The Last of the Blacksmiths, by Claire Gebben: a Nineteenth Century German Immigrant Pursues the American Dream

blacksmithsIn The Last Of The Blacksmiths (ISBN: 978-1-60381-182-8, $16.95, 352 pp; February 15, 2014), Claire Gebben brings to life the moving story of Michael Harm, a nineteenth century blacksmith from the Bavarian Rhinelands who dares to follow his dreams of freedom and prosperity and travels from Germany to Cleveland, OH, to pursue an artisan way of life.

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Like many generations before her, author Claire Gebben had kept in contact with her German side of her family via letter writing. A few years ago, she received a fantastic surprise when her family in Freinsheim, Germany discovered old letters in their attic–letters written in 1841 announcing a family member’s safe arrival in Cleveland, OH. Who wrote these letters? Claire embarked on a quest to find out more, and in the process she became fascinated with the German immigrant experience.

5 Stars: “An intimately detailed story in which readers viscerally feel what it was like to be alive during the late 1800s.  Rich in details, readers explore the thoughts of the German-born people living during America’s western migration, early industrial era, and its pre- through post-civil war times…. Gebben writes from the heart.”  Read more ….

–Sarah Roberts, San Francisco Book Review

“Many of us have an ancestor with an interesting story. Some also set about to write that story for publication, and most fail to realize that the story is not enough: a full context is what produces verisimilitude and brings the characters to life–in fact or fiction. Claire Gebben has mastered both the story and the context in this work. While acknowledging in her introductory ‘Dear Reader’ note [n.p.] that her work is based on fact, supported by letters and other documents, she states ‘it is one hundred percent historical fiction.’ She freely used her considerable skills as an author and researcher to write of the experiences of Michael Harm, her blacksmith ancestor. He is so clearly a product of his times and society that the novel has the ring of historical authenticity…. This is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of historical fiction…. Kudos to Claire Gebben for making genealogy and fiction work so well together!”

—Eleanor L. Turk, Yearbook of German American Studies, Spring 2015

“The writing quality is superb, the historical and geographic detail utterly convincing, the characters well-drawn, and the dialogue persuasive … Claire Gebben has extraordinary promise. Her prose is quite brilliant; I fully lived within her world.”

—William Dietrich, Pulitzer-Prize winning author

“Claire Gebben writes with clear, concise prose. The historical material enhances her story…. Her characters are well-developed with both virtues and foibles. This is a more or less true story that has been pieced together from a transatlantic correspondence over the generations.”  Read more ….

—Historical Novel Society

“… Into [actual historical events], Gebben has deftly woven fictional details, made-up characters, and a sense of ‘living history,’ all based on her in-depth research of the time period and places in the story ….
For a fascinating glimpse into what many nineteenth-century immigrants may have faced, and into the life of a nineteenth-century blacksmith and carriage builder, you’ll want to read this book.”
—Jennifer Singleton, The Carriage Journal, March 2014

“Readers will enjoy this story of one man’s immigration to America and how he adjusted to life in the new land.”

—Clara Harsh, The Palatine Immigrant magazine

“A thoughtful and often poignant look at the struggles of immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century, and which are very likely familiar to immigrants today. Kudos to Ms. Gebben for allowing her imagination to take flight and delivering a heartfelt story that is both enlightening and entertaining.” Read more ….

—Charlotte Morganti, Morganti Write Blog

Claire Gebben delivers an unforgettable narrator, an intimate glimpse of the immigrant experience, and an ultimately uplifting story.”

—Ana Maria Spagna, author of Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus

“Meticulously researched and lovingly written. Claire Gebben’s new novel is both intimate and epic, following one immigrant’s journey to America but representative of the journeys of millions.”

—Lawrence Coates, author of The Garden of the World

Michael Harm is a farmer’s son in the Bavarian Rhineland who dreams of excitement and freedom. Every day Michael toils beside his brother in the vineyards wishing he could be a blacksmith, a singer, or an adventurer.

One day the Harm family receives a letter from America offering a blacksmithing apprenticeship in a relative’s Cleveland, OH wagon-making shop to the eldest son. Michael begs to take his brother’s place, and at age fifteen, leaves his family behind for America. On a storm-tossed Atlantic crossing, he meets Charles Rauch, the son of a Cleveland wagon-maker, his future rival in carriage-making and love.

Michael arrives in an America he can barely comprehend, confronting riots in New York, anti-immigrant bigotry in Cleveland, and his uncle, a cruel blacksmith master. Michael struggles through his indenture, inspired by rags-to-riches stories such as that of presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. He receives his freedom dues just as war threatens to destroy the country he now calls home.

It is not the Civil War, but Cleveland’s post-war Gilded Age, that forces Michael to face his greatest challenge—an accelerating machine age destined to wipe out his livelihood forever. Populated by characters both historical and invented, The Last of the Blacksmiths is a tale of the disruption and dispersal of an immigrant family, the twilight of the artisan crafts, and the efforts of each generation to shape its destiny. A consummate storyteller, Claire Gebben demonstrates a brilliant ability to imagine and recreate the past with historical vigor and beauty.

Claire Gebben was born and raised on the southeast side of Cleveland. After earning her BA in Psychology from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, she eventually settled with her husband in Seattle. She’s worked as a newspaper columnist, newsletter editor, and ghostwriter, all the while raising a family and pursuing her first love of writing. In 2011, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing through the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts on Whidbey Island, WA. Her writing has appeared in Shark Reef, The Speculative Edge, Soundings Review, The Fine Line, and ColumbiaKIDSe-zine. The Last Of The Blacksmiths is her first novel. Click here to find Claire online.

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Finally, I came upon the corner building with the word Bayard and knew I was still on the right path. I remembered the same letters from the map. Canal Street would be just ahead. Down Bayard Street I heard cheering. It sounded as if a carnival was taking place. Or perhaps a parade? Eager for a first taste of the exotic customs in this great country, I went a few steps toward the noise.

But I did not find what I expected. Up ahead, in the middle of the street, two men fought with their fists, a ring of people gleefully urging them on. As I stood trying to make sense of it, I noticed the word Mott on the street corner building up ahead. How could that be? I had passed Mott a few streets back. Alarmed, I pushed through the throngs to the next street—Mulberry—and my stomach flip-flopped in dismay.

As I tried to reason it out, the mood of the mob shifted, the cheers turning to hisses and snarls. People began running for cover, calling out with hoarse shouts, diving into doorways and behind barrels. Others appeared in the windows of the buildings, shaking their fists at something farther up the street. Silhouettes of men appeared on the rooftops, sticks or clubs—or rifles—in their hands. Alarm turning to terror, I retreated the way I had come.

But I didn’t get far. Objects began to rain from the sky—rocks, furniture, buckets of slop. Near me, a brick thunked a man on his shoulder. He cried out, spun in a circle to see what had hit him, then collapsed. Afraid to go on, I pressed back against a building. Before me, a farmer and his wagon had become trapped by the crowd. His horse was growing agitated, rearing back and snorting in distress. In the back of the farmer’s wagon were two enormous hogs.

The farmer stood and shouted to clear the way, but no one paid him any mind. Then a group of young men noticed him, and one tried to climb up on the seat. The farmer pushed the ruffian off, but two others clambered up from behind, lifting the man up under his arms and dumping him over the side. The horse whinnied and bucked. Hands reached up to unfasten its harness. Horse and wagon separated, the mob heaved the wagon over on its side. As the wagon tipped, the hogs spilled to the ground with great squeals, struggled to their feet and barreled off, knocking several people down in the crowd.

Around the overturned cart, men and women were piling barrels and crates to form a makeshift barrier. The horse continued to rear and buck, its eyes white with terror. A gunshot rang out. The horse dropped to its forelegs with a groan, then lay full out on the ground.

The gunshot woke me from my stupor and I ran, arms over my head, praying to God no brick would drop from the sky to end my life. As I fled from the melee, a few ruffians jostled past me, their arms loaded with bricks and stones. I could not believe anyone would run into that riot. Did freedom drive men mad?

I reached the street with the iron rails, but the street sign said Bowery. What happened to Chatham Street? Frightened out of my wits, I dashed blindly ahead, weaving and dodging the other pedestrians, not slowing until my breath came in huffs and a stitch dug into my side.

Coming to myself, I halted at last at a wide intersection with a fountain in the center. This was a fashionable district unlike anything Franz had described, the paving stones swept clean, the couples and families dressed in fine new clothes, carrying baskets and parasols.

I realized the worst had come to pass. I was lost, and had no idea of my way back.

Sirocco, by Danielle A. Dahl: Life in the Twilight of French Algeria

siroccoSirocco: A French Girl Comes of Age in War-Torn Algeria (274 pp, $14.95, ISBN: 978-1-60381-194-1), is a memoir by Danielle A. Dahl about her adventures growing up under threat of terrorism.

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Sirocco is the riveting account of the author’s youth during the Algerian War for Independence (1954-1962), and it is the first English-language novel from the Pied-Noir community. Dahl paints a loving and nostalgic image of Algeria but does not spare the reader from the confusion, chaos, and violence of war. The beauty of the text comes from the gradual shift in perspective from child to young adult as Nana begins to understand the complexity of the conflict in Constantine. Her cohesive story is smattered with French and Pied-Noir expressions, authentic scenes, and vivid descriptions of the characters in her life. She transports us to a traumatic period that has long been silenced in France and that has only begun to be uncovered in the last decade.”

—Amy L. Hubbell, Lecturer in French, The University of Queensland

“With brilliant storytelling, we are drawn into the world of a French-Algerian family during the civil war. Lush language and skillful rendering of this world create a story you won’t be able to put down. Dahl’s memoir Sirocco teaches us about another culture and the history of a time and a place—and most of all, you will meet a family you will never forget.”

—Linda Joy Myers, author of Power of Memoir and Don’t Call Me Mother

“Mesmerizing. Poignant. Bittersweet. Richly evocative writing that places you deep in the world of war-torn Algeria. A stunning debut author to watch.”

—Mary Buckham, USA Today bestselling author

On All Saints Day, 1954, the Algerian War of Independence from France begins, forever changing the lives of ten-year-old Nanna, her family, and a million-and-a-half French settlers.

As Arab rebels carry out terrorist acts against civilians, hatred and bloodshed permeate the fabric of European and Muslim lives. A safe bus ride to town means keeping an eye out for stray shopping baskets containing hidden bombs. A day trip to the beach requires the protection of a military convoy.

But life goes on, and Nanna’s loving mother, mischievous but good-natured siblings, and kind grandfathers provide plenty of adventure and humor. Nanna worships her Papa, who provides for his family and keeps them safe, but, growing up, she begins to understand that he is also a braggart with unyielding views of right and wrong, who believes that attending a supervised party with boys will compromise a girl’s virtue. Nanna defies him and falls in love, thus setting the stage for an ongoing clash of wills.

As Nanna watches her beloved country torn apart by terrorism, she grieves for the French targeted by the fellagha and for the Arabs they slaughter because they are seen as pro-French. Ultimately, Nanna watches in anguish as the French generals, betrayed by De Gaulle, make a last stand for a French Algeria before laying down their arms.

In the end Nanna’s family, like all the other French settlers, must choose between the suitcase and the grave.

Says the author, “Five years ago, I began to write down funny stories from the years my family lived in the North African country of Algeria. Childhood reminiscences, which, in time, unleashed a flow of memories shared, I know, by each and every one of the French colonials who also survived these times—a Pandora’s Box bursting with the brutal events of the war of independence, occasionally brimming with bitterness, but also overflowing with unconditional love for a sensuous land and its unassuming people. An upbringing such as mine is a lesson in emotional survival. Such is the human spirit that it yearns to find a new ‘normal,’ even amid constant danger.”

Danielle A. Dahl hails from a family of fourth generation French settlers in Algeria. Born and raised in Constantine, she came of age during the Algerian War of Independence. A week before Algeria celebrated self-rule and just before Danielle turned eighteen, she and her family fled their home and took refuge in France. Eight years later, she moved to the United States, where she studied commercial art. She and her husband Walter lived in Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and Illinois before retiring to South Carolina. Danielle has placed in several writing contests and published two creative nonfiction stories in the Petigru Review Literary Journal. Click here to find Danielle on the Web.

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During the summer of my thirteenth year, life went on—same as the previous one and the one before—leading us to search for entertainment whenever and wherever we could.

Weekdays, Maman worked downtown, leaving my sisters and me in charge of the house chores. Each day, before preparing lunch, Zizou and I washed and dried the previous evening’s dishes and cleaned the floor. We found it faster to throw buckets of water laced with chlorine across the tiles and sweep it to the perron—the front door landing—and down the stairs. Once the floors dried, we closed the shutters and, in the penumbra, waged war on the perennial flies that, I could swear, spawned out of thin air.

We sprayed Fly-Tox throughout the house to eradicate invading insects. Later, heedless of the insecticide’s acrid smell, we counted the flies lying on top of the bright kitchen table oilcloth.

One day, Zizou observed, “There are more today than yesterday.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but the day before we had a real hecatomb.”

“What is that … etacome?”

“He-ca-tomb—means something like: lots and lots of dead bodies.”

“Even for flies?”

“Why not?”

The flies lay flat on their backs, slender legs knitted in frozen ultimate prayers. Bodies so weightless, the slightest puff of air blown through pursed lips propelled them aloft like black snow flurries battered by crosswinds.

Most interesting were the few still left alive. Frenetic legs batting the air, frenzied wings buzzing against the gay oilcloth, they struggled in tight circles to right themselves. I thought of old men with lumbago striving to get up from their benches, reaching for canes that weren’t there.

To help an insect turn its world right side up, I delicately picked it up by a single iridescent wing. Sadly, it refused to assist in its rescue. It batted its legs and free wing until the one I held detached from its body and remained stuck between my fingernails. The fly fell on its back again, traced taut circles using the lone remaining wing as a pivot point, and simply died.

I’m not sure why I felt guilty about killing the flies. After all, I’d seen them drink from sick eyes and runny noses, frolic among dead things, explore animal and human dung then alight on my marmalade. And there were so many of them—zillions. They drove me nuts.

Just the same, I felt sad that they had to die.

“Feeling sorry for dead flies?” Zizou was incredulous.

“It’s not about dead flies. It’s about killing them.”

“Yeah. People are dying horribly every day and you worry about killing flies ….” Her eyes glistened with tears. “What’s wrong with you?”

At supper that night, Riri asked, “Papa, Nanna says she feels sorry for dead flies. Like it’s wrong to kill them or something. Is it true?”

Papa studied me as if I were a fly drowning in his wine or, even worse, an unknown species from outer space. He shook his head. “What books have you been reading?”

“Just … books ….”

“Books on Ahimsa?”

My face must have shown my puzzlement.

“That’s the Hindu practice of non-violence and respect for life. Its original tenet is, do not injure, do not hurt.”

Non …. I haven’t read about that.”

Zizou asked, “What does that have to do with killing flies?”

Papa explained, “Hindus believe that all beings, and that includes plants and animals, are imbued with divinity. Because of that, all manifestations of life must be respected.”

“I never read about that, Pa.”

“Where, then, did you get that crazy notion of feeling sorry for dead flies?”

“I don’t know, Pa. It’s just that when things or people die, it makes me very sad.”

Papa lit a cigarette, appraising me. As he inhaled, the set of his features and the expression in his green eyes seemed to say, “I understand how you feel, ma fille.” Instead, words sharp as bee stings shot through the exhaled smoke, “You better keep a straight head on your shoulders, asshole, or you’ll never make it in this world—”

At that moment Pépé Honninger entered the kitchen, unshaven, smelling of fish and sea salt. Papa’s focus shifted from me to him. “What’s wrong with you, Pierre? Are you looking for the fellagha to cut your throat?”

As long as I could remember, Pépé had always fished with his friend, Oscar, spending days on end at solitary beaches in Philippeville or Bône. Les Événements hadn’t changed his rituals, which infuriated Pa and worried Ma.

Pépé’s shoulders rolled in frustration. “I like to fish. I will not allow these murderers of women and children to control the way I lead my life.”

I was so proud of him, I wanted to throw my arms around his neck and kiss him. But it was not our family’s habit to hug and we only kissed our adults to say hello, good-bye, good morning and good night. Never to show affection. In addition, no matter how thrilling Pépé’s heroic statement, kissing him on impulse would have led Papa to conclude that I preferred Pépé over him. That I was betraying him.

I often thought Pépé must be tired of sharing his house with our shmala—the crowding, the noise, and the ongoing antagonism between himself and Pa. I could see how fishing would be a good excuse to get away. Before Les Événements, I too looked forward to escaping to summer camp. To getting away from the crowds.

Maman turned from her cooking, lid in hand. “Papa, Riri is right. You might be killed or, worse, abducted. Then you tell the fellagha you won’t allow them to slice you into bloody pieces.” She banged the lid onto the pot. “And one of these days, you’ll catch pneumonia”—she shook her head—“sleeping on damp sand!”

Undaunted by Maman’s reproaches, Pépé kept up his jaunts to the beach with Oscar. Once in a while, to placate my mother, he fished closer to the house, at la Rivière des Chiens. Since the start of the événements, fewer people hung around isolated spots and the Dogs’ River’s population of grenouilles and anguilles—frogs and eels—had exploded.

The very sight of anguilles made my taste buds salivate like a dog’s when it ogles a marrow bone. Pépé hung the slippery eels by the gills, slit the black moiré skin from head to tail, and peeled it off inside out—like a glove—to reveal the firm, pink flesh. Once gutted, the eels were sliced into chunks, rolled into flour, and browned in olive oil till nearly cooked. After throwing in fresh parsley, minced garlic, and a cup of wine vinegar, Pépé covered the pan for the meat to simmer then served it with mashed potatoes or fried polenta. Miam, miam! There never was enough of it.

Beyond the Two Rivers, by Aida Kouyoumjian: a Story of a Lost Iraq

beyond_2riversBeyond the Two Rivers: The Continuing Story of Mannig the Heroine of Between the Two Rivers Following the Armenian Genocide (246 pp, $15.95, ISBN: 978-1-60381-151-4),  is the sequel to Between the Two Rivers: A Story of the Armenian Genocide, the account of the real-life saga of Ms. Kouyoumjian’s mother Mannig, who as a young girl was one of a small minority of Armenians who survived the massacre and deportation from the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I. Historians estimate that 1.5 to 2 million Armenians perished.

“A memoir so memorable it will haunt you forever. This is one book that will enlighten readers about a country so many know so little about.”

—Fran Lewis, Just Reviews

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Critics had high praise for Between the Two Rivers:

“From the first page of Between the Two Rivers, your attention will be captured,” writes Carol Hoyer, PhD, for Reader Views. “Readers won’t be able to put the book down. You will hiss at the villains and cheer for the underdogs.”

In ForeWord Reviews, Elissa Mugianis writes, “With this writing, Kouyoumjian joins authors Thea Halo and Peter Balakian, whose finely penned accounts of family members’ survival of the Ottoman atrocities are essential reads for the understanding of these genocides.”

“An absorbing account that confirms the adage, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’ ” says Mary Terzian, author of The Immigrants’ Daughter.

Between the Two Rivers won first place (Washington State) in the National Federation of Press Women (NFPW) At-Large Communications Contest in the nonfiction: history category.

Between the Two Rivers was a true Cinderella of Mesopotamia story. Young Mannig rose from starving Armenian orphan to the teenage bride of a wealthy philanthropist. Beyond the Two Rivers begins in Baghdad amid the political turmoil of 1958 and flashes back to where the first book left off in 1922, when Mannig travels to the desert castle of her in-laws. As a young mother, Mannig moves from one isolated farming village outpost to another while her engineer husband makes the desert bloom. Mannig, Mardiros, and their three children eventually settle in Baghdad, where the tumult of World War II has soured relations between the various tribes who have shared these lands peacefully for centuries.

Whether hobnobbing with royalty or escaping from angry Bedouin, Mannig retains her resilience and joie de vivre. This is an Iraq that no longer exists, except in our memories and imaginations.

Says the author, “Ever since Between the Two Rivers was published, I’ve been asked about a sequel. Did the Cinderella of Mesopotamia get to enjoy a Happily Ever After? Well, the answer is complicated, as you will see. She certainly had a wonderful husband, who also became a loving father to his children. But those were turbulent years, and what began as a luxurious idyll in the castle of her husband’s family soon turned into an itinerant existence far from her friends, her in-laws and her sister. During my childhood, my father’s engineering work took us from one remote outpost to the next, and eventually we had to flee for our lives. Mannig’s life was full of adventure, and it was certainly happier than most. It had its moments of fear and tragedy, but she was tough; anyone who survived what she did as a child had to be. I think many will find it fascinating to relive those years with her, in an Iraq that struggled to find its place in the twentieth century, fell into the hands of a dictator, and now continues to reel as violence breaks out in surrounding countries. What’s going on in Syria these days is so reminiscent of what has been happening in the Middle East since the beginning of human history—in Babylon, which is only a few miles from where I was born.”

Aida Kouyoumjian was born in Felloujah and raised and educated in Baghdad, Iraq. In 1952 she came to Seattle to attend the University of Washington on a Fulbright Scholarship. Aida married an American and eventually settled on Mercer Island. Click here to find Aida online.

Keep reading for an excerpt:

Mannig never learned how the friendly association between the Kouyoumdjians and the Royal Family of Iraq began. From conversations in the drawing rooms she assumed that the two brothers, Kerop Agha Kouyoumdjian and Hagop Agha Kouyoumdjian—the father-in-law she never met—earned their reputations from their philanthropy toward the Ottoman Empire. The Agha brothers retained their aristocratic status by contributing to the welfare of their ancestral land even after it formed a country all its own—Iraq.

Mannig’s curiosity was piqued when the family received the courier from the royal palace bearing the king’s regrets that he could not attend the forthcoming reception for the wedding of Mardiros and Mannig. She never doubted the existence of the relationship between the royal family and the Kouyoumdjians. Some family members recalled joining the royal hunt for mountain lions; others bragged about riding race horses on royal grounds. Any doubts she might have had were removed by the visits paid by King Faisal and his brother, Ali at the qasr in Felloujeh.

As was their custom to escape the summer heat, the Kouyoumdjians had moved to their Felloujeh qasr on the west bank of the Euphrates River, forty-five miles west of Baghdad. Like their permanent home, this one was designed to house the families of the five brothers in separate compartments. They would gather together at suppertime and chat afterward on the balcony, often past midnight. The taupe ceramic-tiled balcony jutted out of the drawing room and cantilevered over the riverbank. They relished the cool breeze off the river’s bend along their peninsular property.

The balcony was Mannig’s favorite location, not only because it was the perfect setting for a cool evening but because she, as the most recent bride, was no longer the focus of the family’s attention. Everyone had so much to talk about. Their summer place offered a lot of space and many opportunities during the days for the fourteen children to expend their excess energy. The adults seemed to relive their youths when their offspring spoke of swinging from trees, riding horses or donkeys, swimming in the river and playing the sort of games children invent for themselves. Their juvenile dramatizations of how the cook slaughtered a lamb for dinner or strangled chickens for Sunday’s supper were far more entertaining than finding a turkey egg in the chicken coop. Armen liked to brag about how he almost trapped a jackal. “We chased that wowie to the edge of the farm,” Haig would add, completing his cousin’s story. Mannig, only sixteen then seventeen years old, loved listening to tales of the children’s shenanigans, wishing she could be with her nieces and nephews rather than her in-laws.

All this, however, did not stop the children from suffering the occasional reproofs from their parents, especially if Managuile Hanum shouted from her room, “Send for Mardiros to deal with these delinquents.” The children feared him, but Mannig could not imagine her husband even stepping on a cockroach.

Knowing her place, Mannig refrained from entertaining ideas of childish adventures. She hoped to familiarize herself with the caprices and idiosyncrasies of the adults of her family.

One day, the supper bell—an empty three-inch cannon shell—was gonged several hours before the actual meal. The adults dashed out of their compartments and headed downstairs, Mannig in tow.

Once inside the drawing room, they found that instead of the eldest brother Khosrof, Mardiros had issued the unusual summons. He motioned to Mannig to sit on the divan closest to him while he remained standing in front of a silk Sajadah—Persian carpet—hanging on the wall.

“We have been given several days’ notice that the King is about to visit,” he began with no preliminaries.

Soprano and baritone oohs and ahs echoed about the room, which was as exuberant as the adults allowed themselves to get.

“King Faisal, His Royal Highness,” Mardiros said with self-assurance, “is returning to Baghdad from Damascus. He will need a short rest when he drives through Felloujeh.”

Managuile Hanum called attention to herself by clicking her prayer beads. Speaking in Turkish, she said, “I assume you’ve arranged for him to rest in the qasr.”

“Of course,” they responded unanimously, making Mannig question her own understanding of her in-laws’ position. She had assumed the departure from Baghdad society and the decorum required there would give her respite from learning the rules. Suddenly Felloujeh was becoming the site of a royal visit.

“Furthermore,” Mardiros said, waiting for them to quiet down, “His Majesty’s brother, Prince Ali, will come from Baghdad to meet the King here.”

Prince Ali, still with no kingdom of his own to rule, was anxious to learn from Faisal about his own future duties. Faisal, crowned king of Iraq since 1922, had been meeting in Damascus, Syria and Amman, Transjordan—now Jordan—with the British and the French emissaries to determine which territories ought to be ruled by whom. He and his two brothers from Saudi Arabia had assisted the Allies against the Axis during WWI, and each claimed the right to rule the territories lost by the Ottoman Empire. Ali had traveled to Baghdad, counting on Faisal’s influence with the European leaders.

Mardiros raised his arm for attention. “Most major arrangements are done, but there is one problem. The Governor of Felloujeh feels offended that the King should take his rest at the qasr of “those Armenians,” as he called us, instead of the Government House. So I invited him to pay us a visit to see for himself if his Government House could offer better accommodations for his Royal Highness.”

“Good diplomacy,” the men in the room affirmed Mardiros’ handling of a sensitive situation.

“But when is he coming?” The women needed to know if they had enough time to prepare for an outsider.

“Considering the lateness of the day, we agreed he should come sometime tomorrow.”

“There’s much to be done.” Khosrof stood and grabbed his redingote from the coat tree. “This is a first. We have entertained many dignitaries, but never two kings at once—even if I’m stretching the truth about Ali. I’m sure his kingdom will be Transjordan.”

The family scattered and plunged into a thousand and one tasks and arrangements. The gentlemen of the qasr saw to it that every detail of protocol was taken care of. They assigned Siranoush, Dikran’s wife who hailed from Moscow and a girls’ finishing school, to practice how and where on the King’s route to the drawing room they should curtsy.

“Felloujeh cannot offer proper cakes,” Diggin Hermine said. She was Toros’ wife and revered for her culinary expertise. “I’ll order the cakes and the gateaux from Baghdad.” She saw to it that Mahmoud the chauffeur would deliver them on the exact day so they would be as fresh as if made locally.

The biggest problem was that none of the servants in the qasr was of sufficient standing to serve the coffee and the tea which, according to local custom, were served already poured in the cups and set in saucers on a large round tray.

“How about Farid Abbosh?” Diggin Sara, Khosrof’s wife suggested. Farid, an acquaintance living in Felloujeh, had spoken of previous experiences serving dignitaries.

Farid consented to do the honors and the Kouyoumdjian ladies began training him the proper way. He was told that under no circumstances should he turn his back on the King and that, after serving the coffee, he should withdraw backwards. Farid, being a man of considerable girth, found it difficult to get his bearings when walking backward. Even Mannig couldn’t control her mirth at his “test runs.”

When the Governor visited the qasr, he saw the extent and quality of the preparations and realized that in no way could he have matched them.

“It will be my honor,” he confided to Mardiros, “to direct His Royal Highness to your qasr.”

On the day of the visit everybody woke up early. The ruckus the children made while being washed and then dressed in their Sunday best filled the courtyard.

“You better stay clean,” Mannig heard one mother after another warn her child, “or else Uncle Mardiros will see that you never sit on your buttocks without pain.”

Mannig gave her husband a puzzled look, but not for long. “I’ve become …” Mardiros explained, brushing the velvet collar of his redingote. “No, they’ve made me the disciplinarian of these children. Ever since I spanked one of my nephews, the reputation stuck with the rest, making the mothers quite content to associate my name freely with the threat of the rod.”

“I noticed Diggin Hermine pressing Toros’ morning suit,” Mannig said. “Should I do the same to yours?”

“It’s not necessary,” Mardiros said. “But perhaps you ought to attend to your own clothing.”

“Oh, I will,” Mannig said, showing him her yellow silk dress, dotted with pearls. Maggie, Khosrof’s seventeen-year-old daughter from his late wife, had chosen it for her at Orozdi Bek, the Swiss department store in Baghdad.

“That’s a perfect outfit for tea,” he said, face brightening and eyes shining.

“Maggie said this was the most fashionable style these days,” Mannig said.

“Maggie has good taste,” Mardiros said. Then, walking out of their compartment, he leaned on the banister and called the men-servants, who dashed to the courtyard, looking up. “Collect all the Persian carpets in the qasr,” he instructed. “Dust each one and examine their condition. Then lay them end-to-end from the roadway all the way to the drawing room. Do you understand? His Majesty’s feet should not touch the bare ground.”

 

The Spy's Little Zonbi: A Secret Agent Strives To Hold On To His Idealism

spy_zonbiThe Spy’s Little Zonbi (5 x 8 Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-1-60381-184-2, 272 pp., $14.95) is a work of espionage fiction by Cole Alpaugh about an idealistic secret agent who tries to protect his daughter from the evil his work has wrought.

Click here to read the article in the Wayne Independent Newspaper online.

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Distributed by Aftershocks Media (orders@epicenterpress.com/800.950.6663), the 5×8 trade paperback can be ordered by stores and libraries through Baker & Taylor, Ingram, Partners/West, Midwest Library Service, and Todd Communications.

The Spy’s Little Zonbi is Alpaugh’s third novel. His second novel, The Turtle-Girl from East Pukapuka, was a finalist in both the 2013 Next Generation Indie Awards and the 2013 Foreword Book of the Year Awards. Alpaugh’s first book, The Bear in a Muddy Tutu, set in a ragtag traveling circus, garnered eleven five-star reviews on WorldCat.

“Forget James Bond. I’d much rather spend my time with Chase Allen, the idealistic journalist-turned-government spook at the center of Cole Alpaugh’s outlandishly entertaining new novel.”

—Josh McAuliffe, The Scranton Times-Tribune

“Imaginative. Funny. 3D Characters that come to life on the page and leave you wanting more.”

—Michelle Hessling, Publisher, The Wayne Independent

“Part The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo and part The World According to Garp, Alpaugh’s latest offering is an exhilarating read that I highly recommend.”

—Ann Schmidt, MLS, The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

During a college sponsored aid program in Haiti, Chase Allen witnesses the slaughter of homeless boys. Unable to shake the haunting images with booze and bong hits, he decides to make something of his life by taking an unpaid newspaper internship. There he is recruited for a branch of the CIA whose agents pose as journalists in international hotspots.

Chase begins his espionage career in Nicaragua, where his job is to position the country’s president in the gun sights of a distant sharpshooter during a press dinner. In Panama, he hunts for a deposed rogue dictator last seen in high heels and a bad wig. Success lands him a mission in Northwest Thailand, where he helps a young American Peace Corps volunteer caught up in a jihadist scheme to use bomb-laden bats.

Back home in New Jersey, while monitoring a hapless band of wannabe Iranian terrorists, Chase meets a dark, intriguing woman. Marriage and fatherhood change his priorities, and he begins to worry about putting himself and his family in danger. With great reluctance he agrees to follow a former Austrian ski racer plotting a deadly strike on the Winter Olympics.

It was Chase’s idealism that led him to spying, and that same quality will be his undoing. Faced with deceit beyond his wildest imaginings, he clings to the one person in his life who is good and true, his daughter, his Little Zonbi.

Says Alpaugh, “There’s a period of reflection following news assignments. It happens after the final bullets are fired, or when your plane lifts into the sky on the way home. The receding adrenaline leaves a numbness, an emptiness. You’ve barged into the lives of strangers during traumatic times and then just left them behind. I was almost always in a better position than the people I covered, even though I never made much money in exchange for talking my way into gun battles. That included the soldiers in Nicaragua, or El Salvador, or Haiti, or wherever. I had the ability to leave, while they were hunkered down in muddy holes protecting or maybe overthrowing a government. Then there was the collateral damage—the very old and the very young who were caught in the middle. This story first came to me after some boys at the orphanage where I was staying led me to an old woman with leprosy. They had been throwing rocks at her, insisting that she “liked it.” I knelt beside the woman and touched her hand. Nothing I could say would make the boys stop throwing rocks. Nothing I could do would cure her illness. So I took a photograph. This story was my way of filling the emptiness after leaving so much pain behind.”

Cole Alpaugh is a former journalist, having worked at daily newspapers along the East Coast, as well as spending several years as a war correspondent in numerous hot-spots around the world for Manhattan-based news agencies. His work has appeared in dozens of magazines, as well as most newspapers in America. Cole is currently a freelance photographer and writer living in Northeast Pennsylvania, where he also coaches his daughter’s soccer kick-arounds.  Click here to find him online.

Read on for an excerpt:

The Iranians became drunker and more obnoxious as the weeks passed. They seemed to be less and less a terrorist risk than a danger to the club kids and even themselves. It was a Friday night that the six men surrounded a girl on the dance floor. Chase, nursing a vodka tonic in a plastic cup, leaned against a wall near the stage. It was still early and the girl was dancing alone when she was accosted, trapped in a circle. They were hooting, drunk and macho, beer bottles waving over their heads. The four bouncers, huge black guys from the neighborhood, stepped out of the shadows, and Chase watched them looking at each other, deciding if it was time to pounce.

The Iranian men danced by, throwing out their hips and making little hops that rained down foamy beer. The circle tightened and it took them a while to realize the girl had somehow escaped, slipping through their gyrating gauntlet.

“I’m Mitra.” She was next to Chase, a drink in her hand.

“Chase.”

“I don’t like the early music, anyway,” she said, and Chase watched her lean against the wall, arms folded in front, eyeing the Iranians. She was tiny, with dark hair and pale skin. “But it’s nice to have your own space, you know?”

The Iranians spotted her and Chase could see the cheated looks.

The song changed, was faster and louder. “Hey Man, Nice Shot” began to play as the group of drunk, pissed-off Iranians came for the girl who’d gotten away.

“I love this song,” Mitra shouted, not budging.

“They look mad.”

“Can you believe one grabbed my ass?”

“It looked like all six were grabbing your ass,” Chase said over the thumping music that had enough bass to vibrate the air. The men stopped their march a few feet from where Chase and the girl stood. “Maybe they came to apologize for being born complete douche bags.”

Mitra had shimmied closer, her right arm and thigh brushing up against him. She smelled like heaven. Chase took a long sip as one of the men shouted what was probably a terrific insult in Farsi. They were huffing, out of breath, slicked hair all messed and pointed spikes. The tallest came to Chase’s chin.

“Sorry, I can’t hear you,” Chase answered, shrugging his shoulders, pointing at one ear. The group hadn’t noticed the gargantuan bouncers who’d come up behind them.

“I think he asked you to dance,” Mitra said, laughing, her head touching Chase’s shoulder when she leaned sideways.

“Bastard!” one of the Iranians shouted. He lunged at Chase but was immediately plucked backward as if on a bungee cord. His accomplices turned to see what had happened and they too suffered the same, neck jarring event. The entire Iranian cell was carted to the exit by the bouncers, leaving nothing behind but a few beer bottles spinning on the floor.

“You’re a total troublemaker, aren’t you?” Chase looked down at her almond eyes, breathed her in. For the first time in two months he didn’t care where the idiots from Iran were. Let them kidnap the governor and set fire to the gold-domed State House. She had tiny freckles and soft lips. There was a new song and she took the cup from his hand and emptied it in one long swallow.

“I bring out the worst in people,” she said and left him to dance alone, before the mob of college kids began to descend.

He let her go for now.

The Book of Changes, a Novel by Jack Remick About Berkeley in the '70s

book_of_changesThe Book of Changes ($15.95, 306 pp, 6×9 Trade Paperback ISBN:978-1-60381-186-6), by Jack Remick, is a work of literary fiction that covers a tumultuous year in the life of an idealistic first-year male student enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1971. It is Book Three of The California Quartet, a series of standalone novels about young men coming of age in California during the ’60s and ’70s. The final volume, Trio of Lost Souls, will be released by Coffeetown Press in 2014. The series began with The Deification and Valley Boy.

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“Remick’s mastery of the narrative craft infuses a common story line—college kid faces challenges and grows up—with an intimate sense of character and setting …. The Book of Changes shines in the crowded genre of coming-of-age narratives.”

Melissa Wuske, ForeWord Magazine

“Covering much the same cultural terrain as Jack Kerouac’s classic On the Road, The Book of Changes follows a young narrator’s coming-of-age in Berkeley. Yet Jack Remick’s take on the cultural revolution humanizes familiar material. Beast, the narrator, starts off eager for initiation into the Berkeley scene: the university, the drugs, the ‘broads,’ the art. But unlike Kerouac’s protagonist who rides from town to town, indifferent to and unaccountable for the consequences of his choices, Remick gives us a conscientious young man. Beast sticks around long enough to see the aftermath of drug addiction and free love. And the trail of wreckage deeply affects him. As the deaths and broken relationships tally up in his friends’ lives, Beast develops a more honest, compassionate perspective than Kerouac’s characters ever achieved. A moving tale of one young man’s struggle to carve out his own dignity and truth in the midst of radical turbulence.”

–M.C. Easton, author of The Gods of Kittitas County

“Beast” is a pure innocent with one simple goal—to become an expert on the Middle Ages. He comes to Berkeley, the Cathedral of Learning, in 1971, a time of political upheaval, hallucinogenic drugs, group sex, and electric, acid, psychedelic, mind-bending rock and roll. On his quest for meaning he hangs out with a Harley-riding dwarf, a raven-haired Gothic artists’ model, a sorority girl turned nymphomaniac, and the heir to a family of French aristocrats with a bloody history dating back to before Joan of Arc. Beast soon discovers that he can’t live in the past but has to embrace the present, with its traps and land mines and the horrors of contemporary society—death by motorcycle and bad acid trips. The world is exploding, but students still go to classes, fall in love, get laid, study in libraries, win awards, even graduate. The country is on fire, and Berkeley supplies the fuel.

Says Remick: “When I went to Cal, there was no tuition. Education was free. You paid a $76.50 registration fee, and you paid for your books, your room and board. Anything that was left you spent on booze and motorcycles. Then Ronald Reagan was elected governor and the good times ended. The Free Speech Movement (FSM) came along and the rebellion that started in Sproul Hall grew into a firestorm of protests and death and destruction. Education took a hit, tuition blasted off, leaving only the rich and well-heeled in the classrooms. After Ronald Reagan, California was never at peace again. This novel, The Book of Changes doesn’t purport to be either a sociological thesis or a history of anything. It is a fictional record of a sort filtered through time and the consciousness of young women and men who were looking for a new definition of America, of California, of the world. We didn’t succeed.”

Jack Remick is a poet, short story writer, and novelist. Blood, A Novel was published by Camel Press in 2011. The Deification, Valley Boy, and Gabriela and the Widow are all available from Coffeetown Press. Coming in 2014: Trio of Lost Souls and a collection of poems, Satori. Click here to find Jack online.

Keep reading for an excerpt:

The next morning Tim took me to the Bear’s Lair to put up an ad for roommates. The Bear’s Lair was hamburger heaven in a dark pit that smelled of French fries and hair thick with the scent of Cannabis sativa. Long hair. Lots of long hair. Women with long hair, men with long hair. Braids, ponytails, hair strung with beads and woven with bright strips of batiked cloth. Booths lined the walls, students read in the half-light like monks studying scripture or anchorites poring over cryptic secrets in long lost heretical Gnostic texts.

I said, “Is this a cool place to meet chicks?”

“This is Berkeley,” Tim said. “Get your head straight—Books, Beast. Books.

“The Prime Directive is to get laid.”

“That’s Pete’s Prime Directive. Books or sex.”

“You’re right. I’m going to be too busy studying to meet chicks.”

Tim printed the ad on a pink three by five card—

“Serious students seek two roommates—male, female, other—smokers, drinkers, no sexaholics. Politics to the right of Attila the Hun. Motorcycle Maniacs acceptable. Call Sexdraculastein at Thornwall 8 4476 for details.”

“Who is Sexdraculastein?” I said.

“That’s me. Never use your real name on an ad in the Bear’s Lair.”

“Why not?”

“Perverts,” Tim said. “Now we go pick up our stuff at Greyhound.”

Better You Go Home, by Scott Driscoll: a Life-Altering Visit to the Czech Republic

better_gohomeBetter You Go Home ($13.95, 236 pp, 6×9 Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-1-60381-170-5), is the first novel by Seattle writer and writing instructor Scott Driscoll. While visiting the Czech Republic in search of his half-sister, a critically ill American man unearths long-buried family secrets.

WINNER of the Foreword Firsts Award for Debut Fiction:

5 Stars: “Driscoll ably threads an adulterous romance with medical urgency, post-war Czech history, and self-reckoning. This labyrinthine novel is an accomplished work that examines the fallout of the past…. With story lines that converge in a grotesque meeting of rivals—replete with costuming and a conflagration—there’s no shortage of suspense. Beneath the theatrics, subtler, worthy themes of letting go and renewing one’s sense of purpose take hold.”  Read more …..

—Karen Rigby, Foreword Magazine

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** Also available in Kindle, Nook, and other eBook formats on Smashwords **

“Moving, powerful, and compulsively readable, Better You Go Home is the unforgettable story of a man’s journey to save his own life, and how he discovers himself along the way.”

—Garth Stein, New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain

book lauanch group at Hugo HouseJOIN SCOTT AT ONE OF THE FOLLOWING AUTHOR EVENTS:

Oct. 2nd – Book Launch at Richard Hugo House – 7:00 pm

Oct 19th – Puyallup Library 100 year celebration – authors signing event 6-8 pm

324 South Meridian, Puyallup, WA 98371

Nov. 13th – Third Place Bookstore – 7:00 pm

17171 Bothell Way NE  Lake Forest Park, WA 98155

Nov. 15th – University Bookstore – 7:00 pm

4326 University Way NE, Seattle, WA

Nov. 22nd – Leavenworth Library 6:00 – 8:00pm

700 US Highway 2  / Leavenworth, WA  98826

Nov. 23rd – A Book for All Seasons Bookstore, Leavenworth – 1:00 -3:00pm

703 Highway 2, Leavenworth, WA 98826

Elliot Bay besteller shelf photo

Better You Go Home is a bestseller at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, WA. Three shelves down, four to the right.

“I really enjoyed Better You Go Home by Scott Driscoll. It’s one of the better ‘contemporary literary fiction’ stories I’ve read in a while …. Driscoll provides his readers with a tremendous, powerful opening that’s powerful, ironically, because it’s so very quiet. It begins in a simple church, Chico (the protagonist searching for his long lost half sister) is with Milada (who we learn is a doctor who, even though she’s medically trained, still believes in medical mysteries) and they’re discussing the power of ‘Bambino’ (a statue with some sort of miraculous ability to cure the ill)…which is so odd when it’s juxtaposed against the fact that Chico doesn’t seem all that interested in the notion of a ‘faith based’ cure for his (what will eventually be fatal) renal failure due to diabetes. Just as the title spoke to me with that heavy accent – I can hear Milada’s heavily accented voice – even though Driscoll doesn’t intentionally write in ‘how she sounds’. Rather he does it through the way she says things in English – which obviously isn’t her first language. In those First 500 words the reader is drawn into the story of ‘how’ Chico’s sister became ‘long lost’ (especially since he didn’t even know about her until about a year earlier). We can almost hear his impatience with Milada because he really wants to just get on with the job of finding his sister and yet they’re in that church. So odd, so ‘old world’ – So good!”  Read more ….

–L. Avery Brown, The Magnolia Blossom Review

“Scott Driscoll’s gripping, gritty novel, Better You Go Home, is a mystery, a race against time and a love story with a strong dose of political thriller thrown in …. Peppered throughout with Czech dialog, this vivid novel portrays the squalor and decay of a ravaged country, a living culture rich in history and an intimate portrait of a family that carries the scars of the Cold War years. Better You Go Home is hard to put down. A most memorable and satisfying read.”  Read more ….

—Theresa Rose, author of Golden River

“Scott Driscoll delivers. His debut novel has the pace of a thriller and the grace of a literary novel. Although international in scope, the story has an intimate quality and it captivates our hearts.”

—Bharti Kirchner, author of Darjeeling and Tulip Season.

“You can call this an immigrant story, a medical thriller and a tale of love. Driscoll keeps all the scenes tight, the action coming and details to the need to know. You are taken back behind the fallen Iron Curtain and the ghosts that still live and breathe there, which are all based off Driscoll’s own experiences from visiting this part of the world. The subplots don’t distract but draw you deeper into the storyline itself. If you are a fan of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo you may want to pick this novel up as well.”

—Virginia Grenier, The World of Ink Network

“Like the big Russian novels that gave us moral philosophy, this book raises the deepest questions about freedom and captivity, identity and place. Chico, a middle-aged Seattle lawyer in need of a kidney, vows to use his medical leave to find his half-sister, who was left behind in the old country when his father fled the Nazis with another man’s wife. Chico’s doctors in the US want more tests before they will grant him a transplant, but he’s in Prague where tracing one’s family tree isn’t a popular preoccupation if it raises questions about what people did to survive the Soviet Bloc. Better You Go Home is at once an immigrant story, a medical thriller, and a tale of love. Driscoll keep all the skeins taut in his hand.”

—Kathryn Trueblood, author of The Baby Lottery and winner of the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction

“Scott Driscoll’s account of one man’s struggle to overcome death by leaving the Pacific Northwest to find his half-sister in the Czech Republic is full of intrigue and illicit love against the backdrop of Eastern Europe’s tragic history. A fine tale with a most satisfying finish.”

—Caleb Powell, author of I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel (forthcoming from Knopf, 2014)

“A tale of a Quester in a Wasteland, led by a beauteous guide, his ominous path blocked by twin Dragons. One dragon is exterior, the Omnipresent State wielding the ugly gray weight of the Iron Curtain; the other is interior, the Quester’s deadly disease, a genetic curse that can only be lifted by grafting on a sacred body part—one that matches, one that won’t kill you—plucked from the body of a family member. Better You Go Home is a taut tale of irony, sadness, bleak romance, and man’s fate.”

—Robert J. Ray, author of the Matt Murdock Mysteries

“The story is complex, the characters rich and thick and vibrant.There’s love and sex, there’s hope and redemption, there’s sin and forgiveness, there’s death and torture. But, as Driscoll tells us,in the right circumstances ‘…even torture can be a sign of love.’ ”

—Jack Remick, author of Blood, Gabriela and the Widow, and the California Quartet series

“Compelling, unnerving, full of insight … In this odyssey of an American trying to find his past and save his life, we’re taken back behind the fallen Iron Curtain and the ghosts that still live and breathe there. Terse with poetry, broad in history (and heart), and with all the suspense of an Eastern Block espionage thriller. Driscoll delivers.”

—Layne Maheu, author of Song of the Crow

Better You Go Home is a haunting tale of how a diabetic’s quest for a new kidney uncovers dark secrets about his family as well as himself.”

—Nicholas O’Connell, author of The Storms of Denali

“With dramatic well-drawn characters, a climax scene with the tension of High Noon, and a peek behind the Iron Curtain, Better You Go Home is a page turner.”

—Mindy Halleck, author of Romance & Money – 12 Conversations Every Couple Should Have

Seattle attorney Chico Lenoch wonders why his Czech father refuses to contact family left behind the Iron Curtain. Searching through his father’s attic after the Velvet Revolution, Chico discovers letters dated four decades earlier revealing the existence of a half-sister. He travels to the Czech Republic to find his forgotten sister and unearth the secrets his father has buried all these years.

There is self-interest behind Chico’s quest. Most urgently, he is nearing kidney failure and needs a donor organ. None of his relatives are a suitable match. Could his sister be a candidate? Chico also meets Milada, a beautiful doctor who helps him navigate the obstacles to finding his sister. While Chico idealizes his father’s homeland, Milada feels trapped. Is she really attracted to him, or is he a means of escape to the United States?

Chico confronts a moral dilemma as well. If he approaches his sister about his need for a kidney, does he become complicit with his father and the Big Shots of that generation who’ve already robbed her of so much?

Says Driscoll, “A parish priest in Iowa, a Czech relative who’d grown up on the dark side of the Iron Curtain, solemnly shook my hand upon returning the letters I’d asked him to translate, and said: ‘You have what you came for. Please do not trouble me again with this.’ There had been a suicide, a child who could not be traced, a sudden departure. This visit to the priest happened in 1994, not long after the Velvet Revolution. I went to Prague that fall, found my family’s village in eastern Bohemia. Relatives occupying the family farmhouse remembered the former residents. They had some stories, some questions of their own. Walking through that village, I began to speculate. What became of the unidentified child? What if my life had deployed on her side of the Iron Curtain? Once that question lodged in my psyche, like a small wound that wouldn’t heal, I knew that I had to write this story.”

Scott Driscoll, an award-winning instructor (the University of Washington, Educational Outreach award for Excellence in Teaching in the Arts and Humanities 2006), holds an MFA from the University of Washington and has been teaching creative writing for the University of Washington Extension for seventeen years. Click here to find Driscoll on the Web.

Watch a YouTube Interview with Scott Driscoll:

 

Keep reading for an excerpt:

Milada’s flat is on the eighth floor of a twelve-story high rise in a gray sidlisté of concrete block buildings. The street curb is dammed by defunct Skodas, the no-frills tin-can cars manufactured locally. The security mesh screening the outer door is rusted and dented. This is the depressing Khrushchev-era flat Milada is forced to continue calling home so that her husband could afford that Russian mafia loan. Okay, it’s not lost on me that I’m taking risks, possibly for no better reason than to salvage my own father’s dignity. Or my own. Still, Jiři goes too far. How is his pride any different than that of his father’s?

She pushes the buzzer on the intercom panel to alert Jiři to our arrival. Jiři’s family name is listed on the panel. Her name is Kotyza. Her grandfather was related to my grandmother. Most lights behind the buttons on the panel are burnt out. I avoid looking at hers. I don’t want to see if they’ve troubled themselves to replace the bulb behind their buttons anymore than I want to think of Milada stuck here for the forseeable future.

We bounce in the elevator up to the eighth floor and walk down a corridor with cracked and missing tiles. A decorative strip of plaster above the tile, painted the color of mustard, has browned with grime. And the smells. Sour cabbage, urine, acrid tobacco. Nose wrinkling neglect has turned this passageway into a tableau of the torture I imagine it must have been to raise her family here. No wonder she obsessed over the Skagit, the baldies, the turbulent water. The stinking salmon carcasses on the flood banks must have been ambrosia to her eastern bloc nose.

Prague is earning a reputation as the world’s black market capital for illegal organs. I know this, but I did not anticipate Dr. Saudek’s insinuation—as he shoved me away from the shores of Prague this afternoon—that this was the reason I’ve come paddling into his little harbor.

Milada insisted that we phone Blue Cross tonight and request an extension. Jiři’s black-light troupe—he’s their business manager—is performing at a local theater after dinner. She wants us to attend his show. She admits she is proud of her husband’s participation in the revolution. She will always love him for this.

In the entryway to her flat we exchange shoes for slippers. Blinds cover the windows, an old precaution to prevent paranoid neighbors from spying, a habit she admits she finds hard to break. Curious—can’t help it—I lift a blind. In a littered lot between buildings is a rusty, partly collapsed play gym. All the reason I’d need to keep the blinds closed. Her dark furniture includes a massive armoire for coats and shoes and a credenza filled with the obligatory leaded crystal. Nothing in the details says Milada. Where does she keep her details? Following her to the kitchen, I ponder the degree to which the details we surround ourselves with ought to reflect our desires. To what extent does a paucity of details reflect self denial? My father kept his details in the basement. That amber bowl he flicked his cigar ashes into. The starched white undershirts, the ironed Union work pants. The bar of Ivory soap at the sink he brushed his teeth with, in the early days, when he still thought and acted like an emigrant. That stack of quarters, weekly replenished, that I was forbidden to touch. I liked to think they were savings kept from Mom in order to send money overseas to Anezka. What do those details say about him? That he was caught between worlds, a man whose heart desired a world that was in his past, that he longed for pointlessly? But he was kind. Those quarters, I’m convinced, were more than just beer and cigar money.

In the kitchen, her husband winces at my broad-voweled American accent when I politely return his “dobrý den.” Jiři is a short man with an athletic build through the chest and thighs. With his pale eyes, sandy brows, sandy hair cropped conservatively short, he looks more handsomely like the Olympic skater he once was than a revolutionary. You’d expect to see his face on a Wheaties box, not on a prison mugshot. Their fifteen year old son, Martin, takes my jacket. His hair is jelled into neon pink and green Mohawk spikes. Milada tells me he is crazy about Seattle grunge. I gave him a Nirvana disc and a Walkman to play it in—he’s on his own for the batteries. Do I want coffee? he asks. I explain that I’d love it but it’s a problem of fluid retention; I have to measure intake. Then I decide why not, I’m going right back home anyway. Why not enjoy the little time I do have here?

“Lucia and the Diplomatic Incident”: a Kindle Single by Author Tom Holt based on E.F. Benson’s Lucia and Mapp Series

lucia_diplomaticThe short story, “Lucia and the Diplomatic Incident,” by British novelist Tom Holt, is a fresh new adventure in the Lucia and Mapp series based on the novels of E.F. Benson.  It is currently only available as a Kindle Single, priced at $.99. Until now it has appeared in print only once, in the Benson Society Magazine in 1997.

** Click the Cover Image to Order **

Tom Holt’s two full-length novels in the Lucia and Mapp series are already available from Coffeetown Press. They are the only officially sanctioned sequels featuring E.F. Benson’s delightful social-climbing characters. Lucia in Wartime ($13.95/£9.99, 216 pages, ISBN: 978-1-60381-129-3) and Lucia Triumphant ($14.95/£10.99, 262 pages, ISBN: 978-1-60381-126-2), were first published in 1985 and 1986, respectively. The cover images are by one of the original cover illustrators, Marie Michal.

In “Lucia and the Diplomatic Incident,” Elizabeth Mapp has returned to the small town of Tilling, England, as if from the wars—pale and wan and mysterious. Finally her friends drag the secret out of her in painstaking detail. A “small but adequate” legacy allowed Elizabeth to spend three weeks in Venice, Italy, and she has returned a heroine. During a dramatic ferry accident she rescued an Italian child, which earned her a stay in the hospital with double pneumonia and the eternal gratitude of the Italian government. Lucia, who reigned as Queen during Elizabeth’s absence, is not at all happy to see her social rival steal not only her own adopted country, but the social spotlight and the hearts of all Tilling.

But oh … all is not what it seems, and if anyone can get to the bottom of it, it is Lucia!

When first released, Tom Holt’s Lucia and Mapp novels were enthusiastically received:

“Might have been dreamt up by Benson,” wrote The Spectator. “Tom Holt has provided manna.”

The Oxford Mail wrote: “The period is caught with remarkable skill. Equally well captured is the spirit of Benson’s six Lucia novels.”

“[Holt] never lets us forget that the people even at their most absurd are human and vulnerable,” wrote the Daily Telegraph. “I thought, after six Benson novels and two TV serializations, that I was tired of Tilling—but I laid this book aside with real regret.”

Tom Holt was born in 1961 in London, England. His first book, Poems By Tom Holt, was published when he was twelve years old. While he was still a student at Oxford he wrote two sequels to E.F. Benson’s Lucia series. After an undistinguished seven-year stint as a lawyer, he became a full-time writer in 1995 and has published over thirty novels. Tom lives with his wife and daughter in the west of England. As well as writing, he raises pigs and pedigree Dexter cattle. For more information, go to tomholt.coffeetownpress.com.

We, by Michael Landweber: Time-Traveling to a Painful Past

If you could talk to your childhood self, would that child listen?

We ($12.95, 194 pp, 5×8 Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-1-60381-166-8), a novel by debut author Michael Landweber, transports the narrator into his own past in the critical days before a family tragedy.

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We was a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award for Short Prose and Independent Books. It won a bronze in the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award, General Fiction category.

We won ForeWord Magazine’s quarterly Debut Novelist Award. Here is an excerpt from the 5 Star Review:

“Reflective and introspective, yet highly charged with dramatic scenes in a race against time, this mesmerizing novel is a page-turner that will captivate even a jaded critic…. As Ben interacts with Binky in this touching and often humorous tale, the far-fetched aspect of this unusual occurrence is accepted. Drawn into the warring conversation between adult and child—parts of the same personality—one will learn what constitutes real maturity opposed to merely grown-up behavior when a sibling’s life is threatened. Striking is the dual perspective within the same protagonist, an unusual angle that can be difficult to implement…. [In We, Landweber] makes not only an impressive debut, but has already succeeded at an experimental undertaking few could achieve.”

–Julia Ann Charpentier, ForeWord Clarion Reviews

“Landweber apparently approached this project with a go-big-or-go-home attitude. He aimed high and hit the mark, pulling off a fusion of literary novel and psychological drama.”  Read more …

—Tom Young, The Washington Independent Review of Books

“Landweber writes beautifully, with soaring imagination, heart and soul …. We is a wonderful mix of psychological thriller, science fiction, and love story – love of self, love of family, love of life. I find myself at a loss for words (a rare thing) when describing the beauty and profound meaning of this novel. It has touched me deeply. It should be on every bestseller list.”  Read more ….

—Claudia Sparks, Mockingbird Hill Cottage Blog

“Ultimately, We is about a man struggling with his own inner demons and failures while occupying the mind of his younger self, hoping to reverse time and alter a devastating outcome. Will he succeed? If he does, what will the implications be? These questions will be answered by the end of the book, as Landweber leaves  the reader with the satisfied sense that no stone was left unturned. If you ask me, there is truly nothing better in life than getting lost in a good book as time stands still, and that’s exactly what happened when I read We by Michael Landweber from cover to cover in a day. If you read one book this Spring, make it We. You won’t regret it.”  Read more ….

–Allison Hiltz, The Book Wheel

“[WE] is totally unlike anything I have read…. The writing is tight and vibrant. The ambiance of confusion is very well recreated. In some passages, it felt as if the author had written under the influence of some chemicals on his brain, or very high fever! Seriously, how did he come up with so much imagery, like subliminal pictures and thoughts? And sometimes it was super funny, for instance when Ben helps Binky with multiplication tables, or when he tells him secrets about sex to share with the younger kids at school. So if you want to read something different and unusual, and are ready for a confusing adventure outside your comfort zone, you will enjoy WE.”  Read more ….

—Emma, Words and Peace Blog

“The best part of Michael Landweber’s tale is the way he builds and differentiates between Ben and Binky. They are one and the same, simply from different ages, but they are also two very different characters: Ben has lived over four decades and has the experience and knowledge that comes with that life while Binky is an innocent and naive seven-year-old. Their interaction is what moves the book along and seeing how Ben will approach the challenge he’s facing – helping his sister while he’s essentially just a voice able to see through the eyes of Binky – makes for an intriguing story as well as one that showcases Landweber’s obvious talents as a writer.”  Read more ….

—No More Grumpy Bookseller Blog

We is a family story at its heart, wrapped in a suspenseful, gripping, and totally original sci fi narrative. The unforgettable double consciousness will keep you up reading until the emotionally gratifying end.”

—Jessica Anya Blau, author of The Wonder Bread Summer

“What if we could change the past? What if the past didn’t necessarily want to change? Michael Landweber’s We is part sci-fi concept novel, part psychological thriller with literary edges: Landweber deftly weaves time travel, Jungian psychology, and the butterfly effect into a suspenseful but also emotionally engaging novel.”

—Jen Michalski, author of The Tide King

We is a captivating, genre-bending psychological mystery that’s equal parts It’s a Wonderful Life and The Twilight Zone.”

—Dave Housley, author of Ryan Seacrest is Famous

“Thought-provoking, touching, imaginative …. a promising debut.”  Read more ….

—Gayle Weisswasser, Everyday I Write the Book Blog

After an accident, forty-year-old Ben Arnold regains consciousness in the kitchen of the house he grew up in. Only he feels different, lighter somehow. Something is horribly wrong. Ben is swept into the arms of his mother, who he hasn’t seen in twenty years. She calls him by his childhood nickname, Binky. He sees a younger, unbroken version of his father. His estranged brother is there, reverted back to his awkward teenage self. Finally, adding horror to his confusion, he glimpses his older sister Sara as she runs out the door to meet her boyfriend.

Sara, whose absence he has felt every day since her death.

Ben is a mere hitchhiker, a parasite in the brain of seven-year-old Binky, and his younger self is not happy to have him there.

It is three days before his sister will be attacked. Ben knows he has to save Sara but first he must gain Binky’s trust. Even if he can get Binky to say the right words, to do the right thing, who will believe that a young boy can foretell the future?

Says Landweber, “Every parent has started a lecture to their children with the phrase, ‘When I was your age …’ The urge to say just that to my own kids got me thinking about what it would be like to be able to talk to myself as a child about mistakes I knew I had made. Could I convince myself to do things differently? That was the question that started me down the road to writing We.”

Michael Landweber grew up in Madison, WI, went to school in Princeton, NJ, and Ann Arbor, MI, met his wife in Tokyo and currently lives with her and their two children in Washington, DC. He has worked at The Japan Times, the Associated Press, the U.S. Department of State, Partnership for a Secure America and the Small Business Administration. Mike is an Associate Editor at Potomac Review and a contributor on film and TV for Pop Matters. His short stories have appeared in places such as Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, American Literary Review, Fugue, Fourteen Hills, and The MacGuffin. We is his first novel. Click here to find Michael online.

Keep reading for an excerpt:

I am you, I said. I’m just a part of you. That’s why no one else can hear me.

Like in the cartoons.

I didn’t understand, but Binky continued before I could seek clarification.

Sometimes the guy or the cat or something is about to do something and then there’s like a little one of him on one shoulder and another little one of him on the other shoulder and one is white and one is red.

An angel and a devil, I said.

Yeah, maybe. One tells him good things and one tells him bad things. I think it was a cat. Or maybe Bugs Bunny.

You know that they are a part of him, I said. Even though they’re talking to him.

Yeah, ’cause they look just like him. Just smaller. And different colors. And one of them has wings and the other one has horns. But you don’t look like me.

That’s true, I said.

Yeah, one is bad and one is good.

The angel is good and the devil is bad, I said.

Yeah.

The silence returned. The contemplative pause. Everything around me grew prickly, like a bath filled with warm water and needles.

Which one are you?

I was stumped. We are all both. Angel and devil. The inseparable dichotomy. Better to just say I’m the angel and be done with it. The moment had passed, however. Something had happened while I was thinking. Something in the classroom.

Binky sat stock still in his chair. I could feel the muscles tensed throughout his small frame, accentuating its dimensions and limits. Short breaths swirled around us like wind in a tunnel, trapped and impotent. I abandoned my thoughts and returned my attention to the classroom to discern the source of our disturbance.

Ms. Mittewag stared at us. And I felt what Binky felt—this woman hated us.

“Benedict! Are you LISTENING?”

She barked out the syllables of the last word, turning each into a threat.

We looked left and right. We sat in the fifth row and all the other kids on either side of us were standing. Looking at us. Smirking. Waiting for the ax to fall.

What happened to the fourth row? They were supposed to do eights and nines? They had finished. We had been distracted.

Ms. Mittewag motioned at the other children to sit. With a single slender, well-manicured finger—more suited to a princess than a witch—she beckoned us to our feet.

Binky stood.

I could feel the slight tremor in his jaw. Even if he knew the answer to the next question, his brain might be unable to retrieve it.

“Benedict! Tens and Elevens!”

I wrested myself away from Binky. This was no big deal. Who cares if a second-grade teacher with a Napoleon complex yells at you? It doesn’t mean much in the general scheme of things. And what’s easier than the tens in a times tables? Come on, read my mind. Listen to me.

But Binky was frozen. She might as well have slapped him. He tapped his tongue against the inside of his top teeth rhythmically and waited for salvation. Inside, there was a rush of sound—no thought, only emotion.

Binky, listen to me, I said. Just repeat what I say.

Fresh Wind & Strange Fire: Travel Writer Lyn Fuchs Ventures into the Lesser Known Wilds of Mexico

fresh_windIn Fresh Wind & Strange Fire: One Man’s Adventures in Primal Mexico ($11.95, 138 pages, ISBN: 978-1-60381-172-9), travel writer Lyn Fuchs takes the reader to the more primitive and elemental regions of his adopted country, providing historical context and cogent and satirical commentary along the way.  Fuchs’ first book, Sacred Ground & Holy Water: One Man’s Adventures in the Wild, recounted his travels all over the globe. Chris Ord, Editor of Travel Rag, says of Fuchs’ writing, “Grips you, holds you, and leaves you with something profound.”

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“Gonzo tourist Fuchs’s account of way-off-the-beaten-path Mexico makes Anthony Bourdain appear reserved. His approach style is primitive and organic, with no first-world intercession or assistance. Only three pages in and he’s solicited a fake passport, trial-and-errored peyote dosage, and had a tooth extracted with wincing crudeness by a “dentist.” While he’s more author Hunter S. Thompson than travel guide Rick Steves, and certainly sensational in his gleefully gritty pursuit of the real Mexico, he’s not exploitive, cloying, or insincere and more often than not he reveals with acuity and bite a talent for finding the conceit (with prickling quotability). Verdict Though not your standard travel guide—no maps, agenda, index, or even photos are in this book—it is nonetheless vivid, and illuminatingly dense with lost histories of an unconsidered culture. Fuchs rambles (sometimes escaping) from Mayan and Mixtec barrios and villages to cities and towns, and opens up to everything from mafiosos and mystics to moles and iguanas. Fuchs offers unpredictable reading, recommended to those who like travel to challenge their perspective.”

—Benjamin Malczewski, Library Journal

Fresh Wind & Strange Fire is earthy, raw and vibrant. It has the B. Traven authenticity with a Hunter S. Thompson fire. The stories are graphic and well-written. They show you a side of Mexican society that most foreigners and many Mexicans will never know – sometimes seamy, sometimes just alive and real. The author spins his tales with well-written prose and vivid description. Individual cities and towns are highlighted, but more as a backdrop for the human stories. I know nearly all the places the author mentions and (except for the dark sides, which I do not know) he does a good job summing up the atmosphere of the towns. This book is not for those with sensitive imaginations. Some may even find it disturbing. But if you can read graphic modern detective novels and watch modern crime shows, you should enjoy it.”

–Mexico Mike Nelson, Author of Live Better South of the Border

Fresh Wind & Strange Fire is smart, divertido, and so cleansing that I think I can defer a trip to Catemaco for a limpieza!”

–Tony Cohan, bestselling author of On Mexican Time and Mexican Days

“A uniquely witty and perceptive take on Mexico, Fresh Wind & Strange Fire: One Man’s Adventures in Primal Mexico again shows Lyn Fuchs (who previously authored Sacred Ground & Holy Water) to be not just a mere travel writer, but a practical philosopher à la Montaigne, with a dash of Henry Miller’s American humor and sexuality …. One must, however, question Fuchs’ sagacity, and sanity, when he arranges to interview a Mexican drug lord – though he comes to his senses mid-interview and realizes what a dumb venture he has wrought. The sequence, like other episodes, is both hair-raising and hilarious. Bottom line: Fuchs writes of his adopted homeland, Mexico, with love, vigor, wit and a discerning, unsentimental eye.”

—Rick Skwiot, winner of the Hemingway First Novel Award and Willa Cather Fiction Prize finalist, author of Sleeping With Poncho Villa, Death In Mexico, and San Miguel De Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest For Spiritual Healing

“The writing is almost poetic and the history, philosophy and comedy reek of the human spirit in Mexico. I feel privileged to have read this work as it fulfilled everything I want out of a book. Comedy, suspense and self-reflection. This work demonstrates all of these, and the exemplary writing grasps the ‘show, don’t tell’ philosophy that many writers fail to practice.”

—Jairus Reddy, publisher at Hobbes End Publishing

“Fresh Wind & Strange Fire: One Man’s Adventures in Primal Mexico will appeal to readers and armchair travelers who crave more than an in-and-out experience. Fuchs delivers with his exploration of the dualities of non-tourist Mexico: a largely unknown land that is both intimidating and immensely inviting.”  Read more ….

—Lori A. May, ForeWord Review

Fresh Wind & Strange Fire is just as the title suggests: fresh, original and passionate. Fuch grips the reader, from beginning to end, with his historical detail, humor and socio-political anecdotes. This is a must read for anyone who lives in or aspires to travel extensively throughout Mexico.”  Read more …

—Deanna Proach, News Blaze

“In Fresh Wind & Strange Fire, the intellectual mixes with the traveler while still remaining charmingly down-to-earth. The book might be about high places and lofty thoughts, but it is never pedantic or patronizing …. Apart from his spiritually tinged adventures, the book makes a strong case for legal immigration with a stomach churning account of the slavery that existed in the region, which is now transformed to a traveler’s paradise. It is unusual for a travel book to be this honest and it adds to the book’s character…. All in all, the book is a philosophical adventure through the realm of the Mayans that will make you smile, wince and introspect. A definite winner as far as the genres of both, spiritual literature and travel fiction are concerned.”

—Shweta Ganesh Kumar, writer and travel columnist

Are you ready to travel beyond where even news reporters fear to tread? Fresh Wind & Strange Fire is author Lyn Fuchs’ journey through stranger-than-fiction primal terrain. As an American professor in a Mexican university exploring the southern reaches of his adopted country, Fuchs knows the territory as only a local resident can and is uniquely qualified to convey its essence to English-speaking readers.

Fuchs’ adventures include buying fake documents, eating iguanas, ingesting peyote, scaling glaciers, train-hopping with migrants, splash-fighting with Mayans, joking with narcotraficantes, being exfoliated by fish, having a tooth extracted without anesthetic, and interviewing the last living witness to a Latin American extermination camp. As mystics exalt the lotus for its stately blossoms arising out of muddy waters, Lyn celebrates life by gleaning hilarity and wisdom from bizarre reality.

Says Fuchs, “I think many Americans have a lover’s quarrel with their own culture. Americans living in Mexico often feel great love for their homeland, but also great freedom from the limitations of its worldview. I sometimes tell friends that Mexico offers all the good things in life, plus just enough violence to keep the wimps out. (I’ve suggested this slogan to the tourism department but haven’t heard back.) In Fresh Wind & Strange Fire: One Man’s Adventures in Primal Mexico, I try to share some of the freedom and courage I’ve found in Mexico with my compatriots, who assume they live in the land of the free and home of the brave. It’s true that newcomers to surreal Mexico often feel vulnerable, but long-term expatriate residents usually feel empowered. Life in Mexico provides fewer safety helmets, but more wind in your hair. If you’d like to take a primal spiritual journey into the deepest heart of Mexico without the infected and scarring mosquito bites, this book is for you.”

Fuchs’ travel writing has appeared in Outdoor Canada, Monday Magazine, Canadian Ethnic Studies, The Dalhousie Review, Eclectica Literary Journal, Rose and Thorn, Gam Magazine, Paperplates Literary Journal, Travel Rag, 3:AM Magazine, artist-at-large, Long Trip Home, Crank Literary Journal, The Kinte Space, Travelmag, Hack Writers, Trip 101, Raging Face, Traveling Stories, The Best of Bluefoot Publishing and others. Click here to find Lyn online.

Fuchs is a professor of communication at the University of Papaloapan and has earned his associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees in communication and philosophy. Fuchs’ first book, Sacred Ground & Holy Water, is also available from Coffeetown Press.

Keep reading for an excerpt:

Take a bus bound for the Caribbean. The farther we go, the denser the mango trees, the kinkier the hair of boarding passengers and the louder the Cumbia music played by the driver. Our bus ride transforms into a rolling party. At one stop, barefoot kids selling fresh banana chips board the bus. At the next, a fat woman distributes cards inscribed with prayers for donations. Later, an old man strums a guitar and sings love ballads. Finally, a pink, turquoise and purple clown with big floppy feet entertains us with bawdy jokes until we arrive in Tlacotalpan.

This photo-ready village, where the Papaloapan River flows out of the rainforest to meet the Gulf Coast, is a United Nations World Heritage Site. Yet, few tourists seem to know. The architecture and street music reflect Native, Spanish and Caribbean influences. The food is downright sexy.

On the riverfront, I slouch away all afternoon at a restaurant patio table. The Pescado a la Veracruzana (fish simmered with tomatoes, onions, chilies, olives, capers and herbs) is succulent. The empty cerveza bottles in front of me speak for themselves. What should I have next? I order a Dulce de Leche. This handmade milk confection is a pure delight.

Two churches on the town square dominate the skyline behind me. One is aqua-green with a bell tower; the other is cloud-white with sky-blue stripes and an enormous clock. The patron of fishing is the divine avatar of local choice. Many peasants come to these shrines and pray passionately for fish, while I snap my fingers and receive the same in abundance. How ironic.

Many of us pray for pregnancies in our forties and managerial jobs in a recession. When our desires remain unfulfilled, we sometimes become bitter. We complain “No one is listening up there!” Still, we tell children “No means no!” and “Stop that tantrum!” Meanwhile, multitudes ask humbly and submissively for fish. Who do we think is up there—a god or a lackey? If it’s all right to demand a heavenly server, is it okay for me to demand the kind they hire at Hooters?

I set off, walking along the cobblestone streets in the evening light. Every house has a colonnade but a different one. Each is painted in its own cheery tropical color. Above me are green-algae-covered terra cotta tile roofs and soaring coconut palms. As the sun sets, lamps come on in the garden around the central plaza. A din of food and fellowship rises in sidewalk cafés. The smell of lechero (coffee with steamed milk) plus anise liquor makes all seem right with the world.

Stroll under a full moon toward the Teatro Nezahualcóyotl. This opulent theater has four balconies stacked on top each other, constructed of carved wood and wrought iron. The stage has olive satin drapes and a mustard silk curtain. Men in khaki pants and red cotton shirts play fast and furious eight-string guitars of various sizes. A watery, soothing harp accompanies them.

Girls come out in flowing white-lace dresses to swirl, as boys stomp in orbit around them. Background singers wave ornate black fans to the beat. Red scarves are used to enact a human bullfight with undertones of mating and fertility ritual. Jarocha and Fandango dances alternate like a woven tapestry with whoops and whistles erupting. House lights extinguish. A soloist performs a haunting melody about the solitude of a fisherman. Women revolve in cross formation with burning candles balanced on their heads. Full lighting and fancy footwork resume, then hats fly off. Viva Mexico!

While exiting, I pass a Tiffany stained glass window and a bronze sculpture of the fifteenth century indigenous poet for whom the building is named. On the wall are a few lines of his verse: “I love the song of the cenzontle bird and the color of Jade and the perfume of the Copa de Oro flower, but most of all I love my fellow man.” Can’t say I totally relate, but after my time in Tlacotalpan, it’s definitely three down and one to go.

Loving one’s neighbor is a lofty goal. Maybe one should start by simply acknowledging their existence. Most people in the world have it rougher than I do. Walking to work daily or cooking family meals constantly isn’t cruel and unusual punishment. It’s life on earth as most folks know it.

In Mexico, one finds that not all respond to hardship or injustice with trauma and drama, as if the laws of the universe have been violated. This is strange to gringos. When I see how hard many people struggle, it’s almost a relief that the heavens don’t jump to my privileged demands. I don’t wanna be that spoiled. Having more is nice, but enjoying what you have more is better. Give us this day our daily bread … and some fish would be cool, if that works for You.

I spend the night at the airport hotel with planes keeping me awake. Actually, it’s a grandmother feeding a baby and making airplane noises as the spoon approaches the infant’s mouth. Tlacotalpan has no airport. However, if I complain about grandmas and babies, I’ll go straight to hell. The hotel is lovely at sunrise. A courtyard has marble floor and columns, inlaid tile arches and cornices, plus green ferns and a yellow wishing well. Mesh-backed cedar rocking chairs fill the breezy alcoves.

Writing Matters, Second Edition: Peter G. Beidler's Invaluable Guide to Writing Essays

writing_mattersFor several years, Peter G. Beidler’s Writing Matters has been a popular textbook for high school and college students. In the revised second edition of Writing Matters  ($13.95, 230 pages, 6×9 Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-1-60381-174-3), Beidler improves on the first by presenting an expanded section on editing.

Many students dread writing essays because no one has bothered to break down the process in a clear, down-to-earth fashion. Writing Matters is the remedy. Beidler offers both good and bad examples, explaining why the writers succeeded or why they went astray.

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“What I like most about Writing Matters is that it really speaks to my students. Beidler’s refreshing strategy of giving the rudiments of essay writing in twenty-six mini-essays which exemplify the very precepts he is advancing is particularly helpful. After all, some students learn better by precept, other by example. Writing Matters gives them simultaneously both precept and example. The ‘Editing Matters’ section comprising forty-seven rules (deftly keyed in a Quick Reference Guide at the end) is a wonderful bonus. And all of this at a price that students can easily afford. I have recommended Writing Matters to various colleagues and have yet to hear a negative word.”

—Professor John de Oliveira e Silva, CUNY: LaGuardia Community College, New York City, NY

“I have been using Peter G. Beidler’s Writing Matters for fifteen years because I prefer it to all other how-to writing textbooks that cross my desk. Writing Matters is far more accessible to students than the typical composition text. Each succinct chapter is itself a persuasive essay that shows (simultaneously as it tells) how to focus and develop an argument, how to write clearly and concisely, and how to anticipate and “deal with” probable reader objections. Although Beidler’s book is simple, direct, and sometimes humorous, it does not condescend.  Clearly Beidler understands not only writing but also student writers—their fears and misconceptions and common complaints. May this inexpensive but invaluable little book remains forever in print.”

—Professor Kathleen Mayberry, Lehigh Carbon Community College, Schnecksville, PA

“Although he wrote this book for college writing classes, the simple, direct advice it contains would help anyone in the business world. Writing Matters should be in the desk drawer of every manager and executive, if only so that they can recommend it to those whose limping memos and cloudy reports they have to read.”

—Charlie Liekweg, recently retired President & CEO of AAA Washington and former Vice President, Operations, GTE Corporation

Award-winning English Professor Peter G. Beidler offers solid advice that includes, in part:

  • How to find a topic
  • What constitutes a bold thesis
  • How to select and organize evidence
  • What to include in an introduction
  • How to develop a voice
  • How to doctor a sickly paragraph

Although originally written for first-year university students learning composition, Writing Matters has also been invaluable to ESL students and those in high school preparing for the SATs.

PETER G. BEIDLER has recently retired from the English department at Lehigh University. He has published widely and has won many teaching awards. He was named National Professor of the Year by CASE—Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.