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Howling Iraq

I have seen the greatest men of my generation fall to IEDs and to RPG’s, from night terrors and self-medication. I have seen the greatest men of my generation emerge crazy from their diseases and their demons, taking a bullet for a brother, or from their own gun because they couldn’t take that bullet. I have seen the marble-lined graves of the fallen who could not find an enemy worth engaging. I have seen real men seeking the Book of the Wars of the Lord, finding out-of-shape ayatollahs spouting lies and wreaking fury and false promises.  I’ve looked down my barrel at such low-life commanders and mealy-mouthed mullahs, and passed judgement. PUSILLANIMITY! Not worth my ammo.

I have seen the feared warriors of my generation reduced by the five, by the ten, when a 19-year-old punk and his godless twenty-three year-old brother unload a shrapnel bomb. I have heard the word of God spoken like the water at the living stream, and a hundred lowlife supposed men of Allah trying to explain the appeal of seventy-two vestal virgins. I have heard the many drink from the words of a few. I have seen people of promise spend twenty years of their lives chasing their tails like mentally handicapped dogs because they would sooner die that listen to a word of wise counsel, and a thousand times sooner if that counsel came in the name of our Lord. I have seen children of the church who never faced a challenge they didn’t know what to do with from Vacation Bible School who never developed the faith of a mustard seed, because their faithlessness was never challenges, so it could never develop.

I have seen wafers that could spread out across the Sea of Galilee wasted as so many empty calories on the tongues of children of the untested. I have seen sermons snail-mailed, e-mailed, newslettered and tacked up like Martin Luther’s 99 Theses. by well-meaning pastors who are preaching holy words, but lacking the fire to ignite the faith. I have seen those ministers fall to their own unbelief, because they howl into the empty chapel and say, “It’s not information, children! It’s not seventh-period English. It’s what will save your lives, but you don’t listen, and then the best and the brightest of our generation go off and die with their song still unsung because the Lord is crying and you don’t care!

Formulating a Plan to Get What You Want

It is vital to realize that a one time payoff doesn’t lead to you achieving your goals. It was not good enough for Jacob and it should not be good enough for you. Before you accept compensation in exchange for your value,  there are several points to consider.

Know your worth. Your time is valuable and you should treat it like it is. How you spend your time says all about what you are an expert in. The information you gain from how you spend your time is a valuable asset. Most people do not see the potential that is within them to start a business or a consulting company based on the skills they already possess. Most people behave as if their means to an end is associated with someone paying them to do a job for specific salary. For your information, a salary is a controlled amount of money paid to an employee that is often times not negotiable. Unfortunately, a salary is not an accurate label of your value. As a matter of fact, what job or place of employment can truly represent how valuable you are by the salary they pay you? Who wants to pay you a wage that is equal to your value? The truth is no one can truly afford you. You are priceless. No one can pay the price that you are worth. For Christians, we know this to be true because Jesus paid the price for our sins. This salvation opened the door for us to live life free from sin. Jesus paid a steep price for us. If what I am saying is true, why do we waste our time trying to find someone to compensate us for our value? Despite all of the energy you put out, you will never find equal compensation for your value. If you naïvely continue to search for it, you will continuously find yourself disappointed. It is in your best interest to identify ways to create the value you believe you are worth.

Assign tasks to your time. When your time is allocated to a particular activity, you have to spend it wisely on activities you desire to master. You should use your time to master something. Life experiences are meant to help you grow and develop in ways you have never grown before. But if you spend your time doing something you do not master, your time will be wasted. Time is a precious commodity that each human being has in a finite amount, and we are empowered by God to manage it. The responsibility for allocating this resource lies squarely on our shoulders. Even if you never become a CEO, a leader, or an influential person, you will always have CEO power over your time and what you do with it. In addition, remembertime waits for no one. Before you know it, five to ten years will pass by and you will look back and wonder what you have done with your time. If you know this will happen, and it will, it behooves you to plan out your time and what you will be doing with it. Assign activities to your time, assign resources to your time, and assign relationships to your time. You will end up appreciating the planning process you went through. Your time will thank you for that as well. Learning and mastering this is equivalent to unlocking the secrets to success and wealth.

Master your trade or skill. Use your time to learn something new or achieve mastery over something you already do well. This simply equates to becoming educated. People are quick to equate education with college degrees, but education is much broader than the parchment that a diploma is written on. Education is learning a new activity or behavior that will equip you to accomplish a task. Education occurs more often than people realize. Some people are educated by life, by experience, by a teacher or mentor, or in a classroom. Regardless of how you are educated, it is critical to know that education is the engine for true success. If you are not willing to invest in your education, you are not willing to see yourself grow. You need education just as much as the next person. Your focus should not be to walk down the graduation aisle but to learn from someone that knows more than you about the subject matter you care about. When you know that you are educated about what you are doing, you have power; at least more power than you had before. You have more power to think, to perform at your best, and to be whomever you need to be because you now know how to function with your newfound knowledge.

Learn people. This has to be a skill you master above all others in order to achieve the success you desire. Not knowing people is like not knowing yourself. When you do not know people, you lose valuable opportunities to learn about who you are, what you like, what interests you, what annoys you, what makes you happy. These key data points help you determine who other people are and how you should generally, and I mean generally, deal with them. What you learn about people should not be used as a lump sum measurement of everyone; rather, the principle of learning about people should be a principal practice you embrace in all your interactions. The more you learn about people, the more equipped you are to guard against people that are not helpful to you during your growth period. Our exemplar, the Biblical Jacob, did not know his father-in-law Laban was scamming him. If Jacob knew this information, we can assume he would have made other arrangements with his father-in-law. The lesson that can be learned from this process is that learning about people and their intentions before you develop a deep relationship with them will save you a lot of trouble and heartache in the future.

Communicate clearly. Communication is the chief skill you should seek to master, because unless you communicate clearly, you cannot enroll other people who could help you achieve your aims. I will admit, communicating can be difficult, particularly when it involves discussing topics that are sensitive to you. However, it is important to remember that if you do not share what you are feeling or thinking, no one will know how they can help you. Without communication, how would you know what other people are thinking? How can you be the best you can be for others if no one ever told you how to do that? How can they summon their best efforts on your behalf if you don’t tell them what you need? Communication is a privilege God has given us and we have a responsibility to use it.

Before closing this section, I want to reiterate its message. You have to commit yourself to mastering your craft. Your craft is only valued at the price you set for it. No one can set that value for you and nor should they. When you allow people to set the price for your craft and how you master it, you will never realize the benefits of being a master of your trade. This is why you hear so many wealth and personal improvement gurus and coaches tell their readers and clients to stop expecting their place of employment and the salary they receive to define their value, because you will never be paid what you believe you are worth.

Think about it like this.

In today’s real estate market, people across America are selling their homes. Many sellers are looking to sell their homes for what they think they are worth; however, the realities of the market dictate the value of the house and how much it will sell for. Your feelings cannot and will not ever affect the price of your home nor will it motivate a buyer to pay a price you feel they should pay. This is completely relevant to how you should view your life. People are not going to respond to how you feel and will not pay a price you feel they should pay. No more than they will pay the price that you set emotionally for your house will they pay what you feel you deserve for your time, skills, and expertise. They will pay a price for your services and what you have to offer based on the value they place on you. If you come to terms with someone that is willing to buy your house at a price you set, great, but in most cases you will have to make some concessions dictated by your market. Only if you have a one-of-a-kind house will you be able to command a one-of-a-kind price. Similarly, if you want to be free of market forces for your time and talents, you need to develop one-of-a-kind talents. This is why mastering your craft is important. If you want to be worthy of a high value, prove it. Where are the results? Who have you affected? Who has benefited because of you? Prove your value by mastering your craft.

How To Manual: Faith Walk (Christian)

Though I can’t recall everything that was said with absolute clarity, the conversation still rings in my mind after twenty years. A spiritually mature deacon was speaking with the leader of our church’s drama ministry concerning the idea for an upcoming play. From the deacon’s viewpoint, the issue was clear and the situation dire. We were a church of around 500 people and yet, according to him, only about four or five of us were on fire for the Lord. Though there was a great deal of activity, there didn’t seem to be a push to know God nor a desire to engage in a lifestyle of service to Him for the sake of the Gospel. Consequently, the need for a play and not just any play. We needed something big! Something that would jar us into the kind of Biblical lifestyle we treasured so much in the book of Acts, but seemed so far from our everyday experience.

Why a play, you ask? The answer is simple: The believers in our church, like many, if not most, Bible-believing American Christians, were convinced that spiritual growth was the result unique, special, emotional events. Thus Christian drama, retreats, revivals, conferences and other special events were deemed absolutely necessary for our growth and progress in the faith. How many times have you heard about, read about or been encouraged to attend a conference, retreat or some other special meeting, with the promise that it will be a life changing and transforming event? Somehow, that attending the event (which usually involves some cost) is the key that will lift your life from spiritual doldrums into the exciting adventure that is ‘real Christianity.’

And how many times after attending such an event do you find yourself right back in the same spiritual place as before (only with a bit less money)? Once the excitement wears off, you return from the mountaintop and absent from the gifted speakers, anointed worship leaders, and energy of the crowd, it’s back to life, back to reality. You continue your search for real spiritual growth, but having little or no idea of how to get there, simply wait until the next play, retreat, conference, convention, rally or revival. How did we develop such thinking? That’s a long and somewhat detailed story, and one that, while important, is not the subject of this book. In short, since the Garden of Eden, humanity has always sought a short cut to fully developed spirituality. That reality has been exaggerated by two factors that are magnified by our unique brand of American faith. Firstly, we have a gross misconception of the very idea of spirituality. For most Americans, including Bible-believing Christians, spirituality resembles more of an indefinable state of consciousness that occurs as we access the Divine individually, and which brings us a certain sense of private peace and well being. Secondly, and related to the first, is the belief that God really meets people in private, personal, life-changing encounters. And this is where the focus on special events comes in. For we’re convinced that God not only meets us in these events but in some way He especially meets us within them.

Yet for all of our concerts, plays, revivals, retreats, conventions, conferences, holy convocations, and rallies, many of us are still at the same place we were upon first coming to accept Jesus Christ. Consequently, we’re always on the lookout for the new book, the new fad, the new experience that will finally at long last transform us into the kind of Spirit-filled, on-fire Christian life that we’re convinced is out there but always just beyond our grasp.

If you’re hoping this book will be the key to your entrance into such a life, then let me assure you now that it will not. I did not write this book to give Christians some special secret insight into ‘the victorious life’. Reading this book and even putting its wisdom into practice will not change your life overnight. However, I do believe that this book can begin your lifelong (emphasis on lifelong) journey to vital spiritual fitness. Despite your previous disappointments, you can grow and mature in authentic Biblical spirituality. You can grow in your love, joy and delight in our Lord Jesus Christ. You can mature in Godly, Christlike character and actually see old, ungodly, unfruitful habits drop away while you pick up new, Godly, and fruitful ones. Moreover, you can enjoy a vibrant and meaningful ongoing witness as you see God touch many lives through your service and witness of His Gospel.

How do you get started? To begin with, you will have to let go of any notions or convictions that the only way to grow in Godliness is through special, emotionally saturated experiences. Let me give an analogy. Imagine meeting someone who is obviously suffering from malnourishment. You certainly want to help this person and begin by asking if you could buy them something to eat, and then if possible, help them to secure regular meals. To your great surprise and complete confusion he replies that he’s fine with things just the way they are. In fact, he tells you that in just a few weeks he’s attending a big event where he will have more than enough food to eat and fully intends to have his fill. After speaking a bit more you discover that the ‘event’ to which he’s referring is his family’s annual Thanksgiving Day meal. After further inquiry you find out that he has access to more than enough food for daily regular nourishment. So you ask when was the last time he had a real, healthy, filling meal. With enthusiasm he replies that it was Labor Day. A group of his friends have an annual cookout at which he stuffed himself with hamburgers, hotdogs, potato salad, baked beans and the works. Despite this by early November he was clearly malnourished and the effects of his constant lack of regular food were beginning to show.

Finally you ask, “What’s up?” Why does he wait for big events to eat great quantities of food and then practically starves himself for the remainder of the year? He looks at you as if you’ve just beamed in from the Enterprise and says “That’s how everyone grows and develops, isn’t it?” You walk away from one of the strangest conversations you’ve ever had, wondering if this individual needs special care. Now that’s exactly how many believers think and feel about spiritual growth. It’s that view of spiritual growth of which you must let go of if you’re ever going to actually grow and progress in the faith once delivered to the saints.

             In place of spectacular event-oriented religion, you must embrace the Biblical truth that God causes His People to grow through the use of seemingly ordinary methods, practiced consistently over a long period of time. Along with that, you may also have to change your definition of what spiritual maturity is and what a growing, spiritual believer looks like. But we’ll get to that later. This book will flow along the following format. First, I’ll define what spiritual health is by examining its essential components. Next, we’ll take a look at the factors that contribute to vital spiritual health. The final section explores the Biblical outcome of vital spiritual health which is a Gospel-driven life.

Oh, and the play. From what I remember it was a hit with our church at the time. And though I’m not positive, I’m pretty sure that a good many of us came forward once more to rededicate our lives to the Lord. We were no doubt sincere in our desire to see God change our hearts, minds, and lives. Did that happen? Not that I can recall. Months or perhaps even weeks after the play things returned to ‘normal’ and as always we awaited the next big thing.

Faith Memoir

I went to my local ophthalmologist for the second time and when he looked at my eye, he said, “Kendrick, this is not the same eye I saw two weeks ago.” He then told me this was out of his scope of practice and referred me to someone more skillful than him. At this time I knew something was terribly wrong by the look on his face and the sense of urgency for me to get a CT scan and MRI. My wife then drove me to the doctor he referred me to. By that time my vision was getting worse. This doctor’s name was Dr. Carter. He looked at my eye and said that something was terribly wrong. He then did a vision test. He turned off the light and put letters up. The first letter was the largest letter that they test with and it was the letter “E”. I didn’t know how large it was until my wife told me after the exam because she was in the room. Needless to say I could not see that letter. Dr. Carter immediately told me that I needed to go to Newton Medical Center and that he was ordering a CT scan and MRI for me. My wife rushed me over to the hospital and that is when I received my first denial. The lady sitting at the registration desk told me that because I didn’t have any medical insurance that I would have to pay for the scan out of pocket. I told her that I didn’t have thousands of dollars in my account to pay for it and she said there was nothing else she could do at that point. I then left out of the hospital distraught, confused, angry and afraid because I had a condition and didn’t have the resources to find out what was wrong. As we walked out of the hospital, my wife was walking behind me and I could remember walking ahead with tears running down my face I jumped into the car and slammed the door. I didn’t want her to see me this way. I pounded on the steering wheel and cried out to God and He heard me. Psalm 3:4 says, I cried unto the LORD with my voice and he heard me out of His holy hills.  While I was still in the parking lot the Holy Spirit directed me to call back and speak with a higher authority. The lady over the phone instructed me to go directly through the emergency room, and she also introduced me to a person who is going to change my life for the better. This man may have been Chief Executive Officer of the hospital or he may have been a board member; in any event he was able to direct the next steps with firmness and authority. I  needed a CT scan and a functional MRI in order for anyone to be able to diagnose me correctly, but I had no money. The man, whatever his position was, told me, “Well, get yourself up a couple hundred dollars and we`ll just to get started if you wait until you have all the resources there’s going to be a serious problem, and we don’t want to be responsible for seeing you go out of this world as a result of money.”

Dr. Carter zapped my scans over to Dr. Brent Murphy, with the insistence that he call me right away.  I was with my wife in the car, not far from the hospital, when we got the call.

“Pastor Meredith,” the voice asked.

“Yes, this is he.” I don’t know if my sense of dread revealed itself through the camouflage. For all I knew, it was a congregant.

“This is Dr. Brent Murphy. I need you to come to my office right away; you have a life-threatening situation.”

“But it’s already 4:30, isn’t the building closed” I protested.

“I’ll be back there in ten minutes. Just come to the security desk and ask for me.”

“I don’t want to waste your time – I don’t have any insurance,” I continued.

“I know that; we’ll sort that out later,” he said. He told me that I would be blind or dead by the time that was figured out. In other words, he didn’t care about the insurance.

I gave my hand to my wife as we got out of the car at Dr. Murphy’s office building. I was certain of nothing except for the warm touch of my wife’s skin. Holding hands, we entered the building at the nondescript man with a typical briefcase. We checked in at the security desk. I signed the manifest. I nodded to the guard. My wife smiled. “Dr. Brent Murphy?” I asked.

Right behind you,“ said the man.

We went up to his office on the top floor. All Atlanta stretched out beyond the floor·to·ceiling panel windows at the end of the hall. An expensive but tasteful furniture setting surrounded a maple coffee table, which reflected the far away street light pattern of the city. Pink Italian marble lined the hallway underneath a row of deep green marble tile that allowed for maple paneling on top.

The lights were already out. Dr. Murphy unlocked the office door and turned on the lights. Soon, my MRI prints were up on his X-ray viewing board. Even I could tell that the image behind one eye couldn’t have been more different that the one behind the other.

“We need to do exploratory surgery immediately to find out what’s going on with this mass behind your eye. Meet me at Piedmont Hospital and go to the emergency room. I’m calling to get you admitted and all you will have to do is show up for the surgery.” I went straight to the hospital and as soon as I told them my name at the desk, they rushed me back and prepped me for surgery. I felt like the President.

Wow. I can’t even imagine – everything that occurred was exactly what was needed. An enormous medical enterprise gave way to God’s Will. I would be the vehicle for Jesus to work a miracle again, through the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Creative Nonfiction: Biography

Chapter 1. School for Parenting

I tasted the sweat rolling down my cheeks. The big green car my mama and this man I knew as Vader drove cooked me like a loaf of cornbread when I stayed inside, so I got out and leaned against a telephone pole and opened the door for my little brother, who was sleeping.. Dressed only in shorts and flip-flops, I figured out that my shirt did more for me as a parasol than as a garment, and beside, in Ghost Town, Oakland, USA, who cared what I looked like? Most people here were like my ma, just thinking about where they were going to get high and who they owed money to.

My ma’s clear, dark chocolate skin and natural, untamed Afro are what I remember most clearly. That, and the fact that when she stood up straight, which wasn’t often, I could see her head above the Dodge Dart that Vader got at a police auction in Fremont. As far as I knew, anyone whose head rose up above the roof of a car was big. All grown-ups were big. Especially my ma. How wrong I was, and not just physically, either.

Ma had told me to sit tight, that she’d be right out. I knew there was something wrong when my head started to swim. I didn’t know how long I was roasting in the Dart before I opened the door and hung up my shirt on the telephone pole. I was six years old. I couldn’t tell time. I stood underneath my shirt, hoping that it would serve as a sail and catch any wayward breeze. I kept time to an imaginary song by wearing a crease in my flip-flops with my toes.

A rebellious blade of grass squeezed through a crack in the concrete sidewalk. There wasn’t much nature in Ghost Town. Aside from the blade of grass in front of me, and its equally wayward cousins, there were a few bramble bushes and a rare rosebush. Down Crawford Street, at the very end of town, one angry palm tree stood guard, stretching its jagged fronds threateningly at anyone who ventured that far. That palm tree dominated the cityscape of squat cement-brick warehouses and dented, rusting aluminum-sided one- and two-story houses. Around any commercial building stood a chain-link fence; at the top of the chain-link fences, chances were there would be barbed wire.

Out of boredom, I flipped off my right flip-flop and started sliding that blade of grass between my toes. I could tell just how much pressure I could put on the little green sliver before I would tear it off. My mind wandered, far out of Ghost Town, out of the nasty poverty of Foster-Hoover, all the way up the steps of my grandma’s 4-plex apartment building on North 42nd. Street, where one of our neighbors had a new Ford Thunderbird, and nobody who had their own place was in poverty, or at least not too deep in. There, Ma would go out into the laundry, and come back all shaking, but when we stayed with Grandma, we ate, slept, wore good clothes, and went to McDonald’s. And we didn’t have to share our space with Vader, who had moved in with Ma.

The earth was turning, but Ma wasn’t coming out. Shadows took little baby steps forward, finally giving the blade of grass a welcome midday shade. I crossed the sidewalk and hugged the building, wondering whether I should go inside. I was a six-year-old boy. I had to take care of my four-year-old brother. I felt so alone. I stood in that shade, and I wondered about my mom. She had done this to me before, but usually my older sister, who was nine, was there to keep me company. I didn’t yet know what these trips into Ghost Town were all about. I was, like I said, a six-year-old boy.

I couldn’t tell time, even if I had a watch, but I could guess that, based on the stretching of the shadow to the end of the sidewalk, off the curb, and onto the hubcap of the Dart, that it was two or three hours that Ma was in the house. When she came out, I was surprised, because I had stopped watching the door. I was dreaming of McDonald’s. Filet-O-Fish. Almost too hot to eat. Tartar sauce, ketchup. French fries.

“Sorry, baby,” she stammered.

She wasn’t.

Vader stumbled through the doorway next. Ma fumbled around in her purse for a moment, and drew out Vader’s key ring. Vader, quieter than he was when he went in that bungalow, didn’t even yell at Ma when the keys slipped off his hand and hit the pavement. . The big man stumbled forward and missed the keys. He grunted, turned around, and lifted up the keys. He stumbled toward the door of the Dart. I noticed that even though I was standing on a convection oven and he was inside a house that was dark and cool, he was sweating.  Ma went around the front of the car to the passenger side

“It’s unlocked,” I told her.

She opened her door, and I did as well. That man cursed again, and I heard the jangle of the keys hitting the car floor. He reached down, grunted a few times, opened the door again, and stuck his feet out. So did Ma. She was looking on the floor boards and under the seat when she froze. I got back out of the car, and tapped her on her thigh.

“Can I help you, Gwen?” We called her by her first name. Maybe I would have smelled trouble with that if I were a little older.

“I got it, baby.”

She pulled the keys out from under the seat. I noticed that she was sweating, too, and that her eyes were huge, unnaturally wide open.  “Ma, are you hot?” I asked. I knew that she was in a cool basement, while I was in the bright sun.

“No, I’m cold, but I’ll be OK. You never mind.”

We got back in the Dart, and she started the car. We were parked on the wrong side of the street, and Vader started out driving the wrong way. Thankfully, he corrected his mistake. After a few blocks, he found a 7-11 and pulled in front.

We walked in. Vader grabbed a bag of Halls menthol lozenges. Ma picked out a Dr Pepper and a moon pie. I had to ask. “What about me?” She rooted around in her purse, finding two crumpled dollar bills. She opened her change purse and frowned.

“We’ll have to share, baby.”

There were a lot of things that didn’t add up, but I would have time to figure this out soon enough. Too soon. Now I just wanted the cool, sweet Dr Pepper on my lips.

 Find out more about Ronald Fischman

The Jewish Question: Jerusalem Maiden, by Talia Carner

This is not an incantation of the hateful rhetoric that is associated with the title. Rather. it is us Jews that ask the question, “What limits are justifiably placed on our lives by our laws?” For more than half, probably far more than half, of all Jews, this is no archaic throwback; it’s a real issue. Many Jews, Muslims, and animists – practitioners of any “traditional” faith except Christianity – must choose whether or not to be bound by a tradition that is written in the Voice of God. What if who God authentically created you to be is at absolute odds with the laws that your culture demands that you practice?

This is the question asked of Esther, the Jerusalem Maiden of the title. Esther feels her senses, acutely. She tastes things in color. She sees colors in action on paper, and the sensations of womanhood will roll over her in four dimensions. Every instant pops, washes, dances, tickles, or cries itself across her senses as the thing and its derivative in time. As a young girl in Meah Shearim, the most hateful corner of the most rigid city outside the Caliphate, her father lets her learn secular (horror!) subjects at the hand of a Mlle. Thibaux. Her best friends, Ruthi and Asher, also fight against the strictures of the Haredi vise grip. Ruthi fughts by committing suicide, and Asher, by exiling himself to Europe where he becomes one of its most celebrated conductors. As for Esther, she battles against her artistic talent and passionate nature. She tries, really tries, to honor her husband, with whom she has three (he believes four) children. But she winds up in Paris, meets her tutor and the tutor’s illegitimate but brilliantly talented son, who is just a few years her junior. There, she dicovers that a painting of Jerusalem that she did as a child hangs in the Louvre.

There is a shift in voice that occurs when the book flashes forward to present day. The poignancy of being free to be who you are, but choosing obligation over integrity, practically drenches the pages of this imporrtant literary novel with its tears and its blood. History, and the might-have-beens, will leave any perceptive reader moved. I’m no stranger to this discussion myself, having pursued a fine arts career only to leave a broken marriage and financial ruin in the wake of that vessel. Did Esther have regrets at the end? You will wonder – because the answer is never given. Neither is the answer to the only question that matters more than the “Jewish question” of this book. The only question really worth sacrificing for is the question of love.

If I have one minor beef with the book, it is that the author, Talia Carner, is uncompromising in her hostility to the people of Meah Shearim. The only person in the whole novel for whom the mores of the Haredi hold any joy is the person whose fate it is to escape from them. Still, this book is a great achevement. I think that I will remember it long after my own output has been forgotten.

Vote – IF I can get the icon up!!

I am going to try – hard – to get an icon up on my site. IF this is the easy site everyone says it is, then you will have an opportunity to vote for me a a book blogger. If you like my reviews, let people know! I promise that I will keep reviewing all the best of Jewish literary fiction, and remarking on my own publishing journey.

The Great American Novel?

It is difficult to write the Great American Novel. F. Scott Fitzgerald did a good job with The Great Gatsby, but that novel is in its dotage, requiring extensive sociology to appreciate fully. Jonathan Franzen engages society in the 21st century with brilliance and aplomb in Freedom,( for my review in free verse) but derogates his working-class characters to the extent where they beat up or murder the members of the middle class. John Steinbeck is of a different era in The Grapes of Wrath, and therefore his formula of opening each chapter with something like a sermon feels like an anachronism, but at least his treatment of the working poor is ennobling, even though haunting. Now comes David D’Aguanno, writing under the pseudonym of David Dennis, with his entry into the fray, Why She Left Us.

 The central family is headed by a mother, Jean, who seems more than anything to be a sex addict, with nondescript employment and a taste for nondescript men. Jean’s sister, a forty-year-old spinster, can’t get through a diary entry without mentioning how horrid men are because of her one adult relationship that ended badly.  Jean’s three daughters, Monica, Betsy, and Ellen, are the real story here. At novel’s dawn, Monica is in an asylum, Ellen is in a wheelchair, and Betsy, well, that would be a real spoiler if I tell you what she is doing. None of the women have last names, even though the men, Carl Peters (Monica’s husband) and Wayne Brown (Senior and Junior, significantly) carry these badges of pedigree.  Leave it to the sociologists to put this in its perspective; from my middle-to-working-class background, this rings true even today that women from low socioeconomic status backgrounds might find their identities through the men in their lives.

Each girl struggles to find fulfillment in their own way. Monica wants the ring and the fantasy, marrying Carl Peters, the Most Popular and Most Likely to Succeed from their high school class. Ellen inherited the propensity for sexual addiction, and Betsy, who writes with literary flair that befits someone whose route to the middle class will come through her apprenticeship at the library, seeks true, holy, passionate love. Though she finds everything she prays for in the arms of illiterate but basically noble Wayne Brown Jr., her outcome is the darkest of all the characters.

D’Aguanno’s gift to the literary world is that he dignifies and honors the struggles, travails, and passions of these humble people for whom college attendance would be like completing a marathon for most of us. There is no sermon anywhere in here. Even the most spiteful act is understood; lust is accepted, and when coupled with a rush of spirit, is honored. Only one character shows ill throughout, and that is Carl Peters, who lives in resentment that the world hasn’t given him his every whim. Carl shows a horrid dark side, which will allow this book to be used as a study in psychopathy. However, even Carl’s malevolence evolves over the course of the book.

Why She Left Us is a dramatic book. I don’t envision it on the silver screen, but I can imagine an effective staging of the book as theater. A director would have to manage the parallel timelines between the crucial summer of 1985 and its grim aftermath in 1986. The author crafted the ’85 and ’86 scenes with absolute precision. At 428 pages, this qualifies on some Goodreads lists as a “big book,” and I found that it required work to get through. However, I found the characters accompanying me through my work day, reacting to events in my own life. The absolute surprise at the end wouldn’t be enough if the characters weren’t so lovingly treated, so don’t read this like a whodunit. But if you want to experience real life, with real emotions and a unique take on the eternal question of love, then you should make sure that Why She Left Us is part of your world.

Create a World; Invite Me In

I can’t tell you that I read this novel for my usual reason – as anyone who follows my reviews knows, I’m trying to help other new authors and to build the “platform” of people who would be interested in reading my own historical novel, 3 Through History, also available at Amazon.

Frank Tallis doesn’t need my review, but it turned out that I needed to read his book! Tallis’s Vienna is the city of Mahler and Freud, where the forensic psychiatrist and the detective were using psychiatric tips that make Sir Arthur Conan Doyle look like a hack, but lacking any forensic physical tools except a keen eye and a canny wit. As a former opera singer myself, I read with a certain degree of personal investment when Mahler appeared in the script. A rivalry between a rising star with deep psychological and sensual needs and a seemingly perfect, established star would appeal to anyone, not just a musician, but in fact, I know almost all the music referenced in the novel. Now there’s a good one. All the other details of the Viennese society described in this book matched dead-on with what I had learned from my experience in opera, singing Wagner.

If you are the kind of reader who likes a convincing murder mystery, and any unfamiliar trappings get in your way, you would find this book tedious. But if you are any other kind of mystery reader, or a reader of historical fiction for whom the mystery is only one way to structure the book, you will revel in the historical accuracy where you walk the streets of Vienna, and take the train to the various other locales that our heroes have to visit, you will revel in the opportunity to travel in place and time.

Ghost-writing: Empathy Needed!

In my new job as assistant editor at GGIS Publishing, a faith-positive (mostly Christian) start-up publishing company, one of my jobs is to take raw notes and develop a book. Sometimes, more than raw – in more than one way. I am working with a rapper I’ll call “A.”. This is a story that just makes me want to scratch my hair out.

Boy, 5, loses father to jail on attempted murder charge. Mom, younger brother, 3, and older sister, 10, move in with grandmother and great-grand-mother. Mom has series of affairs and gets hooked on crack cocaine. Most recent affair, with children present, borders on prostitution to feed the habit. Boy saves mom from strangulation by attacking man from behind with a knife. Little family huddles until man falls asleep, takes bus fare and escapes back to grandma. Grandma kicks mom out for smoking crack in the laundry room of the house. 

The streets reach out with the hugs and embraces that grandma and great-grandma can’t provide. Any wonder where boy’s mind is in school instead of learning to read? African-American version of one of Dickens’s street urchins commits series of petty crimes to make it from day to day, and for the “excitement.” A way to know you’re still alive, I guess. Never mind how many p

A serial runaway from group homes and programs, boy reaches teenhood, still unable to read, but now skilled at slinging rock. Not a power playa, because his allies all die violent deaths. His brother and sister steal his safe, appropriating the contents, which he needs to repay his upline. More people die. A goes in and out of Juvenile Hall. He gets a girl pregnant (she’s 15). Somehow, he manages to put a demo for Capitol (remember them?), and they tell him to expand on it; they like what he’s got. But he goes back to the hoosegow. In men’s prison now, he makes it a quest to become literate. 

Skip forward. He’s released, and he starts making just a bit of headway in his own life. He marries the mother of his baby, now ten years old. His group starts making a living at hip-hop, and he makes a practice of showing up at random places with coats (unbranded), shoes, and toys. He starts looking like a family man, and no observer of his YouTube stuff would ever guess where he came from. He seems almost shy, almost embarrassed to be on camera.

It is a story of redemption, but you can’t tell me that this is going to be easy for this white, Jewish man who has never seen a rock of crack before to write this. 

Incidentally, I am posting all of A Song for Aba as fan fiction on my sister blog Aquaverse for free so that those lovers of YA/MG (hero age 10, heroine 12) will impress Lois Lowry with the need for Annemarie Johanssen to live after 1943. Please check it out.