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Friday, October 24, 2014

Advance review by Bookreporter.com
By John Michael Cummings
Stephen F. Austin State University Press

Families: they love us, they hate us, they confuse us, they support us, they believe in us, they hurt us, they forgive us, they never forget our mistakes …

It’s no good picking and choosing which of the above (in what could be an interminably long list) best applies to your particular family, or mine, because today’s assumption will become tomorrow’s irrelevance.

As author John Michael Cummings shows with such poignant and searing skill in DON’T FORGET ME, BRO families contain all of it. There’s simply no tidy, predictable emotional or dynamic boundary to draw around these most primal of human units. Even those who don’t know their biological families have collective relationships that daily test their autonomy, individuality, self-worth and dreams.

Cummings, who’s spent more than three decades writing about human beings, mainly of the everyday American persuasion, excels in uncovering those beneath-the-skin familial stories that realistically probe uncomfortable, often invisible, areas of life. And even in our current decade of sociological transparency, perhaps nothing is more resistant to illumination in this context than mental illness.

As a broad collection of chemical, biological and/or psychiatric disorders of the brain, it eludes clear-cut treatments and solutions as successfully as families elude pat definitions of who and what they are. When families and their perceptions of mental illness collide, as happens with such gritty persistence in DON’T FORGET ME, BRO all the discomfort of relationships, normal and otherwise, comes to the fore.

Returning home to West Virginia to deal with the premature death of his older brother Steve, long diagnosed as schizophrenic, Mark Barr carries plenty of his own emotional and psychological baggage, including a deep-seated distaste for a father he remembers as abusive, a mother who seems a passive bystander to life, and a middle brother who comes across as just plain weird. With a number of failed relationships on record – including the one that’s falling apart even as he sets out from New York – he’s not so sure about his own mental health either.

“Going back home” stories are often based on narrow cliché-filled themes that focus on a single character or experience. Like series TV shows, they are easier to control and wrap up in a satisfying sentimental or tragic package at the end.

Fortunately, DON’T FORGET ME, BRO isn’t one of them. It’s a gripping emotional and literary journey that hits just about every pothole one can expect to find on life’s road; that part is engaging and sometimes oddly familiar. And when Cummings throws in a few unexpected left turns, thanks to his character’s unpredictable relatives and colleagues, there are moments of surprise and difference to ponder as well. That skilfully managed dichotomy in itself sets this author apart, drawing the reader into places that challenge assumption and attitude.

At the outset, Mark does think this back-home story is all about him, but he’s not driven by ego or self-absorption as much as by fear, worry and chronic indecision.  His own identity, perhaps even his future, are on the line.

But as he blunders into memories, people, and artifacts from the chaotic mosaic of his dead brother’s life he rediscovers who Steve really was. In spite of himself he grows into a kind of belated and bewildered stewardship over his brother’s cremated remains, which become a catalyst for revealing ever-deeper layers of family stories he never really knew.

Haunted by the last words he heard Steve utter – “Don’t forget me, bro” – Mark realizes that at the heart of every human existence is the fear of being forgotten, of simply disappearing into cosmic anonymity. After all, even families that can’t stand each other tenaciously remember their own.

With the unexpected complicity of his equally dysfunctional remaining brother, Mark hangs around his hometown, stumbling upon ways to build better memories than the ones he’d fled more than a decade earlier when he went to New York seeking success.

The Barr family changes a little, just enough for its surviving members to actually remain civilly in the same room together. That’s about it. Cummings doesn’t make their story television-comfortable, nor does he eliminate the heavy reality of an uncertain future.

Set against the larger contexts of contemporary economic depression, social despair, fear of the known and unknown, as well as multiple shades of guilt, remorse and anger, in the end DON’T FORGET ME, BRO can only exhale in a long sigh of acceptance.

Cummings adeptly leaves the reader suspended in that fragile moment before the next breath must be taken, yet strangely satisfied that compassion and justice have been attained. DON’T FORGET ME, BRO is a rare thing, a brilliant addition to a theme in which so many other novels under-achieve.

– reviewed by Pauline Finch, Bookreporter.com

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Aesthetic Virtues of an Old-fashioned Sit-Down Meeting

When I had a chance to sit down with my first book editor in New York, it was an era-turning moment. We actually met at her home in Rye, New York, a big rambling Victorian on a hill overlooking the Hudson River.  By email I already understood her edits, but in person I would quickly understand more.

Her aesthetics.

Not so much through her margin comments, but through her house—the style of art on her walls, her furniture, the landscaping. Before the visit was over, I felt my book was now in two hands, hers and mine, and in many ways I now knew the nuances of language she liked because I knew her on another level.

I had a similar experience last week here at UCF. I sat down with my thesis director and, again, although I quickly understood her margin comments, there was a greater understanding awaiting me. I got a chance to see her office as if for the time—the high shelves jammed with books, her various writing projects stacked here and there. I also got a chance to chat informally with her—we shared a laugh over the laughably small computers being made today.

Then we got to work.

“Avoid the minutia of perceiving,” one of her margin comments read. “Give me the concrete details.”

She didn’t need to explain. Or did she?

“I already know it’s you,” she said. “It’s first person. Just”—she churned her hands in the air—“just give it to me without stage directions.”

I sat nodding, thinking.

For the longest time, I likened first person to having a big TV camera mounted on my shoulder, continually telling the reader, in some clever way, “Now I'm looking here, now I’m looking there.” Never did I stop and think—hey, they already know.

I left my thesis director’s office feeling a great burden off my shoulder—that heavy camera I had hoisted up all these years.  I was also happy to know her a little better.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Poetry and Prose

Don’t think for a second that poetry and prose are different animals. The first is a Russian Blue, the second an orange tabby. One likes Fancy Feast, the other Purina. One steps cleanly out the litter box, the other kicks her way out. Both, though, purr.

The best prose has poetic darlings in it, like phrases that repeat, that echo, that lead us forward like bread crumbs. Then, stop. Outside the window of the halted sentence lies a winterscape of fields snowdrifted so as to look like lemon meringue pie. All the world is silent, except for a tiny cry of wind through a crack in the glass.

The beauty and intensity of writing comes from its magnified, color-dripping images to its feelings that escape the page like a genie. In these moments, the beautiful, the imaginative, the elevated—all descend from the sky on white wings of thought to land on the solid roofline we call the paragraph.


Unit of discourse.

Topic sentence, supporting sentences:




active, rhythmic ~ Adidas Bounce Shoes


Daybreak brought an explosion of light and warmth to our eight-window row house apartment in Brooklyn, which Lisa called our "treehouse apartment." The exposed-brick wall in our living room was glowing ember-red; the refinished floor around our bed was shining honey-golden; and the high white ceiling was beaming with church-like radiance. Long gone were the piano keys of brake lights that had played across the ceiling at night, and in their place shone a brilliant lattice of sunlight, around which hung a kooky mobile of intense silhouettes--a triangle with a sawed-off corner, a crescent with a crisp, dark hole shot through it, and a wild-looking parallelogram bursting straight down to the floor in a platinum-white solar flare. One thing was for sure. Demons that had romped in the dark last night would be photosensitive now…

Monday, July 4, 2011

Celebrating Calibri

It happened by accident. My computer threw a highlight over my entire essay and, in a flash, changed the font. I sat staring at the new typeface, bleak, no nonsense—looked like what a cowboy would hunt and peck with. The letters are sticklike, smoothly rounded, no serifs, nothing fancy, just desolate and hammered-down simple.

The Calibri font, pictured above.

For years I had been using Times Roman. It was and still is, I think, the preferred font. I wrote and published close to a hundred stories using it. I toiled through my first novel with it, too. Add to that attempts at other novels and ten thousand emails—all Times Roman. So when my computer sneezed, I was ready for a change, a change that complemented another one in me.

For years my writing had also been thinning out, becoming sparer and sparer. The high grass of jabbered-out phrases was now all but a barren dirt earth of truth. The farm on my emotional real estate is, I like to imagine, Lovesome Dove herself. Today I sit in stick furniture, feeling austere, Calibri now at my fingertips, like my hound dog on my dry, dusty, unpainted porch.

Termed a “Humanist” typeface and also called “Venetian,” Calibri is from a family of fonts from the 15th century, regarded as the unpretentious typeface of Italian humanist writers like Guillaume Budé, to name one. This is all interesting, but I’ll take just the word “humanist” to heart as I write my way forward.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Exploring Therapy in Writing

“What do you write?” That’s the automatic first question I get asked.

“How my childhood should have been.” That’s the automatic answer I wish I could give, instead of the safe, literal one—stories, novels.

My, um, counselor is intrigued and, I suspect, pleased by my first-choice answer. You see, by profession, I’m also doing his thinking homework for me.

“Righting past wrongs?” he asks.

When I give a nod, I get a battery of Freudian-based questions:

• How does writing about my past help me understand the
   unconditional love I missed?

• How does it help me see that as a child I blamed himself for
   my parents' unhappiness?

• Does the hero of my stories always reach a rainbow end,
   happy, strong, and complete inside?

My answers are mixed and difficult to decipher. Results are questionable.

So why don’t I just leave my past alone? Why risk dwelling there in the construction of sentences and paragraphs that bring to life another version of it? What matters is the here and now. After all, so many of my counterparts have moved on from their pasts years ago, never to give it another thought.

Or have they?

Psychologically speaking, there are, my counselor assures me, innumerable adults who are just wounded children. They recycle through relationship after relationship, suffocating one another in “enmeshed boundaries.” They lean on each other like a crutch, only to hate each other because they can’t use their own two legs.

Becoming aware of the reasons behind our feelings and actions that lead to our weaknesses and ruin is like getting a psychological CAT scan. We discover the maladies in our thinking, and awareness, as they say, is half the battle. We can then make conscious decisions to break unhealthy patterns.

Writing stories that right past wrongs is not the same as reading daily affirmations or filling out mood charts, but it does force us to face our past, examine it, and decide, in the here and now, how to redeem ourselves and our villains.

We write about what we care about, and we care about what hurts us.

Keep writing!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Inspired by Thunder and Torrent

It was a eureka moment this weekend (aren’t those moments the best?) when the hurricane-like storm threw its shoulders against the glass sides of the UCF Wellness Center, sending thunder and torrent down to the ground, and standing there with puny dumbbells in my hands, I thought to myself—“Whoa, if only I could write like that!”

The monstrous black legs of clouds marched into the building of glass, kneeing it over and over, sending the facility into “lockdown.” Huddled in the gym with a hundred other grumbling exercisers, I thought—I could take a lesson from the skies.

The active voice of storms can be inspiring. How many of our sentences read like tranquil blue spheres, not a cloud of tension in them. But how to achieve the flash and sizzle of lightning, the rumble and roar of thunder? Active voice alone is not enough. It’s the choice of words. It’s the feeling behind the writer.

What was this storm feeling? What was it saying to Mother Earth? It sure wasn’t asking for my forgiveness as it pounded its mega-ton boots against the earth, swung its colossal fists against at the windows, hissed and ground out deep, throating-bleed howls, all while chewing at the sky as if to mutilate its own face. It was an awesome hulk of energy.

What a rant against tranquility it wrote.

Monday, June 13, 2011

How Rick Springfield Is Writing My Novel

I missed the 58-year-old pop rocker’s free concert at the Orlando Amway Center yesterday. (My friend and I opted for a picnic in Cranes Roost Park instead.) But for days I had been eagerly awaiting seeing Springfield, even clinging to the expectation, more and more amazed and even amused by my building excitement to see an ’80s pop music singer who, in my hard rock youth, I scoffed at.

Growing up in West Virginia, it was all things Molly Hatchet and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The louder, the meaner, the better.  I'm talking dashboard-banging music like ACDC. Rick Springfield’s stuff was girly, sissy music, like the Bee Gees. He is an ex “General Hospital” pretty boy, for crying out loud!

More than that, Springfield was the unfortunate “spring” in the rising star collision of Rick Springfield and Bruce Springsteen. In the early ’80s, Springsteen, a name people were hearing more and more, rose up beside Springfield on the pop charts, and apparently the public got the two confused. Springfield was known to have publically said, with frustration, “Don’t call me Bruce!” Or “Don’t call me ‘The Boss’!” Springsteen’s trade handle. That, it seemed, did him in. He as much admitted being upstaged by his “spring” rival. Full attention turned to Springsteen who, as we all know, went on to become rock’s global icon.

Meanwhile, my life went on, and I found myself writing. The road to a writer’s voice is a thousand miles long, and I had to walk mine step after step. Book after book was rejected. Solitude withered me away. Little events, like an unexpected chat in the line at the grocery store, became greatly appreciated. Halfway through the second decade of my literary pursuits, the cocky stride of my youth was long gone. I would never bang a dashboard again.

Here in Florida, when my friend called the other day to suggest the Rick Springfield concert, I found my eyes brightening. “Well, okay, if it’s free.” It was another of those unexpected gifts I was grateful for, like the chat in the grocery store line, a reminder of my gratitude for the small things.

My new novel is filled with these Rick Springfield moments. Scenes I think I cannot write, people I think I cannot create, I manage to, and they arrive on the page with purpose and by design. So when I say Rick Springfield is writing my novel, I’m saying that the older I get, the more often irony reaches around my life, taps me on the shoulder, and says, “Surprise!”

On this morning, the huffy kid who used to sneer and grunt Judas Priest lines is instead humming the catchy light lyrics of sweet Rick’s big hit “Jessie’s Girl.” Strangely enough, I am also reminded of a John Wayne western in which one of his saddle companions says, “There's times I’ve drunk water from a muddy hoof print and been glad of it.”