Monday, July 24, 2017

Blackface with a Banjo







I never thought that I would enjoy a book regarding blackface in America, yet I did. Author Tom Piazza has done it again with his latest novel, A Free State. Just when I thought that City of Refuge  and Why New Orleans Matters clearly showed Piazza's talents as an author, A Free State proves it even more in a grander way. 

The story is thus: James Douglass, a white man living in Philadelphia in 1855, makes his living by performing as part of a minstrel troupe known as the Virginia Harmonists. He with three other white men blacken their faces and "pretend" to be happy go lucky Negroes who sing songs and perform about the "good ol' days" of living in the South. One day, he has the chance to listen to a young light skinned black man named Henry perform with only his voice and a banjo and soon, James is swept away with the music. While he and his fellow musicians perform under a guise of being black, Henry performs as a true black man with a soul that is both beautiful and broken. James invites him to be a part of the group, an unheard of thing as black people were not allowed to perform on stage. Yet, Henry has a plan that will help James as well as cover his murky past, as he is pursued by a ruthless and sadistic slave hunter named Tull.

Although I flew through this book, I still felt anger at such a point of history in this country. There was nothing "happy" about being a slave in the South, yet the minstrels showed quite the opposite: big smiles, loud mismatched clothes, and music to soothe or ignite under a guise of blackened faces. Piazza, in his dazzling style of writing, gives us a raw look at this form of "entertainment" without holding back. He makes us aware of what was accepted in those days and how, even now, skin colour still plays a heavy role in today's society. 

The scene in which Tull "speaks" with Henry's mother was terrifying to me. I knew that something dreadful would happen to her, yet I couldn't look away from the words. When Henry left the plantation, he made a promise to return for his family and get them safely away. Tull, as hired by the plantation master and Henry's father, Stephens, stops at nothing to locate the "property", even going so far as to mutilate or cause great harm to those who cross his path. Although Henry seems to stay several steps ahead of Tull, Tull is like a dog with its favourite chew toy. I did have some sympathy for James: although he blackens his face for a living, he appeared to be more than that. He sees Henry almost as a friend and understands, too late I think, the true ramifications of his actions.

Piazza wanted to know my thoughts on this book - beautiful in a chilling and disturbing way. 

I honestly hope Henry made it to Canada. 

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Monster of the Mansion





Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is one of my favourite novels and classic films. Boris Karloff played the part of the Monster rather well. His face is the one that sticks in my mind whenever I think of the Monster. I also enjoyed the Monster in Penny Dreadful, for he showed intelligence, cognitive skills, and the ability to live among men without raising too much suspicion. At the end of the novel, the Monster tells Walton that he will kill himself then drifts out to the arctic sea on an ice raft. Yet, what if the Monster decided not to kill himself but rather live? Thanks to the digest novel Monster in the Mansions by Lou Mougin and published through ProSe Productions, the answer to the question is given.

The Monster does not die but rather decides to live. He leaves the arctic land in search of a new life, one that (he thinks) may get him away from his bloody past. Mougin provides a story that is filled with seafaring action, treachery, growing sympathy for the Monster, and even one of the most unique death scenes I've read in a long time - it involves peeing. Adam Frank/Frank Cain is a terror to behold on the seas, yet he maintains his Beast and uses it only when necessary. Through much bloodshed and ships plundered, he finally reaches his destination of South America. Will South America prove to be the Monster's place of final peace, or the continuation of his Hell on Earth? Read the book and find out! This was my first time reading Mougin and I found myself flying through the digest novel with great pleasure. Although the ending felt like a cliffhanger to me, it was nonetheless satisfying. Highly recommended for those who enjoyed Frankenstein as well as for those who love well written stories regarding the sea and naval fiction.

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Flash Story - For the Love of Satie



She walked into the room, the one that smelled of lavender. He played in that room only yesterday, yet the final notes still lingered in the room. When he played the piano, she was on his mind. He caressed the keys as though it was her neck or delicate arms that he loved to kiss after drinking wine. Each note played was a declaration of his love for her. She walked up to the piano and touched the keys that were still warm from his last performance. Just then, she felt his hand touch the back of her neck, his slender fingers barely brushing through her hair. She leaned into him and sighed as his lavender scented shirt enfolded her in a double lover's embrace. The faint sounds of Erik Satie now moved through the room, replacing his ghostlike fragments of music.

(model - Jean Marie, copyright 2014)

Sunday, July 9, 2017

City of Refuge, City of Hope




I was first introduced to New Orleans when I was very young. My mother used to take me down there for Mardi Gras and then later, Jazz Fest. While we were in the Crescent City, we would spend time in the French Quarter, soaking in all of the history, food, culture, decadence that the city had to offer. Although I no longer go to Mardi Gras with my parents, I still visit the city while I'm attending conventions as an author guest, or just visiting friends for the hell of it. There is no other city like New Orleans and that is the solid truth.

Author Tom Piazza's book, City of Refuge, shows the city in all its glory as we are introduced to Craig Donaldson, a white man from the Midwest who lives in NOLA with his family and SJ, a black man born and raised in NOLA who lives in the Ninth Ward. Both men love the city in their own way and what She has to offer. Everyone who lives in NOLA understands that they live in a "soup bowl" well below sea level. Hurricanes are, unfortunately, a part of their lives - get news of the hurricane, pack up and board up the house, leave for a while, then return and slowly return to a normal life. However, when Hurricane Katrina (or as I've heard NOLA people call her The Bitch) arrives, the two men must make desperate decisions to ensure the safety of their friends and loved ones, not mention themselves. Lives are lost, houses destroyed, and true darkness settles into the city as well as those who left and those who stayed. While Craig and his family escape to Chicago, SJ fights to help those who remained behind while getting his family to safety. When the water finally recedes, choices are made with tears and rage as NOLA struggles to regain Her life.

(Oak Street)

I'll be blunt - I couldn't put this damn book down. Piazza blew me away with his writing, although it was no surprise to me. I first read his book, Why New Orleans Matters, several years ago and fell in love with not only his words but with NOLA all over again. I had the pleasure of meeting him at Jazz Fest and he was quite a delight. City of Refuge needs to be read by those who have never lived in NOLA and wondered about what really happened during the time of Katrina. The book is also for those who are already in love with NOLA. I will admit that this book brought tears to my eyes many times while reading, mainly because my mind thought about my NOLA friends who dealt with Katrina and what they had to do to evacuate. Even my ex told me his story of how he, his wife at the time, and their child stayed in the Convention Center and the conditions they endured while there. My dad went down there when he worked for State Farm and he told us stories of what he saw. My mom soon joined him and told me of the water lines on the houses and how she only saw two people wandering around as she explored what she could at the time. During one of my recent trips down there, I drove through neighbourhoods that still had the spray paint markers on the houses while the water lines were faint yet still there.



Some claimed the storm to be the work of God trying to flush out the evil in NOLA. Others couldn't feel anything at all except to get through the water. Piazza's novel threw me right in the middle of the water that flooded the streets. I saw the floating bodies, the cars that ended up in people's backyards. I wanted to hug Lucy as she and SJ stayed upstairs while the water continued to rise. I was even with Craig as he sat in the coffee shop in the suburbs of Chicago, looking around at all of the white people in their comfort zones, while he felt anger towards them because they had no idea.

I can't recommend this book enough to people. Please, read City of Refuge.

Tom, I hope we can have a cup of tea sometime. By the way, thanks for mentioning some of my favourite places like Igor's and Rue de la Course on Oak Street - I always go to the coffee shop first then Blue Cypress Books afterwards. It's a ritual of mine.

(upstairs at Rue de la Course)

EX LIBRIS!

Friday, July 7, 2017

Flash Story - Creative Starvation



Emma watched the play with interest; it had been quite some time since she last went to the theatre. She used to treat herself to the theatre, followed by either dinner out somewhere followed by a nice cup of tea. Unfortunately, she stopped going after she started dating Paul, a nice guy who had no interest in anything that would stimulate his mind. Before long, several months passed and soon, she dumped Paul and returned to herself, gathering up the lost pieces she so carelessly threw aside when she was “in love”. Now that she was happily single again, she resumed her theatre nights. As she watched the actors perform the drama with great earnest, Emma recognized one of the actresses. There was Matilda, an older woman who used to work with her at her corporate job until she decided to quit to pursue her career as an actress. Emma had dreams of becoming a full time novelist yet decided to remain at her current job until she was able to make enough through sales of her first novel before leaving. She knew that both Matilda and her husband were actors and, although they did not make much, they both had passion for what they did.


Creative people, like Matilda and Emma, were driven by their passions no matter where they lay, but Emma knew that she had to eat and do more than just survive. Those thoughts drove her as she worked nightly on her second novel. When Emma saw her friend on the stage doing her best (which was always damn near perfect) she felt glad for her friend and wished her nothing but luck. Once the play finished, Emma went home to change clothes and then left out again to find a coffee shop to enjoy a cup of Earl Grey tea while reading. Emma put in one of her jazz CDs as she drove and hummed along with the bebop melody while her eyes scanned the streets. Suddenly, Emma saw an older woman dressed in shabby clothes clutching a bright red bag on her shoulder as she trudged along the sidewalk. It was Matilda. She passed Matilda by, wondering why she didn’t have a car to get herself home. Emma thought about slowing down so she could give Matilda a ride to her home yet hesitated in her actions. Something inside of her did not want to carry out the action. Emma listened to that part of her mind and drove off as the silhouetted figure of Matilda struggled with her belongings. Emma was an artist who did not want to live a starving life like her comrades. Ten minutes later, she had forgotten her dilemma as she  walked into the coffee shop with thoughts of Earl Grey and the plot of her novel in progress.  

(model - Jean Marie Sheridan - copyright 2014)

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Love and Games in Buenos Aires







Happy Independence Day!


I was surprised to read negative reviews on The Foreigners by Maxine Swann. Someone wrote that they wanted to read about Buenos Aires and that this book did not talk about the city at all. Yet, I thought the complete opposite. The book IS about Buenos Aires, as seen through the eyes of three extremely different women - Daisy, a divorced American who travels to the city to get away from her past; Isolde, a lonely Austrian woman who finds comfort in the arts; and Leonarda, an Argentine woman whose moods and looks change from moment to moment. These three women present the city in all its beautiful and seedy glory as they attempt to make a life for themselves. Swann's writing reminds me of my friend's work, author Elise Blackwell - dreamlike, engaging, and well told.

Daisy, after arriving in the city, sets up in a less than desirable apartment while attempting to work on a grant project. She meets Leonarda through an ad for people who want to learn English, only to find out that Leonarda speaks perfect English. Together, the two embrace danger while telling lie on top of lie, all the while giving into what they desire. Leonarda even asks Daisy for help in a Master Plan - an attempt to seduce a well known Argentine man, yet Daisy suspects that even darker forces are at work. Isolde comes into the picture through Daisy and is shown to be a woman who wants something yet is not really sure what it is. She is herself when it comes to cocktail parties and art openings but without it, she is like a canvas with no paint. The three women go in search of what they think will make them happy and as it turns out, it's not what they expected.

To be honest, I wasn't sure if I was going to enjoy this book, yet once I began reading Daisy's words, I found that I couldn't put it down. I turned each page, wondering what they were going to do next. Would they accept that invitation to that party? How far would Daisy allow herself to fall with Leonarda leading her? Would Isolde ever be happy by being alone? Is Leonarda really who she says she is? I found this to be a quick and most enjoyable read and, like so many other authors I've recently read, I look forward to reading more of Swann's work.

EX LIBRIS!


Monday, July 3, 2017

The OTHER Side of California






When I first watched the film Deliverance, I had no idea that it would be THAT intense. Although I've seen it twice (yeah, I didn't learn my lesson after watching it the FIRST time!), the film is forever burned in my mind. Stories like that are hard to forget - big city folks wanting to spend time in peaceful Nature, only to have their world flipped upside down. The book Lost Canyon by author, teacher, and activist Nina Revoyr feels the same way.

I do want to say that this is by far the most multicultural book I've ever read. The story is thus: four people from Los Angeles - a half Japanese half white fitness instructor with a taste for reckless adventure, a young black woman who gives hope to those who have none, a Hispanic man involved in the real estate business, and a white man who lives the life of the upper crust - seek something more in Life. Tracy (the fitness instructor) decides to get her clients together for a camping weekend in the Sierra Nevada. Backpacking, hiking, roughing it in Nature, and being able to "get away" from it all. Each comes to the event with trepidation, excitement, and fear yet they all decide to go anyway. And that is when the shit hits the fan. Soon, they realize that the Sierra Nevada is truly untamed and wild but not in a good way. And it will take every ounce of their willpower and strength to overcome it.

This book had me riveted from page one to the satisfying end even though I had questions that I don't think have any answers. Each of the characters is real and not the "token" of their race. They are all Americans, all used to the comforts of home in LA. They are used to the occasional bouts of racism and they shrug their shoulders at it. It's all a part of living in the 21st century - we may be advanced in technology but skin colour is still a problem. Yet, these characters come out of this story transformed in a better way. The colour lines fall down and all we have left are Americans, people, human beings who can love and look out for each other. It gave me hope.

Revoyr also describes the Sierra Nevada right down to the rocks and flowers. I was right there with the four as they endured their long hikes through the "too beautiful to be real" areas. Her descriptions were just enough to give me a mental picture as I read. I almost expected to smell the clean mountain air wafting from the pages. Even when they faced multiple dangers (won't tell you what they are!), the area provided a beautiful backdrop. Death lived among untouched beauty.

Thank you, Nina. I'll be reading more of your work very soon.

EX LIBRIS!