Monday, April 30, 2012

The Best American Stories: 1998--Last Few Stories

 photo: front cover, from its Amazon page

All right, everyone, it's been a long while since I posted my review of the stories in this anthology.  I've been sidetracked by various and sundry issues, but here's the concluding blog entry about these stories.  Overall I found this book extremely worthwhile, so track it down and read it.  Follow my critiques as a guide once you have the book, if you wish.  If you have any thoughts about these, or any other works of these authors, please feel free to comment.

The Two Ladies of Rose Cottage by Peter Robinson

Interesting and well-written, sort of a cross between Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" and Tolkien's Hobbit's land.   And Rose Cottage will always remind me of the hut in Eyam, England, within which so many members of one family died of the Plague.  (I've written an entry about that here.)  There's a little bit of Fried Green Tomatoes, too.  There's a wonderful little mystery involving the two ladies of the title, and some bones found buried in the garden of the former home of one of them, and an abusive husband, and small-town secrets.  And a nice little subtext about death itself, too.  And getting old.  A good read, and pleasantly bittersweet, if you like that kind of thing.  But we do grow old, and things do die away, much as we do.

Twelve Days out of Traction by Dave Shaw

Written in a purposely terse style, too aware of itself for my taste, but anyone who throws in a jab at Newt Gingrich can't be that bad.  The narrator runs injury scams, the kind of guy who slips on a wet floor of a store and sues the owner.  Just okay, not much of a story, really, and written like yeah, okay, whatever.  Not really sure why this one made the cut into this anthology.  Shaw must have pictures.

The Power of Suggestion by Helen Tucker

In this one, a man's normally-boring Holly Homemaker Housewife starts having ESP and devours such books about it.  She "sees" him cheating on her in a hotel, though she's gullible, so believes his lies about it.  Or does she?  A very Ellery Queen kind of story, which is where it was published, like in the old Alfred Hitchcock magazine days.  You know, there's a cheating husband who works too much during the day and even more at night, but not with his wife.  She's supposedly the innocent homemaker, but you know she knows she's being wronged.  Since you know the guy's going to get it, you start thinking how, and this one was then easy to figure out.  Reading it was like watching yourself mentally connect the dots, and then watching yourself being right.  You can see it as a half-hour episode of the Hitchcock TV show as you're reading it.

Take It Away by Donald E. Westlake

Disappointing story from a well-known writer of the genre, who's been writing for over forty years, it seems.  (I have some old paperbacks of his from the fifties.)  Anyway, this one is a forehead-slapper, as it is not conceivable that a member of the FBI would be this dumb.  He and his team on a stakeout use an unsafe walkie-talkie channel; he's in line at a fake Burger King, talking to a guy who's very obviously playing him in the conversation, referring to stakeouts, and his job, and a million other things, and the narrator gets a bad feeling but doesn't do anything about it.  And before you can say The Usual Suspects, the guy in line is of course the guy they were staking out, and the attractive woman in front of him was of course the person the guy in line (a smuggler of paintings) needed to exchange info. with.  And she's holding papers she won't let the FBI guy look at over her shoulder!  Simply not believable, and one of those stories where you want to strangle the narrator, and then the author who shoved him upon us.  A very heavy disappointment, where clearly Westlake's name alone opened the door to this Best of...anthology for him.

The Rest of Her Life by Steve Yarborough

Very effective story about a murder of a young girl's mother, but in fact the murder is the last thing this story is about.  Love, and falling out of love.  Men and women, and relationships.  How and why relationships fail and end.  Lying, and the acceptance of those lies.  Getting old; losing life's fire.  Some quick-changing POV is never a distraction, but is often a revelation.  A juror twenty years later talks again to the girl, it's a flash-forward that takes one sentence.  There are flashbacks, as well, and some back and forth, but if you're paying attention, they're not a problem and can be, as I said, a revelation in the way of this world, of how time works, and of how life and justice often look the other way.  The ending might be a little more subtle than it needs to be, but by then the despair of the writing has forecasted the ending a bit, and it really doesn't matter anyway.  You'll need a shot of whiskey, or something, after the end of this one.  But read it anyway.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My Interview, Part 1

Following is the beginning of my interview at a cool website for newbie and professional writers, The Writer's Block, at  Specifically, you can find my interview here.  But it's an interesting site, so look around!

Welcome to The Writer’s Block! 

1)      Tell us a bit about yourself and where you live and work.

Thanks for having me here at The Writer’s Block, Raychelle.  I have a job I love that pays The Man, and I'm a novelist, short story writer—and so-so poet.  I live in the Northeast, in a quiet area of a loud suburb.  It’s sort of rural where I am, but I’m half a mile from suburban and seven miles from urban.  Also just half an hour to the good beaches, forty minutes to an hour to good walking/biking/hiking trails, an hour and a half from Fenway Park, two hours to the peaks and streams, and five hours from Manhattan—all of which I love and go to as often as possible.

2)      Describe your journey to becoming a writer/author.

Oh, boy.  How much time have ya got?  Well, the short of it is that, when I was about six or so, I wrote a short story in a birthday card for my mother, whose name was Carole.  The story was called something like, “A Christmas Carole, by Charles Dickens, but re-written by Steve Belanger.”  (The misspelling of her name was intentional.  I still have the card somewhere, since she’s passed.)  It made her smile, and I was hooked.  Throw in some slacking, finishing a novel, getting ripped off by an “agent” who scammed me for about a year (she’s still under indictment in NY State after many other victims came forward), and not writing a single creative word for nine years, and then being rescued (creatively and perhaps literally) by a great woman who convinced me to write again.  “Hide the Weird” was the first thing I finished and sent out, and it’s in Space and Time Magazine right now.  I feel I have those nine years to make up for, so I’m full speed ahead with many projects.

3)      Do you gravitate toward specific genres in your writing?

Well, I don’t know.  “Hide the Weird” is speculative fiction, I guess, though I’m not happy with that label.  I just sold a very short nonfiction piece about how adopting a greyhound changed my life.  I also finished a much longer nonfiction piece about managing anxiety in ten easy steps, with examples, anecdotes and short summaries.  I’ll be sending that out soon.  I’ve written (and am now re-writing) a zombie story that has quite a bit of the feel of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.”  And a tiny bit of the Sox collapsing last year.  Cuz they just rolled over and died, get it?  (Sorry.)  My edited and re-edited, finished and re-finished (knock on wood) novel is a mystery titled Cursing the Darkness.  A draft of a sequel (or maybe a prequel, we’ll see) titled Remembering James is about half done.  My novel The Gravediggers is a historical fiction horror novel, which I guess is what Dan Simmons’ The Terror was.  It’s about the TB epidemic in 1880s and 1890s New England (specifically RI and NH) and how a creature really could have hidden in the shadows of the hysteria and walked in the footsteps of the disease—suspected, but never seen.  Or was it?  The Mercy Brown folklore of Rhode Island plays a part, as does the unbelievable sacrifice of the village of Eyam, England during the Plague (look both of those up).  Modern-day, hysteria-inducing diseases, like 1980s AIDS, does, too, at least in the draft so far.  I’m writing a memoir as well, and even my poems are of differing subjects and themes.  Oh, yeah, and a book of my existentialist philosophy, titled Faith & Reality: Jumping Realities.  And I’m about 100 pages into a semi-autobiographical novel, The Observer.  And a collection of essays and articles about my experience in education, titled When No Child Gets Ahead, No Child Gets Left Behind: Adventures and Lessons in Education.  And a concentration camp novel, about a camp the Nazis used as a sort of positive advertising to the world’s cameras (the prisoners were shown performing whatever talent they had, like singing; they ate only for the cameras, and were told to smile or be shot after the cameras were shut off).  A small group of courageous adults try to save the life of a young boy who has no obvious talent whatsoever, at first by hiding him in a chorus.  And a novel about a different sort of Armageddon, titled Apocalypse.  So, no, actually I’d have to say I’m all over the place!  I guess there are two different theories for not-yet-firmly established writers: write what’s selling (Do we really need another teenage paranormal romance?) or write what you want and work your butt off trying to sell it.  I do the latter.

(Me again.)  There are 10 total questions, so there'll be more to come.  Thanks for reading.  Try out her site!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Is It Me, Or...

Photo: BP icon, from its Wikipedia page.

I used to have a column in my college newspaper with the above title.  I didn't care much for the title--or, as it turns out, looking back, for my writing abilities--at the time.  And I don't care much for the title now, either, but I'll let it stand because I can't currently think of anything better.  (My writing abilities are a little bit better.)  Anyway, the column was a random series of thoughts, in the same vein as those you'll see below.  If it sounds like I'm questioning my sanity a little--well, hell, any reasonable person today, in this current culture and climate, would have to, wouldn't he?  Oh, and if you can think of a better title for such snippets, please share via the comments, and I'll consider.  As always, thanks.

Is It Me, Or...

--does anyone else feel the compulsion to scoop up the change--often of many dollars--that you see below the cashier window at any major drive-thru?  (For me, it's the local Dunkin' Donuts windows.)  I mean, I know that sounds like I'm cheap (I'm not, I'm frugal.  No, really.) but for me it's a matter of waste-not/want-not.  I'm a little more relaxed about this since I asked a cashier if homeless people scarf up the money.  She said Yes, and they don't even wait until the place closes sometimes.  Most of the window people leave the change as they drop, though they admit to picking up bills.  So lately, like Foster in my novel Cursing the Darkness (see my website address above for a sample chapter), who's in the habit of dropping empty beer cans, filled with an occasional bill, down to the alley beneath his office for the homeless guy, who recycles the cans and, hopefully, notices the occasional bill, I've been in the habit lately of tipping the window person and then dropping occasional change beneath the window for the homeless.  By the way, redeeming empty cans is no longer allowed in my state.  Someone needs to explain the reason for that to me.

--does anyone else wonder if maybe we're sold products on television we don't actually need?  I'm talking big-ticket items here, like allergy meds.  My genius ENT suggested I completely lay off the daily Claritin I was taking for years, saying that now they do me more harm than good, because they dry up and inflame my sinuses.  So I haven't taken one now in about seven weeks.  The result?  Almost no congestion, or bad headaches, or sneezing, or red eyes.  (I did sneeze and have a little red-eye today, but not too bad.)  Now, I used to have to take allergy shots every week for about eight years.  I got the needle test on my upper arm and I was allergic to 41 out of 43 things.  I used to be that guy in high school who sneezed 17 times in a row.  I used to get nosebleeds.  I mean, I had allergies.  Now?  Not so much.  But the commercials make it look like everyone suffers in the spring and summer and it's just one of life's things.  I think now: What if it isn't?  What if that's just another example of our culture of fear?  I feared an allergy attack for so long...Did I really need to?

--is it obvious that liars are lying, exponentially, by the number of times they don't say Yes or No to yes or no questions?  I had this minor epiphany recently, thinking about a conversation I recently had with someone.  This conversation ended with her saying that she says whatever she thinks I want to hear so that I stop asking questions.  My response to this was: Just be honest with me; I ask these questions because you never give me a simple Yes or No.  And then it hit me.  That's what liars do.  They let you surmise from their insinuations, so if you end up catching them in a lie, they can say, "Well, I didn't say I wasn't doing that..."  Liars don't actually lie, per se, especially if they think you're smart.  But they will insinuate, and let you incorrectly conclude from that.  Maddening.

--shouldn't we be more concerned with how quickly a car can go from 60 to 0 rather than from 0 to 60?

--does everyone think that global warming means that temperatures only get warmer?  It doesn't; it's just easier to spot when it's warmer, like this past winter over here.  And, as I pointed out recently, warmer in the winter might mean more snowfall, not less, as it snows much more when the temps are in the mid- to high-twenties than it does when it's lower than 25 degrees, cuz the air is too dry for snow when it's colder.  (I point this out to my readers in Florida, in California, and in other parts of the world, where the local leaders cancel school and call for a state of emergency when it's snows maybe two inches.)

--do oil prices skyrocket because oil suddenly become harder to transport and produce when it gets warmer, and more people are traveling?  Hmmm...Next time such a company says prices must rise because a recent hurricane made it harder to transport the stuff, I want someone lookin' into that.

--did this country give BP a mulligan on the whole Gulf thing?  Talking about oil company execs who in the movies would be wearing the black hats and twirling their mustaches while sneering...But, hey, let's point a finger at the American consumer, who made BP so popular that suddenly five of them have popped up in a three-mile radius of my house.  Why haven't we all boycotted this company and driven them out of business, at least around here?  I still make it a point not to buy gas from them.  And I want to throw something at my television whenever one of their smarmy commercials come on, the ones where they say how actually good for the Gulf community they've been, and how now everything is so awesome that tourists are flocking back.  Seriously?  Who's their spokesperson, Joe Hazelwood?

--has everyone forgotten what actual news is?  Top-heavy, bikini-clad women "accidentally" spilling milk on themselves while driving a Scion?  That's news?  A politician calling for its YouTube deletion and calling it "sleazy?"  That's news?  (He got his wish, by the way.  Why should Scion and/or YouTube buckle to this guy?)  I saw the commercial (of course).  It's blatantly silly, and perhaps stupid--but not sleazy.  It didn't exactly make me want to run out and buy a Scion.  I mean, come on, people, that was a politician calling something sleazy.

P.S.--It's been pointed out to me that I need to explain my Hazelwood reference, above.  He's the guy who drunkenly drove the Exxon Valdez aground and leaked billions of gallons of oil into the Pacific.  Perhaps he was guiding the tourist boat that overturned near Italy.  Go to the back of the class if you're over 25 and didn't know who he was.

P.P.S.--If one of these ain't just me, if it's you, too, tell me why!

Monday, April 16, 2012

My Published Interview

The link below is to The Writer's Block, a great website for writers, newbie or not.  The owner of the site was nice enough to interview me about my writing, the published story, and other things, awhile back, and she posted it on the eleventh.  Check it out, and while you're there, look around at all the other cool links for writers and readers, too.

Thanks!  And thanks to Rachelle for interviewing me and for posting it!  If you didn't click the link above, click the one here:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Houston, We Had A Problem

Hey, everyone, long time, no see.  I don't think I've ever taken a one-week break from this blog since I started it, never mind two weeks!  No excuse for not at least publishing a couple of entries, for God's sake, but I have to admit that the following things happened in a three-day span a few weeks ago, and they've kept me busy:

--Crunch-time at the job; lots of things due that had to be done right, and on-time.  I did both of those, but that takes a lot outta ya when you don't sleep for a few straight days.

--Consistent and pounding migraines, which drove me to an ENT specialist, then to other specialists.  An MRI or two later, no terrible news, but acupuncture, massage, meditation and medication, and simple body exercises were in order.

--Gutting the whole bathroom, and replacing the boiler, of another place I rent out.  This cost just over five-figures.

--My first shipment of the magazine came in.  Lots of meeting up with family members and old friends in the last few weeks so they could get a copy.  That was lotsa fun--and I have to admit that I bought a $15 hand-made, blue, white, red and silver pen (writes blue) to autograph the magazine with.  And I lost it at a restaurant, and a week later, found it again.

--Mucho writing and reading.  I mean, that's what THIS is all for, right?

--Other things happening with family and at home, and an overall feeling of being worn-out.  Very worn-out.


I'm back, feeling better, and ready to write more here, and the real stuff, and send more out, including a novel manuscript or two, and some nonfiction pieces, ready to get more and more stuff published, and :::insert Howard Dean rebel yell here:::

So thank you, everyone, for the kind emails you've sent, asking if I was okay.  (I was, mostly.)  And hello to my new fans, of the story, and/or of the blog.  Thanks for your patience and for hangin' in there with(out) me.

It's good to be back.

Monday, April 2, 2012

And the Winner Is....Plus, I'm Interviewed!!! And My Sixth-Grade Teacher

And the winner is...Namzola!

Thanks to everyone who entered the free magazine contest, either by email or by comment.  (There were a ton more emails.  Why is that?  Don't be bashful!!!)  There'll be another contest soon to win a free issue of Space and Time Magazine with my story, "Hide the Weird," inside, on page twenty-five.  Sorry it took so long to announce the winner, as well.  Been taking care of some weighty things over here.

And it's hard for me to believe that someone wanted to interview me about being a newly-published author, but that happened recently.  Ms. Raychelle Muhammed at was awesome enough to ask me to introduce myself, my writing, my upcoming works, my journey to publication, and lots of other cool things.  Look for that interview on her website on April 11th.  (I'll post another reminder closer to that day.)  It was a pleasure to answer those questions--and I learned a few things doing so!  Like, I've got a couple of drafts, about 100 pages in, each, of two WIPs that I'd completely forgotten about!  I actually forgot that I'm in the process of writing so many things!  ::writer slaps himself upside the head::

How can someone write so much and then completely forget about them???  I have to better organize my time, get more stuff out there.  In fact, I have three or four more works that need to be sent out, pronto.

So I've been signing copies of the magazine for co-workers, for a fundraiser, and for immediate family and friends--and I'm excited to be able to give one to my sixth-grade teacher.  I won't mention her name, because I have a feeling that might embarrass her a little, but she was--and still is--this awesome woman who was the first person ever to tell me that I had some writing talent, and that I was actually a worthwhile person in general.  (Even my family at the time didn't tell me I had any writing talent; though, in fairness, what family knows that about their kid when he's in the sixth grade?)  Well, anyway, she did, and she was a wonderful person at a very traumatic time in my life.

So the lesson today, people: Remember your good teachers, whether they were literally teachers or not.  Try to contact one, and tell them how awesome he/she was for you back in the day.  Feel free to comment below about an awesome teacher, or teacher-like person, who made a positive impression upon you.