CURRY PATTA, JUNGLE OATS, AND PEACE CORPS

My wife keeps a curry plant to flavor her beautiful Indian cooking. Our boys have taken to snapping off the greenest leaves and eating them raw. Their chewing fills the air with a sharp, fresh scent. Yesterday, the plant was brought indoors—frost—to spend the night on our low kitchen table. When the boys found it there this morning, they couldn’t resist eating curry patta (leaves) with their oatmeal.

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The episode stirred a cherished memory from my earliest days in the Peace Corps (my wife and I served as education volunteers in Malawi from 1996-98). I arrived at the school many weeks before the term began and decided to pass the unfilled days climbing Mt. Mulanje with a good friend, Mr. Smith. We hadn’t received our first month’s allowance, so our supplies were limited, and on the last day of our expedition we had nothing left to flavor our Jungle Oats© but the dusty remnants from a tin of Rajah Curry©. We laughed about it then, all the harder knowing how funny it would seem 20 years later to have eaten curried oats.

Malawi's Mt. Mulanje. Credit www.maravipost.com

Malawi’s Mt. Mulanje. Credit http://www.maravipost.com

If you must eat them, curried oats are best enjoyed in a cedar hut at 6,000 feet, with a cold, sharp wind blowing down off Chambe peak or some other pointed summit. They are equally satisfying on the morning of autumn’s first frost in the company of two young boys with adventurous palates. Either way, the Peace Corps has introduced me to an odd but joyful combination of oats and curry.

Read more about the Peace Corps experience, Malawi, and curried oats.

 

The Return of Preston Lang

Stoked to learn Preston Lang will be back soon with his second crime book, The Blind Rooster, a “crude slice of American Noir, sunny side down”. Echoes of Jim Thompson and Elmore Leonard? Bring it.

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Preston Lang released his discreetly funny debut, The Carrier, last spring, weaving three narrative threads into one heartless tale. Drug courier Cyril and stick-up girl Willow pursue a hazy trail of money, drugs, or gold across the great American heartland in a game of betrayal and counter-betrayal, but the treasure can’t belong to both and their relationship must end in an unmarked grave. Betrayal also lies at the broken heart of the second narrative, as sex-offender Danny Chin and his beefcake partner Marcus pursue Cyril and Willow for a score: Chin for money, Marcus to win the love of his girlfriend. But Duane and Inez get in the way, too good for the criminal enterprise to which they belong—which isn’t saying much. After all, mastermind Pat Sajak is withering under the influence of his own narcotics and is hobbled by strange sexual proclivities like having plastic army men tossed at his wiener.

Often dead funny, The Carrier entertains without pretense before racing through a brutal, breathless, corkscrew finish. Full review.

the-carrier

Post Season Baseball–Guts

To kick off Major League Baseball’s season of glory: a short story about baseball featuring steroids, breast milk, and courage. From Guts, first published by Atticus Review September 2012.

MLB

That sweet curving thumb of mine put a wild spin on every ball I threw. Curveballs, sliders, pitches that dropped four inches just before the plate. Northern Leaguers called it “the plunger”. Batters coiled up, twisted backs, pulled muscles, quit the game in frustration. Those who caught a piece of my fastball felt it in their teeth. Lefties, righties, the umps called them out one after another.

Stonebriar College offered a scholarship. I wasn’t interested in school, self-improvement, baseball, any of it, but the sad twinkle in my father’s eyes prompted me to accept. He was a lonely man on a pallet jack filling orders from the nation’s grocery chains at the Sweetlife Food Depot, a man of no ambition who instilled no ambition in me. I saw that fleeting glimmer of hope and pride and for once had the courage to achieve.

Twenty batters reached base during my first season. Ten the next. My third season opened with back-to-back no-hitters, all of it thanks to the plunging pitches that rolled off my twisted thumb. All of it thanks to Turfle and Harbinger and that middle school courage to defend Alan Cheeks. Nine after nine I climbed the mound. I didn’t even see the batters. I read Hemp’s signals and threw exactly what he asked for. Nine after nine I dealt strike after strike. I was a sure thing for the Majors, if.

“If what?”

“If you were a little bigger.”

“Bigger.”

“And Faster.”

“Faster.”

“And stronger.”

“So I’m not cut out for the Majors.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You can tell me, Doc.”

“Ever hear of-?”

“-Never heard of it.” The quarrelsome guys on the team, quarrelsome, irascible, the Dickey Harbingers and Mike Turfles full of aggressive talk and big ambitions, they used performance enhancing drugs like HGH. They didn’t fit into their bodies. They were bigger than their bodies and bigger than their uniforms and their aluminum bats made hollow pinging sounds in the cold twilight of early spring baseball.

I calculated my chances of making it without steroids and left school. Why put my body through all that–break down, rebuild, pool, sauna, weight room, mound, bus, bench, sprints, squats–just to wind up at a dead end? I could dictate my own dead end and no more break down, rebuild, pool, sauna, weight room, mound, bus, bench, sprints, squats.

I returned home and went to work at the easiest thing I could find: stocking shelves at the Super Food Mart. Game over. No more striving. No more anxiety. My biggest dilemma was whether or not to open a box with 12 cans of Manwich when the shelf would hold only seven. Simple problem. Simple solution. Nothing in the world was going to change because of it. I saw all the days of my future rolling out before me next to Laughing Brook Park, and the nights at the Super Food Mart putting cans on the shelves.

Until the morning I met George’s mother. Her first words to me: “It was my fault.”

“Are you ok?”

“It was my fault.”

“You’re shaking.”

“My daddy… My daddy…”

“Is there someone else in the car?”

“I’m sorry, I-”

“Doesn’t look like you’re bleeding. Do you want an ambulance?”

“I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m…”

She insisted on making it right. Insurance gave me a bit of money for the pickup. But insurance wasn’t enough. It was a fatal collision–we were married inside the year.

 

-

 

The pumping and the plunging are synchronized. George drains the bottle at the same time as his mother shuts off the pump. She holds up the bottles and squints closely at the contents like a scientist recording measurements in a beaker. She clucks, dissatisfied.

I lift George, set him bent-backed on my thigh, and beat him softly with the open palm of my hand. His bald head bounces with each gentle pat. He stares downwards with glazed eyes, his useless little hands balled into fists.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” George’s mother says.

Full Story

Review–You Can Lead a Horse to Water

(But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)

Queue the circus music when Sam, Muller, and Max join Max’s father Otis and mother Ruby in The Rec Room of Sound, Otis’s Internet radio broadcast, to consume pot-laced brownies and interview Bisquick the Mynah bird best known for biting nipples and repeating the phrase “Gimme some titty action”.

As the narrative careers from such inconsequence to further inconsequence, threatening to implode with all lack of import, it reveals instead our present state of communication and entertainment. How pathetic that an independent online radio program called Otis Cries for You can be a hit with thousands, that we might therefore get our emotions watered by watching Dr. Phil and Oprah.

Horse

Robert Bruce Cormack’s You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive) is a picaro’s tale with dialogue miscues straight out of Catch-22 and an unsung genius—Muller—who might have wandered in from A Confederacy of Dunces. File it under “Catch-22 for the late-life laid-off father-in-law/son-in-law relationship picaresque”.

Full Review

You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)
By Robert Bruce Cormack
Yucca Publishing, November 2014
Reviewed by Ben East

New York Times Responsible for Flow of ISIS Volunteers

The hyperbole above is intended in jest, of course, an eye-catching headline to mimic today’s lead story on NYT’s home page. It’s the Times’ second such sensational headline on the subject this week.

America Steps Up Fight to Stem Flow of ISIS Volunteers

Click to the story, however, and a different picture emerges. Suddenly the headline becomes:

U.S. Steps Up Fight to Block ISIS Volunteers

As earlier in the week, the Times’ own numbers contradict the idea of a “flow” of radicalized Americans to fight in Syria–about a hundred (nobody can say for sure) travelers in 3 1/2 years. That’s 2-3 a month. Granted, the number of charges against alleged American ISIS supporters has picked up, from five between 2011-2013 to 10 this past year. But one per month? Again, more a trickle than a flow.

WHY THIS MATTERS

1. “Radicalized youth” and others who may be waffling over their decision to join ISIS will find comfort and direction in a headline suggesting that others are “flowing” into Syria. These headlines build an inflated sense of purpose and movement in the minds of those who are obvious followers, easily-manipulated people in search of a cause.

2. At a certain point the issue will become a debate about U.S. taxpayer funding for programs to stop the “flow”. Irresponsible journalism now mischaracterizes the situation for Americans who will pay the price later of addressing a problem that may or may not exist.

3. When the Times relies on hyperbole to sell its product, it diminishes itself to the level of outlets like Fox News and CNN. Sad to see.

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Calling Out the Grey Lady

Today the @NYTimes posted a teaser making it sound as if “radicalized young Muslim Americans” are “flowing” into Syria to join the fight there. Flowing?

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The article itself indicates that “American law enforcement and intelligence officials say more than 100 Americans have gone to Syria, or tried to so far.” Let’s do the math. In a conflict spanning 3 1/2 years, about 100 Muslim Americans have gone, “or tried to”. In 42 months, it amounts to 2-3 persons per month traveling, or trying to travel, to Syria. Less than one a week. More of a trickle than a flow. The article itself acknowledges this a small number.

I raise the issue here after calling the grand Grey Lady on it. They chose not to post my comment on their web page.

Here’s the part I take exception to, my emphasis underlined:

“The Obama administration is redoubling its efforts to stanch the flow of radicalized young Muslim Americans traveling to Syria to join the fight and potentially returning as well-trained militants to carry out attacks here.

American law enforcement and intelligence officials say more than 100 Americans have gone to Syria, or tried to so far. That number of Americans seeking to join militants, while still small, was never seen during the two major wars fought in Afghanistan and Iraq…”

Intelligent Writing—Cliché Edition

Turns out the CIA has been keeping a classified dossier on public enemy number one for writers. I’m not talking about terrorists, coup-plotters, pirates or smugglers. No, the enemy in question, as common to us as the common cold, is the appearance of cliché in really bad writing.

In its recently de-classified document titled “Bestiary of Intelligence Writing”, the CIA discloses the agency’s 15 most common enemies of the state of writing. This compendium of facile thinking and lazy style identifies–in sketches as well as text–the worst national security risks when it comes to the art of writing and intelligence. Among them are:

  • Viable Alternatives
  • Mounting Crises
  • Heightened Tensions
  • Dire Straights
  • Far-reaching Implications, and
  • Foreseeable futures

While I pity the poor beast called the “Nonstarter”—“distinguished from genuine starters which have brass grommets so they can be run up a flagpole and saluted”—my favorites are pictured below.

CIA officers, among the most clichéd characters in all of literature, have finally revealed to us our worst nightmare. To quote the Bestiary: “Confusion is probably almost inevitable.”

Which beast is your favorite?

 

The Almost Inevitable--some people argue, no doubt because it is so seldom seen, that the AI doesn't really exist

The Almost Inevitable–some people argue, no doubt because it is so seldom seen, that the AI doesn’t really exist

FF

The Foreseeable Future–moody, dangerous animals that frequently turn upon their masters, causing great public humiliation

HT

Heightened Tensions–thrive on a rich diet of poverty, malnutrition, and alienation

Review–The Way Inn

“Your personal details aren’t the new currency, but they are the new price of admission.”

The Way Inn is an exceptionally well-written novel of acute observation and creative imagery in a world both real and surreal. Will Wiles succeeds throughout with prose that is imaginative and immersive, complex and compelling. Experience the moment as the narrator deals with his dry-cleaning: “I kept tearing at the plastic, pulling it down over the suit until it lay fizzing and crackling on the floor, tremoring with tiny, obscene movements like a deep-sea invertebrate dying on a beach.” Witness the common made extraordinary as a familiar stranger engages with her cell phone: “Whatever her name was, still plucking and probing at her phone, although with visibly waning enthusiasm, like a bird of prey becoming disenchanted with a rodent’s corpse.” Wiles is a writer—an architectural journalist by trade—who sees and hears; who feels and senses; a writer who detects and transmits.

The Way Inn

It’s no conceit to imagine The Way Inn on the silver screen, and when his nemesis storms the hallway after Neil, bellowing the word “Housekeeping!”—“feedback whine stripping the humanity from his consonants”—one can easily picture Jack Nicholson, axe in hand, grinning through a battered door in The Shining to declare, “Honey, I’m home”.

If you don’t attend trade shows for a living, you should read The Way Inn for a glimpse of the nightmare you’re missing. If you do attend trade shows for a living, you should read The Way Inn as a wake-up call from your nightmare. Reading this book felt like being caught inside a Rubik’s Cube in the hands of demons hell bent on destruction.

Full Review


The Way Inn
By Will Wiles
HarperCollins, September 16, 2014 (released in U.K. in June)
Reviewed by Ben East (www.benonbooks.com)

The Family Hightower–Out Today

Brian Francis Slattery’s keen omniscience delivers the crime story of a century, a tale grounded on history and fact—obscure Americana, strange third world realities—taking the reader from 1995 Cleveland to  1986 Sub Saharan Africa before traveling back to prohibition and a 20th century historical tour of Ukraine and Romania. Where and when are we? We are all times and all places, because this American Dream is an eternal, global dream about getting rich however you can.

FHT

The narrative rings true on its details: the book of proverbs from a market in Onitsha, Nigeria, titled Learn to Speak 360 Interesting Proverbs and Know Your True Brother; the Mad Butcher’s discarded human torso, “a woman’s, wrapped in heavy brown paper, a striped summer coat, and a quilt. The thighs are right under it, bundled in the same paper and held together with a rubber band”. The banal turned extraordinary by juxtaposition to the horrible.

“Do you see it now?” the narrator asks. “Where the spine of the story begins and ends?  Call it capitalism.  Call it American…” To Peter, the Ukrainian-American patriarch, the founder of the family Hightower’s wealth, “Being American is an idea, not an identity.  It means you’re rising, progressing, moving forward….”

Keen insight, superb pacing.  History, culture, brutality, money. There’s Slattery’s American Dream. What a read.

Full Review

The Family Hightower
By Brian Francis Slattery
Seven Stories Press, September 9, 2014
Reviewed by Ben East

 

 

Out Next Week–The Family Hightower

In The Family Hightower Brian Francis Slattery unspools a tale of global crime and capitalism spanning the last century. An example of his creative storytelling: Slattery introduces one of the novel’s most noble characters when she’s already carved into a disemboweled corpse, skin all sown up in jagged stitches. Dare the reader care about this eviscerated entity as the narrative delves into her back-story?  Turns out we can and do root for a dead thing whose story examines Eastern Europe’s criminal underworld–where people are dying for their livers and their eyes.

Illustration: Alex Nabaum http://goo.gl/rIzuJK

Illustration: Alex Nabaum http://goo.gl/rIzuJK

More

The Family Hightower
By Brian Francis Slattery
Seven Stories Press, Forthcoming September 2014
Reviewed by Ben East