they too have to rest somewhere, before catching the train back to Killingly. So for a few hours they sit by a fire in Bertha’s uncle’s empty Auburn house, and they talk about a secret that drives the book—a conversation I’d once drafted to take place on a train back from Florida. It’s much better this way. I solved the narrative problem, and I felt the radiant satisfaction I experience as a reader of procedurals, putting the pieces together alongside the detective. I will almost certainly write a more traditional procedural in the future; I can’t help but love the form. On the classic D&D alignment chart, I’m resolutely lawful good, an orientation that rubs awkwardly against my distress at the profound injustices of our legal system. No matter how much skepticism I’ve learned about the institutions of policing and prosecution, I’m still disposed to find stories of investigation comforting. In a time when the suggestion to “do your own research” has been poisoned by bad-faith misinformation and conspiratorial violence, when any cop show can feel slick with denial about the realities of policing in the US, historical research can offer a crime writer their own experience of investigation. Historical research is freighted with its own profound ethical questions, of course; it’s the opposite of escapism to learn the depths of atrocity that have shaped our cultures, or to trace the heartbreaking surges of resistance to atrocity. But by staying grounded in the real, writers can preserve nuance and build compelling plots. We can engage the past to examine the present. *** View the full article
  8. By Kimberly Lee You’ve seen the iconic poster—a woman in profile, her right arm raised in a fist while her left hand rolls up her sleeve. She wears a blue work shirt and a red, polka-dot scarf tied around her temples. Eyebrows immaculately sculpted, eyelashes done up, red lip-stick topping it all off. During the height of the pandemic, my cousin sent around a photo she’d unearthed, of our grandmother with a work crew, wearing that same blue shirt. When I asked my mother about it, she said my grandmother was part of a World War II “ladies’ crew,” and that her work had to do with ball bearings or something. I’d seen the poster a million times, but never knew my grandmother had been a “Rosie the Riveter.” I set out on a mission and eventually found a mug online representing her in this role. My grandparents were part of the “The Great Migration” of Black people from the Deep South to the northern and western states that took place in the early 1940s. Although their movement was within the same continent, it was epic, because their choice to undertake the journey deeply impacted my quality of life, even though I wouldn’t be born until decades later. I heard about this journey in detail from my grandfather, yet I recently wrote about it from the perspective of my grandmother, who I never knew—she passed away well before I was born. In “Departure,” I take on her voice: “The air is different here. Lighter. It could be that I’ve never been this close to an ocean, never felt the calm mist tickling my skin. Or maybe this is what it feels like to breathe easy, and free.” Those lines were my attempt to capture the emotional journey, the change that seems to be coming from outside conditions but is actually burgeoning from within. Because while my grandparents’ movement was definitely physical, through numerous states from one end of the country to the gorgeous Pacific Coast, I know that faith, perseverance, and fortitude were the true inner gifts of the journey, the qualities they silently nurtured and developed in their own hearts to have the fortitude to make the trip. Although the narrow definition of a journey is geographical, a movement from point A to B, an emotional component is always present. The richness of the inner adventure compels us to see the journey as a metaphor for countless situations, no physical change of place required. We face challenges, find allies, and overcome obstacles on the way to a final destination. We experience personal growth and development, chances to rise to the occasion, and strength arising from finding our innate gifts. We triumph, determining for ourselves what success truly means. Joseph Campbell described the well-known archetypal pattern of the hero’s journey in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. While Maria Tatar’s recent The Heroine with 1001 Faces might be seen as a response to that work, it goes beyond it by expanding our view of heroism to include qualities and narrative arcs centering the power of women to effect change. Similarly, the journey of the healer and seeker, along with the journey of integrity, offer fruitful ways to view the universal struggles and joys we face on life’s trajectory. On each of these paths, even if there is physical relocation, the deeper journey always takes place within. The process may be as silent as caterpillars transform-ing within the confines of silky, stationary cocoons. They emerge exquisite and renewed—altogether new creatures—as a result of the inner journey. Containing invisible remnants of the past yet exploding with flight into the future, they affect their own destiny and that of those to come. We are those butterflies. 6th Century Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles be-gins with a single step.” Through the lens of the heroine’s path, the virgin’s promise, and other narratives, the thousand-mile journey becomes our lives, splayed out across the years of our existence. We look back to see where we’ve been and how far we’ve come, then venture on, knowing that just as fog clears when we move forward, our next steps will be revealed. Like my grandparents, we don’t need exact certainty to enter uncharted territory. Whether our movement is physical or centered on the journey within, we only have to believe in the possibilities and stay awake to the signs that illuminate our path, guiding us to precisely where we need to be. *** Join Kimberly this summer for a fun and interactive exploration of long-established and recently-outlined journeys. In Venturing Beyond the Hero's Journey: Exploring the Paths of Heroine, Healer, and Seeker, a five-week writing workshop starting June 12th, we’ll investigate these narratives through their appearance in literature, film, poetry, videos, podcasts, and the lives of public figures. Through creative writing prompts, and other interactive exercises and activities, we’ll discover how aspects of these paths exist within our lives and can be used to inform and enrich our own writing projects.(C) Copyright wow-womenonwriting.com Visit WOW! Women On Writing for lively interviews and how-tos. Check out WOW!'s Classroom and learn something new. Enter the Quarterly Writing Contests. Open Now![url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  9. B The Happy Vagina by Mika Simmons August 4, 2022 · Pavilion Books Nonfiction The Happy Vagina is a fun book, primed for gift giving, punctuated with inspiring quotes and featuring bold, fun illustrations. I took one look at it and thought, “I should give this to my daughter.” My daughter took one look at it and said, “It reminds me of those very ‘You Go, Girl!’ pamphlets about periods.” This book, with its teeny tiny nibble sized portions of important health facts, is either too darn peppy, or just the right amount of hot pink feminism depending on your point of view. If the cover makes you smile, you’ll probably like it, and l learned a few things from it. The Happy Vagina is a short book that uses large type and plenty of white space, so you can read the whole thing in one or two hours. It’s full of useful facts about the female body in terms of reproductive health and fun trivia. Did you know that in addition to the G Spot there is also a A Spot, a U Spot, and a V Spot? I did not! Did you know that technically ‘menopause’ only refers to one day (“…the exact day when a woman has not had a period for twelve months”)? Or that the first movie to use the word ‘vagina’ was The Story of Menstruation, released by Disney in 1946? This is a very cis-centric book. In the introduction, the author specifies that “This book is about those who identify as women but all humans are welcome here.” It’s the only time any acknowledgement is made of transgender people. The rest of the book uses the terms “women” and “female.” I realize that saying “People with vaginas” can get cumbersome, and I don’t expect the author to use that every single time. Nor do I expect her to tackle the large range of reproductive health issues that are specific to transgender people given the small scope of this book. However, I would have liked to have seen a few more acknowledgements throughout the book of the fact that not all women have vaginas, and not every person with a vagina is a woman. The omission of transgender people is especially glaring given that the art is quite inclusive in terms of race, age, and size. This book is very pro-sex, pro-masturbation, pro-taking-charge-of -your-own-health, pro-unapologetically-choosing-the-life-that-is-right-for-you, and pro-body positivity. There’s a resource list in the back and a short guide to some socio-political issues one might take action on, including links. The issues specifically discussed are those of period poverty, female genital mutilation, ovarian cancer, and abortion rights. This is a fun starter book with a feminist outlook. It’s not detailed, but hopefully people who want to learn more will find what they need in the reading list and in links sprinkled throughout the book. I see it as more of a launching pad than a complete guide. Although the sheer positivity was a little too much for my grouchy soul, and I wanted it to be just a tiny bit more intersectional, I still think it would make a good gift for a young person who needs access to information about reproductive health and who is mature enough for specific content regarding sexual activities. In the words of Maya Angelou, who is quoted in the book, “When women take care of their health, they become their own best friend.” View the full article
  10. Yesterday
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  12. It’s our first Wednesday Links of June! Happy Pride everybody! Both my partner and I are queer people, so we’re trying to nail down our Pride plans. We’re very torn between going to a Pride celebration and seeing a coworker’s queer colorguard performance in a parade or honestly, being introverts and celebrating amongst ourselves in front of our AC unit. Warm temps in New England aren’t the kindest when you live on the second and third floors and don’t have central air conditioning. Do any of you have Pride plans? … Sarina Bowen, along with a large collection of other authors, has contributed to a queer anthology for Pride month, with proceeds supporting various LGBTQIA+ causes. … Those who are entrenched in the knitting community may have already heard the news, but a knitting events organizer unexpectedly closed their business and has left many small business owner and hobbyists in a financial bind. … It’s Pride month and my heart goes out to all the queer people in places passing legislation that directly threatens their lives. I loved this essay from Florida author, Kristen Arnett, about loving a place that doesn’t seem to love you back. … 500 Queer Scientists is a great resource for finding or networking with queer people in STEM, whether you want to find a role model for yourself or a young one in your life, or if you’re trying to find a speaker for an engagement. … I shared this on the SBTB Discord (if you’re a member of the Patreon, you get access to this awesome hangout space!), but I love this parody of “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” … Don’t forget to share what cool or interesting things you’ve seen, read, or listened to this week! And if you have anything you think we’d like to post on a future Wednesday Links, send it my way! View the full article
  13. Charif Shanahan and Morgan Parker. Photographs by Rachel Eliza Griffiths. I read Charif Shanahan’s Trace Evidence two ways: first as a new work by a friend, written through and about what I know to have been some of his most harrowing years, during which he recovered from a near-fatal bus accident in Morocco, and also as the second collection of a phenomenal early-career poet with a dangerously skilled command of craft. I read it as an intimate reader, and as a distant one, and both times, I experienced a sense of introduction. When we talked on Zoom, Charif told me the book “feels like a birth,” and that feeling of birth, or rebirth, permeates Trace Evidence, as a deepening and an extension of the questions in Shanahan’s first collection, and as an announcement of self and purpose that feels brand new. —Morgan Parker PARKER I love the last line of “Trace Evidence,” the book’s titular poem: “For us here now I will be the first of our line.” It’s such an exhilarating sentence. Can you tell me about that idea of deciding to be a beginning? SHANAHAN It is only we who get to tell others who we are, even when—and perhaps especially when—we are inside a system that empowers those around us to tell us who we are. Put another way, choice and agency are questions I’m thinking about in this book. I think the agency here, inside that pronouncement, is in moving deeply into what had already been waiting for me. One could call it an acceptance, but it required first a clearing of the fog such that I could see this reality and not exactly choose it, but choose to name it and step into it and inhabit it. One of the things you and I have talked about a lot is how layered my family story is as regards race. It wasn’t just white parent, Black parent; it wasn’t just light-skinned, dark-skinned; it wasn’t just American Blackness, non-American Blackness; it was all these things at once. That was part of what was so challenging while growing up. But it’s also the beauty of how my family holds race. For me to be able to say that it is beautiful is, I think, a mark of tremendous evolution and growth. PARKER There’s so much in your first book and in Trace Evidence about passing publicly—passing to white people and passing to Black people. But underlying that is the passing or not-passing that you have done in your family. Can you tell me a little more about those family dynamics? SHANAHAN Well, as you know, I was born to an Irish-American father and a Moroccan mother. In simplistic terms, we’re a mixed, Black-white family. However, for many reasons to do with the layers of empire in the North of Africa, my mother identities as an Arab, and not as African or Black, though she is perceived as both. And so my brothers and I—and I should speak for myself … I wasn’t exactly caught between “whiteness” and “Blackness,” growing up, but between whiteness and a Blackness that didn’t recognize itself as such. Many of the poems emerge from that dissonance, and I think it’s important to be vocal about that racialized experience, despite the privilege I possess. Privilege is where the narrative ends for a lot of people. People might say, “You’re light enough to pass, so what are you talking about?” But I want to put forward a narrative like that in Trace Evidence because racialized experience is so much more complicated than we seem to think. If you have a body, you are racialized. Everybody is having a racialized experience. There are trends within those experiences, of course. Primary narratives. And if Black people are being tried and killed in the street, that obviously needs our urgent examination and action. But I think we can most effectively reckon with race if as many narratives are on the table as possible. Take, for example, the racial violence I’ve experienced in my life. Folks might think, “Who’s going to profile you? What kind of violence are you experiencing?” But it’s a disservice to the complexity of the conversation to assume that violence is only, or even primarily, bodily, or that it comes only when race is optically perceived. PARKER So are we talking about racial individuality? The importance of the individual experience within what is usually regarded as collective, categorical experience? SHANAHAN Yes—and about how an individual’s pathology is shaped around race, not only in terms of implicit bias and the associations one is conditioned into believing, but also in terms of what one recognizes as belonging within a racial category in the first place. I was Zooming with a white mentor of mine whom I help with her poems—she’s a critic by training and is writing poems about her whiteness and very movingly working at decolonizing her mind, at more than seventy. It’s amazing to witness. I’m honored. It’s holy. I raised with her one day the fact that race has no basis in biological or scientific fact, even though it firstly is about the body and the way that the body presents. As I put language to this point, Morgan, I am acutely aware of you. While I think of us as two Black people, it’s also true that each of us is having very different racialized experiences, due not only to phenotype, but to other aspects of embodiment and selfhood, and I’m sensitive to the differences … But what I had wanted to explore with my mentor is the idea that we are taught to see in a way that is particular to our cultural context, such that it’s possible for somebody to look at me and say, “That is a Black man, period” and for somebody else to look at me and see something else. Of course, I am who I am, to myself, in every room I enter, so I have had to learn how to hold both mes at once—who I know myself to be and the self I become in another’s imagination. PARKER Can you tell me about how you use metaphor in this book? How do you think it connects with the content? SHANAHAN The way I think about metaphor, about figuration in general, is less about equation than about seeing how far apart the two things can be while still having a tether, still having some connective tissue. At its most compressed, narrative can function as metaphor. The opening poem, “Colonialism,” for example, comes from memory, and its narrative is unresolved. It ends with the mother’s question—“Elesh, mon fils? Why // Would you do that to me?—”—which might appear to be the exact question a mother would ask in that situation, but because the title demands that you read the scene in relationship to, or within, a colonial or a postcolonial context, the question deepens. The narrative becomes a metaphor, a conceit even. PARKER I would also point to the poem “In the Basement of Sears & Roebuck When for the First Time I Pulled My Hand from Her Hand and Fled,” where the metaphor doesn’t appear on the line level but on the poem level. It’s the narrative. The child running away from his mother and hiding, as that poem’s literal scene, is emblematic of the adult-child’s individuation around core identity questions—which I think has to do with how philosophical your poetic voice is. How does your intellectual self jut up against your experience, when you write a poem? SHANAHAN What I’m trying to do is identify, distill, and reimagine experiences that may represent a particular set of existential or social circumstances so as to foreground the speaker’s interiority in a way that is inseparable from those circumstances. And I’m writing as a way to work against our separateness, by demonstrating the effects of that separateness. I believe the lyric poem can take you to languagelessness—that, ideally, is where it would leave you—and that we can be unified in or even by that “silence.” The paradox of the lyric poem is that the medium is language or breath, but it takes you to a place that we can’t exactly language. I believe that in my bones. PARKER Is that state bodiless? SHANAHAN It’s egoless. In the encounter of the poem and the reader, who brings their own history and imagination to the text, a connection is formed. The reader plugs into an experience that is born out of a subjectivity that is not their own, which might be completely different from what they know. And yet, if the poem does its work and takes you to that place where you are without language but inside feeling, then there’s some kind of merging or bridging that’s happened. That feels important to me, both as a poet and as a reader of poetry. I look for poems that can give me, or take me to, that experience. It’s like that Anne Sexton poem that we’ve talked about … PARKER “The Truth the Dead Know”? SHANAHAN Yes! There’s a phrase— PARKER “Gone, I say!” I can’t believe I don’t have that tattooed yet. SHANAHAN That’s the next one. But there’s another line in that poem, “and when we touch …” PARKER “… we enter touch entirely.” SHANAHAN Exactly. That’s what happens, right? Or can. Entering your feeling, your experience—I am entering yours, and then we are there together as one somehow. And it’s brief, it’s fleeting. Then we walk away from the poem and return to our ego and our self and our life—to the dishes, or the emails. For me, this experience is powerful, but particularly because the subjects that I’m exploring exist to divide. The very function of race was to separate, to classify, to hierarchize in the service of capital—I don’t mean to be reductive, but it all depended on a compartmentalization of the species, right? So how can poems, especially poems that emerge from our separateness, manage to bring us back to that sense of connectivity and oneness? That they can and do seems miraculous to me. PARKER Do you see that as part of a purpose of not just your poems but your life? SHANAHAN I do believe that talking about these nuanced dimensions of race is part of my life purpose. At least that’s what I believe right now. I don’t mean to say that no one else is doing that, but it’s part of what I can do in this life, in this body. I’m working on a nonfiction book to extend the work that I’m doing in the poems, through prose, with hopes of reaching a wider audience. Thinking about purpose, there’s a poem in the book, “Thirty-Fifth Year”—the one that starts, “Dread remains. I keep looking / for a thing I can’t name, though I try / ‘purpose,’ ‘meaning,’ ‘presence.’” Purpose is the first item on that list. What else are you going to do with all this but try to make it meaningful by making it known to people outside of your particular experience? I remember at one of the Cave Canem retreats—during my first year actually, when I was writing some of my first poems about these themes, which went into my first book—I read that poem “Clean Slate.” PARKER I was there. I remember sitting on the bench and feelings were occurring! SHANAHAN Yes! And afterward Toi Derricotte came up to me by the food table. She looked at me plainly and said, “Baby, you were extraordinary.” And I was like, “Thank you, Toi. Oh my God, that means so much!” Then she gets real, Toi. She turns into the Oracle, takes my hand, leans in and says, “And what else are you going to do with all that pain, baby? What else are you going to do with all that pain?” And walked away. And I was so open and porous and unapologetic about my healing and where I was in my life that I fully received her words. Even as the work was never exclusively motivated by pain and isn’t at all anymore. PARKER Thinking about Toi and our Cave Canem brethren and sistren, a lot of what we shared was, “I already have this pain. Let me show it to you so that maybe you can see yours in a different kind of way.” And that, especially in the context of race in the U.S. and what it has done to us interpersonally, is all we can do. You know what I mean? SHANAHAN I do. I will never forget the opening circle that first time I was at the Cave Canem retreat with you. Everybody was going around, introducing themselves, and when you introduced yourself, you said, “I’m just trying to get out from under.” Twice. And that stayed with me because what you were saying—or what I heard—was, This poetry thing, this practice, is part of something larger, part of a healing that is pursued and expressed, holistically, in different avenues of my life. And this is just one piece. PARKER Generally, that is what it is—so let’s find the avenues in which to do that. No one can say more than me about how only therapy is therapy. I haven’t written a poem in a while, but I’m doubling up on the therapy. The idea of writing saving you as you’re going through something I don’t believe in at all. Even though Trace Evidence is such an accomplishment of so much physical and intellectual and spiritual struggle and pain, I don’t think that you would say that the writing of these poems was what got you through, would you? SHANAHAN No. You know what got me through? Love. And love is the thing I believe I’m trying to touch, walk us around, in my poems. Love in various expressions. Maternal love. Love of self. Love of community. Love of culture. Even country, potentially, in the case of the mother figure, who has fidelity to her country of origin. Love got me through that bus accident, the surgeries, the months of convalescence. It was astounding to see: the way that Black poets from the Cave Canem community all over the globe rallied around me; the way that my ex-partner, Nik, and his mom and friends in Zurich took turns visiting me in the hospital; the way that my buddy, Alan, flew his ass from Brooklyn to Zurich to hold my hand at the fucking hospital bed. That. It’s easy to say these are poems of identity. But for me, what’s inside that—and it’s related to the lyric poem being able to bring us to one another—is that love is the cost. The cost of our separateness is the loss of love. PARKER It’s striking that all this was born out of incredible trauma. SHANAHAN Yes, the occasion of that rallying around me in love was my nearly dying. But tomorrow’s Monday, and what’s stopping us all from doing that for one another again? What is in the way? In-it-togetherness is a core value for me. And I think it extends from the ways I experienced a kind of psychological exile in early life, as if I were nowhere and no one. There’s that short poem in the first section of the book, called “Exile,” in which I write, “You think I take from you? I do not take from you, I am you.” I couldn’t believe that more powerfully or more deeply. Let me just say one last thing about purpose as it relates to love. When I was on that bus and it lifted onto its two left wheels, and I thought I was at the end of my life … The first thought I had—and this is in the long poem “On the Overnight from Agadir”—the first thought I had was, “My work. I haven’t done my work.” PARKER No flash before your eyes? SHANAHAN None. I was like, wait, my contribution! And maybe that’s love. In the form of books, friendship, mentorship, partnership, ordinary empathy and compassion—all the forms it can take. There is something specific and particular that I have to do here and I haven’t done it yet. PARKER Maybe purpose, then, is the action of love? SHANAHAN I like that a lot. Charif Shanahan is the author of two collections of poetry, most recently Trace Evidence. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, and a Fulbright Senior Scholarship to Morocco, he lives in Chicago, where he is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Northwestern University. Morgan Parker is the author of the young adult novel Who Put This Song On? and the poetry collections Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, and Magical Negro, which won the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award. Parker lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Shirley. View the full article
  14. A Princess in Theory A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole is $1.99! This is the first book in her Reluctant Royals series and this seems to be a series that just keeps getting better with its books. Many readers loved how Alyssa writes consent, agency, and all sorts of other awesome and empowering things. However, some warn that this book takes several chapters to get into the swing of things. From acclaimed author Alyssa Cole comes the tale of a city Cinderella and her Prince Charming in disguise . . . Between grad school and multiple jobs, Naledi Smith doesn’t have time for fairy tales…or patience for the constant e-mails claiming she’s betrothed to an African prince. Sure. Right. Delete! As a former foster kid, she’s learned that the only things she can depend on are herself and the scientific method, and a silly e-mail won’t convince her otherwise. Prince Thabiso is the sole heir to the throne of Thesolo, shouldering the hopes of his parents and his people. At the top of their list? His marriage. Ever dutiful, he tracks down his missing betrothed. When Naledi mistakes the prince for a pauper, Thabiso can’t resist the chance to experience life—and love—without the burden of his crown. The chemistry between them is instant and irresistible, and flirty friendship quickly evolves into passionate nights. But when the truth is revealed, can a princess in theory become a princess ever after? Add to Goodreads To-Read List → You can find ordering info for this book here. Gouda Friends Gouda Friends by Cathy Yardley is $1.99 at Amazon! If you’ve listed to literally any podcast episode I’ve been on with Sarah, you probably know I love cheese and I’m just tickled by the heroine’s dedication to dairy. This seems like a fluffy, small town romance that’s light on angst. Two high school BFFs reunite and endeavor to fix each other’s lives in this geeky romance from the author of Love, Comment, Subscribe. Tam Doan dumped her boyfriend after he threw away her gourmet cheese. Sure, it’s a little more complicated than that, but the point is, he had it coming. Newly single and unemployed, Tam calls up her best friend from high school and utters the emergency code word—goldfish. Next thing she knows, she’s on a plane back home. Josh O’Malley was a troubled, unconfident teenager. Now he’s the successful owner of a multimillion-dollar ghost kitchen. Tam, his high school BFF and fellow member of the Nerd Herd friend group, was instrumental in building his self-esteem. When she calls him out of the blue, he jumps at the chance to return the favor. Josh and Tam immediately get to work fixing her life—but again, it’s complicated. Their close friendship was always a lifeline between them; a blooming romance might confuse things. Still, at least one thing is for certain: their chemistry is un-brie-lievable. Add to Goodreads To-Read List → You can find ordering info for this book here. The View Was Exhausting The View Was Exhausting by Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta $2.99! I mentioned this one on a previous Get Rec’d for hardcover romance readers, though I believe it’s coming out in paperback soon. Lots of tropes here – fake dating, celebrities, and friends to lovers. Daisy Jones and the Six meets Crazy Rich Asians in this escapist, swoon-worthy debut novel of a famous actress embroiled in a fake tabloid romance, confronting the challenges of being a woman of color in Hollywood and the notion that she might actually be in love. Faking a love story is a whole lot easier than being in love . . . The world can see that international A-list actress Whitman (“Win”) Tagore and jet-setting playboy Leo Milanowski are made for each other. Their kisses start Twitter trends and their fights break the internet. From red carpet appearances to Met Gala mishaps, their on-again, off-again romance has titillated the public and the press for almost a decade. But it’s all a lie. As a woman of color, Win knows the Hollywood deck is stacked against her, so she’s perfected the art of controlling her public persona. Whenever she nears scandal, she calls in Leo, with his endearingly reckless attitude, for a staged date. Each public display of affection shifts the headlines back in Win’s favor, and Leo uses the good press to draw attention away from his dysfunctional family. But pretending to be in a passionate romance can only lead to one thing . . . trouble. So instead they settle for friendship, with a side of sky-rocketing chemistry. Except this time, on the French Riviera, something is off. A shocking secret in Leo’s past sets Win’s personal and professional lives on a catastrophic collision course. Behind the scenes of their yacht-trips and PDA, the world’s favorite couple is at each other’s throats. Now they must finally confront the many truths and lies of their relationship, and Win is forced to consider what is more important: a rising career, or a risky shot at real love? THE VIEW WAS EXHAUSTING is a funny, whip-smart modern love story set against the backdrop of exotic locales and the realities of being a woman of color in a world run by men. Add to Goodreads To-Read List → You can find ordering info for this book here. Digging Up Love Digging Up Love by Chandra Blumberg is $1.99 at Amazon! This looks like a cute romance between a baker and a paleontologist. Have you read this one? It came out last year. From debut author Chandra Blumberg comes a playful, heartfelt romance about chasing your dreams and finding love in the process. Alisha Blake works her magic in the kitchen, creating delectable desserts for her grandfather’s restaurant in rural Illinois. Though Alisha relishes the close relationship she has with her family, she can’t help but dream about opening a cookie shop in Chicago. She may be a small-town baker, but Alisha has big ambitions. Then a dinosaur bone turns up in her grandparents’ backyard. When paleontologist Quentin Harris arrives to see the discovery for himself, he’s hoping that the fossil will distract him from a recent painful breakup. Instead, he finds Alisha—and sparks fly. The big-city academic and the hometown baker seem destined for a happily ever after. But Alisha is scared to fall in love. And Quentin’s trying to make a name for himself in a competitive field, which gets even more complicated when the press shows up at the dig site. For love to prevail, the two may have to put old bones aside—and focus on the future. Add to Goodreads To-Read List → You can find ordering info for this book here. View the full article
  15. Die Hard had started with a man named Roderick going to see a movie in 1975. Novelist Roderick Thorp, a burly, bald former private investigator best known for his novel The Detective, bought a ticket for The Towering Inferno, sat through 165 minutes of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen trying to save a large ensemble cast of tanned celebrities, and then went home and had a horrific nightmare. Just as the image of a Terminator rising from flames first came to James Cameron in a bad dream, so Thorpe that night imagined a lone figure trapped in a high-rise, fleeing men with guns. He expanded the image into a 1979 sequel to The Detective, Nothing Lasts Forever, in which a retired NYPD officer named Joe Leland has a very bad Christmas Eve inside the forty-story headquarters of a company called Klaxon Oil. After battling ten invading German terrorists, he drops their leader, Anton Gruber, out of a window, though his daughter dies in the process, too. It got good reviews, with the Miami Herald even anticipating the inevitable big-screen adaptation (“Nothing Lasts Forever is truly a one-man show that would require an actor of Sinatra’s stature to do it justice”) and saluting the cleanness of its high concept (“The building is sealed off; the gang is in an impregnable position, except for Leland, the one-man army, who hides on the top floors above them”). Yet the book would bounce around Hollywood for most of a decade without drawing much interest. Finally a young executive named Lloyd Levin, who worked for Lawrence Gordon, discovered and began championing it. Gordon brought in screen-writer Jeb Stuart. And over two and a half months, Stuart turned Thorpe’s dense first-person prose, which featured its hero monologuing at length on CB radio and offering long sections of exposition about Klaxon Oil’s sideline in arms dealing, into a screenplay. “I worked with what Bruce was,” says McTiernan. “We had to work out: what are the circumstances in which you can like this man?” Much changed, starting with the title. Where Nothing Lasts Forever conjured up images of a James Bond movie or Rock Hudson melodrama, Die Hard left little doubt as to what to expect. At John McTiernan’s behest, the ten terrorists became ten thieves masquerading as terrorists; it would allow them to shake off the novel’s fug of solemnity and make it a caper instead. The earnest dialogue and flat supporting characters became similarly zesty, even more so once Steven de Souza was brought in for a pass. And then there was the hero, no longer Joe Leland but John McClane (it had been “John Ford” in early drafts, after Stuart saw a mural of the Westerns director on the Fox lot). Stuart had already made him younger than his sixty-year old literary equivalent, but originally envisioned him as suave and sophisticated, with a slick sports coat. This would have worked for Richard Gere, but once the un-suave Bruce Willis was official, McClane was retooled all over again. “I worked with what Bruce was,” says McTiernan. “We had to work out: what are the circumstances in which you can like this man?” Overhauling the script, they leaned into Willis’s working-class roots—in his pre-acting days he had been a truck driver and a security guard at a nuclear power plant—and his man-of-the-people charm, honed while working as a bartender in New York, famous for his bone-dry martinis and signature cocktail, Honey I’m Home (the ingredients for which Willis has never divulged). McClane would now begin the movie by declining an invitation to sit in the back of a limousine, getting in the front with the driver instead. He wears a white A-shirt under his flannel shirt, like a stevedore. And beneath the bravado, the grins, the “Yippee-ki-yay, mother-fucker,” is a guy who’s scared shitless. McTiernan, who saw Die Hard as akin to William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (albeit with fewer fairies and more C- 4), envisioned McClane as a wounded soul. “The secret is that he doesn’t like himself,” the director says. “He thinks he’s a loser. His wife thinks he’s a loser. And he’s just doing the best he can. He’s being a smartass to rise above the pain. And Bruce being a smartass in that circumstance becomes an act of heroism. The audience can like him for it.” Adds de Souza: “Vulnerability became a feature, not a bug.” And as the hero changed, so did the villain. A generic heavy was transformed into the polar opposite of a beat cop: designer suit, superior sneer, citations from Plutarch (“Benefits of a classical education”). Hans Gruber—Anton no more—was becoming an action-movie equivalent of the arrogant, expensively dressed bankers to whom Willis once served martinis. Albeit, thanks to the casting of Alan Rickman and the citrus-sharp dialogue, Gruber was a villain so fun that you’d actually want him to walk away with $640 million in bearer bonds, if it weren’t for the guy in the A shirt. “It’s like that cartoon about the mouse looking at the eagle and giving him the finger,” McTiernan says, summing up the two opposing forces. And on November 2, 1987, the mouse and the eagle entered Nakatomi Plaza for the first time. __________________________ Excerpted from THE LAST ACTION HEROES by Nick de Semlyen Copyright © 2023 by Nick de Semlyen. Excerpted by permission of Crown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. View the full article
  16. Moïra Fowley is the author of three critically acclaimed YA novels, and a part-time witch. She is half-Irish, half-French, and lives in Dublin. Moïra has a Masters in Popular Literature from Trinity College Dublin and wrote half a PhD on teenage vampires in young adult fiction before leaving academia when her first book sold and her first baby was born in the space of a few months. Since then, she has spent her time writing queer magic realism for young adults, raising two witch babies, and reading tarot. What does the end of the world look like? We all think about this – we all have our own ideas. From the great floods that echo biblical stories to atomic bombs and zombie outbreaks, we all think ‘what would I do?’ and ‘what would it look like?’ In this lingering and uncanny collection, Fowley constructs some beautifully bizarre scenarios, feeding off our darkest impulses and desires, forcing us to confront the end of the world as we know it. ‘Its not too late, Melissa answered. Women have always had children at the end of the world’ I have to say, Fowley knows her audience. Yes, the cover is pretty. Floral and feminine, the perfect piece for that ‘bookstagram’ feel – but when I walked into Waterstones in Liverpool the last thing I expected was to see a giant poster: ‘HER FACE ITCHES, DEEP FRISSON AT HER HAIR-LINE, TINGLE OF BURN ALONG HER JAW. SHE HOOKS HER NAILS RIGHT IN, DIGS UP AND UNDER, SHUDDERING LIKE SHE’S COMING, BREATHS FAST AND HARD. SHE GIVES ONE OF THOSE BELLYGROANS, FINGERS, WORKING FASTER, DEEPER IN UNDER THE SKIN. HER WHOLE FACE PEELS OFF AND IT’S LIKE A BENEDICTON.’ Suffice it to say, I immediately purchased a copy of Eyes, Guts, Throat, Bones with absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. Fowley’s collection is difficult to define by genre, but I would categorise the stories under: Horror, Body Horror, Queer Fiction, Weird Fiction, Speculative Fiction, dystopia (and probably more). Lena Taylor (Waterstones) points out that Fowley’s collection starts with an ‘evocative banger,’ then begins introducing themes such as ‘not being listened to.’ Whilst the colloquial ‘banger’ might not seem appropriate – I insist that it is. Each story slaps, bangs, kills and fucks you in a slightly different way from a different angle. You become seduced but repulsed, amused but terrified and continuously satisfied, yet hungry for more. ‘There is always music playing and people talking, shouting, dancing, living, at all hours of the day and night. It used to be Adeline’s favourite thing about living there. The monster Doesn’t like it.’ Fowley introduces you to the monster in the mirror, the Demogorgon in your dreams and the witch that whispers in the wind. Sorry to warn you, but that the monster Fowley introduces you to, is you. Each story handles a different perspective on the end of the world, with twists and turns that you might not expect. From the face steeling activities of one drifting girl, to a ‘haunted’ mound of Earth or flowers falling from the sky when two girls fall in love, Fowley does more than ask ‘what if?’ Fowley confronts issues concerning ideological constructs surrounding Gender, love, Morality and identity. She screams ‘fuck off’ at ideological expectations and deconstructs performative heteronormativity. With her wildly delicious stories, Fowley makes you question the world, but you might not like the answers. ‘Night time was the for noises they could never dare to make in the day’ One of my favourite stories, is called ‘The Summoning,’ in which ‘Somebody. Not Katie,’ summons an interdimensional demon from a hell world. By accident. And that demon just happens to be ‘Girl Shaped.’ ‘Kind of. Hot-girl shaped.’ Not Katie (but definitely Katie) accidently summons the demon, at her college. It seems Katie is not the most popular student and has suffered some adversity from her shallow classmates. The Hot Demon offers to help Katie, and it ends in an absolute bloodbath. Whilst you might think – wow that escalated quickly – yes, it does. However, it reminded me of times when one might fantasise about seeking revenge on those who have upset you and what that revenge might look like (not that I have imagined summoning a demon, but the sentiment remains the same). ‘Only corpses stay’ Another great story is the ‘interval’ of the collection, called ‘Sad Straight Sex at the End of The World,’ Which is EXACTLY as vanilla and mundane as the title might suggest – but it is outrageously brilliant. Fowley has created a collection like nothing I have ever read. I half expected something akin to Lucie McKnight Hardy’s ‘Dead Relatives,’ and whilst if you enjoyed Hardy’s collection, I imagine you will enjoy Fowley’s, I do not feel they are cut from the same cloth. Fowley’s collection made me feel human, I haven’t decided it that is a good thing yet. I strongly recommend you read Fowley’s work, let your Eyes glide over the words, let your Guts churn with unease, leave your Throat exposed and let your Bones weaken as she walks you home, hand in hand, ready to introduce you to the monster you keep yourself hidden from. Yourself. Eyes Guts Throat Bones is available now from Orion Publishing, order your copy HERE The post EYES GUTS THROAT BONES by Moïra Fowley (BOOK REVIEW) appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
  17. When stories reach across time and still speak to us, something important is happening. We are connecting. No matter how different the era, place or events are from our own we nevertheless recognize that the story that we’re reading is our story too. It is the story of our fears, hopes and dreams. It’s the story of us. As we’ve discussed in the first two parts of this series, simply put the universal element that creates story timelessness is human experience. That’s what makes the connection. Whether it is a princess locked in a castle tower, a social climbing bootlegger trying to win a woman above his station, or an airman trapped in a war impossible to escape, we see ourselves. We get it. In one way or another, we’ve been there. Or might be. Or fear to be. Or hope to be. That’s true whether the intent of a story is high adventure or literary realism. Heightened events and ineluctable authenticity are flip sides of the same coin. They are the context for the melting and melding of ourselves and the story that we’re reading. We project ourselves into protagonists; protagonists are our mirror. They are whom we dread, whom we wish to be, and whom we really are. Play it any way that you like, but if we your readers are going to connect then in some way, heightened or humble, we will have to discover ourselves in your story. Genre stories enact our experience of mystery, romance, adventure, fear and journey. Literary fiction captures our living in ways beautiful, breathtaking, sad and splendid. Both purposes can fuse—as I discuss at length in Writing 21st Century Fiction—but neither is by itself what causes connection. The human experience that I’m talking about is independent of the type of story that you’re writing. Certain experiences are common to us all and that is because they are emotional. We’ve all been challenged. We’ve all be disappointed. We’ve all been unfairly judged. We’ve all been overjoyed. There are hundreds—thousands—of specific ways in which universal human experience can be conjured. That is why so many different kinds of story can connect. However, there are a couple of experiences that are utterly fundamental to human existence and yet in manuscripts I run across them only rarely. What I’m talking about are experiences that are intangible and yet real. They are sensations: of a state, of a place, and of a longing. Loss. Home. Hope. We all go through one, have a sense of the other, and cannot live without the third. We may avoid loss, leave home, or be without hope but those conditions are temporary. Loss is inescapable. Home is where we are from and to where we hope to return, perhaps, but more than that it represents safety. Hope is the air that we breathe; without it we are suffocating, if only inside. To create connection for readers, it is worth creating these experiences on the page. But how? Practical Universality I’m not a believer in formulas. Not for writing fiction. However, today I’m going to break my rule and invite you to use three templates. Create three paragraphs. Each is designed to capture one of the intangibles that are our topic today. I’ve presented versions of these templates in recent workshops and the results have been pretty good. So, if you have a few minutes give these a try. First, loss. There are lots of ways to describe grief but one characteristic of that awful feeling is the awareness of what is missing and gone. To get at that, let’s detail not the void but what used to fill it. Start by thinking of a loss—whether of a person or anything else—but focus on the things that were good. Put each into a sentence beginning with the phrase there would be no more… There would be no more days when… There would be no more reminders like… There would be no more anticipation of… There would be no more discoveries such as… There would be no more laughter when… There would be no more comfort from… There would be no more peace because… Then simply name the person or thing: There would be no more X. Finally, add what is left in place of X: There was only Y. Take a little time. String together the details that you’ve come up with which describe what was. End the paragraph with those two simple statements of loss. Have a look. Does the paragraph capture the sensation of loss? Next, home. This time, let’s approach the sensation through the details of what make home what it is—or was. Where is, or once was, home for your protagonist? Fill in the following sentences, using X, Y and Z as things specific to your protagonist’s home: Home is where… (…a happy thing X happens) Home is where… (…a wonderful food Y is prepared) Home is where… (…a caring person X…) (…always does…) (…Y) Home is where… (…protagonist first…) (…did X) (…and Y) (…and Z) Home is where… (…something beautiful X is found) Home is where… (…there is always X) String your sentences together and then conclude your paragraph with one of two capper sentences: Home was still there, but was now so far away. Or, Home was gone for good and would never be there again. Lastly, hope. For this paragraph, too, let’s construct a list using the same device of anaphora. Thinking of your protagonist, what for him, her or they will be the good life and a world that might someday be possible: Someday there would be… (…laughter at X) Someday there would be… (…food tasting like Y) Someday there would be… (…music sounding like Z) Someday we will… (…dress in garments X) Someday we will… (…sing songs of Y) Someday we will… (…believe again in Z) Someday there will be… (…a person X waiting with open arms) Someday there will be… (…a memorial to Y) Someday there will be… (…no more Z) Now, craft your paragraph and finish it with this sentence: That will happen someday, but today is not that day. Okay, take a look. Does that paragraph capture a feeling of hope? Conclusion The paragraphs that I’ve invited you to create may feel intentionally constructed. You may worry that they look mechanical. That’s okay. They don’t have to go into your manuscript. On the other hand, do those paragraphs capture sensations that we all might recognize as part of our human experience? I suspect that they do. If those paragraphs work, it’s probably because of the specifics that you included. Also because of the rhetorical trick that I built into those templates, anaphora. Literary devices have an elevating effect. Language is there to be used and in manuscripts I wish that words were more often used artfully. Loss, home and hope are sensations that come coupled with emotion. They are heart experiences that we all have. They’re not the only ones, of course, but they’re big ones. Universal ones. Used well, they reach across time, places and story types. They say something about all of us. They tell us who we are. They connect. What are primary universal experiences that you value, or that you have discovered in your favorite timeless works of fiction? [url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  18. The original opening credits of “Lou Grant,” the late-1970s, early 1980s TV series about the newspaper business, are of a particular time but also timeless. The credits montage for the first season shows a bird sitting in a tree, trees being chopped down and turned into newsprint, the reporters and editors of the fictional Los Angeles Tribune gathering news and writing stories, rolled-up newspapers being thrown into puddles and onto roofs and, finally, the newspaper being used to line the floor of a birdcage. The life of a newspaper – and a newsroom, for that matter – is very different now than in 1977. To be sure, print editions are still produced and delivered, sometimes, hopefully, not into gutters and snow drifts. But digital news reigns. One thing that has not changed since 1977 and those early credits is that the demand for news has never been greater, but the method of putting that reporting and editing and images in the hands of readers is still a challenge. That’s a roundabout way of saying that, for a series that debuted when “Star Wars” had been in theaters for only about four months, “Lou Grant” is dated but still relevant. The series was and is something of an oddity. I can’t think of another instance when a situation comedy, even a classic one like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” spun off a character into a drama. Ed Asner’s Lou Grant, after his stint as the news producer at Minneapolis TV station WJM resulted in unemployment, got a job city editor at the Trib, working for old friend Charlie Hume (Mason Adams). The two of them work for Trib publisher Margaret Pynchon, played by Nancy Marchand in a warm-up for her “Sopranos” role as an intimidating matriarch. Pynchon is a cross between Los Angeles Times publisher Dorothy Chandler – you might have heard of her pavilion – and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. Lou oversees a slightly less odd collection of newsroom staffers at the Trib than at WJM: Joe Rossi (Robert Walden) is an arrogant hotshot; Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey) is a rookie with a lot to prove; photographer Dennis “Animal” Price (Daryl Anderson) somehow managed to cover all of SoCal by himself; Art Donovan (Jack Bannon) was the city editor and a dead ringer for one of my editors at the time. You see, I entered the newspaper business right after “Lou Grant” debuted, beginning years of freelancing in high school and college less than a year after the show first aired on CBS. At first, I didn’t like “Lou Grant” much. I eventually realized it was as accurate in its depiction of the newspaper business as any TV series would ever be. Not that TV and movies hadn’t tried to mine the fertile ground of the news business before. Lou Grant and the Case of the Notorious Nazis From “The Front Page” to “The Paper” to “The Post,” the newsroom has appealed to filmmakers. There are many fewer distinguished examples of newspaper TV series. Sure, the journalists of “House of Cards” made an impression but the show was firmly grounded in newsmakers, not news reporters. The season of “The Wire” that focused on Baltimore’s beleaguered newspaper is probably the grittiest treatment of journalism ever “Lou Grant” is assuredly not the grittiest newspaper story ever told. But it told its stories well and kept audiences invested for five seasons. In a recent re-watch, I was startled by how well the series told stories that would prove to be relatively timeless There’s some “story of the week” feel to “Lou Grant.” The episodic nature of television at the time meant that few storylines would be continued week to week. We didn’t find out in the middle of the first season that Art Donovan abused substances, only to see him bottom out in the second season and return to the city desk in the third season, slowly working to regain his bosses’ trust. (This would have been a gritty, and also true-to-life, newspaper storyline.) There were ongoing stories for the main characters, particularly for Billie Newman, who took a chance on marriage and stayed in a profession that isn’t always kind to out-of-office life. Likewise, Lou’s three daughters figure into the series and they share some resentment over how much time he spent away from them over his career. The heart of the show was about two things: the news business and how the men and women in the business do their jobs. The great (and gritty) “Hill Street Blues” didn’t debut until 1981, and “St. Elsewhere” didn’t come along until 1982. The hourlong dramas of the fall of 1977 were more “Hardy Boys Nancy Drew Mysteries,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “Charlie’s Angels” and less “The Rockford Files.” There’s not as much character development for the Los Angeles Tribune staff as we’d see today. But there were great stories, and “Lou Grant” excelled at telling the stories behind the stories. The Hardy Boys never took on neo-Nazis (correct me if I’m wrong), ceding that task to “Wonder Woman” and the reporters of the Los Angeles Tribune. In a very early episode of “Lou Grant,” a small group of brownshirt-wearing white guys disrupt a group of Jews holding a service in a Los Angeles park. There’s a scuffle and the Nazi leader gets a bloody scalp wound, making for good photos by Animal. But back at the Trib newsroom, the editors debate whether they should cover the Nazis at all. In an editorial meeting that has been re-enacted in many newsrooms since 2015, one editor suggests it’s a bad idea to give the neo-Nazis attention. “What do you think this is, World War II?” one asks Lou. “Maybe about 10 years before World War II,” Lou replies. Arguing that “the news is the news,” Lou wins the debate and assigns Billie to track down and write about the leader of the local Nazis, played by the future “Robocop” himself, Peter Weller. (Another Nazi is played by Brian Dennehy.) In a development that seems hard to believe until you remember almost any news story from the past decade about false-faced, self-serving politicians, Billie finds that the Nazi is Jewish. The revelation shifts the focus of the story and of the episode, as Weller’s character threatens the journalist, then pleads that his past not be exposed. The twist has the unfortunate effect of making the Nazi sympathetic, but I’m grateful that CBS, the Tiffany network, chose to expose neo-Nazis in any way short of giving them their own weekly series. Newsrooms and dark humor One of the best things about “Lou Grant” is how it portrayed the news business more realistically than before or since. And one of the biggest newspaper truisms was the dark, often inappropriate, humor in the newsroom. When I was a reporter and editor, talk in the newsroom about many topics would eventually work itself around to ideas expressed through dark humor. There’s no darker humor than humor about the news business itself. At some point, someone in “Lou Grant” notes, “Mrs. Pynchon is very interested in endangered species,” prompting Lou to reply, “Sure, that’s why she owns a newspaper.” In the second season, Charlie Hume goes to talk to a high school class and isn’t prepared for the students to be informed and ask relevant questions. “They wanted to talk issues and I gave them pencils,” he moaned. Not all the humor in “Lou Grant” would be accepted as appropriate today, as in the episode where a reporter dies in a cheap hotel during an affair and Lou clumsily tries to cover for the man with the reporter’s wife. That’s not the only time some of the stories display outdated attitudes. In one episode in particular, Billie is writing a sympathetic story about a sex worker played by “Cujo” and “The Howling” actress Dee Wallace. Lou and Charlie scoff at Billie’s idea that the woman is more than just her job at a massage parlor. When Lou runs into Billie having lunch with her story subject but doesn’t know who she is, he concludes that she’s “a nice girl” who reminds him of his daughter. The nature of the show and a lot of television and a lot of fiction, for that matter, is that most of the stories show a lot of personal involvement on the part of the reporters and editors. Luckily, it’s not the personal involvement and huge ethical lapses of the reporters in “House of Cards,” for example, but it makes for good drama when Billie is so personally invested in the sex worker she’s writing about that she helps her study for a real estate exam. No good stories or bad stories – just stories The little notes of realism in “Lou Grant” really spoke to those of us in the business, even if the general public didn’t understand. The way the police scanner squawks from a shelf near Lou’s desk strikes a nerve with all of us who ever worked through the scanner’s constant chatter. It was very realistic how Lou and the other editors would quickly reject cliché or substandard stories. The first season Christmas episode in particular has a scene of them quickly dismissing awful seasonal story ideas. “Lou Grant” did a nice job in portraying the gradual changes in the industry. By the final season, in 1982, the newsroom typewriters are being replaced with word processors, just as they were when I started in the business. And just like when I started in the business – and still today – the staffers lived in fear of the system crashing and dumping a just-finished story. For critics of the news business and those who work in the business alike, we could do a lot worse than remember Lou Grant’s response when someone in the newsroom says they just don’t have anything to write about at the moment. “There is no such thing as a slow news day,” Lou says. I’d add to that something I overheard my friend David Penticuff say once when someone on the phone had asked if he was going to write a “good story or a bad story.” “I don’t write good stories and I don’t write bad stories,” we heard Dave reply. “I just write stories.” It sounded like something that Lou Grant would say. View the full article
  19. There are several reasons why corporations and/or billionaire CEOs make such good villains in works of fiction. First, all mysteries and thrillers need a power imbalance favoring the bad guy. Second, because in real life, we keep seeing tech titans do reprehensible, insane and/or criminal things. And third, as Arthur C. Clarke told us, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Let me take on that last one first: High tech corporations do stuff that, to a guy like me with a bachelor of arts degree in political science, is simply arcane. I read articles about, or ads for, Silicon Forest juggernauts and realize: I don’t know what any of those nouns and verbs mean. And if you dabble in magic, well, you’re fair game to be the bad guy in a book or movie. In the late 1970s, I was flying to see my family at Christmas in one of those awesome, 12-seat turboprop airplanes of the era. (This was the now long-forgotten Trans Magic Airlines. It wasn’t the world’s greatest airliner; we generally referred to it as Man’s Tragic Airlines.) The pilot, who sat two seats ahead of me, told us we had to make an unscheduled landing in Walla Walla. “Some engine problem.” I asked him, “What’s wrong with the engine?” He drawled, “Damned if I know.” But a half hour later, he whistled for us to get back onboard and I did, along with the other passengers. Because with this mid-twentieth century technology, I felt safe to believe that this guy probably popped the hood, figured out what wasn’t working, and fixed it. I flew off without another thought. If a pilot of a 747 today tells me there is engine trouble, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that that pilot cannot fix the problem. It will require computers, diagnostic readouts, and a team of trained mechanics. The captain on the flight deck of a 21st century jetliner sure as hell isn’t popping the hood and digging around in the engine. Because the workings of a jet engine today are sufficiently advanced—even to the captain—as to be is indistinguishable from magic. It’s that unknown quality of the high-tech world that leads writers like me to create high-tech bad guys. I don’t know what “the cloud” is but I store all my most valuable information there. Could it be used for crime in a novel? Sure, why not? I don’t know how it is that two dudes’ will create a tech start-up in a rented office over an ampm minimart in Modesto and—without ever seeing the slightest profit—will suddenly get gobbled up for a couple of billion bucks. But it happens. Is that kind of inexplicable transfer of wealth a gold mine for mystery writers? Without a doubt. Even the terminology is opaque to most of us. Ever read an articles about trolls doxing the netiquette of some cyberchondriac in the meatspace? Increasingly, articles about the high-tech world are devoid of English. And even if you understand the words, their original meaning gets distorted. I saw an ad the other day for a tech firm that advertised they were “Calm Cool and Compliant.” Generally speaking, those are traits I look for in a hostage. Writer Amelia Tait at Wired penned a terrific article recently titled, “The Rise of the Tech Bro Supervillain,” which featured a great line: “These days, evil wears a hoodie.” If you’re about to start a new mystery or thriller novel and you need a bad guy, how could you not be influenced by Elon Musk? Beyond being a candidate for World’s Worst Boss, he recently crashed sentient cars, ginormous rockets and a social network. And that was on a Tuesday! Or Elizabeth Holmes, the former Theranos CEO whose golden parachute from that gig included 11 years in the slammer for defrauding investors. (There’s no rule that tech bros must be bros, per se.) Edward Norton’s character, Miles Bron, in Rian Johnson’s delightful “Glass Onion” is the perfect example of the go-to bad guy. Breathtakingly full of himself, the dialogue of this chauvinistic, narcissistic rich boy was peppered with delightful malapropisms. Of course we all want to make fun of gigabyte gazillionaires! Or to be frightened by them. The high-tech corporate cad isn’t a 21st century invention, by the way Hey, I learned to write action sequences by reading comics. From Superman’s Lex Luthor to Spider-Man’s Norman Osborn, ain’t nothing new in the CEO villain. Sure, very few writers today fall back on using the tried-and-true giant robot to dominate Metropolis, but our bad apples haven’t fallen that far from the tree of villainy. Another reason for the Snidely Whiplashes of the C-Suite (wow, did I date myself with that one) is the much needed power imbalance that all good mysteries and thrillers must have. Simply put, the villain of the piece has to be sufficiently stronger than our heroine, right up until the end, that the threat is believable. Protagonists have to be underdogs. The fight has to be uphill, or it’s not such much a “thriller” as it is a “duller.” Imagine a dust jacket that asks, “Will our hero, the assault-rifle-wielding gym-rat Special Forces icon, be able to defeat the cranky jerk threatening to write a snotty Yelp review in time?” The answer’s yes. That’s not a spoiler: you’ll have tossed out the book long before you get to the denouement. Simply put: the ultra-rich make for good villains. The high-tech world is, for most of us, so opaque that Silicon Valley techno-mages are shovel-ready antagonists. And in real life, babbling billionaire buffoons keep showing us absolute power ain’t nothing compared to absolute wealth when it comes to corrupting absolutely. Need a template for a bad guy in your next novel? Have you been on Twitter lately? *** View the full article
  20. Horses are highly sensitive herd animals and as such, they reflect the emotions of those around them—including their human partners. To quote my latest novel, Girls and their Horses, “Horses are like mirrors. They reflect all the best parts and all worst parts of ourselves back at us.” Horses in fiction are often used to echo the qualities of their human counterparts. They also inspire fast-paced, passionate stories of determination. Horses are often used to represent deeper emotional struggles or iron will. While perhaps not strictly thrillers, the following stories are fast-paced, thrilling and filled with twists. Dark Horses by Susan Mihalic \Dark Horses tells the story of a teenage equestrian prodigy struggling to escape the grip of her abusive father and coach. Evocative of Ella Berman’s The Comeback, the character’s dreams seem to hold her hostage. Mihalic focuses in on the Roan’s determination to be a champion rider to create a compelling conflict. The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans The Horse Whisperer tells the story of a teenage girl who narrowly survives a terrible riding accident that kills her friend, and her strong-willed mother who seeks out a ‘horse whisperer’ in a last-ditch attempt to save her daughter and their horse. The book opens with one of the most harrowing horse-riding accidents ever committed to print and continues apace from there. The Horse Whisperer was inspired by horse trainer Monty Roberts, and focuses on the emotional and spiritual connection between humans and horses. The Black Stallion by Walter Farley A classic novel about a boy and a wild horse who land on an abandoned island following a shipwreck and form a spiritual bond that sees them through struggles in the real world once they’re rescued. This book kicked off a series of thrilling horse racing novels. The Black Stallion dramatizes the connection between horse and rider, making the protagonist Alec the only person who can ride the titular black stallion. The Horsewoman by James Patterson and Mike Lupica This extremely fast-paced novel details the competition between mother and daughter equestrians leading up to the Olympics. With high-staked competitions, manipulative owners and riding accidents, The Horsewoman zeroes in on the many twists and turns of competitive showjumping. Horse by Geraldine Brooks Inspired by a true story, Horse features a multiple timeline narrative based around a record-breaking racehorse. Brooks imbues the narrative with suspense and twists. This beautifully-written story examines themes of racism, art and obsession. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy The tale of a teenage Texas rancher who sets out on an adventure to cross the Mexican border and find work as a cowboy, All the Pretty Horses juxtaposes beautiful prose with the tragedy and brutality of the New/Old West. Here the horses seem to represent a romanticized vision of the west and the plotting is quick and filled with adventure. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty In a similar vein, but a heck of a lot longer, Lonesome Dove tells the epic story of aging ranchers who decide to go on one last cattle drive. The story is filled with danger and death. Here the horses are partners with their riders and share a relationship and history. Sixteen Horses by Greg Buchanan In this literary thriller, a police detective discovers sixteen horse heads on a farm and follows this mystery down a dark and twisted path. While a very different take from the above, here again we see horses as symbols. The Syndicate Manager by Richard Laws This book tells the story of a syndicate manager fighting to keep control over his star horse. It’s a deep dive into the dangerous, corrupt world of horseracing. In this highly competitive world, the horse represents money, success and power. The author is in fact a syndicate manager in England, and used his experience to create a more authentic story. Dark Horses by Cecily Von Ziegesar Did you know that the author of the Gossip Girl series also wrote a book from the perspective of a horse? That book is Dark Horses, which tells the story of a troubled girl who is sent to a residential equine therapy program where she bonds with a failed racehorse. Here the story gets pretty wild, because the horse falls so deeply in love with his rider that he will do anything to keep her to himself—including murder. Yes, you read that right. *** View the full article
  21. It’s the not knowing, really, Isn’t it?. When we read mysteries and thrillers centered around solving a murder, we know the person is dead… but a missing persons case opens up a slew of psychological aspects to explore. There is no closure in cases of people disappearing. There is never an ability to mourn and move on because there is still a lingering flicker of hope. A character holding onto hope and simultaneously torturing themselves with endless possible worst-case scenarios is what really draws us into missing persons stories and what makes us resonate with them–empathize with the pain and grief of the family. Not only can we deeply sympathize with the character searching for answers, we feel like we are a part of the search in perhaps a more urgent personal way than a character’s search for justice for a murder, say… or finding out who-done-it. It seems as though in real life, once a high profile missing case goes viral, the general public feels like they are a part of it too, in a sense. Everyone has a theory or an opinion. Everyone is an online, armchair detective, and It instills fear–if it could happen to this everyday person, it could happen to my family. This is probably most deeply felt by marginalized groups of people because we have a collective history of throwing disproportionate amounts of resources to stories about young white women missing while countless other cases are dismissed in many ways. It begs the question: What criteria do national newsrooms use to decide which cases make the cut and become a headline?… but that’s a topic for another article, or maybe even for a thriller book, because it’s actually quite scary how many missing lives are swept under the rug. Thriller authors write about what we fear the most, and so a well-crafted story of a beloved family member or friend vanishing is something we seem to perpetually have a big appetite for in fiction. In novel form all of this is concentrated and dramatized, so the reader has enough separation from real life to safely go along for the ride, but the fear of the unknown still hits a nerve for most people. The reality is that thousands of people go missing every year, and a few thousand unidentified bodies are found every year which is sort of staggering in this technological era, but is also likely why “into thin air” and “without a trace” stories have found themselves a comfortable home in crime fiction. Here are several novels about missing persons, each with its own unique lens. Then She Was Gone, by Lisa Jewell When fifteen year-old Ellie Mack disappears, The police’s investigation never turns up any clues about what happened to her, but they believe she ran away. Her mother, Laurel, believes otherwise. After ten years, and after losing her marriage and disconnecting from her family, Laurel begins to try to piece together a life for herself without her beloved daughter. It’s only then that some shocking clues reveal themselves and draw her closer to the appalling truth about what really happened to her daughter. This one is a real stunner. Jewell is one of my very favorite authors. somehow she has this unique ability to create a very unsettling and chilling story and yet make it touching and poignant…and still page-tuning and unputdownable. I find, even though it’s been a few years since I read this one, I still think about Ellie Mack, and I can’t really say that for many fictional characters, so that’s why it’s on the top of my list and has always stayed with me. The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, was given an assignment on a small cruise ship with only a handful of cabins. What started as an exciting opportunity, turns horribly wrong as she witnesses a woman being thrown overboard. The problem is, all passengers remain accounted for and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that someone is dead and something on this ship is terribly wrong. This gives away how relatively new to thrillers I am, but this is one of the first thriller novels I ever read, and Ware’s work is part of what inspired me to try writing thrillers myself, so she holds a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf. It’s twisty and atmospheric, and just when you think you’ve figured out what’s going on, something happens to make you second guess everything. It’s anything but predictable. As a side note, do yourself a favor and listen to this one because Imogen Church’s narration is perfection. The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all—a loving relationship, a wonderful home, and their beautiful baby, Cora. But one night, when they are at a dinner party next door, a terrible crime is committed. Suspicion immediately lands on the parents. But the truth is a much more complicated story. I especially love the way the title ties in. Is it the couple next door to you? Or are YOU the couple next door? This story explores deception and unraveling family ties, but what I loved most about it is that I never had a clue what the twist would be. I didn’t see it coming and It’s not all that often I read the big reveal–the big “who-done-it’ in the end and feel both genuinely surprised and very satisfied. This one had it all and was well crafted from beginning to end. And Now She’s Gone, by Rachel Howzell Hall PI Grayson Sykes is tasked to find a vanished woman, Isabel Lincoln, who is thought to have disappeared on purpose, so surely the boyfriend (who reported her missing) is hiding something. Grayson suspects abuse and knows firsthand what an abusive relationship is like, so she’s convinced that all is not what it appears. But the further she goes down the rabbit hole, the more unexpected and complex the story becomes, and as she digs into the secrets of Isabel’s life, Grayson’s own secrets unravel. This author creates sharp and vivid images with smart, complex characters in the lead. This book takes you on a rollercoaster ride–wild, scary, and filled with twists you don’t see coming. When it finally comes to a halt at the very satisfying and unexpecting ending, the reader will not be disappointed. A writer to watch, in my opinion. Spare Room, by Dreda Say Mitchell Lisa is a young woman who has been told the physical scars she carries and the nightmares she suffers are from a tragic accident when she was young. She does not believe that’s true. The mystery keeps her anxious, depressed and struggling throughout her life. When she decides to rent a room in an old house, she quickly learns that it’s not just any house. It has a dark history and equally sinister live-in owners. Then…she finds a suicide note seemingly written by the previous tenant, and that’s when this story catches fire as Lisa begins to understand this creepy place, this note, somehow relate to what happened to her all those years ago. Perhaps not a true missing persons book, but the main character’s obsession to find out what happened to the man who stayed there before her is compelling and electrically charged from beginning to end. I love when reviewers say a book was ‘so hyped they expected to be disappointed when they read it themselves’..and then they’re still blown away. This book received many such accolades, and I concur that it’s a twisty, heart pounding gem of a book you won’t be able to put down. *** View the full article
  22. A We Could Be So Good by Cat Sebastian June 6, 2023 · Avon Historical: American CW: Homophobia on the page and mentioned in the past Cat Sebastian is an auto-read for me. She never lets me down. And she certainly hasn’t with this book. Nick Russo is on the city desk at the Chronicle, a progressive newspaper in New York. (Progressive because they don’t toe the party line and they dare to criticise the police.) He’s worked hard to get there and he’s good at his job. He’s brusque, respected and not particularly close to anyone. Enter Andy Fleming, the publisher’s son. So far, so standard, right? Wrong. Andy is scattered in an ADHD-coded way (with the baggage that goes along with that) and with two dynamic parents (although he lost his mom), he’s expected to take over the reins one day and he’s absolutely sure that he’ll muck it up. He’s put on the city desk and Nick takes him under his wing when he finds Andy with his tie stuck inside a tricky filing cabinet. Andy reminds him of his nephew Sal who has a similarly scattered approach to things. Nick’s obviously soft heart shines through the cracks in his armour. There are some who suspect Nick’s sexuality, but he keeps them at arm’s length and focuses on being an island. Andy puts paid to that though and soon the two are best friends. Binary stars rotating around each other. Usually, I detest a friends-to-lovers vibe, but this was such a beautiful, organic growth that it was effortless and believable for me as a reader. There’s more plot to it, but not much. This story is driven (powerfully) by the growth of Andy and Nick as individuals and as a team. The revelation of Andy’s sexuality and the joy they find with each other are just sweet stops along the way to their HEA. Why an A for something that amounts to a character study? Oh, my, but it’s perfect! Let me enumerate the reasons. First, these characters are so finely drawn that they felt real. All of their quirks and expressions and thoughts integrate so beautifully into their whole self, that as a reader, I could completely surrender to where the story wanted to take me. The humour (wry and gentle) kept my heart tripping along as their love story evolved. There were so many beautiful moments of bravery in this book! None of that nonsense where a point of tension could be resolved with a simple conversation that the characters refuse to have. Oh no! Here we are big and bold with our words and feelings! Okay, maybe initially, we whisper and imply our feelings, but we build up to the point of forthright openness and acceptance. TL;DR: Read this book if you’d like to be swept along safely in a rising tide of emotion, predominantly love. View the full article
  23. Slow growth is growth. This line from Nicole's post yesterday resonated with me when I read it. I've spent many years working on various creative projects without any way to measure the results. I get discouraged and give up on things (like novels or short stories) too easily. I expected the same thing when I began my podcast a little more than three years ago. I didn’t even know how to write a podcast script, but I learned. I didn’t know how to research cases and pull them together into cohesive narratives, but I learned. I didn’t know how to record a podcast, what kind of equipment I needed, how to get my show in podcast “feeds,” etc., but you guessed it, I learned! I taught myself the craft of storytelling through this new medium and tried not overwhelm myself, because I knew that would lead to me quitting the project altogether. So, slowly, I progressed. I produced short weekly episodes until I realized that was too hard to juggle with my day job. Then I settled into an every other week schedule. I looked at my stats on SoundCloud and noticed true crime episodes (and not just ones featuring missing people) got more downloads, so I integrated those topics into the content. I set up social media pages for the podcast. I learned how to make simple graphics in Canva. I cold called local true crime authors to ask if they wanted to be interviewed and promote their books. And each month, I would go back, analyze my podcast downloads, and tell myself to keep going, but the numbers kept going up. Coming up with a brand-new website for the podcast included a few hiccups. When a person I hired to help me with it didn’t share the same vision as I did, I figured out how to do it myself. I’ve been happy with the results and it’s high in the search rankings. My most recent episode, where I shared five true crime documentaries from Netflix, has already received 1,000 downloads in five days. The podcast overall is approaching 125,000 downloads overall and draws listeners both nationally and internationally. This past spring, I took all the knowledge I’d gained from working on this podcast and taught a webinar on “How to Start a Podcast.” It brought in more attendees than I ever imagined and another one is planned for August. I hope to develop more content around podcasting in the future. There is still room for more growth I’ve had comments on a few of my YouTube videos that visitors want to see more. I don’t know a lot about producing video content and am wavering on whether I should invest more time and energy into it. I have ideas for monetization, cross promotion with other products I have, such as books, and would love to find a few sponsors and hire someone to help me produce more content. I think that will all take time, so I’m staying the course. Renee Roberson is an award-winning writer and host/creator of the podcast, Missing in the Carolinas.(C) Copyright wow-womenonwriting.com Visit WOW! Women On Writing for lively interviews and how-tos. Check out WOW!'s Classroom and learn something new. Enter the Quarterly Writing Contests. Open Now![url={url}]View the full article[/url]
  24. Last week
  25. Photograph by Sheila Sund. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CCO 2.0. Four weeks sharing a room in San Francisco, four weeks since I decided not to go back to England. Gabe wasn’t sleeping. A quarter tab of acid for his breakfast. Spliffs throughout the day, booze and blue raspberry C4 preworkout all through the night. He was recording an album, working on his set, making a website, building a 24-7 open-source radio live-stream at a free hackers’ space, and not finishing anything. I was trying to write but spending a lot of time crying on the hot roof of the apartment building when he wasn’t around. He found me up there one afternoon at the end of one of his twelve-hour stints at the hackers’ space. Two straw hats, a beer, two cups. “I know you like to drink out of little cups!” He smiled and the inside of his mouth was blue from the raspberry preworkout. How do you hate someone as much as you love them? He said he’d been looking for me because he had a great plan. A childhood friend in the city was driving down to their hometown and we could get a ride. I could meet Gabe’s parents; go to the beach; see the fields, wildflowers, and back roads. So beautiful this time of year. I wondered if it might save us. “It’s God’s country,” he said. We arrived at his parents’ the following morning, after a four-hour drive south. A low ranch-style house on a wide road of low ranch-style houses. Gabe said it was too nice a day to be stuck inside, so he took me around the side and we climbed straight up onto the roof: “I know you like roofs in California!” I did like roofs in California. The front and back yards of gravel, wood chip and pebbles, interspersed with the occasional palm tree or redwood. At the end of the road was the main street, a couple of stores, a steak house, and a taqueria. Beyond, fields of lemon trees and mustard grass and farmland that stretched a few miles inland, up to a range of golden hills. Above us, the sun shone like the grill of a new truck. The house was full of knickknacks and shells and crystals and string lights. A “Be Grateful” sign by the coffee maker. A “Be Grateful” mat by the front door. A canvas in the kitchen printed with a picture of three fluffy ducklings and the words “I have joy down in the bottom of my heart.” It was hard to make out how many cats there were. And then Birdie, the overweight chihuahua, waddled in from the hallway and charged at Gabe, baring his red gums and gnashing tiny, pointed teeth. Gabe told me the dog was the spawn of the devil and the root cause of all the issues that existed between him and his parents. I already knew that the issues between Gabe and his family had begun when Gabe had gone to college in Santa Cruz five years before, found drugs, wouldn’t get a real job, and kept having to move back home when he ran out of money. His parents were musicians who’d met in Santa Barbara in the seventies. She’d sung in one band and he’d played guitar in another. They’d both worked in the same hippie jewelry store downtown before marrying and moving to a smaller town up the coast. I met them that morning when they followed the pets into the kitchen. Lou was short and round with a kind face, freshly shaved with a peaked cap on his bald head and a smart cowboy shirt tucked into chinos. He gave me a warm hug that smelled of Irish Spring. He picked up Birdie and fed him some bratwurst from the fridge. Julie went straight to the coffeepot. She wore a blue shirt with cropped leggings and had her blond hair put up neatly in a clip. She had the same unblinking stare as Gabe. Lou left to work his shift at a music shop in the next town over and Julie said she needed more coffee before her pain medication kicked in and she could talk properly. She had arthritis and had pain from a series of botched surgeries. The pain was the worst in the morning, but she was managing it with physical therapy, swimming, and half a pill on the bad days. She spent the next hour pacing around the house, telling me about all the things she needed to do—pay the bills, fill out paperwork, physical therapy, feed the dog, feed the cats—only to be derailed from doing any of it by the pets, or the phone ringing. She kept apologizing for being so busy, but she couldn’t seem to get anything done. The bills stayed untouched in a pile that took up most of the kitchen table, the phone rang and rang. There were Post-its all over the house: “Put coffee out,” “Tell Dad to clean sink,” “Ask Gabe where he is living in SF,” “Be Grateful.” Gabe derailed her the most, as he tried to make breakfast and clean up after himself. Mother and son knocked around the place, from the coffeepot to the piano to the back door, to the front door to the coffeepot again. They both had the habit of getting lost mid-action and the same strange sweetness. At one point, just after getting at him about putting the dishes away in the wrong place, she went into the living room and sang out with joy. When she came back into the kitchen she was smiling. She put her arms around her son. He rested his cheek on the top of her head and closed his eyes. Gabe and I spent the afternoon walking around town. Not a place built for walking but it had its charm, the slanting golden light making even the Vons supermarket look beautiful. We bought three beers for five dollars at the Stop and Shop and watched the sun go down as we sat against a fence by a dusty, abandoned lot. He told me that the most famous thing about this town was a Dorothea Langue photograph of Migrants from the thirties. For dinner Gabe made sandwiches and, to his mom’s exasperation, moved the bills off the dinner table and told everyone we were going to sit down. They were very good sandwiches, pastrami and banana peppers and mayo with a steak seasoning, on thick slices of bread. He made a sandwich each for his parents, and two types for me and him to share. “Me and Helen share everything,” he announced. “We’re in love.” After a few bites, Julie started talking about how hard it was, living with her husband, how she loved him but needed him to leave. “I keep telling him, but he won’t go. He does nothing around the house, just eats and spends and plays his guitars.” She said that when she married him, he was already deep in debt. He’d never told her how bad it was. Then she said to me, “I love my son, but I’d understand if you wanted to leave him. Don’t make the same mistake I made.” Lou didn’t say anything in response, just happily ate his sandwich and seemed to be somewhere else. Gabe went to the fridge and popped a Corona. The next day was a Saturday. We borrowed Lou’s car and spent the day in the ice-plant dunes of Grover Beach. When the sun set, we snuck into a motel jacuzzi. Crouched in the bubbles, Gabe said he’d told his dad that he’d marry me if he had a dollar. “I dunno about marriage,” I told him. Lou was in the kitchen when we got back, enjoying a Corona Familiar in a frosted glass. He was in a good mood from playing a gig at a wedding where he’d devoured a seafood-platter buffet. “I tell you … those crabs. All that fish. Mountains of it.” We sat at the counter with him. Over more Coronas, Julie cackling along to Scrubs on the TV, he told me about his first love. At one point he made the mistake of asking Gabe what his plans were. Gabe said he was going to start an open-source 24-7 radio station that spread empathy across the world and freed a billion people. He already knew his mission on Earth, God had told him. His parents didn’t need to worry. Lou turned to me with a smirk. “I told Gabe to experiment with LSD. I didn’t realize he’d be experimenting every day for five years.” They drove us to the train station in San Luis Obisbo the next afternoon. Another sunny day but things felt different. Now I knew that this impossible person had a mother and father and that he made some kind of sense beside them. When his parents hugged us goodbye his dad whispered something in Gabe’s ear. “If I had a dollar,” Gabe said. We found a booth with a table in the train’s observation car, beside a window. Lou and Julie spotted us as they were driving out of the parking lot and circled back through three or four times, waving as the train left the station. Leaving San Luis Obispo, the train wound around and between the Pacific Coast Ranges. The slopes reached up on either side, rolling above the windows. Gabe leaned on my shoulder while I read him a story I’d written about my alcoholic dad. It made him cry. I told him not to move yet—a girl in another booth was painting a picture of us. I could see it in the corner of my eye, strokes of yellow and green and gold. *** Six months later, Lou was diagnosed with stage four cancer. A melanoma that had not been removed properly in the spring had spread to his organs by September. Gabe and I were living in Chicago by the time Lou began chemo, sleeping on a futon at an event studio that my sister ran and earning a bit of money setting up and cleaning up after baby showers and photoshoots during the day and parties and music videos at night. The family told Gabe not to come back yet. So we stayed in Chicago for September and into October. Gabe’s desperate restlessness and acid-fueled benders had subsided, and the deranged passion that had brought us together had calmed to a more dependable, if rocky, companionship. We kept our clothes in a cupboard and pretended to the people who rented the space that we didn’t live there. When the studio was in use, we visited my sister and her son, or wandered around Lincoln Park, or walked along Lake Michigan, waiting for the call from his family to say that he needed to come home. Sometimes Gabe brought his guitar and I brought my notebook and we’d sit playing and writing, cooling our feet in the lake. Other times we had long, agonizing arguments walking around the humid parks. He said I was unloving and spiritually dead inside. I said he was cruel and overbearing, that we were two very different people from different worlds and it would never work anyway, it was doomed. He said that only proved how godless and unloving I was. What was cruel was how little I believed in us. All that needed to happen was for me to find faith. We were twenty-seven. We could move off the grid, have lots of children, and raise chickens. I wanted to get on a plane and go home. Whenever we had an especially bad argument, he stormed off to the hot-dog place around the corner from the studio, where the staff was famous for insulting its customers. He made friends with the people who worked there. “The only real people in this city,” he said. Baby Jesus Ted Bundy was one of the names they called him. He would come back in the best of moods. He was on one of those hot-dog runs when his sister called and told him the doctor said it was a matter of days. He spent his entire savings, four hundred dollars, on a flight for the next morning. I packed up the futon and moved into my sister’s apartment. He called after two weeks at home. His dad really was dying now and he needed to see me. Please could I come? My sister found me a flight from Chicago to LA for fifty dollars for the following week. *** The Amtrak train from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo goes up the Pacific coast, at times along the beach and at others high in the cliffs. Gabe was waiting for me on the platform, wearing a black hoodie and a black cap with a small red-and-white mushroom on the front. He called it his mourning costume. In the car he gave me a paper bag. Inside was a bar of chocolate wrapped neatly in tissue paper. As he drove out of the lot a full moon appeared over the trees. We arrived at the house to find Lou sitting on a red La-Z-Boy, watching Blazing Saddles, Birdie on his lap. The dog jumped off when he saw us coming and charged at Gabe’s ankles. Gabe picked him up, thrashing, and plopped him outside, slamming the screen door. Lou had almost halved in size, his face completely sunken, his arms and legs, bluish and pale, poking out of a baggy T-shirt and shorts. I tried to hide my shock but it must have been apparent. People had been coming over all week to say their goodbyes. When Gabe had first told me they’d put Lou on home hospice, I’d assumed it meant he would be home under regular medical care. What it really meant on his low-cost insurance was a hospital bed in their house, medication, and thirty-minute visits from a nurse twice a week. The rest of the time it was up to Gabe, his mother, and his sister to look after Lou. By the time I arrived, the home hospice had been going on for two weeks and they’d stumbled into a rhythm. Lou slept in the Blue Room (blue walls and carpet), which had once been Gabe’s bedroom, then the bedroom of a series of lodgers, then a room for Julie to stretch in. Now it was the room where Lou was going to die. There was the hospital bed in the center and a folding table against one wall, covered in a red paper tablecloth, pieces of hospital equipment, dozens of pill pots, and Gabe’s junk. Gabe and his mother took turns administering a regimen of medication every few hours: liquid morphine, vitamins, blood pressure pills, pills to help his organs deal with all the pills. There was a mattress in the corner covered with a Lion King quilt where Gabe had been sleeping. Lou had a little bell by his bedside that he rang when he needed something. I was tired from the travel, so Gabe set me up a bed in the Green Room next door. It had a single bed, another folding table, and a few blankets laid out for the cats to sleep on. Gabe gave me his pillow and the Lion King duvet and put on another hoodie over the hoodie he was already wearing. We sat down on the bed for a moment and he rested his head on my shoulder. From the next room the little bell rang and he shot up. I curled up and drifted off. The next morning Gabe woke me up at nine o’clock with a mug of creamy coffee. “Get up! We’re going to the store!” His dad wanted egg bagels. They’d already given Lou his medicine, taken him for a shower, and rustled up a small first breakfast of eggnog and toast. It was only a quick drive to Vons but Gabe drove very slowly, all the windows open, lighting one cigarette after another. We returned to the sound of the little bell ringing. Lou wanted to sit out on the lounger. He wanted a coffee. Gabe helped his dad outside and made the bagels. I did the dishes and Julie put on another pot of coffee while telling me how much pain she was in, her arthritis, her hip —she was falling apart. I soon discovered that the most demanding part of the home hospice was Lou’s appetite. Over the next week we went out three or four times a day to find whatever thing he craved. The bell would ring and Gabe would go running. “My dad wants a steak dinner!” We’d jump into the car to go pick up a steak, then sushi, then burritos. Julie was paying for these elaborate requests with envelopes of cash she’d saved over the years, each one labeled with a particular purpose. Every time she pulled out a new one from the back of a drawer, my heart sank: forty dollars for Gabe’s birthday, a hundred dollars for a plumbing emergency, a hundred for yard work—all gone. As the morphine doses got larger and Gabe more sleep-deprived, nights and meals and dreams collapsed into hallucinations. Lou would wake up, feel hungry, and ring his bell. Gabe would help him into the kitchen and cook whatever Lou instructed. I’d hear all about it in the morning. Clam chowder from a can with packet noodles. Chickensoup with pork gyoza and taquitos. Gabe told me that sometimes he’d drift off in the middle of cooking, laying his double-hooded head on the kitchen counter. I slipped by the Blue Room one morning, sheepishly hoping I could just make a coffee and bring my book out into the backyard. “The English Muffin!” Lou called out. “I want an English pot roast. Can you do that ?” I returned to the doorway. Birdie, who was more or less living on Lou’s chest by this point, greeted me with a growl. “Yes!” I said. “I think I can.” Waiting for the coffee to brew, I googled English pot roast. It seemed to be something to do with potatoes and meat, a stew. I couldn’t find Gabe anywhere. “Lou …” I said, eventually going back into his room. “What do you mean by English pot roast?” “I mean Henry VIII creamy banquet pot roast. Pig’s blood! Potatoes! Lots of meat. Don’t forget the meat!” I called for Gabe all over the house, in the front yard, the backyard, down by the shed. Finally his voice came down from the sky. “I’m up here!” he said. I couldn’t see him, but some branches moved at the very top of the thirty-foot redwood. “He wants me to make a medieval pot roast,” I told Gabe when he came down. “He’ll go back to sleep. I need to give him some more morphine now anyway. He’ll forget all about it.” Gabe was right. While Birdie barked and tore at his fingers, he fed his father the liquid morphine, and Lou fell back to sleep. Gabe took a nap. An hour later the little bell rang again. “Blueberry pancakes!” I heard. “Can she do blueberry pancakes?” I found a mix for blueberry muffins in the cupboard. It was the middle of the day by the time they were done. One came out with a funny face. Two freeze-dried blueberries for wonky eyes and a crease below them like a sideways smile. I thought it looked a bit like Gabe. I showed his mother and she agreed. Excited, we woke Gabe up with the muffin doppelgänger on a plate. Hold it up to your face, we told him. Do your wonky eyes. Smile sideways a bit. See? Julie brought a muffin cut up in four with a pile of butter to Lou on a little plate. He put the whole lump of butter on one quarter, had a bite, and put the plate down on his lap, exhausted. “Do you like your muffin, Dad?” Gabe said. Lou didn’t respond. I felt that in some great way I had failed. *** Gabe’s sister, Joni, lived in the next town over. She had a two-year-old girl, Sofia, and was heavily pregnant with her second. She’d bring a meal or some shopping over every few days and spend a few hours with her dad. When she and the little girl spilled in through the front door, the whole house seemed to calm. One afternoon, Lou and Joni were stretched out on the sofa, the patio doors letting in a warm breeze. Sofia was running around, looking for the cats. Julie was out in the hammock. I was sitting next to Gabe on the piano bench . He started playing a peaceful , sweet song. I asked Joni what Sofia’s birth had been like. She said it had been an amazing experience. She said she went full wild woman. At the moment of the birth, she’d been on all fours and felt her whole heart open wide to God. There was no pain, no body, no one else, just her baby and God. Lou said that was the way he felt about death. When the moment came, he was going to go into it with arms open to God. He held his arms out wide as he said it. Later, Joni’s husband, Joe, came over. They got out some guitars from the garage, brought them into the Blue Room, and sang songs around Lou’s bed. Nineties folk —The Moldy Peaches, Bright Eyes—and then an amazing rendition of O Holy Night, Joe on the harmonica, Gabe on the guitar, and Joni singing. I sat on the mattress and watched them. I wanted them to keep playing—no more talking, talking, talking. O night divine, o night … At the end of the song, Julie came in. She said it was late, Dad was tired, she was tired, we were all tiring him out. Gabe said, “Wow Mom, you even managed to ruin this.” Joni snapped at Gabe, “Don’t talk to her like that.” Gabe said, “Yeah, yeah, it’s all my fault.” Joni’s husband asked no one in particular if they’d noticed that the moon’s face had changed. “They’ve done something to the moon’s face,” he said. “I swear …” “He’s tired,” Julie said, turning to Lou. “Are you tired, sweetie? Tell them you’re tired. No one believes me. Someone’s gotta look after him. He needs his rest. Tell them for once. I know how tired you are. He’ll never say it himself …” “All right, Julie. I’m tired.” I followed Gabe out to the backyard with a beer and a cigarette and found him up in the redwood again. I coaxed him down with my offerings and convinced him not to climb all the way up the tree in the dark. *** Lou’s body was shutting down. His legs and arms were swelling and leaking fluid. He had to carry paper towels around with him to mop up the mess, but he never complained. We took turns massaging his legs to ease the pain. When it was my turn, I made a bit of conversation, asked him about his life. He didn’t want to go into any of that. He just smiled and told me to massage with all the strength my skin and bones could muster. Amid all this, Gabe wanted to have sex whenever he had a minute free. When his dad was sleeping he’d usher me into the Green Room or drive us out to the back-road fields and pull over on the side of the road. At night, with the hills behind us, the hum of cars in the distance, a light breeze through the grass, it was kind of spectacular. But I was never in the mood. So often we would go all the way out there for me to freeze over. “You’re removed,” he told me. “Checked out. A sandbag.” “Well, sorry,” I said. “But I massaged your dying dad’s legs earlier. I’ve come all the way here. I’m doing what I can do. Right now all I can be is a sandbag.” “I’m exhausted and I need love.” “We just had sex.” “Oh yeah. ‘We just did this, we just did that. I gave you a blowjob last week …’ ” “I know you’re sad but you’re being a dick. How can you not see that?” “I don’t want to talk.” “You were the one who started the conversation. I was just lying here.” “Exactly.” *** The days went on and Lou held on. One evening I noticed a slice of a moon through the kitchen window and realized it had been two weeks since I’d arrived. Despite the pain, Lou still wanted to move around, take a stroll with his walker, barbecue pork, play guitar on the patio with his son. “This is not how normal hospice patients behave,” Julie said. We were standing in the kitchen, looking at family pictures. In many of them the whole family and some friends were sitting around jamming, having a good time. Not that long ago—five years, maybe. “Most people just lie in bed. But my husband—he’s on his feet demanding fine dining! I don’t want to complain, but it makes me think—miracles can happen. And if he does get better, things would have to change around here. There’s no money. We can’t live like this. Steak-dinner takeout! We’d lose the house.” I nodded and made to say something, but she carried on. “Sometimes I think I might be an alien,” she said. “I’m not like other people. Like lying—people lie so easily but I can never lie. Neither can Gabe. We’re both like that. I can see how hard it is for him in the world. We just don’t make sense here! He needs to get a job, get a car. Get going with his life. You’re so good for him. He listens to you. I always told him, If you wanna just do what you want, then find a groupie. You’re no groupie. You’re like an angel sent here. I mean it. I prayed to God for you and you came. But you’ve got your life ahead of you.” Gabe must have been listening because he ran out of the Blue Room at that point. He took my hand and peeled me away. “We’re going on a walk now, Mom. She doesn’t wanna talk anymore.” “See,” Julie said. “He’ll do anything for you.” *** Lou was still ringing his bell on his sixty-fifth birthday, November 16, a milestone that had seemed unthinkable a month before. We arranged a small party for his family and a few of his music buddies. Gabe spent the morning setting up the backyard with microphones and guitars. He even put a TV and VCR on a cart on wheels to play home videos. We drove out to the Mexican supermarket and bought carnitas and a case of mini Corona bottles. On the way out he impulse-bought a ceramic Day of the Dead guitar to give his dad. When the friends arrived at the house, Julie took the opportunity to go have some time alone and run errands at Vons and CVS. The men barbecued pork, and I made pico de gallo, according to Joni’s instructions. It was a hit. The men in their cowboy getups were shocked that the English girl had prepared it. The sun was shining, people were sitting out, eating the barbecue. Gabe tried his best to get people to play music but it wasn’t happening. How do you celebrate the birthday of a dying man? I couldn’t figure out what to do with myself. At one point, Gabe gave his dad the ceramic guitar wrapped up in Christmas wrapping paper. “Día de los Muertos,” said his dad. He held the guitar in his palms, disgusted. The men got it together and started playing “The Cowboy Who Started the Fight.” Lou watched on in his wheelchair. He closed his eyes as they sang “screamed through the veins of the street.” They sang a few more songs. Gabe and I took a break to catch the sun go down over a field of tomato vines. In the ten minutes that we were out, Lou stood up with a guitar to play a song with them. He was just sitting back down as we came in the door. Soon after, the guys all left. “Man plans, God laughs,” Gabe said. Julie was gone for most of the day. She returned from her errands with a gift for Gabe. She was so excited about it, she wanted to give it to him straight away. Out of a green and white paper bag, Gabe pulled a fluffy llama with wonky eyes. He squeezed it and the llama squeaked. “It’s a dog toy,” he said, sounding like his father when he held the Day of the Dead guitar. Julie laughed and laughed. She said it reminded her of Gabe and the blueberry muffin. I laughed too. Gabe grimaced. “Oh no … I think he’s angry,” Julie said. “Here,” I told Gabe. “Don’t be angry. Squeeze your dog toy.” He took the llama in both hands, crossed his eyes, stuck his tongue out, and let it rip. *** November 18 was the eighth anniversary of my own father’s death. I woke up feeling sad and drained. At this point, I thought to myself, Lou needed to die or someone else would. I spent the morning swinging in the hammock by the redwood at the bottom of the garden, hiding from everyone. I heard Gabe and Julie calling for me from the house. Lou wanted a massage, they said. His legs were hurting. I couldn’t face it. Gabe called my phone. I ignored it. When I went back inside, the two of them were maneuvering Lou into the living room. Gabe almost dropped him and he fell back on the sofa with a cry of pain. “You’re not helping!” Julie screamed at Gabe. “Mom. I am mid-helping. You’re brain-dead from your painkillers.” “Enough!” Lou’s voice boomed from the sofa, where he was half-collapsed, falling off the side of it. “Stop it! Both of you!” Julie and Gabe stopped, ashamed. “Now, son.” Lou took in a quiet, pained breath. “Can you help me off this damn sofa and take me back to bed?” Gabe pulled him up by the armpits. That night Lou could only manage a spoonful of canned tomato bisque. “I think he’s going to die today. The same day as your dad. If our dads die on the same day that’s God talking. We’ll have to get married.” Later, Gabe slept next to me in the Green Room while his mom was with Lou. I dozed while I listened to Julie talk to Lou, telling him about their life together. “We’re good people,” she told him. “Weird people.” She could have been saying anything really, the hum was so soothing. “There’s no one around here like us.” It kept sending me back to sleep. I woke up to Lou’s voice crying out: “Help! I can’t breathe!” I pushed Gabe and he bolted into the Blue Room. Julie woke up too. “I’m coming!” She called out. I stayed in bed, listening. They were arguing about how much morphine to give Lou. Julie said Gabe was giving him too much. Gabe said it wasn’t enough. She ran to get the phone to call the nurse. Lou was desperately trying to get words out. He couldn’t breathe. And then a desperate gargling, drowning on thin air. Gabe was saying, “It’s okay Dad. I’m right here.I’m right here,” all through the gargling until Lou was no longer making any sound. When I walked in, Lou’s skin had already yellowed. I realized I’d seen three dead bodies now. My dad, my granddad, and Lou. They all looked the same, laid out on a hospital bed. It was five minutes to midnight. An hour later a nurse came. Another hour, and a man and a woman arrived from the mortuary. At the door, their long, gray, thinning hair obscuring half their faces, they told me they were here for the body. Never have I seen more ghoulish-looking people. They wore baggy suits with sleeves that came down over their hands, and round, shiny shoes that also seemed a few sizes too big. They moved slowly. “Was he in the military?” they asked. “No,” we said. “He was not in the military.” “Okay, thank you.” They put a sheet over Lou’s body and wheeled him through the house, out the front door. Juliefollowed him out, holding Birdie. She wanted to show the dog that Dad was leaving. Dad was being wheeled onto the van. “See, it’s okay, Birdie. There he goes. They’re wheeling him in now. He’s going …” Gabe didn’t want to watch his dad go into the back of a van. I found him in the backyard with a tall glass of vodka, smoking a cigarette. He joked that he’d been praying to his dad as he was dying. “Come on, five more minutes. If you make it five more minutes I won’t have to marry her.” Then he said that he was plotting to steal morphine to kill the dog. All the lights were on. It was three in the morning. Gabe pulled out a crate of home videos and Julie and I told him to put them away. I made us some tea. We had some more vodka. Julie went to bed and I put Gabe in the shower. I washed his hair and cried, but he was like a stone. I could tell he was still obsessing about killing Birdie. After the shower, I put him in a clean T-shirt and underwear, tucked him in to bed, and held him tight until he fell asleep. I woke up in the morning to Gabe sleeping soundly next to me. He looked so at peace I didn’t want to wake him up. It made me cry. His eyes opened. “Dad?” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was joking. Soon after, we heard Julie howling. Long, slow howls. One of the saddest, strangest noises I’ve ever heard. “My life!” she called out between the howls. “My life!” It was almost like singing. After that first day Julie said she needed to mourn alone. We needed to leave so she could scream and cry and talk to God. We went to Joni’s for a night but then Joni said she was too sad and stressed to have us there, with the baby coming soon. A little desperate, we decided to go camping. For the next week we drove between beaches along the central coast, walked, wrote, drank beer. Gabe wrote a list of plans for the future, plans that involved him getting paid to travel, recording his album, singing at a body of water every day, building the 24-7 radio live-stream, moving every three months. He was going to give this list to his family, to prove to them that he had a plan. “You two need to move on with your own life now,” Julie had told me before we left. I couldn’t understand how his family could abandon him at a time like this. I’d had to remind her that Gabe had come home to look after Lou, that we’d been living and working in Chicago. At the same time, I got what she was saying and why they didn’t want him hanging around. Gabe was a liability, and now he was my liability. *** Lou didn’t have a funeral. They were going to take his ashes out to the ocean in the spring. After the week of camping Julie got lonely and wanted Gabe back again. I decided to leave, to stay with a friend in Brooklyn for a while. I found a flight from San Francisco and booked a train from San Luis Obispo up the coast. Before I left, I found Gabe a job doing yard work for a neighbor. He would save some money and leave in January. We said we might travel around. I tried to believe it could happen but I knew that it would not. As we left for the train station, a commode arrived for Lou, more than a month late. Julie couldn’t bear to look at it, so we said we’d give it to Goodwill on the way to the station. She gave us a trash bag of old blankets to donate, too. I said a tearful goodbye to Julie and she gave me an envelope with a hundred-dollar bill in it. She thanked me for all the help and told me to get something nice for myself. “Gabriel doesn’t want you to go,” she said. I hugged her again and got in the car. “I never say goodbye,” she said. “I only say see you later.” We drove up to the back of Goodwill and waved down a man who seemed to be accepting donations. “Is that a commode?” he asked. “Yep. My dad just died. He never used it.” He shook his head and tutted. “Nah. We can’t take that. That’s nasty.” “How about these blankets?” Gabe said, pointing to the trash bag. “This bag? Those blankets?” The man took a quick sideways look. “Nah, we can’t take that either. That’s nasty, too.” We were in a silly mood, driving to San Luis Obispo with the commode rattling in the back. It was a fresh December day. You could feel a change in the air. We stopped off at Ben Franklin’s Deli and I ordered three Californiansandwiches from the cashier, one for me, one for him, and one for him to bring home to his mom. “My dad just passed away and my girlfriend is leaving for New York!” Gabe announced out of nowhere. There was still some time before the train. At the station we ran up over the footbridge to get a good view of the tracks and the hills. I took a few pictures of Gabe. He took a few of me. The train came, we said goodbye, and I found a spot with a table at the back of the second-floor observation car, the same booth we’d sat in after that first trip. My bags stowed away, I looked down and saw Gabe on the platform below, dancing to get my attention. He was trying to say something, but I couldn’t understand him. He mimed and danced around a bit more. Got on his knees. Drew a picture of a house with his finger in the air. A man sitting a few seats ahead of me watched the scene in awe. All of a sudden he began narrating it to the rest of the car. “Marry me,” the man said. “We’ll have a house by the sea.” Gabe mimed writing in a notebook, then swimming, then playing guitar. “You can write poetry. I’ll swim. Play music,” said the man. By this time everyone in the observation car was watching. The narrator turned to me. “Does he have a phone number? I want to tell him something.” “He doesn’t have a phone,” I said. “But you can leave a message on his mother’s answering machine.” So the man dialed Julie’s number, and Gabe, feeding off the audience, mimed a phone in response. I thought of Julie at home alone, rattled by the phone ringing. The man spoke to Gabe through the glass and Gabe nodded along, though he definitely couldn’t hear. Neither of them broke eye contact. The man said he was a preacher. He’d married about ahundred couples by now. Each time it had been uniquely special. “Why wait?” he told the future Gabe, who would be listening to his mother’s answering machine if he ever got around to it. The preacher ended his message with his number, saying to call him if we wanted to get married. The train started moving and Gabe ran along the platform. I waved until I could no longer see him. Soon I was coasting inland. A rush of green-gold on either side. Pesticide farmland, trees, bushes thick with leaves, sunlight gracing the tip of everything. I stared out the window the whole journey. No sign of December anywhere, no sign of time passing. So much talk of marriage in God’s country. No doubt He had it all planned out for me. Helen Longstreth is a writer currently living in Brooklyn, New York after growing up in Bath, England. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, Touchstone Literary Magazine and others. She is currently working on a collection of stories and essays. View the full article
  26. Not long ago, during a spring clean, I came across one of the dozen or so notebooks in which I’d been keeping a diary back in 2020, and found myself sitting on the floor to read. I was expecting the writing to be disappointing (it was) and that I’d feel a mixture of embarrassment and exasperation at my repetitive thought patterns (I did). I was more surprised to realize that, having faithfully kept a near-daily record of my life during one of the most eventful periods in recent American history, what I’d written was almost exclusively about cars, and my monthslong efforts to buy one. “B. offered to drive me to see the Yaris,” a typical passage begins. “I brought water, pears, chocolate, cigs. Talked about cars all the way. He seemed subdued.” Another entry, in an apparently unconscious tribute to Daphne du Maurier, opens: “Last night I got into Volvo C30s again.” There are accounts of test drives: “Driving the automatic: never quite being able to tell if it is off or just v. quiet.” And moments of reflection: “S. sent me a picture of his pickup and many planks of wood. Jealous of male agency.” And then, in the middle of one September entry: “Mum asked if I had spoken to shrink about the car issue.” We at the Review take an especial pleasure, as readers, in the diary form: that peculiar mixture of performance and unwitting self-revelation, of shapelessness and obsessive (occasionally deranged) selectivity; that sense of a narrative unfolding in real time, almost without the author’s permission. And while the Review doesn’t do themes, as we were putting together our new Summer issue, no. 244, it was hard not to notice our partiality peeking through. In the issue, Lydia Davis shares selections from her 1996 journal, and they often read like warm-up scales for her exquisitely off-kilter stories. (“For lunch—a huge potato and a glass of milk.”) You’ll also find masterful uses of the diary as a fictional device. The Brazilian writer Juliana Leite’s “My Good Friend,” translated by Zoë Perry, is an elderly widow’s apparently unremarkable Sunday-evening entry—“About the roof repair, I have nothing new to report”—that turns into a story of mostly unspoken decadeslong love. And James Lasdun’s “Helen” features excerpts from the journal of a woman who lives in what the narrator describes as a “state of incandescent, almost spiritual horror,” and whose crippling self-consciousness doesn’t protect her from humiliations the reader can see coming. Also in issue no. 244, John Keene, in an Art of Fiction interview with Aaron Robertson, describes how blogging heralded his recovery as a writer after losing drafts of several of the stories that eventually became Counternarratives. And Sharon Olds, in an Art of Poetry interview, tells Jessica Laser about the need to keep one’s art and biography separate, especially when they are clearly not. Keeping a diary might be therapeutic, Olds explains, but “writing a poem to understand yourself better would be like making a cup with no clay, or maybe like having the clay but not making the cup.” She concludes, “If I had to choose between a poem being therapeutic and it being a better poem, I’d want it to be a better poem.” View the full article
  27. Janice drove slowly to avoid jostling the plastic containers of food on the floor behind her seat. She had better ones at home, but her father was likely to use them for storing nuts and bolts. She brought him food twice a week and resented it—the cooking, the drive, the awkward struggle for a topic other than weather or his cars. It was a matter of proximity. Janice was the oldest of his four adult kids and the only one who lived close. She often wished he’d died before her mother. With his wife gone he’d turned useless and low. Nothing engaged him but working on cars and taking care of his chickens. At the turnoff for his holler, she tried to straddle the mud holes, an impossible task given their width. They were dry, which made her tires bounce harder. She had a choice with the last one—go through it at the rate of a drugged turtle, or crowd the edge and risk sliding through horseweed into the ditch. Janice never cursed out loud, but her mind flew with blue language. Eff it, she thought and pressed the accelerator, the old shocks scraping metal as the tires dropped into a four-inch hole. The driveway piddled out into the hard-packed yard filled with five cars—three for parts, one he drove, and one he was working on. He hadn’t been to a store in six months. She couldn’t remember the last time he’d visited her. Maybe it was for the best, she thought. He smelled of sweat, cigarette smoke, and engine oil. His hands were black with grease embedded deep in the pores from decades of mechanical work. She honked to let him know she was there, got out of the car, and opened the rear door. Sure enough, there was a pool of spaghetti sauce on the cardboard she’d placed beneath the containers. A second one had spilled lettuce onto the carpet, a salad she’d dutifully made, despite knowing he wouldn’t eat it. The lid to the pasta had slid under the seat and she decided to get it later. He wouldn’t care. He’d probably eat it with his fingers over the sink. She carried the food onto the porch, pulled the screen door with a finger, kicked it open, and entered. The familiar smell of her mother’s hand soap and lotion drifted under the thicker layer of a man alone. The twined scents always reminded her of better days in the past. “Daddy,” she said. “I brought you some supper.” She heard nothing, which meant nothing. He often napped in the spare room, her mother’s old sewing room. He hadn’t slept in his own bed since his wife died. Janice set the food on the counter and shook her head at the dirty dishes in the sink. She’d be the one to wash them. She called to him again, softer, in case he was sleeping, but the spare room was empty except for the narrow single bed and stacks of her mother’s fabric. Bolt ends she’d gotten on sale were leaning in a corner. Janice opened the curtains and lifted the window to relieve the room of stale air. Through the screen she saw her father lying on the ground. She rushed through the house to the backyard, thinking that he’d had a stroke or a heart attack. She could feel her own heart pounding in her chest. He lay on his back as if taking a rest, a heavy crescent wrench near the curled fingers of his grease-blackened hand. The front of his shirt was matted with dried blood from a gunshot wound. She called the police and began washing the dishes. Nine-one-one was on its way, cops and EMTs and fire trucks. She felt bad for the previous way she’d thought about her father. It was too late now, she knew, but the guilt would live inside her for a long while, like a loose belt on one of the cars in his yard. * Mick Hardin took his standard two-minute shower, toweled off in one minute, and spent two more getting dressed. His T-shirt was damp against the wet splotches on his torso but he didn’t care. He ran his hand over his head to comb his hair, which was already getting longer. He didn’t care about that, either. As of 2400 hours last night, he’d ended his status as a serving member of the United States military. He was no longer duty bound to care about anything. He studied his freshly shaven reflection in the misty mirror. He was thirty-nine years old, still fit, with all his teeth and hair. Not much to brag on, but it was more than a lot of people. If he didn’t get too spendy, he could live on his pension for decades. Prior to resignation, he’d agreed to train new CID investigators in exchange for promotion and a commensurate raise. He’d done that for a year. Mick had been surprised to enjoy working with young soldiers but not enough to extend enlistment. He wasn’t a teacher, he was an investigator, and now he was unemployed. Every action seemed significant on his final day in the army—the last shower, the last bed made, the last breakfast of runny eggs, hard toast, and dry potatoes. His final walk from the mess hall to the barracks. His last withdrawal from the bank on base—twenty thousand dollars in cash. Activity on Fort Leonard Wood continued as if nothing important was occurring. To all the other soldiers, nothing was, just another dull day in the service. He carried a suitcase and a duffel bag to his truck. A corporal gave Mick his final salute, sloppy and quick, the perfunctory gesture indicating a hangover. At the main gate he nodded to the guards and drove north past the ubiquitous enterprises near all garrisons—pawn shop, pizza place, tattoo shop, strip club, and gaming center. Fast food and cheap motels. Fort Leonard Wood was in the Missouri Ozarks, pretty country that reminded Mick of home. He drove northeast to Saint Louis, where he got on I-64 for the long drive east to Rocksalt, Kentucky. The old truck ran well, a 1963 stepside that had belonged to his grandfather, the man who’d raised Mick deep in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Like all soldiers, he’d dreamed of this day since boot camp. Now it was anticlimactic and depressing. He was grateful to be spared a formal and tedious ceremony requiring stoic endurance. His career had ended with his signature on multiple forms. It was similar to divorce. In both cases, a significant portion of his life stopped abruptly with legal documents in a bland office. He underwent a quick sensation of doubt that he swept aside. After serving four tours as a combat paratrooper he’d transferred to CID and spent twelve more years tracking down soldiers who’d committed violent felonies. Now he was free, truly free. Free from orders, war, and pressure. Free from emotional responses of victims and their families. Free from making an error with colossal repercussions—the wrong person arrested and a killer still at large. Mick had a plan for his future, at least the first six months, but he was flexible, ready to shift with any circumstance. No plan survived first contact with the enemy, even if the enemy was civilian life. Affairs had not unfolded the way he’d previously imagined at his retirement—opening a boat rental business on Cave Run Lake and running it with his wife. Now Peggy was living with her new husband and their child. His mother and father were long dead, and the house he’d grown up in had burned to the ground. Mick was going home to a place that was no longer home. He stopped for gas three times and made it to Rocksalt in ten hours, his speed hampered by the old truck. He’d been gone two years and the town appeared the same—few cars, no pedestrians, the traffic lights blinking both ways at the four intersections. He drove straight to his sister’s house. Calling ahead was not a habit with him, a problem at times for his CO, his ex-wife, and his sister. He’d grown up with no telephone and never embraced the widespread use of cell phones. His own was in the glove compartment, turned off. Arriving unannounced had its benefits, especially when taking into custody a young man trained to kill. He no longer needed to think that way but it was deeply ingrained, the same as vigilance toward suspicious objects by the road, a vehicle that followed for too long, or the quick motion of a furtive figure in the shade. The intensity of the habit had kept him alive in war zones. But he understood that it had severely undermined his marriage and he wondered if he was capable of maintaining a close relationship. Neither he nor his sister had ever been very good at it. Linda lived in their mother’s house at the end of Lyons Avenue. It was tidier than his last visit two years ago, freshly painted with new gutters and downspouts. The setting sun glinted off the roof in a steady sheen that suggested new shingles. Maybe she’d gotten a bump in pay after winning the election to sheriff. He went to the side door, but his key wouldn’t open the lock. He walked to the front, used only by preachers, politicians, and kids on Halloween. That key didn’t work either. He double-checked both doors, then used a penlight to study the locks. They were shiny and new. He drove to the sheriff’s office and parked beside his sister’s county-issued SUV. Hand on his door handle, he hesitated. He’d been locked into mission mode so severely that he’d overlooked a detail with negative potential. Two years ago he’d spent his last night in Eldridge County with Sandra Caldwell, who worked as a dispatcher for the sheriff’s department. He wondered if she’d been miffed by his sudden departure and subsequent lack of contact. The prospect of seeing her scared him more than facing a barred entry to a village in Afghanistan, knowing it was booby-trapped. Mick considered calling the office to see if she answered, or calling his sister directly and asking Linda to come outside. Both smacked of cowardice, which he couldn’t tolerate. Sandra was probably married by now, or with any luck had quit her job. He left the truck and went to the sheriff’s office door, which was locked. He felt a quick sense of gratitude that the staff was gone. He banged on the glass until his sister emerged from her office and let him in. “Lord love a duck,” Linda said, “look what the dogs drug in.” “Hidy, Sis.” “I saw you sitting out there. Getting up the nerve to come in, I bet.” “Something like that.” “Afraid of facing the music on how you treated Sandra?” “What do you know about that?” “You leave your truck in front of her house overnight and the whole town knows. Two years is nothing in Eldridge County. Same as two minutes anywhere else.” “Is she mad?” Linda laughed, a rarity in general, and led him into her office. It was as Spartan as ever—state and national flag, photograph of the governor, desk, filing cabinet, and guest chair. The wall held new adornments—an honorary commission as Kentucky Colonel, an award from the state for meritorious accomplishment, and a special commendation from the FBI. “Two years,” she said. “You look pretty much the same.” “You lost weight.” “A little,” she said. “Bought a couple of new uniforms that’re supposed to streamline my verticals, whatever that means.” “Well, it works.” “Yeah, until I put on the vest.” They sat looking at each other, not so much an evaluation as a willingness to accept. Each was the only family the other had. Despite their differences—many and extreme—they were loyal in the way of the hills. “I went by your house,” he said. “Keys didn’t work.” “I changed the locks.” “Mommy’s old ones finally give out?” “No, they worked.” “Somebody start bothering you over the job?” “Not your business,” she said. “Nothing to do with the job.” “Wrong choice of man?” “Again,” she said. “As usual.” Linda shifted in her chair and stared out the window at a small maple. Nothing was happening out there. The humidity draped the leaves with weight that made them droop. Mick knew the topic was over. “Thanks for taking care of my truck,” he said. “I thought I’d see you when you picked it up.” “I couldn’t get away from work. That’s why I hired Albin to haul it to base for me. Cost a pretty penny.” “Albin’s mixed up in a murder case.” “Albin? That boy wouldn’t hit a lick at a snake.” “He’s not a suspect. Got a hell of an alibi, too. He was racing at the dirt track in Bluestone. Couple of hundred witnesses.” “How’d he do?” Mick said. “Took second. Johnny Boy said he’d have won if Pete Lowe was in the pit.” “Don’t know him.” “You won’t get a chance to. He’s the victim. Somebody shot him down in his yard. Daughter found him.” “Well,” Mick said. “I’m off the clock now. But if it was me, I’d look at family and friends. Then any woman he was involved with.” “Yep, then neighbors.” Mick nodded. “You’re getting good at sheriffing,” he said. “A regular Nancy Drew.” “When are you due back?” “I’m not. I’m out.” “I don’t believe it.” “Yep. Terminated. Retired. Separated from service. It’s a complicated process with all kinds of steps. Right now I’m in a period the army calls ‘transition to civilian life.’ Supposed to be difficult.” Linda leaned back in her chair, swiveled it one way, braced her feet against the floor, then spun all the way around. She had a big smile at the end of the chair’s rotation, as if the spin had obliterated the years. Mick hadn’t seen the joyous side of her in a long time. It was worth the trip. “Damn!” she said. “Twenty years went fast. You here for good?” “I’d like to stay with you for a few days, if you ain’t caring.” “Okay.” “Then I’m moving to France. Got a six-month lease.” “What? Why France?” “I speak enough of it to get by. Can’t talk to a banker or understand a word on the phone, but I can order food and go to stores.” “Do they talk English?” “They say they don’t, but a lot do. When they hear how bad my accent is, most folks switch to English.” “Do they sound like Pepé Le Pew?” “Oh, yeah,” he said. “The whole country is filled with cartoon skunks. You know what I never understood? Why a French skunk had a Spanish first name.” “Reckon you’ll have plenty of time to figure that out.” Mick nodded. He’d missed talking to his sister, to someone who knew him well. The only others were dead or no longer in his life. There was plenty of precedent in the hills for brother and sister to live together in the family home, but it wouldn’t suit him—or her. Both were too fixed in their ways. On the other hand, his presence might prevent her from changing the locks to keep a man out of her house. But it was none of his business. “Seriously,” she said, “why are you here?” “To say goodbye to you, Sis.” “Nothing else?” “I’ll put my truck in storage somewhere so it doesn’t sit in front of your house. It might not go with your new locks.” Linda snatched a sheet of paper from her desk, crumpled it quickly into a ball, and threw it at him. Mick shifted his head and it flew over his shoulder. “Used to,” he said, “you’d have thrown a paperweight.” “Yeah, well, time affects everybody different. We’re getting mature.” “I’ve never known you to be philosophical.” “It’s the job,” she said. “I used to think everything was simple, black and white, legal and illegal. Now it’s a lot more complicated. What’s lawful, what’s justice, and what’s best for the community. Sometimes they overlap but not often enough.” Mick nodded. Two years was the longest period he’d gone without seeing his sister. He wondered if it had been a crucial time for her. When change happened, it was incremental. Then the results appeared suddenly like the overnight success of a musician who’d been playing gigs for fifteen years. Mick gestured to the framed certificates on the wall. “What’s all that?” he said. “The usual bullshit.” “Then why put them up?” “Politics, Big Bro. Never know who might walk in here.” “You’re learning.” “Yeah, the hard way. Made some enemies, too.” “As long as your friends have more juice than your enemies, you’re doing good.” “Sometimes it’s hard to know who’s who in that book.” “It’s more like an Etch A Sketch than a book,” Mick said. “Remember those? Turn it upside down and shake it and the screen goes blank. That’s politics.” Linda took a set of keys from her purse, removed one, and slid it across the desk. “I’ll meet you there later. I’ve got to wait for the night dispatcher and do paperwork. There’s half a sub in the fridge.” “Maybe I’ll eat with Johnny Boy,” he said. “He’s at the Bluestone Speedway talking to people who knew the victim. It’s race night and they’ll all be there. Easier than traipsing around four counties hunting them down.” He picked up the key. “Thanks,” he said. “Don’t be messing with my stuff.” He nodded, grinned, and left. __________________________________ Excerpted from Code of the Hills © 2023 by Chris Offutt. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved. View the full article
  28. This HaBO comes from Isabella, who wants to find this historical romance: The details are hazy but I remember the hero was some kind of gardener but also maybe nobility? And he was rebuilding something akin to Covent Garden or Vaxhall Gardens after a fire. It might even have explicitly been Covent Garden… There was a scene of him in the garden doing gardenery stuff with his shirt getting soaked through from the rain. I think there was some discussion in the text over the kinds of trees being selecgted for the garden. I think at the end the theatre gets set on fire again. I don’t remember much about the heroine but, I think she was either a singer/theatre person or a lady or something along those lines. Any help would be appreciated! It’s likely to be from the last 20 years, but probably not earlier than that and it’s definitely a historical romance. Sound familiar? View the full article
  29. “Helena’s investigations had made her realise how so often women’s safety, the difference between being sent to the madhouse or not, depended on how men interpreted them, read them. It wasn’t so much about losing one’s reputation as about losing one’s freedom, and, in the most extreme cases, one’s life. The zealous work of the Society for Psychical Research was clearly at fault here, with their insistence on the unreliability of female experience. But who was telling the truth, and who wasn’t? Many times, it was a matter of interpretation, of who decided to look at you, of the preconceptions they used, of how they decided to frame the narrative that explained what they were seeing.” Marian Womack’s On the Nature of Magic (2023) is the welcome sequel to her wonderful English language debut novel The Golden Key (2020). Like the previous book, the novel follows the adventures of Helena Walton-Cisneros and Eliza Waltraud, Womack’s two female investigators, who after the events of The Golden Key have set up Walton & Waltraud, their own detective agency specialising in helping women. Once again they find themselves investigating the slippery boundaries between the real and the magical. But whereas The Golden Key drew on the fairy tales of George MacDonald to create an early 20th century mystery with surprisingly modern resonances about climate change, On the Nature of Magic gives us a Parisian mystery that engages with the films of pioneering French film maker Georges Méliès in order to dissect our relationship with films and mass media. Beautifully written and artfully constructed, On the Nature of Magic is just as compelling and thought-provoking as its predecessor, and shows Womack continuing to move from strength to strength as a writer. On the Nature of Magic is set in 1902, a year after the events of The Golden Key. The case Helena and Eliza solved together on the Norfolk fens has made the women firm friends, and together they have decided to form a detective agency with the purpose of helping women, who are frequently disbelieved by male detectives. But tensions have risen between the two – Helena’s experiences with the supernatural, as well as an understanding of her own gifts, have led her to move from being a strict rationalist who was using her work as a medium as a cover to an understanding that the world is vastly more complex and strange than she can explain, whereas Eliza still very much believes everything can be explained by the scientific method. But all their attention is soon consumed by their first case. Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain, two English women who are the principal and deputy of St Hugh’s College, claim to have travelled in time whilst visiting the gardens of Versailles and seen Marie Antoinette. No sooner have Helena and Eliza started investigating, when they are given a second case, also in Paris, by Eliza’s ex-lover Mina Lowry, whose friend Emily was working at the Méliès Star Films studio when she was kidnapped in broad daylight by forces unknown. Helena and Eliza’s investigation leads them to Paris, the Palace of Versailles, and the catacombs beneath the city, as they uncover a sinister conspiracy linking pioneering film maker Georges Méliès with Nikola Tesla and the London and Parisian chapters of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Womack once again creates a detailed and well-researched historical fantasy with which to explore surprisingly modern themes. This time round, Helena and Eliza tangle with figures from the early days of film making such as Méliès and pioneer of narrative film Alice Guy, as well as famous inventers Tesla and Thomas Eddison, and rival leaders of the Golden Dawn William Woodman and Sam Mathers. The new setting of Paris gives the book a distinct flavour from its predecessor, and Womack wonderfully evokes both the frightening Catacombs and the sinister whimsy of Méliès’s Star Films studio. And Womack gives both Helena and Eliza interesting character development – it’s clear that this is not a series where the detective remains a static character, and Helena and Eliza’s personal development and conflict with each other takes both of them to interesting new ground. Also joining Walton & Waltraud is Jocasta Webster, an African-American queer librarian who has come to London to escape her abusive step father with her brilliant anarchist brother. Jocasta is a wonderful character and a welcome addition to the team, and I hope we get more of her in later instalments of the series. The central mysteries of On the Nature of Magic are set around the dawn of cinema as a medium, a new technology that straddles the lines between magic and science, and one which Helena and Eliza immediately grasp just how disruptive it will be for the century to come. Womack is always concerned with stories and the nature of storytelling, and film is a powerful medium of storytelling which will demonstrate just how crucial narratives are in shaping public opinion, as Alice and Eliza anticipate: ‘Why do you think his movies make you sick?’ Alice sighed. ‘All his star-women, celestial-women, fairies, butterflies, even planets Millie was talking about. They are immobile, docile, decorative, always at the mercy of the men. It is perverse. He once – I remember this movie. I was utterly disgusted.’ ‘What happened?’ Alice was now speaking perhaps more reluctantly than Eliza had expected. ‘He wanted to show a magician creating a human doll by taking dolls’ parts out of a box, and then, using substitution splicing – it is a technique, I shall explain later what it is – turn it into a woman. And then back again into a doll, and put the pieces away. I said no way, I was not going to help with this. Living dolls! Doll women!’ Eliza did not understand. What was Alice talking about? ‘I’m sorry Alice, I’m not sure I follow.’ ‘Don’t you?’ Alice stopped, looked left and right before she spoke again: ‘He is spreading these ideas about women, normalising them. He is creating stories that a woman is a disposable thing.’ This made Eliza shiver. Cinema offers a unique opportunity to mould the consensus narrative to the view of the person holding the camera, in much the same way that the members of the Golden Dawn seek power to remake the world in their image. But here the crucial issue is who gets to tell the story and from what perspective. Just as Helena and Eliza feel obliged to take the cases of the two English schoolteachers because they are key figures in the young field of women’s formal education in England, and the attempts by the SPR to discredit them will inevitably shape public opinion on women’s ability to access education, so the power of Méliès’ brilliant special effects work allied to his misogynistic worldview will spread unhealthy ideas about women as objects. In this light, Tesla’s dreams of a wirelessly connected future are less than utopian, anticipating the ways in which the internet and social media provide terrifying power for social control. On the Nature of Magic is a brilliant sequel, one that reminds the reader how much they loved The Golden Key whilst expanding the ideas and characters in new and intriguing directions. Womack continues to write haunting and thought-provoking novels like no one else in the field, and I very much hope that Helena and Eliza will return for more adventures soon. On the Nature of Magic is available now from Titan Books, you can order your copy HERE The post ON THE NATURE OF MAGIC by Marian Womack (BOOK REVIEW) appeared first on The Fantasy Hive. View the full article
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