Spencer Stephens

Author of 'Church of Golf.' Also a student of nearly everything.

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Book Review. “Crowsong for the Stricken,” by Ted Morrissey. Twelve Winters Press, 2017.

crowsong.tiny  Book Review. “Crowsong for the Stricken,” by Ted Morrissey. Twelve Winters Press, 2017.In a long-ago American village, an ordinary place settled by people with ordinary names like Patterson and Abernathy, spirits occupied unlit corners of dank basements. Some of them trolled for sex. They picked out village daughters whose extreme niceness grew from fear of rejection. Slithering past intact hymen, the spirits entered the girls. They secretly impregnated them. They talked in false confidence with select villagers and conspired to divide friends. Some, they followed at a distance. They whispered, were heard by strangers and inspired fear, then turned dramatic; they allowed themselves to be felt and seen for moments at a time. Thence came a marbled, Frankenstinian dread.

So it is that Ted Morrissey, in his new book, embeds us in a community of Germanic Midwesterners,  a group that is function-oriented, studious and politely Christian. These are people who would covet a set of nice tools and then hope no one found out. If faced with the unexplainable or the upsetting, they would seek counsel from Pastor Anthony. The earliest generation of villagers Mr. Morrissey reveals has a nearly mindless reverence for their town’s rules on how and when to quarantine Plague families in their homes. The town fathers commonly torched the homes of Plague victims, bodies sealed inside. Morrissey traces the thoughts of those who think they’ve seen ghostly movements in windows before houses were consumed by flame. Did some get burned who weren’t yet dead?

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Book Review. “The Loyal: The Story of Atwood and the Second Civil War,” by Christopher Wilde. The Bend Publishing Company, 2017. 

the.loyal .cover .2nd Book Review. The Loyal: The Story of Atwood and the Second Civil War, by Christopher Wilde. The Bend Publishing Company, 2017. One can speculate about charismatic extremists who might thrive in the shadow of a hateful president, a man greedy for control of an entire country. Christopher Wilde has done so in his new novella, a provocative read that is absorbing, realistic and deeply frightening.

Wilde’s book documents the rise of a revolutionary hero and an actuarial genius named Atwood, a woman focused on how much she can control. Atwood is the sexy blond wizard at the tip of a lethal spear and at the head of a nationwide movement of millennials. She blames baby boomers for bringing children into a world of want and sucking the life from them to sustain themselves. Atwood claims that boomers selfishly control the wealth, the jobs, the health care system and the government. Narcissistic to the core, boomers elected the worst of their own as president, a man who promised to safeguard the boomers’ dominance. The world contains every part of young adults’ birthright, but the boomers refuse to release it until their deaths. So, she declares war.

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Book Review. ‘Manhattan Beach,’ by Jennifer Egan. Scribner, 2017.

manhattan.beach .cover .2nd Book Review. Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan. Scribner, 2017.There are many windows into our past. Few offer a view that is as detailed, as accurate or as absorbing as ‘Manhattan Beach.’

The protagonist in this lovely piece of historical fiction is a working-class girl of Irish descent, Anna Kerrigan. She is freakishly unlucky but stalwart, living in Depression-era New York City. The names of the neighborhoods she frequents are lit on road signs with the flickering, colored lights of gangsterism and industrialism that illuminated Gotham during the Roosevelt years. Most will have heard of Anna’s neighborhoods and will recognize the connotations that go with the names. These are the places around Sheepshead Bay where the Navy built battleships, where Syndicate underbosses ran jazz clubs and gambling parlors, where prostitutes and loan sharks were always at one’s elbow. This is the place and the time into which mobster John Gotti was born.

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Book Review. “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” by Jesmyn Ward. Scribner, 2017.

s l140 Book Review. “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” by Jesmyn Ward. Scribner, 2017.Some lives get so ugly and hopeless that, even to an outsider, crystal meth and murder look perfectly sensible. That’s one of several Faulknerian themes baked into this thin, memorable novel.

The family at the heart of this story is impossibly poor and seemingly stuck in the red mud of Mississippi’s gulf coast. It never gets any better. The dear and the innocent are slain and their ghosts haunt. The desperate and unwary have babies with men who their parents know are suited only for life in prison. And the children, the simple ones who are slapped down when they speak of severe hunger, they study the scenes. They try to guess which path might permit their survival. You might find yourself recognizing advantages you didn’t know you had.

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Book Review. “My Absolute Darling,” by Gabriel Tallent. Riverhead Books, 2017.

 Book Review. My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent. Riverhead Books, 2017.One hundred pages into ‘My Absolute Darling,’ it was already the best book I’ve read this year. Like many others, I picked up this first-time novelist’s work only because Stephen King called it a masterpiece. Mr. King admitted feeling green because (his words) he could never have written anything so good. The book is a masterpiece: You will marvel at the writer’s gift for making you eagerly turn pages so that you can keep up with a story rooted in the disgusting.

This is a human horror story. It is about a fourteen-year-old girl who learns to cope with her sexually and physically abusive father. The book’s beauty and substance come from the writer’s presentation of people, places and emotions. His descriptions compel a deliberate pace so that you don’t dare miss Mr. Tallent’s blue-black narrative of a horrific man doing horrific things, of a girl torn between loyalty and hate.

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Book Review. ‘Born to Run,’ by Bruce Springsteen. Simon & Schuster, 2016.

springsteen.cover  200x300 Book Review. ‘Born to Run,’ by Bruce Springsteen. Simon & Schuster, 2016.There are two big things about Bruce I took from his accessible, cozy autobiography. The first: The Boss is a businessman. He’s all about the contracts, the rights, the residuals. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Given what Bruce admits, the label sticks. He is the bandleader. Always. Everybody else is an employee; their work and compensation are defined by written contracts. Bruce and his manager dictated all the thousands of things that made up a Springsteen tour: dates and locations, the players, the rehearsal schedule, transportation, hotels, meals. The songs are his. The set list is his. The profits? His. He tells of one band member (Mr. Springsteen is discreet and doesn’t identify him) who, mid-tour, demanded a raise. Bruce asked for proof there was one comparable musician who made more. End of conversation.

Bruce doesn’t say what he pays his band but leaves the impression he is no Scrooge. He seems to care deeply about the people who work for him. Many have been friends since before the day when his mother paid for his first guitar. For those who are no longer his employees, friendships remain. Bruce successfully mixes business and personal relationships as very few have (and as very few should dare try).

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Bibliophiles Get a Little Rowdy

If you’ve written a book, the day will probably come when you attend a book festival, full of hope and glory, dragging along a box full of copies.  Like dozens of other aspiring authors, you figure you’ll come home in a few hours with a few sales to brag about. It turns out that you’re more likely to come home with some stories and a few new friends.

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Words of Greater Weight

If your mama says you look nice in your new suit you say ‘thanks’ and keep on going. You both know it’s a mama’s job to say such things. When the CEO of your biggest client stops you in the hall and says ‘Hey, that’s a really nice suit. Where’d you get it?’ you know that you’ve received a sincere compliment worth feeling good about.

Yes, some words carry greater weight than others.

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An Absence of Criticism

When you’re young enough to be wagging your tail because a boss or a teacher offers you praise, criticism is not always expected and can be hard to receive. Most of us have seen someone young and vulnerable get turned inside out because they worked hard on something and then somebody announced that it sucked.

On the other hand, if you’re old enough to have had a gastroenterologist sedate you so he could take color pictures of your entrails, you have probably learned one of life’s most important lessons: honest criticism is a good thing. If you believe in bettering yourself, you count on good people to be direct with you about your special brand of ineptitude.

Since ‘Church of Golf’ became available in late October, I’ve been ready for criticism. A guy can’t expect his first novel to be a perfect work of art any more than a four-year-old armed with a box of Crayolas could expect a commission for a Presidential portrait.  So far, though, all the reviews have been uniformly positive. People seem to really like this book. I could not be more pleased or more surprised.

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Kind Words

A few kind words or deeds can take you farther than a whole tank of gas.

A golf writer named Jeff Shelly, writing at Cybergolf.com (a blog produced in partnership with CBS Sports), recently described ‘Church of Golf’ as ‘an entertaining yarn’ and ‘a fun read.’ In the process, he made my day.

cybergolf.com

The editors at golf-fiction.com posted an excerpt of ‘Church of Golf’ after a review of the book to ensure it met their standards. It’s a nice sample of the book that anyone can read.

golf-fiction.com

A book fan from Croatia, Denis Vukosav, a ‘Top 100 Reviewer’ on Amazon.com posted a glowing review just a day ago. Denis works with a charitable organization in Croatia that promotes literacy and reading and that features wonderful information about Croatian writers on its website. I know they would be happy for any donations you might care to make.

citajme.com

Finally, my lovely sister-in-law, Susan, has convinced the members of her book club in Charles County, Maryland, to read ‘Church of Golf’ and to discuss it at an upcoming meeting. Thank you, dear.

More to come soon, no doubt.

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