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Community Book Center Read-A-Thon

Vera Warren Williams opening the Read-A-Thon

I had the good fortune to participate in Community Book Center’s inaugural Read-A-Thon this past weekend. A little bit about this remarkable spot: Community Book Center’s Facebook page states it’s “more than a book store,” but that’s really an understatement.

This gathering place has been a part of New Orleans’s landscape for thirty-five years. I first entered its doors on Bayou Road, in the Gentilly neighborhood, about two years ago, and I’m always astounded by how enlightened I feel upon exiting. Earlier this year, I was there for Jan Miles’s presentation of her book, The Post-Racial Negro Green Book. The book is “based on the Jim Crow-era Negro Motorist Green Books, and chronicles contemporary racism in ‘post-racial’ America.”

Here’s what I wrote about it back in March, in a post titled The Writing Spectrum: the book “documents acts of racial bias against African Americans in the U.S., from 2013 to 2016. Jan Miles read from a list of incidents—some from the recent years captured in the book, and some from the Civil Rights era—and had the audience guess the century they occurred. We got many wrong; it was an amazingly eye-opening exercise. She compiled this archive ‘for the sake of review, consideration, discussion, and action.’ ”

Just a few months ago, I picked up a signed copy of Bernice L. McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies at Community Book Center. It’s currently #2 on my TBR list. (I had thought of going off on a tangent, about how slowly I read, about why I read slowly, what I’m currently reading. . .but it all felt awfully excuse-y. So suffice it to say I’m very excited to read this book.)

And then the readings on Friday night! I was enraptured by the selections from Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf. (This extraordinary playwright died very recently, at the end of October. I have to share this quote I found about her passing, from her sister, the playwright Ifa Bayeza: “It’s a huge loss for the world. I don’t think there’s a day on the planet when there’s not a young woman who discovers herself through the words of my sister.”)

The heart and soul at the center of Community Book Center is Vera Warren Williams. She read from Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls. . ., along with sisters Christine Jordan and JoAnn Minor. Their voices, along with others like Rose Bratcher, Sunni Patterson, and Christopher Williams, will resonate with me for a long while.

Thank you, Vera, for organizing this event!

 

Going to the Space Station

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Almost two months ago, I wrote about the failed mission to send new crew members to the International Space Station (link to the post, titled Uncertainty, here). At the time, people who watch these types of things were wondering how long the current Expedition 57 crew would need to prolong their stay. Or would they need to eventually abandon the Station altogether?

It turns out, they won’t need to worry about that. Expedition 58 launched earlier this week, carrying three crew members up to the orbiting platform, 250 miles up in the sky.

And one of those crew members is me!

Okay, not really me. But NASA Astronaut Anne McClain is now settling into her new home for the next six months. Along with David Saint-Jacques (Canadian Space Agency) and Oleg Konenenko (Roscosmos), they will share quarters with the Expedition 57 crew until December 20. That’s when Alexander Gerst (European Space Agency), Serena Auñón-Chancellor (NASA), and Sergey Prokopyev (Roscosmos) return to Earth.

I have to note a few things about Anne McClain. Talk about an inspirational human being! West Point graduate, Colonel in the U.S. Army, test pilot, rugby player, mother. She first announced her intention to become an astronaut when she was three years old. She became an astronaut in 2013, and Monday’s trip to the International Space Station was her first spaceflight.

When you’re a writer in this current digital / Amazon age, you pay attention to search results. So I’ve known for years that there was an astronaut named Anne McClain, and have always been thrilled by the name similarity. And now I’m delighted by this recent convergence.

Next time I watch the Space Station track across the sky, I will know that Anne McClain is up there, doing her astronaut thing. I can think of no better inspiration to keep doing my Anne McClane thing (that’s writing, to be clear) down here on terra firma.

You Are A Tourist

And if you feel just like a tourist in the city you were born
Then, it’s time to go
And you find your destination with so many different places to call home

Those are lyrics from “You Are A Tourist,” a song from alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie. It’s from their 2011 album Codes and Keys, and it’s quite possibly one of my favorite songs of this decade. Easily in the top ten.

The song has been in my head since this past weekend. My friend Stacey (featured in Greece 1 and Greece 2) was in town from Los Angeles. We spent the weekend dining, browsing (and shopping) in local spots, taking a French Quarter ghost tour, and marveling at New Orleans’ holiday decorations. That last part—the holiday part—is something I almost never do. More than anything, that might be what had me feeling like a tourist. It was fun!

Pictured at the top of this post is something that caught my eye at the Roosevelt Hotel in the French Quarter. This hotel always does an amazing holiday array, and the lights really set off this statue. It’s called the “Mystery Lady Timepiece,” and its nameplate indicates it was displayed at the Paris Exhibitions of 1867 and 1878.

Concluding with those opening lyrics, for a few days, I did feel like a tourist in the city where I was born. And at earlier times in my life, I definitely felt (and answered) the call to “go,” finding different destinations to call home. But I realize now, writing is the journey that calls to me. The different destinations exist only in my mind’s eye, and it’s up to me to bring them to fruition.

Who knows. . .the “Mystery Lady” seems like she might have an interesting story. What has she witnessed between Paris in 1867 and New Orleans in 2018? Enquiring minds want to know. . .

Thanks for reading!

Celebration in the Oaks, New Orleans City Park

More photos from the Roosevelt

Gratitude

I have a heckuva lot to be grateful for. I try to remain mindful of that fact every day of the year, not just when I’m staring down the barrel of Thanksgiving.

Perusing my post history in this space, to see what I’ve written for the other three Thanksgiving Eves I’ve passed while writing this blog, I was a bit disappointed in myself. While I remembered my first: I’m Thankful for Godzilla, I could not recall the other two. That’s because I didn’t mark the approach of Thanksgiving in the past two years. Shame on me.

Last year, I wrote about attending the Texas Renaissance Festival; and the year before that, it was George Gershwin. Hopefully, my gratitude for spending time with family in Texas; and my appreciation of the contributions George and Ira Gershwin made to the world of music, were apparent, and sufficed as an expression of my thankfulness.

Now, into my third year of being published, and closing in on nine years since I first decided to give this fiction writing thing a go, it seems its high time to express some gratitude.

Especially for last night. I held a launch event for my second novel, The Trouble on Highway One, at the Garden District Book Shop on Prytania Street in New Orleans. I don’t think I can express sufficient appreciation—for everyone who came, for the good folks at the Garden District Book Shop, for all the kind words I received.

Becoming a published fiction writer—and the effort to reach out to new readers, in the hopes of offering something of value (entertainment, escape, anything)—has meant a personal stretch outside my comfort zone. In a big way. I am profoundly grateful for the reception I’ve received as I’ve entered this brave new world.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Garden District Book Shop (and Chapter 1, Part 2)

I am thrilled to announce the local launch of The Trouble on Highway One at the Garden District Book Shop, on Tuesday, November 20, at 6pm! If you are in town, please stop by.

Garden District Book Shop has some very positive associations for me. Shortly after I moved back to New Orleans, in the early 2000’s, I went there to meet Greg Iles. I had just read The Footprints of God, and saw that he would be in town, signing copies of Blood Memory at Garden District Book Shop. It was such a great opportunity to meet an author I had just discovered, and pick up a signed copy of his next book.

And just two years ago, my friend Kristen’s publishing company released a book of poetry, I Am One of You, by Nicole Eiden. (That’s Kristen at the podium in the picture above.) The event she held there was a real success. I’m so excited New Orleans readers will get to pick up their copy of The Trouble on Highway One at Garden District Book Shop!

I plan to read an excerpt during the event. Last week, I mentioned that I would publish the second part of Chapter 1, so here you go:

1

. . .

Birdie hummed along, until the last passage. Then she sang aloud, her voice like salted honey. A warm, earthy, resonant note.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”

Birdie didn’t see the man standing in the road until it was too late. Too late for her.

She swerved to the right, the opposite side from the bayou. In less than an instant, the steep embankment rose up, and her truck ended its collision course against a tree.

Her eyes opened, and her face felt wet. Something obscured her vision. She thought she’d gone into the bayou.

She drew the back of her hand across her forehead. Holding it out to the dim light of the dashboard, it was coated in a thick redness.

Help.

She would need to get help. It was too far to walk back to Galliano, and too far to walk forward home to Larose.

Home. Morris. He’d be angry about the truck. But he’d be more worried about her, she knew.

None of it would matter if she couldn’t get out of the truck and flag down help from the road.

She turned toward her driver’s side door, and focused her effort on the door handle. The front end of the truck was crumpled, and it kept her door from opening.

Looking through that window, a familiar figure appeared.

Help is coming to me, she thought.

As the figure grew larger in her view, she saw him. It was a man dressed all in white. Why did he look familiar?

That was the man in the road. What was he doing walking in the middle of the road? Can he help?

As the man came closer, her blood ran cold. He had a man’s face, but there was something unnatural about it. Birdie thought of a picture book she had when she was a child. A picture book of Bible tales. One page showed the devil’s face, when he appeared to Jesus during his forty days in the desert. He had bloodshot eyes, and a rapacious mouth.

That picture terrified her. And that’s what the man’s face looked like.

Now, he stood right outside the truck. Her limbs felt heavy. He held his palm up to the glass of her driver’s side window. All she wanted was to turn away. But she couldn’t.

She was transfixed.

She saw his palm pressed against the glass, but felt an invisible, icy pressure just above her heart.

Terror enveloped her. The pressure escalating to an inexorable conclusion.

In an instant, she was released. No more horror, no more pain above her heart. She could finally turn her gaze. She looked at the passenger seat, and Momma was there. The light of her smile made the devil disappear from Birdie’s thoughts.

Birdie couldn’t feel her own body anymore, but she could feel Momma take her by the hand. They left the truck through the passenger’s side, and someone was waiting there for them. A warm, distant memory made concrete. It was Birdie’s father.

The three of them made their way to the woods.

Like in a dream, Birdie could see her form in the truck, the blood on her face. The devil was nowhere to be seen.

Her heart ached a little for the Becnel children, and more so for Ronnie and young Cecil. Morris made her stop in her tracks. He couldn’t live without her. She tried to turn around. To go back.

Birdie felt herself shrinking. She looked up, and her parents were on each side of her, towering above her. Gently, they each put an arm around her and carried her until she was whole again.

The woods never looked more peaceful. The cicadas sounded otherworldly, heavenly. The smell of eucalyptus enveloped them as they crossed the threshold.

First Chapter on Soundcloud! (And here, too)

So, a few weeks ago, I wrote about my appearance on WRBH Reading Radio (link here). That appearance is now up on Soundcloud (link here). Two disclaimers:

  • It opens with a reading of the first chapter of The Trouble on Highway One, which contains a bit of singing. Yes, sorry, I do sing for a bit. It’s warbly, but honest.
  • The full recording is close to 30 minutes. After Chapter 1 of TOHO, which takes less than ten minutes, I read the first chapter of The Incident Under the Overpass, and then a bit from Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

And since The Trouble on Highway One is now available on Amazon (link here) and Barnes & Noble.com (link here), I’m not giving anything away by publishing Chapter 1, Part 1 below. It opens with a decades-old mystery that our heroine, Lacey Becnel, gets drawn into.

I’ll publish Chapter 1, Part 2 next week at this time!

1 

South of Cut Off, Louisiana

One summer in the mid-twentieth century

Ga-dunk.

Birdie drove down Louisiana Highway One, the same stretch of highway she’d driven a thousand times before, it seemed. Galliano to Larose in the evening. Larose to Galliano in the morning.

Ga-dunk. She passed over a crosspiece for a bridge over Bayou Lafourche. Ga-dunk, over the other side of the bridge.

The night was complete darkness, no moon, the sky swathed in an inky haze. She’d left the Becnels late, waiting for Mr. Becnel to return home from a business trip.

She imagined the lights from her truck’s headlights were the only lights for miles around.

You are a light for the world. Light your lamp where it shines for everyone.

The actual Bible verse was a little different, she knew. But that was how Momma used to say it to her. When she talked about her gift.

Birdie smiled wistfully. She still missed her mother. But she still felt her with her.

She missed Momma, but she didn’t feel empty. Just like she’d never felt empty about Daddy. Her father—the source of her gift—had died when she was very young. Barely old enough to remember him. But he had passed on his traiteur ability to his little daughter, just learning to move in the world. It was Momma, and her brother, Ronnie, who had taught her the lengths, and the limits, of her ability. But Daddy always seemed present, especially in Momma’s and Bubba’s memories.

Now it was her mother who seemed present. Right now. She thought of Ronnie, and was glad she had just seen him recently. She thought of young Cecil, his precious son. A young man, now. Several years older than she was when Daddy passed the gift to her.

She reached for the radio dial. She’d reached the spot on the highway where she could pick up the radio station in New Orleans. And she was in luck, they were playing one of her favorites. “Amazing Grace.”

She looked to her empty passenger seat and imagined Momma sitting right there. They would sing together.

Birdie hummed along, until the last passage. Then she sang aloud, her voice like salted honey. A warm, earthy, resonant note.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”

Birdie didn’t see the man standing in the road until it was too late. Too late for her.

 

 

October Surprise

So, October 30 snuck up on me. October 30, yesterday, was the release day for my second novel, The Trouble on Highway One. I had intended to do more pre-promotion than I did. Send out an email blast. Take out more Facebook ads. Update the front page of this website. Alas, the best laid plans…

However, while my publicity efforts may be a tad lacking, or, at the very least, a tad behind; I feel the opposite way about the story itself. I’m very excited to get it out there, I feel it’s absolutely ready for the world. I had in my head that I did not want to push its release past October; and all my writing, editing and re-writing efforts were aimed toward that goal. So it made it on the last Tuesday in October.

Kind of like how I wanted to finish the last marathon I ran in under four and a half hours. I ran it in 4:29:29.

And speaking of running, I’m compelled to bring up Haruki Murakami. I just read an article that quoted the famed novelist (and avid runner). At an event in New York, just a few weeks ago, he shared his thoughts on what he could do—what he could offer—in light of all the suffering constantly around us.

He concluded that he could write good stories:

“…I thought, ‘What I can do is to write good fiction.’ After all, when I write a good story, good fiction, we can understand each other if you are a reader and I’m a writer. There is a special secret passage between us, and we can send a message to each other.”

I am by no means comparing myself, or my stories, to Murakami. Or even claiming that my fiction is “good” by his measure. But I am eager to share this latest story I’ve written. If for no other reason than the chance to provide some entertainment or diversion to those in need of it.

Happy Halloween, y’all!

Amsterdam

At the moment, I am in Amsterdam on a work trip. I had a little time for sightseeing after I arrived this past weekend, so this is going to be a pictorial post. I also had the great fortune of visiting with my friend Tamara, who came up from Paris for a few days. (It is a very good thing to have such a friend in Europe . . . we’ve met up in Geneva before, and last year in Paris.)

We started Sunday with a visit to the KattenKabinet, a museum with works of art depicting all manner of felines. There was a large painting of a celestial, potentially malevolent cat over Montmartre that we won’t soon forget.
Afternoon cocktails and bitterballen
Sunset in Vondelpark, Part 1
Sunset in Vondelpark, Part 2
Sunset in Vondelpark, Part 3
“Undergrowth”, 1889 (L) and “Avenue of poplars in autumn”, 1884, (R)

We concluded our visit with a trip to the Van Gogh Museum. I had been once before, about ten years ago. In reviewing my travel journals of the era, I saw where “. . . there is a painting he did — an avenue of poplars, that really spoke to me.” It didn’t take me long to spot it in the galleries, and then Tamara had the good eye to find the postcard in one of the countless gift shops in the museum.

Ten years on, I had another Van Gogh painting speak to me. This time, it was Undergrowth. It’s amazing to me what a transformation he made in just five years. Where Undergrowth is very Van Gogh-y, Poplars is not (at least not to my untrained eye). There’s definitely something nascent in Poplars, for sure, but it doesn’t yet have those indelible strokes that marked his last years.

Definitely don’t want to dwell on the emotional turmoil that marked his final years, and eventually claimed his life. So I’ll just say I’m glad his art is still around one hundred years on, speaking to countless others. I’m also glad he never felt the need to paint malevolent cats over Montmartre.

And finally, I’m very grateful for the time spent with a good friend.

 

 

 

Uncertainty

The International Space Station was orbiting about 256 miles above South Australia when a camera on board the orbital complex captured this celestial view of Earth’s atmospheric glow and the Milky Way. (iss057e035382 — Oct. 7, 2018) Photo and caption by NASA.

I don’t often write about the news in this space. It’s not because I don’t pay attention. I take a similar approach with my day job…while I spend at least a quarter of my time there, I devote very little of this real estate to it.

It’s not because I’m not affected by the goings-on in the world, or at my place of employment. I am affected by the goings-on, for sure. Probably a little too much. So much so, as it turns out, that I look to this blog as a bit of an escape.

But there was a news item from last week that I am compelled to write about. It might have easily slipped some folks’ attention, given the impending mid-term elections, and the horrible devastation Hurricane Michael unleashed on Florida’s panhandle and throughout the southeast.

What I’m compelled to write about is the October 11 failure of the Soyuz rocket that was powering a crewed mission to the International Space Station. Fortunately, the occupants of the capsule, astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin, survived the aborted mission, apparently no worse for the wear.

However, they were supposed to relieve the current three-person crew onboard the International Space Station. While that crew was set to stay on for another couple of months, the failed mission has put their planned December departure into question. Will they stay on for longer than originally intended? Or will they have to abandon the Space Station altogether? I have read that the station is equipped to fly unmanned for a period of time; but I’ve also read that it’s had a continuous stream of inhabitants for the past eighteen years.

I’m hearing that NASA expects to be able to launch another crewed mission by this December, which would make all these questions moot. However, until they figure out just what went wrong with the Soyuz rocket, the current occupants of the Space Station will have to live with a level of uncertainty more consistent with life down here on terra firma.

And that’s what I was thinking about, when I took a break from my writing this past weekend to watch the International Space Station make a six-minute trek across the sky. It was a clear, lovely evening, and the New Orleans weather had finally turned a touch cooler. But I felt a little melancholy, as I watched the bright reflection of the station carrying Commander Alexander Gerst (European Space Agency), astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor (NASA), and cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev (ROSCOSMOS).

Watching the Space Station pass is like a talisman for me, reminding me to seek some perspective on, or away from, my worldly concerns. But this time, I couldn’t help but feel empathy for the three human beings up there. They have to deal with setbacks and uncertainty, just like the rest of us do. The perspective that is slowly dawning on me, is just how connected and similar we all are.

Even if you happen to be orbiting the earth 250 miles from its surface.

Anne McClane and the 1,000 Likes

A little over three years into this blog, and having written 168 posts, WordPress told me I’ve garnered 1,000 likes. I feel pretty good about that! Here’s why:

  • I don’t have a ton of followers on WordPress (less than 250). All those likes aren’t necessarily from followers, but if they were, it would mean followers have read and liked what I’ve written multiple times.
  • I only post once a week, on fairly random topics. I’m playing the long game here, and I’m thrilled to have reached this milestone at this early-ish stage of the game.
  • Links to these posts also appear on my Facebook page. But unlike Facebook, most of my WordPress likes are from people I don’t know personally. Same thing for the followers–most of those follows are from people I’ve encountered through the WordPress platform.

That last point underscores one of my favorite things about WordPress. I love having the freedom to write as much as I want about the topic at hand, in a user-friendly format. But more than that, I love following the posts of my favorite bloggers. There is such a wide range of voices I’ve been introduced to, just by being part of WordPress. Some of these folks feel like friends, even though we’ve never met.

Just like One Thousand and One Nights, the ancient collection of Middle Eastern stories that inspired the title of this post, the blogs I’ve found on WordPress are a treasure trove of different styles, themes, and fantastical ideas. I’m very grateful to be included in this vibrant community.

So long, and thanks for all the likes!!