Monday, July 18, 2016


Joan Baum, who lives in East Hampton New York,  has worked as an  Arts Critic for over four decades, posting reviews covering art, music, and books for countless diverse publications, among them The Christian Science Monitor,  Dan’s Papers (distributed in the Hamptons and New York City), Hadassah Magazine, and on various blogs.  Her widest audience, however, comes from her National Public Radio book reviews that originate on WSHU-FM, Fairfield, Connecticut. And here is her latest review, for the cockeyed pessimist website, for a novel that will be published by us in October, and which will likely appear elsewhere at the time of publication.

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“With Grace, veteran Richmond, VA newspaper editor, reporter and feature writer Howard Owen, still sticking with investigative journalist Willie Black who continues to bite the hand that feeds him, has arguably created the best book so far in the Willie Black murder mystery series. Where the earlier four books garnered well-deserved critical acclaim and awards, Grace exhibits a tighter, more confident craftsmanship, as Owen shows that he knows how to work exposition into an engaging plot while training a jaundiced eye on his protagonist, keeping Willie the same but not quite the same. Willie, now 54, whose black father disappeared at birth and who still delights in being the good bad boy of print journalism at his paper (his nasty, venal publisher has pushed him into the late-night crime beat), has evolved into an even more sardonic chaser of the justice and truth. Hilarious at times and always cynical and selectively foul mouthed, he seems aware of time’s winged chariot—the press of time and his history of being a fuck-up. But he’s not afraid to use the L word for his lady love, whom he just might make number four, if he can rout or, more realistically, diminish his demons.  He loves to drink, fight, stand pat when the dam breaks and, go where angels fear to tread. A half bro, he can mix and mix it up with whites and blacks, people of all classes, professions and vocations and relationships to the law, earning the admiration of the innocent and the criminal.

“Like some others in the hard-boiled detective genre, Willie attracts because he is flawed and heroic, but he has limits about what he will do and not do to get the story, the bad guy, the girl. His honesty, integrity and ethics endear him to the various oddball men and women he interacted with in the earlier books who are back again.  These include Peggy, his reefer smoking mom, Awesome Dude a former homeless derelict, his ex-wife Kate, a lawyer who is his landlord, an Indian he has befriended, his admiring colleagues both at the paper and in the police department, and his slightly estranged but beloved daughter, Andi, now an unmarried mom herself.  Not to mention all those bartenders who know him well. Willie also knows himself. Of his ability to judge others, which he thinks he usually does well, he adds, “I’m my biggest fan, so maybe I’m a tad biased.” Unlike many modern day protagonists, Willie believes in “social justice, the Golden Rule, cold Millers, and forgiving women, in no particular order.” In other words, Owen is not in the downer camp of contemporary noir. But he does know how to read literary tea leaves. These say that the hot topics today that inform best sellers include racial tension, class divisions, pederasty in the church, failed marriage and alcohol and drug abuse.

“As with all the Willie Black books, Owen lets Willie speak for his creator’s values, which are admirable, especially at a time when good old-fashioned print journalism is dying, if not already dead, and when so-called reporting, especially in social media and on certain channels makes no pretense at accuracy, fairness or intelligence.  As Willie says, “First-person stories by reporters give me the heebie-jeebies. They smack too much of the kind of `look-at-me’ journalism that some of my compatriots seem to prefer to actually digging and sticking to the facts.” As for the state of the world, it’s easy to take a nihilist line, but Willie is more nuanced than that. He sees that the world is divided “into two equally reprehensible groups, both earnestly involved in their life’s work:  judging and affixing blame while assiduously eschewing spell check.” If there is a God, he finds himself thinking, he wonders “ why the hell are we still here? Isn’t it about time for another flood?” But he knows why he is here, and that is to make things right. He has for all his agnosticism a good smattering of  . .  . grace.”  

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IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING that while people continue to read books in the summertime, and pre-publication reviews still appear, incredible numbers of  editors in the publishing industry (both here and abroad,) are unavailable. Given that Howard Owen is a Hammett Award-winner for his Willie Black mystery series, and that this is his 14th novel, and that both Howard and Chris Knopf  (a Nero Award winner whose 14th mystery Back Lash was recently release), are the most widely applauded  mystery writers I know of, HERE IS A FREE OFFER for the rest of this month and the first week of August: an electronic "Preview Edition" of Grace. All you need do is contact Brian Skulnik at and ask for your copy.


Monday, June 27, 2016


Ray Merritt has enjoyed a successful writing career for over thirty years. His A Thousand Hounds (Taschen) was selected Best Book of the Year, 2000, by New York Magazine. The New York Times called it a “goody pack.” Entertainment Today awarded it “most creative book of the season” and Animal Fair dubbed it “a masterpiece.” Full of Grace (Damiani) was named PDN Magazine’s Best Book of the Year in 2007. Oprah Magazine called it “dazzlingly elegant, elegiac and exhilarating.” Kirkus dubbed it “gripping” and Publishers Weekly “captivating.”

Clamour of Crows, represents Ray’s entry into the world of fiction and similar accolades followed. Kirkus calling it “A tightly plotted debut mystery that mixes foul play, wordplay, and humor that will appeal to mystery buffs who don't require sex and gore—and to those harboring fond memories of reading J.R.R. Tolkien, L. Frank Baum, and Lewis Carroll.” Library Journal hailed it, reporting that “Merritt's fiction debut is a sparkling blend of wit, puzzles, and suspense.” A National Public Radio broadcast said that “As revelations about money laundering, contested wills and all manner of financial crimes and misdemeanors continue to make the news, Clamour of Crows could not be a more timely tale.” And Blackstone Audio produced an unabridged audiobook version.

Ray, his wife, Carol, and their shelter dogs, live in Sag Harbor and New York City. With that, I introduce Ray’s blog
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“The question has been posed:  Why do so many lawyers write fiction?  For some the answer is simple:  Because they can.  Eric Gardner gave us Perry Mason, John Grisham created Jake Brigance, while Scott Turow, Meg Gardiner, Richard North Patterson and Louis Auchincloss all have created riveting stories told with engaging narratives.  Most of these writers were litigators who honed their writing skill by authoring briefs and arguing cases and in doing so they often had to use their imagination to craft the defense of clients or forge the prosecution of defendants.
I envied their opportunity and experience, for corporate lawyers rarely create scintillating prose.  They write contracts, not briefs.  They have no eloquence, no flourish . . . just the facts, so to speak.  No one has ever been enthralled by a merger agreement, an indenture or an acquisition contract.

“So why after many decades of numbing my imagination with turgid dry text would I—a lifelong corporate lawyer—attempt to cross over and write fiction?  The answer lies in the challenge and also in the opportunity to educate, elucidate and entertain.  Fiction writing involves creativity and as such is an art form, permitting one to set the facts and circumstances in such an order that they create a new, albeit imagined, reality.  It is the written embodiment of one’s own imagination.  Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge.  Goethe called it the process of 'becoming.'  For a writer moving from the frozen prose of the law, it is indeed that.  Writing fiction releases your inner Cliffy as you go beyond the simple recitation of facts and reposition them into an alternate reality that informs, educates and entertains—and hopefully enlightens.

“I find writing fiction a challenge.  It tests your mettle as a dreamer.  Perhaps the difference between composing fiction and writing facts is the same as the difference between the photojournalist and the art photographer.  The first is fact-limited and fact-driven; the second has no limits other than the size of the paper.  In a sense, that is what I find in fiction writing—the page is blank.  There are no restrictions.  You are not limited to reality.  You can test your mettle as an artist... and a dreamer.  Chesterton said that fairytales are more than truth, 'not because they tell us dragons exists; but they tell us dragons can be beaten.'  Clamour of Crows is in large part a modern-day fairytale.

“I must confess I’m not adept at public speaking.  I would have made a terrible preacher.  Perhaps that is why I never wanted to be a litigator.  For me, fiction writing is an outlet for creativity—a seductive pulpit.  I find it therapeutic and pleasurable.  The act of creating a story is a special kind of high.  As a storyteller, fiction permits me to tell stories without breaking professional confidences.  It allows me to explore new challenges instead of dwelling on old ones and in the process to raise questions without giving answers.  Put under oath, I would have to confess that I do it because I like it.  Telling a good story puts me in a better place.  For me, fiction is not an escape from reality but a way to revisit it.  I like life’s ambiguities.  I respect man’s imperfection.  In the preamble to Clamour of Crows, I wrote:  'Most men die forgotten.  Heroes and villains live on.  The best and the worst and a few who were both.'  Humanity’s best trait is its imperfection and that is what I like to write about.”

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WE WELCOME YOUR COMMENTS below. If you wish to get in touch with Ray directly you can reach him at Clamour of Crows is readily available from Amazon and other online retailers as a hardcover or ebook, through your local bookstore, or directly from us at a 50% discount if you mention reading about it on this blog by emailing and placing your order, or by phone, Monday through Friday, between 11AM and 5 PM (EST) at 631-725-1101. 

Anyone else out there who is interested in writing a blog for The Cockeyed Pessimist can also contact me at that same phone number or by sending me an email ( 


Wednesday, June 8, 2016


Now that that the Democratic Party’s Super-delegates, not democratically chosen by voters at all, but consisting of office holders, the majority of  whom have been part of the problem that has failed to produce the real economic and social changes this county needs, I dedicate this final, and very short, follow-up to last week’s blog.

Firstly, Donald Trump is a megalomaniac who should not be elected president and, surely will not be. He is the reason Hillary will surely win the coming presidential election despite being part of the problem herself.

Secondly, it is heartening to know that a woman can be elected president—though I would have picked a more trustworthy woman.

Jill Stein
And lastly, there are four parties that are likely to be on the ballots in every state of the Union. The Libertarian Party might have been a good protest vote, but Jill Stein, running for president on the Green Party line is a candidate I can wholeheartedly vote for as their concerns mirror my own. I shall pull their lever this November down the line; for all those seeking seats in Congress and in local elections as well.  

One responder to last week’s blog talked about what we can do to bring about a future of peace here at home or in the rest of the world. Not likely to happen, I replied. Why? Because conflict and differences of opinion and the accumulation of wealth at the expense of others seems to be the  opposite of the "Golden Rule," which is a fairy tale, but the "The Glutton Rule,” throughout  the world is, by and large, a more accurate description of how the vast majority of societies work.

Friday, June 3, 2016


As someone who has supported concepts that are standard in Canada, Cuba, England and most all the democracies in Western Europe, this year’s presidential politics is mind-boggling. 

Free health care is available in all these countries. Their life expectancy is higher than ours. Higher education is available for free to all if they qualify academically, and the gap between income levels, for the richest and the poorest are far less significant than it is in America, and these are issues that are important to me.

At the same time the leading presidential contenders in both parties, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, do not propose any of these changes at all. Theirs is a race between two candidates whose trustworthiness levels, according to all polls, is far less than 50% among all eligible voters. 

Both candidates can fire away at each other, making it seem as if this is the most important election in the history of our nation. If you are fed up with conventional politics and like to listen to an egotist with no governmental experience, who won’t release his tax returns, Trump, is surely your man, even if he changes his opinions constantly so one doesn’t know what he really stands for, other than being an “outsider.”

On the other hand if you want to vote for an “insider,” a canny politician, who also does not support these issues that I value, who is a hawk, and refuses to share what she said when giving a speech to Goldman Sachs that netted her a quarter of a million dollars as a speaking fee from this Wall Street investment firm, who supports fracking, has continuously supported U.S. military intervention throughout the world, and who plays racial politics, courting Latinos and African-American voters (usually older) instead of economic issues, then Hillary is your woman.

Each, of course, contends that the other would radically change the course of America. Somehow I find I have difficulty believing this. Do any of you share this feeling? 

While Bernie Sanders articulates these programs, I vote not for the man, but for his ideas that mirror mine. Yet the vast majority of the democratic Super-delegates, establishment politicians all, who have not been elected by voters but have, by and large, allowed our country to deteriorate, will cast the deciding votes that will put Hillary (and Bill, her husband)  over the top at the Democratic Convention. All the more surprising because all polls show that Sanders has a much bigger lead over Trump than does Mrs. Clinton.

Being born in 1934, I do know that in this election I don’t want to support the lesser of two evils. As I’ve said before, if one had to choose between Hitler and Mussolini, who would you take before the Second World War began? (I asked this in an earlier blog and most people preferred Mussolini for whatever that’s worth). But I’m not playing that game again.

This past weekend I saw an old friend, Karl Grossman, a Polk Award winning investigative reporter at a large gathering here in Sag Harbor at the home of David Alpern and his wife Sylvia. We published two of Karl’s books that had a major impact: Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to know About Nuclear Power in 1981 and The Poison Conspiracy in 1982, which were both acclaimed, and led to his becoming a widely booked lecturer around this country and abroad. Both of us, as political junkies, discussed  these very same issues while nourishing ourselves with good food and drink, and it turned out that Karl and I have decided to vote, as a protest, for the Libertarian party candidate, because of the absence of trust we had for the two major party choices.

I welcome your responses.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016


Joan Baum is an extraordinary person who has led an extraordinary life. She sings in a chorus, has worked as a columnist, reporter, critic, and is a voracious reader. She lectures regularly, has a great sense of humor, and also lives in the village of East Hampton on Long Island’s South Shore. She is also a National Public Radio reviewer.

After meeting Joan many decades ago, we both realized that we attended The High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, in the early 50’s, as art majors. Though she was likely a freshman when I was a junior, we never met back then, but all these shared experiences added to the bonds that formed between us. Enough of an introduction, other than saying she is someone I greatly admire who I’m fortunate to have as a very good friend. Her blog, concerning Jane Austin, offers another display of her considerable erudition.

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“A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away—Queens—I taught classes on the English Romantic poets, sneaking in a novelist and essayist and enjoying a relatively rare opportunity in an open admissions college to engage once again with the subjects of my doctoral dissertation and with the major events of an important historical period. That memorable time, full of revolution and cultural shifts, was said to begin with Wordsworth’s birth in 1770 and run to 1832, with the passage of the first Reform Act, when William IV was on the throne but which the Western world, pretty much jumping the gun by five years, began to refer to as the Victorian era. Although dominated by the big five—all men (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, with an occasional nod to Blake)—the English Romantic period did allow for the inclusion of Jane Austen on the syllabus, though she was not really considered part of The Canon, until she was. But recognition came late and owed much to cultural critics like Lionel Trilling who, as he did with Robert Frost, called attention to dark themes and biting ironies. But the times, they were a ‘changin’.

“The 60s, which took off in the 70s, helped awaken a renewed awareness of Austen in the academic world where she was inevitably hailed as an avatar of feminism in Regency England and a proto-Marxist in acknowledging class conflict and socioeconomic pressures on women in the late 18th – early 19th century. She was also, thank goodness, celebrated as a stylist of wit and irony,  furnishing the world with what has become one of English literature’s most famous opening lines (from Pride and Prejudice): 

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  From there, it was on to reevaluations of her work in the scholarly journals (five more novels, plus a fragment ).  But who would have guessed, even back in the late 19th century days when 'Janeitism' made its idolatrous, cult-like appearance among admirers,  that Austen would  spawn  a fan base and entertainment industry that includes a Jane Austen Society of North America, blogs, costume conferences, pilgrimages to Steventon and Bath, and a still continuing plethora of movies and made for TV series, chick-lit adaptations,  prequels, sequels, parodies,  updates, camp and serious—not to mention biographies straining still to discover undisclosed facts and re-argue relationships.


“Is it that, at a time when memoirs and murder mysteries, often with harsh, nasty content and convoluted plots or self-consciously styled streams of consciousness, readers cherished what is a salient feature of fine fiction:  a good plot?  Is it that in an age that has vulgarized sex or made it boring by way of over-exposure, an intelligent romance that ends well engages because it says more about affairs of the heart by saying less about zones of pornography? Is it that Jane Austen’s novels present admirable heroines who are not necessarily the most beautiful and certainly not well-off, but who educate themselves by eventually acknowledging their own flaws and seeing faults in others (characters who would confess or tell all should be suspect)? Is it that her protagonists appreciate complexities in a world they cannot affect (including in Mansfield Park awareness of the evils of slavery), but not yield to cynicism or despair, or that they identify and exemplify qualities that inform ethical and moral character, regardless of gender or class?

“Whatever the reasons for Austen mania—and please offer your own reasons and remedies—the downside is that unless the fun and games result in turning or returning to the novels themselves,  injury is done to this remarkable artist whose sharp eye and ear reflect her time while achieving a universality that makes her observations timeless."

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FEEL FREE to add your comments in regard to Joan’s blog, or contact her directly at

Also, if any readers of this blog wish to submit one to me, you can do that by contacting me at


Monday, May 16, 2016


In the summer of 2013 an agent sent us Eleanor Lerman’s manuscript Radiomen, and by the time I finished reading it, I fell in love with her. It wasn’t until January, 2015 that we published it, and clearly others fell under Eleanor’s spell. Blackstone Audiobooks published an unabridged audio book at the same time. It was shortlisted for the prestigious Chautauqua Prize. It was also a  finalist for The Lascaux Prize in Fiction, as well as a finalist in Foreword's Indiefab Book of the Year. Barbara Hoffert, the Editor at Library Journal reviewed it as part of a roundup entitled “13 key spring titles for readers looking beyond the best sellers list.” A few excerpts of early laudatory comments follow:

“Though Lerman is a Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize winner, don’t expect a ‘lyrical’ read; she carries over her terrific narrative style into Lerman’s heroine, the nicely drawn Laurie, a bartender who declares, “I just wasn’t a mainstream person.” No surprise; when she was a child her Uncle Avi tried tuning in to pulses from life out there somewhere, and she seems to have seen an alien that haunts her dreams. For sci-fi fans looking for engaging backstory and literary fans seeking an escapist edge.”   —Library Journal

“Poet Lerman’s second novel is both a sharp send-up of Scientology and an intriguing aliens-among-us tale.”  

“This entertaining tale leaves readers wondering if there might be life out there.”  Publishers Weekly

eft storytelling merits willing suspension of disbelief. If you go along for the ride, it won’t disappoint.”  

The Fredericksburg Freelance–Star

“This is a rollicking yarn. Yet at the end of any good book what readers ask themselves is, ‘What did it all mean?’ and, more importantly, ‘What does it mean to my life?’ These are questions Radiomen asks in multiple ways.” —New York Journal of Books

“This odd, compelling novel shows its author’s skill as a poet. She knows how to create original similes that effectively convey the ominous and depressive mood of this strange but absorbing tale.
It may be science fiction, but, hardly a predictable or typical example of the genre. It may well appeal to those who think they never would read such pop lit and enjoy it." —Joan Baum, NPR reviewer

But enough validations. My passion for Eleanor’s writing has to do with her immense gifts as a wordsmith, which I think are abundant in The Vampire’s Inspiration

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“I’m a vampire. Of sorts, anyway. It’s because I’m a writer that I live by being a vampire. Alone, before dawn or up late at night—years ago, with a yellow pad on my lap and now, staring into the electric glow of my laptop screen—I am often at a loss for how to start my work. If I’m in the middle of writing something, then I’m okay because I probably have a general idea of where I mean to end up.  But if I’m trying to start something new—a poem, a short story, or, as in recent years, a novel—then I’m usually standing on the  proverbial lonely road looking off into the darkness and having no clue what direction I should be traveling. Or if I should be traveling at all. (That fear is always the writer’s companion, or it is, I imagine, for many of us: that there is no next poem, no next story; that finally, the well has run dry.)

“That is the point at which I know it’s time to go open someone’s veins—meaning, some other writer. I suppose it would be better to say, “I look for inspiration,” so we can pretend that’s what I said.  When I was much younger, the hot afternoons of an entire summer passed by outside my tiny apartment in the Village while I read Leonard Cohen and absorbed him into my bloodstream. I studied the way his lines broke, where he placed commas, how he wrote stanza after stanza and then veered off, in the last few lines, to some unexpected conclusion that left you gobsmacked (thank God for cable television; I sucked that word out of the mouths of cynical detectives in British police procedurals). Then I went even further: in imagination, I followed him through the streets of his city, Montreal, and his island, Hydra, where he went to have his romances. I read his early novel, Beautiful Losers, and had to stop and think about how language can stretch into infinity when I came upon his description of a woman’s ear as a beautiful, curving seashell.  Leonard Cohen sustained me for years; I actually met him once and tried to tell him all this and while he was amused, he wasn’t really interested. He just kind of patted me on the head and said something that I remember as the equivalent of, You’re a nice girl. A real sweetie. I took that as permission to keep feeding on his work and I still go back, from time to time, for another sip.

“But there came a point, about ten years ago, when my magic Leonard Cohen-with-a-hint-of-James-Tate-and-a-twist-of-Richard-Brautigan wasn’t working anymore. It was, I think, because I had aged out of the wind-blown romanticism of young poets and blown right past the genteel cynicism of older novelists. I was older now myself—probably in my fifties when I hit a wall; I am now sixty-four—and had to go out hunting again for someone to help me make my way further down that dark road.

“And I found him. So now, to the list of people I bless, I have added Whitley Strieber, the author of many books about his personal alien abduction experiences, among other work. (His most recent book is The Super Natural, “a new vision of the unexplained.”) Depending on what you think about his work, he’s either a great science fiction writer, a witness/survivor of multiple and undeniably real alien abduction experiences, or simply a man with a fabulous imagination and an extraordinary way with words. Or all of the above. Actually, to me, it doesn’t matter; what does matter is the way he has described the ideas that guide his work because I can tell he’s out there on that road, too, stalking the things that are stalking him.

“Because Strieber has written so much about his alien abduction/encounter experiences, going all the way back to his childhood, interviewers are always asking him what he thinks the aliens want and what he believes they’re doing when they forcefully intrude upon people’s lives. Over many years, in different ways, he has given the same response, which is basically, How should I know?  You’re asking me, a human being, to describe something beyond human experience. How can I do anything but guess at the meaning, motivation, and even the beliefs of entities who are beholden to gods we can’t imagine, have experiences we can’t fathom, and come from places we don’t even believe exist?

“I happened upon these thoughts of Whitley Strieber’s at a time when my bag of tricks was empty. Briefly notorious in my early twenties for writing about gay sex, drug-induced passion, and suicidal love when Leonard Cohen’s sweetie pies didn’t write about things like that, I had followed those themes to a greater and lesser extent through four decades of work. But suddenly, all that had loomed so large to a young, then not-so-young woman became small. Unimportant. Done and done and done. Anyone (just about) can write a love poem. And almost all of us born in the middle of the last century and raised on Woodstock and the Rolling Stones have done drugs and then put them aside because they’re too expensive, too hard to get, or mess with our increasingly delicate insides and soaring blood pressure. (After all, you always have to be mindful of that Medicare deductible.) And how angry could I go on being since I now live comfortably in a condo near the beach and own a little white designer dog that I bought at a fancy puppy store because the rescue dogs at the shelters were too big for me to handle? I mean, what do I have to rail against except inevitable death and the fact that I understand nothing—zip, nada, nothing—about why I am alive?

“And that’s when Whitley Strieber came crashing through the ceiling. The alien spacecraft dropped him off just in time to help me begin to approach my work in what has become the only way I can still function, at least for now: in the framework of speculative fiction. Embracing Strieber as a blood brother has helped me see this kind of storytelling as totally and completely free and open-ended; a new road to follow that makes the darkness deliciously inviting. By saying some version of this: Yes, indeed, mysterious stuff is happening out there beyond the paychecks we have to earn and the schedule of the commuter trains we have to ride to our jobs and the terror of a Donald Trump presidency, and you can say anything you want about it because no one really knows what’s going on. No one knows on this planet; maybe in this universe. Maybe they know in some strange elsewhere, but not here, and not us—Strieber bit back at the strictures of what to me had become the constraints of the everyday, of human limitations and the hard stop of mortality and, in doing so, gave me permission to speculate on the larger things. The unknown things, the mystery realms. And for that, I am deeply grateful.

“So the crazy, dangerous, love-smacked girl learned to masquerade as an older lady with a little white dog on a leash, parading through the neat little beach town like a proper citizen while enigmatic universes and demon-eyed watchers from beyond the stars are actually what I have in sight. While a Godzilla-of-the-mind stirs up an old surfer’s reunion with his longboard and keeps his big dog awake at night. (That part about the surfer and his Godzilla dreams sounds like a great story, right? I hope so, because it’s what I’m working on now.) So let me draw my cloak around my hunched shoulders, polish my little fangs and see what Whitley has been saying lately. It might help me with the next chapter of the book. Certainly, it will turn a few pages in the next chapter of what is still (Still! As long as I can write…) my secret, scintillating life.”

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I welcome any comments below, emails directed to me (, or to Eleanor (


Monday, April 25, 2016


Last week we published the first part of Danner Darcleight’s blog in anticipation of our release of Concrete Carnival in September If you haven’t read PART ONE, I’d suggest you read that now. It has gotten more hits than anything we’ve placed on this blog in the past two years.

Besides his prison memoir, he has also had essays published in Stone Canoe, The Minnesota Review, The Kenyon Review, and Fourth City. Let me just add this before turning this blog over to Danner:  On April 21 we submitted Concrete Carnival to the Non-fiction judges at the National Book Award.

DANNER DARCLEIGHT writes from and about prison. His essays have been published in Stone Canoe, The Minnesota Review, The Kenyon Review, and Fourth City.

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“Lily's friends each had similar reactions when she brought them into her confidence, one at a time. They raised time-honored objections: What if he's screwing around with men in there? Writing and visiting with other women? Scamming you, and planning to leave if he gets released? Won't you miss the physical intimacy?

“The same objections can be raised in regard to conventional relationships. Any tour of daytime TV will reveal a demented parade of toxic marriages, once-happy couples torn asunder courtesy of infidelity and hidden motives and domestic violence. Trust cuts both ways, especially since Lily is an attractive woman who regularly gets hit on at social functions, and I can't ask her to become a hermit. She's around men who can provide the material things and physical presence that I can only dream of, but Lily makes me feel secure in her love, so there is none of the frothing jealousy that I felt over girlfriends in high school.

“As to the lack of physical intimacy, that seems to be the norm in most relationships—if traditional love lives didn't need spicing up, why are there so many seven-step recipes devoted to just that at the supermarket checkout counter?

“Anyway, Lily shared my writing and drawings with her friends, fleshing out my portrait, as it were, showing that someone guilty of murder can create, not just destroy Mostly, though, it was her new, and lasting, sense of contentment that helped Lily 's friends understand our relationship. Still, there would occasionally come the question, What will you do if he never gets out?

“I now have almost seventeen years in on twenty-five-to-life, and it's no guarantee I'll make parole in eight years, when I'm forty-seven, or in twelve years, fourteen, sixteen, et disheartening-cetera. I have friends doing life without parole, who, because the state considers them ‘civilly dead,’ had to receive special permission from the warden in order to marry.  To people who say those couples have no future, I'd counter in the Eastern tradition, that there is no such thing as future, and they're bringing comfort and compassion to each other in the present moment.

“The think-of-the-future argument is often heard.  Do you think you'll be able to remain with him during his incarceration? Do you worry that he'll leave you once he gets out? Similar  questions could be asked of those married to active duty military personnel, or to someone struggling with a debilitating health condition, or, for that matter, to a corporate lawyer dedicated to an  eighty-hour-a-week climb up the partnership ladder. Can you imagine yourself asking a newlywed if she worries that her husband will start sleeping around soon, and leave in ten years when he gets a promotion? Lily is routinely asked things that no one would deem appropriate if her husband wasn’t in prison, questions that only partially obscure her  interlocutor's  misgivings about us.

“What about having children? some ask.

“What about it? There are plenty of happy marriages that don't bring children into the world.   In fact, research has shown that time spent with one's children rates as slightly less enjoyable as doing housework. Granted, evolution has coded us with a desire  to  procreate,  and Madison  Avenue  butters its bread with the pitch that you  won 't be complete without  2.5 kids, a white picket fence and a minivan, but breeding is overrated, and the world will do just  fine without  my genes living on.  I think I’d prefer to adopt a frisky dog.

“It's the rare relationship that survives one spouse being arrested and going to prison for any length of time. In addition to the stigma of being married to a convicted criminal, there are mouths to feed, and tough decisions to be made.  I have several friends whose wives dropped off the face of the earth shortly after the arrest, years ago, yet these men are still wearing t heir weddings rings, a bittersweet memento from a life before everything came unglued.

“On the other hand, marriages  that  begin with  one partner  in  prison  tend  to be extremely resilient. I'll have to proceed anecdotally, and you’ll have to half rely on me as being a competent observer: the divorce rate is considerably lower than the sixty percent of couples in  the world who  flame  out.

“We come to the  table  with  open  eyes and  a mature  understanding  of what  the marriage  will  be, and  what  it  won 't  be.  We will be  companions, even  if much  of our time  is spent  apart.   Quiet  dinners together  are  out,  so  are  weekend   getaways  and  mundane  trips  to  the  supermarket   and  make-up  sex after arguing our way through the assembly of an IKEA table. Is that hard to deal with for both parties? You bet.  But, is it worth it?  Lily and I, and countless others, think so.

“For me, the sun rises and sets with Lily, my never-ending fount of happiness. Unlike the superficial relationships in my past, I have in Lily a partner, a companion. The love I feel for her registers as a fluttery warmth in my chest, or the involuntary smile that appears whenever I think of her. We're more than just the plot lines of a Lifetime movie. The bond we share continues to make each of us better, stronger people—the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. We are, in a word, happy.

“So, finally, after all the layers have been peeled away, we get to the festering core of negativity: irrespective of prison, people look down on happy marriages, yet the reasons that unhappy people look down on them are numerous and unspoken.

“With the majority of conventional marriages ending in divorce, and a large swath of loveless couples sticking together until the kids are old enough to move out, I can understand why people make snap judgments about men and women who marry prisoners. Rather than looking in their unhappy mirror, they proclaim us to be delusional, dysfunctional, or possessed of lower standards.

“I'll let you in on a secret:  I used to harbor similar beliefs about my peers and the women who went for them.  In retrospect, I wasn't conscious of my jealousy of these people who wouldn't have to walk through life alone. Now one of them, I know our standards aren't lower — we have simply come to value those traits heralded in marriage guides: understanding,  involvement, empathy, passion, devotion.

“We work on our communication skills, because we have to. The silent treatment doesn't work with collect calls. Access to the phone is limited, so if we don't resolve an issue, it could be another twenty-four hours, or a week, before we reconnect. There are times when Lily has had a rough day, and is not really in the mood to talk, when she’ll say, ‘I wish we could just sit together quietly, with my head on your shoulder.’  In those moments, we both feel the distance, and I long to be there for her, to cook dinner or scratch her head. But what I can do is emulate that kind of presence, and bring her comfort. l channel my inner NPR host, and tell Lily lighthearted things and funny stories. We've learned that what’s necessary for making a marriage work isn't having money, or children, or date nights. It's being emotionally available for each other. Doing little kindnesses. She sends me pictures of puppies, and adorns the page with glitter stickers; I pass along or summarize articles relevant to her interests. She and I part company with the quick messages written on each other's arm.

“That’s the thing about us: we're willing to work on the relationship, and keep working on it. Many of my married peers are the same way. We're grateful that someone sees us for the person we are, not simply as the criminal act we senselessly, regrettably committed five, ten, twenty-five years ago. And like a dog rescued from the pound, we show our gratitude daily. You can usually tell when a guy in here is in a loving relationship: his head is out of prison, and he knows there are far more important things than the slights of guards and pettiness of peers. Having someone who actually wants to hear from you, and listens with compassion, does more to turn a life around than all the rehabilitative programs combined. Being loved like that turns your life on.

“I can imagine that this transformation in me was outwardly apparent when, one by one, Lily's friends accompanied her on visits. The ice quickly broken, we sat together, talking, laughing, eating greasy food, and washing it down with sugary drinks. Consistently, when I would reach Lily in the evening, she'd report that her friends enjoyed the day and want to return. They say they get it, now that they've seen us interacting.
“It's nice validation for us, but unnecessary.  We knew very early on that what we have is special. She's taught me that everyone deserves a shot at love, even me. As to the people who’ll never open their minds long enough to think objectively about couples like Lily and me, that's their loss. If they did, they might learn something, because though I may be in prison, at least l don’t view my wife as a ball and chain.”

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I WELCOME YOUR COMMENTS on this site—or directly via email ( —as there is no way to reach Danner currently who is serving time in a Maximum Security Prison. But I can send your comments or questions off to him via his wife, Lilly, who can deliver them when she visits. I also hope you will share this blog with others.