Sunday, July 5, 2015

Review: Jenny Milchman's As Night Falls



As Night Falls. Jenny Milchman.  Ballantine-Random House, June 30, 2015.  ISBN-978-0-553-39481-8.  Hardcover $26.  367 pp.

Jenny Milchman’s third novel, As Night Falls, adds another play to what could be a dramatic trilogy.  All three of her suspense novels take place in Wedeskyull, in the Adirondacks.  Each one features a woman who comes to be and feel alone in an overwhelmingly terrifying situation.  In each case the woman, who had been relying on others for support and comfort, must go it alone.   She gradually takes on what fate has handed her.  This transformation alone is worth the read.  Like the figure of Antigone in the ancient Greek drama based on the Oedipus myth, she defies the forces marshaled against her.

Milchman is a master at building suspense slowly but surely.  The confrontation with the killer is only part of the story and is deftly woven into the fabric of a family drama.  Milchman explores all the nuances of the emotional states her characters pass through.  In this novel the main action takes place in twenty-four hours, another bow to the Greek playwrights.

Sandy Tremont, her husband Ben, and their fifteen-year-old daughter Ivy are living what passes these days for a normal middle-class life.  Sandy works as a therapist in a hospital clinic.  Ben has his own company that features Off Road Adventures, such as skiing off the trails, free-climbing, or biking.   He seems to need that kind of scary stimulation.  All Sandy wants is family peace, but her daughter Ivy prefers to fight with her and knocks Sandy for a loop by calling her a liar.  Sandy never lied to Ivy, intent on having a close bond with her, but she doesn’t want Ben to know anything bad about Ivy, like the lying accusation or the failing paper Ivy brought home from school to be signed.  She says to Ivy, “We won’t tell Daddy.”

Interwoven with pre-dinner evening rituals with this family, we meet the prisoners Nick and Harlan, who are out this cold day on a road assignment.  Nick is planning their escape though none has been successful since he entered this prison twenty-four years earlier.  They do succeed in jumping into a large SUV driven by a woman who follows the orders to drive to Long Hill Road in Wedeskyull.  When she stops and then jumps from the car and runs into the woods, Nick orders his huge but not intelligent friend Harlan to go after her and kill her.  Harlan doesn’t want to kill anyone, and Nick has to consider that, despite Harlan’s loyalty to him, he might turn against Nick.  Nevertheless he forces Harlan to stab her with a nail file, and they get away and head toward the place where Nick intends to get supplies before going deep into the woods north toward Canada, where he’s sure they’ll never be found.

The cold and the oncoming snowstorm might be a problem, but Nick summons his old confidence and they drive to the home of Sandy, Ben, and Ivy.  While building the suspense, Jenny also flashes back to Nick’s mother Barbara, who was entranced by her beautiful, willful son from birth and fears his tantrums even before age three.

We also visit Ivy, sulking and lonely, in her bedroom with the dog Mac, with whom she has been raised, and whose fur she cries into when she can get none of her friends to come over or text with her.  She is then answering a text from a new friend named Cory, who has asked her to go out with him, and she has said yes, when she hears the front door bang open.

Nightmare enters this mostly peaceful family’s world, its dynamics only a little dysfunctional because of feelings repressed, truths not told, old secrets buried.

Nick’s family, we already know, has been very dysfunctional, as the therapists say.  His mother is obsessed with her beautiful, smart, and tempestuous son.  All his misbehavior, including a streak of cruelty, is whitewashed by this Jocaste figure, who continues to believe he is creative and sensitive.  Her Nicky ends up in prison for murder.  We understand by the time the two escapees arrive at Sandy’s house that little Nicky has become a cold-blooded killer, and his friend Harlan’s brute strength is his chief weapon.

The Oedipus myth, which Sigmund Freud brought into the discipline of psychotherapy, stands behind the three heroines of Jenny’s books, for all resemble Antigone in their lonely fight for justice against huge odds.  Antigone was the daughter of Oedipus by his mother, Jocaste.  When Oedipus put his eyes out upon realizing he’d killed his father and married his mother, Antigone accompanied him when he left Thebes.  When Creon took over the Theban throne, Antigone’s two brothers fought and killed each other. Creon would not allow one of them to be buried, and Antigone buried him despite the king’s order.  Her name means “against the seed,” i.e, the male.  You could say she was an early feminist.    In As Night Falls, the mother-son duo of Nick and his mother Barbara is the original Oedipal story/myth/complex made quite contemporary.  Who hasn’t met grown men obsessed with their mothers who never saw any faults in them. The resulting adults can’t take in the psychic reality of other people and their feelings.

This story is a grand interruption by the gods as a modern, middle class family has to cope with the nightmare of having two killers invade their home.  There are, as well, many flashbacks, in which we learn the story of the original dysfunctional family, that of Nick, his parents, and sister.  Sandy and Ben’s buried secrets and fears emerge when they are fighting to survive any way they can.

Jenny has worked as a therapist, and her vision of the family insists that, for harmony and good feelings, all those fears and secrets need to be out in the open so that healing and forgiveness can take place. Is it possible to go through the nightmare this story is for its main characters and come out a whole, functional family?  Jenny thinks so and knows how to write a compelling story that’s believable both in its terror and in its optimism.

***


***

Jenny Milchman is the author of Cover of Snow, which won the Mystery Writers of America’s Mary Higgins Clark Award, Ruin Falls, and As Night Falls.  She is the chair of International Thriller Writers’ Debut Authors program, a member of the Mystery Writers of America and New York Writers Workshop, and the creator and organizer of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which is celebrated annually in all fifty states.  Milchman lives in the Hudson Valley with her family

jennymilchman.com

takeyourchildtoabookstore, org

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Review: Gloria Alden's Murder in the Corn Maze



Murder in the Corn Maze by Gloria Alden, Willow Knoll Publishing, 2015. ISBN 9781511747264, 317 pp. $14.95. 

Murder in the Corn Maze is Gloria Alden’s fifth Catherine Jewell gardening mystery set in Portage Falls, Ohio.  This one features a local Halloween tradition of setting up a variation on the haunted house custom in a corn field, creating a maze with witches, ghosts, vampires, and zombies scattered through the cornfield of a local farm.  Alden’s books are gentle traditional mysteries even if the killer uses a pitchfork or an axe.  As many traditional mysteries are, these are set in a village, but Alden’s own vision of village life is what her novels grow out of.  Her vision reminds me of my Russian friend’s saying that the best place to “build the human soul” is in the village.  I’ve pondered what he meant.  In a village we are known, for good or bad.  Even if our good deeds are done quietly, they become known because we check on each other and talk about each other.  Other people also take responsibility for us.  It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child.  In a village people reach out to those in need whether because they need funds for an operation or clothing and furniture because their house burned down.  They also notice if certain teenagers are harming others and alert their neighbors.

In Portage Falls two new residents who open an auto repair shop combined with a coffee shop are targeted by a little teen gang of mischief makers, and nasty anti-gay slogans are painted on their storefront.  Everyone in town figures out quickly who did it, and the one teen likely to be responsible is Trent Lawrence who bullies his friends Todd Williams and Ryan O’Brien, and all three are encouraged in their ugly behavior by their English teacher and drama coach Dale Bryant.

A pastor of a local church and part-time police office, gathers his parishioners to clean up the mess for the two new residents.  The local police chief, John MacDougal, already has his eye on Trent and hopes to stop him before he does any more damage.  He and other villagers hold Trent’s parents partly responsible for not curbing their son’s malicious behavior and for having spoiled him.  

Catherine had met the boys when she was helping her art teacher friend Maggie Fiest work on the costumes for the Corn Maze.    The main characters have already assessed the danger this little gang is to an essentially peaceful community.

The murder occurs during the first evening of the corn maze.  It’s puzzling because the victim is the “coach” of the village bullies. Catherine has her brother with her for the maze, and it’s her friend Maggie who finds the body shortly after the murder.  Catherine vows to stay out of this investigation, and knows her brother Michael and her boyfriend, the police chief, want her to, but if Maggie is suspected, she’ll have to get involved.

These villagers are essentially law-abiding.  When newcomers arrive, they are checked out, and word spreads about them, be it good or bad.  

In Alden’s vision of the village, the goal is to restore the peace and safety of the community.  As people’s foibles become known, they are teased, but if they do harm, they are punished, and yet the hope of redemption hovers, if the culprit will mend his ways.  In this series, the lead characters, Catherine and John MacDougal, are like the king and queen of a mythical village.  He is just and responsible, but fully human, and she lives out her compassion, readily admitting to her own foibles.  Alden knows her small towns well, and she invents characters we can love and admire as well as those who disrupt the equanimity of the village and must be punished.   

***



Gloria Alden writes the Catherine Jewell Mystery series: The Blue Rose, Daylilies for Emily’s Garden, Ladies of the Garden Club, The Body in the Goldenrod, Murder in the Corn Maze, and a middle-grade book, The Sherlock Holmes Detective Club.  Her published short stories include: “Cheating on Your Wife Can Get You Killed,” winner of the Love is Murder contest, “Mincemeat is for Murder”: and “The Body in the Red Silk Dress” in Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, “The Professor’s Books” in Fish Tales, “The Lure of the Rainbow” in Fish Nets, “Once Upon a Gnome,” in Strangely Funny, and “Norman’s Skeleton” in All Hallows Evil.  

She lives on a small farm in NE Ohio with assorted critters: her collie Maggie, two house cats, a canary, two old African ring-necked doves, two ponies, and five rather old hens, plus one loud guinea fowl.  She blogs with Writers Who Kill on Thursdays.  Http://writerswhokill, blogspot.com.  
Website: www.gloriaalden.com

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Coal Ash Is, Too, Hazardous To Your Health



Coal ash dust blowing off Cape Fear plant's coal ash pond near Corinth Rd, photo by Susan Poe, April 3, Good Friday, 2015.

***
On June 18, 2015, I had the privilege of meeting Esther Calhoun, President of the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, based in Uniontown, Alabama, which received 4 million+ tons of coal ash from the Kingston, TN. spill of 2008.  Esther’s T-shirt read: “I can’t breathe.”  She smiled easily.  She talked freely.  Her message to us here in southeastern Chatham and northern Lee Counties was: “Don’t let it come.  Fight it.  I wish we had fought harder to stop it.  Stick together.  Love each other.”  With her was Adam Johnston, the Alliance Coordinator for Alabama Rivers, who offered the same message of compassion and love, and also urged us to fight this while we can.

Last November we learned that Duke Energy, our state’s only electricity generating company, was planning to transport 12 million tons of coal ash to a Brickhaven clay mine by rail and truck; and to a Colon Road site in Lee County, another 8 million.

Our county governments were superseded by state law, though both boards of commissioners voted resolutions not to have it.  By June 16, both boards had signed agreements with Duke not to try to stop it.  Chatham’s deal even forbids our Board of Commissioners from supporting our citizen organization Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dump, although individual board members, as individuals, are not prevented from speaking out and supporting us.

The bald facts remain: coal ash is extremely hazardous, in the air, on the ground, in our drinking water.  Both sites are near the Cape Fear River, which provides water to Sanford and for southeast Chatham, and all the towns and cities downstream to the coast: Wilmington, Fayetteville, etc.  

The rail line passes through the heart of our Moncure community and near homes, farms, and small businesses.  The trucks will pass through Pittsboro and down the road I and many others live on: Moncure-Pittsboro–and then down Old #1, New #1, Pea Ridge, Corinth Rd, Moncure-Flatwood Rd.  Thousands of people live along these roads.  Duke’s contractor, Charah, is planning to wet and spray the coal ash before transporting it, but they don’t plan to cover it.  After traveling more than a hundred miles from Charlotte and Wilmington, of course there will be dust blown off the trucks and coal ash dust moves miles on a windy day.  It will get into ground water and into people’s lungs.  The smaller the particles, the more toxic, and some are so small, you can’t see them.  Diseases that occur from coal ash poisoning include COPD, heart, lung, and nerve problems, skin diseases.  This dust can be fatal to children and unborn babies quickly.  Esther told us she had neuropathy–pain in her arms and legs and numbness. The rail line passed near her home.



Coal Ash mountains in Alabama

***

The two boards of commissioners have tied their hands.  They took the money and say they were planning to spend it to help their citizens.  Chatham plans to put in air monitors, but Duke/Charah has proved itself careless of law and environmental regulations and generally unreliable.  Duke has 34 coal ash ponds all over North Carolina leaking into our major rivers, where we get our drinking water.  Charah’s trucks at the Asheville Airport, as filmed by a Charlotte TV station, had coal ash flying off them after a 3-mile journey.  Then only a week after Charah was cited for a sedimentation violation, which didn’t slow them down, the Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) released two of the four permits they need to build the landfills and haul the ash.  The last two govern water and allow Charah to destroy the wetlands now existing in these old clay mines: the Army Corps of Engineers 404, and DENR’s 401.

Some of us listened to Duke and Charah when our commissioners called them in for questions in open meetings.  We heard them claiming how harmless this coal ash would be.  They twisted the facts, called these coal ash landfills “clay mine reclamations.”  They never gave straight answers.  Our citizen researchers discovered how vulnerable the plastic liners are that contain the coal ash–how they can be torn and ripped, have stones poking through, get wrinkles during installation, have faulty seams, plus 12 different kinds of bacteria eat this kind of plastic.

We know that the best and safest way to store coal ash is to make salt stone solids from it and store it above ground in concrete bunkers on site.  It shouldn’t be moved.  

Esther’s words echo in my ears: “Fight this.  Stick together.  Love each other.”  Her t-shirt remains in my mind’s eye: “I can’t breathe.”  Her steady smile blessed us.  Fighting coal ash dumping in my community has become a necessity.  I can’t not do this.

***

Esther Calhoun, Alabama activist

***

THE OMENS ARRIVE XIV.  June 14, 2015

We may live through
our days lulled by forgetfulness, our minds 
on a myriad of new details, new things
and people which demand our time and 
attention.  We think we have forgotten,
but some memories stay right where we
left them.  –The Omens Arrive III., March 15, 2015

I’m forgetting you again.  I still long
for a letter, but none comes.  It’s hard
to stay wishful, to hang onto hope.
I’m encumbered with delay.  There
are good omens to counterbalance
the dread when I see large-size
dump trucks everywhere I look.
“Know your counter-player,” said 
Erik Erikson.  I know mine too well:
lies, arrogance, and bluff.  Other
corporations and government entities
have lost money trying to dump
nuclear and other waste where I live,
where that rare reality–community–
exists.  We have the best possible
help, and justice is ours.  Yet how frail
we are, and how brave.  We must
persist though the sky darkens, 
the truck traffic worsens and my good
memories of love found, lost, and found
again, await resurrection.

***


Sunday, June 14, 2015

To Be Like Water


My White Rock hens in winter.  Photo by John Ewing.

***

GIFTS XXIV. January 11, 2015

The highest efficacy is like water.
It is because water benefits everything
yet vies to dwell in places loathed by the crowd
that it comes nearest to proper way-making.

In dwelling, the question is where is the right place.
In thinking and feeling, it is how deeply.
In giving, it is how much like nature’s bounty.
In speaking, it is how credibly.
In governing, it is how effectively.
In serving, it is how capably.
In acting, it is how timely.

It is only because there is no contentiousness in proper way-making
that it incurs no blame.

–Chapter 8, Dao de Jing, translated and with commentary by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall.

I carry water to the hens and think
how I have tried to be like water.
Sometimes I forget and then gifts
arrived.  Four students where I had
only one.  I welcome new neighbors,
and they already trust me.  I tell
them their huge tree is a champion
black oak, over two hundred years old,
that its roots go under both our homes
and its leaves clean polluted air and
give shade in summer.  I came to
this community, to this little piece
of land because I was poor.  No one
else wanted this half-finished house,
but its space for garden, orchard,
hens, and woods beyond satisfied
my desire.  Sixteen years later all
my neighbors know me.  Whatever
enemies are out there, they know not 
this richness of a quiet life, with
work using my heart, head, hands, 
feet, eyes, ears.  The hens are pure
white, undeterred by sub-freezing
temperatures as long as they have
food and water.  When the frost
thaws, I pull up chickweed for them.
I cut scavenged wood to burn and
wrap myself in layers of wool and
fur and fleece until the house warms.
I remembered that the future, no
matter its grim prophecies, brings
its gifts.  I see how I am living in
the right place, giving like water
gives, seeking truth, serving 
others well, timing my acts to go
through defenses, and when people
fight with me, go around, let it go.
It takes two to fight.  I will not reject
those who reject me.  Bertha used
to tell her sons, “You’ll need me
before I’ll need you.”  They all
came to her funeral.  Let us all emulate 

water.  I know that I know how.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Telling the Whole Story of My Life


GIFTS XXII. December 28, 2014

It might be said that the gifts we give at times of transformation are meant to make visible the giving up we do invisibly.  And of course we hope that there will be an exchange, that something will come toward us if we abandon our old lives.  So we might also say that the tokens we receive at times of change are meant to make visible life’s reciprocation.  They are not mere compensation for what is lost, but the promise of what lies ahead.  They guide us toward new life, assuring our passage away from what is dying. –The Gift, Lewis Hyde, p. 44.

My life is undergoing change in subtle
yet unmistakable ways.  The writer 
emerges more strongly, with a new
force–call it satyagraha, truth force.
Losses are part of this new life.  My elder
daughter says she is “done with me.”
I have fewer students, yet my book
that opens wide a true story, once
hidden, is praised.  People want to
come near, touch, and be held by its bold
truth tale.  I knew this was my destiny:
to tell the whole story of my life.  
Meantime all my window flowers
are blooming.  The orchid found its
happiest place in my writing corner and
now maroon leaves, which have swarmed 
out into the room, put up buds.  An orange
cosmos found root at the water line
of the red-flowering succulent and
makes its second bloom.  My two
Christmas cacti are flowering in the
kitchen window where there is barely
room for their long, pink, extravagant
blooms.  This next stage takes a strong
spirit but will crown my life and
pull all the threads together, and if
I’m lucky, knot them for eternity.
I look back and see a year of more 
poverty but also more people reaching
out to prevent me from falling.  I
shall know bewilderment, confusion,
self-doubt, but my Guide will help me
and those around me who see my inner
gifts and want to ease 
my difficult way forward.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Hope is Harder to Sustain than Despair


This is a Phalaenopsis orchid, which lives in my window now, but I didn't manage to get my own photograph transferred to the computer.  You get the idea.  Mine is white.  This is a web photo.

***

THE OMENS ARRIVE XI. May 17, 2015

Another omen arrives: a high-flying
orchid: ten white winged blooms
with fragile pink centers soar on 
tall stems.  Where to give them
“bright, filtered light”?  I choose
the cat window where the other orchid
has sprawled over the window sill
and the old filing cabinet.  May it
always lift my spirits.  A Mother’s
Day gift from the family of two
Chinese-American young men I help
with their writing.  When we missed
a week, I felt how they didn’t want
to let me go.  Their young souls open 
to me.  They are high fliers, too.  I 
want so much: to get more books 
in print, to write about my Russian love, 
for the garden to produce food, for the 
weeds to feed the hens and not keep 
iris from blooming nor the besieged 
daylilies.  Time to plant zinnias, rescue 
the volunteer cosmos.  The orchard 
needs fertilizing and belated pruning
of dead wood.  Every day has its tasks
from dawn to beyond dark.  I negotiate
my aging limitations reluctantly,
but still expect success on so many
fronts that I wonder if it’s all possible?
Can I outwit time to this extent?
My deep voice says yes, if I eat and
sleep well, yield when tired, vary
my activities and keep hope alive.
That’s where you come in.  Your
love keeps despair at bay.  Erikson
noted that ego integrity was harder
in these later years.  We might say: 
remembering who we are and what our
lives are for.  My life is for showing
love and telling the whole story of my
life and the world I’ve created and 
lived in.  I’ve penetrated boundaries. 
I’ve  learned so much about the human 
soul and kept my own in tact and healthy.
The world has largely ignored me, but
the people who matter have paid
attention.  I do have a small but
significant audience.  My work is 
the main thing now: getting it done.
Hope is harder to sustain than despair.
Despair erodes determination; hope

feeds us all we need to be ourselves.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Living of Wisdom is the Hardest

Drawing of a Haw River beaver by Mikhail Bazankov 1997
for Russian edition of Beaver Soul.

***
GIFTS XX.  November 9, 2014

Yes, this could be a Taoist 101 reader.
She uses, over and over, the basic Taoist ideas and teachings:
humans are one with all .....the separation from this unity with nature is main problem ......mind as not being able to see nature ( reality ) as it is .....false ego self as non real and not nature ways...water as example of the best way...nature as teacher and guide.....health-balance and long life as required to gain awareness... the goal of human life is .." return to the child.... return to the source ( nature ways ) "
she does this very well with the beaver in the water. beaver ( nature ) is teacher and water is the example the beaver ( us ) should live in well and work WITH not against. 
she also speaks of the way nature needs no " proof " that a thing is right or works. She even talks of my " wood element” saying " of the 5 sayings of the hall of the small inn:
" where ever you go there you are "
she speaks of the tree in self rooted ( rooting is another basic requirement of most qi gong ) the tree with in Holy ( true ) self home is where the tree is well rooted.

... This book is a teaching dream just repeated over and over, best way.
Wonderful book...now to live it.. the book is not the teaching.. the map is not the land and the words are not the wisdom.

***

Another gift, a seeing into the roots of my Muse. 
I wanted to be wise.  How elusive that wisdom is,
but doesn’t every new difficulty teach me?  I
let go fear of not enough money.  People have
been helping me.  I remember Larissa’s wisdom
in Russia when I needed my return ticket, and
the man I trusted had not given it back to me.
“Is everything okay now?”  I calmed down
with difficulty.  Did I not feed myself out of my
summer garden, even a few figs where the
branches lived?  Farmer Kenneth kept
undercharging me for his perfect vegetables,
saying, “I’m going to take care of you.”
I’d made pickles for him as well as for me.  
He gave me cucumbers and jars.  Two
former students suddenly wanted to take
my new class when my enrollments have been
dropping.  Then Pete gave his Taoist friend
a copy of Beaver Soul, a book of love for
water and for memories that are like fishes,
and this friend says my poems are Taoist
teachings.  I did read the Tao Te Ching
once, and what I remember is: “Be like water.”

The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the 10,000 things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.*

I see my life afresh.  Everything fits, including
how the living of wisdom is the hardest.  Time
to let go my striving except to keep giving my
gifts wherever they are loved and desired.
Let people live with their own errors and trespasses.
We all have to do that, take our consequences.
Mine now are shoring me up, reminding me yet
again that receiving, trusting, valuing, using 
my gifts and giving them away has transformed
my life into the Gift I was as a newborn and 
grew to accept and live out as well as I could,
not without errors, and yet with an unerring
sense of who I was and where I needed to go
and how I needed to be.
-
*Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tsu, #8.
Translated by Gia Fu Feng and Jane English

***



Cover of American edition of Beaver Soul published by Finishing Line Press, 1913.  $12.  $15 to be mailed, includes tax.  PO Box 253, Moncure, NC, 27559-0253. Cover by Mikhail Bazankov.