Sunday, July 20, 2014

Review: Jenny Milchman's Ruin Falls


Ruin Falls.  Jenny Milchman.  Ballantine, 2014.  Hardback: ISBN 978-0-345-54907-5. $26.  339 pp.

Ruin Falls is about children.  And mothers.  And fathers.  About how hard it is in 2014 to make a good marriage and to be a good parent.  It’s also about fear, especially fear for your children.  

Liz Daniels and her husband Paul haven’t made a road trip together since their children, Reid, eight, and Ally, six, were born.  Hence the first line: “The children had never been this far from home before.”  Hence the dedication: “This one is for my children, Sophie and Caleb, who know all about dreams and have done so much for this one.”

The Daniels family is headed into western New York state in the summer to visit Paul’s parents, from whom he is alienated.  They stop at a hotel for the night, and in the morning the children are gone.  The agony of Liz is unimaginable, but Jenny Milchman easily imagines and presents it so that you’re there.  It becomes clear that Liz is extremely dependent on Paul.  When Paul also disappears, she almost can’t function.  Add to that, her new clarity: Paul took the children.  We had learned that Paul had extreme views on what the family should eat (avoiding sugar, caffeine, corn and other genetically modified and processed foods) and wear (no cheap clothes or goods manufactured by children in poor countries).

Liz knows their children cheat on their strict diet, and even she sometimes lets them have sweets, which Paul forbids.  The boy Reid has, by age eight, becomes a skilled pickpocket enabling him to pilfer gum from his classmates or remove the wallets of strange men (for practice only; he doesn’t keep them).  So we know this isn’t quite your “normal” nuclear family, if that still exists.

The story that follows takes us through all the stages of Liz emerging from a serious dependence on Paul’s belief in himself and his idealism and on the emotional support of her best friend Jill, to her finding within herself the confidence and competence she needs to solve a crime that the law and the police can’t help her with. 

She’s still married, though she no longer wants to be, and she doesn’t know where her children are.  To find them, she has to outwit her missing husband and learn more about him than she ever bothered to know before.

In these climate change years we all live with more heat and cold than our bodies easily cope with.  Jenny’s first book, Cover of Snow, takes place in an icy, chilling world of northern New York state.  Ruin Falls begins in the plains of western New York state in summer when it’s too hot, sweaty, and sticky.  

I loved how the earth and its fruits are presented here--the trees, the soil, the healthy food that Liz and Jill in their Roots farm business have learned to grow.  Even six-year-old Ally misses trees when they leave home and already has a green thumb.

We meet other parents and their children in situations where mothers and fathers are coping badly and are putting their children at risk.  The book begins with a seemingly normal family off on its vacation and gradually changes until we are in a surreal universe, one in which our conscious, normal life is turned upside down, and we have to live with our worst fears becoming the reality.

Jenny has taken on our contemporary American dilemma as our government allows large corporations the freedom to dominate what we eat and what we buy, while parents try to raise healthy, independent-minded children who can cope in an increasingly difficult “real” world.

If every novel has a moral, which once was true and still often is, and Good in fiction can still win out over Evil, then Jenny’s moral is to love, respect, and cherish your children, and teach them to think for themselves as well as to love and care for our earth and for other people.  We need more books like this one.

***


Jenny Milchman lives with her husband and two children in upstate New York when she isn’t traveling on the world’s longest book tour.  In 2013, when her debut novel Cover of Snow came out, she and her family traveled for seven months, putting 35,000 miles on their car and visiting independent and mystery bookstores all over the U.S.  This year, after Ruin Falls came out in April, they have been on a four-month tour.  They were here in the Triangle area of central North Carolina over the July 4 weekend, where she read at McIntyre’s in Pittsboro, and they return here for Jenny to read at Flyleaf books in Chapel Hill on August 20, 7 PM, and at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on August 22 at 7:30 PM.  We always feel lucky to have Jenny and her family visiting us.  You can follow her trip schedule on her website: jennymilchman.com

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: K.M. Rockwood's Fostering Death



Fostering Death: A Jesse Damon Crime Novel.  K.M. Rockwood.  www.musapublishing.com. 2012, 208 pp.  E-book: ISBN: 978-1-61937-824-7. $4.99.  Paper: order from kmrockwood@comcast.net $10.00.

K.M. Rockwood did it again.  She got me hooked into worrying about Jesse Damon and then pulled it out when I thought it impossible.  Fostering Death is the second in this crime series. Steeled for Murder is the first.  (Cf. my review here on June 8, 2014)  Every time Jesse tries to help other people, suspicion falls on him, and his good deeds are viewed as proof of his crimes.  The detective duo, Belkins and Montgomery, are on him again when he shows up at the funeral home viewing to pay his respects to his foster mother, the only person in his life who had given him real affection.  

Then he’s accused of killing her.  She was hit on the head and thrown down her basement stairs, but Jesse hadn’t seen her alive since before he went to prison at age sixteen for murder.  He had taken an Alford plea, which means he acknowledged that they had enough evidence to convict him, but he isn’t a murderer.  Twenty year later, out on parole, this duo of detectives is sure he’s guilty every time he makes a move, despite his having kept the terms of his parole and almost finished his three-month trial period of employment at the steel manufacturing plant, making him finally eligible to join the union.

Meantime Aaron, a young drug addict co-worker at the same steel plant, keeps pestering him to sell him drugs, when Jesse is working hard to stay clean and sober so as not to violate the terms of his parole. He’s afraid that Aaron is helping the police.

His foster mother’s widower, Mr. Coleman, tells Jesse to stay away, but when Jesse goes back to their house to see if he can discover the real murderer and finds Coleman on the ground, unable to get up, Jesse helps him into the house, makes him a cup of tea and some soup.  The house is too cold, so he calls the gas company to learn that the heat is off because the bill was never paid.  He gets Mr. Coleman to sign a check for the amount owed, and then he hurries to get the check in before the deadline so the gas can be turned on again.  He calls a neighbor woman to look after Mr. Coleman, but she’s suspicious of him, and then the cops are after him again.  All his good intentions backfire and make him look bad.

Kelly, his new girlfriend, as he hopes, has a drinking problem, and she’s touchy and angry at him for “interfering” with her children, when she was too drunk to take care of them. Meantime he has found a cold and hungry cat at his front door in pouring, icy rain. He tries to get her to go elsewhere, but the cat won’t leave, so he takes her in, feeds her the tunafish he’d splurged on for his lunches, and fixes her a bed in his laundry basket, where she soon has two kittens.  Jesse can barely pay his bills and normally eats peanut butter sandwiches, but he buys more tuna and cat litter.  Then the strange cult group that has set up a temple next door claims the cat as their missing goddess.  What are they up to anyway?

I’m struck by how Jesse is one of those “good” characters in crime fiction to whom bad things are always happening.  Think of Louse Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache, who is both good and wise, and how evil people, including his superiors in the Surete, go after him. I’m also reminded of Henry James’s advice for the best kind of novel plot: a hero/heroine who is intelligent enough to feel intensely and blind enough to suffer, and then has “fools” ministering to him or her so as to make those sufferings agonizing to the reader.

You won’t want to miss these Jesse Damon books.  There are two more in the series which I’ll be reviewing later this summer (Buried Biker and Send Off For A Snitch).  The fifth novel, Brothers in Crime, is due out this summer, too.

***



KM Rockwood draws on a varied background for stories, among them working as a laborer in a steel fabrication plant, operating glass melters and related equipment in a fiberglass manufacturing facility, and supervising an inmate work crew in a large medium security state prison. These jobs, as well as work as a special education teacher in an alternative high school and a GED teacher in county detention facilities, provide most of the background for her novels and short stories.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Barbara Smith: Death at Painted Cave. Interview



1. When did you begin writing?  Why?

I’ve been writing since graduate school (trained as a scientist).  As I was writing a textbook, Psychology of Sex and Gender (2004), I felt constrained by the demands of scientific writing and began a novel . . . Green Grows the Grass, a complicated historical story, which I just finished!  My son was in the hospital for many months—while staying with him, I worked on a mystery that arose from my time living in Santa Barbara, California.  That book was Death at Painted Cave.  Writing helped keep me calm and allowed me to be with him and still give him space.

2. When and why did you begin writing mysteries?
I love mysteries—trying to solve a problem, after all, is what science is all about!  The draw of writing them, I suppose, is the freedom involved in creating my own mystery and then solving it. 

3. Are you writing a series or a stand-alone?  Explain your basic idea for your series.   
Death at Painted Cave is the first in the series:  Robin Crane Mysteries.   I am currently completing the second in a series, Floater in the Baltimore Harbor.  The basic idea is a series featuring a woman detective, with a young son, that combines a mystery and suspense, flavored with police procedural, as well as a dash of politics and current issues.

4. Tell us about your journey to publication with this book.
I’d written a text book that had been professionally published and was not impressed with the publication and marketing process.  I was attracted to the independence related to self-publishing and decided to give it a try.  I’m blessed with family and friends who were willing to serve as readers and provide me with feedback regarding the cover.  

5. Why did you choose to write about the topic, community, issues you chose?
Two of the social issues that arise in Death at Painted Cave are domestic violence and human trafficking.   Early in life, I volunteered at a shelter and was appalled, at so many levels, by domestic violence.  As a developmental psychologist I addressed domestic violence in the classroom, particularly as it relates to child development—I suppose my books are an extension of communicating my concerns.   Moreover, I lived and worked in Latin America for many years and was shocked at what I learned about the trafficking of children.  An overarching theme repeating itself in my writing relates to the effects of war on subsequent generations.

6.  How have you found it to be published?  Share that experience.

I love the sense of completion that comes with publication—with the letting go of a project that has consumed me for months and, in some cases, even years.  In addition to the feeling of accomplishment, publication enables me to more fully focus on my next project.   Exciting!


7.  Do you have comments from readers or reviewers you’d like to share?
      
The following are some of the reviews on Amazon:

· This is a terrific suspense story, I really enjoyed this book. The sense of place was well-wrought, and I'm glad to know it's going to be a series. Love female detectives. I can't say more without giving something away. So when is the next one coming up, B A.....?

· Although I've never been to Painted Cave, as a native Californian I loved being transported to this fascinating location and then led seamlessly into an intriguing story, complete with a Nicaraguan connection. Smith's finely-tuned character portrayals and the interweaving of immigrant and academic life, political intrigue and detective work are deftly melded. It looks as though Robin Crane is already on the path to tackling another mystery and I look forward to her further adventures!

· Great read! Held my attention completely and I could not put it down! Can't wait for the next Crane mystery.

· This is a very good novel. The author makes a very good job at keeping the reader engaged. What it seems a simple and straight forward crime investigation turns into an international political scandal that will have you go back to your history books (or you can Google it). If you like mystery and crime thrillers, this is the one for the season.

· I found the story and its characters very real and with so many details. You can actually see the story taking place. The author gives you the background of the story and relates it well to the progression of the plot. Robin Crane is more than a character in the story; she is a mother, a detective, and a friend. I can hear her thoughts and ideas and understand her  well.  B A brings in her own cultural knowledge through the language in the story and information about Nicaragua. It is the first Robin Crane mystery thank goodness. This character deserves more stories.

8.  What other books have you published and where, when?

Psychology of Sex and Gender, 2004, through Pearson.

9.  Do you have a work in progress now?  Is it part of a series?

Green Grows the Grass is finished.  It is currently a stand-alone, though I cut so much that there is a possibility for a follow-up. 

10.  If you belong to Sisters in Crime, and/or the Guppies, has that been helpful?  How?

Absolutely!  Judy Hogan strongly recommended belonging to the Guppies—so I’m new to that group—but am looking forward to future events and developing more relationship with like-minded folks.

11.  What benefit to you has it been to go to mystery conferences like Malice Domestic?

I found the greatest benefit to be the meeting with other authors.  I am pretty much isolated with my writing—the encouragement and education I received at my first Malice Domestic Conference was so helpful.

12.  What else would like to say about your books, the next one in your series?

The title for the next book in the Robin Crane Mystery series is Floater in the Baltimore Harbor.   Detective Robin Crane has left the police department of Santa Barbara, California for the Baltimore, MD, PD.   After training and some street work, she is assigned to a murder case:  the body of a young boy was discovered in a culvert.  Though apparently well-cared for, Crane and her partner do not even have an identification for the dead child.  As she works on that case, she finds herself unaccountably disturbed by the memory of a body found floating in the harbor one day while taking a walk.  Complicating the murder case are rumors of child trafficking taking place in the mid-Atlantic area.

Green Grows the Grass is a novel that pulses with an exploration of the life of Katie Stewart, a privileged professor and cancer survivor who returns to her childhood home of Costa Rica to do research.  Her close friend is Felicia, an uneducated and poor Nicaraguan who fled her war-torn homeland for prosperous Costa Rica. Through their friendship, Katie faces painful memories of her own past, including the tragic disappearance of her father.  As the novel unravels the historical and political strings connecting people, the immediate and long-lasting effects of war become heartbreakingly apparent.  

****


 B A Smith received her doctorate in psychology and taught and carried out research at the Johns Hopkins University for twenty years.  As a Fulbright Senior Scientist Award recipient, she studied healthcare delivery in an economically impoverished community in Costa Rica.  Smith has lived in Central America and across the United States but currently calls Maryland home, where she is at work on the next novel in the Robin Crane series, Floater in Baltimore Harbor.  Above all, she is a proud mother and grandmother who, in addition to writing, enjoys travel, gardening, and reading.

  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Good Neighbors Robert and Emma Smith


Robert Smith at Mason Ball, December 1, 2013.

***


I came to live in this little house on three acres in Moncure in late 1998.  It was my first owned home, and I became part of a small black community here.  Before I moved in, I’d met Robert and Emma Smith, my next door neighbors, and their four-year-old grandson Demetrius.  The first time Emma saw me and my realtor, Liz, she said, “You’re like us.”  Liz is black, and I’m white. Robert is black, and Emma, white.  Meanwhile little Demetrius had thrown his arms around my legs and hugged me.



Demetrius, and later, in 2000, their puppy Lucky, made sure we became friends   Both boy and puppy came over to help me plant flowers on the front and side of the house.  Robert and I both grew vegetables, and I was going to my friend Debbie’s horse farm to get manure.  I asked Robert if he’d like to come and get manure, too. He got his nephew and constant companion, Tutty, to come along, and for a few years it was our Easter weekend ritual, the Friday or Monday, when they didn’t have to work.

Gradually I got to know Robert’s friends in the neighborhood who gathered on his porch weekends and at night when it wasn’t too cold.  I loved to hear them talking and laughing.

I’d been told by one of the African American judges for a minority book contest I sponsored in 1983 as editor of Carolina Wren Press (1976-91) that “All we have is our literature and our churches.” For Robert and his friends, there was Robert’s porch, where they were always welcome, and I’m sure they opened their hearts to each other, shared sorrows, and laughter.  Sometimes I would go over with a question or to tell them about an upcoming election.

Later Emma told me I was their mama, and others began to help me, too, especially Chainsaw, who began bringing me firewood for my wood cookstove, and was delighted when I gave him eggs or a jar of fig preserves.

Another neighbor, Harold Taylor, with whom I’d worked against air pollution and unsafe nuclear storage at Shearon Harris, whose evacuation zone we lived, told me people asked him if I was Emma’s mama, and he said yes.  I laughed, but that story has come true.  Emma made it so.

Once when NC Warn was suing Progress Energy for not being safe enough, their lawyer went with me to talk to Robert’s porch folks and get them to give him statements to use in court.  They willingly participated.  More recently as I walked our road getting signatures against fracking and offering people yard signs (water = life; no fracking) the porch men all signed my petition.  Several of them have told me that, for them, Robert’s porch was home.

Back in 2004, when many Chatham citizens were upset with our county commissioners letting in every development that came along, and we started the Chatham Coalition, and did win the elections, July primary, and then November, for our candidates, a friend of mine from Finland, Arja Holm, was visiting me in May.  I asked Robert if he would cook a hog for our big party.  He had a big traditional hog cooker, and he often gave barbecue parties to his large family and friends on holidays and birthdays.  He did.  Arja was fascinated.  Robert and one or two friends sat up all night to cook that hog, and on Saturday he pulled the hog cooker, with several friends and Emma coming along, to our party site out in Silk Hope.  Not a scrap of that hog was left.

In the beginning Robert lent me his smaller mower, and when that one broke down, I bought one and said we could both use it and left it with his machines and tools.  He had a larger riding mower, but occasionally he used the new one, and he always repaired it.  I had learned to use an electric weed-eater, and when I got a new one and didn’t understand how it worked, he helped me.  I learned to use a chainsaw to cut my firewood to the right length, and when the chain came loose, he’d put it back.

One day Robert and Tutty came over to consult.  I’d been using their clotheslines as Emma had a dryer, and I liked to dry my clothes in the fresh air.  Would it be okay if they moved the clothesline closer to my house?  I said fine. Tutty said, “Then you wouldn’t have to walk uphill.”  This made me smile, as I was, in my walks to stay healthy, deliberately walking uphill.  Nevertheless, I was happy to have it closer.  I guessed they wanted more space in their backyard.  Tutty dug the postholes and restrung the lines.

Robert, in his quiet way, held down the neighborhood.  I realized fairly early that within this part of Moncure’s black community there were different social groups, divided, I thought, along different church affiliation lines.  This part of Chatham was settled early by land grants in the 1700s, and of course there was slavery, and my neighbors are descended from those slaves, and as I’ve been told, most of the black population here is related, and they all keep track of relatives, including distant cousins.  Bertha Thomas, another neighborhood friend, and her family, attended the Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist; Harold Taylor and his family and friends, attended Liberty Chapel.  Robert and his porch friends didn’t attend church, and neither do it, except on special occasions.  

I write poems Sunday morning, and Robert would welcome his men friends.  Thinking about him a lot as I have these last months as he began to lose his six-year battle with cancer, I can’t think of anyone I’ve known who lived out the commandments of Jesus as well to treat others as you would want to be treated.  Robert was so kind, so helpful.  He didn’t say much, but he lived out his love for other people.  He had flaws and weaknesses, as we all do, but he was so dependable and so determined to do right by other people.  In his quiet way, it seemed to me, that he was a guardian spirit holding down the neighborhood.  Emma told me that he had always worn a cross, which I hadn’t known.

One of the big ways he helped me was with the chickens.  I got my first chicks in 2003, a straight run, i.e., a mixture of hens and cocks, and I ended up with sixteen roosters and ten hens.  I asked him to help me kill the extra fifteen roosters.  I’d gotten very attached to my chickens, and Robert, Tutty, Clarence, Tutty’s father, and LoMae, Robert’s sister, all knew this was hard for me.  Their knowledge and understanding got me through it.  Robert and Tutty killed the roosters, and LoMae taught me how to pluck and clean them, how to cut the bile sack off the liver, etc.  I gave a chicken to each of my helpers.  They had all grown up on a farm.  That was my initiation.  Years later, in 2012, when I discovered five hens had been eating eggs, I read up on the butchering process, and killed those hens myself.  Then I told Robert.  I felt like I’d graduated!

Robert and Tutty cared for the hens when I was out of town, once or twice a year.  That one rooster was a problem though. He attacked everybody but me.  So Robert and Tutty put a string from the people door of the coop over to the chicken door, so that they could shut the chickens out while they took the feed in.

Robert went through three surgeries, many chemo treatments and always went right back to work.  I learned from Emma that he was in pain a lot the last months, but he kept going to work, which his boss, Buddy Kelly, at the Construction Equipment Parts Company, said at his service, he had found inspiring.  Robert told me that he had to “keep moving.”  Then last March he stopped going to work and began having regular Hospice visits.  I’d see the UNC Hospital van come to bring new equipment. Still, occasionally he’d be outside.  He asked me if was okay if he cut down some Rose of Sharon volunteer trees growing next to my fence.  Earlier he’d gathered brush I’d thrown over the fence and made a fire to burn one of the pine stumps.  He kept putting out vegetables from his small garden this year for anybody to help themselves.

Emma was right with him through his years long ordeal–three surgeries, a lot of chemo,–and his last difficult days--his daughters and son, too.  The morning he died Emma came over to ask me to mail a letter when I went to the post office.  She said he wouldn’t last much longer.  Later that Monday morning, June 23, I saw funeral home limousine in their driveway.  The photo below with him, his sisters and brother was taken on Father’s Day, eight days before he died.  The Sunday before, the 22nd, many people came over–a hundred, I’d guess, and the day he died, people brought more food, and even a porta-john for the week.  There were big gatherings Tuesday and Thursday nights and Friday after the funeral service and burial at Liberty Chapel Church.

***

Left to right, first row, LoMae (Lola Mae); Robert; Linda Smith;
back row:  George Smith, Joann (Helen) Matthews; Carrie Hackney.  Originally nine children; three brothers have gone before.

***

At his service, neighbors from all the different church groups came, and the porch friends, too.  His extended family alone is about 200 people, and there were also many friends there.  People who spoke about him talked about what a hard and conscientious worker he was, and also what a good friend.  He was a good listener and sometimes gave advice.  He was a quiet man with warming smile. He didn’t say much, but he always helped me.  We grew our vegetables differently.  I did mine organically, and he used conventional methods.  We’d talk about our crops.  His usually grew better than mine, but he was always curious about what I was growing.  When I put in the lasagna (layered) garden last winter, I saw him and Emma looking at it, and I can imagine he was thinking what in the world was she doing now.  Later I told him that the straw I put down was now growing wheat, and he wasn’t surprised. He’d already noticed that.

I, too, gave gifts–taking Lucky to the vet for shots and checkups (Emma said, “He’s half yours.”); getting fresh gravel for our two driveways; taking over eggs, or a pie, some flowers, a book, but I always felt more gifts came my way.  I was adopted.  I was trusted. 

When Emma came over Wednesday morning to tell me she wanted my poem read at the service, and I was to have a reserved seat with the family, I felt very honored.  Then one of his nieces, whom I’d met only briefly, when she came to see if it was okay to park in my yard, and I said yes, as she walked with the family into the sanctuary, pulled me over, “You come with us.  You’re part of the family.”

Emma and Robert and their family and friends helped me make a home here.  Others, too, but they have been my closest neighbors and the ones I’ve gone to first for help and advice about all the things you run into in the country.  

Then there was the copperhead.  Wednesday, I went into the garden late afternoon, tipped up the big tub to let out rainwater, and there was a coiled copperhead.  I gently put the tub back and went in to have supper and think about what to do.  My son Tim called, and I told him.  As I talked, thinking about the 200 people next door, I told him I’d ask the neighbors to kill it.  So I had supper and waited until 7, when they’d have finished eating.  Then I approached the first young men I saw about killing a copperhead. 

They clearly weren’t up for that, but Casca, Robert’s son, came out, and I told him.  Clavin, Robert’s close friend and neighbor on his other side, was found, and another man who offered to do the deed.  Clavin got him a hoe.  A couple of other men followed to watch.  I said, I hadn’t want to look again to see if it was still there. This man used the hoe to lift off the tub, and there was the still coiled snake, so chop, chop, he died.  

Another man said, “You went in the house to think about it?”  I said yes.  I could tell they were amused.  I’m laughing now myself. I’ll always be grateful to this relative of Robert’s, and I forgot to ask his name.  When he saw me at the church, he asked, “Found any more copperheads?”  “No,” I said, “and thank you so much.”

The Sunday before Robert died the next morning, thinking about gifts, I wrote this poem, the one that was read on Friday, June 27, the day we buried him.  I think Robert might still be here guarding our neighborhood from harm.

***

GIFTS VIII.

June 22, 2014

... a gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift...the gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality....where the gift as a form of property is neither recognized nor honored, our inner gifts will find themselves excluded from the very commerce which is their nourishment.  The Gift, Lewis Hyde       

For Robert Smith, my neighbor 1998-2014.

When recognition comes and trust is extended 
in ways I never expected, my spirits lift like 
the slow, awkward ascent of a great blue heron.  
Other people’s trust always surprises me,
even though my friends tell me, “You are
trustworthy.”  Another’s trust is a gift.  My
place is this world is verified, and it’s exactly
the space I already inhabit.  I lowered my
expectations, but I kept working and giving
away poems, thoughts, even fears, keeping 
in mind the welfare of others.  In so many
ways we are all one.  Let the surface
distinctions fall away.  The family of man
exists after all.  More hospital equipment
arrives for my good neighbor Robert whose
cancer is winning now.  Six years he fought 
to live and work, to stay among us.  Now
his friends and family visit–not in crowds.
That last Memorial Day weekend party of
two hundred is past, but in twos and threes
they come by and then leave.  Robert is
greatly loved.  A few days before he began
to stay in bed, he told me he’d crank my
mower if I had any trouble.  He has helped
me for fifteen years.  We shoveled horse
manure together.  He assembled the new
lawnmower and helped me figure out the
weedeater.  He’d take the chainsaw apart
and get it working.  I admired his neat
garden, and flourishing tomatoes and 
peppers.  He’d ask about mine, which was
never neat, but it did produce food.  I 
loved to make him smile.  Our world here
will shift and be bereft when he is gone.
We already mourn, our gift in answer to 
his quiet ones to so many people during
his sixty years of life.

***
From his Homegoing service, June 27, 2014, Liberty Chapel Church: Born: February 3, 1954; Died: June 23, 2014.  60 years old

***


Judy Hogan, Hoganvillaea Farm, Moncure.  judyhogan@mindspring.com

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Our Real Selves


Judy holding a green pear--look closely. Photo by Mark Schmerling.

***


A THREAD OF LIGHT XXII.

February 16, 2014

We have to believe in 
the future in order to ward it off 
when the sky darkens and omens 
fall all around us.  Only the patient
serenity of our spirits, allowing each
day’s exuberance, will do it, will keep
us upright, well-balanced, firmly 
rooted in the miracle of present time.
–A Thread of Light V.

It boils down to one thing:
that exchange of light, that
mutual knowledge: here we are–
our real selves.  Nothing else.
We stand each alone, yet our
words make a link, a thread
of light.  It can’t be faked.
Once there, it stays.  We can
weaken it, deny it, run fast
away, but light–whether
physical or spiritual–is
indestructible.  Do we think
we can switch it off, douse
the flame?  We can try, but
something larger keeps
re-igniting what once burned
bright.  The very darkness
it inhabits preserves its uncanny 
power, its incandescent fire.  
Let it be.  Let it live.  Let go 
fear and doubt, those familiar
shadows.  Step into this light,  
Be the being whose soul you 
inherited and welcomed.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Gifts from the Universe


Sage in bloom in my garden a few springs ago.

***

GIFTS VI. June 8, 2015

The spirit of an artist’s gifts can wake our own.  The work appeals, as Joseph Conrad says, to a part of our being which is itself a gift, and not an acquisition.  The Gift.  Lewis Hyde

How many years left?  We never know.  I tell
myself twenty-three, but who knows?  Even
twenty-three is not very many.  So far my
body and mind hold me together.  Seventy-seven
isn’t young, but I don’t feel old yet.  My aging
has been gradual, gentle, graceful.  I rest
more, but I work steadily to prepare books
for publishing and write new ones, too.  I
grow food, care for the plants, trees,
creatures, earth where I live and flourish.
I work with others, too, for justice and 
well-being in our communal life.  Always
the battle: good versus evil.  Let my life
help the good, strengthen its place among 
us.  Let me learn and keep on learning.
Let my life be a beacon to help others see
and understand more than they did before,
lift the smog that obscures the view of cynics.
Let me praise those who quietly do their 
best without fanfare.  Let me reveal in my
writing the foolishness and wrong-footednes
of the evil-doers, but not forget their
humanity.  Let me drop all stereotypes
and glib pronouncements and see beauty 
and honesty wherever it flourishes.  Let me
face my own problems with wisdom,
courage, and humor, and imagine the
difficulties of others.  Let me be patient
with myself and my body and mind.  Let
my wisdom increase and my foolishness
fall away.  Let me treasure each day, each
creature, plant, being I encounter.  All 
our gifts are precious, and we, mortal
and flawed though we are, are also gifts
from the Universe, which we inhabit
long enough to leave behind us what
may be cherished when we’re gone. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Review of KM Rockwood's Steeled for Murder





Steeled for Murder: A Jesse Damon Crime Novel.  K.M. Rockwood.  Terpsichore, An Imprint of Musa Publishing.  2012. Paper. ISBN: 978-1-61937-859-9. $7.50 (on Amazon); Ebook: ISBN: 978-1-61937-175.0  $4.99.  253 pages.

Jesse Damon, the sleuth by default in Rockwood’s mystery Steeled for Murder is one of those characters who lives in the mind long after the book is closed.  I identified with Jesse early.  Released from prison after serving twenty years for a charge of murder which he didn’t commit, he becomes a suspect because he works in the plant where Mitch Robinson, a forklift driver, was murdered. 

Detective Belkins is obsessed because his daughter was raped, tortured, and killed, and he’s after Jesse, despite the supervisor’s testimony that Jesse had been working on a plater machine when the forklift driver was killed.  Montgomery, Belkins’ partner, tries to keep him from violating procedures, but Belkins keeps turning up, often alone, to accuse and arrest.

Jesse feels lucky to have the job at Quality Steel Fabrication.  He works hard to fulfill all the requirements of his job and his parole, wearing his leg monitor, checking in by phone with his parole officer if he has any schedule changes.  He has little extra money, so he eats peanut butter sandwiches and drinks instant coffee.  For entertainment, he gets books from the local library. He can’t belong to the union until he’s finished with his parole, and if he loses his job, he may land back in prison or if he violates any of the terms of his parole, like drinking or driving without a license.  Fortunately his immediate bosses find him a good worker, and one of the other lift drivers, Kelly, is kind to him, treats him to breakfast, and tells him what she knows about Mitch, who was apparently dealing drugs.  Jesse likes her a lot, but he has to be very careful, and he is.

We have an interesting reversal here.  The criminal is the good guy; the cops are the bad guys.  Then another terrible irony is at work. The more Jesse tries to help other people, even at the risk of being sent back to prison (he drives a very sick woman to the hospital when he has never driven before), the more his behavior is misinterpreted and suspicion mounts.  I was especially touched by how he cared for the sick woman’s four children when he knew almost nothing about childcare except what he had learned in a foster home.

I found myself saying aloud, as I read, “Not again!”  We get to know Jesse from the inside so well, he is so completely presented, that we not only identify with him but the suspense that we experience, as Jesse copes with all the blame falling on him for things he didn’t do, is so integral to his character and situation that it never feels like calculated suspense.  We never disbelieve the likelihood of these things happening to Jesse, and we long for him to find affection and the trust of other adults.  The children trust him, in another irony.

This, to me, is not only extremely skilled writing but beyond that, K.M. Rockwood has such a depth of understanding of another human being’s feelings that you can be inside Jesse’s skin, wishing, hungering, but making yourself stay under control to keep out of prison, then turning around to risk prison by helping other people.

This is a supremely moral book.  It also points to the many flaws in our justice and legal systems, which can lock away an innocent sixteen-year-old, and then make it so hard for him to survive as a normal person in the outside world.  Rockwood would have been a welcome addition to the “social issues” panel at the Malice convention.  She knows whereof she speaks, and she speaks eloquently.

***


Bio:


KM Rockwood draws on a varied background for stories, among them working as a laborer in a steel fabrication plant, operating glass melters and related equipment in a fiberglass manufacturing facility, and supervising an inmate work crew in a large medium security state prison. These jobs, as well as work as a special education teacher in an alternative high school and a GED teacher in county detention facilities, provide most of the background for her novels and short stories.  She is one of the bloggers on writerswhokill.blogspot.com