Romance and Respect, written by Joseph G. Peterson. Edited by Behnam Riahi.
"The whole thing was part of the bad karma that was due me for all the wrong I had committed.”
Romance and Respect, written by Joseph G. Peterson. Edited by Behnam Riahi.
"The whole thing was part of the bad karma that was due me for all the wrong I had committed.”
It’s official! I’m the short story editor for the Chicago Center of Literature and Photography. Check out this week’s story: Ripped Burgers, by Matt Rowan. More to come soon.
Behnam Riahi is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago and published in Chi-Tea, Unbreakable,…
Just reached 200 “likes” on Facebook. I consider that an accomplishment. If you’re not in on the fun just yet, head over and knock on my door for exclusive information on my events, publishing, and escapades throughout the windy city and so on.
The Old Neighborhood, Curbside Splendor Publishing: “A bright and sensitive teen, Joe Walsh is the youngest in a big, mixed-race Chicago family. After Joe witnesses his heroin-addicted oldest brother commit a brutal gangland murder, his friends and loved ones systematically drag him deeper into a black pit of violence that reaches a bloody impasse when his eldest sister begins dating a rival gang member.”
Heyday, Great Divide: “HEYDAY is an eminently pleasant Belgian-Style White Ale. Brewed with barley, oats and raw wheat, Heyday is uniquely flavorful for such an easy-drinking ale. With a slightly cloudy appearance and traditional yeast, it is a balanced, agreeable offering. Exuding mild hop bitterness and a nuanced body, this is the easiest decision you’ll make all day.”
Reading Under the Influence is tomorrow. Here’s the playbill:
Please join us Wednesday, August 6th, for readings, drinks, and trivia at Reading Under the Influence. This month’s theme is “Attitude Adjustment.” Of course, all attitudes are welcomed.
This month’s readers:
LIZ GREAR, MFA candidate and instructor at STORY CATCHERS.
JACOB HALL, staff writer for ABERRANT CHICAGO.
DARWYN JONES, RUI & 2ND STORY regular with work on METROMIX and THE NOT FOR TOURISTS GUIDE TO CHICAGO.
JAEL MONTELLANO, freelance editor and has had essays published in THE RUMPUS and RED LEMONADE.
RUI features readings of original short stories plus short-short excerpts of published work related to a theme of the month. This month’s theme is “ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT”—self-medicated or otherwise. Of course, we’ll have booze, trivia, and solid stories to adjust your attitude. Bad behavior in small doses permitted.
We’re in the back-back room off the courtyard patio at Sheffield’s, 3258 N. Sheffield Ave. Grab a seat and a bite to eat at 7 pm; readings start at 7:30 pm. There’s a $3 cover. 21+.
If you’re in the neighborhood, check it out. Or even if you’re not in the neighborhood.
Bedrock Faith, written by Eric Charles May and published by Akashic Books, is a third-person novel written primarily from the point-of-view of Mrs. Motley, an elderly black woman living in a predominantly African-American, middle-class neighborhood of Chicago. More than ten years prior, Mrs. Motley’s neighborhood, Parkland, was terrorized by a young miscreant named Gerald “Stew Pot” Reeves, until he was arrested for allegedly raping a white woman on the north side. But Stew Pot leaves jail a changed man—the first thing on his agenda is going to Mrs. Motley to apologize for the terror he caused her and to ask, with genuine sincerity, to borrow her bible. But just when it seems like this thug finally wised up and turned a new leaf over, he starts using the bible to condemn the sinners of the neighborhood as a zealot for Christ, forcing one after another out in an effort to purge Parkland of the devil. Using their secrets against them, the block’s denizens dwindle little-by-little and Mrs. Motley is forced to admit that maybe Stew Pot hasn’t changed at all.
Eric May and I go back some ways—I never took his class, but I had every intention to. At Columbia College Chicago, I was a regular character among the students actively committed to making a presence. Eric, himself, was just as present, though he had a much better reason for being there than I did. He was already a writer with a lot of accolades and found just as much meaning in writing as he did in teaching writing. He remembered my name and made casual conversation in the hallway, greeted me whenever we ran into each other, and took time out of each day for a lot of us, like we actually were his students. To this day, people like me who never even took his class remember with a fondness reserved for past friends or mentors. However, thinking about my own mark on that school, I remember all that I hoped to accomplish for legends like Eric, like getting published in the school lit magazine or getting published at all (something I actually like, I mean), but people generally remember me because I wrote some asshole sex stories and framed them in a comedic light. Truth was, I wasn’t really writing for myself back then—just for a quick laugh, and certainly putting no effort into my short stories while I worked on one novel or another in an effort to discover my, “voice.” Always the long form for me, though to this day, I regret never just pushing one good short story to its fullest capability. However, I succeeded well at the business end of writing and started working with a literary magazine publisher before I even graduated, which has given me a bigger name in the Chicago literary scene than I could have earned through the skill of my work alone—though I hope skill had something to do with it. As a result, Eric and I ran into each other regularly—either at a lit event I helped throw or a reading that either one of us might be reading at. The business end of it used to be easier, because I wanted to rub elbows with all the authors that I looked up to. Eric just so happened to be one of those authors.
(Damn, we look good.)
Community. That’s the best way to describe our literary scene and that’s the best way to describe this novel too. May has so many characters that, at first glance, it’s difficult to keep track of them, but he quickly establishes a unique tone for each character in the way they speak or look or how they behave, setting them apart from the other characters by leaps and bounds instead of just letting the mere minutiae differentiate them. But this isn’t a novel about solitary characters—this is, in fact, a novel about community. Each character has thoughts or feelings about every other character in this story, often with story-in-story to explain how those characters grew to become friends or enemies. So long as they interact with someone, even if they never interact with each other, everyone has an opinion on everyone else. It’s this element that makes the story so goddamn real, because it creates a web of interpersonal relationships that you want to follow, since each new event affects each relationship differently. As a result, you can’t help but grow to love Parkland’s citizens (except maybe Stew Pot) and care about what will happen to them as chaos ensues, because you know them better than you know the people in your own goddamn neighbors. I did, anyway.
I was supposed to take a class with Eric May actually, well after I graduated. Columbia College Chicago used to offer story workshop (the method they taught, invented by John Schultz) sessions to alumni and I went out of my way to sign up for Eric May’s workshop session. Only I missed it. Why? I had a date with Heather, a Suicide Girl—those counter-culture, tattooed models who drop trou on the web. I didn’t really care for this girl’s personality much, but she wrote—not all that great, but it’s better than nothing sometimes. Either way, she dragged me off to some Suicide Girl midwest meet-up and it happened to fall on the day of my workshop with Eric. Being one for chaos, I took to the road with this girl instead of following something I actually felt passionate about—I liked her though, because she made me feel like I wrote better than I fucked and I thought I fucked pretty well, but I didn’t like her enough to regret missing that workshop. In fact, we had a terrible time, and if it weren’t for the sex, I would’ve thought it a huge fucking waste. The sex was all right, at least. Though my time with Heather did make for a hell of a story and provided me with sufficient chaos for a while, I yearned for the opportunity to learn about what made a good author’s work stand out. Luckily, Eric and I found plenty of time to fraternize since I worked a press that published one of the first excerpts of this novel, Criminal Class Review. We even had him read at our show: Naked Girls Reading, an event where burlesque dancers stripped into the bare and read stories from our newest publication. Eric May, like the other authors we invited, stayed clothed though.
(I’ve been naked on stage once. That’s a different story though.)
Chaos is what moves this novel forward too. You have to keep in mind—even if everyone in Parkland has a negative perspective on every other person, at least they put up with each other—that is, until Stew Pot comes back. Stew Pot is just that—a mix of elements that stirs trouble up. He doesn’t literally force anyone to leave Parkland—he shows the secrets of his victims to his neighbors, embedding their remaining time there with a deep, overwhelming shame. The premise of this novel is that Stew Pot isn’t actually doing anything illegal—at least nothing that the police can prove, but he is making trouble in a big way, thus acting as an almost invulnerable catalyst of chaos for an otherwise quiet neighborhood. It’s this chaos, that sees no resolution until the end of the novel, that stirs up conflict and continues because May knew what strings he could realistically pull, showing us how not all trouble is the trouble that we expect. With each new chapter, he pushes the limit of Parkland and the worry of his readers further by giving Stew Pot some new crusade and not a damn person can stand in his way, without submitting to the illegal activities themselves that drove Stew Pot to jail in the first place. It’s the Story Workshop chapter on opposites, but everyone is Stew Pot’s opposite—only as the story progresses further, the people of Parkland just start to look uglier and uglier until they’re one in the goddamn same.
I still see Eric Charles May out and about. He recently did an event with the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, and though it’s not necessarily official, I do have some ties with that organization. He’s also a regular at Reading Under the Influence and has read there a number of times and shown his support. In fact, that’s where I bought his book and where he autographed it for me. “To Ben, Happy reading, and many thanks for carrying on the RUI tradition.” It’s just one small role we all play as we evolve throughout our lives, our communities, and our careers. It didn’t take Eric May to show me that, but seeing him and talking about his novel at the CCLaP event recently really did show me how much things have changed over the years and how, in so many ways, things haven’t changed at all.
(Sheffield’s, on School and Sheffield in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood.)
It’s change that makes this novel fantastic—because as it progresses, we not only get to see how people changed as a result of Stew Pot appearing in their lives again, but how they changed as a result of confronting their own secrets they dreaded to share for the first time. Illustrating character evolution can be so contrived, but it’s fluid for May—since he understood who his characters were from the onset and where they were headed by the end. Mrs. Motley’s evolution is, no doubt, the most poignant as she confronts her own mortality and makes distinct effort to admit the truths she neglected to attend to for her whole life. While some characters in the book presume that Stew Pot hasn’t changed, there’s no doubt in the reader’s mind that he changed before the narrative even began—and that his changes to come will be paramount to the novel.
Knowing your characters is one thing, but knowing your setting is another. In addition to having the neighborhood mapped out in words, May doesn’t submit to the audience’s expectation of what a cultural author is supposed to write. The characters speak colloquially, but without an accent or dialect that’s become synonymous with culturally exploitative writing. He lets every audience in and makes this novel a home to themselves, because he writes it truly as he perceives it and not to string the audience along on some exploration into a different world. These are our people and though May claims that this book is meant to capture the African-American middle-class culture, it suitably captures the American culture.
(The Q&A portion of this was awesome, by the way. Check out the podcast.)
There’s nothing I can find in fault about this novel. It ended quickly and in some ways, I don’t feel like everyone’s story was necessarily tied up, but the pivotal characters reached the end of theirs. One could argue that we should see how everyone turns out in the final chapters, but I’ll be blunt—I look forward to May’s next novel, to see if any of them come around again. I already miss them.
The Riahi Rating:
About the publisher:
Akashic Books is a New York based, small-press publisher with a focus on Urban Lit. Like any good small press, they give a lot of support to there readers, including flying out to Chicago to help coordinate literary events that their readers take part in. In fact, I think I met their editor-in-chief once, back stage at a lit reading at the Chicago Metro. I drunkenly asked him about why he published one book in particular and, probably to my distinct disadvantage, criticized him for it. At least, that’s what I think happened. I really need to cut back to a three-drink minimum at literary readings from now on. Anyway, though they’re not frequently accepting new submissions, they do keep their eyes open for new talent. Show them you got the stuff and you might get their attention.
https://www.facebook.com/TheHobbitMovie http://www.thehobbit.com From Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson comes “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Fiv…
Join the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography on July 22nd for the second edition of its new reading series and open mic, the CCLaP Showcase. This month’s show features the popular local writer and professor Eric Charles May, reading from his Chicago-set social realist novel “Bedrock Faith,” and will open with six open-mic slots of five minutes apiece (strictly timed). The show will take place at City Lit Books in the Logan Square neighborhood (2523 N. Kedzie), starting at 6:30 pm, and will be recorded in its entirety for rebroadcast on the CCLaP Podcast the following week. To sign up in advance for one of the open-mic slots, drop us a line at email@example.com. We look forward to seeing you there!
This should be a lot of fun. If you’re in the neighborhood or you just want to hear some great readings, I encourage you to stop by and support us.
Between heaven and hell, there’s life to kick you in the ass toward one path or another. Whether hedging your bets on faith or preparing your soul for brimstone, there’s always another drink and another story to get you through.
Bedrock Faith, Akashic Books: “After fourteen years in prison, Gerald “Stew Pot” Reeves, age thirty-one, returns home to live with his mom in Parkland, a black middle-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. A frightening delinquent before being sent away, his return sends Parkland residents into a religiously infused tailspin, which only increases when Stew Pot announces that he experienced a religious awakening in prison. Most neighbors are skeptical of this claim, with one notable exception: Mrs. Motley, a widowed retiree and the Reeves’s next-door neighbor who loans Stew Pot a Bible, which is seen by Stew Pot and many in the community as a friendly gesture.
With uncompromising fervor (and with a new pit bull named John the Baptist), Stew Pot appoints himself the moral judge of Parkland. He discovers that a woman on his block is a lesbian and outs her to the neighborhood, the first battle in an escalating war of wills with immediate neighbors: after a mild threat from the block club president, Stew Pot reveals a secret that leaves the president’s marriage in ruin; after catching a woman from across the street snooping around his backyard, Stew Pot commits an act of intimidation that leads directly to her death.
Stew Pot’s prison mentor, an African American albino named Brother Crown, is released from prison not long after and moves in with Stew Pot and his mom. His plan is to go on a revival tour, with Stew Pot as his assistant. One night, as Stew Pot, Mrs. Reeves, and Brother Crown are witnessing around the neighborhood, a teenager from the block attempts to burn down the Reeves home. He botches the job and instead sets fire to Mrs. Motley’s house. She is just barely rescued, but her house is a total loss and she moves in with a nearby family. Neighbors are sure Stew Pot is behind the fire. The retaliations against Stew Pot continue, sending him over an emotional ledge as his life spirals out of control with grave consequences. Through the unforgettable characters of Stew Pot and Mrs. Motley, the novel provides a reflection on God, the living and the dead, and the possibilities of finding love without reservation.”
Brimstone IPA, Church Street: “Some traditions are newer than others. Church Street is proud to present our take on the American IPA with this dry-hopped Yakima Valley tribute that’s brimming with Cascade aroma, giving this tangerine-beauty a fruity and refreshing nose—don’t be surprised if you find yourself sniffing more than sipping! Large quantities of late addition hops contribute to the high IBUs, creating a bold bitterness that’s rounded out by notes of citrus and grapefruit with a slightly dry hoppy finish. Cheers!”
The Serpent’s Game, written by A.C. Frieden and published by Avendia Publishing, is a third-person espionage thriller, written from the point-of-view of Jonathan Brooks, a maritime lawyer practicing in New Orleans. As Hurricane Katrina barrels its way toward Louisiana, Jon’s confronted by a ghost from his past—a Russian spy named Mariya who once helped Jon avenge his dead brother, though it came at a psychological cost that inevitably ruined Jon’s marriage and create massive trust issues. Mariya wants Jon to investigate her nephew’s death though, with the storm of the century on the horizon, which spirals into escaping a hurricane, chasing Asian sailors through Panama, and trying to find a Russian nuke before it starts the next world war. Jon’s no expert at espionage though and thrusts his fate into the hands of Mariya and a sultry, young bombshell named Natasha in order to save the free world from a not-so-cold war.
I’m no stranger to the exotic adventure that is espionage. The modern espionage story usually involves jumping into a world not your own, forced to skirt society in order to uncover a secret or disarm an enemy. In a lot of ways, it’s no different than your traditional dungeon crawler fantasy story—those composed of a trek where no soul wanders in order to find buried treasure and forced against the evils erected to protect it. But the espionage story poses greater dangers, like guns and karate, and quite often, a sexier plot with romantic involvements, enemies that tend to be as beautiful as they are cruel, and sleek tools of the trade that bend the plausibility of the modern story into a pseudo-science-fiction narrative. My first interest with espionage began with my childhood love for 007 films—James Bond, a handsome Brit with a gun played by Sean Connery, travels the world to kill villains who threaten the free world, nailing babes on the way and using the technology that rivals what civilians actually use today, in spite of the series being filmed through the 1960’s. It didn’t do much for my perception of women or alcohol abuse at an early age, though it most certainly opened my eyes to the world and what waited out there—new sights, new dangers, new loves. To this day, it seems like me and every other man I’ve met wants to join some equivalent of MI:6 and become a double-oh ourselves.
(Why, yes, Moneypenny. I’m keen on a snog.)
Like James Bond, Jonathan Brooks joins forces with the Russians to stop new, evil empires from rising up. The exquisite detail that Frieden puts into every locale made me feel quite sure that he scouted each location as he wrote about them, like the kinds of wallpaper you find in a Stockholm hotel or the transients you encounter in Caracas. I had the pleasure of having A.C. Frieden perform at my literary reading series, Reading Under the Influence, and got to know him briefly—he informed me of his world travels and experiences, and this book is evidence enough of that truth. Compared with other novels in the genre (like the Alex Cross books, by James Patterson), it has exquisite detail to paint pictures that are either beautiful or horrifying, with each new location contrasting against a previously written scene to create a literary slide-show of different landscapes. I felt immersed in Jon’s surroundings, like I’d been there before—and they feel more real because he eschews the cliche expectations of each new venue by throwing us directly into the story and making them feel like a dynamically changing atmosphere contextualized by Jonathan’s adventure and the threat against these places. Even Hurricane Katrina’s havoc on New Orleans is written with such strong, poignant characteristics that each image in the media from that time flooded back to me (no pun intended) as I read, and that tragedy was made all the more tasteful by what Jonathan endured as a result and the sentiments he felt for his home.
The most notable of my espionage experiences came from a video game: Metal Gear Solid. This series doesn’t just carry a very deep, layered story of one soldier’s clandestine journey—it forces you to look around every corner and use each tool of the trade to get through the obstacles, as though you, yourself, are a James Bond or Jonathan Brooks. The main character, Snake, is forced to use his surroundings as camouflage, including different clothing patterns, shadows, and the occasional cardboard box, in order to prevent terrorists or private armies from destroying the free world using bi-pedal tanks armed with nuclear warheads known only as Metal Gear. To enjoy an espionage story in a film or a book is one thing, but to play it is a completely different experience that expanded my interest in the genre, because it taught me that you can’t just walk out with guns blazing—sometimes, you have to put a dude in a choke hold and hide him in a locker to keep his comrades from getting suspicious. I’ve played through at least four of these games and even read a novelization, and as I followed Jonathan Brooks in his adventure, I immediately recognized the names of tools, places, and tactics utilized by the characters because of my own experiences in that world. And, though the novelization of Metal Gear Solid is garbage, the story is just as good as any espionage novel, if not better—I’m looking at you, Patterson.
(The only books in Snake’s inventory are dirty magazines.)
The big difference between Solid Snake and Jonathan Brooks though is that Snake knows what he’s doing. Jonathan Brooks is a layman—which makes Frieden’s novel that much more compelling. If you don’t know anything about spy shit, you’ll learn it real goddamn quick as Jonathan is introduced to new weapons, new means of hiding your identity, and the dangers that await a clandestine operative. In fact, this novel is a sequel and, because of the time lapse between the two, you don’t even have to read the previous one to understand just what’s going on and who these characters are while Jonathan relearns and remembers everything that happened in the previous book. Though the novel is told mostly from his point-of-view, parts are told from the point-of-views of existing spies, including Sal the assassin, a CIA operative named Sanders, and double-agent Ron. Frieden’s contrast between these professionals and Jonathan reveal two realms of espionage story-telling and, thus, varying the voice of the novel to make it more engaging, and when he start’s in one voice, he sticks to it until the end of the scene. Though we meet Ron and Sal earlier on, Jonathan doesn’t know who they are when he first confronts them, nor does he know anything about them even though the audience does, and in true literary story-telling, we get to discover them from his point-of-view even though we’ve already been immersed in their point-of-view. Many who write in the third-person step outside of their character in these circumstances, though Frieden commits in order to give us the fullest story from Brooks’s point-of-view, while cluing us in on events and information about the other characters as they happen chronologically in chapters dedicated to those characters themselves. Thus, we’re not pulled out of the story mid-chapter, but only when the variation will bring more depth and momentum to the story.
Variations on different spy stories brings me to a different genre of story telling: the espionage parody. With stories like Naked Gun, Austin Powers, Get Smart, and even Inspector Gadget, we see a lot of different retooling of the spy-story for humor purposes. The only parody that captures the reality of a secret agent’s hubris and gluttony, however, is my newest espionage obsession, Archer. Sterling Archer, a secret agent with mother issues is an alcoholic, a womanizer, and only expects the finest of silks to touch his body, though he has the skills to back it up. When put on the front line, he knows how to bust noggins and impress beautiful women, but he also projects the very real fear of being shot at in the human response to danger. And because the story is told from other point-of-views, including a homosexual spy, Ray, and a black, female spy, Lana, in addition to numerous guest spies, we’re absorbed in an ever evolving “dramady” that’s both engrossing and intelligent as it is humorous. This isn’t your every day spy-story—but it does capture the consistency and excitement of a spy story to the fullest effect, in spite of its humorous contexts.
(Basically, how my co-workers perceive me.)
Because Jonathan isn’t a spy, we get to see the very real danger he feels too. Frieden really captures the anxiety that a normal, though nonetheless brave, man would feel, with lines like, “Fuck me, Jonathan thought as he glanced both ways, looking for any flash of movement. If I make it through this, after every goddamn thing I’ve been through since New Orleans, I’ll probably die of radiation poisoning." He not only captures Jonathan’s immersion into the spy world, but also expresses Jonathan’s very real, tremendous fears in colloquial language as he rolls into a fight with a gun he only barely knows how to use or a metal pipe since, what the fuck, like he has a choice? Often, Jonathan’s responses in some situations are so real that they are funny, including the various occasions where Jonathan will try to crack a bad joke to break the tension. But his thoughts and fears are instinctual and aren’t over-thought. When he has to kill a guy, the author doesn’t spend pages describing how Jonathan feels about it—Jon doesn’t have time to feel more than one line of emotion. He feels like shit, sure, but he’s got to push forward, thus keeping the pace of the book strong as Jonathan progresses from one fucked up situation to another in order to save the goddamn world. He doesn’t weep for the man he killed—he feels pain, of course, but he knows it’s dog-eat-dog and he raises his gun in anticipation of the next challenge that waits him, or otherwise he’d be killed. This not only shows the very real weight in surviving a firefight, but it also illustrates the natural choice that soldiers face when forced to justify their actions in a moment of conflict and move on, because the world doesn’t stop turning to have a pity party with you for what you’ve done to protect yourself. You have to keep fighting.
With Frieden’s great use of colloquial language and travel expertise comes one flaw though—other languages. In this novel, the audience is exposed to Russian and Spanish which, occasionally, don’t come with direct translations. I speak absolutely no Russian and only enough Spanish to work in a restaurant, so the lines of foreign dialogue confused the hell out of me without a direct translation following. In other cases, Frieden summarizes conversations in Korean and Chinese which were perfectly fine, but in an effort to capture authenticity in Jonathan’s point-of-view, he forgoes translations—even though Jon speaks Spanish. To me, this is a huge error—while authenticity is great, it benefits the audience in no way if they, themselves, don’t understand the language. I’m not going to go out and learn Russian or pick up any more Spanish than I’ll need in order to get laid, so in situations like that, I, like most audience members, require some summary of what the characters said after the moments of dialogue. Some of these lines of dialogue aren’t simply without translation, but without direct context until later on—and moments of this novel suffered as I sounded out words to try to distinguish some kind of Latin origin as I read.
(A.C. Frieden with RUI founder, Julia Borcherts.)
In spite of that though, what we have is a great espionage thriller with full, interesting characters and terrific detail. In fact, it’s one of the best espionage thrillers I’ve read and I am very grateful to Mr. Frieden for reading at my show and giving me a copy, so that I may see more of the world as he saw it. Grab it before the next one comes out.
The Riahi Rating:
About the publisher:
Avendia Publishing is a local publisher, but I can’t tell just what exactly goes on there. According to their website, they publish novels and textbooks, but as far as prose goes, their guideline PDF didn’t work. In fact, glancing at the home-page, it only looks as though it’s been casually updated over the last few years. While I loved the writing of The Serpent’s Game, the editing looked neglectful, with occasions of misplaced words or words that repeat in a sentence. Not really sure what kind of operation they’re running there, but I’m not recommending this one.