Christmas in Texas–Italian Style

by Francine Paino

We Italian-Americans take our Christmas tradition seriously – as do Texans. I’m fascinated by some of the “Texas-American” customs, including Fried Turkey, on Christmas Day, which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of tasting. My son-in-law, a fabulous cook, promises that one day he’ll do it for us.

I cannot, however, separate myself from my cultural heritage being only a second-generation American, and more of an immigrant than I’d ever realized, having grown up in an immigrant community of Italians, in Corona, New York. I’ve lived my life until six years ago, in New York surrounded primarily by other Italians and Jews, many of whom graced our home and table to share our Christmas Eve rituals. Many are no longer with us in this world, but my love for them spans time, distance, and death – Here’s what they shared with us, and what I brought to Texas with me.

The tradition of the special Christmas Eve dinner for La Vigilia (the vigil), came over with the unwanted Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the U.S., it evolved into The Feast of the Seven Fishes

Hundreds of years ago, until the reforms of the 1960s, the Catholic liturgical calendar specified several days of abstinence from food and meats altogether; Christmas Eve was once such day. Although no longer required by the Church, preparing meatless meals and specifically fish dinners on Christmas Eve is still a widespread tradition across Italy and other predominantly Roman Catholic countries. Its origins, however, were rooted in the impoverished areas of southern Italy, where locals relied on fish because it was considerably less expensive than meat. 

Some of my warmest childhood memories of Christmas Eve are of my grandmother preparing a range of fishes. Baccala (dried cod) salad, followed by spaghetti with a red sauce with eel (which I never ate) and/or Linguini with clams and anchovies (I always picked out the anchovies – which got me into a world of trouble.) Following the pasta dishes were lots of vegetables, fried smelts, maybe some baked flounder or redfish (what she bought depended on price). Fruit, coffee and hard biscotti ended the meal – and we all looked forward to the sumptuous dinner we’d have on Christmas Day.

For many years, in my home in New York, the Vigil dinner on Christmas Eve brought family and close friends to our table to share food, fun, stories of my husband’s and my backgrounds, as well as the tradition of our friends of other cultures who’d join us.

Typical menus always started with appetizers, followed by salads, then at least two different fish dishes. When my mother-in-law was alive, she’d prepare my husband’s favorite, a Sicilian dish of codfish in a red sauce with potatoes and capers. Linguini with white clam sauce was a constant, as well as bakes flounder and shrimp scampi. We always had an array of vegetables and the meal ended with coffees – espresso, American and decaf, as well as fruits, and cakes. (For our non-Catholic friends I always had roasted chicken and beef), but I held my family’s feet to the fire: No Meat on Christmas Eve! 

When my children were very young, we made a big production of Santa’s arrival at midnight (Yes, that’s the one night a year I’d wake them from a sound sleep to greet Santa). Well, children grow, life moves on, many of the elders pass away, and we moved to Texas, where new traditions add to the old.

This year, on Christmas Eve, we were a scant fourteen because only one of my daughters lives in Austin. She, her husband, and three children were here, along with my son-in-law’s mother and my friend, our Scottish/British friends and their triplets, and, of course, my mother, the still cooking and baking nonagenarian.

I decided for this Vigil dinner, I would prepare a seven fish menu. We began with appetizers of sardines with jalapeno cream cheese on crackers with hot sauce; smoked salmon on toasts with cream cheese and capers; a halibut salad, anchovies, and spicy green olives, shrimp cocktail and an assortment of other olives and cheeses. Most of these were consumed with pre-dinner drinks – gotta keep those appetites going!

The first course at the table was a green-bean and sliced pepper salad – then came the star of the evening: Cioppino – Something I’ve adopted as my Christmas Eve tradition 

Cioppino traveled from west to east. Created in the late 1800s by the Italian fisherman in California, this tomato-based seafood stew contained leftovers from the day’s catch, and cooked on the boats while at sea. 

There are some myths concerning the origin on the word Cioppino; it is not the fractured English of fisherman asking each other to Chip-a EENO. The immigrant fishermen were predominantly from the Genoa region of Northern Italy. In the Ligurian dialect, the word “ciuppin” (chu-pin) means “to chop” or “chopped,” which is an apt description of the process of making Cioppino.

Here, almost 200 years later, in my home in Austin, my Cioppino contained cod, shrimps, clams, scallops, and crabmeat. ( All store-bought, by the way. I’m not a fisherperson.) I served Texas toasts and crusty Italian bread to soak up the delicious liquid in the bowl. Stuffed, we then refreshed our palates with fruits and took a rest to track Santa’s progress from the North Pole.

The meal ended with an assortment of cakes, from cheesecake to my mother’s homemade apple turnovers, biscotti, and pound cake – Yes, at 96, she still bakes. 

Before everyone departed to rush home before Santa arrived, the children gathered around the crèche. I passed the figure of baby Jesus from child to child and last to received Him, placed Him in the manger. The next day we’d celebrate His birth. This is a new custom I’ve started to remind them why we celebrate Christmas.

I don’t know what the next iteration of our Italian-American/Texas Christmas Eve traditions will be, but I’m confident the constant will be family and friends. 

Buon Natale e felice anno nuovo a tutti!

(Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.)

***

A native New Yorker and a Texas transplant, Francine Paino, aka F. Della Notta, loves learning about her new State and enjoys melding the cultures and characteristics of two cities: New York and Austin.

Appropriately, the Live Music Capitol of the World is where she and her husband now live, under the watchful and loving direction of their cat, Miss Millie.

Ms. Paino has had a varied career in the business end of dance. She has worked for several dance notables, including Ali Pourfarrokh, and the late Kaleria Fedicheva. Her passion for ballet, opera, and history fuel much of her writing.

Her first book, a Young Adult, Paranormal murder mystery, TO LIVE AND DIE FOR DANCE, received recognition from Purple Dragonfly and The Hollywood Book Festival, and her children’s book, MAMA’S LITTLE LADY: A SPECIAL PONY, also won an award from the Purple Dragonfly Book Contest.

Her short stories, “An Unwelcome Image,” a psychological thriller was published in Over My Dead Body, an online mystery magazine, and one of her humorous tales, “A Supermarket Nightmare,” was carried in Funny Times Magazine.

In 2018, writing as F. Della Notte, she created the Housekeeper Mystery Series in the tradition of the clergy amateur sleuths, with a 21st-century twist. The housekeeper isn’t a sidekick; she is the sleuthing equal of the priest. The second book in the Housekeeper Mystery Series, CATWALK DEAD, will be released in 2019.

John Le Carré, Agent Running in the Field (October 17, 2019)

by Helen Currie Foster

John li Carre, by Krimidoedel, CC BY 3.0, via Wikipedia

Okay, you already know I’m hooked on le Carré. Never did I think any of his characters would buy my allegiance more than George Smiley, the nearsighted brilliant cuckold, a scholar of German romantic poetry, capable of thinking many chess moves ahead. Smiley can spin a web to catch a traitor. Smiley’s heroic.

But now, Nat’s got me. Nat, 47-year old field man from the British secret service or “Office,” has returned to his London home from Europe, at loose ends. He has proudly served his Queen, his country, his Service. He’s a jock, loves running, loves to play ferocious strategic badminton at the Athleticus, a club near his home. He’s Club champion. He loves his wife Prue, who as his spouse actually served the Office when they were stationed together in Russia. Prue now handles big pro bono legal cases and Nat likes to drop in to watch her courteous destruction of the opposition. Nat, with his German-Russian-English-Scots background, speaks Russian like a native. Now he’s expecting to be made “redundant,” put out to pasture, offered dead-end private sector jobs in, say, security.

Meanwhile, at the Athleticus he is challenged by a tall, bespectacled, socially awkward guy, Ed Shannon, who demands a match with the Club champion. Nat assesses this approach:

And the voice itself, of which by now I have a fair sample? In the time-honored British parlour game of placing our compatriots on the social ladder by virtue of their diction I am at best a poor contestant, having spent too much of my life in foreign parts. But to the ear of my daughter Stephanie, a sworn leveler, my guess is that Ed’s diction would pass as just about all right, meaning no direct evidence of a private education.

How deft is that description? So deft. Part of le Carré’s genius is to compose sentences which effortlessly expand the characters and scenes he’s building. Here Nat describes himself using (italicized) info from his own employment file:

I possess rugged charm and the accessible personality of a man of the world.

I am in appearance and manner a British archetype, capable of fluent and persuasive argument in the short term. I adapt to circumstance and have no insuperable moral scruples.

What a great ploy, letting the narrator use other peoples’ descriptions to present himself. Nat’s voice is irresistible.

Nat’s at a turning point. Now at home, waiting for some assignment from the Office and wondering about his future, he suspects his college student daughter thinks dad’s job performance is mediocre, far outshone by Prue’s legal career. It grates that his daughter doesn’t even know what he’s done:

I’d like to have told her why I’d failed to phone her on her fourteenth birthday because I knew it still rankled. I’d like to have explained that I had been sitting on the Estonian side of the Russian border in thick snow praying to God my agent would make it through the lines under a pile of sawn timber. I’d like to have given her some idea of how it had felt for her mother and me to live together under non-stop surveillance as members of the Office’s Station in Moscow where it could take ten days to clear or fill a dead letter box, knowing that, if you put a foot out of place, your agent is likely to die in hell.

When Nat goes in for the interview where he expects to be put out to pasture, we get an eyeful and earful of the infighting and sharp elbows within the Office. To our pleased surprise, Nat seems well able to handle those elbows. Furthermore, Nat wins the badminton match against the importunate Ed. When they drink a beer later, and after subsequent matches, Ed inveighs passionately against Trump, Putin, and the parlous situation of post-Brexit Britain. Meanwhile, instead of being terminated, Nat is asked to manage the Haven, a London sub-station of the Office, including supervising an intense agent named Florence who’s pressing the Office to approve Operation Rosebud. Operation Rosebud would insert eavesdropping equipment into the lush English home of a Ukrainian oligarch with well-documented links to Moscow Centre and Putin. Here’s Nat’s description of Florence:

And in Florence, as Giles [whom Nat’s replacing] was at pains to inform me over a nocturnal bottle of Talisker whisky in the back kitchen of the Haven, Rosebud had found an implacable if obsessive champion…

With Operation Rosebud about to begin, a sleeper Russian agent––currently acting as a double agent for the Office­­––requests an emergency meeting with Nat. It may be possible, the agent says, for Britain to capture a very big fish…well, no spoilers. Nat travels to Karlovy Vary to meet an informant who can identify the fish. The informant grills Nat, in dialogue so sharp on current world politics it hurts:

“So what are you?”
“A patriot, I suppose.”
What of? Facebook? Dot-coms? Global warming? Corporation so big they can gobble up your broken little country in one bite? Who’s paying you?”

Like a set of Matryoshka dolls, le Carré’s plot holds secrets within secrets within secrets. Le Carré fans know his plots, in hindsight, seem prescient: he brought us big pharma in Africa and disaster in Chechnya before those issues hit the world stage. Now he zeroes in on the Europe of today’s news broadcasts, with Putin looming to the east, Trump to the west, and Britain bent on Brexit. I found myself wondering––fearing––how real the most treacherous plot in this Matryoshka might turn out to be.

Meanwhile, I know Nat’s got hidden depths. I’m rooting for Nat––and Prue––all the way.

*

John le Carre. Agent Running in the Field. Viking, October 2019.

Cover photo of Agent Running in the Field via Amazon.com

Image of Matryoshka dolls by Schwoaze, via Pixabay

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the five novels in the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series, the latest of which is The Ghost Next Door.  A retired environmental lawyer, she lives with her husband near Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros.

How to Submit Short Stories to Magazines, Anthologies, & Contests

With so many self-publishing options available to writers, no one has to submit work to a publisher to see it in print. However, magazines, anthologies, and contests provide opportunities for authors to reach new readers. Getting published in a magazine or anthology can be great targeted advertising and winning an award can bring attention to one’s work.

The basic steps to submitting fiction manuscripts to magazines, anthologies, and contests are as follows:

STEP 1: Find calls for submissions.

Check blogs and websites that aggregate information on contests, submission openings, and publishing markets.

door-1590024_640One great place to find publication openings is The Grinder, which provides a searchable database with no login or fee required. Another site, Submittable, posts calls for submissions and provides the submission system through which to submit your work. Both Submittable and The Grinder will allow you to track your submissions. You have to create a login to use the tracking systems for both sites, but it’s free.

A blog called Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity provides a running list of contests, calls for submissions, and open markets for writers. Many writers’ organizations, such as Mystery Writers of America, also keep lists of publishing markets on their websites. Upcoming conventions typically have anthologies associated with them, so check convention websites for submission information. Authors can also join Facebook groups or other online discussion sites that post calls for submissions.

STEP 2: Avoid scams.

Always check the background of publishers or contests to which you are considering submitting work. Make sure they are not scams. Check the internet for complaints! Check WRITER BEWARE.

road-sign-464653_640Avoid licensing rights grabs in click-through contracts. Some contests will try to claim rights to your work simply because you entered the contest. If the contest claims rights to your work, you might not be able to publish the work elsewhere even if you lose the contest. Most legitimate publishers and contests will revert rights to the author after some period of exclusivity. Examine what rights to your work the publisher or contest is seeking. Make sure the licensing rights requested are appropriate. Read the fine print to avoid being scammed.

STEP 3: Verify your work is appropriate for the publisher.

Each publisher tries to carve out a niche so that their readers know what to expect. Magazines will look for stories that match their chosen tone, style, and niche. You must match your work to the market’s niche and tone for a better chance at publication. Read samples of the work published by different magazines. If you are considering submitting to an online e-zine, read their stories. Get a feel for the market to make sure your work matches what the editor is publishing. Then, target the highest paying, professional markets first. You don’t want to send something to a token market that might have been picked up by a pro market!

STEP 4: Read the submission guidelines!

After you sort the options, you may have several legitimate places to submit your work. Now read the submission guidelines carefully. Some, but not all, publishers allow for “simultaneous submissions.” This means you can submit the same piece to multiple venues at once. Most don’t allow “multiple submissions”- sending them more than one piece at a time- so send your best work only.

social-1206610_640Format your submission as directed. For example, some editors request William Shunn’s manuscript format. Other editors will make you jump through hoops with specific word usage, margins, and spacing. Follow the directions precisely.

Some markets use submission systems such as Submittable to receive manuscripts. Others ask you to attach a file to an email. No matter which method is required, always verify the file formats accepted! Some publishers reject .docx files in favor of .doc.

Once you submit your work, wait to hear back. Consult The Grinder to find out average response times.

STEP 5: Get used to rejection.

If you submit your work for publication, you will be rejected at some point!

stamp-1726352_640

Thousands of people submit work for publication every single day. Most will not be selected. Not being selected doesn’t mean that your work is bad. It only means that it wasn’t the right choice for someone at a given moment in time. Hold on to that work and resubmit it elsewhere. You may know of a place to submit it right away, or, in a year, you may see a call for submissions that fits your piece perfectly.

If you are worried about rejection, google “famous books rejected by publishers.” You will be amazed by the lists.

STEP 6: Continue submitting until you succeed!

As with most things in life, effort is required to achieve success. Don’t give up. Keep submitting work until you succeed.

~~~~~

All pictures provided by Pixabay.

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

The New Girl Will Scare You Stiff

by K.P. Gresham

 

I can’t put down THE NEW GIRL–Daniel Silva’s latest book, that is. I have long been a fan of Silva’s series featuring Gabriel Allon, art restorer and master spy. The New Girl (Harper Publishing, July 16, 2019) is the 19th book featuring Allon, and, in my opinion, the best. It’s a fast-paced, fact-filled, emotional, beautifully written suspense thriller, that mirrors the times we are living in.

It begins with the kidnapping of the Saudi Crown Prince’s daughter. Allon, head of Israeli intelligence, is directed by his Prime Minister to help the prince find the girl. The two become unlikely allies in a race against time to stop a Russian move to take control of the Middle East.

The book weaves fiction into the baffling aspects of Middle East intrigue in a way that actually helps explain what the heck is going on “over there”. Usually when I read such a book I spend my time wondering, how much of this is fiction and how much of this is fact. Luckily, I accidentally did something that provided a clear vision of where that line is drawn.

I mostly listen to audiobooks during my dog’s three miles walk every morning. (I tag along as company.) By mistake I played the end of the book complete with Mr. Silva’s acknowledgments and comments. I’m glad I did. I recommend this “oopsie” to those who pick up Mr. Silva’s book. He clearly sets out what is fact and what is not. This makes the reading of this suspenseful page turner even more meaningful because I could trust the author. He wasn’t trying to pull the wool over my eyes. He was trying to tell a good story, yes, and he was making it even more realistic by using facts to back up his plot line.

Full disclosure, because I enjoy a good night’s sleep, I wish the book had included fewer facts.

I love Bob Woodward’s quote about Mr. Silva’s book. “At times a brilliant novel tells us as much about the times we live in–and the struggles of the world, the global deceptions and tragedies–as or better than journalism. Daniel Silva’s The New Girl is such a novel.”

Pick up this New York Times (and USA Today and Wall Street Journal) #1 Bestseller. You’ll be enlightened.

And scared stiff.

The New Girl by Daniel Silva Amazon Link

***

 

K.P. Gresham

K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, moved to Texas as quick as she could. Born Chicagoan, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling show and are 30+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. Her varied careers as a media librarian and technical director, middle school literature teacher and theatre playwright and director add humor and truth to her stories. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, I.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where life with her tolerant but supportive husband and narcissistic Chihuahua is acceptably weird.

A Mind Unhinged

by Kathy Waller

So you start writing your post about the incomparable Josephine Tey’s mystery novels two weeks before it’s due but don’t finish, and then you forget, and a colleague reminds you, but the piece refuses to come together, and the day it’s due it’s still an embarrassment, and the next day it’s not much better, and you decide, Oh heck, at this point what’s one more day? and you go to bed,

and in the middle of the night you wake to find twenty pounds of cat using you as a mattress, and you know you might as well surrender, because getting him off is like moving Jello with your bare hands,

lady macbeth
Elisabet Ney: Lady Macbeth, Detail (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Attribution: Ingrid Fisch at the German language Wikipedia. GNU_Free_Documentation_License

so you lie there staring at what would be the ceiling if you could see it, and you think, Macbeth doth murder sleep…. Macbeth shall sleep no more,

and then you think about Louisa May Alcott writing, She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain,

and you realize your own brain has not only turned, but has possibly come unhinged.

And you can’t get back to sleep, so you lie there thinking, Books, books, books. Strings and strings of words, words, words. Why do we write them, why do we read them? What are they all for?

And you remember when you were two years old, and you parroted,

The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat,

because happiness was rhythm and rime.

And when you were five and your playmate didn’t want to hear you read “Angus and the Cat,” and you made her sit still and listen anyway.

And when you were fourteen and so happy all you could think was, O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!, and you didn’t know who wrote it but you remembered the line from a Kathy Martin book you got for Christmas when you were ten.

And when you were tramping along down by the river and a narrow fellow in the grass slithered by too close, and you felt a tighter breathing, and zero at the bone.

And when you woke early to a rosy-fingered dawn and thought

By Dana Ross Martin, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I’ll tell you how the sun rose,
A ribbon at a time,
The steeples swam in Amethyst
The news, like Squirrels, ran
T
he Hills untied their Bonnets

And when you saw cruelty and injustice, and you remembered, Perfect love casts out fear, and knew fear rather than hate is the source of inhumanity, and love, the cure.

And when your father died unexpectedly, and you foresaw new responsibilities, and you remembered,

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise.

And when your mother died, and you thought,

Oh, if instead she’d left to me
The thing she took into the grave!-
That courage like a rock, which she
Has no more need of, and I have.

And at church the day after your father’s funeral, when your cousins, who were officially middle-aged and should have known how to behave, sat on the front row and dropped a hymnbook, and something stuck you in the side and you realized that when you mended a seam in your dress that morning you left the needle just hanging there and you were in danger of being punctured at every move, and somehow everything the minister said struck you as funny, and the whole family chose to displace stress by laughing throughout the service, and you were grateful for Mark Twain’s observations that

Laughter which cannot be suppressed is catching. Sooner or later it washes away our defences, and undermines our dignity, and we join in it … we have to join in, there is no help for it,

and that, 

Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.

Laughter which cannot be suppressed is catching. Sooner or later it washes away our defences, and undermines our dignity, and we join in it … we have to join in, there is no help for it,

and that, 

Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.

And when you fell in love and married and said with the poet, My beloved is mine and I am his.

And when, before you walked down the aisle, you handed a bridesmaid a slip of paper on which you’d written, Fourscooooorrrrrrre…, so that while you said, “I do,” she would be thinking of Mayor Shinn’s repeated attempts to recite the Gettysburg Address at River City’s July 4th celebration, and would be trying so hard not to laugh that she would forget to cry.

And when your friend died before you were ready and left an unimaginable void, and life was unfair, and you remembered that nine-year-old Leslie fell and died trying to reach the imaginary kingdom of Terabithia, and left Jess to grieve but to also to pass on the love she’d shown him.

And when the doctor said you have an illness and the outlook isn’t good, and you thought of Dr. Bernie Siegal’s writing, Do not accept that you must die in three weeks or six months because someone’s statistics say you will… Individuals are not statistics, but you also remembered what Hamlet says to Horatio just before his duel with Laertes,

There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.

And by the time you’ve thought all that, you’ve come back to what you knew all along, that books exist for pleasure, for joy, for consolation and comfort, for courage, for showing us that others have been here before, have seen what we see, felt what we feel, shared needs and wants and dreams we think belong only to us, that

Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. Public domain. Via Wikipedia.

everything the earth is full of… everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it, the—light we bring to it and leave behind in—words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know—and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.

And about the time you have settled the question to your satisfaction, the twenty pounds of Jello slides off, and you turn over, and he stretches out and leans so firmly against your back that you end up wedged between him and your husband, who is now clinging to the edge of  the bed, as sound asleep as the Jello is, and as you’re considering your options, you think,

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
   In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
   Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
   And sang to a small guitar…

and by the time the Pussycat and the Elegant Fowl have been married by the Turkey who lives on the hill, and have eaten their wedding breakfast with a runcible spoon, and are dancing by the light of the moon, the moon, you’ve decided that a turned brain has its advantages, and that re-hinging will never be an option.

Twenty pounds of cat. ©Kathy Waller

http://nfs.sparknotes.com/macbeth/page_58.html
https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1315.Louisa_May_Alcott
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171941
http://www.vintagechildrensbooksmykidloves.com/2009/06/angus-and-cat.html
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182477
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epithets_in_Homer
http://biblehub.com/1_john/4-18.htm
http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2002/10/15
http://www.twainquotes.com/Laughter.html
http://biblehub.com/songs/2-16.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Music_Man_(1962_film)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridge_to_Terabithia_(novel)
http://www.shareguide.com/Siegel.html
http://nfs.sparknotes.com/hamlet/page_320.html
http://www.shorewood.k12.wi.us/page.cfm?p=3642

###

Kathy Waller writes crime fiction, literary fiction, humor, memoir, and whatever else comes to mind. Her short stories appear in the Silver Falchion Award winner Murder on Wheels, Austin Mystery Writers’ first crime fiction anthology, and in their second, Lone Star Lawless, as well as in other print publications and online. Her novella STABBED, co-authored with Manning Wolfe, was released in October 2019. She blogs at Telling the Truth–Mainly.

Memories of growing up in a small town on the San Marcos River in Central Texas, and life in a large extended family, inspire much of her work. She now lives in Austin with two cats and one husband.

 

 

 

 

The Arts and Our Society

by Francine Paino

 Day after day, whether we want to or not, we hear nothing but murder, mayhem, the politics of personal destruction, and a new insistence on rigid lines of political correctness. Somehow we put one foot in front of the other and march on – sometimes wondering to what end. On November 16, I had an experience that washed all of that away, even if just for a little while.

I attended a special concert by the Austin Symphony Orchestra at the Lake Travis Performing Arts Center. As expected, Maestro Peter Bay and his orchestra were superb in their renditions of Holst, Mozart, and Musorgsky. But Mr. Bay went beyond. To provide another level of inspiration to young musicians in training, he reached out and arranged for sixteen music students from Lake Travis High School to join the orchestra, some even given the honor of sitting in the first chairs.     

For this brief moment, all the tensions of daily life melted away, and I felt a surge of renewed hope for the future, for in the arts lies the unity of humankind. At the concert, I cannot tell you if I saw people of color, blonds, brunettes, or greying heads on the stage. 

I only saw musicians making sounds that swelled my soul and transcended the noise of our daily lives. 

Artists in all disciplines must reach for more, whether conceiving an architectural masterpiece, a painting, an opera, a ballet, or a symphony. In their quest for excellence, their creations help erase the boundaries that separate us as people. Those who create must look beyond the narrow limits of mob-think; they must see in vivid colors, hear in vivid sounds, and often take the roads less traveled. They may be reclusive in the process of creating, but they do not function in isolation. Individuals who dedicate themselves to artistic development have a strong sense of self, driven to self-actualization. Their visions give to society while they draw from their cultures and many academic disciplines. 

Painters see in colors, form, and proportions. Composers and musicians operate within mathematical formulas: divisions of time; use of fractions to indicate the length of notes. Dancers operate within the structures of Physical Science and the theories of motion and gravity. Actors must empty themselves to absorb the characters they play on stage – This requires looking beyond their own perceptions and truths.

 The arts are vital to humanity. They give flight to imagination and creativity and should be an essential part of academic education. Albert Einstein, perhaps one of the most highly self-actualized human beings, once said, “Creativity is intelligence at play.”

The Austin Symphony Orchestra and Lake Travis High School showed us a model for Einstein’s playful quote. We watched and listened to the young, who are still fresh and full of hope, join the seasoned professionals, and reach for excellence. They expanded their horizons and brought a diverse audience together in admiration. 

You may be thinking, lovely sentiment, but how do we do it? 

Many believe that the government should become the primary support for everything – including the arts. That road too quickly leads to a government having the power to define and control creativity. Study the long list of artists who defected from socialist/oppressive nations where the State defines what art is and how it’s to be expressed. The government can, however, have a constructive place in nurturing our children’s individual creative development.

Block grants to school districts, earmarked explicitly for promoting artistic growth, might be of great value in helping our young reach for their stars, and in the process, build bridges between people and help elevate humanity to higher levels of well-being. That requires recognition and respect for the fact that people are different, and the differences go deeper than color or ethnicity. 

       

The arts ensure that diverse identities and cultures are recognized and given a voice in the world. The arts of every culture reach back in time, relying on those who came before. Present-day artists build on the past and expand their disciplines, reflecting today’s world. Our art not only leaves a record of who we are, but also the growth we’ve contributed to the future.

BOOK REVIEW: FULL DARK, NO STARS by Stephen King

Written by Renee Kimball

From the start . . . I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal.” (Full Dark, No Stars. p.365).

There are some who avoid works by Stephen King. Literary elitists have shown disdain towards King for years arguing his writing is story-telling for the masses. This review isn’t about the literary merits of King’s works, or his overwhelming success, or even about the monumental effect King’s life-long dedication to writing has had on the horror genre. This brief review is a discussion of four novellas which are found in Full Dark, No Stars, released in 2010.

Short stories and novellas are not a new format for King. King has published very successful short stories and multiple novellas over his 35-year long career. He has clearly succeeded yet again, with Full Dark, No Stars. Full Dark contains a common theme of each novella, a theme that explores the darker human psyche, retribution, revenge, and a sense of twisted justice. Redemption is not found, but retribution appears in each. Even evil acts can result in a twisted kind of justice—black and damaging kind of justice, but justice nonetheless.

1922: NOVELLA ONE

The first novella, 1922, is set in Depression era Nebraska. The story involves a barely solvable working family farm, a life of constant work, brutally harsh and unrelenting. The wife and mother, Arlette, is a bitter and manipulative character who constantly harps to her husband to sell the farm and a plot of 100 acres that Arlette inherited from her father. Arlette’s dream is to leave the country life and start again in the city of Omaha.

The husband, Wilfred “Wilf,” verbally dominated and hen-pecked, is the browbeaten beleaguered husband whose only desire is to stay on his land. Wilf tells Henry, their only child, of Arlette’s plan. Wilf then convinces Henry to help him murder Arlette. Wilf intones that if Henry does not help with this, then they will be forced to leave the farm, and Henry will never see his girlfriend, who lives on a close by, ever again. Henry, a meek and obedient boy, resists but finally agrees to help with the murder of his mother.

As Arlette’s demands to sell increase, Wilf and Henry, determine it is the time for murder. It is a clumsy and brutal murder, both father and son are deeply shaken afterwards. Arlette’s murder becomes the prelude to the story that evolves into a twisted tale of backwoods justice and supernatural interference. Their deed results into the ultimate destruction of both father and son. The darker psyche of Wilf bobs and weaves throughout the tale, and in the end, destruction follows. (Spoiler: If you have a phobia against rats, you may not want to read this dark tale). (Photo Wikipedia.org)

BIG DRIVER: NOVELLA TWO

Big Driver is the second story in the collection. The main character, Tess, is a resourceful and successful mystery writer. She is the author of a “cozy” mysteries series and well known for her work in that type of genre. To ensure a little extra for retirement, Tess travels and gives readings of her books. She receives an invitation to read in a small-town library not too far from her home, and readily accepts. After reading, she takes a shortcut home on the advice of her hostess, the local librarian.

Things become dangerous when she has a flat tire in an isolated and abandoned area. When a seemingly well-intentioned good Samaritan stops to change her tire, instead of helping her, Tess is beaten and raped. Left for dead, Tess awakes to find herself in a culvert along with several decomposing female bodies. Pulling herself together, she leaves the area on foot and begins walking towards her home. She reaches her home and begins to plans her revenge.

Tess shows both sharp intelligence and quiet bravery, and no one portrays a woman’s strength better than King. Tess is a force who leaves the reader applauding her quiet inner strength and problem solving skills. When she meets up with her rapist/ would be killer, Tess achieves her revenge on a much larger scale than she imagined.

FAIR EXTENSION: NOVELLA THREE

While King’s Tess is resourceful and brave, the third novella, Fair Extension, is written from the perspective of a male, Streeter, who is a bitter and unlikable character.

Streeter, suffers from incurable cancer secretly blames his bad health, career, marriage, and lack of income, on the twisted idea that if he had not promoted and helped his best friend, Tom Goodhugh, through high school, Streeter would have had all the successes that Tom enjoys –money and success and a perfect family. Streeter believes that Tom should suffer the trials and tribulations Streeter has endured, after all, it is only fair.

 Late on evening on his way home, Streeter takes an unplanned detour to a kind of roadside market. He had seen a sign reading “FAIR EXTENSION,” and became curious. A lone man named George Elvid, sits at the table with the sign. When Street askes what kind of “extensions” Elvid offers, Elvid responds all kinds but the type of extension depends upon the requestor. All extensions are tailored made and could be anything- credit extensions, love potions, to corrective eyesight. A Faustian trade ensues, and Streeter exchanges the extension of his life for the life of his best friend, Tom.

The Streeter story is a black tale of harbored grudges and selfishness. As Tom experiences horrific setbacks and death, he is slowly physically and mentally broken. As this is happening to Tom, Streeter becomes healthy and rich. In the end, Streeter remains unrepentant by his part in Tom’s tragic decline. FAIR EXTENSION fails to arouse the reader’s sympathy, and there is no retribution, rather, it is a tale of cruelty and Jealousy.

A GOOD MARRIAGE: NOVELLA FOUR

The fourth and last story, A Good Marriage, is thought provoking and believable. The main character is a stay-at-home wife, Darcy, whose children have gone to college and left to start their lives. Darcy has been married to the same man, Bob Anderson, (who she believes she knows well), for over 25 years. She thinks she is living the American dream, or a semblance there of—not perfect, but predictable. Then, by shear accident, she trips over a misaligned carton in the garage. Darcy then realizes that the man that she believes she knows as well as herself, has a double life and is a serial killer.

Once Darcy does her research and confirms her suspicions, she realizes that there has not been a killing for 16 years. She attempts to come to grips with what she knows for certain. Her husband, Bob, intuits that she knows about his secret life realizing that the carton has been moved. Bob confronts Darcy, and manages to convince her that it is all up to her what happens. But that as long as she keeps quiet, he will suppress his killing urges, he then promises he won’t kill again.

Bob explains Darcy is the reason he took a break from killing, being with her has allowed him to suppress and ignore his need to kill. Bob also says that it can all start up again if she doesn’t keep quiet and if she turns him in, then the children’s lives will be ruined and Darcy will suffer the consequences and will be ostracized by the very people she believes to be her friends.

Several years go by with both partners ignoring their shared secret and no killings. But Darcy, never feels at ease and in limbo. Darcy is ashamed and feels responsible because she knows she is the only one that can reveal thebtruth and bring Bob to justice.

Finally, Darcy stages and then succeeds in killing Bob. When a bit too tipsy from an evening celebration, Darcy manages to push Bob down a flight of stairs. Darcy is cleared of any foul play, but she knows there will be someone knocking on the door sooner or later who knows she staged Bob’s murder. And, the day did come, and someone came knocking, but it wasn’t who she expected.

There is retribution in the end, and a good dose of twisted justice, but you have to read the book.

You will enjoy this collection, it is something that will make you think, even if that is not King’s aim and may even surprise you. One can never really know what they might do if pushed to the absolute edge.

Happy Reading . . .

From the Afterword:

“I have tried my best in Full Dark, No Stars to record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances. The people in these stories are not without hope, but they acknowledge that even our fondest hopes (and our fondest wishes for our fellowmen and the society in which we live) may sometimes be vain. Often, even. But I think they also say that nobility most fully resides not in success but in trying to do the right thing…and that when we fail to do that, or willfully turn away from the challenge, hell follows.” (Stephen King).

“Stephen King has proven himself to be one of the finest chroniclers of the dark side of the human psyche over the 35 years of his successful career. While literary snobs sometimes cock a snoot at his mainstream appeal, there is no doubt that on his day he can spin as compelling a yarn as anyone” . . . These tense tales delve into the dark heart of a knitting society and a serial killer’s last stand.” (Doug Johnstone. Independent. November 14, 2010. (https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/full-dark-no-stars-by-stephen-king-2130460.html).

 

References

King, Stephen. FULL DARK, NO STARS, 2010. Simon & Schuster, New York. New York.

Kirkus Review. “Deals with the darkest recesses of the human soul. . .” Kirkus Review. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/stephen-king/full-dark-no-stars/ Nov 10, 2010.

Johnstone, Doug. Independent. November 14, 2010. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/full-dark-no-stars-by-stephen-king-2130460.html

Image of Stephen King, press photo, via https://www.stephenking.com/the_author
Image of Full Dark, No Stars cover via Amazon.com
Image of semi truck by Kcida, free licence, via Wikipedia
Image of “Faust” by Harry Clarke, public domain, via Wikipedia

*****

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.