north of oxford book review

Wolf Season by Helen Benedict

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Reviewed by Lynette G. Esposito

In Wolf Season, published by Bellevue Literary Press, New York, 2017, Helen Benedict reveals lessons in interpersonal relationships of average people who have survived horrific war experiences.  Benedict addresses both the psychological and physical damages as well as changes inflicted on the survivors whose stories stay with you after you have finished reading the book.

Juney, veteran, Rin’s nine-year-old blind daughter, Tariq, son of Naema, the widow of an Iraqi war interpreter, and Flanner, son of a deployed marine, represent the innocent sufferers of wars from which their parents try to keep them safe. Beth, Rin, Naema, Todd, and Louis represent the damaged adults who try to protect the children from the aftermath reality of their complicated war experiences.  All the characters are well drawn and believable.  To accomplish this, Benedict follows the characters’ every-day activities of normal American living and their sometimes extreme reactions to seemingly simple things.

Rin, a widowed war veteran, tries to fulfill her husband’s dream of raising wolves in the woods outside of fictional Huntsville, New York.  Her PTSD and flashbacks from being raped by her comrades contribute to her paranoia and prevent her from normal interactions with other humans.  Naema, a doctor from Iraqi, tries to adjust to American life with her son who has lost his leg to a bomb in Iraq.  Beth, Flanner’s mother, suffers the loneliness of a deployed husband who comes back so changed, she believes he is two people—the before and after.  When a hurricane hits this small community, these characters are whirled in to a crazy soup that only mother nature can cook up.

The novel is divided into four parts each with a title that suggests the focus in each section. The wolves and other animals in the book provide a symbolic backdrop of interdependency on each other and the humans who love them.  Benedict’s use of nature and natural instincts gives readers a deep sense of what it takes to survive and the terrible toll war and loneliness extracts not only on those who go to war but also those waiting at home.

It is a good read and engaging on many levels.  It has a light touch of politics as all war stories do, but the focus is on the consequences to people and their stories of coping when back at home.

Benedict is a professor at Columbia University and is the author of seven novels. She has also written nonfiction and a play.  She currently lives in New York. For more information, visit www.helenbenedict.com .

You can find the book here: http://blpress.org/books/wolf-season/ 

 

Lynette G. Esposito has been an Adjunct Professor at Rowan University,  Burlington County and Camden County Colleges. She has taught creative writing and conducted workshops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Esposito holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois and an MA in Creative Writing and English Literature from Rutgers University.

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Home of the Brave – Stories in Uniform-Edited by Jeffery Hess

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By Stephen Page

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With Home of the Brave, editor Jeffery Hess puts together a collection of short stories about people in the U.S. military.  The period covered is from World War II to the present.  Although many of the stories refer to war, very few depict actual battles.

Let me reiterate that these are stories about people—humane stories, humanistic statements, reports about humanity.

This book will appeal to almost every reader, civilian and military alike.  Jeffery Hess does a fine job in choosing stories that have empathetic characters, hard-hitting human drama, and convincing plots.  The tales stick with you, the reader, long after you read them.   Some of these stories will shock you; some will hit you right where you live.

A portion of proceeds from each book sold is donated to USA Cares.

Read more about the book here: Home of the Brave

Read interviews with the editor: Mary Akers Blog

This book may be purchased here: Amazon 

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Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/

 

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

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Review by g emil reutter

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova begins with the short story Unstiching. Grudova lures the reader in with a line of normalcy, One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself.  However, there is nothing normal in this collection of 13 short stories that stay with the reader long after finishing the book. There is a haunting darkness in all of the stories and a cast of characters set into miserable conditions. Characters transform in startling ways.  Grudova’s Waxy is a perfect example. It is a story set in the future or perhaps in the past. Women are subjected to training for factory work, supporting men, working jobs that scar them. They are used for money and sex, easily discarded. The value of human life is non-existent as babies are disposed of in casual and disrespectful ways. Everyone has to be registered with the government and if you leave your job or living arrangement they will track you down. A woman without a man is considered an outcast.

Throughout the stories the characters eat tinned food, have body disorders such as incontinence and anorexia. Most of the male characters have no loyalty abandoning family at will. The character, Paul, in the story, Mouse Queen, is such a fella. He is a philosopher of sorts and prior to his wife giving birth to twins, he takes off.  The wife abandoned turns into a wolf, raids local stores and once when returning home realized her babies were gone. Had Paul returned to take them or did the wolf eat them? There is a weirdness to each story, a surrealism that is haunting, grotesque.

The subject matter of this collection is thwarting yet Grudova writes surrealism well; in fact is a master of it. She has created a world no one would want to live in yet when one begins the book it is difficult to put down. It is not a book for the faint of heart for in its surrealism Grudova writes of the decay of society. I could not read the book straight through as I often do for after each story I had to ask myself: What just happened? It is a challenging read. Do you dare?

You can find the book here: http://coffeehousepress.org/shop/the-dolls-alphabet/

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g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here:About g emil reutter

Bewilderment by Michael Onofrey

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Review by g emil reutter

Life as they say has many twists and turns. It seems no matter how one moves on from their roots there is always a pull to return. In many instances it is the health of a parent. Michael Onofrey explores this and much more in his novel Bewilderment. A young man who disconnects from his past, the main character Wade Ricky explores the world and more during his thirty years away from his hometown of Los Angeles. A loner by nature, Ricky travels the Indian continent, engages in the surreal world of drugs and voyeurism, works as an assistant to a British expat. Yet in his mind Ricky is always alone.

The first chapter defines the main character, Wade Rickey. He is awkward in the social setting of a Christmas party upon his return home to care for his mother. Rickey checks out the house, views from each room where the party is held. He observes people at a distance, doesn’t socialize for fear he may not remember some of the people at the party after his years away. Rickey listens in on conversations, yet never engages. He leaves his mother sitting in a hard chair, eating her Christmas meal as he walks about, listens and watches others as if he watching a television show. Rickey the loner, awkward, ready to leave when he can.

The chapters alternate between Rickey’s present and his past. This method used by Onofrey brings the reader into the full life of Rickey, allows the author to engage in full character development, even of minor characters in the novel.  The pace of Bewilderment after the first chapter is brisk.

Onofrey is an expert at character development. He brings us the complicated main character Wade Ricky, the sensual German, Herta,  who plays on Ricky’s needs and his awkwardness, the blind British expat for whom he works for two years. There is the complexities of his return home to care for his dying mother and his re-connection with America. Ricky enters into a relationship with a grieving mother who is an artist, yet, Ricky cannot escape his need for solitude.

Onofrey explores reality and self-image and how the two don’t always correspond. Bewilderment is a compelling novel written in beautiful prose and at times reveals the wit of Onofrey. He captures the undying experience and adventures of youth. Rickey, a man who chooses to be a loner burdened with the sudden revelation of how time slips away in this life.

 

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Bewilderment-Michael-Onofrey/dp/0997574208/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

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g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here:About g emil reutter

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Radio Poems by Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

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Review by Karen Corinne Herceg
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Jeffrey Cyphers Wright is one of the proper heirs to the famed New York City poets of Manhattan’s grittier, exhilarating literary scene. He received an MFA in Poetry having worked with Allen Ginsberg at Brooklyn College and studied with Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley at the legendary St. Mark’s Poetry Project. He also taught there and served on its Board. Wright has been at the helm of several publications and currently produces Live Mag! A visual artist as well as a poet, writer and reviewer, he carries the mantle of respected literary giants upon his shoulders with grace and continued innovative fervor. Radio Poems harkens back to the rhythms of eccentric, challenging city streets, artistic enclaves and cutting edge airwaves. This work is part of The Operating Systems’ Chapbook Series now in its fifth year, and the series rightly encourages experimentation.
These poems operate on multiple levels. They not only entertain us, they work hard to encourage our brain cells to engage with disparate imagery and crossfire perceptions. These concisely compiled pieces remain expansive and rich while employing consistent economy of words. Multiple voices add color and varied perspectives, and each poem stands on its own merit. We can “turn the dial” and find a new revelation on every page, absorbing smart dissections and magical leaps. Still, as a collection, Radio Poems is cohesive, linked in both theory and practice with solid expression both thematically and specifically.
There is a startling combination of reality and surrealistic interpretation in Wright’s work. Think of the postcard snapshot these lines evoke:
            Let’s take our love to town,
            golden sun-canyoned angles
            of Manhattan filling the distance
            between unmoving street chasms. (P. 20, ll. 1-4)
We move from station to station with “broadcasts” of advice, announcements, opinions, ads and observations. Some of these poems deliver like musical impressions as in the Gershwinesque “let’s meet” with its light litany of suggestions that banter back and forth like a symphonic tennis match:
            Let’s meet in Chinatown
            at Confusion Square.
            Let’s go shopping for new
            fall outfits at Herald Square. (P. 27, ll. 1-4)
Similar to a proverbial DJ, Wright announces, “Spin me. Put your finger/in and dial—like an/old black rotary phone” (P. 16, ll. 11-13). He has a remarkable ability to keep messages clear within a framework of classic, realistic yet imaginary proclamations, rendering them all authentically.
            He begins the poem “Al Qaeda on the western front” with these tongue-twisting lines of alliterative mastery that bring us up sharply in the fourth line. There is an ominous feeling lurking between the words like a news anchor’s clever announcement:
            The last locust leaves leave
            their last lashes of gold
            crackling in whip-crisp
            blue November glare. (P. 11, ll. 1-4)
There are sparkling and delightful phrases that prompt us to alternately smile or solemnly reflect such as “…a dancer holds her/arms and weaves/the music into shape” (P. 17, ll. 23-25) and “This is how the dead dance/hoping for a second chance” (P. 24, ll. 7-8). There is a serious underpinning to this work, despite often easy top layers of incisive humor. As Wright warns, “The odyssey is not easy./Blows crown every turn” (P. 25, ll. 9-10). Contemporary angst meets ancient myth suggesting a timeless feeling and a summons to seek lofty goals without pretense as in these final lines from “Look. See.” with periods in the title definitive and commanding that ask us to “See if you can be/the one to pull the sword free” (P. 30, ll. 13-14).
Wright can invert meanings succinctly yet with complicated implications as in the terse concluding line of the poem “No Questions Asked” that proclaims, “Always invent the truth” (P. 28, l. 14). It seems less avoidance and more of an imperative to dig for integrity at all costs. Here we have an original voice that seeks liberation through language and challenges our impressions and observations, attempting to decipher how we communicate in the world between the mind and the voice.
            There are essential declarations here, and Wright tells us he is “Having my way with/the airwaves” (P. 12, ll. 6-7). We hear familiar phrases with a new ear, often wrought out of context, to bring the customary into the extraordinary thus extracting new meaning. And this is the poet’s obligation, after all, to render the old new, to elicit inventive and ingenious ways to see life afresh. Radio Poems is the work of a cutting-edge contemporary artist who honors history and heritage while keeping beat to a modern tempo with keen observations. It’s an imaginary ride to real places.
 
 
Karen Corinne Herceg writes poetry, prose, reviews and essays.  A graduate of Columbia University, she has studied and read with renowned writers Philip Schultz, David Ignatow, John Ashbery and William Packard. Her latest book is Out From Calaboose by Nirala Publications (2017).  She lives in the Hudson Valley, New York.

Hawthorne Predicts the Future! in The House of The Seven Gables

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By Ray Greenblatt
          In his Preface Nathaniel Hawthorne clearly lays out what he proposes to do in his novel: “The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.  It is a legend prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad daylight, and bringing along with it some of its legendary mist, which the reader, according to his pleasure,  may either disregard,  or allow it to float almost imperceptibly about the characters and events for the sake of a picturesque effect.”
          Thus, Hawthorne had no intention of writing a Realistic novel. Within his rubric his characters could be ideal or totally debased; his plot could involve many coincidences and a pat conclusion; his writing style could be ornate, wandering—even bordering on the supernatural. But I observe that the floor supporting this dreamland has many realistic planks that reveal actual life in 1851 when this story was first published and into the possible future. He delves into diets, diversions, professions, inventions, and more.
          Let us begin our discussion in the kitchen, for a person’s breakfast can reveal his heart, caloric or aerobic.  The cooks are perusing an old recipe volume that features: “Venison, turkeys, capons, larded partridges, puddings, cakes, and Christmas pies.” (“The Guest”) However, their reality is a bit more humble. They fry an egg with a fresh broiled mackerel, mocha coffee, a golden Indian cake and fresh churned butter smelling of clover-blossoms.  As moderns we say Bravo! to the fish broiled, and hope the butter is used sparingly.
          We also know today that “presentation” contributes greatly toward a satisfying meal. So they selected from among their many antiques: “a small and ancient table, supported on its slender and graceful legs,” a damask jug, old china cups and saucers, crested spoons, a silver cream jug, and fresh roses in a glass pitcher.  The table sat beside a large window looking out on the garden where “the early sunshine came twinkling through the branches of the pear tree.”
          What can a young woman’s elbow grease do to save an old house, in this case a two hundred year old mansion. “The grime and sordidness of the House of the Seven Gables seemed to have vanished since her appearance there; the gnawing tooth of the dry-rot was stayed among the old timbers of it skeleton frame; the dust had ceased to settle down so densely, from the antique ceilings, upon the floors and furniture of the rooms below . . .the shadows of gloomy events that haunted the else lonely and desolate apartments; the heavy, breathless scent which death had left in more than one of the bedchambers.” (“Clifford and Phoebe”)
          We have to remember that the House of the Seven Gables is a real structure in the old port town of Salem, Massachusetts. It was owned by Hawthorne’s cousin whom he visited many times. Over the years the building has been preserved since it is the oldest surviving 17th century wooden mansion in New England. But no cement foundation nor sump pump, no weather-stripping nor thermal windows, no non-flammable shingles nor smoke detectors.
          Let us stroll into “The Pyncheon Garden”—which can scarcely be called that—for that is where the egg and the roses came from. In one section there are squashes, bean-vines, currant bushes, bees and hummingbirds, and a well for water. The remainder of the plot was badly overgrown with weeds. A rooster, two hens, and a baby chick are all that remain of the flock . Certainly they can’t compare with Mr. Perdue’s hundreds of thousands on his chicken ranches.   If this garden were better cultivated, it could provide sufficient protein and vitamins from fruits and greens in our dietary pyramid for a family.
          Now that we have sustenance under our belt, let us observe what family-run cent-shops were selling. In “May and November” a young woman has given her much older relative new ideas for items to sell: raisins, apples, flour, thread; and gingerbread cookies, molasses candy, and toys like Dutch wooden milk-maids, whistles, trumpets which are mostly for children.
          These shops cannot compete with the newly rising large-volume stores: “Groceries, toy-shops, dry-goods stores, with their immense panes of plate-glass, their gorgeous fixtures, their vast and complete assortment of merchandise, in which fortunes had been invested; and those noble mirrors at the farther end of each establishment, doubling all this wealth by a brightly burnished vista of unrealities! On one side of the street this splendid bazaar, with a multitude of perfumed and glossy salesmen, smirking, smiling, bowing, and measuring out the goods.” (“The First Customer”)
          It’s starting to sound a bit like Dickens with that extended string of present participles. Ironic that in this admittedly unreal novel Hawthorne is branding the department stores of the early 19th century as “unreal.” The mom & pop stores always had a difficult time. Today polyconglomerates like Walmart are bestowing the final deathblow.
          Let’s go to a parade. So many novels have had parade sequences in them, perhaps circus parades, mummers parades, Easter parades, etc. Hawthorne’s parade is not a gaudy one. It is for elders with idle time; it brings life to them when they can’t actively pursue it. From “An Arched Window” a man can view over the course of a day: a horse cab, omnibus, water-cart, butcher’s cart, fish-cart, a cart of vegetables, baker’s cart, scissor-grinder, barrel-organ with monkey.
          Now comes what we today consider a more typical parade, a political procession “with hundreds of flaunting banners and drums, fifes, clarions, and cymbals, reverberating between the rows of buildings, marched all through town,  and trailed its length of trampling footsteps, and most infrequent uproar . . .He can distinguish the tedious commonplace of each man’s visage, with the perspiration  and weary self-importance on it, and the very cut of his pantaloons, and the stiffness or laxity of his shirt-collar, and the dust on the back of his black coat.”
          Fortunately there is no sound amplification to send those with sensitive ears scurrying. However, in another decade (Hawthorne was to die in 1860 prematurely at age sixty) there would be veterans’ parades of Civil War combatants as the years rolled on; those participants eventually dwindled so that Southerners and Northerners commingled and marched in a more brotherly manner together.
          Since various trades and professions have been mentioned, let us investigate what jobs were open to a 19th century man. Of course, a woman was almost exclusively relegated to the home. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance if a man from a family of position was fortunate enough to be the oldest son, he would inherit the entire estate, becoming essentially a gentleman farmer. A younger brother—short of begging some property or financial settlement from his oldest brother—could enter the military (the cavalry was often a dashing choice) or enter the clergy. As time went on, becoming an attorney was also a gentleman’s option.
          The young man in our novel was flexible and daring for those times. Since America was still on the frontier in the 19th century, perhaps this was not so unusual in comparison with Europeans in a more rigidified society. Although Holgrave was just twenty-two, here are some of the positions he had already held with a limited amount of education but with keen intelligence and excess energy: schoolmaster, salesman in a store, newspaper editor, itinerant pedlar of perfumes, a dentist, hand aboard a packet-ship, member of a Fourierist community, lecturer on hypnotism, and presently in the novel a photographer, thus the chapter title “The Daguerreotypist.”
          These jobs had enabled him to travel not only throughout New England and the Middle Atlantic states but to France, Italy and Germany. Many younger people today get varied experience by working in summer jobs. As college tuitions soar, they are forced to think of many more creative ways to make a living. The future dictates that a worker of any age—up to his or her retirement—will change positions every four or five years in the natural course of an adult working life. Holgrave was ahead of the curve.
          In this novel we can even look at a man who has made it to the top; perhaps in a questionably ethical manner. This is naturally the villain of our piece, Jaffrey Pyncheon. What does a wealthy man’s day consist of? Visit an insurance office or bank directors’ meeting, meet a State Street broker, attend a real estate auction, buy a horse (today read that as a car), sit on the board of a charitable society, consult a family physician and ironically purchase a new tombstone for the long deceased wife.   Did Michael Milken or Bernie Madoff also do things like this recently?
          But truly his major goal is to meet with a political committee where the possibility is strong that Judge Pyncheon could be nominated to become “Governor Pyncheon.” ”Five-and-twenty years for the enjoyment of his real estate in town and country, his railroad, bank, and insurance shares, his United States stock—his wealth, in short, however invested, now in possession, or soon to be acquired; together with the public honors that have fallen upon him, and the weightier ones that are yet to fall! It is good! It is excellent! It is enough!” But for a greedy, immoral man it is never enough.
          Amid this Romance’s shadowy settings, complications of a half-dozen characters, and strokes of the Gothic, in one of the culminating chapters, “The Flight of Two Owls,” many controversial topics contemporaneous to Hawthorne’s time are raised. He posits through a character that perhaps we live too much by routine and rote: “The soul needs air; a wide sweep and frequent change of it. Morbid influences, in a thousand-fold variety, gather about hearths, and pollute the life of house-holds. There is no such unwholesome atmosphere as that of an old house, rendered poisonous by one’s defunct forefathers and relatives.”
          In its most positive light our two major characters consider a train:  “It was novelty enough, indeed, that there were fifty human beings in close relation with them, under one long and narrow roof and drawn onward by the same mighty influence that had taken their two selves into its grasp. It seemed marvelous how all these people could remain so quietly in their seats, while so much noisy strength was at work in their behalf . . . sleep; sport; business; graver or lighter study; and the common and inevitable movement onward! It was life itself!”
          Hypnotism has its merits in that it might reveal things not known in conscious life. Electricity can transform all of us in ways not yet understood. Hawthorne feels that the telegraph by making the world so much smaller can also limit man’s privacy. What would he think of computer chips implanted in our brains!
          In 1854, three years after The House of the Seven Gables, H. D. Thoreau from an opposite direction but not less critical, wrote in Walden about the vapidity of the telegraph: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing to communicate.” About trains he was even more cynical: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man!” And perhaps we rue the fact that when trains were largely discontinued in the mid-twentieth century, the ties were pulled up. Critics now say that we should have developed rail service rather than encourage autos with their concomitant pollution of gasoline.
          As a coda since Dickens was mentioned earlier in this writing, let us examine Dr. Manette from A Tale of Two Cities (1859). The poor old man served fifteen years in the Bastille, unjustly sentenced by evildoers.  When he emerges, he is barely a shell of a man but slowly heals physically and emotionally. Nearly a decade before Dickens’ novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne had Clifford Pyncheon leave a prison term of thirty years perpetrated by our villain, cousin Jaffrey Pyncheon.  He, too, so close to insanity and death, slowly recovers due to those who love him. Hawthorne was ahead of his time in many ways, as well as ahead of the other major authors of his era.
          Hawthorne’s explanation of Romance, the style in which he wrote The House of the Seven Gables, is full of words which create a certain mood: “bygone, flitting, legend, gray, distance, mist, float, picturesque.” And yet, in a book he suggests far removed from the reality of the day, he has provided for us a very realistic look at major elements that define the society of his time, indeed, a civilization for our 21st century.
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You can find a copy here: https://www.amazon.com/House-Seven-Gables-Thrift-Editions/dp/0486408825

Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI

The Gospel of Barbecue by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers

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Review by Stephen Page

Arriving late in the evening at the ranch house my collie greets me and I give him some raw meat I had brought with me.  I eat a sandwich and drink a glass of milk and go to bed with Honorée Jeffers’ The Gospel of Barbeque (a gift from Ed Ochester), a collection of poems mostly from southern black women points of view.  Each poem is from a different narrator, yet each is written in the first person.  Unique and imbued with ethos, the collection takes the reader into the souls of the repressed to look out upon the world with hope and tenacity.  Jeffers’ voice and style are exemplary. I read it several times and fall asleep around four in the morning.  I wake up early to the sound of rain tapping on the corrugated roof of my office (we have been in a dry spell).  I open a window so I can smell it, then sip a coffee at my desk while I journal and make a list of things to that day—edit a poem, edit the cover letter, meet the employees, walk about the ranch a bit and check on the state of the fattening calves and inspect the new water tank in lot eight.  I sit back and smile, and think how lucky I am to have this life.  Lucky, lucky, lucky.  Oh, did I tell you I read Gerald Stern last month?

You can find the book here: http://www.kentstateuniversitypress.com/2010/the-gospel-of-barbecue/

Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/