Snjezana Marinkovic’s powerful memoir Born in Sarajevo tells two stories: (1) how the beautiful and venerable European city is destroyed by war and ethnic cleansing and (2) how the author loses her home, sees her friends killed or lost to her, and has her family torn apart in the conflict. Integrating the two narratives is a difficult obstacle, one the author hasn’t completely overcome.

Her personal story is compelling and heartbreaking. As a person of mixed heritage, she doesn’t belong with any of the warring groups. She lacks a secure place even within her family since her mother abandoned her and father remarried, and neither he nor her stepmother seems to care about her. Only her paternal grandmother, who raised her, gives her real love. The bond of affection between them is, for me, the soul of the story. It explains how the author survives so much cruelty and destruction without losing her compassion and hope.

Marinkovic is a passionate poet. Her poems, written while she was just a teenager, express her loneliness, anguish, and yearning for home. While a refugee in Czechoslovakia she writes:

I will draw a world without hunger,

without wars,

without anything that I can’t call by the name of love

I will draw the world for you, world for me

world with peace for everyone

The larger story, the tragedy of Bosnia, never quite comes into focus. It’s hard to blame the author since the history of the Bosnian war is complicated and largely unknown to most Americans. She gives a very brief explanation at the beginning, but it isn’t enough to orient readers. During her personal story – the body of the book – she relates horrific events. Often, though, I don’t have a clear picture of what’s happening in the larger context of the war. Granted, it’s difficult to move back and forth between her subjective experience and an objective account of the siege of Sarajevo and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

In the concluding chapter, the author finally provides some history and analysis along with a plea for peace and understanding between all peoples. Though frequently moving, the chapter meanders from topic to topic and dissipates some of the energy created by her personal narrative.

But in the end, the strengths far outweigh the shortcomings of this memoir. Those of us who live in peace forget how fragile our world is, how suddenly it could be destroyed, and how human nature looks for someone to blame. And punish. Nine-eleven gave Americans a taste of this truth. Born in Sarajevo serves readers a bitter dish sweetened by Marinovik’s enduring belief in the goodness of people.

 

 

 

 

I’ve almost finished a novel titled Darkroom about a woman who tries to find out what happened to her missing friend. This rainy day would be ideal for writing toward the final page, but Final Exam week looms with a pile of research papers that must be graded. So instead I’m stealing a few minutes to post a short passage from Darkroom.  Kelly, assistant curator at a small museum, is looking at the portfolio of the photographer who becomes her friend and eventually draws her into a nightmare.

The challenge of this passage was to show how good the photographs are. I wanted to convince readers that Day is as talented as Kelly thinks she is.

 

Day had talent and skill. Her sense of composition seemed effortless and unerring, and her darkroom technique was above average. Some of her black and white photographs were stereotypes – brazen street kids and elderly men with cartographic faces, derivative of the street photographers of the 60s and 70s. But her best photographs broke through all preconceptions and discovered the secret of each face, its elusive life, so that each became the portrait of an intimate you had yet to meet. She caught the souls of her subjects the way super-fast shutters caught raindrops in mid splatter or hummingbirds in flight.

Several pages were devoted to two women as they partied with different men in the cluttered rooms of a bungalow. The most compelling shot showed the women alone, a fleshy blond and an emaciated redhead. The blond sprawled on a sofa, one leg flung over its low back and the other dangling. Her thighs bulged beneath her skimpy shorts, and one huge breast had slipped from her halter top. Eyes staring upward, unseeing, her face echoed the slackness of her breast. The redhead knelt on the wide sofa arm opposite the blond’s head. Damaged by too many days on the beach, her skin was lined and blotched with freckles that had coarsened into age spots. The skin identified her hair as red, even in black and white. She gazed at the blonde with a faint, contemptuous smile. Her eyes gleamed with hatred.

 

 

In her novel The Wife, Meg Wolitzer tells the story of a talented writer who sacrifices her own career to marry a man who becomes a famous novelist. Or rather, Wolitzer lets Joan tell her own story, beginning with her decision to leave her husband, a narcissistic philanderer, as the two of them are flying to Helsinki, where Joe will accept a prestigious award. The couple are in their sixties, their children long gone from the nest. Their comfortable golden years await.

After one or two pages I was already wondering why Joan stayed so long. The novel provides a complicated answer, a tangle of circumstances and character.

In a series of flashbacks, Joan relates how she and Joe meet and fall in love back in the 1950s while she’s a student at Smith. He’s her creative writing instructor (what a surprise), married with a newborn daughter (even less of a surprise). Their affair discovered, they flee the college in disgrace and begin their life together in a shabby Greenwich Village apartment. Joan goes to work to support Joe’s ambition to become a successful novelist. Although she has considerable talent as a writer, she sees little point in trying to pursue a career of her own.

In the 1950s the literary establishment was dominated by men and the stereotypical male novelist — a lusty, macho guy who wrote sprawling novels. Think Normal Mailer and James Jones. With a few exceptions, women’s writing was undervalued.

While at Smith, Joan attends the reading of Elaine Mozell, a writer whose first novel had good reviews but dismal sales. At the party afterward, Elaine warns Joan she cannot hope to win the attention of the male reviewers and editors “who decide who gets to be taken seriously, who gets put up on a pedestal for the rest of their lives.” These gatekeepers make sure “women’s voices [will remain] hushed and tiny and the men’s voices loud.”

Elaine Mozell’s warning echoes in Joan’s head for years afterward, a reminder that she would have failed anyway.

In the 1970s the literary landscape begins to change, but by then Joan has settled into the marriage. She has three children. She thinks it’s too late. So she stays in the marriage and puts up with Joe’s preening and fooling around with other women. By the end of The Wife, the extent of her sacrifice becomes clear. It’s heartbreaking.

Despite the sad story, The Wife is often savagely funny. Wolitzer gives her protagonist acute vision, cutting wit, and rage all the fiercer for having been suppressed. Of her once sexy husband Joan says:

Now he was old, with a humbling bio-prosthetic heterograft porcine valve (however you slice it, it’s just pig meat) stuck like a clove into his heart, and pig memories somehow looped into his brain: happy images of rooting around among old nectarines and tennis shoes.

Wow. Joe is sleeping beside a razor and doesn’t even know it.

Days after finishing The Wife, I’m still pondering Elaine Mozell and the role she plays in Joan’s choice. Elaine speaks the truth without regard for the damage it will do. I guess that’s a good thing. Better than lying, anyway. But it’s truth shaded by bitterness. Come to think of it, Elaine never tells Joan to stop writing, only to forget about impressing the men. She says, “Find some other way.” Advice so buried in negativity that Joan doesn’t understand it for decades.

I want to believe there’s another way — always — and failure won’t happen unless I give up. But I know too much about the intractability of life to think it’s that simple. Sometimes there are no good choices, only bad and worse ones. I’ve gone the wrong way more than once. And probably will again. I value Joan’s story, with its less than happy ending, for showing how even a terrible choice may be redeemable if one can face the truth.

The pivotal moment came during the alumni book signing at my college reunion last fall.

I attended Knox College, a private liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois. Knox boasts one of the finest undergraduate creative writing programs in the country, a program just beginning while I was a student there. But graduates from Knox go on to success in many fields. Biologists, historians, political scientists, and educators sat alongside the fiction writers and poets at the tables in the Ford Center for the Fine Arts. The book signing began after Homecoming Convocation as the crowd emerged from the auditorium and filed in front of our tables – so many tables they stretched the entire length of the lobby.

Quite a few people glanced at my paranormal thriller Talion, but few lingered more than a moment or picked up a book. I was selling several copies to old friends and one or two to strangers. Not as many as I’d hoped. Then a woman came over and scrutinized Talion for a few seconds. “I’m not buying your book,” she announced, “because I don’t like the cover. It tells me nothing. I have no idea what the book is about.”

I began my one-sentence pitch, but she was already walking away. Okay, I thought. That was rude.

Well, blunt anyway.

She wasn’t the first critic to pan the cover. Some reviewers disliked it. One even urged readers not to hold the cover against the novel, which was actually quite good. Poor novel, doomed like me during my unhappy teen years: “A pretty girl, really, too bad she has to wear glasses.”

A week or so later, a friend who had just finished Talion mentioned that the text contained a few typos and offered to point them out if I ever issued another edition. Reading his kind email, I realized the decision was in my mind, already made, just waiting for me to notice. There had to be another edition of Talion with a better cover.

The First Cover

Joe's Photo

The image on Talion‘s first cover is a photograph taken by Joe Heumann, the love of my life. It has a brilliant abstract beauty that evokes the beauty my protagonist, Lu, sees in the apparition of Talion. I lacked the skills to make a book cover, so I contracted a graphic artist, Richard Reynolds Taylor, who created a beautiful cover from the photograph I gave him. But as the blunt lady pointed out, it delivers no message. The image has zero connection to the story except in my mind.

The First Cover

I can’t believe I made such a dumb mistake, expecting readers to make a mental leap without sufficient information. A mistake I’ve warned my freshman comp students not to make too many times to count. Worse, I underestimated the importance of having a book cover that would intrigue potential readers and hold their attention for longer than a second. Sure, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but as readers scan books on a shelf or thumbnail images on a screen, they have no basis on which to choose EXCEPT the cover. Jeff Bennington, author of the horror novels Twisted Vengeance and Reunion, puts it concisely: “Your cover needs to grab a reader’s attention, draw them in, or create enough curiosity to earn a ‘click'” If only I’d read Jeff’s book The Indie Author’s Guide to the Universe before publishing in the first place.

The New Cover

I decided to give Talion the cover it deserved, a cover that expressed the drama and atmosphere of the story. Exploring online, I found more than a dozen graphic artists who would create a professional cover for fees ranging from $300 to more than $1000. But I wasn’t shopping for the least expensive option. Not this time. I wanted an artist with a fantastic imagination and distinctive style, and I found him in Duncan Long.

Duncan is a professional who has created cover art for major commercial publishers. And he is prolific. His gallery displays numerous examples of his work in various genres. Looking through them, I was struck by how original his art is. It stands out from all the rest of the covers I viewed in my search. His style and imagery create a world that is distinctively his own. A world where Talion is at home.

Although the cost of the new cover might not be recouped in additional sales, I consider the money well spent. When my next novel is published, I want as many readers as possible to remember Talion.

 

 

Me and Steve

My brother was born fourteen months after me, and we played together all the time. We invented characters and acted out stories, making up the plots as we went. We kept our fantasies going for weeks at a time. I think our make-believe began when I was six and Steve was five, during the time our parents’ marriage was self-destructing. It went on for years. We stopped when Steve reached adolescence and became embarrassed to play with a girl.

When I was seven, we wrote down and illustrated one of our stories in a blank coloring book. I remember the paper, pulpy and slightly yellow. I can almost picture my childish lettering and the map of our imaginary country drawn in crayon. But I can’t recall the story. In fact, I can’t recall any of our stories. Since the book was lost long ago and Steve is dead, there’s no way to jog my memory.

This make-believe was a large part of my childhood. It connected me to my brother. Losing it feels like losing part of myself.

An article in the March issue of Wired reassures me that I never had any permanent memories to begin with – not in the sense of having an accurate recollection of our fantasies and the times we spent together creating them. In “The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever,” Jonah Lehrer reports that scientists have isolated the chemicals that create memories and the chemicals that erase them. Great news for post-traumatic stress victims, drug addicts, chronic-pain sufferers, and other people whose lives have generally sucked.

But right now I’m interested in recovering a few memories. Science offers less hope in that direction. It seems none of our memories are accurate anyway since, Lehrer explains, “the very act of remembering changes the memory itself.”

The brain has to synthesize a lot of proteins and fire up lot of neurons every time it creates a memory. As Lehrer puts it, “The past has to be wired into your hardware.” You might think that once the wiring was there, it would stay put. Not really. Various unsavory experiments involving the torture of innocent rodents show that “every time we think about the past we are delicately transforming its cellular representation in the brain, changing its underlying neural circuitry.” In other words, each time you recall something, the brain rewires the memory, but not quite in the same way.

Illustration from Wired magazine

Nuking a Traumatic Memory

Think about it: every time you remember an event, it becomes less true. If by true you mean what actually happened. The implications are unsettling. Most of us construct a self based on our past – a past we think is real. “That sense of authenticity,” Lehrer says, “is the biggest lie of all.”

It follows that “every memoir should be classified as fiction,” but I disagree with Lehrer’s dismissive conclusion. I think the point of memoir is to bring some stability and permanence to the flux of memory. Once written, the memoir is no longer subject to the vagaries of brain chemistry. At least it records what was true for the writer at the time of writing.

I want to remember the make-believe between me and Steve. So what if it’s not a precise recollection of what happened all those years ago. I’ll take images reduced to ghosts by too many washings in brain enzymes. I’ll take illusions.

 

Illustration from Wired

 

 

I have a friend with amazing talent who is ready to stop writing. Her reasons are complex and personal — as reasons for life-changing decisions generally are — but at their heart is despair. Though she has published numerous stories, she cannot find an agent to represent her, and without an agent she has no access to commercial publishers. She has the disastrous luck of seeking publication during a seismic shift in the publishing landscape. The popularity of e-books is soaring, bookstores are closing, and independent publishers are proliferating. Agents and commercial publishers are looking for sure-fire bestsellers — nothing too quirky or original.

I understand the despair. I’ve been writing fiction a long time. Two reputable agents have taken me on, yet none of my novels found a publisher. In the end, I published one novel myself and discovered how formidable the process of promotion and distribution can be.

My friend might argue, “At least you found two agents.” But what does it say that neither of them could sell my books at a time when publication was easier than it is now? Maybe I’m horribly unlucky. Maybe I’m not quite good enough and never will be. Yet fool that I am, I keep trying because writers without readers are alone in the world. And writers do need validation. Very few can persist without encouragement from somewhere, even if it’s the memory of a high-school teacher who said, “You know, you’ve really got talent.” Most need more than that, but not all need the validation of commercial success or critical acclaim.

Photograph by Claudia Nagel

The deeper question is whether writing is necessary, whether life would be too empty and painful without it. In that case, the writer has no choice but to continue working and seeking receptive readers. Once in a while I reread parts of a little book called Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The authors examine the fears that can prevent artists from creating or doing their best work — including, of course, fear of rejection. There’s a passage I’ve gone back to more than once:

Courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts — namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work.

I take a couple of lessons from this passage. First, doing my work, becoming the best writer I’m capable of being, is what matters most. Second, if I’m going to put power in the hands of anyone, it shouldn’t be a stranger who’s looking for something to sell. There are a few people whom I trust to tell me whether I’m making progress, whose honesty, good will, and judgment I trust. They get the power.

In the end, the artist has to decide whether to keep creating. Nobody else can force the decision. But my friend should know that others believe in her talent and hope she’ll come back to her writing.

 

Christian psychoanalyst M. Scott Peck has participated in exorcisms and seen the devil. He saves this revelation until near the end of his book People of the Lie: Hope for Healing Human Evil. Otherwise I might have stopped reading. Folk who claim to have seen the devil lose a certain amount of credibility with me. Instead, Peck begins the book with a case history.

A teenage boy comes to see him for treatment of depression after the suicide of his older brother. The kid is apathetic and uncommunicative, but Peck eventually learns from him that his parents gave him a birthday present: the gun with which his brother killed himself. Peck calls the parents in for a session and asks them why. They become defensive. They’re poor working people. They can’t afford to buy expensive birthday presents. They’re not educated like the doctor with his fancy medical degree, so it’s easy for him to criticize ordinary people like them. Try as he might, Peck cannot get them to acknowledge the implications of their gift. He finally gives up and arranges for the kid to move in with an aunt in another city.

These parents are examples of what Peck calls evil personalities. They refuse to take responsibility for what they do. Instead, they lie—to themselves and to others—to preserve their own self regard. They shift the blame to anyone who challenges them. Peck categories such people as “malignant narcissists.” He distinguishes them from sociopaths, who have no conscience and are incapable of feeling guilt. The “people of the lie” suppress their conscience because listening to it hurts too much.

Peck sees the same psychological pattern at work in collective behaviour. He was one of the psychiatrists charged with investigating the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnamese war. Those involved in the killings maintained they did nothing wrong, yet they lied and covered up what happened. He and the other shrinks came up with an ambitious plan to study the psychology of the soldiers at My Lai, but—surprise!—the military wasn’t interested in funding it.

Now that Peck has pointed out this pattern of lying to oneself, lying to others—anything to keep from facing the nasty truth about oneself I see it everywhere. Politicians do it a dozen times a day. Herman Cain especially seems to be a master of the technique. Every time there’s a war, something like My Lai happens. But nearly everyone occasionally falls back on lying or blaming when confronted by criticism that threatens their most cherished image of themselves. I do. My fragile little ego can’t stand up to a really scathing self-examination, and I resent it when others take it upon themselves to pass judgment on me. I fall back on a time-tested defense: “That’s right, blame me,” I say bitterly. “I’m always the one who’s wrong.”

So for M. Scott Peck, an evil personality comes down to a stubborn unwillingness to look honestly at oneself, no matter what, a relentless smothering of the conscience until it’s dead at last. Peck hopes for a resurrection, but I have my doubts. Some people are just assholes.

During my research of serial killers I snatched up the book The Sociopath Next Door, figuring it was perfect for my purpose. I would learn all about that guy whose neighbors shake their heads in disbelief after he’s arrested for torturing and killing prostitutes. “He was so quiet,” they say. “The last person you would have suspected.”The Sociopath Next Door [Book]

But the author, Martha Stout, isn’t particularly interested in serial killers. Sure, they’re sociopaths, but so are lots of other people. Four percent of America’s population, according to Stout, is congenitally unable to feel any affection for other human beings. This four percent can hurt or even kill others without feeling any guilt. But most aren’t driven by blood lust to become another Ted Bundy. They’re motivated by other emotions — fear, envy, anger, sloth, the desire to win. Really, sociopaths feel the same things as the rest of us with the one exception. They cannot love. Sociopathy is characterized by the absence of conscience. You don’t feel guilty about hurting other beings unless you can empathize with them — feel their pain.

I’ve known people who clearly fit Stout’s definition. Some of the plagiarists in my composition classes felt no shame whatsoever. Sure, they cried. But the tears dried fast when they failed to get results. When I was using drugs in my twenties, some of my fellow druggies had no compunction about taking advantage of their “friends.” Some might argue it was the drugs. But while drugs do have a way of corroding one’s moral fiber, many people use them without becoming cold and ruthless. Even so, I haven’t noticed that anywhere near four percent of the people I’ve known are sociopathic. It seems I’ve missed quite a few. And these days I move in circles less likely to be frequented by sociopaths. Still, I wonder about that statistic. Stout never explains who arrived at the percentage, or how.

And the percentage applies to the United States, not to other parts of the world. Stout notes that the incidence of sociopathic behavior is lower in many Asian countries and theorizes that cultural differences are the reason. In cultures that stress interconnectedness, people born without the capacity for empathy learn how to fake it. American individualism, on the other hand, encourages them to express their true selves. Makes sense. Many un-sociopathic Americans feel entitled to do as they like. They accept the exploitation of one human being by another as natural and hate the constraints of “big guvment.” They break the speed limit all the time without remorse — until a cop pulls them over.

Stout spends a couple of chapters on the evolutionary and personal advantages of sociopathy and its opposite, conscience. She concludes that while sociopaths make great warriors, they are by and large miserable human beings. People of conscience are happier and ultimately more successful. Conscience being a moral concept, the book ends with musings on morality and religion. Stout writes well enough that I kept reading, even though I knew she had nothing to teach me about serial killers.

I’ve been so busy with Occasional Writers: Bringing the Past Forward —an anthology of essays and poems by the Past/Forward memoir group and the latest title from Cantraip Press—that my other creative endeavors have fallen by the wayside. Hopefully I’ll have time for my own writing once Occasional Writers comes out next month.

Or is that in Tuscola?

Douglas County Seat

Meanwhile I offer some photographs taken last year by my husband, Joe Heumann, as he was wandering through Arcola, a small town north of Charleston. Joe was taking photographs when I met him in college, but he hasn’t taken any for a number of years. Now that he’s back, I hope he keeps snapping pictures. I love his way of looking at the world.

 

Silos in Arcola

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silos in Arcola

Come Closer . . .

 

 

 

At least I think it's a street.

. . . hidden wonders reveal themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A glimpse of Arcola's infrastructure

Terminus

This summer I was looking around for something to watch after finishing season one of The Killing and found the HBO crime drama The Wire. I generally buy TV shows either on DVD or as a video download. I could save a lot of money by watching them when they aired, but I can’t take the commercials anymore. I just can’t. They wreck havoc with my attention span and sanity. HBO has no commercials, of course, and as a subscriber I could have seen The Wire while it was showing, but despite its popularity and critical acclaim I managed to ignore it.

After a couple of episodes I was engrossed. The Wire follows the lives of a few dozen characters in contemporary Baltimore. At the center of the action is a special investigations unit that gathers evidence through surveillance and wiretaps, and the plot unfolds in ways that are unexpected yet seem fated. Take, for example, the disastrous careers of D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) and Ziggy Sobotka (James Ransone), both hardly out of their teens and, for very different reasons, not cut out for a life of crime.

The wrong kind of smart

D'Angelo Barksdale

D’Angelo Barksdale, known as Dee, is introduced in the very first episode. The nephew of Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), a drug lord and major character, Dee seems as though he’ll be part of the story for a long time. He does some bad things like selling dope and gunning people down. He gives a chilling account of how he shot one of Avon’s girlfriends who threatened to go to the police. Yet I can’t help liking him anyway. He has an open, intelligent face. He wonders about his place in the world and comes to understand that human beings are trapped by their history and circumstances.

At the end of season one, facing a long prison term, Dee is ready to inform on his uncle. Then his mother, Avon’s sister (Michael Hyatt), pays him a visit in jail and lectures him about family loyalty. Everything they have, she reminds him, they owe to Avon. There she sits – manicured, coifed, expensively dressed – telling her son to do twenty years in prison so she can continue to live in luxury. I loathe her. And sympathize with her more than I want to admit.

Brianna Barksdale

Mom

Season two begins with Dee in prison and increasingly alienated from his uncle, who is serving a much shorter sentence at the same facility. A series of incidents stoke his anger and disgust at Avon’s disregard for other people’s lives. This culminates in their passing each other in a hallway. Dee says nothing, but he gives his uncle an angry, defiant look. Stay the fuck away, it says. I’m done with you. Avon’s Machiavellian second in command, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), hasn’t forgotten that the police almost turned Dee and is disquieted by his growing alienation. He’s also doing Dee’s girlfriend. So he goes behind Avon’s back and orders Dee killed. The death is staged to look like suicide, and nobody bothers to investigate.

Uncle Avon

Shortly before he’s strangled, D’Angelo takes part in a prison literature course and makes an astute comment on The Great Gatsby: “You can say you somebody else. You can give yourself a whole new story, but what came first is who you really are. What happened first is what really happened.” He understands that he’s a prisoner of the past, but he tries to break out anyway.

 

 

Smarter than his pet duck, barely

Ziggy

Ziggy Sobotka is the son of a dock worker in season two. In a milieu where men are valued for their physical strength, Ziggy is short and skinny, a little stick cartoon of a guy. Maybe if he had brains, he could have found some kind of place in his world, but he’s hopelessly stupid. The hulking fellows in Teamsterland hold him in utter contempt and delight in playing nasty jokes on him. Maybe with thoughtful parenting Ziggy could have learned to live with his limitations. But his mom, who’s never seen and mentioned only once or twice, is a downer freak who has chosen to sleep through her life. His dad, Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer), the local union president, is obsessed with getting a canal dredged to bring ships back to Baltimore and employment to the dock workers.

To get the canal dredged, Frank needs money – lots of money – to bribe politicians. Since the dues from the dwindling union membership aren’t enough, he has an arrangement with a gangster called The Greek to facilitate the smuggling of various products (electronics, drugs, prostitutes, etc.). This operation makes him the target of the special investigations unit and eventually leads to his downfall. But Ziggy goes down first.

Dad

Ziggy has one friend and protector, his cousin Nick (Pablo Schreiber). When Ziggy starts dealing drugs and of course screws up, Nick comes to the rescue and as a result becomes involved in the drug trade himself. He also does some jobs for The Greek. He shares the profits from these endeavours with his hapless cousin and tries to keep him out of it. To no avail. Ziggy wants to be a player. He makes a deal with one of The Greek’s minions – a deal on the side involving only him and the minion – to deliver some stolen luxury cars from the docks in return for twenty percent of their value.

At this point I expect Ziggy to get busted. But he manages to heist the cars despite his best efforts to botch the job. Driving a car from the yard, he cranks the radio full blast. Honestly, it’s like he desperately needs attention from anyone, even police. Amazingly, he brings the job off and delivers the cars. When he goes to collect his cut, the minion pays him ten percent and tells him to fuck off. Ziggy complains, gets slapped around (something that happens to him depressingly often), and thrown out of the building. For Ziggy it’s the last straw.

Of course he has a gun. A handgun is de rigeur for wannabe gangsters and dealers, like fishnet stockings and four-inch heels on hookers. I shouldn’t be surprised or appalled when Ziggy pulls the weapon, marches inside, and kills the man who dissed him. But I am. “Don’t do it!” I want to yell. “You’re not smart enough or strong enough to survive this.” He shoots another guy too, but cannot bring himself to deliver a coup de grace. He staggers from the building, gun in hand, and promptly surrenders to the police.

Ziggy Confesses

The detective (one of the series regulars) brings him the confession to sign. Crushed by guilt, Ziggy wants to change the wording from “He said, ‘Don’t shoot,'” to “He begged, ‘Don’t shoot.'” Poor Ziggy, he’s hopeless. Fated to spend the rest of his life in prison, constantly beaten and raped, until his existence become one endless, agonized scream.

D”Angelo and Ziggy are relatively minor characters in The Wire, but they have the kind of complexity usually found in novels. So do dozens of other characters in the series, which could be why the story has me hooked and why HBO will suck yet more money out of me. Because, Joe adds sardonically, I was too clueless to watch it while it was on TV.

 

 

 

 

Back in May, I filled out a form and mailed it along with a check to the Illinois Secretary of State. A few weeks later I received a form letter announcing that I now officially own a corporation, Cantraip Press, Ltd, and wishing me success in my new venture. August has come, and I still can hardly believe it. I never, ever imagined myself going into business, yet here I am.

I conceived of Cantraip Press when I decided to publish my novel Talion myself and couldn’t see why its ISBN should belong to anyone but me. I enjoyed the process so much that I began to think about publishing books by other writers – not right away but sometime in the future, probably after I retired. But then an exciting project came my way. The Past/Forward memoir group of Charleston, Illinois, was putting together an anthology of their work.

Past/Forward began in 2007 when Daiva Markelis, a professor at Eastern Illinois University whose memoir White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life has garnered critical acclaim, taught a memoir writing class for adults. The course drew older writers, most hoping to record their experiences and family histories for their children and grandchildren.

One of them was Janet Messenger, at that time president of the Coles County Arts Council. “The class was great,” she says. “Members of the class became friends and enjoyed sharing pieces they had written. When it ended, each of us was bound and determined to go home and start writing until we had compiled our family histories. However, without deadlines or a specific date to get things written we soon found out we didn’t write much at all.”

The group realized they needed one another’s help and encouragement to keep writing. So Janet went to the CCAC and convinced them to sponsor the group. They found meeting space in the Charleston Carnegie Public Library and met for the first time in April 2008. They have been meeting regularly ever since.

Open to anyone with a love for writing, the group grew. Members were serious about learning their craft. They gave and received constructive criticism, brought in guest speakers, and participated in focused workshops with Daiva. As their skill and confidence grew, their ambitions broadened. In addition to writing for their families and one another, they wanted to share their work with the community.

To have a public presence they needed a name, so they held a contest and invited submissions. Bill Heyduck came up with the name they chose: Past/Forward.

The group has now given several public readings and has found an appreciative audience for their work. And it’s no wonder. They have fascinating stories to tell. As Daiva says, “Though most are over fifty, there’s nothing stuffy or ‘senior’ about their prose. They write about growing up in small-town America, about love and disappointment, about blackberry picking and baseball and being fat. They write about a father who worked for the FBI and a mother who was an expert Greek cook. They write about having cancer. They write about taking chances.”

"They gathered here to cook, bake, and share their feelings . . . with a strong cup of coffee and a little prayer."

Ladies of the Danville Greek Orthodox church, whose bake sales raised thousands of dollars for their church

The writers of Past/Forward have also collected many wonderful photographs from years past. This photo illustrates Phyllis Bartges Bayles’ remembrance of the ladies of the Danville Greek Orthodox church, including the author’s mother. Their bake sales have been a tradition in Danville, Illinois for many years. As a sweet bonus, the author will share her mother’s recipe for baklava.

I’m proud and excited to bring the work of Past/Forward to the wider audience it deserves. Their anthology, Occasional Writers, will be out this October.

 

 

Have Your Hugged Your Driller Today?

My Brother's Trunk

A friend who is an accomplished memoir writer suggested I write about my parents, whose complicated, ambivalent, and sometimes violent relationship went on for decades after they divorced. One might see my brother and me as victims of their parenting. They often became too tied up in their conflict to notice what it was doing to us.

I filed away my friend’s suggestion, telling myself that memoir is unnecessarily constraining. Unlike the fiction writer, the memoirist has to tell the truth – whatever that is. (Some people seem to know. I wish I did.) Instead I would write a novel based on my childhood. That way I could take what I wanted and leave the rest.

Dad

My Father Near the End of his Life

A few days ago I stumbled upon a truer reason for not penning a childhood memoir. Remembering parts of the past scares the shit out of me. I was in the garage looking for photos of my brother to send to his son. These were packed away with dozens of letters that our family wrote to one another over the years. Holding those bundles of musty envelopes, I was seized by intense anxiety, as if they contained letters from an IRS auditor, and quickly stuffed them back in the mouse-proof storage container.

Then I came to my brother’s trunk. He used it to carry his belongings when he worked in oil exploration in the 1970s. After his death in 1987 my mother kept it, and after her death in 2003 it came to me. The trunk is covered with stickers he collected during his travels. The largest of these, adorning the front, asks Have You Hugged Your Driller Today? Among the contents of Steve’s trunk I found long underwear for protection against the mountain cold, photos of his children, copies of tax returns for 1982, a dogeared paperback of Carlos Castaneda’s Tales of Power, a tube of lip balm, a book of matches, and more letters, including this one from our father.

Note the part about Dad being unable to help Steve because of his dire financial situation and his hope things will improve in a couple of years once I graduate from college. At that time I was attending an expensive private liberal arts college. Though my tuition and much of my board were covered by a scholarship, Dad had to shell out a fair amount of money. He paid my bill at the college bookstore, and sometimes I added to his burden by charging extra cartons of cigarettes and selling them to friends at a discount so I would have money to buy drugs.

Maybe I should have left the letter and read Tales of Power instead.