Search results for My brother John

My Brother John . . . in BYSTANDER

When I was writing the first draft for BYSTANDER, I had to contend with the issue of the new boy in town, Eric Hayes. I knew he would have a problem with a bully — but why? My sense of bullies is that they are  cunning, predatory, keen and careful in the targets they select. So Eric, I decided, needed some kind of vulnerability. Something subtle, but nonetheless something that an astute boy could perceive, the way the wolf pack selects the weakest in the herd.

I thought of my brother, John, eight years my elder, who had been living with a diagnosis of Schizophrenia for many years. He had been married in college, and quickly had two beautiful boys, my nephews. But it could not last. John went through many stages of mental illness, from terrible times to placid years of dulled medication. He was unable to be a husband, and struggled to be any kind of father. As the boys grew older, the distance became more acute, their fragile relationship almost untenable. Everyone did their best. All of us. But it was not good enough. Not even close.

As I wrote the book, I allowed John to stand in as a loose model for Eric’s absent father, like a shadow cast by a guttering flame. I didn’t do much with the character, it was not where I intended the book to go, so I quickly explained him away, took a few traits from John, a few moments from his life (he used to send my son, Nick, these crazy CDs in the mail, out of the goodness of his wild heart, as some act of connection). Eric’s father in the book would do the same.

For Eric, it was simple. His father was not there anymore; and worse, he was sick in a challenging way, one that was difficult for a 13-year-old boy to understand. His father went off the meds, as my brother did, as so many others who suffer from mental illness do. Because the medications can bring their own kind of death.

So the mother took her two boys and moved to Long Island. There: I had what I needed for my story, Eric’s vulnerability. And I had that other important thing, a little bit of soul.

Here comes the bizarre part. One day after I turned in that first draft to Liz Szabla, I received word that John had died in his home in Virginia. Suddenly, irrevocably, gone. A final loss after endless years of loss. Heartache, suffering. I thought of his boys. What did they feel? How have they felt all these years? I thought of my book, and how John had hovered around its edges like a ghost, a spectral presence that was felt, but scarcely heard.

Liz and I talked about it. John’s tragic life and death. The book, in Liz’s view, was almost clean. It barely needed revision. Yet we both knew that I’d have to honor this strange almost spiritual coincidence, and dig deeper, and do more to flesh out this character, my brother, Eric’s father-in-the-mind.

I wrote a new chapter that focused on Eric and the absent father, Chapter 11. I added small pieces in a couple of other places. A scene at Jones Beach. Changed the ending of the book, the longing expressed in that final sentence. Here’s a few paragraphs from Chapter 11, with Eric reflecting on life with his father in Ohio, and later, without:

It was scary. Because his father was still around, drifting aimlessly from room to room. When things were okay, when Eric didn’t think about it too much, Eric could sit quietly in the same room with his father and feel . . . good. Pretend everything was okay. He still had a dad. Not just any dad, but his dad, his one and only. That guy over there, the innocent one with the gentle soul, who loved trees and music and laughter and his two sons, that swell guy whose thoughts were eating him alive.

Then some things happened — other memories now, the water of remembering rising ever higher — when Eric’s father lost control, smashed a mirror and some lamps, ripped down the blinds off a bay window — and was gone the next morning before Eric awoke. And here was the truly shameful thing, the horror in Eric’s heart: He was glad. Good riddance. Who needs to live with that?

People can lose a leg. People can get their hands stuck in machines and have their fingers torn off. Terrible car accidents robbed people of their sight, their ability to walk, their dreams and hopes of a healthy future. But there was nothing worse — nothing on this earth, of that Eric was sure — than losing your mind, your peace of mind, because that was like losing your self. It was losing everything.

His father was a walking absence, a faint duplicate, a watered-down version of his former self, without substance enough to cast a shadow.

There was no way Eric could tell Griffin Connelly that story. So he told bits and pieces and white lies. Eric wondered if Griffin sensed it, the whole truth, if somehow Griffin already knew, saw into Eric’s secret heart and smiled.


I dedicated the book in memory of my brother John, loving father to David and Ryan.

If My Siblings Were Album Covers

I’m the youngest of seven children. I grew up with a rich inheritance of music. As my brothers and sisters went off to college and other experiences, many of their albums found their way upstairs in the crappy stereo cabinet, their divergent tastes all mashed together. It was amazing, and I’m still in awe of that great motherload of music I got to hear at any early age.

One game I played a lot involved a small garbage can set up on a table and a wadded up piece of paper. I’d pretend — for hours, it seemed — to be players on the New York Knicks. I’d invent elaborate games, acting out shots, keeping score. I was Dave Debusschere, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dick Barnett, Bill Bradley. That classic 1969-70 team. And all the while, I rocked the house. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Donovan, Spooky Tooth, Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, on and on, endlessly.

Proust can have his madeleine cake. But in terms of generating memories, there’s nothing for me like the associations that come with specific songs and albums. Today I decided to show one album cover for each sibling. Not necessarily their favorite, or most representative, but one that always brings them to mind.


My brother Neal was a Dylan fanatic, and definitely my most influential brother when it came to music. He loved to sing, something that the rest of us never attempted. He was singular in that regard. This album always makes me think of him. Could have gone with early Dylan or “Jesus Christ Superstar.”


I can’t hear this great album without flashing on my brother Al. I also remember him talking to me about Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” Problem is, Al’s not really a Hendrix guy.


This one is slippery. Compared to Neal, Billy didn’t have super refined tastes from what I recall. He kind of bounced around, listening to whatever. I do remember his red-and-white box of 45s, which I loved flipping through. But this album will always remind me of a specific day. It was Billy’s return from Vietnam. He came home with a great stereo system, as so many soldiers did, including a “light box” that flashed along to the music. A bunch of his friends and I, his adoring and much younger little brother, crowded into his bedroom when he played this album. Hey, yours is no, yours is no disgrace.


Almost went with Dan Fogelberg here. Or James Taylor. Jean definitely had the classic teenage sister tastes — the sensitive songwriters — along with her Richard Brautigan novels. I still have a soft spot for most of it. Even the dreaded Fogelberg.


Kind of a cheat here. Barbara in my mind was the least musical, in that I find it hard to recall her ever being particularly enthusiastic about any particular album. She did have this fantastic collection of 50s records — “Oldies But Goodies” — and I enjoyed playing those fun songs over and over again. “Alley Oop!”


My brother John introduced me to this album. I remember him telling me about it, and playing it for me. I also remember playing the Doors “Waiting for the Sun” album in his bedroom, acting out “The Unknown Soldier” in front of a mirror, falling on his bed at the sound of the gunshot. I did that a lot. Just a little boy playing with his brother’s records.

It occurs to me now that I still love all those albums. It’s partly transference, I’m sure. When I play some of this music, I hear my life reverberating back like a distant echo in the hills. Just lucky, I guess. Let the good times roll.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #227: The New Technology Embedded in this Letter Just Made My Head Explode!

This letter from Madison in Chicago was particularly amazing because it included a video message:

Scan 5

Fortunately my wife, Lisa, was home to help me with it. She downloaded a “QR Reader” app on her phone, we scanned the blobby thing, typed in the password, and instantly a video of Madison appeared on the phone. There she was, reading from my book! Incredible.

Here’s the letter in full, with my reply below:

Scan 2

My answer:

Dear Madison,

Wow, that was so cool. I’ve received many letters before, but yours was the first to include a QR Code. Is that what you call it? Amazing and wonderful to see you in that video. You read very well, and I liked where you were standing with those funky planks in the background, giving your video an artistic touch. Bravo! I appreciate all the work you put into it, and my guess is that your teacher helped a great deal in bringing this new technology into the standard “letter to the author” format. Very cool.

61ZJfCfXgSL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Thanks for reading four out of the six books in my “Scary Tales” series. Good point about Malick in One-Eyed Doll. He really did show a tremendous amount of courage. I liked that aspect of the story, that he was an older brother who looked out for his younger sister, Tiana.

You asked about six billion questions, so let me get to those:

* Correction: I’m now 55 years old. Rats.

* Correction #2: Thank you, but I do look at least several days older than 30. Weeks even. Months, years. Let’s put it this way: If someone thinks I’m 53, I smile, say thank you, and explain that I’ve been eating right and exercising.

* I have given up my dream of playing for the New York Mets. They don’t need me. But just this morning I signed up with a men’s hardball baseball team. I managed a team for years, then gave it up when I decided to coach my son’s All-Star and Travel teams. He just turned 16 and doesn’t need me in the dugout anymore, so now it’s my turn. I guess the lesson there is that if you enjoy something, keep doing it . . . even if it’s not for the New York Mets.

CourageTestFrontCvr* New books? Yes, for sure, that’s my job. I have a new book coming out this October that also touches on the theme of courage. It’s called The Courage Test. It’s about a father who takes his son on an unexpected trip — the entire time, the boy, Will, wonders what’s really going on — and they travel from Fort Mandan in North Dakota west along the Lewis and Clark Trail. So there’s a lot of history built into the story, about the Corps of Discovery, the native people they encountered, Sacagawea, York, and more. They meet new people along the way and have various camping and whitewater adventures. And they do encounter a bear, both literally and metaphorically. I hope you read it! I am also writing a new Jigsaw Jones book. 

* I’ve won some awards over the years, nothing too spectacular, usually by making state lists and whatnot. Books that have won something include: Along Came Spider, Wake Me In Spring, Six Innings, and Bystander

* I can write a Jigsaw Jones book, or a Scary Tales, in two months. Longer books for older readers tend to take more time. Six months, nine months, even years. 

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from Scary Tales #5: ONE-EYED DOLL.

Illustration by the great Iacopo Bruno from Scary Tales #5: ONE-EYED DOLL.

* My brothers are named Neal, Bill, Al, and John. My sisters are Barbara and Jean. Sadly, I have lost two brothers, Neal and John. Both are gone but not forgotten. My children are Nicholas, Gavin, and Maggie. The boys don’t like scary stories or movies, but Maggie is more like you. She loves to feel a sense of suspense, fear, and anticipation where her heart is racing, going boom, boom, boom. I think I wrote that series for readers like my Maggie.

* Cats are Midnight and Frozone. Our dog is Daisy.

Thank you for your fabulous letter. You really knocked it out of the park.

James Preller

2010, Best Of: My Year In New Music

Any list of best music should really be called “favorite music,” and mine has to begin with the standard caveat: I didn’t listen to or absorb nearly enough to make an informed choice.

But in addition to that, and possibly as a result of my advancing age (49), I find myself less infatuated with “the new” and “the next,” so don’t chase after the latest & greatest with the same zeal I once had. And there are diminishing finances to consider in this slumping, sluggish economy. While I’m always interested in hearing great new music, sometimes that amounts to discovering early Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac or a neglected John Fahey disc. Shouldn’t I just spend more time exploring the Kinks back catalog? So a lot of things that were new to me in 2010 were not at all new to the world, just new to mine.

That said, here goes:

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This was the year when I derived a lot of pleasure from the so-called British nu-folk movement, especially new disks from LAURA MARLING (“I Speak Because I Can”), MUMFORD & SONS (“Sigh No More”), TOM McRAE (“The Alphabet of Shadows”), and STORNOWAY’S debut (“Beachcomber’s Windowsill”).

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I also fully endorse some of the obvious choices, more on the hipster tip: ARCADE FIRE (“The Suburbs”), THE NATIONAL (“High Violet”), BROKEN BELLS (“s/t”), BEACH HOUSE (“Teen Dream”), and BLACK KEYS (“Brothers”). Love each one of those disks.

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In terms of singer-songwriters, I especially liked SHARON VAN ETTEN (“Epic”), LAURA VEIRS (“July Flame”), THE TALLEST MAN ON EARTH (“The Wild Hunt”), and CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG (“IRM”).

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A few old favorites came through with solid efforts, led by TEENAGE FANCLUB (“Shadows”), their best since “Songs of Northern Britain.” Others: PETER WOLF (“Midnight Souveniers”), and THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS (“Together”). In the alt-country vein, RYAN BINGHAM & THE DEAD HORSES (“Junky Star”), PHOSPHERESCENT followed up their disk of Willie Nelson covers with “Here’s to Taking It Easy,” and I’m still trying to wrap my ears around JAMEY JOHNSON’S 25-song, double-CD, “The Guitar Song.”

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More rock-based bands that I liked: TITUS ANDRONICUS (“The Monitor”), DEERHUNTER, (“Halcyon Digest”), and THE LIARS (“Sisterworld”).

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Some things that didn’t easily fit into the categories above: BLITZEN TRAPPER (“Destroyer of the Void”), BAND OF HORSES (“Infinite Arms”), and WILLIAM TYLER (“Behold the Spirit”). Bubbling Under: JOSH RITTER (“So Runs the World Away”).

Lastly, things I would own (and likely like) if I had more money: CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS (“Genuine Negro Jig”), JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE (“Harlem River Blues”), MIDLAKE (“The Courage of Others”), THE WALKMEN (“Lisbon”), FRIGHTENED RABBIT (“The Winter of Mixed Drinks”), THE ROOTS (“How I Got Over”), SPOON (“Transference”), THE VILLAGERS (Becoming a Jackel”), JOHNNY FLYNN (“Been Listening”).

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Acclaimed that I did not care for: VAMPIRE WEEKEND (“Contra”), THE BOOKS (“This Way Out”). Then there’s a lot of stuff I elected not to own, based on limited listenings, such as SLEIGH BELLS, WAVVES, YEASAYER, and a boatload of others that were praised elsewhere and I never gave, for a variety of reasons, a fair listen. Hey, my ears can’t be everywhere. And my taste currently leans much more into wooden music than electronica, and for me song craft continues to trump attitude.

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That leaves KANYE WEST’S “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” which is probably the most widely praised disk of the year. As a personality, I find Kanye unbearable –- and as a live performer on television I find him bloated and dull (an unlikely but devastating combo). Yet he does have an undeniable musical gift and made a compelling disk, with all kinds of high marks. The opening track, “Dark Fantasy” strikes me as ground-breaking and brilliant. Not to mention any time a rapper brings together King Crimson and Bon Iver is worth at least a wtf. I won’t listen to this CD much, but there’s definitely some head-turning moments that I couldn’t ignore.

So . . . My Top Nine:

Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling, The National, Black Keys, Beach House, Jamey Johnson, Tallest Man on Earth, Broken Bells, __________.

I’ll leave the tenth spot blank, because I probably didn’t hear it.

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As always . . . your mileage may vary. Hopefully you’ll find something you like here.

The Great Comedy Albums of My Youth: “March Comes In Like A Lion . . . and Out Like a Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse”

“Now look, pal! I know a country where March comes in like an emu and goes out like a tapir. And they don’t even know what it means!” — John Belushi

Do you remember listening to comedy albums? I sure do. In the 60’s, I inherited some classic Bill Cosby disks from my folks, plus the great Allan Sherman. I wore the grooves off his debut record (below), which featured tracks such as “The Ballad of Harry Lewis,” “Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max,” “My Zelda,” and “The Streets of Miami.”

According to the usually reliable Wikipedia, Sherman’s 1962 disk, “My Son, the Folksinger,” became the fastest-selling album up to that time. Think about that for a minute. Imagine everyone on the show “Mad Men” running around quoting Allan Sherman. Soon after, I guess, the Beatles showed up and changed everything.

The Cosby album that I loved was “I Started Out as a Child,” and again, I listened to it over and over again. Those routines are burned into my skull: “The Giant,” “Sneakers,” “Oops!,” “The Lone Ranger,” and “Ralph Jameson.”

As I got older, I remember when Pat Sweeney and I discovered his older brother’s album, “Big Bambu” by Cheech & Chong, which came out in 1971 (“Sister Mary Elephant,” “Ralphie and Herbie”). Oh my, oh my. The original album, as I recall, came packaged with rolling papers! We didn’t even know what they were for . . . yet. Comedy was taking on a new edge, an outsider status — and we loved that subversive quality. Just listening to it felt like a small criminal act. For that reason, we loved George Carlin, who raised the stakes considerably. In 1972, he came out with “Class Clown,” featuring “I Used to Be an Irish Catholic” and, most famously, “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.”

Again, it’s hard to describe the naughty thrill we felt as boys huddled around the turntable. We lapped it up and laughed and laughed, and somehow that counter-cultural strain seeped into our consciousness and shaped the way we looked at the world. Looking back now, I realize that I was at the exact right age for that moment in America, a tween when all the hypocrisy was hilariously exposed.

In 1976, when I was fifteen, I got a new album for Christmas (it was on my list, taped to our refrigerator), featuring The Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players. We had moved past Watergate and Vietnam, the 60’s were morphing into the Carter era and Disco was beginning to thump from speakers — as the Sex Pistols began gearing up against the bloated rock excesses of bands like Pink Floyd — and somehow this troupe of Saturday Night Live regulars had its collective finger on the pulse of America.

The stars are now legendary: John Belushi, Garrett Morris, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Dan Aykroyd, Loraine Newman, and Chevy Chase — with a memorable guest appearance from Richard Pryor (“Word Association”).

The one skit that inspired me to write this today came from John Belushi, as a high-strung weatherman. Here he plays with the notion of March coming in like a lion and out like a lamb. (See full transcript below.) You can also click here to listen to a 30-second snippet of that routine, plus many other classics (“Emily Litella,” “News for the Hard of Hearing,” “Uvula,” “Dueling Brandos,” “Jimmy Carter,” and more). I loved that album, just as I loved the excitement of staying up late to watch the weekly show.

It may be an overstatement to say that comedy was dangerous, but it was definitely no longer my dad’s old Allan Sherman albums. Times had changed and it was reflected in what made us laugh.

Here’s the skit:

Chevy Chase:
Last week we made the comment that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Now here to reply is our chief meteorologist, John Belushi, with a seasonal report.

John Belushi:
Thank you Chevy. Well, another winter is almost over and March true to form has come in like a lion, and hopefully will go out like a lamb. At least that’s how March works here in the United States.

But did you know that March behaves differently in other countries? In Norway, for example, March comes in like a polar bear and goes out like a walrus. Or, take the case of Honduras where March comes in like a lamb and goes out like a salt marsh harvest mouse.

Let’s compare this to the Maldive Islands where March comes in like a wildebeest and goes out like an ant. A tiny, little ant about this big.

(holds thumb and index fingers a small distance apart)

Unlike the Malay Peninsula where March comes in like a worm-eating fernbird and goes out like a worm-eating fernbird. In fact, their whole year is like a worm-eating fernbird.

Or consider the Republic of South Africa where March comes in like a lion and goes out like a different lion. Like one has a mane, and one doesn’t have a mane. Or in certain parts of South America where March swims in like a sea otter, and then it slithers out like a giant anaconda.

There you can buy land real cheap, you know. And there’s a country where March hops in like a kangaroo, and stays a kangaroo for a while, and then it becomes a slightly smaller kangaroo. Then, then, then for a couple of days it’s sort of a cross between a, a frilled lizard and a common house cat.

(Chevy Chase tries to interrupt him)

Wait wait wait wait. Then it changes back into a smaller kangaroo, and then it goes out like a, like a wild dingo. Now, now, and it’s not Australia! Now, now, you’d think it would be Australia, but it’s not!

(Chevy Chase tries to interrupt him)

Now look, pal! I know a country where March comes in like an emu and goes out like a tapir. And they don’t even know what it means! All right? Now listen, there are nine different countries, where March comes in like a frog, and goes out like a golden retriever. But that- that’s not the weird part! No, no, the weird part is, is the frog. The frog- The weird part is-

(has seizure and falls off chair)

As a final comment, and coming full circle, I have to confess to lifting some of those ideas for a brief scene in Jigsaw Jones Super Special #1: The Case of the Buried Treasure (maybe my favorite out of all the Jigsaw books, and amazingly still in print). I don’t think I consciously made that connection to Belushi and SNL, but in hindsight I can see that my roots were showing.

Setup: Jigsaw and Mila are at the bus stop, talking with Joey Pignattano. Note to teachers: the book focuses a bit on similes — it’s a minor theme running through the story — and you may find that instructive/helpful.

“I was wondering,” Joey Pignattano said to me. “What kind of animal do you think January would be?”

“What?!” I replied.

“I mean, if January were an animal, what kind of animal would it be?” Joey pondered.

“Do you understand what he’s talking about, Mila?” I asked. “Because I sure don’t.”

Mila smiled. At least I think she smiled. There was a big, fluffly scarf wrapped around her head like a hungry boa constrictor. “Maybe Joey is trying to think of a simile,” she offered.

Joey nodded gratefully. “You know how they say March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb? Well, I’m thinking that January would be an aardvark.”

I sighed. “Let me get this straight. March comes in like a lion. So you think January comes in like . . . an aardvark?”

“Yes,” Joey answered. “Or do you think maybe it’s more like an American bald eagle?”

“A woolly mammoth,” Mila stated.

I turned to her in surprise. “Nuh-uh,” I retorted. “January is definitely a skunk. This weather stinks.”