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The skeleton of a young girl: This is the first thing to seize my eye as I enter the cemetery of the Capuchin monastery in Rome. Mounted at the vault’s center and framed by four elliptical rings of vertebrae, she holds in her right hand a scythe made of tibias and pelvic fragments; in her left hand, she holds a balance, also made of human bones. The shadowed hollows of her eye sockets, rather than conveying blindness, ceaselessly drink the late-morning sunlight that pours through the windows.

It is some time before I notice the other two child skeletons on the back wall, perched, legs dangling, on a mantle of scapulae. They are bookended by two hourglasses: counterpoised coccyx, their holes giving from a distance the impression of mottled sand. Each hourglass has a pair of scapula wings, as does the disembodied skull floating between the children.

I see these things and I do not see them. To focus on any one object takes considerable effort. My eyes are always being drawn to some new detail — a femur that seems a darker umber than the hundreds of others stacked along the walls, the wooden crosses that mark graves in the crypt’s dirt floor, the distinctive “cappuccino” brown of a monk’s habit, that same monk’s mummified flesh, his collapsed nostrils, his curled parchment lips — and to the overpowering sum of all details, this precise chaos that tempts me to close my eyes, rinse them in darkness. More… “Graffiti These Bones”

Justin Lee teaches in the Composition Department at UC Irvine, where he earned an MFA in Creative Writing in 2014. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Vice, First Things, the Los Angeles Review of Books, ABC’s Religion and Ethics, Amazon’s Day One, FLAUNT Magazine, Juked, Gargoyle Magazine, Arc Digital, and elsewhere. In 2016, he received an Emerging Writers Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Their generosity enabled him to complete his first novel, Lightless Lands, which is currently seeking a home.
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One hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson went before the United States Senate and asked Congress for a declaration of war against the Central Powers. The impetus for this declaration was Wilhelmine Germany’s return to unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic. Wilson, who had a year earlier campaigned on a promise of keeping the United States out of war, now, in April, asked to send American boys to Europe in order to

fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts — for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.

More… “Mist, Mountains, and Men”

Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Boston. He is the author of Hands Dabbled in Blood.
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One might think this old man at the Marina del Rey Farmer’s Market is in his last days. But the twinkle in his eyes gives away his joie de vivre. He is dressed in a gray herringbone suit, a white shirt with gold cufflinks, and a necktie. Not the usual hey-I’m-going-to-the-farmers-market attire. He could afford the suit: Before he retired he was a furrier. Now he’s a widower on the prowl. His hair is white, where he has it. He is mostly bald with ears that fall from his head like rose petals. He speaks with a heavy Yiddish accent. And behind the accent, behind the eyes, he holds secrets. It’s my job today to get at those secrets. This man, Murray, my Grandma Eva’s first cousin, knew the very house where she was raised, whom she resembled, why she came to America alone. He knew the tenor of her voice, the way she held her tea or coffee, her kindnesses. He knew her. I did not: I never knew her. She died six years before I was born, and I want him to fill in the gaps. He knew her in a way even my father, her eldest, never could have.

More… “A Day With Murray”

Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches creative writing in New Jersey. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, Nimrod, Jewish Literary Journal, Paterson Literary Review, Minerva Rising, and other journals.
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I stand too close to the edges of curbs. Sometimes, I stand so absent-mindedly and perilously close that a slight nudge, misplaced step, or strong gust of wind could lean me into traffic. The “whoosh” and hot air of a passing vehicle startles me out of my carelessness. Yes yes

Yes

Yes

That’s also when my Uncle Clarence’s voice pulls me back.

Yes

Yes

Clarence Thompson was the oldest of my mother’s siblings. I grew up in the same house in which they were raised, on San Antonio’s East Side. During my first 12 years, he was still living there and was the most constant male presence in my life.

More… “Voices”

Cary Clack is a native of San Antonio. He wrote CNN commentaries for Coretta Scott King prior to becoming a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News. He subsequently turned to politics, working as the communications director for Joaquin Castro’s Congressional campaign and Mayor Ivy Taylor. Trinity University Press published a collection of his columns, Clowns and Rats Scare Me, and is currently working on another book Dreaming US: Where did We from There? He was inducted into the Texas institute of Letters in April 2017.
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Chuck Barris died Tuesday night at the age of 87. He was a “character,” as my father liked to say of people who kept you interested despite being irritated by them. I interviewed him in 2008. He had graduated from Drexel University (then Drexel Institute of Technology) in 1953, and, following graduation, talked himself into a position as a page at NBC, then parlayed this into a higher-level job at ABC. He eventually opened their Hollywood office where he began to build his game show empire. He was the mastermind behind such shows as The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, The Parent Game, and, most famously, The Gong Show. When I interviewed Barris 9 years ago, I found him to be an unintegrated mix of the naïve, the boastful, and the cunning. When I asked him about his book, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, in which he claimed to have worked undercover as a CIA assassin (the book became a movie directed by George Clooney), he was predictably evasive. Part of the hype for that book was that Barris never revealed whether it was fiction or fact. Still, I sensed he was getting tired of the goof. He wanted to unmask — showmen always do. He had an instinct for what the public wanted and a relentless drive for celebrity and success. But he was also a simple Philly boy with a chip on his shoulder and a desire for acceptance in more respectable circles. He’d been labeled the King of Shlock for his game shows, but he wanted to be seen as a serious author. When we talked, he was working on a book about his daughter, who died of a drug overdose in 1998. • More… “I Remember Chuck”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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It was mid-summer and I was putting the finishing touches on a long essay. But then, predictably, things slowed down. Each of the finishing touches cried out for their own finishing touches, and the endpoint skipped away from me, snickering. My editor waited on the West Coast in polite silence. The essay’s subject was the British poet Geoffrey Hill, and he was not helping. The great man decided to set up camp somewhere over my left shoulder. Every time I gazed away from the keyboard or wrote a shoddy sentence his face floated into view, wearing an immense and accusatory scowl.

More… “Hero-Death”

James Chapin is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida. He is the author of a forthcoming novel set in 1800s Florida.
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I interviewed Nora Ephron not long before her cancer diagnosis became known and a little more than a year before her death. She entered the Drexel University Picture Gallery, where we film our Drexel InterViews, looking game but weary. I thought she was tired out by the speaking engagements attached to the publication of her latest book, I Remember Nothing. In retrospect, I realize she was sick — and knew it. She was wearing black leggings and her hair framed her small head like a luxurious cap. I wonder now if it was a wig but tend to think not. Ephron always had marvelous hair; it was other attributes she complained about.
More… “I Remember Nora”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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Even her husband’s bed partners — and there were always plenty of those around — found mostly good things to say about Mrs. Oscar Wilde, or “poor, dear Constance” as she was known in polite society after the Bosie scandal broke their marriage wide open. “So sweet, so pretty and good, how came she by her outrageously intellectual husband?” wondered Richard Le Gallienne. “It was impossible not to predict suffering for a woman so domestic and simple mated with a mind so searching and so perverse, and a character so self-indulgent.”

That is unfair. Differences in temperament and intellectual chops are more expeditiously resolved by divorce than by tragedy. Constance Lloyd was a woman of intelligence and discernment, but as Oscar’s appetite for fame and louche young men kept on growing, so did the distance between them. “She could not understand me and I was bored to death with the married life,” Wilde confided to his ever faithful acolyte, sometime lover, and eternal sidekick, Robbie Ross. “But she had some sweet points in her character and was wonderfully loyal to me.” More… “(W)here Lies Constance Wilde?”

Robert Latona is a journalist based in Madrid, Spain.
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Nelson Shanks, acclaimed American realist painter of celebrities and officials ranging from Pope John Paul II and Princess Diana to Bill Clinton and the first four female U.S. Supreme Court justices, died late last week. Shanks studied art and architecture throughout the country and world, before eventually founding Studio Incamminati School for Contemporary Realist Art in Philadelphia. Most recently, his controversial claims about his portrait of Bill Clinton and a mysterious shadow resurrected the Lewinsky scandal, to the chagrin of his wife’s presidential campaign.

More… “Nelson Shanks (1937-2015)”

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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