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by Penny Newbury
Title: Remember Me
Author: Penny Newbury (Click here to contact this author.)
Price: $14.99 - paperback
Remember Me is a collection of short stories that combine fantasy with the remembered past and recount the interconnected lives and adventures of people who never thought they’d meet each other, especially in fiction. Characters include the denizens of a new-age spiritual community, career criminals, Paraguayan cattle thieves, fishermen, freemasons, humanitarian aid workers, remembered family, and ghosts. Included in the collection is the first chapter of a novel loosely based on a 1990 unsolved murder in southeastern Connecticut.
Penny Newbury has lived and worked in New England, Paraguay, East Timor and Kosovo. She has taught English and creative writing at colleges and universities in Connecticut, and her short stories have appeared in several literary journals and magazines. She lives in northeastern Connecticut.
Remember Me is a collection of short stories that tried to be a novel twice and then ended up being what it should have been all along. The first group of six stories is taken from, of all places, my 1996 doctoral dissertation, entitled Who To Watch Out For. I billed it (in part to receive the degree) as a novel and set it in southeastern Connecticut. The stories (twelve in all but six in this collection) center around a group of people affiliated in various ways with a spiritual community called an Ailu and its self-proclaimed "leader," Ray Moss. Ray is a middle-aged Anglo who wants to transcend just about everything there is to transcend. The novel explores the lengths to which people will go to forsake individuality to be part of a group, any group (cf., Carl Jung's theory of complexes and the role of the “collective”), in this case a "New Age" group of healers, activists, occultists, Wiccans and wannabes. The challenge in using this subject matter was in illustrating the comedy found in much New Age thought and practice while retaining a respect for the characters, and not belittling them. The need to compensate for a lack of self-knowledge, and a fear of individual perception and action are motivations of several of the characters. Also examined in several chapters is the power, nearly magical in nature, of the past and of memory, and how this affects the characters' present desires to connect, however self-destructively, with others.
The first story, The Myth of Black Beans and M&M's, introduces many of the characters, who either are part of the Ailu or members of the Sabian Assembly, a small, esoteric society that also studies astrology and is noted for its brain-bending academic and theosophical exercises and its encompassing of many of the world's religions and philosophies into single numerological "lessons." Trying to make comedy out of that was a challenge.
The first story establishes many of the characters as desiring to attach themselves to a non-Anglo culture, with varying (positive and negative) results. Nahuatel, a Mayan healer, and his entourage are invited to visit Ray at his Ailu, and Ray assembles a group of paying participants to try and raise some funds for both Nahuatel and himself.
Molly is the narrator of The Myth of Black Beans and M&M’s and reappears in several stories in this first section. Molly is a friend of Ray's and a dealer in architectural salvage; she does not belong to either the Ailu or the Sabian Assembly and is skeptical about most of the New Age crowd. Other characters in the novel, especially the "practicing" witches and some Ailu members, expend immeasurable amounts of energy trying to connect to the magical, spiritual world. This character, who merely longs for the courage to try new things, is bombarded by magic and has to learn to deal with it in her non-magical world.
Jackson Writes a Letter concerns a man paralyzed by his desire to consistently do "good" and the object of his attentions: the political prisoner Leonard Peltier. Jackson is the best friend of Ray Moss, Ailu king. In this story Jackson also assists Ray's mother Celeste with one of her Wiccan rituals, and is seduced (almost) by Debbie, a pseudo-witch hated by Celeste. I consulted Mr. Peltier and the Defense Committee while writing parts of this story in 1996, though Leonard only acts as a catalyst for Jackson’s self-exploration. Jackson writes many letters to Leonard, finally sending only one. Receiving an answer is doubtful, though a later story (The Fixed and Planted Object) finds Jackson running the Defense Committee headquarters in Kansas for two weeks at the behest of the president, Leonard's fiancée. Jackson still doesn't get to speak with Leonard, and his dedication is taken for granted.
Cricket Sweet is about a convicted felon and how his effect on several characters differs depending on their own emotional desires. The story is set in a substance abuse treatment program for men about to be released from prison and is as much about the emotional instability of people on the "outside" as it is about the men they are trying to "rehabilitate." The program director, Luz, will later ask for help from Celeste and her less-adept Wiccan buddy Althea, in removing what she can only assume is a spell cast on her by her former lover, though Luz does not believe in such things. Judith, the staff member who falls victim to Cricket Sweet, is a member of the Sabian Assembly. Clint, the staff member who turns Judith in, does so upon the advice of Jackson, who’s a friend from AA.
Remember Me, the title story, is in the second grouping although it was the title story in the novel/dissertation, and was wildly different and extensive. When I was much younger I told myself that this would be my first novel. When I finally wrote it, it stopped itself at twenty pages. I tried to expand it for the dissertation but in its best form it lies far outside the world of the Ailu.
The Fixed and Planted Object explores the ways in which some people may appropriate and employ ritual to negative, though unintended, effect. This story introduces the Sabian Assembly: its members and its practices. Ray Moss is suspected of hoarding a priceless vase owned by a now-dead Sabian, and Molly is asked to find it and make him give it to the museum to which it was willed. Like the vase, which Ray has "fixed and planted" in memory of a loved one, Jackson has in his mind "fixed and planted" Leonard Peltier safe at Leavenworth, where Jackson can safely imagine what happens to him minute by minute. In this chapter, Leonard is moved suddenly to Georgia, and Jackson comes unglued.
The source of the supposed power of Wicca is explored in Banishing Darla. It seems a little strange, that all these stories that I wrote about ten years ago seem so passé in their way . . . so, well, quaint. All the books and films about witches and wizards and magic that we've been treated to within the past five years . . . and yet when Celeste and Althea and the Sabians were having their adventures, it was still just a vague practice, off to the side of our radar here in the US. In this story Celeste and Allie conduct a Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram for Luz, who suffers from chronic fatigue and has concluded that it's her old lover back to torment her by casting spells. Celeste and Allie use Luz' childhood religion of Santería to assist them. Luz discovers that there really is no such thing as a spell, especially from a creepy former lover who thinks she's still powerful.
The Dark Season traces Molly's young adulthood with her mentally ill mother and how it precipitates her entering blindly into a destructive marriage to a victim of childhood incest.
Bird is another story that was part of the novel but is best relegated to the second group of stories, which deal with memory and loss. It's narrated by someone who longs to physically erase the past. She gets a new tattoo to cover an old one, only to discover that the new one, a mythic bird, thinks her life is too boring and flies off without her. She has to go to a motorcycle rally to discover how to keep him there.
The third group—Ña Manu, An Occupation, and Friends in Prizren--are reflections on life in developing and post-conflict countries, and offers, among other things, observations on the foolishness of those particular labels.
Spooktown will be a murder mystery/novel if it kills me. This collection includes the first section and is the reason for my creating this collection. I believed that if I committed enough time to this project I would be catapulted into action and finish this novel (thereby solving the case of course), after ten years of screwing around. The story is loosely based on an unsolved 1990 murder of a well-known waterfront property and marina owner in Southeastern Connecticut, and the wild speculation that still surrounds it. This is not a "formula" mystery in any way, and so it follows the collective stream of consciousness of the living (and dead) residents of the town in which the murder occurred. The list of suspects is never-ending, and the possible motives range from family greed to a secret life to just plain rotten luck.
This collection marks the official end of the re-examination of my past (woo-hoo!). . . and probably the unofficial beginning of furtive and clever attempts to drag it back in. We are who we are.