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James Reese & the Harlem Hellfighters

James Reese Europe & the Hellfighters

(Alas, I’m having trouble sourcing this video! The narrator is a famed Black actor and I cannot remember his name. My apologies.)

During WWI, the United States had no idea what to do with an entire National Guard Regiment of Black soldiers from Harlem, so they loaned them to the French. The Harlem Hellfighters were born.

Eventually becoming the 369th Regiment, the Hellfighters not only served as the most decorated U.S. regiment in WWI, but introduced early jazz to the French. The regiment band, led by seminal jazz influence James Reese Europe, played a swinging version of the French anthem, the “Marseillaise,” that set Paris on fire.

James Reese Europe of the Harlem Hellfighters
James Reese Europe

James Reese Europe was a classically trained violinist but played brothels and saloons when white people refused to accept him. In 1910, he started an exclusive club for Black musicians called the Clef Club, which boasted of being able to get together an orchestra of up to 30 men at any time of day or night, and which played at Carnegie Hall.

Europe joined the regiment as a machine gun regiment lieutenant but later became a sergeant in the regiment band. French officials asked for the musical arrangement of “Marseillaise” but French groups were unable to reproduce the swinging sound. The Hellfighter musicians were accused of doctoring their instruments!

Europe later left the regiment band to return to his post with the machine gun regiment, and became the first Black officer to lead Black troops into combat, as part of the 1918 Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The Harlem Hellfighters suffered some of the worst casualties of an American regiment during the war. James Reese Europe was gassed; he wrote his most famous song, “On Patrol in No Man’s Land” while recuperating.

Overall, the Harlem Hellfighters spent 191 days at the front, more than any other American troops.

On their return to America in 1919, the Hellfighters and their band were recognized with huge parades, and Europe had plans to start a symphony orchestra. Unfortunately, he was knifed to death by his own jealous drummer during the intermission of a performance at Mechanic’s Hall in Boston, and died before his time. He was granted the first ever public funeral of a Black man in New York.

I’m supposed to be researching spies in WWII for an upcoming class…but instead I ran into a documentary about Black Americans in Paris in the 1920s, “Paris Noire,” and have been running down associated rabbit holes ever since. I still haven’t finished the documentary because I keep getting sidetracked. The 1920s period fascinates me; I suppose I will always find periods that were shiny and glittery but rife with corruption/chaos/change attractive. (I’m also obsessed with the Napoleonic period and the Victorians, too; I highly recommend The Invention of Murder for a “light” read on Victorian attitudes about sensational death.)

James Reese Europe struck me as a talented guy who got the job done no matter what he was doing, and, not to be disrespectful but I have to say this, was hot as hell.

I don’t have any fiction in mind featuring or inspired by James Reese Europe yet! But please check out my collection of 1920s short stories about con artists and other deceivers, A Shrewdness of Swindlers: Ten Tales of the Fantastic and Falsehood in the Fabulous Roaring Twenties.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/369th_Infantry_Regiment_(United_States)
Texting While Driving - Image of Shattered Glass

New Release, Short Horror Story: Texting While Driving

I have a new horror short story out! It was originally published in my newsletter as part of a “How to Write a Short Horror Story” article, which is now posted on my other blog, Writing Craft.


Driving halfway across the country, somewhere north of New Orleans, bored, radio dead, and your passenger asleep.

The phone buzzes with a new text message.

Escaping a bad marriage is difficult. If you want to make it out in one piece, you have to plan everything down to the last detail, and you have to do everything perfectly right.

But nothing ever goes according to plan.

What if the reason that things don’t go according to plan is you?

You know you shouldn’t check your phone while you’re driving.

But sometimes you do.

Check your status now with this dark tale of biological horror!


What do you call it when you’re lost and panicking and you feel like you can’t stop, not to ask for directions, not to get gas, not even to pull over on the side of the road and look at a map? What do you call it when you seriously catch yourself thinking “Maybe I should just text someone” while driving?

I don’t know, but I did know I was on a road somewhere in Louisiana with New Orleans somewhere ahead of me. Or behind me. I had the GPS turned on but it hadn’t said anything for the last thirty miles on a stretch of road that seemed much longer, like it had been going on for hours. I kept checking the gas gauge in between quick glances around at the scenery around me.

The road was narrow, without a shoulder, and dropped off rapidly into a steep ditch full of water. The road was patched, rough, full of potholes that made me swerve into the oncoming lane. God help me if I had to swerve at the same time a car was driving in the other direction. Most of the drive, I had been surrounded by thick woods that crowded up to the edge of the ditch, but there were small boxy houses, too, wrapped in rotting porches and cut out of the trees, their shaded front yards stuffed with rusty cars that had no tires, their window glass speckled with dirt.

Now and then an open field would pop out of nowhere, big and green, full of plants I didn’t recognize and bright in the sunlight—sunlight that vanished as soon as the woods closed around us again.

My daughter, nineteen, was asleep in the seat next to me. In the back were two air mattresses, a box full of tools, two suitcases stuffed full of tightly-rolled clothes, a ukulele, a few stuffed animals, and more, as much as I could pack inside the car, with just enough room at the top to see out the back window.

The radio had gone dead shortly after my daughter had fallen asleep. All that I could get on the FM band was static and half-heard mumbling, and I wasn’t about to listen to any AM stations. Trying to find music had given me a headache. I had turned it off.

My phone, sitting in the tray under the radio, buzzed.

I grabbed the phone, cursing myself for not getting a dashboard clip or something, and saw that someone had just texted me. I put the phone back in the tray. At least whoever it was hadn’t called. Was it my ex? I hoped not. What I was doing wasn’t illegal, but it felt that way, like any second I’d get pulled over and arrested for leaving, dragged back and made to stay. Whoever had just texted me, I didn’t want to know.

It was quiet out there. I felt abandoned and alone. And bored. I would have pulled over somewhere but there were only driveways leading straight to houses and small gravel roads leading deep into the woods. It was dumb but I couldn’t make myself pull off onto those small stubby roads. I couldn’t help but feel like I’d get stuck, trapped.

Five miles later, bored and paranoid, I powered up the phone screen to look.

I propped up the phone on my steering wheel and thumbed in the password, looking up at the road in between characters.

I unlocked the phone and brought up my text messages.

I shouldn’t have looked.


The Angel of Crows cover

Review: The Angel of Crows by Katherine Addison

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Sherlock is an angel, not fallen, definitely not fallen, in a London where a wide variety of supernatural elements exist.

The Angel of Crows is a collection of intertwined episodes, which is similar to a collection of short stories, yet structured more like a series of the TV show Sherlock with a main plot-of-the-week but with some overarching story threads that build to the end of the book, or season, as it were. This is Sherlock (the TV show) fanfic, admitedly so.

Writing alternate versions of Sherlock Holmes has a fairly long tradition; I tend to like them. I don’t read a lot of fanfic per se, though, mostly because I feel getting into fanfic might be a little dangerous for me. When I was younger, I constantly reread books. These days I have a lot of new things I want to read and don’t want to get set on an infinite spin cycle of Sherlock Holmes or other favorite fiction.

At any rate, I was curious as to how this book would play out. I’ve read another book by this author under her Sarah Monette name and liked it.

There seem to be plusses and minuses to this particular approach to these ideas. (Whether this is consistent across all fanfic, well, probably not.)

Plusses:
– Familiar characters.
– The drama is focused on the plots, not the two main characters (Crow and Doyle–the “Sherlock” and “Watson” characters, that is–get along well and even treat each other with consistent kindness).
– Plot twists that wouldn’t have been acceptable on TV were fine here.

Minuses:
– The plots got tired, mainly rehashes of Sherlock Holmes plots, and got shorter and less interesting as the book went on.
– There were logical inconsistencies between the Angels being so limited and the Fallen being so powerful; how does any sort of stable society exist?
– It feels like this is really a Neverwhere-meets-Sherlock fanfic and there is a second set of rules about the world that’s not handled openly.
– The worldbuilding wasn’t organic with everything else; something like Anno Dracula by Kim Newman or A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullen has an overall vision for the world that comes to life.
– Some of the plots didn’t pay off, as in, the plot was wrapped up almost as an aside and in the middle of what should have been a smaller, less important plot! One of the big plot twists was completely obvious, if you knew Sherlock Holmes at all. And in a world that has been designed to give readers what they want, there were definitely plot threads where the satisfying choices didn’t happen.

How I experienced this was:
– I gulped down the book like a long cool drink of water.
– But afterwards I didn’t feel really refreshed, and if there had been more of it, I would still have been gulping for more.

This book was good and fun! Don’t get me wrong. But overall it tells me that fanfic as such may not be for me. Books like this one, where the author has put fanfic out into the wider world, should be fine overall, but may not be something I seek out. What made this book work for me was the author’s writing and ability to handle the characters. Reading an author who isn’t as standout as she is would probably leave me disappointed.

So I think I will leave the first-wave reading to fanfic fans, yet not avoid fanfic-that-is-now-a-packaged-book, but not seek it out, either. Other intrepid souls can bring back the cream of the fanfic crop, as it were.

I want stories that feel like the whole thing fits together seamlessly. Sometimes new work that’s built on existing work can do that; often it can’t. The Angel of Crows didn’t quite make the jump to taking on a life of its own as a retelling (which is what I’m looking for) but was quite readable if you’re a fan of Sherlock.

Recommended if you’re a Sherlock fanfic reader or a historical urban fantasy reader in general. A perfectly readable page turner, even though it doesn’t make the leap to quite becoming its own thing.


Read more of my reviews.

Check out MY revisioning/fanfic of Alice in Wonderland (with zombies) and see if I have put my money where my mouth is. Free as of this writing.

Flash Fiction: The Future of Birth Control


It’s the future and technology is being used to force women to have babies they don’t want. But technology works both ways in this flash fiction piece about the future of birth control.


It’s a perfectly normal day when I decide that it’s time to go to the coffee shop down the street and end it. The skies are blue, blue with a slight tinge of purple, blue so clear that it feel like living inside a marble. The cloud overhead is white and as soft as a puff of cotton stuffing. I walk through the iron front gate, which is pulled back during business hours, into the courtyard. I walk past the juice shop to the right—bee pollen, vegan cheese, poblano avocado dressing—to get to the coffee shop. The courtyard is paved with bricks in a basketweave pattern. The umbrellas are open, the mismatched patio tables and chairs set out, but there aren’t many people here yet. It’s four o’clock on a Friday and some goth is humming over the stereo, a mournful tune backed by a drum machine. The rainbow flags are out—we still celebrate Pride month here. Palm leaves rustle and birds chirp and squeak.

Cozi, the owner, is the one at the counter today, only she’s not at the counter. As soon as she saw me come past the gates, she picked up a broom and started sweeping dirt out of the big garage-style doors at the front of the coffee shop and out onto bricks.

“Hey, Danielle. Be right with you.”

She doesn’t ask me anything, and I don’t tell. We both know why I’m there. I won’t be able to order coffee today; it’s bad for the baby.

The baby. It’s not that; it’s barely an embryo.

Cozi sweeps the last of the dirt outside—knowing it’ll blow back in—then puts down the broom. Still ignoring me, she heaves the lid off a trash container, then hefts the biodegradable bag out. It’s almost closing time. The bag makes a sucking sound and she has to shake it to work it loose. The container drops to the floor and she grunts, swinging the bag over the edge of the container. It would be easier if she were taller.

I stand next to the counter, waiting, and look over the pastries that are left: chocolate croissant, leek croissant, gluten-free blueberry muffin. Over the counter is a brittle paper sign that should have long since been recycled.

NO PUBLIC RESTROOMS. BLACK LIVES MATTER.

It’s still relevant. I reach over the counter, steal the key to the bathroom off the hook, and edge past the tables blocking off the back room. I let myself into the bathroom, then sit down to pee. The room smells slightly of bleach. I wipe, then wash my hands using the automatic sink and soap dispenser. The toilet flushes itself.

I pause to take a paper towel, then, squatting a little, correctly position my upper left arm under the old manual soap dispenser. I count to ten.

There’s no sign of whether it works or doesn’t. No noise, no blinking light, no warmth under my skin where the cartridge was implanted.

I come out of the bathroom and reach across the counter to put the key back on its hook. Cozi is nowhere to be seen, but the garage doors are down now, tinted glass darkening the perfect blue skies outside.

Bottles rattle, glass on glass. Cozi comes out from the kitchen, glass syrup bottles interleaved between her fingers. She puts them on the battered wood counter.

“Sorry about the wait! What dd you need today? Maté? Chai?”

“Chai, please.”

Cozi brews her own chai, adds a few things to it from the juice bar next door. They’ve tested all the drinks at both places but have found nothing. They don’t realize that we carry our protection under the skin now. I wonder how long this trick will work. It’s so hard staying one step ahead, these days.

The steamer screams as it heats the nut mylk to near boiling and the air fills with the scent of spices and honey. I pay for the drink with a swipe of my right wrist over the sensor. The sensor beeps and flashes so you know you’ve paid. Earlier last week I received a text message saying that my birth control had been turned off last month; my lottery number had come up and I was already pregnant. The lottery age changed just last week. Birth rates are down again. I’m forty-five.

The sensor registers my stats: blood pressure, hormones, calorie, caffeine, and drug intake, exercises performs, heart rate, the works. The cartridge won’t release its drugs for a couple of weeks to a month, at random. Then I’ll start to bleed.

It doesn’t make me happy, what I’m doing. But I’ve made up my mind and I have no regrets.

The rhetoric goes, “What if the baby you aborted could have cured cancer?”

But what I know for certain is, she won’t be born a slave.

Story notes:

There are basically two types of people who have abortions:

  • People who consented to get pregnant.
  • People who did not consent to get pregnant.

You can sue someone who knowingly gives you an STD, which means you can consent to having sex without consenting to an STD. So why can’t you sue someone who knowingly gets you pregnant?


New Release: A Shrewdness of Swindlers

A Shrewdness of Swindlers

An old world dies during WWI and another rises in the Roaring Twenties: cruel, sharp, glittering. Magic. 10 tales of fantasy in the Jazz age.

A SHREWDNESS OF SWINDLERS

Available at all the finer ebook distributors (and a few scummy ones, too)! (That is, no longer as part of the Storybundle.) Now, with short story notes! It will be 99c for the next 2 weeks, and then go up to full price. Please buy a copy and give me an awkward review about how wonnnnderful (or terrible) it is 😛


Available now at all the finer ebook distributors (and a few scummy ones, too): https://books2read.com/swindlers

Print version still in testing, but coming soon.

The Grandiosity of the Grandhotel Pupp

Grandhotel Pupp 1912
(Above: The Grandhotel Pupp in 1912.)

The history of the Grandhotel Pupp has stretched from the dawn of the eighteenth century all the way to modern times. You can see it in movies symbolizing the epitome of wealth and elegance; it is one of the inspirations for the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. The James Bond movie Casino Royale was filmed there, as was the Queen Latifa movie The Last Holiday. Its current appearance is designed to evoke a sort of worship for excess and status, via a style inherited from the Roman Catholics thumbing their noses at Protestant austerity. It was once a hospital for German officers during World War II, then helped lure tourist dollars into Czechoslovakia during Communist rule. Movie stars flock there in July to attend a famous European film festival. And during the COVID-19 epidemic, it has been forced to close, holding its breath in anticipation of its clientele’s return.

Our story begins under a different name. The earliest part of the hotel began in 1701 as Saxony Hall, built by the mayor of Karlovy Vary, also known as Carlsbad, as part of the Duchy of Bohemia, a part of the Holy Roman Empire (which was formally dissolved in 1806). The Saxony Hall served a ballroom for nobility. Later, in 1708, another mayor build a second hall, the Czech Hall, at right angles to the Saxony Hall, as a competitor for the noblemen’s trade. Descendants of the first mayor’s family built another building at the corner of the two halls in 1730, calling the corner-shaped building “The House of God’s Eye.”

In 1775, a Czech named Jan Ji?í Pop (or Johann Georg Pupp in German), a confectioner by trade, married his employer’s daughter, Františka. With her dowry, she purchased a third of Czech Hall from the widow of the second mayor. All the best people in town being German rather than Czech at the time, the family stopped using the Czech form of Pop‘s name and switched to the German, or Pupp. The Pupps, husband and wife, each bought another third of the hotel by 1778, their success in managing the hall completely overshadowing that of the Saxony Hall next door.

In 1821, there was a flood that ruined the ground floors of both halls; in 1828, a legal dispute meant the Pupp family had to sell Czech Hall to other members of the family; in 1868, Saxony Hall came back into the Pupp family’s hands again, and began buying up all the houses around it, recreating them in 1877 as the Parkhotel, which was so successful that they bought up more property, and built another wing.

In 1890, the Pupp family finally got their hands on the Saxony Hall, with plans to rebuild the entire complex of hotels in a Neo-Baroque style.

The original Baroque style comes from the Seventeenth century, pushed by the Jesuits as a means for the Catholic Church to combat the Reformation and the spread of the Protestant faith, by creating impressive, highly decorated buildings designed to impress a sense of power, wealth, and tradition upon everyone around it, by taking the ideals of Renaissance architecture and exaggerating them: taller, bigger, more heavily decorated, and more dramatic, with a lot of optical illusions, or trompe-l’oil painting, to create the illusion of even more space to create even higher heavens.

The Neo-Baroque style comes from one of the heirs of Napoléon Bonaparte, Emperor Napoléon Bonoparte III, trying to impress upon the French people that an empire was exactly what they wanted—enough of that republic nonsense! One of the main principles of the Neo-Baroque style has been stated as “leave no space undecorated,” and

The style was so effective, architecturally speaking, that it was copied by most of Europe whenever buildings speaking to wealth, power, and tradition were required: government buildings, churches, universities, and…grand hotels.

The rest of Karlovy Vary seemed to follow suit after the Grandhotel Pupp—although the Municipal Theater may have preceded and inspired it—with different types of fanciful, even gaudy, architecture filling up the town, replacing older buildings and helping turn Karlovy Vary into one of the most luxurious spa towns in Europe.

That luxury did not last forever, although at the Grandhotel Pupp it certainly extended to private bathrooms and hot and cold running water by 1923.

During World War II, the area was annexed by German as Sudentenland, or the part of Czechoslovakia populated mainly by ethnic Germans—an irony for a hotel run by the Pupp family, originally ethnically Czech. Karlovy Vary, long used to catering to the health of its many patrons, became a hospital town, with Grandhotel Pupp (of course) housing injured officers.

By 1950, however, the hotel had been nationalized and the name changed to the Hotel Moskava, while the Pupp family being expelled, along with most of the population of the town, as the Communist-controlled government of Czechoslovakia pushed out ethnic Germans. Once again, the Pupp family was caught by their assumed ethnic identity. The International Film Festival for which Karlovy Vary was famous was started during the Communist years, with the festival eventually switching back and forth between Moscow and Karlovy Vary. The hotel became run down under the communists, but was refurbished in 1968 in order to attract more tourist dollars.

In 1989, the Velvet Revolution overturned the Communist government, the hotel was re-privatized, and the name was restored—although the Pupp family no longer owns it. It is now owned by a joint stock company who made an agreement with the family in order to keep the name, a name that was Germanized in order to appeal to a higher clientele, a name that has been treated as a sort of chameleon, changing from Czech to German, from welcomed to exiled, from ownership to an element of tradition, a way to change a complex history into the illusion of a simpler one: a single name, a single building, a grand hotel.

Karlovy Vary served (and serves) as a quiet retreat a short distance from Prague, the town presenting itself as both isolated and exclusive, even though for the most part, it was neither. Its hot springs and (often smelly) mineral water were touted as having health benefits: purifying the blood, curing illnesses, restoring youth, and melting away excess weight. And fully half of the current Grandhotel Pupp’s rooms are, while expensive, simple, small, and unassuming, small enough and cheap enough to serve as an affordable luxury, one that I know has been more or less created by a façade of stories.

The truth is, Karlovy Vary and the Grandhotel Pupp are not centers of wealth and power. Even today, Karlovy Vary only has a population of 48,000—about the size of Grand Island, Nebraska…Castle Rock, Colorado…or San Jacinto, California. The average income is around US $16,000 a year. It’s a tourist town, a lot like every other, with little industry other than the Moser glass factory and other porcelain, glass, and textile factories. Once you leave the main thoroughfares through the town, it’s a lot of rooming houses and apartment blocks that look too new to be from the Communist era, but were definitely inspired by it.

And yet…

I grew up around tourist towns, vacationed in tourist towns, like tourist towns. There’s a sense of possibility: anything might happen, even being able to pay the rent, or falling in love with a stranger who’s only there for the season, or learning all the stories that happen behind the scenes, from dark rumors to secret dance parties, to hidden caves just off the beaten trail, in the mountains.

I love the fabulous white marble frontside of tourist towns, and the peeled-paint plaster of the backside, too. And to me, the town of Karlovy Vary seems to embody the most romantic, purest form of tourist town possible—and the Grandhotel Pupp, for all its grandiosity, the purest form of luxury hotel to be found in that town.

It’s closed now due to the Covid pandemic. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed that someday fate will take me there, to see both the front and back sides of the house.

(Below: The Grandhotel Pupp in modern times. By ????? ???????, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54784141)

See other entertaining curiosities here!

Heinlein’s 5 Rules of Business

(Please note! This is a fictional list! Heinlein didn’t write five rules of business–see explanation below. You can find Heinlein’s actual five rules of writing here: www.sfwriter.com/ow05.htm.)

Robert A. Heinlein is one of my science fiction “mentors,” a writer I never met but whose works influenced me greatly as a reader and budding writer.

I didn’t always agree with the opinions in his books, and I wouldn’t say that he’s the only writer who influenced me this way, but he has taken a kind of position in my inner landscape, the role of calling out bullshit.

I’m a recovering Catholic, so I tend to think of those folks as saints, so sometimes he gets called “Saint Heinlein” when I’m writing smartassed journal entries, as in: “I’m facing a difficult situation with a client today and could use some perspective about all the drama. Saint Heinlein, pray for us.”

Recently, I did a journaling assignment where I’m supposed to be writing to one of the (dead) people I look up to, and write a letter where they give me their good advice. This was in no way a supernatural experience; I didn’t cough up ectoplasm or anything. It was just me, channeling my inner Heinlein.

Well, I hadn’t let my inner Heinlein out for a while, so instead of writing a letter of advice to myself, he proceeded to yell at me for trying to take it easy on the client (“What has he done for you lately? If a man’s acting like a wet blanket, he ought to be hung out to dry. Just because a man’s exchanged the coin of the land for your services doesn’t mean he deserves an ounce of your pity…not once he’s stopped paying you”), then decided to take over the rest of the journal entry to come up with the following (fictional!) list:

Heinlein’s Five Rules of Business

There are three types in business–four.

The first type is the fellow who owns the cow.

The second type is the cow.

The third type is worse off than the other two, and spends all day cleaning up manure without taking home the cream.

And the fourth type?

Is an “expert” who knows just what you “must” do with your cow…and will charge you an arm and a leg to tell you all about it.

If you happen to find yourself in a postition where you have a cow or two to milk, remember these rules:

  1. Don’t give the milk away for free.
  2. Milk the cow, don’t slaughter it–or sell it!
  3. Make sure the cat only gets the cream if it kills mice–no matter how nice it purrs.
  4. Every cow needs her fun if she’s going to produce. But watch the bull!
  5. Clean, contented cows always–always!–give the best milk.

Those people who call themselves writers are in a funny position, being both cow and farmer. Watch out for “experts” who just want to “help” your career–but never themselves made any milk!


Notes: I seem to remember Heinlein writing something about milking the cow rather than killing it at some point, but I can’t track it down anywhere.

Also, Heinlein was a bit of a sexist, and tended to think that most people were suckers who deserved what they got.

And finally, I tried to post this without trying to sell you something, but my inner Heinlein yelled at me again. So why not check out my new website, Writing-Craft.com? I’m studying marketing, SEO, and business currently, and that’s where most of my business posts are going to go, if you’re interested in that kind of thing. There’s not much there yet, but you can sign up for the newsletter to get notified when there is.

The Saga of the Spice Cabinet

I grew up in a household with a lot of spices in the spice cabinet, eating some of the blandest food you could ever find it your misfortune to eat. I used to joke that our family (European-ancestry, white, Catholic people from the Great Plains) didn’t spice our food, we blessed it. As in, whoever was cooking would take a spice jar out of the cabinet, hold it over the food, and make the sign of the cross.

Without opening the jar.

There were reasons for this. For all that we lived in farm country, we also lived in a food desert, where the food selection was more or less limited to iceberg lettuce, bland sliced black olives in a can, and whatever you grew or raised yourself. Not many people could afford to invest in good, fresh spices back then, so a cabinet full of spices was a sort of status item, to be admired more than used. 

Looking back now, it seems weird.

Until…I open my spice cabinet.

Right now, I’m reading SALT FAT ACID HEAT by Samin Nosrat. It’s excellent, and I recommend it. What she says is simple, but easy to forget. For example, one of the points she keeps bringing up is that good cooks taste food as it cooks.

I find myself making dishes asking myself, “Did I taste this yet? Nope. Is it salty enough? Nope. I could add a little lemon juice here, couldn’t I?” And my cooking turns out a little better—consistently.

And all of that is great, but…

Let’s talk about my spice cabinet.

Frankly, it is full of cute jars of spices that I don’t use.

Here are the recommendations that I guiltily have not been following:

  • Ground spices: replace once a year.
  • Whole spices: two to five years.

If I had to throw out everything that didn’t meet these standards, what I would have left is:

  • A giant box of cumin
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Dill (two small jars, because I have ADD)Peppercorns
  • Cocoa powder
  • S&B curry powder (I know, not the most authentic thing ever but I got hooked on it in college)
  • Chipotle powder
  • Szechuan peppercorns
  • Chinese five-spice powder
  • Smoked paprika
  • Bavarian seasoning from Penzey’s.

Technically, I’d have to throw out my nutmegs, because I had them when I moved to this house a little over five years ago, but I use them all the time. A little goes a long way with those suckers.

Spices that should be gone:

  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Marjoram
  • Sage
  • Thyme
  • Chives (I use the ones in my garden)
  • Cinnamon—regular and Ceylon
  • Allspice
  • lot of spice mixes that I only vaguely remember
  • White pepper
  • Tarragon
  • Ginger
  • Rosemary
  • Turmeric
  • Dried garlic and dried onion
  • Sesame seeds (I put these in the one-year-or-less category)
  • Pumpkin pie spice
  • Ground mustard
  • Garlic bread powder
  • “BBQ Seasoning”
  • Anise
  • Cardamom
  • Caraway
  • Powdered cloves

And let’s not get into the gritty and embarrassing details about condiments. At least I did a massive condiments purge this past February. Salad dressing should not be five years old.

I tossed out a few spices, decided I wasn’t strong enough to do the rest, and did a mental experiment with my spices, herbs, and condiments instead:

If the house burned down and I had to start all over again, what would I replace?

I went through several iterations and got it down to the absolute minimum:

  • Fine sea salt ($2.40 for 24 oz)
  • Black peppercorns, whole ($2 for 1 oz, with attached grinder)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil (California Olive Ranch, $11, a splurge because I like that brand)
  • Red wine vinegar ($2.30 for 16 oz)
  • Red pepper flakes ($2.60 for 1.5 oz)
  • Fresh garlic ($.80 for a head of garlic)

Total: $21.10. Prices were what I looked up at Target, because if my house burned down and I had to get all the things, I’d go to Target first. This morning, I tossed out at least that much in expired spices.

The other thing that struck me is how often I’ll turn to fresh herbs when I can get them. I planted a boatload of basil this summer, and have been happily eating salads made of nothing but basil and some balsamic dressing. I invested in some cloth grow bags and dirt that wasn’t mostly gravel (I currently live in a very rocky development in Colorado), and have been nagging myself about the cost, because I grew up cheap in the Great Plains and have trouble allowing myself to have nice things.

But, again, if I run the math, what I spent on grow bags, dirt, and seeds is less than the value of the spices that I threw out this morning. 

So here’s the plan:

  • Gradually toss the herbs and spices that are out of date, as I can stand to do so.
  • Toss expired condiments and the rest of the old spices in February (I spring clean in February).
  • Splurge on good, but not frou-frou, olive oil.
  • Plant a window garden for this fall and winter (mostly basil and chives).
  • Replace whatever I tossed but want to use again with a very small amount. No buying the big jar of spices because “it’s cheaper per ounce.”
  • When I run out of something, replace it with the good stuff.
  • Stop buying every spice mix I pass like it’s gonna cure my cooking blues. It won’t.

I should end up saving money, having better spices that I use more often, and not having to go through Operation Heartbreak again, a.k.a., cleaning out the spice cabinet.

This brings me to one final point of spice cabinet shame: the chai box.

Maybe you don’t have one. A chai box is a cookie tin that has all the whole, unground spices that you need to make chai: cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, star anise, allspice, whole cloves. Peppercorns and  nutmegs get used too often to stay inside the box for long, but those count, too. At the bottom of a chai box, you can often find one or more vanilla beans that have been sitting there for at least a decade, waiting for a special occasion that never comes.

Everything in that box is at least five years old. But, dear reader, I cannot make myself throw it out. I have sworn to make chai concentrate all fall and winter long, so I can use everything up and buy new spices.

My recipe for chai concentrate:

  • Half a long cinnamon stick
  • Six cups of water—begin bringing to a boil

In a mortar and pestle, smash up:

  • 10-12 cardamom pods
  • 10-12 peppercorns
  • 4-5 whole cloves
  • 2 star anise
  • A piece of ginger (peel and all) about the size of your thumb.
  • Maybe some orange peel.

Add to water with 1/4c sugar. This is an excellent excuse to use up your dried out brown sugar that’s hard to measure. Just eyeball a chunk and drop it in.

Bring to a boil and simmer for fifteen minutes with a lid on. Then turn off the heat, add 1/4c loose leaf tea leaves, and steep for five minutes, no longer. Strain the concentrate through a fine-mesh strainer. You don’t want to use ground spices for this, by the way, because they slip through the filter and can upset your stomach.

Mix half and half concentrate with warm milk, smug in the knowledge that you knew there was a reason you bought all this stuff.


Just stop buying tea bags, by the way. They’re expensive and wasteful, and cover up the fact that you’re overpaying for cheap-ass tea.

I used Stash English Breakfast to make chai last time, and that turned out really well. Cost per cup: $14.51 per pound of tea, or $.08/cup—the equivalent of a small 20-bag box of tea at $1.60, with higher-quality tea.

(Need to figure out how much bulk tea costs per cup? Try the tea calculator here: https://ineedcoffee.com/calculating-the-cost-per-cup-of-tea/)

I’m not going to calculate my chai spice cost, because they’re FIVE YEARS OLD I just need to focus on using them up!


Originally, I wrote the above post in September 2020 for my newsletter. You may be pleased to note that I have disposed of most of my out-of-date spices. I kept the Cardamom and Ceylon cinnamon, and ended up replacing the box of cocoa.

I have been faithfully making brewed chai mix every week, but have doubled the amount of water. Now I can pour it straight out of a pitcher and drink it cold with half and half, or nuke it in the microwave. I finally just decided that I liked half and half better than milk (or cream, for that matter) in my tea, and no outdated fear of fat was going to harsh my teatime!

Five Excellent Weird Fiction Novels in Translation

Now You're One of Us, from Five Weird Fiction Novels in Translation
Now You’re One of Us, by Asa Nonami, translated by Mitsuko Volek

Tired of reading the same plots by the same types of authors? Need a palate cleanser? Want to interject new life into a reading group that thinks The Help is a controversial title?

Looking for an author that can really describe the unsettling, creepy feeling of not knowing whether the people around you mean well or not? Of not knowing whether the things your soul craves most are good for you or not? Of not knowing whether your craving to belong will help you—or hurt you?

If so, I have some lovely, dark, and wonderful weird fiction novels in translation for you!

I tried to organize this list in order of shorter, easier reads that might lead to book club discussion, to more complex reads that require time to unfold.

1. Now You’re One of Us, by Asa Nonami (Japan), translated by Michael Volek.

Now You’re One of Us is the tale of an upper-class Japanese family gone wrong. So wrong. This book is like a combination of Liane Moriarty (Big Little Lies, The Husband’s Secret) and an instruction novel on how to run a profitable family cult. While other books on this list are weird and surreal, this book is weird and juicy, scratching the itch for scandal in a way that’s so over the top that it becomes almost a satire.

2. The Vegetarian, by Han Kang (South Korea), translated by Deborah Smith.

The Vegetarian is the tale of a woman who, against her family’s wishes, decides to stop eating meat, after a series of sensual nightmares leads her to worry about the darker side of her nature. The strongly feminist story feels like a combination of Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf. It’s short, and written in a clear, direct style that lends itself to book club mischief.

3. Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck (Sweden), translated by the author.

A marketing researcher in personal hygiene products travels to a farming community, Amatka, to see whether any of the products they make can be used in her home town. However, Amatka mainly farms fungus products that turn into goop if they aren’t properly cared for. Another short book that is clearly and directly written—deliberately so, in a way that becomes horrifying as the story progresses. The story reads like a combination of 1984 and Stanislaw Lem’s alien novel Solaris.

4. The Memory Police, by Y?ko Ogawa (Japan), translated by Stephen Snyder.

Unlike a lot of weird fiction, which can be skimpy on descriptions, this book is invested in incredible details. It feels like the difference between a concrete bunker and a Miyazaki movie like Spirited Away. However, because this is a book about how remembering the wrong things can cost you, the details serve to increase the tension of the book. I recommend this one if you liked Japanese classics by filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. It feels like his kind of story, zooming in on the small details and exploring conflicting points of view.

5. Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire that Never Was, by Angélica Gorodisher (Argentina), translated by Ursula K. LeGuin

This book is more challenging than the previous two, more complex, and less direct and clear in its writing (and translation). It’s also more of a mouthful, something to savor and consider, and enjoy reading just for the pleasure of seeing the author and translator turn a phrase. The book is the history of an unnamed empire over its various ages, seen from after its fall, and from another country. (“Kalpa” means “aeon” in Sanskrit; the title loosely translates to “The time between the creation and recreation of an empire.”) I don’t recommend this one for your book club; it’s book more meant for leisure reading. There’s a twist to the book that slowly becomes apparent toward the end. Read this if you like Ursula K. LeGuin’s books or Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle.

Bonus Book:  The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington (Mexico), translated by Katherine Talbot, Anthony Kerrigan, and Marina Warner.

Leonora Carrington was a surrealist writer and painter who wrote short fable-like stories for adults and children as strange as anything Salvador Dalí ever painted (or wrote). Each story seems, at first glance, to have been sloppily tossed together, but in a way that makes perfect sense and never wastes a word. I found myself reading these tales not so much for their meaning (there is meaning!), but as a sort of brain-refresher, clearing out the daily dust that had gathered in my brain. Read these if you like Dalí or Frieda Kahlo.

If you’re interested in weird fiction written by yours truly, check out The House Without a Summer, describing what happens when an asshole gets his hands on the spacetime continuum. It’s set in England in the year 1816, the real-life year without a summer (and the year that Frankenstein was written). It has not yet been translated out of English, but I promise you it’s off the beaten path! I recommend it if you liked Black Tom by Victor Lavalle or The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. You can find out more about it here.

And now you must excuse me; it’s time for me to read the next book on my weird fiction novels in translation list, Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-nan. I’ll let you know if it’s good.

New Short Horror Story Release: Trick or Treat (Tenebrosities #4)

Short horror story: Trick or Treat

Universal Sales Link | Goodreads

Release #4 in the short horror story, Twilight-Zone-esque Tenebrosities series, “Trick or Treat,” is available now. I originally wrote this in 2012, but rewrote it this month to rescue it–I just liked the story and characters too much to completely blow it off 🙂

You can find it here:

books2read.com/tenebrosities-trick-or-treat

What’s the matter, Jake? Chicken?

It’s Halloween. Just over a month ago, Jake’s brother Dave died in Afghanistan, killed by an IED bomb. Now Jake is going trick or treating, dressed like a solder. Dressed like his brother.

He decides to take the same route that he and his brother took, cutting through a junkyard, walking down a big hill, and scoring candy at the kind of neighborhood where the neighbors actually leave the lights on and don’t pretend not to be home.

But something is waiting for him in the graveyard.

Is it the ghost of Jake’s dead brother?

A creepy horror tale about what finds us when we’re vulnerable, on Halloween.

Trick or Treat

Jake stood at the edge of the junkyard, dressed as a soldier and holding a fake rifle on a strap over his shoulder. The rifle had an orange tip in case anyone was stupid enough to think it was real. The sun had set and the dark sky was covered in low clouds, turned orange from the streetlights. Lone flakes of snow descended here and there. Did that really count as “snowing” or not? The air smelled like rust. A ton of sirens were going off on the far side of the junkyard, more of them every second, like they were headed toward a fire or a big accident.

This morning—Halloween—he’d decided to cut through the junkyard on his way to go trick-or-treating at the bottom of Cliff Avenue. Now he wasn’t sure.

Stuff had changed at the junkyard since the last time he had been there.

The fence had a new line of barbed wire at the top, one that hadn’t been there before, and there was a new sign up on the fence.

Beware of dog.

Jake had cut through the junkyard once before with his older brother Dave, when he was ten. But that was two years ago.

Last year Dave had graduated early, joined the Army and gone to Afghanistan. And then in September he had died from some stupid homemade bomb buried under the road. Mom had told the Government to cremate Dave’s ashes. They were in a memorial building that looked like a post office, with Dave’s name on a brass plate.

Nobody was okay at Jake’s house. Not Jake, who was always in trouble at school, and not his mom, who was an EMT and had a pretty good excuse, and not his older sister Amy, who was fourteen and just plain mean anyway.

Tonight she had yelled at him that he was too old to go trick-or-treating, and he had to stay home and pass out candy so she could hang out with her friends.

He had screamed back at her that she didn’t have friends and run out the front door, slamming it behind him.

Then realized he had forgotten his trick or treat bag.

He wasn’t going back. And he wasn’t going trick-or-treating in his own neighborhood, either. Too many people who locked their doors and turned off all their lights, except for the TV flickering in the living room.

A mocking voice seemed to whisper in his ear:

What’s the matter, Jake?

Chicken?

Before Jake could think too much about it, he threw his fake rifle over the fence.

It turned around and around through the air, the orange tip flashing under the streetlight, and crashed on top of a car before skidding out of sight.

No alarms went off, no dogs barked.

He was going in.

Read more at books2read.com/tenebrosities-trick-or-treat.

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