Friday, November 28, 2014

Audiobook Review: Station Eleven

Listened 10/28/14 - 11/10/14
3 Stars - Recommended to readers who enjoy apocalyptic fiction that focuses less on the apocalyptic and more on the relationships of those who are surviving it
Audio 10.7 hours
Publisher: Random House
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Released: September 2014

I was talking to a girl at work the other day, when I was about halfway through the audio, about the freakish timing of this book's release. Emily St. John Mandel's entire novel hitches on the Georgia Flu pandemic, which nearly wipes humanity clean out - spreading around the globe at break neck speed, claiming its victims within days of exposure. And here we are, in the midst of the Ebola breakout... wondering and worrying over its potential to do a similar thing.

Chilling, to be reading a work of fiction that so closely mirrors our current reality. Because as you slip into the pages of Station Eleven, it practically begs you to question "would I survive the pandemic?" And if I did, which is a big fat if, "would I be able to survive in the aftermath?" And to that I'd have to say Oh. Hell. No. As much as I'd like to THINK I'm a survivor, I have to be honest here. I know nothing about scavenging for food, making a fire from nothing, living off the land. Unless I lucked out and hooked up with a group of people who kinda knew what they were doing. Then I might be ok. But otherwise, I'm as good as dead.

But hang on. Here I am, taking about the pandemic as if it's the entirety of the book when in actuality, it's treated more like a back story, since Station Eleven is much more concerned with Arthur, an aging Hollywood actor who died of a heart attack on stage while performing King Lear on the same evening that the Georgia Flu begins taking lives, and the way he is still remembered and connected to (and connecting) survivors 20 years later. Because when the human race is facing complete extinction, it totally makes sense that a handful of people will survive who all knew the same dude way back when... AND end up in the same place together, right? We're talking only 1% of the WORLD'S POPULATION exists now five of the non-infected knew Arthur in the time before are about to start hanging out. Really? Really?!

Kirsten, a child actor, was on stage with him when he died. She stood by and watched as an audience member attempted CPR on him. Fast forward 20 years later, and she is now part of a Traveling Symphony who roam town to town playing classical music and -oh yes- putting on renditions of King Lear. She also carries copies of two limited edition comic books that were written and designed by Arthur's first wife pre-collapse. The CPR guy, Jeevan, also survives the collapse, and remembers those few anxious moments trying to save Arthur under the bright stage lights. Though no one knows who he is, Kirsten often thinks about Jeevan and how he attempted to calm her during the whole  Arthur-dying ordeal. Then we have Arthur's closest friend Clark, who was traveling to Arthur's funeral with Arthur's second wife Elizabeth and their only son. Arthur, Elizabeth, and the kid end up stranded at an airport during the outbreak and manage to survive, along with other lucky/unlucky airport-goers.

Told in chapters that rush back and forth between the early days of the Georgia Flu and the collapse to the here and now, Station Eleven puts a special emphasis on the importance of art and culture, and the role it plays in keeping the last vestiges of civilization... well, civilized. As I read, I found parallels to other post-apocalyptic novels - in the sense that people must make a conscious choice to remain human. Otherwise, they're bound to become monsters, letting their animal instincts take control. That's the power behind the post-apoc novel, isn't it? That tender balance between managing your humanity and totally forsaking it in the face of survival. Mandel's focus seemed to be placed more so on the THINGS of civilization and how they influenced her characters to remain human, rather than delve deeper into the internal struggle. But even that plot point was mashed in and sometimes completely sideswiped by Arthur's story and the ultimate climax to the story lines of those who were impacted by him.

I suppose when I first asked to review this book, I had been under the impression it would've concentrated more on the actual collapse of society, and was rather disappointed to find that it had chosen to center itself on this jaded, womanizing actor and the influence he still yielded over people when, frankly, influence no longer seemed to matter. I began to grow tired of the chapters that shared his history, and much preferred to be in the post collapse world Mandel was developing.

As I have in the past with big-press books that garnered impressive pre-release buzz, I sit here and wonder if I read the same thing as everyone else. Don't get me wrong. I would definitely recommend this to readers who want a slow paced, multi-charactered death-by-pandemic novel in which almost nothing seems to happen. But calling it the best book of 2014? I'm not seeing it. If you want a kick-ass book about the collapse of civilization, I'd highly recommend Eric Shonkwiler's Above All Men, which I called out as the best book of 2014 when I first read it back in January, and which still hold the title, in my opinion!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Book Review: King Shit

Read 11/26/14
3 Stars - Recommended to those who appreciate Sam Pink and Charles Bukowski and the likes for their scrapin-the-bottom-of-the-barrel outlook on humanity
Pages: 45
Publisher: House of Vlad
Released: June 2014

Disclaimer: Yes, I am quoted on the second page inside this novel. And yes, I am the only blurb on the back cover. No, that super squee-worthy, holy-fucking-awesome fact has had no impact on the honesty of this review. And no, I really don't care if you don't believe me.

King Shit is a super-shortie. No, not the dude himself, though I guess he's not really all that much to look at if we take him at his word. He's a scrawny, pudgy bellied, thin haired guy rumored to have been named for either Elvis "The King"  Presley or Elvis "the shy and geeky" Costello. Either way, we get the sense our main man falls extremely short of both namesakes.

In this shorter-than-novella sized illustrated story, we are taken on a night out with Elvis and his right hand man Ralph and are made to bear witness to the oh-so-sad shenanigans that follow. Bar crawling around town, they rub elbows with an obese Mexican Santa, a strange jukebox bike riding fella in a lavender suit, an ex-girlfriend of Elvis's who parades her lady-parts around in front of her current beau (an angry dwarf of a dude), two grease-heads puking it up in the men's room, and a whole lot of nothing to go home to.

Typical of  Brian Alan Ellis, we're hanging with the grimy, dingy underbelly of society here. His characters are the kind of slimy, pickled, sleazy bastards that, were they to slide their squishy behinds onto the bar stools next to yours, you'd quickly down the drink you were nursing and find a reason to up and excuse yourself before they attempted to suck you into one of their bad-breathed ballads of woe.

Ellis's straight forward approach to storytelling can be compared to that of Sam Pink and Charles Bukowski. His uncanny ability to humbly dress his characters in yesterday's dirty, beer soaked, rumpled clothing and march them back and forth from place to place like it ain't no big thang speaks directly to the insecurities in each of us. And the fact that this is the norm for these guys, that they think this is what life is and are living it the only way they know how, that's fascinating to us.

I only wish we had been given more time to get to know these guys. I get the sense there is much more to them, more raggedy adventures to be had. That their stories are only just beginning.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Where Writers Write: Bonnie ZoBell

Welcome to another installment of TNBBC's Where Writers Write!


Where Writers Write is a series that features authors as they showcase their writing spaces using short form essay, photos, and/or video. As a lover of books and all of the hard work that goes into creating them, I thought it would be fun to see where the authors roll up their sleeves and make the magic happen. 

This is Bonnie ZoBell.

Bonnie's new linked collection from Press 53, What Happened Here, a novella and stories, is centered on the site PSA Flight 182 crashed into North Park, San Diego, in 1978, right next to where she now lives. Her fiction chapbook The Whack-Job Girls was published last year. She won an NEA, received an MFA from Columbia University, and teaches at San Diego Mesa College

Where Bonnie ZoBell Writes

We shared an office for many years then came to the realization that since our ninety-year-old garage isn't big enough to fit any vehicle larger than a model-T, one of us should move out here. I volunteered since all my gardening stuff is out here too. We had concrete poured over the rock and cement floor that hurt when you walked on it and looked, my sister said, like somebody had been murdered and buried under it. Friend and handyman Bernie and I found a great salvaged glass door and two windows at Habitat for Humanity. He put in drywall, and then there was the paint.

Hardly anybody but me and the occasional overnight guest were going to see these walls or anything else out here, so I could do whatever I wanted. The ceiling became blue like the sky.  The concrete floor is stained red and the rugs are green, ground.

Best of all, my Greenoffice or Offgreen (greenhouse and office) is now a combination of my two greatest loves—gardening and writing. When scribbling, I stare out the door, which I leave wide open most of the time, at my gardens. Ozzie and Xena, my two rescue Maltese; Beau and Lucy, my Maine Coon and tuxedo cats; and my husband Jim come out and visit.

The painting and my muse, Red Bird by Sandy Tweed, used on the cover of my book, sits over my desk and keeps an eye on things.

It feels colorful and mine, a place where my imagination can go wherever it likes. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Indie Ink Runs Deep: Stephen Kozeniewski

Every now and then I manage to talk a small press author into showing us a little skin... tattooed skin, that is. I know there are websites and books out there that have been-there-done-that already, but I hadn't seen one with a specific focus on the authors and publishers of the small press community. Whether it's the influence for their book, influenced by their book, or completely unrelated to the book, we get to hear the story behind their indie ink....

Today's ink story comes from Stephen Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key"). Stephen lives with his wife and two cats in Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the modern zombie.  During his time as a Field Artillery officer, he served for three years in Oklahoma and one in Iraq, where due to what he assumes was a clerical error, he was awarded the Bronze Star.  He is also a classically trained linguist, which sounds much more impressive than saying his bachelor’s degree is in German. Like him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, see what he reads on Goodreads, and see what he writes on his blog

What you're looking at is, of course, a zombie crow devouring the eye of a zombie  hyena which is itself devouring the entrails of a zombie human, which is snatching at the crow.  All just part of the circle of life really.

I'm not, by nature, a prideful guy.  But in the middle of having this piece done I asked my tattooist (the wonderful Emily Asylum of 717 Tattoos Mechanicsburg) what the craziest tattoo she had ever done was.  She paused for a moment before thoughtfully concluding, "This one" and I was filled with an overwhelming sense of pride.  

Monday, November 24, 2014

Audio Series: Nic Esposito

Our audio series "The Authors Read. We Listen."  was hatched in a NYC club during BEA back in 2012. This feature requires more time and patience of the author than any of the ones that have come before. And that makes it all the more sweeter when you see, or rather, hear them read excerpts from their own novels, in their own voices, the way their stories were meant to be heard.

Today, Nic Esposito reads an excerpt from Johnny Almost Gets Jumped, part of his collection of non-fiction essays Kensington Homestead
After developing urban farm projects in Philadelphia, Nic Esposito and his wife Elisa currently operate Emerald Street Urban Farm as well as their own homestead populated by their son, Luca, a dog, a cat and a whole bunch of chickens. He writes about social change, urban farming and sustainability for blogs and magazine and spoke on urban farming at the 2010 TEDx conference in Philadelphia. He is the founder of The Head & The Hand Press, the author of Seeds of Discent, and Kensington Homestead is his first work of non-fiction.

Click the soundcloud link here to experience the excerpt Johnny Almost Gets Jumped, read by Nic:

The word on Kensington Homestead:

After completing Seeds of Discent in 2011, Nic Esposito promised himself that would be the first and last book he’d write about urban farming. He was happy to concentrate on growing food, while moving onto purely creative fiction. And then he moved to Kensington. Although he did begin two new manuscripts, his new life of co-managing Emerald Street Urban Farm in Kensington with his then girlfriend, and now wife Elisa begged to be documented. As a neighbor would always say to Nic every time he’d see her walking her dog, “You can’t make this shit up.” So Nic didn’t. He worked, and he lived and he observed.

In this collection of fourteen narrative essays, there are plenty of tales of chicken kills gone awry and rogue bee swarms being caught, but much more of the focus is on the people of this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Kensington Homestead is a departure from the philosophically earnest Seeds of Discent. It offers a raw and oftentimes absurdly funny view of growing food in a city. Yet Nic still approaches his characters with care and portrays urban farming as one of the most important movements for social change. He just spends more time focusing on the corner drug dealers and neighborhood kids to tell the story.
*lifted from goodreads

Friday, November 21, 2014

Melanie Reviews: MFA vs. NYC

MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction
Pages: 320
Publisher: n+1
Released: February 2014

Guest review by Melanie Page

In issue 10 of n+1 magazine, Chad Harbach proposed that there are two cultures of American fiction: what is born of MFA programs and the writing that comes out of New York City (and those who specifically live in the city). A number of folks responded to Harbach and his idea’ thus, the book was born. Slate calls the debate between two groups “phony” while The New York Times calls the collection “serious, helpful and wily book” despite some flaws. MFA vs NYC is a collection of essays, personal experiences, and answers to questions. The authors range from successful, well-known authors like George Saunders and David Foster Wallace to those less known who have yet to publish. Overall, the collection is unbalanced, shallow, and draws upon a limited group of people.

Harbach’s collection is broken into sections: MFA, NYC, The Teaching Game, Two Views on the Program Era, and The Great Beyond. A number of essays have little introductory pieces before them, pages that are completely black with white text. Here, writers provide answers to the same questions (probably a survey emailed out to participants). These moments are like writers stepping into a confessional booth on a reality TV show: they are private, written as if spoken, and often express frustration. The same writers appear in different sections, such as student-soldier Matthew Hefti, who describes why he signed up for the Army after 9/11. A benefit (not the reason he enlisted) was that Hefti’s MFA program would be paid for. Thirty pages later, he describes what it’s like to go from Iraq to the classroom with students different from him. Then, 227 pages later Hefti appears again to describe how his writing is changed by the violence and death he sees. The most memorable person in the collection, Matthew Hefti’s words must be sought out across hundreds of pages. While reading, I would flip through the book, seeking out the all-black pages, just to find cohesion in the authors who answered the questions.

Instead, the big space is reserved for essays, and I couldn’t help but notice that at least four of the authors were associated with n+1, including Harbach, Emily Gould (who spends a lot of time describing her cat Raffles), Keith Gessen (Gould’s boyfriend, who also talks about Raffles), and Carla Blumenkranz. The phrase that kept coming to mind was “literary incest.” Of course Saunders and DFW drawn in readers, but the other authors should be selected from a diverse pool of writers across the nation. The collection suggests that there is n+1, and then there are the other guys--some from New York, and many from Iowa. And that’s the problem: with the number of MFA programs ever increasing, why is the emphasis still on Iowa? The MFA workshop produces a variety of writers depending on the faculty, location, individuals accepted, and if it’s high- or low-residency.

While some of the essays have a laid-back tone, others are highly academic in a way that made me struggle, thus another reason the collection seems unbalanced. After reading about Raffles the cat twice, readers get Elif Batuman, who expresses ideas like, “This is the kind of literary practice James Wood so persuasively condemned under the rubric of ‘hysterical realism’....Diachronicity is cheaply telegraphed by synchronic cues, and history is replaced by big-name historical events, often glimpsed from some ‘eccentric’ perspective....” Huh? I felt like I needed a class just to read Batuman, and, to some extent, Fredric Jameson, both of whom are responding to Mark McGurl’s text The Program Era--though readers of Harbach’s collection don’t have the context.

Imagine if Chad Harbach had put out a call for submissions seeking essays that describe the MFA experience, the writer-in-NYC experience; what new perspectives would he have encountered? Would his thesis differ from that of the 2010 essay that started it all? If you look to n+1, you won’t find out, at least not in this collection.

Melanie Page is a MFA graduate, adjunct instructor, and recent founder of Grab the Lapels, a site that only reviews books written by women (

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Book Review: Bird Box

Read 11/6/14 - 11/9/14
5 Stars - The Next Best "it's the unseen, the unknown, that makes this a downright scary read" Book
Pages: 262
Publisher: Ecco
Released: January 2014

The world was slowing going mad. The news was reporting it one story at a time at first. These people, in countries far from here, they just lost it, murdered their families then killed themselves. And then, within just a few hours, another country, this one closer to home, where another nutter buries their children alive and then takes their own life. Pretty soon, the brutal  murder/suicides are happening everywhere. Now they're reporting that these people SAW something before they lost their minds. But no one's survived SEEING whatever it is long enough to tell people what it is they SAW.

So, naturally, people start taking precautions. Whatever is it, it's outside and it's moving or multiplying, and people can't risk accidentally SEEING it, no one's SEEN it and survived, so they shade their eyes as they run out and stock up on groceries, eventually shutting themselves in - hanging quilts and blankets over the windows, staying indoors for as long as possible, blindfolding themselves whenever they absolutely must venture out. There is no way they are going to lay eyes on whatever lies in wait out there.

When a report of the insanity hits close to their parent's home, when someone in their town puts up an ad declaring his home a sanctuary for those who need it, Malorie and her sister start going through the same motions for preparation. Only Shannon slips up and SEES one, ultimately offing herself in the bathroom with a pair of scissors, leaving poor pregnant Malorie all alone, with whatever it is OUTSIDE, with only the walls of the house between her and it. Malorie freaks out. She jumps into her car, and drives with her eyes closed - opening them only long enough to get her bearings and check out the road signs - and slowly makes her way to the sanctuary.

But wait a moment. I need to back up. Because the book doesn't begin there. The book, it actually begins with Malorie and her two children. It's been four years since the insanity first struck and her children have never SEEN the outside. Sure, she's brought some of the outside IN, but they've never seen the sky, the lawn, the river that runs behind the back of the house. The windows are still boarded and the things are still out there. Electricity, TV, Radio, the internet, it's all been dead for so long. She's been training her children to see with their ears, listening, hearing, understanding the world without the aid of their blindfolded eyes, because she's been preparing, and now, after all of these years, it's finally time for them to leave the safety of this house, her compromised sanctuary. It's time for her children, who were raised to sense subtle, invisible changes, who were taught how to see the world only through the lens of sound, its time for them to help her escape.

Josh Malerman's Bird Box is one intense, suspenseful page turner. It plays on all of our irrational fears - our fear of the dark, of the unknown, of death and dying, of what we can't see - while also playing on our vanities - the need to know what is going on, to watch, to see, to understand. Imagine this. Imagine what it must be like to be able to see, but to know that SEEING could cause you to go mad, go nuts, get all murdery and die. Imagine what it must be like to live inside a house, knowing you can simply peek behind the blinds or lift the corner of the blindfold, but to be too terrified to take that chance. To know that the choice to look could bring about your very death. Can you imagine how horrifically tempting that must be? How nerve wracking? How do these people NEVER peek?! How does the curiosity never outweigh the fear?

I keep thinking of this leftover bag of halloween candy in the kitchen. Every day, I walk by it a hundred times, and every time I walk by it, even if I don't look at it, even if I'm not thinking about it when I walk in there, every time I walk by it I suddenly have the urge to grab a piece of chocolate. And 99.9% of the time, once I've felt the urge, even if I've chosen at that very moment to walk by without grabbing one, within five minutes I'm back by the bag, pulling a piece out. I am weak. I am unable to stop myself from grabbing that god damn piece of candy, even though I'm not hungry, even though I know I should be watching what I eat, I still can't resist. HOW THE HELL DO THE PEOPLE IN THE BIRD BOX RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO PEEK?!?! I would totally peek. If I were determined to survive in that world, I would have to pay someone to cut my eyes out of my head with a mellon-ball scoop. Just knowing that something is out there somewhere, prowling around... it would get into my head and it would become the only thing I'd be able to think about until I looked. Fuck the monstercreaturethingies, just the thought of them and the battle I'd have to fight with myself to NOT LOOK would drive me mad. I'd be driven mad either way, so yeah, if I look at it that way, then I might as well fucking LOOK, right?!

So obviously, as I made my way through the initial confusion of the those first few pages, and the story line started to take shape, I thought wow, how cool. How interesting, and challenging, it must have been for Josh, as an author, to hinge his entire book on something the reader will never see. On something he has no intention of sharing with us and on the certainty that we would be driven on by our insatiable need to know. That hell-bent desire of his to keep us in the dark, to treat us like he's treated his characters, to never revel what is driving everyone mad, to feed into our fears and vanities, is what compelled me to keep reading.

A book that causes you to question every bump in the night, every knock at the door, every unseen breeze that tickles your skin, Bird Box puts its readers on high alert. While it might not invade your dreams in the way horror movies sometimes do, this cross-genre apocalyptic psychological horrorthriller grabs hold and  renders you incapable of putting it down. Clear your schedule before you crack this one open. You'll be up all night. I promise you that.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Where Writers Write: Wintfred Huskey

Welcome to another installment of TNBBC's Where Writers Write!

Where Writers Write is a series that features authors as they showcase their writing spaces using short form essay, photos, and/or video. As a lover of books and all of the hard work that goes into creating them, I thought it would be fun to see where the authors roll up their sleeves and make the magic happen. 

This is Wintfred Huskey. 

Wintfred lives and writes in Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of the novel Blowin' It. He models his writing game after ex-pitcher Jamie Moyer, relying on cantankerousness and persistence over charisma and proficiency.

Where Wintfred Huskey Writes

In getting acquainted with this “Where Writers Write” page, I noticed that, for the most part, writers are literally writing about where they write and sharing photos of their desks and chairs and what not. I have my own spot that I write at in the mornings, too, but there's no real reason for it beyond compulsion or possibly some kind of pheromonal thing happening. Either way, I don't think that the blue formica table and red chair are worth photographing. So far, these are hardly the makings of an essay (especially if there's some kind of word count). So let me tell you about Philadelphia, PA, which is where I write.

            When I get done writing and head off to my real, bill-paying full-time-part-time job, the first thing I see is the lot across the street that is being built up into some sort of a large cluster of housing. (This is also the first thing I hear most mornings, too.) At present, I have a clear view of the grand mosque and the grimy pizza place I order from often, but six months from now? …

            Philadelphia is changing and in my corner of it those changes are coming lickety-split. Less than 20 years ago, during the throes of the go-go 90's, the city decided to erect a statue of Don Quixote and his horse Rocinante at 2nd and Girard, three blocks from my house. According to the internet, the area was an “empowerment zone” back then, and the character represented hope for a bright and economically-vibrant tomorrow. Today, he and his horse sit across the street from the big glass-and-steel supermarket and a few blocks from multi-purpose outdoor plaza with retail at ground level and luxury apartments looming above. I guess the statue worked, but I have some misgivings about the scene as I walk by.

            Obviously, I'm the reason why the place is changing. People like me moving here, I mean. Then again, I can't afford to live in a luxury apartment or shop at a boutique. I don't feel especially empowered by these facts. Still … a nice, self-loathing edge can do wonders for a writer. On paper, at least. So I remind myself that all these big, ugly, snapped-together buildings are partly all my fault.

            Moving on, (I've got a train to catch!), I pass by Don Quixote and head east. I see a raggedy older man walking towards me, talking gruff into his cell phone. I perk up my ears and hear him say, “Well guess what? Even with the, uh, chili situation you're talkin' about, they knew how that would go down and you can't complain to Linda Donovan about it because she was in on it too.”

            If I don't write these things down, who will?

            If you think I'm nosy (or as many Philadelphians prefer, 'newsy'), consider that Flannery O'Connor said that a “writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” I'm not implying that I'm near as good as Flannery O'Connor (then again, who is?); I'm just pointing out that I have a writing authority's permission to do things like eavesdrop on snippets of old men's conversations. (I have a rather liberal interpretation the quote used above.)

            I next drop my token into the turnstile and get whisked off towards City Hall Station, where I make my free interchange. I spot the beggar who I never have change for. I wonder if he notices me, sees me stride by Monday-thru-Friday and thinks 'it must be 1:30' or 'there goes that cheapskate' or something.

            On the northbound express train, I sit and look like I am reading, but, actually, I'm busy worrying that liberal arts types are the only ones really paying attention to all these screwy little details. I hope that accountants and RNs and paralegals in Philadelphia wonder about all these people the see and hear around them, but maybe they don't. Maybe they can afford not to. I don't know. I'm depressed by the thought that a certain underpaid and overeducated segment of the population might be the only ones paying attention. I am so distressed by this revelation, I nearly miss my stop.

            Enough of that self-righteous weepiness, though – I need to switch into work-mode. I come up from the subway onto Broad and Erie and I am greeted like I am each weekday: by enormous, legible block letters that spell “forever boner” down the side of an abandoned 14-story building. I always make it a point to just look at this strange declaration (because for all I know, erasing this graffiti landmark inches closer to the top of the mayor's “to-do” list every day). The words stick straight up from the rest of the skyline like, well ... like an exclamation point. It is so weird and ostentatious … forever boner … on the corner of Broad Street and Erie Avenue … in an underprivileged neighborhood called Nicetown … five miles from where they signed the Declaration of Independence … where they could use a statue of Don Quixote, too ….  
            But forget it's time to forget all of that – it's time for work.
            When I get back home, after doing the whole commute detailed above in reverse, back to the blue formica table and the red chair, my brain is too dulled-down to write. But before I dull things further with beer and television and whatever else, I try and get some of the day down in bullet points, “Linda Donovan”, “Forever Boner”, and so on, so that the next morning, when I am sufficiently refreshed to begin the tediousness of writing, I actually have a few things to try and write about.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

MB Caschetta's Guide to Books & Booze

Time to grab a book and get tipsy!

Back by popular demand, Books & Booze, originally a mini-series of sorts here on TNBBC challenges participating authors to make up their own drinks, name and all, or create a drink list for their characters and/or readers using drinks that already exist. 

Today, MB Cashetta shares a deleted scene from her novel Miracle Girls, which released November 11th. Too funny that it's also the booziest scene!


An extra-dry gin martini on the rocks is the drink. Barely even a drop of Vermouth. This is what 10-year-old Cee-Cee Biancos father drinks. Its also, coincidentally, what my father drank. The other recurring beverage in Miracle Girls is Benadryl, which Cee-Cee’s family constantly feeds her to take the edge off her visions. In this way, father and daughter are equally stoned throughout the first third of the novel.

The Kirkus review of Miracle Girls points out the basic set up:

In upstate New York, young girls go missing, nuns are revolting, Nixon is resigning, and young Cee-Cee Bianco has visions of the Virgin Mary in this polished debut novel. Ten-year-old Cee-Cee has a broken family: Father Frank goes on drunken benders, mother Glory runs away for weeks at a time, middle brother Roadie is wracked with guilt over his burgeoning homosexuality, and eldest Anthony is a little off. Cee-Cee and Baby Pauly cling to each other, as close as twins.

The scene that got cut during the final edit, in which Frank is in a bar getting sloshed, and Cee-Cee is lying on a pool table drowsy with allergy medicine. Cee-Cees mother has taken off again, and Frank has paid the local cabbie to pick his daughter up at home (it is Christmas break) and drop her off at the Blanches Iron Door, the bar he frequents. She has a fever:

Frank has Cee-Cee lie down on an empty pool table, bunching up his coat for a pillow. She can see the shiny jukebox, squat and solid with its silver chrome and bright blue lights, behind the mismatched tables and chairs shoved onto the dirty square of plastic flooring. If her head didnt hurt, shed get up and use Blanches secret stash of quarters.
The bar is empty.  Under Cee-Cees limp body, the green felt is comforting.
Frank takes a barstool. Gin with a splash, Blanche. Extra dry.
No kidding. Blanche takes a wad of bubble gum from Cee-Cees mouth and feeds her two baby aspirin, covering her with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth, plastic on one side, fuzzy on the other.
I feel hot, Cee-Cee tells her.
Well course you do, baby, Blanche says. Thats why Old Blanche never prays.
Over Blanches pink turtleneck, a red sweater is stretched tight. Near one shoulder, one reindeer says Ho, Ho, Ho in white stitching.
Close your eyes now, bunny. Blanche smooths her hair. Dont go worrying yourself about Jesus, Mary and Joseph. They can take care of themselves.
            Frank produces a bottle of the magic pink liquid and tosses it to Blanche. Give her some Benadryl.
You cant just go around drugging your kid, Blanche says. And then you wonder why she hallucinates angels and talks to God?
It calms her down. Frank shrugs.
Blanche sighs, gives Cee-Cee a sip from the bottle.
Under the dark beams of the old bank ceiling, Cee-Cee is swimming in and out of a heavy sleep, catching snippets of the conversation.
            “It’s this damn economy…And some new kind of bomb…”
            “Hell of a thing…” Blanche snaps. “A bomb that can drop itself.”
            Cee-Cee kicks off the tablecloth, uncomfortable.
             “I grew up on that base,” Frank is saying.
            “…fancy severance package can’t be all bad.” Blanche comes around from behind the bar and touches Cee-Cee’s forehead, checking the fever.
            Cee-Cee tries to tell Blanche about the names Glory called Frank over Christmas dinner: Whiskey-dick, Asshole, Bum.
            “What’s the matter? Can’t get comfy, kangaroo?” Blanche flicks on the TV. “Try the boob tube for awhile. That always puts old Blanche right to sleep.”
            A trio of violins from a daytime soap opera fills the room. It’s not one Cee-Cee knows. A man with a beard tells a blond woman, “Love will kill you.”
            Frank and Blanche stare at the TV as a newscaster comes on with a special report about the girl missing since Christmas Eve.
            A photograph comes on screen: a girl with wavy red hair, freckles, a gap in her smile where Cee-Cee can see the faintest flash of tongue. The reporter describes the pink sweater the girl was wearing when she disappeared.
            “Sure are a lot of sickos around here,” Frank says.
            Kidnapped, says the newscaster somberly.
            “Shame,” Blanche says. “More girls go missing right here in this part of New York State than anywhere else in the country. Heard it on the radio.”
            “Yeah.” Frank says.
            Next on the T.V., a bunch of Vietnam protesters with long hair shout at the camera. They hold up two-finger peace signs and shake them at the screen.
            A reporter interviews a nun in full habit carrying a protest sign about the war.
            “What’s this?” Frank says. “The Flying Nun? She looks like Sister Bertrille.”
            “Those Sisters from Our Lady of Sorrows are always up to no good,” Blanche says. ““Chaining themselves to the gates of the military base when they’re supposed be teaching long division and catechism. Vietnam protesters. How is that God’s work?”
             “Who do they think is protecting their sacred asses from communism?”
            “Aren’t they friends with Marina? The Sisters of Something-or-Other.”
            Frank can’t stand God or Nonnie. “Glory’s mother is a holy roller.”
At the commercial Blanche lowers the volume and smiles at Cee-Cee. “My Norbie sure is going to be glad to see you lying there like a princess when he gets home.”
The green fuzz beneath Cee-Cee’s body is soft. She falls into a dream about red-haired girls in pink sweaters.

As the afternoon wears on, the bar is shrouded in an eerie quiet. Mike hasn’t set foot in a church for years­­, but sometimes the place seems vaguely hallowed to him.
            He lifts his glass: “Amen.”
This moment will soon be ruined by the onslaught of daily drunks and military men from the lab with their briefcases and secrets for a liquid lunch: 9-to-5ersnot his category any more.
Having Cee-Cee nearby makes him feel strange, but also good.
No one prepared him for being a father. He is plagued by the idea that he created four little strangers out of his own body. He thinks the boys look like him, and Cee-Cee is the spitting image of Glory, and therefore of Glory’s mother.
When he and Glory were sweethearts, before they’d even graduated high school, Mike worked in the Caxton Laboratory. It was still called Romeville Labs then. He was the youngest nonenlisted technician in the whole history of the base; younger even than his father was when he first worked there.
After Mike and Glory got married, they moved into a tiny efficiency apartment on the compound. It had a hot plate and a bathtub in the kitchen. When Anthony was born, they upgraded to a family unit. Mike was happy with just the three of them. Things got crowded when Roadie and Baby Pauly came along, but he still somehow managed a pretty good mood.
But nothing was ever good enough for Glory. She accused him of not loving anyone but Anthony. Said he didn’t try hard enough with his other children. Eventually she found the old ramshackle firetrap they live in now. She loved how it was snuggled between two roadways and a creek. Mike thought it was a bad idea.
“The thing with kids,” he tells Blanche, “is that everything ends up being your fault.”
Blanche pours him another drink, fat fingers gripping the glass still steamy from the dishwasher. “I hear Anthony’s in trouble again.”
Mike grunts.
She places the rest of the glasses upside-down on a little shelf behind her. “My Norbert says Anthony will flunk a third time if he doesn’t watch out.”
What does Fat Norbie know? Mike hates being reminded that his kids arent winners. Hes got problems of his own.
“If there's one thing my Norbert knows, it’s flunking. Two birthdays in the eighth grade already; he’s almost 16. Anyway, I enrolled him in that special school, the one with the uniforms and the aides. Starts in January.”
“For Christ’s sake!” Mike is getting drunk now. “Why the hell did you do that?”
“He’s slow upstairs when it comes to thinking.” Blanche stares off toward the window. “Those special programs help.”
“They just need to give a person some space.”
“There’s not that much space in the world.” Blanche chews on a toothpick. “I’m doing something real for Norbert. You should do the same for your kid. They can't spend their lives in high school, now can they?”
The wind howls. Both Mike and Blanche turn to look at the white outside.
 “Maybe if we’d stayed on base,” Mike tells Blanche, slurring, “it wouldn’t have been so easy for the top brass to let me go.”
Glory ended up pregnant with Cee-Cee when they thought she couldn’t possibly conceive again. That’s when all the trouble started. Of course Cee-Cee was a girl, which was more than Mike could handle.
Counting the inventory, Blanche marks down the numbers of bottles in a green ledger. “What’s the matter now?”
Mike lifts his head. “Did I ever tell you about that little intern over at Romeville Free’s gymnasium? Man, was she something.”
“You should leave them young ones alone. “ Blanche sighs. “You told me she stopped taking your calls.”
He chuckles. “The secretary kept saying she was on lunch duty, and I’d say:
‘It’s 3:30! What damn time do these kids eat?’”
Blanche smiles. “She got your number right quick.”
 “I always say the wrong thing to women.”
Cee-Cee feels the gust of cold air, a nervous chill that swirls into the warm bar.
 “I have to hand it to you, Mike,” Blanche clucks her tongue. “You have some lousy luck with the opposite sex.”
Blanche’s points over Mike’s shoulder toward the darkened door where Glory is brushing snow off her coat.
“Oh shit,” Mike says.
Glory’s voice: “How drunk are you, Mike?”
Cee-Cee tries to sit up, but Mike’s pink syrup has her feeling slow.
“I hope you’re not too drunk to hear what I have to say.” Glory says, “Because I’m done with you, Mike. I’m leaving.”
Blanche clinks some bottles together and clears her throat. “I’ll be in the back room, folks; inventory.”
Mike stumbles over to the jukebox, taking the conversation to the far end of the room. Cee-Cee has to strain to make out the words.
 “C’mon, Glory,” Mike pleads. “Give me a break.”
“You’re here all day long instead of looking for work!"
Down on my luck is all. I can change.turn it around.
Outside, the wind whips against the building.
Glory’s voice goes soft. “Every person in Oneida County has been laid off from that stupid lab. Who cares? You can get another engineering job. What about Xerox, or even Kodak?  Moonie's been there a long time; he'll help you get a job. Anyway, what kind of work is it anyway? Figuring out better ways to kill people?”
“I need you, Glory.”
“Think about your children,” she says. “What are they supposed to do while you’re throwing everything away?”
Mike cries, not quiet and embarrassed the way most fathers probably cry, but loud with long howling noises coming from his throat.
Cee-Cee tries to roll over, but nothing moves.
Tears muffle Glorys voice. You need a shower, Mike.
Cee-Cee knows that Glory is brushing her fingers through Mikes hair, a sign that she is about to forgive him. The air shifts again, this time almost imperceptibly, from tense and angry to unbearably sad.
Look, heres a twenty. Okay? Glory says. Lets go home, right now. We can call a cab.
Ill get a new job. Mike sounds happy. Well do Christmas all over again, the right way. Things will get better. Let me buy you a drink: We can toast to second chances.
All right, Mike.
Blanche lugs a carton out of the old bank vault storeroom with its wall of safety deposit boxes, plus the little black gun Blanche always talks about. She keeps it in in the first box on the bottom row. Says shell use it if theres any funny business at her bar.
I have to step outside for a minute, Glory says. Let go of my coat, Mike. Just one minute. I have to take care of something. Then Ill be back, and Blanche will call a cab, and well all go home.
“Hurry,” Mike says.
Glory comes over to Cee-Cee on the pool table and gives her a big hug with plenty of kisses.  “Hi, Baby. Are you sick again? I’m sorry about this morning. But now we’ll all go home together, okay?”
Like magic, Cee-Cee’s eyelids unstick. “Hi, Glory. I feel better now.”
“Back in a flash,” Glory promises as she breezes back toward the door.
Blanche crosses the room, stopping to peer through the diamond cutout window of the front door after Glory; she holds a few bottles of whiskey in her hand.
Mike starts talking as if nothing happened. “Damndest thing, Blanche, I had to pee like the devil for the last half hour. And now–––nothing!”
Blanche snorts.
“Poor me, poor me.” He slaps Roadie’s money on the bar. “Pour me a drink!”
Blanche comes around the backside of the bar with a bottle of Beefeater. She collects Mike’s money and fills his glass.
Mike works his mouth into a dry smile.
“Glory gone?” Blanche pours to the rim.
Mike bares his teeth at the whiskey. “Gone is exactly what Glory is.”

It gets dark a few minutes before the dinnertime rush. Blanche opens the back door to let her son in. 
Norbie walks fast on the heels of a girl with ponytails and scraped knees. He pulls off his coat and scarf, giving his mother a kiss, then looks across the room. “Cee-Cee! Have you been here praying?”
“I’m sick.”
His looming rubbery face is red from the cold and big as a moon.
“Oh no!” He curls his long pink tongue and rubs his hands together in a special coded motion above his head, as if applying some magic lotion. “This is my best friend, Mary Margaret. She’s real smart. Aren’t you, Mary Margaret? She lives five houses over.”
The girl eyes Cee-Cee’s pajamas and hair. “You’ve been lying there all day? On a pool table?”
Feeling her fever lift, Cee-Cee pops up on an elbow. “Yeah, so?”
“What if someone wanted to play and knocked you off with a cue stick?”
“Hasn’t happened yet,” she says.
Norbert exhales a long, sour breath. “The angels watch over Cee-Cee.”
Mary Margaret twists her cherry mouth into a frown. “What’s that mean?”
But Cee-Cee is not about to tell her anything. She just smiles.
Mary Margaret is skinny and has two jagged front teeth growing in crooked. Her face is small and mouse-like, sharp but pretty, and splattered with freckles. Her brown hair is tied into matching braids behind each ear.
“What grade are you in?” she asks. “Second?”
“Fourth,” Cee-Cee says. “They almost skipped me to Fifth but I wanted to stay with my brother.”
“Public school?”
Cee-Cee nods.
Norbert watches them. “Mary Margaret goes to Catholic school with the nuns from church.”
“My Nonnie lives across from Our Lady,” Cee-Cee says. “She’s friends with the Mother Superior there.”
“Mother Stephen!” Mary Margaret seems vaguely impressed. “She’s the school principal. Do you know she has burns on most of her body? If you get on her good side, she’ll show you the scars—they’re real bad.”
Nonnie has Mother Stephen over for tea and cookies when Cee-Cee and her brothers are visiting, but she has never seen any scars. “I think she’s pretty.”
“Her face, sure, and she's younger than most of them.” Mary Margaret turns to Norbert. “You know what those Sisters are called, don’t you?”
Norbert’s eyes get big. “The Sisters of Christ’s Most Precious Wounds?”
The Spooky Sisters!” Mary Margaret says. “And I’ll tell you what: they are a big pain in my ass.”
Laughing, Norbert lumbers to the bar to pat Mike’s back, as if he’s the genius responsible for all his good luck. “Cee-Cee’s here! I love Cee-Cee.”
“She’s our girl.” Mike raises his glass.
Mary Margaret studies Cee-Cee. “Next year, I’m going to get a pair of platform shoes and wear them at school. Let those holy Wounds try and stop me!”
“Glory twisted her ankle wearing platforms once. She had to rest her foot in a bucket of ice.”
“So?” Mary Margaret says. Then, curious: “Who’s Glory?”
Blanche signals to them. “Dinner upstairs—then I’ll take you girls home. Mike’s in no shape to do anything except sleep it off in the store room.”
Blanche never lets children sleep over, but she will feed just about anyone.
A house on two main highways and a creek that floods every year is her idea of bad news, she always says—and she doesn’t like boys running around like wild Indians, either. She doesn’t let Norbert go to Cee-Cee’s house too often.
Dragging his bad leg, Norbert makes a path through the crowd toward the arched doorway behind the bar that leads to the little apartment above. The Iron Door is alive with customers and music as the afternoon lull draws to a close.
“One of you lesser drunks watch the bar for me.” Blanche tucks the cash box under her arm. “I’ve got to feed these kids.”
“Unwise calling your customers drunks,” Mike says.
“Nah.” Blanche looks around. “You know I think of you as folks with cancer, sorry cases, except some of you still got hair.”
Laughter ripples through the room. It is always cheerful at the beginning of a shift. But these are the very same men, Cee-Cee knows, who will be hunched and silent at the end of the night.
One guy comes around to the back of the bar. “You love us, Blanche. You know you do.”
Blanche leans into the guy. “Pretend to care, my husband always said, may he rest. That’s all people want. And that’s what I do: pretend.”
The guy pushes a dollar bill into Blanche’s psychedelic sweater. “Damn good bartender, your husband was.”
Blanche slaps the guy’s hand away, but pinches the dollar. “What’s this for?”
“For your kid. Because he’s…simple –– or something.”
“Oh, he’s something all right.” She beams.
Blanche herds them up the stairs to the cramped apartment above. “The first rule of alcohol is never get close; you’ll only get hurt.” She nods at Cee-Cee and Mary Margaret. “The second is: never try to fill up a drunk; it can’t be done.”
Holding Norbert’s damp meaty hand, Cee-Cee watches the mole at the corner of Blanche’s mouth disappear and reappear as she talks. She knows what Blanche means: Most of the time, Mike is as hollow as a drum.
Norbert pulls both Cee-Cee’s and Mary Margaret’s hand to his chest, rubbing them together. Blanche stoops, weighed down by her enormous body.
“Can Mary Margaret eat over too?” Norbert asks. He stops on the landing, dropping their hands, so he can rub his knuckles together in the strange familiar motion at his forehead.
“Don’t see why not.” Blanche heaves her body up the steps. “‘Less Mary Margaret’s mother is making dinner at her home?”
“Mom’s got a new baby,” Mary Margaret reports. “No dinners for a while.”
“Dear heavens, another one?” Blanche squeezes by to unlock the apartment door. “Where does that woman get the heart?”
Mary Margaret shrugs. “She stays in her room.”
“You must be a comfort to her.”
“I’m the only one who’s made it so far,” Mary Margaret says. “We’re not even naming this baby until we’re sure he's going to live."
She looks at Cee-Cee meaningfully.
In a flash, Cee-Cee sees the little baby graveyard behind Mary Margaret's house, matchstick stones rising up to mark the graves. She counts: one, two, three, four of them.
Blanche pats Mary Margaret’s bony arm, then caresses Norbert’s cheek until he unfurls his long pink flag of a tongue and wags it outside his mouth.
“Well, I hope you like soup, Mary Margaret, because we’ve got to get our little Cee-Cee here back on her feet.”
“Okay by me,” Mary Margaret says.
Norbert rests his big moony face on his mother’s breast, making Cee-Cee’s heartache exactly in the middle.

In Blanche’s apartment, they turn on the lights, start a fire in the stove, and open several cans of soup. Blanche parks Cee-Cee on the sofa with an afghan and flips on the local news.
On a tiny black and white set that looks like it was made for a doll, the newscaster gives an update on the kidnapping. A piece of pink sweater was found on a chain link fence down by the railroad tracks.
The missing girl’s name is Eileena Brice Iaccamo.
Blanche clucks her tongue. “Don’t those Iaccamo kids go to Catholic school with you at Queen of Sorrows, Mary Margaret?”
“A bunch do,” Mary Margaret answers. “There’s about a million of them, all with Irish first and middle names. The older ones go to public school at Romeville Free.”
“Missing girl’s 14, the paper says. She must be up at the high school.”
Mary Margaret hovers close by, waiting for Cee-Cee to look up from the T.V. “Last year this girl in my neighborhood disappeared. In the spring, they found the snow piled up right over a set of fresh bones. Turned out to be a dead dog though. She was never heard from again.”
Cee-Cee chews a fresh piece of gum.
Mary Margaret watches for signs of weakness and comes up with a lie: “She was my best friend.”
Norbert chants in a loud voice: “They have to find this missing girl. They have to find her.”
Cee-Cee can see someone pulling a girl out of a ditch. “Jesus brought St. Martha’s brother back to life. Maybe you should pray for her.”
Mary Margaret bites her nails and frowns. “You don’t believe that crap.”
“Why not?” Cee-Cee says.
Mary Margaret thinks this over. “We could be best friends. You’d have to wear my neckerchief and call me on the phone.”
“How would I get your number?”
 Mary Margaret pulls a pen out of her bag and writes her phone number on Cee-Cee’s hand.
The anchorman’s confident tone agitates Norbert. He crosses the room, thighs rubbing together in his gigantic green corduroy pants. He stands near the TV and shifts his weight from good leg to bad leg.
Blanche watches her son as she stirs the soup. He will be okay because he is giant and almost already a man. “Remember, girls, it’s just as unsafe in some houses as it is outside them.”
 “Do you think they’ll ever find this kid, Missus?” Mary Margaret asks.
Though the pale sun is almost entirely burned out in the winter sky, Cee-Cee feels it blaze in her heart when Mary Margaret turns and smiles.
 “Don’t worry, baby.” Blanch say. “They find everyone sooner or later.”

MB Caschetta is the recipient of a W.K. Rose Fellowship for Emerging Artists, a Sherwood Anderson Foundation Writing Award, and a Seattle Review Fiction Prize, among other honors. Her work has appeared in the Mississippi Review, Del Sol Review, 3:AM Magazine, New York Times, and Chronicle of Higher Education, among other literary journals and media outlets. These days you can occasionally find her drinking a gluten-free beer, waiting for the day when sorghum will taste as good as hops, but she doesn't hold out much hope. Mostly she drinks tea. Miracle Girls is her first novel.