Friday, December 30, 2016

The Reykjavik Assignment (Adam LeBor) & Lady Claire is All That (Maya Rodale), Thriller & Romance with brilliant superwomen, who are also every woman


These two novels could not be more unalike, yet there is an affinity worth considering. Both feature brilliant heroines, kind of super women, who are also every woman. Yael Azoulay in Adam LeBor's thriller, THE REYKJAVIK ASSIGNMENT (Harper Collins) lives in the world of geopolitics. A covert United Nations negotiator, who happens to be beautiful, she is highly trained in combat and negotiations with an insider's knowledge of diplomacy and media. Dedicated to her boss, the U.N. Secretary General, she is hyper-aware that his survival, as well as her own, hinges on her ability to counter fast-moving plots and players. They surround her in this novel.

Yael's in the cross-hairs of a dangerous ex-lover and the leader of a shadowy corporate group, which thrives on political chaos. A deadly sniper wreaks havoc and people close to her boss die. When she learns of a plot against him, Yael decides to go to a conference in Reykjavik. She's following a hunch. Though Yael's opponents and friends underestimate her intuitive gifts, which have led her into questionable situations, they also underlie stunning victories. Yael both distrusts her insights and knows they are usually on target.

Ethics and necessity war in her psyche, along with her feelings for her estranged family. At 35, Yael is lonely and aware her profession has made a personal life impossible, She yearns for a meaningful relationship--a home beyond work. In the REYKJAVIK ASSIGNMENT, personal and political forces converge in Iceland's lava fields. As Yael claws her way toward the climax of this incredibly suspenseful saga, you never know whether "surprise" will be friend or foe.

Yael's insecurities about her looks and abilities are familiar to many women. Like them, she's introspective and tries to put negative feelings in perspective. What's extraordinary is her ability to stay a course she believes right, no matter the obstacles or risks. This courage makes her a threat in a world run mostly by men with women who do their bidding. These men are brutal against a female operative, who knows her own mind and will "go rogue" to succeed. Yael is both superwoman and every woman. This is the last volume of LaBor's trilogy. I want to read the others.

LADY CLAIRE IS ALL THAT by Maya Rodale (Avon Books) is a perfect bonbon of a romantic novel. She injects life into that old trope about the attraction of beauty to brains by reversing the sexes. Claire Cavendish is both gifted and obsessed with mathematics. But, as luck would have it, her world is the "ton" aristocracy of Regency London. When Claire's brother unexpectedly inherits a Dukedom, she persuades him to leave their horse farm in America and seek the advantages of his title. With her parents deceased, Claire's concern is for her young sisters, who would benefit from social and educational opportunities not possible in colonial America.  London also offers Claire a chance to meet another Duke, a famous mathematician whose work she has studied.

Her aunt sets about finding husbands for her nieces. The London social whirl, the primary vehicle for obtaining suitable marriages, has prescribed modes of behavior and dress. While her sisters enjoy the elaborate dresses and hair, Claire sticks to plain clothes,hair, and her spectacles. She talks about math at the parties, hoping to meet the mathematical Duke. Instead she meets Lord Fox, a handsome charming, athletic man with no apparent intellectual interests. While he believes himself irresistible to women, Claire believes he's quite taken with himself. Her lack of interest, not the whimpering and swooning he expects, is compounded by her frank way of talking.

She actually asks him why he's bothering her. Fox is puzzled. Most women, except the one who recently jilted him, think him a catch and this blue-stocking spinster should be grateful. Worse yet, she's right, he would not be bothering, except he's made a damnable bet that he can win Claire over and make her an attractive popular woman to their set. The only headway he makes is when he reveals that the mathematical Duke is a friend and offers to escort her to a "deadly" lecture at the Mathematics Society.

This is a very fun set-up. Claire, in a manner most unbecoming a woman, beats the lords at a card-game. Worse yet, it's obviously not beginner's luck but skill at numbers and she enjoyed winning. Then there's the lecture. When ladies were seated at the back, Claire stood to engage the speakers in mathematical questions. She does earn both the famous Duke's admiration and a scandalous mention in the papers.

Just being herself, Claire's outrageous. Her brilliance stands out as does her lack of interest in society's approval. Yet when she decides to conform, she also proves a marvel at strategy. She is a super woman in her intellectual abilities and self confidence. But like many women, she seeks the success of her family before her own.  And she has been so preoccupied with helping her younger sisters adjust, she hadn't factored in what she needs. Though she disapproves of Fox in many ways, between them there is an unmistakable physical chemistry, she can't control.

This is a very enjoyable sexy romance. It's inspired by the real Ada, Countess of Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer. The author's note says Ada worked with Charles Babbage and developed the first algorithm to be carried out by his Analytical Machine.  I liked the context for Claire's brilliance. This novel is also part of a series, Keeping up with the Cavendishes. I had fun with it without reading the others.


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Fears of Alien Terrorists, NY out of control? "Day is Saved" by The Anarchist's Girlfriend (new edition)

Our headlines-fears of alien terrorists, NY out of control, happen in The Anarchist's Girlfriend, yet the "day is saved" by an unlikely heroine in a real world strange to us today. She is transformed from innocence to action.

Introduction to  THE ANARCHIST'S GIRLFRIEND, Excerpted in debut issue of The Portable Lower East Side. 1984.

Somewhere along the Bowery, in a basement, a red-haired Irishman wears his eternal black suit. Somewhere in Chelsea, a Russian defector has a twin brother. Somewhere in midtown Manhattan, a switchboard operator is going on her night shift. She carries a little video cam. She doesn't know what it is filming. She assumes it will collage to a logical sequence of related images that will have meaning by juxtaposition. She doesn't know if this is so, but it doesn't matter; not to this girl who lived for American rock ’n’ roll blaring incongruously over a Greek coastal town. She doesn't matter, to anyone in that isolated fishing village she left at 17.

The Irishman works without a green card in a health foods restaurant. He likes beansprouts, nuts, and most goat cheeses. He also silkscreens posters in his basement at night. His long, white fingers are smudged with raw, red ink. The poster glows, DO YOU WANT TO KILL YOUR BOSS? It’s very prettily designed, it's graphically appealing. It ends with a handshake.

The Anarchist examines the new poster, frowning at the quality. His silkscreen is fraying. He thinks of a specialist who prints with an expensive offset lithograph machine, realizing there's a certain quality of poster you need in New York to be noticed. The specialist, who amuses the Anarchist, is fascinated by the “Spy vs. Spy” comic of the raincoated anarchist. His favorite episode is when the spy attempts to throw a bomb sticky with adhesive, ending up a very charred cartoon man. Once he embarrassed himself, by expecting the Anarchist to agree to the cartoon's subversive nature. "I mean, it's anarchistic, even if the magazine still makes money on it.”
The redhead laughed, "Anachronistic, you mean.”

The Anarchist's Girlfriend is from Brooklyn. She's apolitical. She works as a Go-Go Dancer for sixty dollars a night. She sews unusual ideas of what people could wear, might wear, perhaps will wear, in the next century at least. She can combine textures, styles, and periods to come up with any particular feeling in a short while. This is how she “positions” her creations. The Anarchist disapproves, since he is very careful how and where he positions his posters.

"One must have the largest audience possible!” he often admonishes her, "Who will buy these?"
She always answers with conviction, ''Museums of the Future. Underneath a holographic fashion cube a small latex placard will say, ANONYMOUS DESIGNER, 1980, DATE APPROXIMATE WITH TEUTONIUM 90.”

The Anarchist's Girlfriend has short blonde hair cut like Kim Novak and a ski slope nose under the largest, softest, otherworldly eyes. Though her heart is strong, she has very thin shoulders, and delicate highly-tuned nerves. Luckily, she is blessed with second sight. When the men hoot at her Go-Go Act, she excuses their ignorance. In her mind's eye, she is wearing a demure black dress.
In accordance with her futuristic visions, she dropped her name several years ago. She told her friends, “Oh, I don't have to carry it on; several others are listed the same way.” To tell the truth, she believed there would be no such designation in the future. Presently, she preferred the privacy of being known by how people referred to her. Since they often identified her by boyfriends, she became the AG, the Anarchist’s Girlfriend. She doesn't mind the abbreviation as she treasures her friends who entrust her with all their tragedies.

Chapter 1 Excerpt, Sandy Before the Boards.
“Dust is used to test the circuitry in missiles. If a microdot is present in any electrical component, it could misfire to the wrong continent. But it could never happen.”
“You don’t sound convinced.”

(Part of a conversation between "Mr.Dio" and Sandy an answering service operator in THE ANARCHIST'S GIRLFRIEND. In reality, he was an exec, who confessed to an office temp.)

This is a fiction based on fact. While the events in the novel are mostly fiction, many of the characters are based on real people. And there are conversations, like this one that actually happened. Interview has more info about this novel.


Today’s author interview is with Susan Weinstein, whose underground classic, THE ANARCHIST’S GIRLFRIEND is being released in a definitive new edition from Pelekinesis. The wacky novel combines themes of terrorism, metaphysics and conspiracies and I gobbled it up.  

Here is some background on Susan:

Susan I. Weinstein is a writer, playwright, and painter—and a graduate of Temple University's Tyler School of Art. She is married and lives in NYC.  Susan has made her living publicizing books on arts, social and political issues, among other topics, for mainstream, small and university presses. Her review blog is

SARETT:  I love writers who use comedy to address darker issues of identity and meaning -- and you do this remarkably well in The Anarchist’s Girlfriend.  What’s the biggest challenge in keeping it funny?
Weinstein: Keeping a perspective and not getting lost in the dark.  I think humor is perspective.  There’s a Moliere quote that’s stuck in my mind. It’s something like, if you look at life with your heart it’s a tragedy. If you look at it with your mind, it’s a comedy.  

SARETT: Are there any writing rules that you secretly enjoy breaking?
Weinstein: Believability and likeability. I don’t think there’s a good writer who has those in mind or is sure what they mean, when they get down to work. Write what you know is another shibboleth.  A person may understand what it’s like to live on Mars, without knowing how they know that.  I think Ursula LeGuin has debunked quite a few rules.  

SARETT: You’ve mentioned that Dostoyevsky's The Idiot prompted your invention of the other-worldly Anarchist’s Girlfriend.  As I read, many of these characters seemed like people I’d met in downtown Manhattan.  What was the mix of real vs. invented?
Weinstein:  I lived in a Bowery loft down the street from Nan Goldin.  One of her roommates, Jan, drew incredible comic strips and made clothes of the future. An Irish Anarchist silkscreened peace posters in a basement down the street.  Mr. Dio was real, as was the Arizona Dust. I met him on a temp job. (He called me into his office to confess his fears that the dust used to store missiles would misfire.)   The Llama is a composite with a good deal of Werner Erhard. Wes Mavine is based on an artist/businessman, whom I threw a broom at, after he fired me.   

As for Sandy: I worked as a switchboard operator. My clients did include a church suicide prevention center, a prostitution ring, a dog grooming place. I once was crossing the street when a van stopped and the driver fell out in an epileptic fit. I directed traffic, as did the Anarchist's Girlfriend.   

SARETT:  You poke holes though pseudo-spiritualism, yet there's no doubt that the Anarchist's Girlfriend has psychic ability.  Do you believe in such powers or is this a literary conceit?   
Weinstein: Both.  I believe some people have abilities we call psychic.  I think they are often stronger in childhood and diminish. I think these abilities are based on science we don’t understand. The Maimonides Dream Institute in the late 1960’s proved the existence of dream telepathy—these experiments were published by Penguin. I read it because I experienced this as an adolescent. I dreamed a series of pop songs, before they came out!

SARETT:  The wacky humor, and inventive plotting of the novel reminded me of Thomas Pynchon. Were you a fan of his?  Other stylistic muses?  
Weinstein: I read some Pynchon but I read all of John Dos Passos's USA Trilogy.  The character, The Anarchist's Girlfriend, is a kind of blond descendent of Nana and Sister Carrie, though her soul's akin to Dostoyevsky's The Idiot.  I like Bret Harte's Western humor in relating tragic events. Then there is science fiction: Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint and Theodore Sturgeon's IT.

SARETT: The novel is set in the New York of the early eighties, and yet it seems remarkably pertinent to our current obsessions with terrorism.  If you were setting today, what changes (aside from sky high rents), would you envision for the story?
Weinstein: The New York of 2016 is far less idiosyncratic, more collective, hive-like than before.  Today, every terrorist act seems calculated-- most are players with a larger cultural agenda.  Now I might show how cell phones and social media affect thinking.  For instance, a desperate personal act like the Anarchist’s, would not be attempted in his insular way with no intention of hurting anyone.  Similarly, Sandy’s operation would be a different grandiose project.  She might be a career oriented performance artist—and the outcome of her operation would be subverted by her "contacts."  The Anarchist's Girlfriend might be a fashion muse, the Anarchist, a designer of brand logos, Wayne a news blogger.  

SARETT:  Your characters have such detailed, rich lives—it must have been difficult to let them go.  Do you ever wonder about their fates?  Did you contemplate a sequel?
Weinstein:  I am attached to these characters.  But they occupy a specific time and place.  The Anarchist's Girlfriend's passage is from innocence to maturity. And all the characters experience a crucial passage.  The ending shows the shape of some futures--Wayne's, the AG, The Anarchist, The Llama and Sandy. I can imagine them waking up in our time in the altered roles I described but no sequel.

SARETT:  This novel has an interesting publishing history--colorful in itself.  Tell us a little about its evolution.  Is the new version revised?  
Weinstein: I read and performed chapters of this novel in art bars/clubs and at marathon benefits for zines. It evolved slowly over several years.  The introduction appeared in the 1984 debut issue of "The Portable Lower East Side," now in NYU’s collection.  The evolving MS attracted the notice of several notable editors, but was never picked up.  Years later, I gave an editor my ONLY copy (by then on unplayable diskettes.)  She loved it, but not for her press. Worse yet, she had trashed it (assuming no one was idiotic enough to send an original.) I got the box before the trash was picked up!   2000's, Eat Your Serial Press published it, but it was not a "professional" launch.   

Now, finally, the book is getting a proper release with a small, literary press.  The Pelekinesis book is a new edition—edited, with a new preface and visuals.     

SARETT:  I’m always seeking new (or forgotten) writers.  Any books that you’d like recommend to our blog readers?  
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Writing Across the Landscape
Konundrum: Selected Prose of Franz Kafka selected and translated by Peter Wortsman
Edith Nesbit:  her books inspired Lewis' Narnia series and The Wizard of Oz books.  Her fantasy is wise about innocence. The Story of The Story of the Amulet, 5 Children and IT, The Magic City

SARETT:  What’s up next?  Any projects in the works?
Weinstein: I am finishing new material for the 2017 New Editions: Paradise Gardens, which takes place in 2050 on the Earth's surface and 3011 underground; and Tales of The Mer Family Onyx:  Mermaid Stories on Land and Under the Sea.   I have a new novel based on blacked-out v-mail-- plus a play to finish and marketing of another, "The Wapshot Whatever."

Learn more about Susan:
Twitter @swpubrel

ORDER from Pelekenesis here 
ALSO available at Barnes and Noble  and Amazon

 Good Reads!  The Anarchist's Girlfriend New Edition, debut 12/11
's review
Oct 28, 2016

it was amazing
Read from October 22 to 28, 2016

This is a wildly entertaining novel-- seriously wacky, inventive and original. The plot manages to incorporate three different weird (Pynchonese) conspiracies/groups-- each well-drawn, persuasive and fresh- and naturally, they collide. The author draws their self-enclosed realities with pitch-perfect comedy; -and I loved the absence of traditional, hackneyed corporate villains, cops, etc. Also, the details of downtown arty Manhattan are sharp and funny. All in all, a joyride.

THE ANARCHIST'S GIRLFRIEND NYC late 1970s to early 1980s
She walked this Bowery. The loft she shared was on the other side of the truck.
In book there's an episode with a Mayflower Van that happened at that 4th st.
and Bowery intersection. Further down the street...

Here's a Paul the Book Interview, about life vs. fictional life in the Anarchist's Girlfriend and Pelekinesis Press talking small press and New Edition.  Amazon is still offering the Serial version at dirt cheap prices, but the New Edition is simply much better.  It's not just a reprint. So if you have interest. Below is the podcast. And thanks.

One of the most disturbing yet oddly funny science fiction/dystopian sagas I've ever read. When corporations have wrung every drop out of nature and mankind has no other option but to build entire communities underground, how do you spin it to make it seem like a dream destination? You call it Paradise Gardens of course and you sell it like everything else. When we have no natural water, no natural food, and even the wind and the sunlight has been poisoned you will still have hucksters selling whatever is left for top of the line prices. A thought provoking story well conceived and brilliantly executed.--Patrick King, author of the Shane Collaine Series

"From the infinitely imaginative mind of Susan Weinstein, PARADISE GARDENS spins a fabulous web. Clever, funny, serious, and prescient, this novel takes us on a breathtaking journey. Lovers of Aldous Huxley's and Margaret Atwood's dystopias are in for a satisfying treat."

Sonia Taitz, award-winning author of The Watchmaker's Daughter and Great With Child."

Preface to Paradise Gardens New Edition

It was the age of Reagan, 1980s, when I began Paradise Gardens. I had just read a book on how capitalism evolved from feudalism and was living in "Morning in America." I began to imagine capitalism devolving into a modern corporatized feudalism, as a conservative ideal of America. Originally entitled Inside the U.R.S. (The United Religious System), the novel was written as a cautionary tale, since this was a time of ascendancy for far-right religious groups. Some were believers in the rapture, the apocalypse and rise to heaven of the faithful--after the 4 horsemen did their work. It seemed those in power were doing all they could to accelerate the end times.
Whether messianic or fiscal ideals, they manifested in actions, such as closing mental hospitals and having patients on the streets with no treatment. A vague plan for patients being integrated into "the community" never occurred. Benefiting corporations, stockholders and generally wealthy individuals was the higher objective. They had risen, because they were superior beings. It was a point of government to serve the elite doing the deity's work. Ayn Rand was again in vogue, along with a social Darwinism.

This attitude trickled down, not any financial benefit to average people, from  huge tax breaks and unfettered business. I remember a casual conversation at a bar with a Wall Street investment banker. He told me, quite earnestly, that I should leave my rent-controlled apartment. I was preventing the real estate from achieving its market destiny. I was impeding the greater good of business. So before 1984, in this environment (an ethos culminating in 1987's  "Greed is Good" in Wall Street),  I began to dream Paradise Gardens.

The novel began with an image of a young woman in a corporate office, who was a model employee. In that time, I worked temp jobs in corporations and had a publishing job in the devilishly numbered 666 Fifth Ave building, which had a lush red carpet. I also was a publicist for Bluejay Books, which focused on science fiction classics in beautiful hard covers. I was a literary person, who had an interest in utopias, from Thomas More's to America's Utopian experiments, from the Shakers to communes in the 1960s. Writing press kits and talking to people like Harlan Ellison, Vernor Vinge (whose True Names anticipated the Internet), and most of all Theodore Sturgeon, widened my idea of classics.

Sturgeon, who started out wanting to be a fiction writer for The New Yorker, fairly invented in the '50s the genre of something weird in the suburbs. Spielberg once acknowledged that if he hadn't read Sturgeon in his youth, he would not have made his suburban movies (his E.T. is a direct cousin of Sturgeon's story, "It!") Sturgeon also inspired Vonnegut's janitor Kilgore Trout (one of his various roles in Vonnegut novels). Science fiction could be literary and down to earth. I read Philip K. Dick and remember how Time Out of Joint blasted the complacency of day-to-day life. I could see the direct line from Kafka's Penal Colony to Dick's Man in the High Castle.

But my roots are in social realists, Zola and the Americans, Dreiser, Dos Passos, and Sinclair Lewis. Lewis' It Can't Happen Here is a cautionary tale about fascism, through America's Jaycees and Lions Clubs. Patriotism is flacked by a president, an Ad Man selling America a bill of goods. It was written in the thirties and I considered it a period piece, though a very plausible one. Paradise Gardens has an edge of satire and Dick's wide-ranging freedom of invention. This story grew, was improvised, cut back and redrafted for about ten years.

Paradise Gardens is a dark book. It begins when the Earth's surface is too polluted to support human life. In the wake of the dissolution of the Old Federal government, corporations flee underground to the ultimate real estate project Paradise Gardens. I have been haunted by what occurs, because it is lived by characters who became real to me. And as the story was always present, in the back of my mind, I dreamed segments, as well as imagined them awake. The characters evolved their world in my consciousness. Before it was serialized, I  found I had to update  things that had already occurred in my book, before they happened in reality. The World Trade Center is partially destroyed, the Information Pirates, their billboards and  missions to preserve facts, operated before there was an Internet. Some things had to be updated for our time.

Now we find ourselves at what to the apocalyptic seems the beginning of the end of our democracy, with a president-elect who has sold angry voters what appears to be another bill of dubious goods. To the more pragmatic, this presidency just means four years of a regressive agenda--yet it's crucial for the international climate crisis, which can't be undone. Like all dystopians, I hope that reality does not continue to merge with my fiction.

If a cautionary tale has a function, it raises consciousness of what can happen--to ward it off. This novel may be the equivalent of shamanic practices, where a tribe wards off a disaster by transferring negative energy to an object. Some also use earth to cleanse negative energy, water or fire to change its nature. Knowledge for any society is the best protection. And in our time, perhaps negative visualization has a function. This novel can purge our fear, allow a passage for changing dark  "unthinkable" visualization to a positive future. Paradise Gardens is a passage and at the end, there is unity--of people, place, and nature. 


Friday, December 23, 2016

Genteel savagery and shocking tenderness in Carla Sarett's short stories to rival Roald Dahl's classic KISS KISS

Great blog interview w/Carla Sarret:

Contemporary short stories often present, in present tense, a slice of prosaic life with a psychological insight that's not unpredictable. Carla Sarett's stories astonish you with the extraordinary in contexts you thought familiar. Readers, like complacent aristocrats in a story in Roald Dahl's classic collection KISS KISS,  tour a manicured garden suddenly halted by Pan's primal savagery, Sarett's world, like Dahl's is both genteel and primal, Both expose the fantastic behind the prosaic, poking holes in hypocrisy with cool wit. Sarett surprises with a tender feeling for human suffering, though she skewers human idiocy  .

    For instance, in "Kindred Spirits" from her Art Collection stories, a young artist looking for inspiration in the Catskill Mountains, finds a painting in a Curio Shop that uncannily transforms her work and life, though fame has a peculiar price. In "For Better or Worse" from Crazy Lovebirds, a woman makes herself "perfect" with technology,convinces her partner to match her--with devastating results. In Chopin for Igor from Spooky and Kooky Tales, a "cat person"chosen by her feline little realizes the true nature of her adored pet. In "String Theory Valentine"from Strange Courtships, a high school couple's romance dissolves as they go off into the world, but through a strange quirk of a parallel universe, are forever linked. In" Stand-By", when a man's on-line date stands him up, his notion of himself enters another world of values. Both these stories and the enigmatic "Mandolina" are in Strange Courtships. This story is below.

So, who is Carla Sarett?  Carla Sarett began writing stories in 2010, after careers in academia, film, TV and market research. She has published short stories in over twenty magazines, literary and humor, as well as in anthologies. Recently, she finished two novels,  Closet Feminist and The Captain's House.  The first is a comedy about a brainy, clothes-obsessed 20-something who chases after her dream guy, only to find her dream career instead. The Captain's House is a literary mystery in which a historical re-enactor discovers the secret of Philadelphia's Underground Railroad. 

Whether Carla Sarett is writing comedy or mystery, investigating metaphysics, theoretical science, history or art, her subject is the human dilemma.  Outrageous, subtle, funny or tragic, Sarett's stories are completely original. Her books are in the Kindle store

Audio Clips: "The Library Girl"

For me, there’s no film like Vertigo.  What scene can top the one in which Jimmy Stewart rejects one suit after another, yearning for the perfectly tailored gray suit, the one that his beloved Madeline wore?  It’s the scene in which the saleswoman knowingly says, "The gentleman certainly knows what he wants."  The irony is perfect—we know that Madeline was a fake, her death was faked, but the man has no clue.

But he’s right about that suit, isn’t he?  That suit has style. I’ve learned a bit about style from Lucia Forrest—she is now well-known in museum circles. In college, Lucia seemed the pinnacle (at least to me) of old money, high spirits and a certain kind of Southern decadence.  She used a cigarette holder, she wore dark red lipstick, she even quoted Baudelaire.

Like many friends, we lost touch after college and then found one another though Facebook.  And after a hiatus of many years, we got together at the Algonquin Bar, in midtown Manhattan—at around three in the afternoon, it’s empty.  She was instantly recognizable, despite her shapeless plaid dress which seemed straight off the farm.  With her blond hair primly tied back, Lucia’s new style seemed to be country woman in town for the day.

As it happened, Lucia Forrest did live on a farm a few hours from the city. “I don’t understand how I’ve ended up single, all alone with just the horses to keep me company.  I thought I’d make a perfect wife,” Lucia said, sighing. The horses and the farm seemed about right, but the wife part was jarring.  At school, Lucia had been linked with a tallish woman from Maine.  “You two walked hand in hand, like lovers,” I reminded her.

“That was to attract the boys,” Lucia laughed. “I heard all the boys liked lesbians.”  She said “the boys” the way Southern girls do. It seemed a misguided strategy.  But, maybe lots of girls did wild things to persuade an ordinary fellow that they would make a good housewife.  You never know.

"Perhaps men aren’t so eager to marry a woman who wants to have sex with other women," I suggested in my married voice. "Perhaps they only want to have sex with such a woman, but not marry her. Because sex and marriage are different, sex and love are different." Lucia nodded, as if my statement were a novel and original insight.  This fit in with Lucia's idea of me as a brilliant Jewess from her past, although Jews were hardly scarce in New York.

Just then, a pretty woman entered the bar. She seemed to be in her thirties or older, dressed hippie style, with gold hoop earrings, a gauzy Indian-tunic and long flowing hair.  She approached and asked politely if we wanted our cards read.  Her voice was educated-- she might have been an actress before ending up in these sad straits.  I imagined her as a little girl, unaware of a future in which she roamed bars seeking tips for card-readings. I sensed that Lucia was in the mood for frivolous entertainment. “Sure, let's do it, it's on me, Lucia."

“I need you to focus on a problem in your life,” the Tarot woman said, with a touching gravity.
Having none, I thought about a business contract, which I felt confident about winning. I have learned to wish for things that I know will come true.

The woman spread the cards for Lucia. I have no knowledge of the cards, but they looked invitingly bright and bold. “You are going to start a new business-- perhaps, something with computers.”
I had assumed that Lucia, like me, viewed the cards as a childish game, but she gazed at the Tarot woman with intensity. Perhaps Lucia was becoming a New Age woman.

The bright cards were laid out again, this time on my behalf.  I’m thinking of business, I said.  Her beautiful eyes met mine. She asked, “Have you met someone from a strange place, maybe a foreign country?
“No, I’m sorry, I haven’t.”
“Pay attention, you will,” the Tarot woman said, disappointed. “This is important.”
Taken aback by her sweetness, I handed her a generous tip.  "I'll pay attention, I promise!" I waved to the pretty Tarot woman as we left.

Lucia and I next met at The Arts Club in Gramercy Park—Lucia’s a member there.  Perhaps in honor of the club’s famed Gothic ornamentation, Lucia had resurrected some of her former elegance and even had a new hairstyle.  I myself had worn a wonderful grey vintage jacket, asymmetric and stiff.
Lucia admired the hand-sewn silk lining of my jacket.  “This type of construction, it’s too complicated and detailed for today’s factories.  No one knows how to create things like this anymore,” she said, with her enthusiasm for all things old.

After dinner, Lucia confided about her new online relationship.  The man's name was Henry Oliver --he was a professor of American history at a small liberal arts college, somewhere in New England.  His expertise was the history of the Salem witch trials.  He had responded to Lucia's profile, which highlighted her interests in American antiques, the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School, horses, and, also, modern witchcraft.  Lucia showed me his picture-- a distinctive face, craggy and dark-eyed, handsome.

"Sounds promising, you two have a lot in common.  It’s a good start," I said.
I meant it.  Lucia and Henry were both scholarly types.  It was comforting to imagine them engaged in this almost nineteenth century correspondence.  Besides, Lucia might even admire Henry's academic writings.  Those who toil in museums must read the books that most of us do our best to avoid.

She smiled. “We’re planning to meet this summer at Olana.  That will be our first meeting.”
"Olana is amazing.  It’s like a fairy tale.  It’s the perfect place," I agreed dreamily since Frederick Church’s Olana is one of the most beautiful of the estates along the Hudson River.  Although, it occurred to me, driving to Olana was a lot of work for one date.  Why not go to a nice restaurant in New York, instead?  But I kept quiet--no one ever takes advice anyway.

In hindsight, I should have spoken up.  Poor Lucia had made the trek to Olana, and waited until the gates closed. Henry’s e-mail arrived the next morning.  He claimed to have met a new woman, unexpectedly—he hoped Lucia would understand. 

"Why do men think women should understand? Why am I supposed to understand?" she said, tearfully. Henry is a moron, I thought.  He didn't even have the sense to trot out the usual tale of the insane ex-wife swinging an ax or the suicidal ex-lover.  All he could invent was a new relationship, of all things."There's nothing to understand.  A lot of men are lunatics, this happens a lot.  It's happened to lots of my friends."

In fact, my other friends were nothing like Lucia, although maybe they too chased men like the neurotic handsome Henry.  I wondered which of Lucia's many photos Henry had seen—she had hundreds of pictures of her younger glamorous self.  But with men, who knows?
Soon after, Lucia's new online identity was born.  With considerable artistry, Lucia digitally manipulated the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting by the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti – its actual title is La Mandolinata.  Lucia was now Mandolinata, an exquisite beauty with long wavy hair and soulful eyes.

Mandolinata described herself as a “spirit girl”—a student of Wicca and the occult.  She was intent upon exploring her deeply spiritual voyage with a man who, like her, longed for freedom, longed to explore his inner self.  Mandolinata lived in a remote part of upstate New York, not far from Olana, as it happened. I wondered how many hours had been wasted on this silly invention, and to what end? 

 I asked, "What kind of man would want a woman like Mandolinata? I mean, the name alone."
“Thousands,” was Lucia’s answer. “They want to join her on her spiritual journey, they want to climb mountains—she’s the girl of their dreams.”  Lucia cracked up as she read the e-mails: "Oh, spirit girl, I must meet you!"—that was the general theme.

Of course, it was not thousands that Lucia cared about.  It was only one.  And sure enough, Henry Oliver took the bait.  Lucia had judged her man correctly. Mandolinata was the spirit girl of Henry Oliver's dreams, too.This was when I expected Lucia to reveal all and teach Henry a good lesson.  That's the romantic storyline that I imagined.  Henry would lament his shallowness.  He and Lucia would have their date.  She would wear a beautifully tailored suit.  They would drink martinis, maybe at the Carlyle, jazz piano playing softly in the background.  They would laugh at their middle-aged follies.

But Lucia had a different plot in mind.  She started to write to Henry as Mandolinata. Their second online correspondence was more intense than the first, but with a twist. Lucia Forrest by this time knew exactly what would excite Henry’s imagination.  So the tale of Mandolinata was tinged with a sense of the Gothic. Lucia read me some of it:

"I spent my early years on one of the remote islands in the Gulf of Maine-- we were completely cut off from the modern world.  The island's beaches were solitary and rocky. I often walked hours without seeing a soul. My father was a boat-maker, well-known for his designs.  My mother taught me how to play the mandolin, read me the poetry of William Blake, and introduced me to the ancient ways of white witchcraft. I remember her sweet voice. But then, for reasons that no one understands, my father drowned my sweet-voiced mother at sea.  Terrified, I escaped from the island, helped by a kind fisherman and his wife.  I now live alone. I can only speak to you when I meet you- please understand."

She paused.  "I think I got everything in there -- the mandolin, Blake, boat-making, even witchcraft."
"Hmm," I said, "Isn’t it a bit much?  I mean, he's a clever man, he's got to know this is a joke."
Although come to think of it, I had no evidence that Henry was clever.  In fact, given his interests in modern witchcraft and now, spirit girls, he probably was not.  Lucia shrugged, as if to agree with my thoughts.

Inevitably, Lucia/Mandolinata probed Henry's romantic history-- was she Henry's first cyber-love?  And so, Henry described his "callous" deception of Lucia.  Now that Mandolinata had made Henry "a better man," he confessed he had never intended to meet Lucia at Olana.  At Mandolinata’s insistence, Henry wrote Lucia a hand-written apology on lovely parchment paper.

“Not bad, surprisingly grammatical,” Lucia said, after she read the letter to me.
"So, he screwed up, so what? If you told him the truth, you'd be even," I argued, frustrated with this revenge theme. "A neurotic man is bound to screw up at some point." But I guess I do not understand high style -- and I should have remembered, no one ever takes advice.

The elaborate charade continued.  Now, the spirit girl and Henry arranged a meeting at the Algonquin Bar, after which they would spend a magical evening in Manhattan.  This time, according to his e-mails, Henry arrived early and waited hours.  Naturally, Mandolinata did not show up – and she vanished. Tired of the time-consuming game, Lucia had deleted Mandolinata's profile. Henry Oliver now bored Lucia, although, interestingly, he had moved to New York.  

Lucia rattled off her accomplishments: Henry had been punished, he had apologized to Lucia, and he had told the truth about what happened at Olana, or what Lucia imagined was the truth.  My own opinion of Olana differed, but I kept it to myself. Lucia joked about Henry’s yearnings for his imaginary spirit girl.  "You have to admit, Mandolinata is far more interesting than Henry, especially after her vanishing act."
"I guess so, but deception's not my style," I said.

Months later, I returned to the Algonquin Bar to meet a client—my first visit since my encounter with Lucia and the Tarot woman.  I checked off what had happened.  Yes, I won a business contract, and to my amusement, my client was Pakistani. Lucia Forrest's digital spirit girl might be considered a new venture --it certainly had involved a computer. And, in a sense, I suppose it was fair to say that Mandolinata came from a “strange place.”  Perhaps, the Tarot cards had been in touch with something, after all.

Just then, I noticed the pretty Tarot woman sitting with a dark-eyed handsome man.  Now, I did pay attention. It was not a card reading.  Two glasses of white wine were on the table.  The man gazed at the Tarot woman, clasped her hand, and smiled.  Today, she wore pearl earrings and a tailored dove grey jacket.  It was only a matter of seconds before I recognized the man as Henry Oliver.  I looked at the pretty Tarot woman with her long wavy hair and her beautiful eyes. For all I know, her name really could be Mandolinata.