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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.


What do you think about this chapter?

This is Ezra’s first extended convo with his friend Annemarie Johanssen, who is now Annemarie Nilssen and the great-grandmother of one of his best friends. I need Annemarie to have a strong enough motivation to revisit the past to cause her to convince Ezra to go back and muck around with the timeline, thus causing WWIII.


“Annemarie?” Ezra asked, in low enough tones that Heike wouldn’t hear.


“What was happening when you first came to the US?”

“My parents were very fortunate after the war. Ellen’s father played a part in getting us over. Copenhagen was just coming back to life, and of course, I was able to write to Ellen again. Mr. Rosen had come to be a well-respected man in the shipbuilding industry. He was able to maintain the Aberdeen yards well enough that there were at least five offers for his services. I didn’t like the prospect of them going to the States without us, but what could I do?” Annemarie looked up, as if she were recalling a plan that she had hatched. 

“You didn’t have me there to dream you back.”

“Right, and even if you were there, I would have had to create a story for you so that you wouldn’t wind up in one of those awful DP camps.”

“DP camps? I never heard of those,” Ezra mused.

“Displaced Persons. It was terrible. There were refugees of all kinds who couldn’t go home for whatever reason, who got moved to a DP camp. The sad thing is that some of the Jews had survived in spirit only, like walking ghosts. Now they were put in another camp, and can you imagine,” Annemarie looked in Ezra’s eyes for emphasis, “the UN put barbed wire on top of the fences?”

“Yuk!” Ezra responded.

“Yuk, right, Ezra. My mother was a nurse before the war, so she made it to the camp in (  ). I think that Mr. Rosen suggested it. Once Mama found quarters, we moved there. We stayed eighteen months.”

“Eighteen months in a DP camp? That sounds pleasant.”

“Ezra, it was awful! I just spent every day I my bed, crying.”

“Didn’t your mom try to find you some friends? That’s what my mom did when we came to Philadelphia.”

“There weren’t very many young people left! Most of them had starved during the war, or were taken away to the gas chambers.”

Silence settled over the two of them. After a few moments, Annemarie continued.

“There was a girl there, who it turns out was from Poland. She was sixteen, but she was no bigger than me, and she had never…”

“Had a period?” Ezra interjected. Annemarie’s eyes twinkled that Gilleleje twinkle again, just as they had when Ezra last saw them, either nine months or sixty-eight years earlier, depending on which dream-traveller you ask.

“Right you are, Ezra,” Annemarie continued. “She thought for certain that the Nazis had taken that from her. My mom and I spent extra time trying to heal her. She stayed sticklike for the eighteen months that she lived with us, but after a year, she had gained a little bit of weight and some muscle tone.”

“How did you help her do that?”

“First off, I didn’t let her eat anything too rich at first. We made tons, huge vats, of rice pudding, so that the Jews could keep it down. As Fruma gained weight, I made her exercise with me. She learned how to lift her arms again, and then to hold potatoes in them. Finally, she started doing deep knee-bends, so I put whey powder in her food. Then one month, I think it was the month that she made 40 kg, – that’s about 88 pounds – it happened! She had a period, and we celebrated. She and I spent all night giggling, creating imaginary boyfriends, and creating ridiculous anatomies for her first lover so that she could produce a child who could defeat the Third Reich all by himself.”

Ezra interjected. “What did you tell her about me?”

“I told her you were my boyfriend, and that you had to go back to Palestine to prepare for Independence. I told her you would come back and get me pregnant, and I’d share you with her if she wanted.” Ezra was happy that he could easily see a fourteen-year-old girl in front of him, not the octogenarian with the dancing blue eyes.

“Wait a minute, Mrs. Nilssen, just what did you tell her I was packing?”

“Ezra, I didn’t know what you were packing, and for all I know, you are going to keep your promise.”

“What promise was that?” Ezra had forgotten.

“By the sound, under the full moon, that you would dream your way back to me when you get to be fifteen and be my first lover,” Annemarie said, clearly enjoying the provocative nature of the discussion.

“I remember now. I said I’d be your first boyfriend. I didn’t promise THAT! But I guess, maybe, I would like that. For you to be my first. But what if I get you pregnant?” Ezra was starting to get the same temporal displacement headaches he used to get when he and Annemarie first met in his dreams, in the bad old days when his mom wouldn’t let him see Aba.

“Silly, isn’t it obvious? Our child grows up to have a son, who marries your mom, they have children, and you stay in Kazakhstan and never meet me!”

“In which case the whole thing blows up. 2x=4x, x=0. We’re learning that in pre-algebra. But that wouldn’t happen. What do you know about infertility?” Ezra asked this question sardonically.

“Oh, right. Your mom and my son adopt you and live happily ever after, so you don’t get the nightmares, and you don’t get to me. So once again, we never meet, my kid doesn’t marry your mom, temporal train wreck.” Annemarie had begun to think she had figured out the paradox, when…

“My mom meets my dad instead, and restores the timeline.”

Ouch, Annemarie thought.

“But what about that you come back, find me in the DP camp, we have a baby, who then becomes your grandfather?”

Stumped, Ezra scratched his scalp, turning his jet-black hair into a spike pattern. After a brief pause, Ezra reached into his jeans pocket, removed a Beyblade and its launcher, and loaded it up.

“Then my grandfather produces kids who never feature in the equation. My mom still meets Aba, they still adopt me, I still meet you – nice try, but,” Ezra continued while launching his Rock Orso across the coffee table, “Stadium Out!”

“Ezra,” Annemarie chuckled, “I’ve only known how to be a boy for nine months.”

Ezra gave Annemarie a love tap on her slightly wrinkled cheek. “Or sixty-nine years.”

“Bedstemor Nilssen, can you give me my friend back, please?” Heike stuck her nose into the living room. It was, after all, her sleepover. Ezra captured Rock Orso, gave his elderly friend a quick kiss, and said, “Wake me up when Heike and Jake are asleep. I have an idea.”


How does this read to you?

MLK, AJH, IHN and the 65

MLK, AJH, IHN, and the 65



Be Essential

Be Solid

Be Constructive


This inscription on the billboard of a SEPTA bus

Stood leering at the single dads who said, “Who, us?”

With the swinging of a hammer, singing out the pain

Takes me back to Peter Yarrow, can’t forget the name


When the streets were full of marchers (was it worth the fuss?)

Some put flowers in machine guns (might they root in dust)

Some let silence wax poetic as they blocked the streets

Now their children and their children don’t have what to eat


If I were a hammer, I would hammer in the morning

Throw out of the shelters into weather that was storming

I would hammer in the evening open up the doors

As the homeless stumble back from work, can’t take any more.


But the justice and the freedom to the wolves were cast

Cuz the passions of the people, they’re too hot to last

“The words of the prophets still speak to us today”

But with eardrums made of platinum we can’t hear to obey


Be Essential!

Be Solid!

Be Constructive!


The bare_ foot ba_ by crying for his mother

Opens door after door seeking comfort from another

You’re not too young to see that you must make your space

Find whatever arms will love in-a-world that has no face


The justice that will flow like a mighty stream

Swept the fathers and the brothers in a lifeless seam

Called the prisons and the shelters and the corners, too

Empty days of bleak dependence they are beckoning you


Frozen women’s hands button up your diapers

Though the touch is cold, the heart is warm, so you don’t fight her.

Circle time is spent around donated heaters

Charity from members is a vital feature


No one taught the rich that freedom isn’t free.

It’s dragged in chains from across the sea.

It’s loaded in the bottom of a rotting boat

All the “tempest-tost” of ghettos yore who just sought hope.


Be Essential

Be Solid

Be Constructive



Be Essential

Be Solid

Be Constructive



Rich kids drown in books that kids in shelters lack

Hunger and privation team to hold you back

Head on your desk, dinner wasn’t much

Now your teacher tries to reach you though she cannot touch


Hungry and distracted, you can make few friends

Slogging through the morning for the classes to end.

One decent meal is all you get today

Til the charter’s budget cuts take half the food away


Come to graduation and you got no skills,

Fall into the swamp, no way to pay the bills.

Hustling your loosies doesn’t pay the rent

Twenty years, you wonder where your chances went


In search of a name you screwed a willing girl

She bragged to her sistahs that she rocked your world

Three seasons on they make you take a test,

Just another kid in poverty; you know the rest.


Be Essential!

Be Solid!

Be Constructive!



Be Essential!

Be Solid!

Be Constructive!





an equal distribution of weight; even balance; equilibrium.
Definition courtesy of
The usual feeling here is that masses are in balance. There is a steroid by this name, but let me say that the term is not related to the drug in my mind. I am currently is a position of equipoise – but this is no place of happiness. Rather, the masses in balance seem to block my every move.
My books are doing the worst thing possible – sitting in the hands of agents, or not. I can’t tell if I will have an agent – or do I jut resign myself to knowing that there is no way, given my legendary ineptitude at marketing, that my work will bring me anything but frustration? Will I give up on writing the way I gave up on music – without an audience, I had no motivation to write?
I am waiting for my first assignment as an editor with a new publishing house. What do I do? I know that any book I touch will improve because I sink my teeth into it, but I need a client in order to get paid. 
I had a sales job, but the company reorganized – I’m not sure what I have tto sell. My final way of making money these days is as a “shomer,” that is, someone who sits with dead people before their funerals and reads psalms and such throughout the night. Well, people have to pay for that, and if the funeral home that I work with doesn;t have anyone whose families want to pay to have someone do that, the decedent sits on ice with no one keeping the soul company.
It can be a dismal life, this work as a writer. Equipoise. Like a bodybuilder who has dosed on the drug for too long, I just can’t move.

Forged in Flame, a Review

They inspire our creations, the creations of madmen. They fire the embers of our weak imaginations and make us soar over the nullities of our lives to speak with gods. Leonardo da Vinci, “the Conqueror,” longed to copy them. Thousands of our best young artists and designers struggle to illustrate them. And in Forged in Flame, five authors tell their stories: here there be Dragons.

This slim anthology of five novellas explores dragons as they might have appeared in mythology, how they might have interacted, even mated, with humanity, and how the innate madness of these creations might fire the madness of inventors. Thirty-one year old Samuel Mayo is first, with a short appropriately titled “First Flight.” This novella might be targeted at the middle grade reader, with young teen-aged protagonists and a villain who must steal an unnatural power source. The “flight” refers to the boy’s invention and the demon dragon that must steal the power-generator to wreak havoc on a post-apocalyptic Earth. We leap back to the wonders of a medieval landscape, with a peaceable kingdom besieged on all sides – except from the North, the land of the mystical creatures who would leave the kingdom to its fate. But then the Dragon Kingdom learns that it has scales in the game. The massive, peaceful giants weigh in on the side of harmony. This novella is written by a fantasy writer, Brian Collier, who has always made writing his profession.

Eric White, another writer who struggles to create his fantasy world out of a schedule committed to earning a living another way, brings us a medieval aquascape, rather than a landscape. In “Birth Pains,” a girl reprises Mary by bearing without the benefit of a man, but she carries triplets – triplet dragons, that is. Even when she seems like a girl in trouble, used by a boy whose reputation she has sworn to protect, two heroes arise to bring her to the place where she can make this miraculous birth. One is her devoted grandmother, and another is a sea warrior who makes Admiral Peary go weak at the knees.  In “Golden Legacy” by 22-year-old author Jana Boskey, a man of decidedly paranormal blood – half dragon, half “Faerie” – is hunted by an Assassin, a teenaged girl who knows nothing but pursuit of people with paranormal abilities. There is an ongoing struggle of life and death here; Boskey’s genius is to make the supremely powerful dragon legend hover between life and death at the point of a dagger wielded by a teen-aged girl.

In “Heart of Steel,” Caitlyn McColl brings us the mind of the insatiable inventor, whose quest for truth transforms into a lust for revenge when he finds his beloved apparently murdered. The remarkable genius who brings forth cyborg creatures of every description brings a great dragon automaton to life to seek revenge. The identity of the killer, and the nature of the crime, twist the plot into a psychological pretzel.  The final story, from D. Robert Pease, author of the two Noah Zarc novels, brings us full-circle in the lore of dragons. In “A Chink in the Armor,” the dragon seeks the greatest warrior on Earth to confront and to test the mettle of in battle. Humanity has found that it has come upon an enemy that it cannot overcome. In the words of Blue Oyster Cult, “History shows again and again how Nature points out the folly of men!”

Forged in Flame is my first exposure to dragons since the Lord of the Rings and Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas. I was mightily impressed by the scope of the works contained herein, from the geeklike to the epic. The writers and editors who compiled this volume have done a marvelous job! There is one flaw, that borders on the serious: it is not OK to miss homophones in the editing process. A writer can be excused (barely) for using “vile” when he means “vial,” but a publisher had better keep such mistakes out of their product if it is to make a name for itself as a quality publisher. This fault is severe enough to lose half a mark in my book. If I could break a star, this would reduce my rating from 5 to 4.5 stars, but in a whole-star system, I give this collection five stars and a resume for a copy editor.