crystal bowl filled with toffee candies
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The star shape cuts into the circular handle that tops the lid of my candy dish. The star is echoed as it expands into the many cut diamonds which multiply as they eclipse over the round shape of the lid. The pattern starts again where the lid meets the bowl, continuing on and on all the way to its base. As the diameter of the bowl’s circular shape increases, so, too, does the size of the diamonds, only to follow the reverse pattern as it decreases in size where the bowl’s shape comes together in a nice gathering of diamonds at the bottom. The pattern seems to be infinite, and yet it is not. It finishes at the base of the bowl.

It is an old bowl, a treasured possession of my Gran’s. It always sat on her coffee table, and it was always full of candy, mostly the soft caramel toffees that she loved so much. As children, we were allowed to have one, but only one, and only after we had eaten the sumptuous feast that Gran had prepared for our visit. She always made our favorites — fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and coleslaw. My mouth waters at the memory of these special recipes.

I make Gran’s chicken for supper. I coat the chicken pieces with cornflake crumbs, salt, and pepper and bake it in the oven. Then I make the coleslaw with her unique combination of cabbage and raisins. I add small, colored marshmallows. The salad dressing, another of Gran’s secret recipes, softens the marshmallows so they melt in your mouth. My kids like the spongy sweetness next to the bitter crunch of the cabbage. I don’t recall if Gran ever added marshmallows to the salad. Perhaps she did. More… “The Crystal Bowl”

Emily-Jane Hills Orford is the author of several books including her novel, Personal Notes, which is her grandmother’s story. Several of her creative nonfiction stories and books have received awards, including The Whistling Bishop, which was named a finalist in the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards; F-Stop: A Life in Pictures, which was named a finalist and received the silver medal in the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards; and To Be a Duke, which was named a finalist and received the silver medal in the 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Awards as well as receiving an honorable mention in the 2015 Readers’ Favorite Book Awards.

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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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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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I am obsessed with books about people who, for unclear reasons, ruin their own lives. In Freudian terms, it’s Thanatos, the death drive. The classic example is that fear you feel on a rooftop or near the edge of a cliff, a fear not so much that you’ll fall but that you’ll throw yourself over, into the void. My own version of this fear: When I pull out my phone to take a photo of the vista from a bridge or a precipice, I’m afraid I’ll drop the phone and automatically go after it.

But this isn’t the death drive, not directly; it’s irrational fear of some latent suicidal tendency that may not exist. The characters I’m thinking of don’t throw themselves off literal cliffs. It’s slower, and stranger, like sleepwalking into the sea.

More… “The Self-Destruct Button”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.

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Jimmy Yee cannot kill himself.

It’s certainly not for a lack of effort. Hanging doesn’t work. Slitting his wrists is useless. Shooting himself in the head, overdosing on pills . . . nothing he tries gives him the exit into oblivion he so clearly craves. Each time he succumbs, he witnesses a glowing ring of light, then awakens once again in his motel room. At least it seems like his motel room. What is going on? Maybe if he throws himself in front of a truck . . .

That’s the opening sequence to Demon, Jason Shiga’s bloody brilliant (or brilliantly bloody) action comic, a no-holds-barred assault on good taste and timidity that proves to be as hilarious and captivating as it is incredibly violent and profane. Originally serialized both online and via print pamphlets by the author, Demon is now being “officially” published as a four-volume series of books by First Second. The first volume was released late last year, the second just last month — volumes three and four will be coming out by the end of 2017. More… Demon am I”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered social media producer for PennLive.com. By night, he writes about really nerdy things for The Comics Journal . . . and this site. He is one-quarter of the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell.

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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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In August 2014, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery was in Ferguson, Missouri covering the protests over the police shootings of Michael Brown. On August 13, his third day on assignment, Lowery was arrested at a McDonalds: a moment captured on a video that quickly went viral. The Missouri protests spread across the country, morphing into Black Lives Matter movement, and Lowery continued to follow the story. His experience and reporting are documented in his first book: “They Can’t Kill Us All.” While on this book tour, Lowery dropped by The Smart Set offices for an interview conducted by Byshera Williams and Richard Abowitz. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

More… “Law & The Reporter”

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

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I could die. Me. Personally. Could. Die. Well, I sort of always knew this, but remotely, so remotely, in the manner that we acknowledge, and with the same measure of anxiety, that someday the sun will flame out. But now — revelation! — I suddenly realized I actually could die — like at any moment.

This knowledge is what has propelled me into engaging simultaneously in two genres that I fundamentally loathe: the memoir and the medical essay. Along with my traditional reporter’s disdain for employing the anorexic pronoun, I believe that unless a memoir is written by an extraordinary individual — Augustine, Springsteen — I see no point in inflicting a memoir on readers. And I surely do not number myself among the extraordinary. Indeed, one of the things that drove me out of academia was when my English Department introduced a course on writing memoirs; the notion of 18-year-olds doing so is worse than cringe-worthy. Read the story of someone who has lived an exceptional life? Sure. Read stories of the pimpled masses who have not lived any lives whatsoever? Better to read the conditions you must accept before installing your latest app. More… “I Could Die”

Matt Nesvisky lives, for the time being, in Philadelphia.

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The apocalypse is all the rage these days. Of course, it’s a topic that never completely goes out of fashion. There’s always some person raving on a street corner about how all is lost and a few folks huddled around him or her, eager to listen. But these days, what with climate change, bees dying, ebola, and, of course, the recent election, it’s a topic on a lot of folks’ minds (at least judging from my social media feeds).

It’s a topic that’s on the mind of cartoonist Julia Gfrörer (pronounced “gruff-fair”) as well, or at least it’s the central setting of her latest graphic novel, Laid Waste. Gfrörer isn’t interested in depicting wanton death and destruction a la Michael Bay, however, as much as she is in depicting her characters’ attempts to find some sense of hope or solace in a world that is swiftly falling down around them. More… “Wonderful Waste”

By day, Chris Mautner is the mild-mannered social media producer for PennLive.com. By night, he writes about really nerdy things for The Comics Journal . . . and this site. He is one-quarter of the podcast Comic Books Are Burning in Hell.

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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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