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A Little Story

It is October and I have been writing short stories for most of the past year, among other things. More on that later. But I was reminded the other day of my favorite Hallowe’en story, read by one of my favorite authors, so I thought I would share it with you.

The world might be dark and scary outside, but I just wanted to remind you that literature can make it even scarier.

Happy Hallowe’en!


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Human Moments, No 9

By Michael Rivera - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The children are a mix of ages, from four to seven, but their thin limbs sprawl equally across the newly painted merry-go-round.  Merry-go-rounds are now an artifact of time, an icon of the American landscape that has been sacrificed to this new world of safety and caution, and Baba has never seen one before.  Despite all of my efforts to distract her to slides and swings in the toddler-sized playground, she goes running towards it, arms outstretched like a tiny fun-loving zombie.


When they see her, the children on the merry-go-round drag their feet in the dirt to bring it to a screechy halt.  “Wait,” says a little girl with brown hair that is desperately escaping from her fat braid.  “There’s a baby.”  She pulls on the metal bars, dangling her tiny bottom over the edge, her hips moving back and forth with all the energy of someone who hasn’t yet figured out how to sit still.

“Baba, no-no,” I say desperately trying to distract Baba. “No-no, Baba!”  There are no harnesses on the merry-go-round and she’s certainly not stable enough to cling to the bars.  Everything in the New Parent Handbook says that this is a very, very bad idea.

“No-no!” Baba says, cheerily.

“It’s okay,” a young boy says, his words slurred by his missing lower front tooth.  “We can push her.”

“We’ll go slow,” the girl promises.  “Since she’s a baby.”

“Alright,” I say, then help Baba scramble up onto the merry-go-round.  The other children part, making room for her tiny body in that amorphous way that groups of children move when they are en masse.  Baba stands in the middle, smiling and babbling in her joy of being part of the group.  “Sit down!” I tell her, thinking that at least if she sits, she shouldn’t smack too many body parts when the merry-go-round begins to move.  I climb on with her and sit cross-legged on the cold metal, secretly pleased at my flexibility.

And let’s be honest, it’s not just pleased.  I’m delighted to have an excuse to sit on a merry-go-round again.  It was my favorite playground equipment and Baba has given a fabulous excuse to pretend I’m a child.


“Is she ready?” the brown-haired girl asks.  “Because my dad has taught us the right speeds.”

“That’s right,” the boy says.  “For babies, you have to go really slow.”  He hops down and begins gently pushing us around, at a speed that would make the teacup ride at Disneyland yawn in boredom.  “And for older babies, you can go less slow.  And for a little older than that, you can go walk speed.  And then, when it’s only older kids, you can go fast.  And then, when you’re five, you can go super fast.”

“And when you’re six,” the girl interrupts, “you can go super-mega-awesome-fast.”




The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout


Prepare yourself, readers, for a book that is equally about place as people.  The 2013 novel, The Burgess Boys, written by Elizabeth Strout, is as much about the internal culture clash of being from two places as it is about the Burgess siblings, who are brought together when Susan Burgess’s teenaged son commits a hate crime in their home town of Shirley Falls, Maine.

The novel quickly begins to revolve around the relationship between Susan’s brothers, Jim and Bob Burgess, who both became lawyers and left the small Maine town for New York City.  Jim, the family favorite, made his fame as a brilliant criminal lawyer early in life by successfully defending a guilty-as-sin singer, in a trial that should remind readers of O.J. Simpson.  And yet, his success as a lawyer has come at the cost of his personal relationships.  Jim is, to put it as nicely as possible, a big jerk.

Bob, in comparison, has settled for a less glamorous life, living in the shadow of his brother and putting up with Jim’s constant abuse.  Divorced by his wife Pam over his infertility, he wanders through his days drinking more than he should and watching his neighbors, while still seeking for a meaningful relationship with Jim.

Unlike her brothers, Susan Burgess has remained in Shirley Falls, where she clings tightly and angrily to an image of life that she feels slipping away.  When the town becomes host to an influx of Somali refugees, the native residents are forced to learn to interact with a new culture that seems impossibly foreign to their own.  For Susan, a cold and hard woman who cannot even accept Unitarians, this seems impossible.  When her son Zach, a lonely and silent boy that is dominated by his mother’s anger, throws a pig’s head through the window of the town’s mosque during Ramadan, Susan calls on Bob and Jim to come help with his legal defense.  Forced into returning to Shirley Falls, Jim and Bob struggle with their adult relationship with their sister and their memories of the town and the freak accident that killed their father 30 years prior.  Although their adult lives have been purposefully separate, their shared guilt at their involvement in their father’s death both binds and separates them.  Uniting once again for the sake of family brings up these old wounds and throws them into the light of revelation.

Elizabeth Strout is  a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist (Olive Kitteridge, 2008) and this excellence of writing shows in The Burgess Boys.  Although the actual events of the novel are rather sparse, the prose is captivating and filled with gentle insights into human nature.  By far, the hero of the novel is Bob, who gently plays the role of Switzerland between Susan and Jim.  He wades through the novel with his gentle imperfections, drawing the reader along as he tries to draw meaning from the failures of his marriage and family.

Bob was not a young man, and he knew about loss. He knew the quiet that arrived, the blinding force of panic, and he knew that each loss brought with it some odd, barely acknowledged sense of release. He was not an especially contemplative person, and he did not dwell on this. But by October there were many days when the swell of rightness, loose-limbedness, and gentle gravity came to him. It recalled to him being a child, when he found one day he could finally color within the lines.

As Zach’s trial approaches, Strout brings us further into Bob’s life, exploring his love of New York City and his failed marriage to Pam, who, like Jim, continues to befriend Bob for her own selfish purposes.  Although Bob’s loneliness shines through the story, his introspection keeps the story moving along.  You cannot help but love him for his acute observations and good-natured ability to be the middle ground between the extremes of his family.

He thought of the people in the world who felt saved by city. He was one of them. Whatever darkness leaked its way in, there were always lights on in different windows here, each light like a gentle touch on his shoulder saying, Whatever is happening, Bob Burgess, you are never alone.

By choosing to center the plot around a hate crime, Strout manages to inject a moral tone and a contemporary feel into her books without preaching.  When she writes about culture clash, she does it with the hand of someone who loves her characters and sees the humanity in all of them.  Reading The Burgess Boys in 2016, as the U.S. heads toward a heated election where refugees are a central issue, feels particularly relevant.  Yet Strout reaches into the heads of all of the interested parties, doing as much justice to the culture-shocked Somali refugees as the entrenched white residents of Shirley Falls that resent the changing culture of their town.

About the Somalis, a few townspeople did not speak at all: They were to be borne as one bore bad winters or the price of gasoline or a child who turned out badly. Others were not so silent.

While the political background of the novel could easy drag down the story, ultimately, The Burgess Boys is about a family that suffers because of its long-held secrets.  When the secrets reveal themselves by the end of the novel, as secrets must, the family moves into a satisfying place of redemption, while the reader leaves with just a bit more wisdom about the complexity of love.

“You have family”, Bob said. “You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be kind of a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That’s called family.”

So it is, Bob Burgess.  So it is.

  • Publisher: Random House
  • Publish Date: March 26, 2013
  • Hardcover: 326 pages
  • ISBN: 1400067685
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: fiction, literary fiction
Subjects: coming of age, crime, dysfunction, family, immigration, law, refugees, regionalism
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Dublin Airport Time

Dublin AirportThe flights to America leave from Terminal 2 in Dublin.  There was a time when arriving at the airport was a relaxing part of the trip.  It was a last chance to sit at O’Brien’s and have one last authentic fry-up, one last cup of well-brewed Barry’s tea before stuffing a real scone in my bag and heading back to the land of hot dogs and coffee.

Time has changed things.  O’Brien’s is not what it was.  The tea is a weak European blend that we don’t recognize.  The fruit is green and the sausages are no longer spiced in the Irish style.  The staff are eastern European, serving up a cheaper version of the Irish experience that has lost everything in translation without gaining any international flavor.  The beans are insipid at best.

But this barely matters, because we no longer have time to stop there for breakfast before our flight. New American security concerns mean that we must go through two sets of security screenings, as well as customs, before we even get to the gate.  Well over an hour later, when we’ve gone past all of that, we queue up for half an hour at the one restaurant in the American section of the airport, where I pick out a muffin that I don’t want because we no longer have time for the staff to heat up a panini.  The plane is already boarding, even though we’ve been at the airport for two and a half hours.  I swallow half of my cappuccino before throwing out the rest so that this time, thank God, we don’t end up running for the gate.  I burn my tongue.

It has been an exhausting trip, this trip back to Ireland to bury my brother-in-law.  I’ve cried a great deal more than I expected, while remembering more names than I anticipated.  My in-laws are a veritable tribe, a tribe that shows up en masse to major life events.  There are cousins and friends and adult children with children of their own, all of whom seem to remember my name.  When I ask my Beloved to clarify which cousin Mary that he had just referred to, he gives me a blank look at my dense incomprehension, then rattles off a string of names and relationships that I lose hope of being able to follow by the second sentence.  My family has been declining in numbers for a generation; I am simply not equipped with the skills to remember everyone, even after four years of marriage.  But I am getting better.

My sister-in-law brought pictures of my Beloved and his three siblings to the wake, one from shortly after the birth of the youngest and another from right before my Beloved left Ireland for good in the late 80s.  They are children in the first picture and barely more than that in the second.  The second photo hung in the family home for decades, becoming such an icon that my Beloved and his siblings retook it a few years ago.  I am so glad that they did now, though I remember being in a rush at the time, because there will never be another one with all four of them together.  That time in their lives has finished, long before we ever expected that it would.  So we passed around the pictures and told old stories to the new generation, while marveling at the changes in the family between then and now.  Baba wandered at our feet, pulling at the photographs and trying to find out what happens when you bend them.

My brother-in-law was buried on Saturday, so we took Baba and her cousins to St. Anne’s park on Sunday for some much needed downtime.  There is a playground there that is a Dublin institution.  The carved horses and cows had fresh paint once, but it has been worn off by generations of small hands climbing all over them.  Baba climbed up onto the Viking ship, which is far too tall for her, and her eldest cousin, who is a man himself now, reached up to keep her from falling.  We posed her with her two cousins, and tried to keep her still enough to get a good shot. She doesn’t understand why we would want to sit still in a playground, where there are so many things to climb and explore.  

Perhaps there will be a day, years down the road, where we’ll make another photo like yesterday’s, when Baba is old enough to understand, and marvel again at the impossibility of capturing time.


So Many Miles to Go Before I Sleep

A winter scene, a cold creek through a snow-covered forest.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

I know that I am grieving, because poetry keeps running through my head.  A fragment here, a stanza there.  It is a dark season, made darker this week by the passing of my brother-in-law, who was a fine, big man that I’d been planning on having in my life for another 20 to 30 years, at a minimum.

Tonight, we will get on a plane, a red eye flight that will take us over the dark waters of the Atlantic.  We’re travelling with Baba and have taken enough red eye flights with her now that I do not think that I will be sleeping for the better part of 24 hours, because toddlers do not understand things like ignoring all of the distractions on the plane for some much needed rest.

There are, indeed, many miles to go before I sleep.  Many of them will be spent walking my 30-pound toddler in my arms up and down the narrow aisle of the plane, begging her to just, please God, please just close her eyes.

And I am reluctant to go and see my brother-in-law.  In April, my brother-in-law was a healthy man.  I saw him this summer, after the brain tumor had started to destroy his body function, but when he was still talking.  A seriously ill man, but an alive one, who was asking about the madness that has infected American politics this year, who had opinions about movies and wanted to tell you what you needed to watch next on TV.

As far away as we are, it doesn’t yet feel possible that he won’t be in Dublin, waiting to greet us when we get there.  I have no experience of Dublin that does not include dinners at his house, his hugs and kisses, the feeling that he always gave me that I was truly a part of the family, that the in-law part of our names for each other was just a stupid formality that only mattered to other people.  He was the first of my in-laws to call me his sister. I will never forget the happiness in his face as he did it, because it must have reflected mine.

Once I see him, then I know that it will be real that he won’t be there anymore.  Not this time, nor the next.

And I do not want that.  I desperately do not want to talk about him in past tense.  I want to keep him in the realm of “is” and not “was.”  It’s impossible.  It’s just impossible that such an alive person could no longer be with us.  It’s impossible that there will be no more beers in seaside pubs and stories of his motorcycle cop days and eating takeaway fish and chips at his dining room table, listening to the fire crackle and pop.

Cliché, cliché, cliché.  But things become clichés because they are true.

And that’s where poetry comes to save us, to say things for us in beautiful ways, to express our grief in words that seem worthy of it.

And so, Joe, let me share with you the stanzas that I’ve had stuck in my head since I heard the news of your death.  The poem reminds me of you, you who spent your weekends sailing yachts, because it was what you just loved to do.  You, who took scuba trips to Caribbean islands, who worked in Croatia for a year, who finally found the adventure you were always looking for in the love of your life.  You were never too modest to share how happy you were about the fine adventures you had! — and that gratitude, that spirit is something that we should all learn from you.  And so I think of Robin Williams in The Dead Poet’s Society, again, telling a classroom of young boys about the preciousness of each day, because you, Joe, you were the essence of carpe diem.  And so I say, to all of you…

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

Robert Herrick, “To the Virgins, to make much of Time



Bombs in Manhattan

It is Monday morning, on the sort of fall morning where rain comes by in unsuspecting gusts, drenching any commuter that was brave enough to put their umbrella away during the brief periods of dryness. On the train, freed from the drama of the rain, we are hurtling towards Penn Station, racing past the sleepy yellow houses of Queens that quietly witness the thousands of people that travel past them each day.

Then the phones begin to buzz, first a single alert, then an unignorable clatter of sounds, as Verizon and AT&T and TMobile send out a law enforcement alert. Without glancing at my phone, I know that they must have found the person behind the bombings of the last 24 hours, the set of trash can and pressure cooker bombs in Manhattan and northern New Jersey that have scathed passer-bys, but not yet killed anyone. They’ve gone off in empty neighborhoods, late at night and early in the morning, just a reminder of how vulnerable we are and how dangerous it is to dare to be in a crowd.

How much worse they could have been.

My kid brother came over last night for dinner, as is his habit on Sunday nights. “Did you hear about the bombings?” he asked, worried that people are once again attacking our city. He is young – 21 – the same age that I was on September 11th, 2001. He was six at the time and living in England, so I know that the stories about it sound like people landing on the moon or the assassination of JFK did to me.

“It’s scary,” he says.

“Yes, but,” I say, “if you lived in Baghdad, this would be something that happened every week.”

“That’s true,” he says.

“It is scary,” I add, belatedly. “And New York will always be a target. That’s just something you have to deal with, living here. And oh God, tomorrow’s commute. It’s going to be awful.”

“Ugh,” he says, sympathetically. I know that he is glad that he works nearby.

I am not, you may note, the most reassuring person in a crisis.

And so here we are again, with another frightening drama unfolding on streets so familiar that they feel like home. The mayor and the media were quick to respond, to reassure us that the first two bombs were “intentional but not terrorism.” I laugh a bit at the language, because the way the media restructures words. Of course it is terrorism. Anyone planting bombs in public spaces is trying to terrorize the public at large. And, hardy as we are by now, it’s working. The kids are scared.

And so I wonder about this name that has just shown up on all of our phones, as we go about our lives and continue on to offices with bosses that would not understand if we “let the terrorists win” (whatever that means) by staying home. We’ve seen this play out before, in Boston, and we know that he will be found. There is not a scenario where you draw this kind of police attention and walk away free. And, is that the point? Is this kid — only a handful of years older than my brother — testing himself? Is this a question of wits, inspired by a thousand and one blockbuster action films? And is he alone? Will we be safe, as he runs for his freedom?

In the seats in front of me, a woman wearing far too much perfume is peacefully playing Candy Crush Saga, whiling away her commute as though today were just an ordinary day. At the other end of my subway ride, I will come out of the World Trade Center subway stop, thinking as I queue up for the exit of how vulnerable we are, standing trapped underneath such a world-famous target. I feel the echoes of the dead around me, as I emerge into the sunlight and pass St. Paul’s, the three and a half century old church across from Ground Zero, where some of the first European inhabitants of Manhattan are buried. The grass grows long and wild at the edge of the graveyard, where it curves down to the meet the street. I wonder about the groundsmen whose job it must be to worry about this small detail.

And then I go about my day.


The Secret Place by Tana French

Tana French The Secret Place It’s no secret that I get excited about new Tana French novels.  I have been slowly doling them out to myself, using them as a special reading treat, because I have been afraid of running out of her novels.  Now that I’ve finished The Secret Place, I have read absolutely every word that she’s published and can only wait for her next book, The Trespasser, due out in the fall.  Tana French is such a favorite that I actually order her books in paper format, because I know even before reading them that I’m going to want to keep them in my collection forever.

The Secret Place did not disappoint, by which I mean that it took over my life in the week that it took me to read it.   If you’re not familiar with Tana French, her Dublin Murder Squad series is a collection of first-person character-driven classic detective novels told through the eyes of Dublin Murder detectives that are inevitably working the case of a lifetime.  I do not read a lot of crime fiction because of its tendency to be more focused on the details of the mystery than the characters of the story, but French combines the detective genre with thoughtful character development and the sort of poetic prose that reminds me of Margaret Atwood.  And did I mention how Irish her novels are?  French was raised all over the world, but she lives in Dublin, which is obvious in the faithful and delightful representation of Irish speech and culture.  Having an Irish spouse makes reading her dialogue a delight, because it’s so faithful that it almost feels like a private joke.

Her lip pulled back.  “Jesus fuck.  I thought they were gonna put me through a decontamination chamber, get rid of my accent.  Or throw me a cleaner’s uniform and point me at the tradesmen’s entrance.  You know what the fees are?  They start at eight grand a year.  That’s if you’re not boarding, or taking any extracurricular activities.  Choir, piano, drama.  You have any of that, in school?”

“We had a football in the yard.”

Conway liked that.  “One little geebag: I go into the holding room and call out her name for interview, and she goes, ‘Em, I can’t exactly go now, I’ve got my clarinet lesson in five?'”  That curl rising at the corner of her mouth again.  Whatever she’d said to the girl, she’d enjoyed it.  “Her interview lasted an hour.  Hate that.”

“The school,” I said.  “Snobby and good, or just snobby?”

“I could win the Lotto, still wouldn’t send my kid there.  But…” One-shouldered shrug.  “Small classes.  Young Scientist awards everywhere.  Everyone’s got perfect teeth, no one ever gets up the duff, and all the shiny little pedigree bitches go on to college.  I guess it’s good, if you’re OK with your kid turning out a snobby shite.”

I said, “Holly’s da’s a cop.  A Dub.  From the Liberties.”

“I know that.  You think I missed that?”

One of the tropes of French’s novels that I really love is the way she pulls her protagonists from earlier books in the series, developing the character by throwing them into a first-person narrative.  In The Secret Place, this character is Stephen Moran from Faithful Place.  Two books ago, he was a young man at the start of his career who is pulled in as a floater on a high-profile murder case.  When he stands out for his work on that case, he’s promoted to the Cold Case department.  When Holly Mackey, the teenaged daughter of the detective of Faithful Place, comes in to him with a new piece of evidence in the year old murder of Chris Harper, a boy that was killed on the grounds of her posh boarding school, Stephen recognizes his golden opportunity.  Desperate to be promoted to the Murder squad, he takes the card that Holly has given him to Antoinette Conway, the Murder detective that has failed to solve Chris Harper’s murder. He asks for a chance to work the case with her.

Ambitious, is our Stephen.

But first he must convince Conway that he’s worth keeping around.  Unlike French’s other novels, The Secret Place takes place in a 24 hour time period, which serves as Stephen Moran’s trial by fire.  And it is a trial by fire, as Stephen and Conway visit the luxurious grounds of St. Kilda, a boarding school for high school girls, where the headmistress makes it all too clear that she’s more concerned about the reputation of the school than bringing any kind of justice to Chris or his family.  The students aren’t any better, where rival cliques of girls try to use the detectives for their own purposes.  In order to solve the mystery of Chris’s murder, Stephen and Conway have to wade through their lies and rivalries.

Conway’s eyes narrowed.  She turned back to Joanne, slower.  Shoulders easing.

Smile.  Steady sticky voice, like talking to a stupid toddler.

“Joanne.  I know it’s hard for you, not being the center of attention.  I know you’re only dying to throw a tantrum and scream, ‘Everybody look at me!’ But I bet if you try your very best, you can hang on for just a few more minutes.  And when we’re done here, your friends can explain to you why this was important.  OK?”

Joanne’s face was pure poison.  She looked forty.

“Can you manage that for me?”

Joanne thumped back in her chair, rolled her eyes.  “Whatever.”

“Good girl.”

The circle of arena eyes, appreciative; we had a winner.  Julia and Holly were both grinning.  Alison looked terrified and over the moon.

As Stephen and Conway start piecing together the story as they interrogate the girls at St. Kilda’s, French uses flashbacks to follow the girls’ lives in the year prior to Chris’s death, using Holly and her friends to bring the reader along on a journey of suspense and suspicion.  She does it beautifully, capturing the emotion and precariousness of teenaged life in such a precise and realistic way that it seems impossible that French is not a teenager herself.  These moments sneak up on the reader, pulling us along with the events of school life at St Kilda’s until we feel like we’re one of Holly’s gang, navigating the beginnings of adulthood in a simultaneously thrilling and dangerous environment.

As the countdown to Chris’s death marches on, French reveals the privately vicious world of the teenagers, as they jockey with one another for status.  Although their days are filled with classes and scheduled study time, their free hours are spent at the local shopping mall, where the boys from a nearby boys’ boarding school also hang out.  As the St. Kilda’s girls try to figure out boyfriends and friendships and identity, we are filled with the knowledge that this very normal tangle of relationships will turn into a deadly combination.  Each scene feels both like an opportunity to look for clues and a familiar and personal experience.

Chris sits down next to her.  Selena has never been this close to him before, close enough to see the scattering of freckles along the tops of his cheekbones, the faintest shading of stubble on his chin; to smell him, spices and a thread of something wild and musky that makes her think of outside at night.  He feels different from anyone she’s ever met: charged up fuller, electric and sparking with three people’s worth of life packed into his skin.

Readers of French’s other novels will also recognize the eerie role that the grounds of St. Kilda’s play in the novel.  The girls are locked in at night — and for good reason — as the woods on the property come alive at night with all types of wildlife. As the girls find their way out onto the grounds at night, St Kilda’s changes from an institution to a place of mystery and power, long before Chris Harper is found dead.  While some readers might find French’s tendency towards mysticism off-putting, The Secret Place gives a very concrete answer to each mystery that it presents, which was almost disappointing to this Tana French fan.


  • Publisher: Viking Press
  • Publish Date: September 2, 2014
  • Hardcover: 452 pages
  • ISBN: 9780670026326
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 4 of 5 stars

My other Tana French reviews:

Genre: contemporary, crime, fiction, mystery
Series: Dublin Murder Squad | Subjects: coming of age, crime, ireland, murder, sexuality, youth
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