Monday, December 13, 2021

Much gratitude to the folks at The New York Times for including The Unknown Woman of the Seine on its year-end list of top historical novels. Ho-ho-ho...

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

In recognition of the pub date of my new book, The Unknown Woman of the Seine, here's a link to a podcast I recently guested on, hosted by author/colleague/teacher/friend Mari Talkin.

We spoke of many things -- not just about the book, but about teaching in these times and places. Many thanks to Mari. Give her click!

Tuesday, October 19, 2021


It brings me great pleasure to announce the publication of my latest novel, The Unknown Woman of the Seine (Delphinium, Nov 2021). What follows is an excerpt from the blogpost I wrote for Delphinium, and offers a good quick breakdown of the what and why of the whole undertaking. My everlasting thanks go out to all who helped in the making of the book, but especially my editor Joe Olshan and Delphinium's publisher, Lori Milken, without whom none of this: 

“The Unknown Woman of the Seine” is one of those images, one of those phrases, one of those characters you can go most of your life never encountering – or never noticing, at least – until you do, and once you do, you start seeing her everywhere.

Hers is the tale – or two tales really – the first about the young woman whose body washed up on the banks of the Seine some time in the late 1880s, was taken to the city morgue, publicly displayed, never claimed, but whose face bore such a lovely and beatific expression that a caste was made – and this becomes the second tale: of the plaster mask that went from being an artist’s study tool to a poet’s muse, to the subject of short stories, novels, movies, and photographic essays, before eventually winding up as the template for the first CPR dummy, Resusci Anne, thus rounding these two narratives into a singular, circular whole – of the drowning victim whose surviving image served to teach us all how to save each other from, among other things, drowning.

For me, the discovery of this diptych – of woman and mask – took place about a decade ago, maybe a year or so before I started writing the book, which I did for the same reason I write any book: because my mind keeps returning to it, and to the questions it poses. In this case (and a
ssuming any part of the origin story is true), what life could account for the expression we encounter on that mask? Maybe more to the point, what death?

Without entering too much into process, research followed. And surmise. Certain resemblances asserted themselves, and by their lead, the beginnings of an answer started to take shape around other secondary questions having to do with the acute effects of longstanding physical and psychological trauma, the Sino-French War, the recurrence of certain specific bodhisattvas, the annals of 19th century French (and Swiss) crime, the fin-de-siecle anti-absinthe movement, and the World’s Fair of 1889, of course, whose final three days serve as the story’s squarest frame.

Inevitably, as I grew more familiar with the history, the place, and the various available characters, the book began to take on the romantic, ornate, gas-lit atmosphere of its setting. At the same time, and just as inevitably, I became aware that my actual storyline – that is, the investigation into the life and death of the Unknown Woman — was leading me down some very dark alleys, and that lurking in the shadows of this world were more sinister elements, specific exhibits of racism and acts of violence that were as grotesque and disturbing as anything the human imagination could conjure. Only they were true, indelibly etched into the record of the period.

I cannot say that this dissuaded me. For a writer, the knowledge that your present course is liable, at certain turns, to shock the conscience of an empathetic reader isn’t necessarily bad news. It means you may be on to something, in fact, and especially these days, when the ways we talk about our deepest communal faults and fault-lines have begun to feel so pitched and so prescribed, there’s value, I believe, to opening the mind’s eye and seeing these demons in action. And in effect. That’s what novels do.

So I proceeded, aware that certain crucial questions were out in the open now and would hover for the remainder of my effort – questions not just about how I should address the more upsetting features of this landscape, but about whether I should. And why.

Now in addition to being a writer, I am also a teacher, which means that I currently find myself in a moment of upheaval, wrought by the confluence of a digital revolution and a socio-political reckoning that calls upon us – happily and necessarily – to revisit the most basic questions about what we think we’re doing, which in my case means teaching literature. In the brave new world of boundless bandwidth and vanishing attention spans, what does it even mean to be a reader, or ‘culturally literate’? Is this an idea we want to preserve? Is reading novels, say, a behavior we want to continue encouraging? And if the answer is yes, then on what basis do I choose to model that behavior on this book here as opposed to that one there?

I’d like to think that all English teachers are wrestling with such questions, and I expect that our answers will vary, depending upon the paths that led us to the classroom, and the paths that led our students there as well. Obviously. But for me, and for now, my own answer to that last question in particular – what makes me most excited to share a text with my students, and to read it with them – is this, and if this sheds light on my creative m.o. or why I feel not just emboldened but obliged to take the hazardous trail when it presents itself…fine.

First, I should admit that I’ve never considered it to be the purpose of a novel – or a song, a painting, or any work of art for that matter – to offer remedies, solutions, or instructions. I’m aware of the counterarguments, but it’s my experience that ideology flattens art, and I’m not interested in agendas. I can get those easily enough online. When I smell one in something someone has created, my tendency is to think it kinda stinks.

What doesn’t stink – what stays fresh, that is, and what I therefore trust in most — is the Particular. The Singular. The One-and-Only-ness of whatever the writer has set their sights on. And that quality can apply to any aspect of the work – to the situation, a feeling, or to a character, of course; that’s always the best. The effect is the same no matter where you find it, and harkens to the old idea that the more precise the detail – or focus of our attention — the more universal the resonance will be. So it doesn’t matter that I’m reading about a Chinese farmer in a rice field 2500 years ago. If the language captures that moment, the moment will capture me, and in so doing, expose all those boundaries that supposedly divide that farmer and me for what they are: the real fiction.

But I’ll go a step further and admit that my favorite of these moments, the ones that really make me sit up in my chair, or maybe even put the book down and take a quick walk of gratitude – are those in which an author manages not only to distill the essence of the thing, but the antidote as well.

What do I mean?

I mean that passage where, even as the protagonist appears to be having their grand epiphany – is actually pronouncing the truth inside their head (and an admirable truth at that!) – the author manages to tilt it just a fraction, just enough to let us see that this too is vanity, of course, it is (e.g., Tolstoy, Woolf, Wilson). Equally as stirring is the lunatic’s street corner rant, which for all its frustrating loops and arbitrary digressions, still glimmers with moments of divine light. This makes me very happy (e.g., Nizami, Nijinsky, Morrison, Kanye). That glance in the mirror that reveals the villainy of the hero or the heroism of the villain. Anything, really, that challenges or confounds the reader’s reflex to make an easy sense of what just happened here, or to relax into obvious assumptions about who’s reliable and who isn’t, or what the moral of this story surely must be (e.g., Shakespeare). I like a good kōan. I like the parable that makes no sense (e.g., Buddha, Jesus). I like the
 author who for some reason saves her clearest, tenderest prose for the most gruesome image in the book (e.g., Allende). Or the composer who, having written the most beautiful melody he can think of, can’t resist smearing it just a little with his thumb (e.g., Prokofiev, Waits).

These are my heroes, my mentors and masters, who teach me not to be so quick, or ever to think I know. All meaning is a double-edged sword. Ego cloaks itself in noble deeds every day. The lotus grows from garbage heaps. And literature is never more vital – or more consoling, it seems to me – than when it reminds us of this, the gorgeous moral ambiguity of human being.

Do I say all this to suggest that The Unknown Woman of the Seine actually achieves such an effect? Or to justify the paths I finally chose in trying to solve the mystery of that young woman’s face? Hardly. Not my place. Not my interest really. But I will happily admit that this is why I read; this is why I teach; and that by implication, sure, this is why I write.

This post can also be found at the Delphinium Blog

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Thursday, October 6, 2016

BEASTIE: Lord of the Lamp Post

You guessed it. Time for a new book from Star Pine!

Well, new in a sense. A generous excerpt from Beastie appeared in Andrew Blauner’s anthology Central Park a few years back, but the new Star Pine edition marks the first time the story has been available in its entirety. With pictures, no less.

To be brief and (I hope) enticing, Beastie is the story of my first encounter with the eponymous creature that lives in Central Park, who sleeps through the day in his little den at the bottom of Belvedere Castle, and only comes out at night “to forage in the trees for midnight luncheon” as the poem says, and to awaken the various statues who call the park home.

But I may already have said too much…

The account, set in the long-ago of my own fourth-grade year, has been written for everyone, but I would in particular recommend it to the young at heart, especially those whose hearts are, oh, eight years old and up, but especially especially to those hearts familiar with the park and its most crawl-able statuary. An admitted gluttony for baseball and baseball gloves wouldn’t hurt neither, but is not required.

I will below attach some of the drawings that have made their way onto the pages, along with a taste of the aforementioned poem - but only a taste - all by way of inviting you and yours to come and, at the proper hour, meet His Pointy-eared and Finger-nailed and Sharp-toothéd Majesty the Beastie, shaggy Beastie, Lord of the Lamp Post!

It’s only when the moon eludes the cloud-bank,
and every peering bedroom light goes dim,
when darkness looms in quiet rooms,
and closets stand like mummy’s tombs,
and the last child’s dream is finally entered in,

that’s when the shadow slips out from its dungeon,
and tumbles down to fetch itself a drink,
to forage in the trees for midnight luncheon,
and just like that make chiseled eyelids blink,
and fingers twitch, and noses itch
and round bronze shoulders sink.
From meer to lake, they’ll all awake,
From bridle path, to reservoir, to rink…

                                    (from the poem “Beastie: Lord or the Lamp Post,” by Anonymous

(full poem here)
and now, a few drawrings from inside...

Monday, June 27, 2016

A recent exhibit

It's summer, so maybe time for a visual break.

The McBean Library at Cate School plays host to a gallery that regularly exhibits the work of local and often not-so-local artists. This last month they featured the work of school faculty/administration and were kind enough to invite me to exhibit some pieces. I'm hoping the images below are clickable for those who like detail...

figure drawing, reclined - black conte and charcoal (1.5'x2.5')

figure drawing, back - red conte (2.5'x1.5')
illustration for Caesar's Antlers, drawn from the paused image of an Olive Garden commercial - ink (7"x7")
figure drawing, profile - charcoal pencil (2'x1.5')
silver-haired eminence of the mesa - graphite (12"x12")
Ada, one year - charcoal pencil (5"x5")

Theo and dog - graphite and charcoal pencil (4"x2.5")

My pieces were not new, alas, but have spurred me to get going with an illustrated version of another old story Beastie, due out from Star Pine Books by the end of the summer.

For what it's worth, I was asked to offer a brief artistic statement to accompany this exhibit. It went thus: 

For the last couple generations, my family has been riddled with artists – of the painterly type. My own mother, three of her sisters, and two more cousins have been showing and selling their work, some going all the way back to 1965 or so. Plein air for the most part -- oil, woodcut, and watercolor. For those reasons, and a certain knack, I drew a lot when I was younger, and figured I’d probably grow up to be an artist some day. It was some time in high school that I recognized that that would not be happening,  
            a) because I don’t have the patience or the forbearance required to turn a facility into a calling;
            b) because to the extent I do, I think I am an illustrator.

Hence, writing. I have in fact illustrated a couple of my books, one of which came out back in 1997 (Caesar’s Antlers) and another that resides in hip pocket, but which I’ll make available eventually (Beastie). Soon.

As the drawings shown here demonstrate, my preferred subject matter has always has been humans, in feature and attitude. I like the line, so my medium has always been hard-tip -- pencil, charcoal, and ink.  Some day I’d like to try my hand at etching. Some time after that, maybe I’ll get around to the oil landscapes the rest of my family favors, but probably not. I’ve just never been able to make green work for me.

Also, I’ve taken the occasion, kindly provided by the curators if this space, to set out some new and some old work in my favorite medium, the word – for which I have always had less facility, but more patience. The Chess Garden (1995) is the first in a string of formerly published titles that I’ll be releasing under my own imprint, Star Pine Books. Let the reader note: the cover art for this new edition was provided by recent Cate graduate and renaissance man, Ethan Baretto. Asmodeus -- the cover of which also features a local connection -- is new and as-yet unseen, but I’m releasing it through Star Pine just to see if this is the way the world ends…

Who knows, maybe if you all buy enough copies, it won't.

Friday, June 3, 2016

ASMODEUS excerpt #4 - the ancient dragon Asmodeus contemplates mankind from the top of the tower of the cathedral...

Modo remained, scanning the chiseled, gridded, squared-off landscape of brick, concrete, steel, and glass that jutted and spanned and canyoned below. They’d passed over a number of small villages and settlements on the way here – distantly, of course. Still, from the vantage of the clouds it seemed like the men were much the same as before, sending their little trails of smoke into the sky. In fact that image of them – cold and shivering, stomping and huddling around the golden glow of their various hearths – more or less emblemized them in the Great Wyrm's mind. That was the good and the bad of them, how basically naked and ill-equipped they were, and yet, because of that, clever; the only other creature to master fire, if you could call that mastery, with sticks and flint and the coaxing and feeding and taming. But that was the point – the seed of admiration tucked away inside the husk of his contempt – that man had to work so hard, so constantly, so creatively to manage what Modo already had within him, and could summon up with mere intention, literally as easily as he could breath. That was the difference.
And here was that same difference again, splayed out beneath him in this impossibly ornate cityscape. If the villages hadn't changed much, the city was transformed. It was much better lit than he recalled. All the little globes they’d posted along the walkways appeared to be beaming a new kind of light:  hollower – slightly cheap, it seemed to him – but also lovely in its way. Incandescent. It didn’t flicker so much as hum. Everything hummed and strained – the carts all rumbled now, and puttered and grunted along, some of them on wheels of their own, some guided along tracks, so clumsy and awkward, with gangly arms attached to more humming wires overhead. The streets were latticed with them like cobwebs
There was almost something endearing about it, the lengths to which they’d go just to be carried along, the effort they dedicated to expending no effort, and the price they were willing to pay. The stench was everywhere – of gas, smoke, and burning air. Across the water, the stacks were much bigger and taller than he’s seen before, chugging great plumes of dark smoke into the sky. But again, to what end such industry? Leisure?
He quieted his mind to listen, to see if he could hear a difference, for this was another of his gifts:  to hear however much or however little he chose; each lap of each wave in the river; or past these, and past the humming and buzzing and chugging to the human's voices, their laughter, their shouts, their whispers and inner voices – every thought if he so desired. Had that changed at all, or was the din the same as ever? It seemed to be, only more loud perhaps, more of it, more closely packed together. He heard the squabbles and the prayers, the pleas, all the same as he remembered.
Then suddenly and out of nowhere – or not out of nowhere, as it was coming from directly underneath him – a most profound and majestic sound, a driving, driven hum which caused the stones to tremble, and that same trembling to rise up through his body, to cause his wings to quiver, his skull to purr. The charge was all throughout him, and now the sound was joined by human voice, a chorus-full, diving and cascading, rising again. He thrilled. Of course he did. He pitied them no more than they deserved. They were filthy, yes, but also capable of this, this glorious sound, borne of a knowledge they possessed that he did not – those lights, those muttering wagons, and whatever it was that had humbled the man so quickly, the father. Was that his genius as well? And was this song below the sound of that?
Only now there came another sound, a counterpoint – a lone voice, climbing up the spiral stairs, wheezing and grunting to the music, as if to remind the wyrm again of just how paltry, how sniveling, and disgusting they could be; this one griping about the gout in its knee. Modo turned round to see him appearing in the door – lumpy and white and trembling, standing on the parapet, looking back at him, his back flat against the wall. Modo lifted one wing just barely, just to see the terror in his eyes.


He jetted a hot plume of smoke from his nostrils:  the tower was his now. When the smoke cleared, the man was gone, tripping back down the steps, gimpy knee or no.
Oh, they were the same, thought the Great Wyrm, the same as ever, just more so, and there were more of them, packed more tightly, more frightened, more angry, more desperate. More more more, but there again, wasn't that the point. Say what you will about the rottenness of their cores, they were thriving, living and dying in untold numbers, while his own kind had whittled down to how many now? Was it just the one?
He would have to find that stone.