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If I Survive You

By Jonathan Escoffery

Reviewed, 7 June 2022

Escoffery’s new collection of short stories fit together as neatly as a novel. “In Flux,” the collection’s opening piece gives the author’s answer to the peculiarly American question, “What are you?” As a nation obsessed with lineage, we’ve all considered mail-order DNA kits and websites promising to reveal our connections to royalty. We’re familiar with playground questions about ancestry. When Escoffery’s character, Trelawny, faces blunt identity questions, he examines that overwhelming American trait, assimilation.

These eight stories combine to form a picture of a Jamaican family in transition. As they gain a foothold in Florida, the needs of extended family and wishes to return to simpler times pull them back to their roots. Between biting winters at a northern university and sunny Jamaican beaches, the youngest son, Trelawny, finds an uncomfortable middle ground in his hometown, Miami. But misfortune hounds the family. Hurricanes, unpredictable income, and secrets from the past batter them as they struggle to stay connected. Underneath it lies a cracked foundation, a cherished house sinking.

It’s hard to avoid phrases like, “powerhouse short stories,” and “dazzling debut.” Each story enlightens the rest, making the collection a perfect balance of tenderness and grit, hope, and despair. Escoffery’s dark humor rings throughout, hip and down-to-earth. Defiant in the face of adversity, Trelawny wills himself through hard times. Even in despair, the faded American dream calls. There must still be a way to realize it. If there isn’t, he’ll make one.

Thanks to Net Galley for an Advance Reader’s Copy of this title. If I Survive You launches, September 2022.

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Story Archive

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A Guest on Christmas Eve

Published first here, December 2021

One Christmas Eve, Old Martha sat alone, her cat asleep by the fire.

Read A Guest on Christmas Eve.

Real Writer

Published first on East of the Web, 30 September 2021

Meg rented office #10a where she worked most weekdays, her desk facing the door, the window raised behind her. No drapes. No blinds.

Read Real Writer.

Mr. Harris

Published first in Deracine, Summer 2020

I close all the windows. The wind is picking up & the dust will blow in. In the streaming sunshine, a man walks alone on the dirt road.

Read Mr. Harris.

A Place to Get Away

Published first in Backchannels, Issue 4 March 2020

Before the wildfire some years back, Grandpa George’s summer place was an ageing cabin, a relic from a time when the mountain resort was a novelty to city dwellers, a picturesque place to get away an hour’s drive from downtown.

Read A Place to Get Away.

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Meet Me at the Corner of Paper Street and Pixel Avenue

12 September 2022

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In 2012, I was working as a bookseller at Barnes and Noble, the year they launched the first Nook e-reader. The Nook was the company’s effort to compete with Amazon’s market-changing Kindle. My fellow booksellers took an interest, learned the features, and celebrated with every unit sold. I flinched at the prizes awarded to the top Nook sellers. “Why the long face?” the assistant manager asked.

“This is going to put us out of business. They’re asking us to sign our own pink slips.” Fourteen months later, Barnes and Noble closed our location. It seems we didn’t sell enough Nooks. Or maybe we sold too many.

They’re asking
us to sign our
own pink slips.

But I bought a Nook of my own before the year was out. I can count on one hand the number of paper books I’ve bought since then. Even with the employee discount. Over time, I upgrade as new models come out. If you have the Kindle app on your iPad, that’s cool, too. As digital formatting improves and the vast catalogue of book titles increases year by year, e-readers and tablets save space on our bookshelves and give access to millions of books, newspapers, and magazines in seconds. If it cost me a boring job I’d had for too long anyway, the Nook also became my new library; the one with hundreds of titles that I can throw in my bag and pull out at will. I’m Hermione Granger with her magic camping sack.

Young people buy more e-books than their parents and grandparents. Earlier this month, E-books.com reported that 62% of e-book sales come from readers 18-45. College students and 20-something’s account for the largest share, 26% of total E-book sales. Maybe it’s too predictable. Is it any surprise that the young are quicker to embrace a digital alternative to the paper volumes of old? Weekend garage sales abound in my neighborhood, overflowing with the unwanted possessions of a by-gone generation. The days of dining tables for ten and home libraries with thousands of titles are passing. Surviving relatives pile them up for sale, clearing the clutter. Their own favorite novels, textbooks, histories, and gossip rags live on devices the size of steno pads. No dusty shelves or cardboard boxes required.

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Am I suggesting you donate all your books to charity? Good luck. Goodwill, Salvation Army, and other local organizations are so inundated in my neighborhood, they turn me away from the donation point. “No room for those. Too many books already.” Should we save trees by eschewing wasteful paper books in favor of digital versions? Well, maybe. But I consider the environmental consequences of e-waste, too. At least trees can grow back.

So, meet me at the corner of Paper Street and Pixel Avenue. Bring as many books as you can fit into your backpack.

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Not Another Book List

7 September 2022

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Anyone can create a list of outstanding books to read. If you want bestsellers, promising new writers, or classics to revisit, there’s a list for that. If I throw together another one, is anyone even looking? With that in mind, the following is not a list. These are not suggestions. You’ve heard enough of those. Read on if book recommendations bore you.

The Prize-Winning Novel makes every literary list. When they come out, publishers promote them as the latest gift from a living god. That’s what they are. They are worth revisiting, revealing more of themselves on a second or third read. Google Hilary Mantel, Joyce Carol Oates, or Toni Morrison (sadly deceased).

The Debut Novel has a special buzz. The publisher loads the cover with rave reviews from notable writers and critics. “… best debut this year,” they might say, or “… destined to join To Kill A Mockingbird as a modern classic.” The products of aggressive searches for the next big thing, they may feel a little forced. But they are inclusive, reflecting the Own Voices and young talents whose bold fresh stories move the conversation forward. Read Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You, reviewed here. Look for Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang and Zadie Smith’s debut from 2000, White Teeth.

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The Old Standby is like Saturday jeans. These books are worth their inch on the bookshelf. When it’s time to take stock, face facts, and lighten the load for the moving truck, these old friends always make the cut. Have you read John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces? Try Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

A Bestseller moves a gazillion copies, gets made into a massive movie franchise, making the writer rich and famous. These things are fun. They are called “un-put-down-able.” Other euphemisms include “beach reads,” “lighter fare,” and “guilty pleasures.” Good ones don’t come along often, and the inevitable sequels are nearly always second rate. Not much staying power, either. The top titles of 2012 were Fifty Shades of Gray and The Hunger Games. Thoughtful reads to return to for deeper insight? Or (maybe more than) slightly embarrassing?

Vintage Children’s Books are a minefield. Old titles often contain language and images that reflect the norms and assumptions of earlier generations. Feared for stirring up charged memories and reinforcing negative stereotypes, they are also a reservoir of our history and heritage. We can now show ugly attitudes for what they are (destructive, short-sighted, and immoral) and further the important progress underway in our children’s generation. I don’t recommend these books, but when you find one, be brave. See if there’s more to learn from having a tough talk with a young person than lobbying the library to remove it from the shelves.

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Most readers have a to-read list long enough to roll right out the front door. If you’re a glutton for punishment, check back here from time to time for more thoughts on books to read (or avoid). Follow my blog for updates on recent stories, book reviews, and articles. And enjoy your day.

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Hitting the Press

The Streets of Sorrow, a short story inspired by true events, will appear in print in the coming weeks. Accepted for publication in Evening Street Review‘s fall edition, my piece tells the story of an old writer and a young writer. Not nearly as hopeless as its dire title, The Streets of Sorrow tackles the mysteries of memory, art, and shared human experience.

Print editions are for sale at eveningstreetpress.com.

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Coming Soon

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My newest story, Of Course, I Didn’t, has been accepted for publication this fall in the online literary magazine, Rock Salt Journal. Told in the first person and weighing in at just 800 words, it’s a quick, thoughtful read. Themes of isolation resolve into the quiet comradery of kindred spirits.

Look for Of Course, I Didn’t in the October 2022 edition of Rock Salt journal at rocksaltjournal.com. While you’re there, you’ll find a curated selection of short fiction, creative nonfiction, and photography.

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Sofa

By Jennifer Frost

5 August 2022

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Oak trees shade the windows of the room, filling it with green light like water in a still pond. I can’t take a nap on this sofa, its awkward cushions sliding, its antique headrest brooding. Gran looks in and says, “Be still.” The mantle clock is ticking. Three hundred seconds equals five minutes. Then three hundred more. Not a whisper. Not a dripping tap. Pop’s ghost asks Gran for a dance in the kitchen to an old tune on the AM radio. The oak trees drop their leaves one by one, the mantle clock keeping time with the dance steps.

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Bueno (The Things I Learned from Papi)

Reviewed, 18 June 2022

Bueno: (The Things I Learned from Papi) is a treasure of family lore. The entwining threads of bloodlines and marriages, successes, and losses shape the story of each member. Bueno gathers what it can of the rich Sosa history into a volume, preserving it for future generations. In it, Elsa Sosa explains what she knows of her father’s life and legacy, pulling together tales of family and childhood in the Dominican Republic.

Accompanied by family snapshots, Sosa’s memoir imparts her feeling for the island way of life. She gives airport and shopping advice alongside a basic geography of the island and highlights for tourists. She makes her own memories of homelier stuff. Far from resorts and nightclubs are the rural places and far-flung beaches where the author and her eight siblings spent their childhood. She remembers homemade toys, outdoor games, and cooling off under a waterfall on scorching afternoons. When she returns as an adult, she seeks local vendors, secluded getaways, and authentic tostones. Under the mango tree, Papi sits smoking cigarettes and chatting to pretty women.

Bueno, though it records Sosa family memories, is more a love letter to a departed father. In it, Sosa longs to sort through the past and cement her connection to her immense extended family. Life lessons are hard to discern, unclear until late in the book. Sosa attributes only one piece of wisdom directly to Papi; “He taught us not to spend our lives with regrets, grudges, and to let people live their lives.”

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While Sosa explains how she struggles to live up to Papi’s ideal, she comforts herself, knowing she and her siblings doted on their parents in old age. She wrestles with her father’s stoicism, her mother’s domineering, and familial links more complex and fragile than she realized. With gaps in the story, questions left unasked, names forgotten, and connections unraveled, many dimensions of her adored Papi (and Mami), Elsa Sosa will never know.

There is rich material in Bueno, though it’s hard to dig out. The author’s stream of consciousness brings us through flashbacks and flash-forwards so often that Sosa, herself, loses track of her trajectory. Sometimes we hear the same advice twice. Other times, forgotten details leave holes in the stories that make them difficult to interpret. While Sosa can tell us virtually nothing of her parents’ early lives and even less of their ancestors, we hear travel directions and culinary recommendations multiple times. She observes near the end of Bueno that she is a keen photographer, recording memories throughout her life with a camera, not in writing. Like photography, memoir writing is a refined art requiring many years to master.

Thanks to Reedsy Discovery for an Advance Reader’s Copy of this title. Bueno (The Things I Learned from Papi) launches on 15 July 2022.

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How A-muse-ing: or, Use an Inspiration Tape Like a Champ

13 June 2022

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The scene is a locker room before a boxing match. The out-of-shape Champ lies on a massage table, tended by a curvy masseuse. Before him, a TV is showing his inspiration tape, the 70s classic, Dolomite. If you know the 1996 movie, The Great White Hype, you’ve seen this before. Though the Champ has let himself go, he’s a better fighter than the opponent he’s set up to face. Dolomite, his inspiration tape, puts a fire in his ample belly. “Alright. Now I’m mad,” he says, as he strides out to win in a foregone conclusion.

Though there’s not a lot of room for analysis in a little-known (but totally awesome) 90s comedy, there’s plenty to say about inspiration tapes. Artists throughout history have turned to muses. Beautiful women, breathtaking landscapes, and classical mythology have been wellsprings for creatives seeking sparks of genius. Dreams coalesce around the moments of clarity offered by our muses.

For me, it’s the 1984 Milos Forman Oscar-winner, Amadeus, a biopic of Baroque composer, Wolfgang Mozart. My grandparents, both music teachers, considered it educational. As a girl, I eyed the elaborate costumes, wigs, and period sets. But Grandma and Grandpa directed my attention to the music, particularly scenes of music being written. “Watch the artist at work,” they nudged me, in awe of Mozart’s immense talent. “This is the life of a genius.”

In Amadeus, Mozart is troubled; overworked, underpaid, and out of luck. Brilliant but mad and often drunk, he’s the subject of admiration and jealousy. Royalty and high society celebrate a rival composer, Salieri, who knows himself a lesser artist and seethes with rage. Mozart will succumb to sickness and death, leaving heavy debts and an unmarked grave while Salieri fades into obscurity, embittered by God’s indifference. If you could have popular success or doomed genius, which would you choose? What if it destroyed you? What kind of artist would you be?

Okay. Now I’m ready to write.

Muses hide in plain sight. Our inspiration tapes are born of our roots, reminding artists (and pugilists) of what drives us. Relics from our formative years, they deepen over time as we saturate them with meaning and memories. Whatever adversity we face, they make us believe we will do this. An athlete will dominate his sport. An artist will become immortal. Our inspiration tapes open the door to our best work and truest selves.

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June Reads

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
― Albert Camus

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The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton

Truly great summer reads are hard to find. Many novels make for difficult beach reading while light-hearted rom coms are all too predictable. The Moonflower Vine is neither a heavy saga nor a flighty poolside diversion. It’s just right for summer afternoons, wherever you like to spend them, and leaves a lasting impression.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

With years of painstaking research, Truman Capote made In Cold Blood his life’s work. Though he is known for many other books and stories, this shocking true crime drama is his masterpiece. Adapted to film and often mis-shelved as fiction in bookstores, audiences love the chills Capote evokes as he unravels this gruesome tale. Keep it close by in case the A/C gives out.

Naked by David Sedaris

In this collection of nonfiction essays, David Sedaris gives a full dose of his humor and pragmatism. He finds meaning and hilarity everywhere, sharing what he sees, who he meets, and how it all goes wrong. And sometimes, right. Naked is a book with heart and a perfect fit for most carry-on luggage.

Country Wisdom & Know-How: A Practical Guide to Living Off the Land by M. John Storey

Summer is a time for growing things. Even city-dwellers can appreciate the practical tips for making the most of summer produce. Full of recipes and rules of thumb, Country Wisdom & Know-How is an antidote to your standard summer vacation. Because anyone can buy an icy cold beer. But M. John Storey can show you how to make one.

Children’s Shelf

Alexander and the Magic Mouse by Martha Sanders and Philippe Fix (Illustrator)

The Old Lady lives with her animal friends in a house on top of the hill. They overlook the river below and the town beyond, playing games to pass the time and drinking tea with yak’s butter. A rainstorm threatens to flood the river and wash away the town. It will be up to The Old Lady and her companions to warn the townspeople and save the day.

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