Friday, December 28, 2007

King For A Minute

Thaddeus Rutkowski



Thaddeus Rutkowski


"Are you the oldest in our house?" she asks.

"Yes," I say.

"When you're the oldest in the house," she says, "you're like a king."

I look around our place. It doesn't look much like a castle or palace. There are no throne rooms in which to conduct business, no slotted windows through which to shoot arrows from crossbows, no suits of armor with which to protect ourselves in battle, no chapel in which to pray for our souls.

"What does that mean ?" I ask.

"When you're the king, you can get mad and say bad words. When you're not the king, you'll get a time out."

"How do you know about kings?" I ask

"Henry the Eight was a king."

"What did he do as a king?"

"He told the beautiful women they had to die."

"Am I like that?"

"You're more like a teenager. You didn't grow as much as a king."

"Do I look like a teenager? Is my hair too long?"


I realize then that our castle is close to the shop of an artisan who cuts hair. I don't need to send a messenger, pick up a broad ax or saddle a steed. I can just walk and get a trim. 





Thaddeus Rutkowski's second book, Tetched: A Novel in Fractals, was published recently by Behler Publications in California. His first novel, Roughhouse (Kaya Press), was a finalist for an Asian American Literary Award. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and daughter.

You can find Thaddeus's web site at

Friday, December 21, 2007


a short story by

Jeanne Mackin

We werent scared of much, but Crazy Joe scared us.

We rough, small-town kids, a gang of six, all the same age, could chase each other with oozing blood suckers, put flashlights under our chins and tell ghost stories at midnight, ride bicycles down steep hills, hands overhead, not on the handles. But when Crazy Joe moved to the neighborhood we huddled in a quiet circle, aware of an unpleasant new sensation: fear of the unknown. But then, what is fear, if not
awareness of the unfamiliar?

Crazy Joe wore a torn, faded military jacket, a peeling leather helmet with goggles, and boots of no lingering color, held together with ragged cloth. His scanty hair, visible at the back of his head and the sides where the helmet did not reach, was gray and lank. Everything about him seemed gray and shrunken, as if he were a nighttime creature ill at ease in the light. His eyes were the grayest thing of all, and they never seemed to focus on anything, least of all us.

“Don’t go near him,” my brother ordered. He was older and not part of the gang of six.

“Why?” I resented orders from one born just a year before myself, but knew he was right.

Crazy Joe inhabited the thin edge of the known, the place where you don’t want to step off of. He wasnt part of our known world of pretty mothers who slept precisely on bouffant hairdos that never stirred, of home-from-the-war fathers who drank martinis at dinner and built rec rooms in the basement of their new ranch houses, then later converted those rec rooms to home bars, and then to bomb shelters...just in case.

Crazy Joe lived in his own world, cut off from our reality, amputated from us by thesurgery of his madness: he came out of his sister’s gray ranch house every morning at seven-thirty and without so much as a quisling glance at the sky would charge up the graveled hill that was our street, running as quickly as his thin, uncertain legs could carry him. As he ran, arms held askew in front rather than swinging at his side, he would screech incomprehensible things at enemies we couldn’tsee. At the top of the hill he would stop, catch his breath, then run screeching back down. He repeated this crazed charge dozens of times, stopping only when his breath was so ragged it exploded from his lungs in broken gasps. Exhausted, he would retreat to the lilac bush in his sister’s front yard and crouch there, waiting. He would still be there, gray and gasping, when we came home from school in the afternoon. We crossed to the other side of the street rather than pass directly in front of that lilac bush.

Buddy O Brien, born during the war rather than after and so older than us, said that Crazy Joe’s clothes were from the Great War, the war before. Buddy was a history enthusiast and knew such things. Crazy Joe, he said, was a war vet, just like our dads.

“Is not!” we screamed, horrified at that dangerous connection. Our fathers did not screech up and down the hill or crouch under bushes. Our fathers, if they spoke of the war at all, spoke quietly, made light of it, turning it into the stuff of Saturday night cocktail hours.

“He’s a war vet,” Buddy insisted, changing our world forever.

My brother and Buddy made eye contact; Buddy blinked first. My brother didn’t like him, thought he was weird to want to hang out with kids younger than he was, even to just talk war talk.

After Buddy’s history lesson, the gang went on the offensive. When Crazy Joe came out of his house in the morning we waited in ambush across the street. “Crazy Joe! Crazy Joe, come get us!” we taunted, braced to run. He giggled, saluted, and then began his tour of duty, up and down the hill, screeching, arms cocked under the weight of an invisible bayonet.

We tired of the game and grew into other distractions. I don’t know when Crazy Joe stopped waiting under that bush. When I was twelve the hill was paved into a real town street, with layers of gravel and tar smoothed over the rutted dirt of our bicycle paths; one morning I realized that Crazy Joe no longer defended that area.

But sometimes, freed from his real presence, I could imagine his history, his private story of madness. I borrowed some of Buddy’s books and learned new vocabulary: trenches, mustard gas, voulez-vous, foot-rot, Sarajevo, Verdun, shell-shock; I could imagine burning lungs, sleeping in water filled trenches, bayoneting blue-eyed Germans.

Crazy Joe disappeared from the hill, but took up residence in my memory, becoming the soldier who survived the war, who came home, who brought his never-ending war with him.

My brother did not survive Viet Nam, although he never really went there. Forty years after my last encounter with Crazy Joe I sit in my brother’s new ranch house in Florida, trying to celebrate Christmas. The remnants of a family who have gathered more for funerals than weddings, we have migrated to this warm place where snow never falls. It is past midnight and my sister-in-law, niece and husband are asleep
in their beds. My brother, father and I, insomniacs, wilt and yawn in front of the television. Christmas tree lights compete with the neon glare of the large screen.

My father thumbs through a year-old issue of National Geographic. I shuffle the cards for another round of solitaire. My brother rewinds the tape in the VCR and begins to watch “A Christmas Carol” for the third time that day. Dickens’ story is one
of regret, and what is regret if not needing to live the past again and again? My brother especially likes the part where the ghost of Christmas past shakes his chains at Scrooge and menaces him with what might have been. There is a half-empty tumbler of whiskey in my brother’s hand.

My brother drinks too much. If I were still the seven year old child who taunted Crazy Joe I would use other words to describe my brother, but because I am older and have learned to fear the knife-edge of truth, I merely say, “My brother drinks too much.”
We don’t speak often. Once a year we hug and say ‘Be well, take care, be happy.” And between those well wishes there is much silence. A long time ago, I lost him. We lost each other. Our childhood closeness disappeared as surely as Crazy Joe had - it just wasn’t there one day.

On the screen, Scrooge trembles and screeches in high-pitched horror. I lose another round of solitaire. My father picks up a different issue of National Geographic and yawns again. When the movie ends, the VCR switches itself off and a tv movie fills the screen. It is a war movie, filled with images of John Wayne aiming his rifle, carrying a
wounded buddy on his shoulder, enjoying intimate if prickly conversations with a pretty nurse.

My brother’s eyes are fixed on the screen. He has seen this movie more times than he has seen “A Christmas Carol,” and it holds him spellbound. He pours another glass of whiskey.

My father throws down the magazine and clears his throat. “It wasn’t like that,” he says, glaring at John Wayne. “It wasn’t like that,” says my father who, fifty years later, still rarely speaks of his war. “We weren’t grown men doing brave things,” he says. “We were scared little boys doing what we were told we had to do.”He gets up and disappears down the dark hall, dragging his left leg a little from the stroke. I
hear him in the bathroom, gargling.

My brother is not a war vet. When the other eighteen and nineteen and twenty year olds of the town were going off to Viet Nam, he was left behind. His National Guard regiment went. He did not. My mother did that. She performed miracles for her son, her only son. I do not know what officials she talked to, what words she used that other mothers did not, but she kept him home, kept him out of Nam.

Naive about war, I had always assumed he had been pleased about this, happy to have been spared the napalm, the rat cages, the loud speakers blaring Rolling Stones into a blackened jungle, the drugs that helped the soldiers through another day. But when I look at my brother, there are tears in his eyes.

“I should have been there,” he says. His words are slurred, his eyes
still fixed on John Wayne.

“Where?” I ask, confused.

“In Nam. My best buddies died there. I should have gone with them.”

“So you could die, too?” I say. It is what my mother would have said.

The powerless of the words numb me. The wall between us grows thicker. We no longer share a common language, when survival to one person looks like guilt to another. I have no words to understand his pain. We retrofit the past to give it an innocence it never possessed. I am, even at this moment, romanticizing my memories of my brother, in my mind’s eye the light falls more gently on his stricken face than it did in reality at that moment. But my other self who still lives in that moment does not know this. I am part of the dream, not yet the dreamer, so I look at my brother whose eyes are red with longing for a war that excluded him. I say the only thing that comes to mind. “Remember Crazy Joe?”

He grins at me. “Good old Crazy Joe,” he says.


Jeanne Mackin is the author of several historical novels including The Sweet By and By and The Frenchwoman. She teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Goddard College. You can find out more about her books on her web site

Crazy Joe is copyrighted 2006 by Jeanne Mackin

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007


a short story
Stephen Poleskie
WE LIVED IN THE third floor apartment because my father had been left the building by his mother, and we could rent out the second floor for more money to pay the mortgage. The store on the ground floor, which had been my father’s mother’s bar until she died, and her third husband ran off with whatever money was in the bank, was rented to Mickey the barber.

From the window of the bedroom I shared with my Uncle Edward, I could see the coal mine just across Grove Street. The breaker had a tower made of iron beams, with two massive wheels on top. Steel cables went around these wheels, and when they turned a cage was lowered into the mineshaft. If I got up early enough, I could watch the miners go down. In the summer I saw them come up, their faces blackened from coal dust. In the winter the miners never came up before dark, so all I ever saw was the bobbing glow from the lanterns on their helmets as they wended their way home through the snow.

The two rear windows in our kitchen had a view of our small yard, in the center of which stood the tiny spruce tree my father had planted the day I was born. I would come back years later to find it higher than the house; and still later gone, cut down by the new owners to make way for a clothesline. A picket fence separated one side of the yard from the sidewalk and street. The back border was formed by a row of chicken coops and a garage. A wire fence ran down the other side, dividing us from the people next door. Their house was as tall as ours, so I could see nothing out that way but a wall. As work at the mine was slow, most of the bars on Grove Street had closed, the one underneath the neighbors being one of the few remaining. Its sign, which was lit up at night, cast a red glow on the walls my bedroom. In the morning huge trucks would come by and wake me up with a great racket, as they unloaded huge barrels of beer that were rolled down a ramp into the bar’s cold cellar.

Mostly, I stayed in my room all day and watched the activity on Grove Street out the window. I don’t remember going down to the street much until I was at least three years old, although I must have. I had long hair, which my mother set in curls. People who didn’t know me used to say: “Oh what a beautiful girl!” Then my sister was born, and I was changed back into a boy. I had my hair cut downstairs at Mickey’s. I remember crying because I was afraid it was going to hurt. My mother said: “If you don’t stop crying, I am going to give you to the riggi.”

I don’t know why he was called “the riggi,” or even if this is the correct spelling. I do remember he had a horse and wagon. His gray mare was the first large animal I had ever seen, except for the mules they took down into the mine that never came back up until they died. I saw them bringing a mule out once. It was lying on a cart. I asked my uncle if the mule was sick. “No, it’s dead,” he said. At the time I didn’t understand what he meant, and he didn’t explain. In my inchoate mind I could not yet distinguish the difference between what is from what is not.

My mother was always threatening to “give me to the riggi,” if I didn’t do something or other; go to sleep, eat my dinner, wash my hands. This made me feel especially worthless, as everything else she didn’t want she “sold” to the riggi; rusty pots and pans, broken sewing machines, anything that had outlived its usefulness. Was I not even worth as much as my mother’s junk? I wondered. Now my father, who had never been home much anyway, had gone off to fight in the war, leaving me here with mother, and my baby sister, who always cried to get everything she wanted given to her.

Before my mother began her threats I had waited in excitement for the riggi to appear, listening to the bellow of his horn as he made his way down Grove Street. Warm days found me hanging out my window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the treasures he had stowed inhis cart. On those infrequent days when mother, or the lady from downstairs, would rush out with some small item to sell and the riggi would stop on our corner, my eyes would enjoy a special treat as they inventoried the contents of the rickety cart.

Now I no longer waited for the riggi with pleasure but with fear. Was today the day he would come for me? Had my mother made some secret pact with the gnarled old man to take me away as a punishment for something she perceived I had done wrong? At the first sound of his horn I interrupted my play and took flight, diving under the spruce trees, then crawling behind the peonies.

Small bugs circled my blinking eyelids as I peered through the picket fence. The riggi’s once cheerful horn had become a mournful dirge, a sound I remembered from my Aunt Beatrice’s funeral, the day I learned what “to be dead” meant. The horse and wagon was in front of our house now, but I wouldn't see the riggi until he passed the corner. I squatted lower in the flowers, making sure I had a clear path to the chicken coop. I planned my escape; run across the open yard, jump onto the water barrel, scramble on the coop, then over the garage roof, and get away by the back alley. My grandma lived at the end of the alley. She baked me cookies when I went to visit her, and would never allow me to be taken away by the riggi.

I could see him now. The old man had stopped on the corner and was just sitting silently on his wagon, waiting. My heart was pounding with horror. I had never seen the riggi’s eyes look so beady, so full of evil. He took out a red handkerchief: was this the signal? I prepared to flee. But my mother did not come down. The old man blew his nose in the handkerchief, and then put it back in his pocket.

“Giddy up!” he growled, giving his horse a crack with the reins.
Still crouched in my hiding place, I felt a sense of relief come over me. I listened to the bellow of his horn, and the clip-clop of hoofs, as the riggi slowly disappeared down Grove Street.


Stephen Poleskie is an artist and writer. His artworks are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Tate Gallery in London, among others. He has published numerous short stories, and his biographical novel on the Civil War Balloonist T. S. C. Lowe is forthcoming from Frederic C. Beil, Publisher in 2006. Twelve of  Poleskie's short stories have been published as pamphlets by OnagerEditions.

The Riggi is from a collection of stories called Leaving Grove Street. The Riggi is copyrighted by Stephen Poleskie 2006.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007


a short story


S. Francis Pringle






Yes, this was the year the Springboks won the Rugby Union World Cup. Lifting his glass, a rugby enthusiast in a Capetown pub expressed the nation’s view: “Damn, and we bloody well could have won it all in ’87 and ’91  . . . if they would have let our team play. Just because a country tries to keep its niggers in their proper place is no reason to ban their teams from competition. The bloody niggers never give a damn for the game anyway; they all want to be footballers, or the uppity ones try a go at cricket.” The 60,000 plus fans in the stadium did give a damn, however.




The loudspeakers blared the home teams national anthem during injury breaks.


Wearing a Springbok’s captain’s shirt, the head of state visited the home team’s dressing room just before the match began and exhorted: “This game is not just in pursuit of victory, but a national crusade.”


Overhead, a jumbo jet from the national airline circled the stadium at rooftop height, a giant-sized good luck message to the Springboks lettered on the underside of its wing.




Standing in the shade of the shanty house he shared with his mother and grandparents, Mulo squinted at the huge airplane banking low in the bright sky, its wing tips seeming to almost touch the ground. There was writing on the underside of the wing. He could see it clearly, but did not know what it said. Although Mulo was nine years old, he could not read. He had never been to school, not even for one day.


“Momma . . . why is the great airplane flying so near to the ground?”


His mother did not know, nor did anyone else among the groups of people who had come out of their jerry-built shacks to watch.


Mulo loved airplanes. Three years ago Mulo had seen the place where they came to “walk on the land” when he had gone in a truck with his mother to try to find his father. The man had disappeared after being arrested for participating in a demonstration. The boy had been more excited at seeing the airplanes than distressed by the thought of what might have happened to his father. But, he had only been six years old then. Mulo asked his mother if he would ever be able to go up in an airplane.


 Squeezing his hand as the truck bounced along, Murlo’s mother had replied: “Someday, maybe. . . .” She had inquired once, in secret, about the price of airplane tickets. This was when she planned to run away from her husband – who beat her regularly – and live with her sister in England. She knew now that, unfortunately, the price of even the shortest flight onan airliner was more than she earned in a year.


RRRRROOOOOAAARRR . . . rrroooaarr. . . .


Down in the stadium, the whine from the jumbo jet’s four Pratt and Whitney turbofans drowned out even the crowd’s noise.


The Springbok’s opponents, New Zealand’s All Blacks – who were neither all black, nor all from New Zealand – took the aerial diversion distorting the sporting nature of the contest stoically. They also chose not to make an issue of, nor publicize, the fact that 18 members of their team, including 10 starters, suffered food poisoning after a lunch at their hotel two days earlier.


RRRRoooooooaaaaarroooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrr. . . .


The people from the shanties had all gone back indoors. If they had windows, or shutters, they closed them. However, the sun on the tin roofs would soon make it too hot inside. The jumbo circled for another pass at the stadium. The black exhaust, from having to run the engines at a rich mixture because of the low altitude, was coating the neighborhoods with a thin film off oil. Those who came back out soon found the oil clogging their nostrils, and a petroleum taste on the insides of their teeth.


Covering his ears with his hands. Mulo tried to hide under his bed, as he had done when his father used to come home in a drunken rage. “Make it stop, Momma . . . make the noise go away!” he cried. Coughing in the dust under the bed, Mulo decided he did not like airplanes now.


RRRRRRRROOOOOOOAAAAAAArrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. . . .


One of the All Black’s star players, still suffering from food poisoning, and passing gas all through the first half, had retired to the lavatory at half-time, and did not return for the rest of the game.


RRR . . . OOO . . . Aaaa . . . rrrrrrrrr. . . .


Crouching in the corner of their shanty, Mulo’s grandfather contentedly smoked a cigarette. He had gone deaf some three years ago, just after his son disappeared. He took a deep drag, the light from the cigarette stabbing at the darkness of the hot room. If he closed his eyes, and held the smoke in his lungs long enough, it seemed as though he did not exist.


Rrrrrrrrrrrrrooooooooooaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. . . .


Despite the distracting circumstances, the All Blacks were playing well. A team that offered neither tactical innovation, nor outstanding flair was nevertheless, beating them. The Springboks favored orthodox rugby, based on the avoidance of risk-taking, and a willingness to tackle everyone in sight.


“Fuck, that Lomu has got the fucking ball!”


“What the fuck! . . .”

“Grab the black son-of-a-bitch!”

 “Fuck the bloody bastard . . . kill the fucker!”

Springboks converged from every angle, hitting the runner, with a crunching of bones, high, low, and somewhere in between – spirit counting for more than finesse.  Waving his beer and shouting, “Bloody good show! Scragg the fuckin’ nigger!” a fan from Johannesburg voiced his approval of the play.


Normal time ended with the teams tied at nine.


RRR   OOO   AAA   RRR RRRooooaaaarrrrrrrrrrrr!


During the break, the unstoppable 6 foot 5 inch, 20 year old, Johna Lomu, one of the All Blacks premier runners, sat on the bench, isolated in his headset, farting, and listening to a Bob Marley tape.




“Make it stop Momma, make the noise go away!”


“I don’t know how Mulo . . . I don’t know how!”


“Make it stop, Grandpa, make the noise go away!”


“I cannot hear you, Mulo . . . I have gone deaf.”


“Make it stop, Papa, make the noise go away!”


“I cannot help you my son . . . I am not here anymore.”


The shape of the match changed dramatically during the extra time, going from a traditional running game to a more modern, tactical kicking game, with the Springboks finally claiming victory by 15 to 12.


Lifting a glass of Champagne at the banquet held to mark the end of the World Cup, the country’s rugby president, in a stumbling speech that resonated with the old Afrikaans arrogance, proclaimed the Springboks as the first “true” world champions. “There were no true world champions in the 1987 and 1991 World Cups because South Africa was not there,” He declared.


At this remark, the captain of the defeated New Zealand team got up and led his players from the room. The All Blacks were quickly followed by the French and English teams.





S. Francis Pringle was born in New Zealand, and educated in England. His stories have been published world wide, and he has won the Kiwi Prize. One of the foremost experts on the Ojibwa language, Pringle currently resides in upstate New York where he translates textbooks on casino gambling methods into Native American dialects.




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Thursday, September 27, 2007


Here is a review of THE BALLOONIST as it appeared in the December 15, 2006 issue of BOOKLIST, the magazine published by the American Library Association.



Poleskie, Stephen. The Balloonist: The Story of T. S. C. Lowe – Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U. S. Air Force.

Dec. 2006. 368p. Frederic C. Beil, $24.95 (1-929490-27-5).973.7.


            This first full-scale biography of Thaddeus Lowe (1832-1913) makes fascinating reading for aviation buffs and students of nineteenth-century eccentricity. Lowe is best known for organizing the Civil War Army of the Potomac’s Balloon Corps, though it was disbanded because of losing high-ranking support, bureaucratic infighting, and, to some extent, the technological immaturity of balloons. Lowe was a stage magician before the war and after it worked seriously in such fields as mountain railroading and the extraction of hydrogen from water. His career suggests a failed Thomas Edison. Endlessly fertile in his invention, he lacked an organization to support the development of his ideas and winnow the viable ones from the rest. He never abandoned balloons, however, and left a definite legacy to fixed-wing aviation in the person of his granddaughter, aviatrix Pancho Barnes (1901-75, subject of Lauren Kessler’s biography The Happy Bottom Riding Club. 2000). Aviation and history collections may acquire this seemingly tangential book with clear consciences.  Roland Green



Copyright 2006, the American Library Association. This document may be reprinted and distributed for non-commercial and educational purposes only, and not for resale.




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The Balloonist: The Story of T. S. C. Lowe,
Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U.S. Air Force

by Stephen Poleskie
Category: Fiction / Historical
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
On Sale: May 2007
Price: $24.95
ISBN: 978-1-929490-27-1

click on title for more information


Monday, September 24, 2007


By Jeanne Mackin

Think of history as narrative. Think of historical fiction as expanded narrative, history with all the trimmings, with cause and effect, speculation, personalization. Think of expanded narrative as the story teller reaching out to you, saying, ‘pay attention. This is important.” Or as novelist Jeanette Winterson repeats over and over in The Passion, ‘Trust me. I’m telling you a story,’ and then as she relates a Napoleonic narrative of a Venetian woman who walks on water, you do believe her even as you know she is lying through her teeth, because that is what novelists do. But this important: you don’t believe that Venetian women necessarily walk on water (though it would be a convenient skill, considering global warming and the state of Venetian canals) but you do believe Winterson’s message that love changes us, that war changes us and that war is not conducive to happy endings, because that is what her story is really about.

We best believe what we remember, and narrative is about memory: giving memories in the form of stories, receiving memories and adding them to our personal stores. But historical fiction, as memory creation, asks us to do the impossible, to remember experiences we can’t possibly have had, to ‘remember’ the smell of the rosebush growing outside Hester Prynne‘s jail in Hawthorne‘s The Scarlet Letter, to remember crouching in darkness outside the mead hall, the perpetual outsider, as John Gardner’s Grendel does; to remember the sensation of the earthquake that begins the action of Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica; to remember the wild vines strangling the decaying plantation in Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. All of those things were before our times; yet having read them, we remember them.

There is a relationship between memory and freedom, asserts Dr. Chris Nunn, author of De La Mettrie’s Ghost: the Story of Decisions. Nunn examines free will and the decision making process and ultimately concludes that “stories…are the mediators of free choice.” He argues that people whose ‘memories are more malleable should, other things being equal, be less prone to conditions like milleniarianism “{belief that the world will end on a given date simply because of the date} and other forms of private or mass delusion. People with flexible memories are less gullible…“thanks to its intimate relationship with the memory process, consciousness can to some extent determineits own future.”

Call me an idealist, but perhaps fiction can prevent us from making even bigger and more dangerous idiots of ourselves than the species already has. Perhaps historical fiction keeps our memories malleable by constantly recreating and adding to those memories; perhaps there is a connection between fiction, memory and freedom. Gardner’s Grendel can be read as an early eco-novel, among other things: “They {man} hacked down trees in widening rings around their central halls and blistered the land with peasant huts and pigpen fences till the forest looked like an old dog dying of mange.”

In Jean Rhys’ postcolonial devastation in Wide Sargasso Sea, the destructive misery of failed empire comes home to roost in a suicidal conflagration: “I got up, took the keys and unlocked the door. I was outside holding my candle. Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do. There must have been a draught for the flame flickered and I thought it was out. But I shielded it with my hand and it burned up again to light me along the dark passage.”

Richard Hughes’ incredibly convincing narrative of the connections between entitlement and violence in A High Wind in Jamaica reveals how a lack of self-responsibility so easily leads to murder and how that violence estranges us: “Mr. Thornton made no attempt to answer her questions: he even shrank back, physically from touching his child Emily..Was it Conceivable she as such an idiot as really not to know what it was all about? Could she possibly not know what she had done? He stole a look at her innocent little face, even the tear-stains now gone. What was he to think?”

Murdered pirates, decaying plantations, mead halls, Napoleon’s roasted chickens…artificial memories bestowed by historical fiction, but who’s to say that an artificial memory is less meaningful than mundane ones? De La Mettrie argues that memories become encoded in neurons and have physical properties, so why can’t the memories acquired in a reading of fiction matter as much as the memory of today’s first cup of coffee and who poured it for you? Read, and remember. Is it possible to also understand something from what is given us by the memories in fiction? “The pastis the present, isn’t it? It’s the future,too. Weall try to lie out of that but life won’t let us,” Eugene O’Neill tells us in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Perhaps what fiction most asks us to remember is that memory keeps us human, and if we remember enough and remember well, we can add an e to human.


Jeanne Mackin is the author of several historical novels including The Sweet By and By and The Frenchwoman.  She teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Goddard College.


Barnes & Noble Book Fair

Tompkins County Public Library Foundation

in support of the Tompkins County Public Library

Thursday and Friday, October 25 & 26

614 South Meadow Street, Ithaca NY

author book signing on Thursday beginning at 6:00 p.m.



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Sidney Grayling

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Gas Bag of Courage
(The Balloonist, 8/13/07)
By Nicholas Nicastro

The Balloonist. By Stephen Poleskie
(338 pp., Frederic C. Beil Publishers, $24.95)

It is often said that journalists write the first draft of history. Thaddeus Lowe, the pioneering inventor and aviator, was perhaps the first notable exception to this rule. Rising in his silk balloon over the killing fields of the Civil War, Lowe instantly got a breadth of perspective—a sense of who, what, and where on a grand scale—that was previously limited to scholars of great and tragic events. "To the right could be seen the York River, following which the eye could rest of Chesapeake Bay. On the left, and at about the same distance, flowed the James River..." wrote one of Lowe's most notorious passengers, George Armstrong Custer. "Between these two extended a most beautiful landscape, and no less interesting than beautiful; it being made a theatre of operations of armies larger and more formidable than had ever confronted each other on his continent before..."
      With The Balloonist: The Story of T.S.C. LoweInventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the US Air Force, Ithaca-based writer Stephen Poleskie offers up what is perhaps the most gratifying kind of biography—one that convinces us that its subject is so manifestly significant that the absence of previous books about him seems downright mystifying. As hinted in the subtitle, Lowe (1832-1913) was something of an industrial alchemist, a restless polymath who contrived innovations in fields as disparate as chemistry, engineering, meteorology, espionage, and roadshow razzmatazz. His antebellum "magic" shows, staged under the assumed title of "Professor" Lowe, were more scientific lecture/demonstrations than the kind of portentous dinner theatre practiced by his modern descendants. Yet they were also very popular, making him not only a pioneering inventor but the Science Guy of his times.
      Lowe's lifetime passion, however, was the delicate craft of ballooning. Conceiving the then-outrageous plan to cross the Atlantic by air, he worked steadily to improve the technology and public profile of lighter-than-air aviation. The advent of the Civil War undercut public support for such adventures, but not Lowe's enthusiasm: if balloons could cross oceans, they certainly could be used to erase the front lines between armies. Along with a handful of rivals, Lowe labored hard to get Union generals to appreciate the potential of hydrogen balloons for intelligence-gathering.
      It took the intercession of Lincoln himself to finally get the US Army Balloon Corps off the ground. Rising above the battlefields of Virginia, Lowe became a unique witness to some of the most momentous battles in the war, including George McClellan's ill-fated Peninsula campaign. He became the first to supply real-time intelligence from the air when he conceived the notion of stringing a telegraph wire from his gondola. As his custom-built observation balloon floated above the trees, he also became the most shot-at man in the war, as Confederate sharpshooters and gunners attempted to erase the Union intelligence advantage by blasting him out of the sky. That Lowe exposed himself to such danger for more than two years as a civilian contractor, without commission or regular salary, is not the least of his miracles.
      Poleskie tells his story with a rare combination of practical expertise (the author is an aviator himself), empathy, and poetic vividness. Describing Lowe's lingering horror at the carnage he witnessed, Poleskie writes "A violent spasm twitched his body. Once again he heard the boundless roar of cannon; saw the shattered bodies and the collapsing bridges; listened to the clumsy, gasping cries of drowning men; and the agonizing shriek of the wounded. Riderless horses wallowed in the mud along the banks snorting flames from their nostrils. Corpses, swollen to twice their size, ground out curses and blasphemies from their bloated mouths as they floated on the spume. Summoned by he did not know what, the whole ghastly parade assembled around him, marching skyward, a relentless invasion of his senses."
      The Balloonist is full of similar, fictionalized passages, many of which are quite fine. Indeed, Poleskie is not alone in mixing the roles of historian and novelist—the bookstore shelves are lately full of similar hybrids. More literal-minded readers may chaff at this approach, however: it is occasionally nice to know which fine reflection or turn-of-phrase originates with the author, and which from Lowe's own memoirs (published only in 2004). Other strange omissions, such as a single likeness of Lowe, or an index (though Poleskie does provide a bibliography) may also frustrate the conventional reader.
      Compelling as Lowe's story is, the notion that balloon reconnaissance alone could have shortened the Civil War is arguably wishful thinking. Though Lowe did work wonders in that brief time before bureaucratic infighting finally drove him away, one senses that the skein of determined stupidity enveloping the Union general staff would have squandered any advantage. Indeed, one of the unanticipated dividends of Poleskie's book is to put the current trail of miscues in Iraq in historical perspective. If anything is as perennial as war itself, it's the quality of the foolishness it seems to attract.

©2007 Nicholas Nicastro


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The Balloonist: The Story of T. S. C. Lowe,
Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U.S. Air Force

by Stephen Poleskie
Category: Fiction / Historical
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
On Sale: May 2007
Price: $24.95
ISBN: 978-1-929490-27-1

click on title for more information


Monday, August 27, 2007


This is an excerpt from an interview with Norman Mailer conducted by Andrew O'Hagan, in the Summer issue of The Paris Review, and reprinted in the September issue of Harper's Magazine.

The question asked by O'Hagan was: Do you think America is a good place in which to practice the arts?

Mailer's reply: When I was young it was marvelous for a writer. It's the reason we have so many good writers in America -- most of our literature had not yet been written. English novelists had all the major eighteenth and, and nineteenth, century geniuses to deal with and go beyond. What did we have to go beyond? A few great writers, Melville and Hawthorne. The list is very short. For us, the field was wide open. Now we're beleaguered. The movies were bad enough, though American novelists always felt a certain superiority to what was going on in Hollywood. You weren't learning more about human nature from films, you were just being entertained -- at some cost to learn a little more about why we're here, which I think is one of the remaining huge questions. Now people grow up with television, which has an element within it that is absolutely inimical to serious reading, and that is the commercial. Anytime you're interested in a narrative, you know it's going to be interrupted every seven to ten minutes, which will shatter any concentration. Kids watch television and lose all interest in sustained narrative. As a novelist, I really feel I'm one of the elders of a dying craft. It once was an art, and now it'd down to being a craft and that craft is going soon. The answer to your question is this: America is no longer a good place to be a novelist, and once it was a wonderful place.


Mailer's most recent novel, The Castle in the Forest, was published by Random House in January. O'Hagan's third novel, Be Near Me, was published by Harcourt in June. You might want to check out the complete Mailer interview in either one of the two publications listed above. If you have any strong feelings on the subject feel free to enter your comment below. I hope a few people will read them. I am sure this blog has relatively few readers. Considerably more Internet users obviously prefer watching things like being cats tortured, or men falling off ladders, things which are supposed to make us laugh on sites like YouTube

We are always interested in submissions. You can send short pieces, fiction, non-fiction, or poetry to us at:


Below is a poster for an art exhibition you might find interesting if you are in the Ithaca, NY area. The show was put together by Rebecca Godin, who also designed the poster.

Sidney Grayling, editor




Wednesday, August 1, 2007


SO YOU'VE BEEN SENDING around your manuscript, following all the advice you have gleaned from those "how to get published" books and articles. You wait six months to get a response addressed to "Dear Author" telling you Mr. Big Time Agent receives so many letters he can't be bothered to write to you by name, but he assures you that he has "given your material serious consideration," and has determined it is "not right for us," but that "other agents might feel differently." Good luck.

 What he has not said is that you were not the hot chick he met at a party in Brooklyn thrown by a currently best-selling writer. He just loved her collection of short stories about hankey-pankey in trailer parks, written in short, easy to read sentences. Nor are you the cute MFA candidate he encountered at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. He couldn't put down her novel about corn-fed robot zombies attacking the citizens of Kokomo, Indiana.

It doesn't cheer you up when you read that Jane Austen sent the manuscript of "Pride and Prejudice" to a publisher under an assumed name and that within six weeks it was a finished book, which has never gone out of print. But what if Jane were alive today?

A story in the July 27, GUARDIAN WEEKLY, tells of David Lassman, the director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, cheekily submitting the scarcely altered work of Austen to eighteen of the UK's biggest and brightest agents and publishers. He was surprised to find that all but one sent back polite, but firm, rejection slips.

Lassman's trick was not the least bit subtle. Calling himself Alison Laydee, a play on Austen's nom de plume A Lady, he typed up chapters from three of his hero's most famous books, with a few changes of names and re-worked titles. Apparently only one editor, Alex Bowler, of the publisher Jonathan Cape, was familiar with the opening sentence of "Pride and Prejudice" and caught the ruse. He wrote back to Lassman expressing his "disbelief and mild annoyance, along, of course, with a moments laughter." 

So keep sending out those manuscripts. Maybe you will have better luck than the resurrected Jane Austen



I hope you enjoyed this short piece excerpted from the Guardian Weekly. And don't forget to check the archives for postings you may have missed. If you would like to send us something see our requirements in the sidebar. I guarantee you we won't take six months to respond.

Sidney Grayling, editor

Sunday, July 29, 2007




Stephen Poleskie 


When I asked him, he said he could not remember being born. I told him he should not expect me to write an accurate biography if he could not remember such basic details. He apologized, and volunteered that he did remember things that had happened before he was born, while he was still in his mother’s womb.

            He recalled looking down, through a small opening at the light, and seeing his mothers legs, her high button shoes pacing up and down on patterned rugs or hot sidewalks. His view was blocked by his mother’s thighs when she went up and down stairs or sat down. In winter she wore fur-lined galoshes made of rubber. He told me he watched the snow passing under her feet, and wondered if it would be cold when he finally was born. Then one day, while we were going through an album of his mother’s old photographs, we realized that she had never worn high button shoes. He was born in 1938, and high button shoes had long gone out of fashion by then. She also appeared to be a very modest woman who never would have gone without underwear.

            A year and three months after he was born the German army marched into Poland, in effect beginning the Second World War. He was sure he remembered that too, but I told him he was too young then to remember anything. I explained to him that the idea must have been put into his mind much later, by someone else, and he only thought he remembered it.

            He began to think about what I said. Then it came to him that a woman artist he knew in New York City in the 1960’s, Elaine de Kooning, had told him a similar story about looking out of the womb and seeing her mother’s high button shoes.           

            Then he thought about the high button shoes. He wanted to be a detective once and so researched Elaine’s birthday and the date of the demise of high button shoes. He discovered that it was highly improbable the unborn Elaine looked down and saw her mother wearing high button shoes. Perhaps she had seen some other kind of shoes, but unless her mother was extremely out of fashion she had not seen high button shoes. He wondered if the idea might have been put into her mind by someone else. He knew I had written a history book and asked me if that what was what history was all about.

            He told me about meeting Elaine’s husband, who was a very famous artist. The man was wearing a blue chambray work shirt and bib overalls, sitting at the table drinking a beer. It was the third time had had been to Elaine’s studio, for whom he was working at odd jobs. Elaine’s studio was on Broadway at 12th Street. It was large and well lighted by many windows. He lived in a boarded-over store front on 11th Street between avenues C and D. His studio had no windows.

            Elaine turned to him and said, “Do you know my husband Bill?”

            At first he was confused. He thought her husband’s name was Willem, and that he now lived in East Hampton with a teen-aged girl. He had seen photographs of the famous man who was tall and handsome, and painted large and powerful paintings. However, Willem was now painting on the wooden doors that had been delivered for his new house, much to the delight of the art critics who saw this as a radical idea. This Bill was short and bent over, and smelled of beer. If Bill painted large paintings he would have to stand on a box.

            He had extended his hand. Bill ignored it and took another sip of beer from the can he was holding with the massive mitt of a house painter. Without looking at him Bill asked, in a deep accent, “Did I ever tell you the story of how I came to America from Amsterdam?”

            “No sir you did not,” he replied. He knew now that this really was the famous Willem de Kooning. He had read in an art history book about how the artist had emigrated from Amsterdam.

            Bill told him the story.

            Bill would tell him the story several times after that.

            He could not remember a time when they were together that Bill did not tell him the same story.



STEPHEN POLESKIE is an artist and writer. His artwork is in the collections of numerous museums including the Museum of Modern Art , and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Tate Gallery,  and theVictoria and Albert Museum in London. Currently a professor emeritus at Cornell University, he has also been a visiting artist at twenty-six other colleges and art schools in the United States and abroad. The above piece is from a novel in progress.


Thank you for logging on. Please come back again. And don't forget to check the archives, available from the top right corner, for things you may have missed. We welcome submissions. See the sidebar for our requirements.

Sidney Grayling, editor.




Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Here is a recording of a radio interview Tish Pearlman did with Stephen Poleskie which aired on her program OUT OF BOUNDS on June 14, of this year. Click on his name to listen to the audio.

Stephen Poleskie

Artist and Writer, Stephen Poleskie

In this fascinating interview, Poleskie discusses his many life adventures as a flyer, an artist, and a writer. He also discusses his book "The Balloonist- The Story of T.S.C. Lowe: Inventor, Scientist, Magician and Father of the US Air Force."

Tish Pearlman


Thank you for logging on. You will need a high speed connection to get the audio. To hear other interviews by Tish Pearlman you can go to her program web site: Interviews are broadcast on WEOS-FM every Thursday at 7:00 pm. The station can be heard on 89.7 & 90.3 Geneva, NY & 88.1 Ithaca, NY, or via stream at

Sidney Grayling, editor


The Balloonist: The Story of T. S. C. Lowe,
Inventor, Scientist, Magician, and Father of the U.S. Air Force

by Stephen Poleskie
Category: Fiction / Historical
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
On Sale: May 2007
Price: $24.95
ISBN: 978-1-929490-27-1

click on title for more information




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