Monthly Archives: January 2019

Excerpt: Heart Condition by Libby Malin

Excerpt from “Heart Condition,” by Libby Malin, a sweet romance, part of a series set in the Bethany Beach, DE area. (c) Libby Sternberg 2019

Heart Condition

by Libby Malin

PROLOGUE

“Mr. Newhouse? Mr. Newhouse? Daniel?”

His eyes focused slowly, searching for the source of the deep voice with a slight Indian accent. Just a second ago, he’d been…somewhere.

His mind struggled through fog. He felt safe, but not well. Numb. A little queasy. Cold. Yes, cold. Refrigerator cold. That’s where he’d been—in the cold operating room. Nurses, doctors, all busy, in blue scrubs. He’d not had a sense of the room’s layout, only seeing the patch of ceiling above him as he was wheeled in. He knew there was lots of equipment there, shiny and bright, as if just delivered and still in its packing, never used. Every once in a while, a face had appeared over him, just the face. The hair pulled under a baglike net, mouth covered with a mask, gloved hands raised in the air. “Doing okay, Mr. Newhouse?” They’d told a joke…and he’d fallen asleep, out cold, before the punch line.

Seconds ago…in a bright, sterile room. Where was he now?

He heard soft bustling noises nearby, a muffled screech of metal rings on a curtain rod, a cart rolling by? He saw two figures on the right. Mom. His heart raced, a fast beep from a nearby monitor pinging it into the room. No, Mom had been gone for more than a year now. This was Sarah, his oldest sister, who looked like her.

And his other sister, Reese. And Dad. They stood by his bed. The light seemed dimmer here, softer. He blinked.

“Mr. Newhouse? Everything went very well.” The doctor, still in blue scrubs, that was who’d been speaking. Dan turned toward this voice on the other side of the bed. For the first time, he noticed the man had neatly manicured fingers, pinkish nails that looked as if they’d been trimmed by an expert as a matter of pride. That was good. A surgeon should take care of his hands….

“It went very smoothly. I’ve already explained it to your family, and I’ll be in to see you tomorrow when you’re awake.” He smiled and patted him on the arm.

“How long….” he managed to murmur, his lips feeling chapped and not connected to his mouth. “How long it take?”

“About five hours. Right on time,” the surgeon said with good cheer.

Five hours. What had they told him—three to six? So “right on time” meant less than the maximum? Why so long?

“You’re going to be fine, Dan,” Sarah said, but he heard the strain in her voice.

“The doctor said you can be back to normal real soon,” Reese added. Then, tacked on, “Of course, we told him you never were normal.”

He smiled and would have laughed…but it hurt. Or tugged. It felt strange. He was under what seemed a mountain of blankets, but when he glanced down, it looked to be only a thin sheet and covering. It felt soft, thick.

“Just rest, Mr. Newhouse. The nurses will get you comfortable and tell you what you can and can’t do. You should get into a room soon.” And then the doctor said to his family, “I’ll be by tomorrow,” as if they hadn’t heard him say the same thing to him.

The doctor left, replaced by a nurse who said, loudly, as if his hearing had been affected, “How are you feeling, Mr. Newhouse?” She looked at the latest readings on the machine connected to him, checked an IV bag.

“Like someone is sitting on my chest.” Everything he said sounded husky and deep, his voice an octave below its normal tone to a basso profundo. And it was hard to speak loudly. It took too much effort and…scared him. He was afraid it would hurt, pushing the air out of his chest.

“That’s normal. You’re going to a room soon.” She must not have heard the doc promise the same thing.

“His color already looks better,” his dad said, gruffly. He looked scared as all hell.

“Mmm-hmm. Should see a big improvement in the quality of his life,” the nurse commented. And then he heard her say, under her breath to his family, “So young…”

So young. He was thirty. But he felt one-hundred. And, despite what the doctor said, he wasn’t sure he’d ever feel normal again.

CHAPTER ONE

She kicked the pot right into the water. She hadn’t intended to, but she’d turned to adjust another plant—fragrant lavender in a cobalt-blue container—and her toe hit the little black resin pot filled with lemon-yellow daisies kerplunk into the depths of the Little Assawoman Bay. That’s what happens, Olivia, when you try to cram a yard full of flowers onto a condo deck.

“Hey!” A voice came from below. A male voice. A specific male. Her landlord. The one whose slow, careful movements screamed old and tired but whose tan face and sandy-blond hair whispered young and eager.

“Sorry!” she said to the unseen shouter. Daniel Newhouse was his name. She’d met him exactly three times, and each time she’d been struck by the same things: he was good-looking, serious and…weak. Or rather, frail. He’d just had surgery, apparently. She knew from calling his rental management office when he was in the hospital. A too-chatty secretary had spilled that info.

Not my problem, she said to herself. Then she yelled it in her mind: Not. My Problem.

Olivia Bentley might be a nurse, but she no longer practiced the art and science of the caring profession. She’d put aside her scrubs last year after her father had died, leaving her a sweet inheritance as his only child. Her mother had passed when she was a girl.

No more nursing for her. No more…having your heart wrenched out as you watched patients struggle. As you watched some…lose the battle.

She shook her head, and a stray lock of frizzy auburn hair clouded her vision. As she pushed it aside, she breathed deep the smell of ocean air and absorbed the stunning shimmer of this spring day on the water. Brilliant blue sky. Abundant sunshine. Sleek, elegant terns winging over the marshy grass.

Just what she needed. She stopped her deck gardening, and plopped into a lounge chair, her feet propped up. Exactly what she needed. 41922363_2001352436589756_6283387358473617408_o

But as she closed her eyes, a news reel of memories flashed through her mind. Blood. Unspeakable trauma. Doctors and nurses around tables, tending the wounded, calling to each other for equipment, blood, sutures, IVs.

“Don’t give up, Hank.”

Her eyes popped open as she tried to figure out if she’d whispered the words or just thought them.

With a sigh, she heaved herself off the chair and went inside to continue unpacking, cleaning, arranging. If she lost herself in chores, she’d forget.

***

Dan leaned against the railing of his condo sipping on a mug of coffee. He heard the sliding door upstairs as his new tenant left the deck. He was beginning to set his clock by her routine. Whenever she stretched out on her chaise, he could do a mental countdown to when she’d shoot up and start doing something else. She never seemed to stay out there for more than a few minutes at a time, popping up to head inside, as if something kept her from really relaxing. And, like him, she’d spent some restless nights there, too, coming outside when Morpheus abandoned them in the wee hours.

She was a petite, curvy pixie, the kind of woman painters from a different era celebrated, but who’d never fit in with the rail-thin looks on today’s fashion magazines.

Ever since he’d first met her—when she’d come to his Baltimore law office to sign the lease for the condo unit above his at Fenwick Island, Delaware—he’d been intrigued. Not just by her bright green eyes, kewpie-doll mouth, porcelain skin and sensual figure. Sure, he’d noticed those things, but there was something else about her, something familiar, because it was territory he now knew, as well.

No, he’d been intrigued by the way her eyes didn’t smile when she laughed or grinned. Something was off there. Nurse retiring at the ripe old age of, what, thirty? That was his guess. His rental management secretary had filled him in on a few more details, how she was “between careers” or “taking a break.” Something. But she had the rent money, and that was all that mattered. Everything else—the sleeplessness that led her to the deck at night, the inability to relax, the haunted look in her eyes sometimes—wasn’t his business.

Not my problem, he thought to himself.

No, his problem was sticking to doctor’s orders, recovering from his heart surgery, and…figuring out what to do with the rest of his life now that he’d resigned from his Baltimore law firm, sold his house, and moved permanently to what had just been his beach home in the past.

He was officially a beach bum.

And he had his own problems with finding peace.

When he heard her walking around upstairs again, he wondered at the wisdom of taking the lower condo for himself and renting out the top one. But his was roomier, with an extra bedroom and a small den. Not that he used the den much. When he was browsing the internet or emailing on his ancient laptop, he preferred sitting at the kitchen counter, where he could see outside to the gently lapping waters of the bay.

Which was what he was going to do now. Check the internet, read the news there, and maybe even Google Olivia Bentley, RN.

____________

(c) Libby Sternberg 2019  This book is finished and will be on submission to agents and/or editors soon.

 

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Book Review: “Everybody’s All-American”

I’ve only been a football fan for about a dozen years now, getting into watching the game when one of our children attended a Big Ten college. Since then, I’ve wondered what becomes of the big college gridiron stars, the ones who either don’t go on to the NFL or, if they do, have reasonable but not long careers. How do they go from truly being Big Men on Campus to just one of the rest of us?

screen shot 2019-01-20 at 2.52.18 pmThe late sportswriter Frank Deford must have been fascinated by that question, as well, and in 1981 he wrote the novel “Everybody’s All-American,” to answer it with a well-paced piece of fiction that still resonates as a tale of heroes who long outlive their moment of glory. (It was later made into a movie starring Jessica Lange and Dennis Quaid.) As a celebrated writer for Sports Illustrated and a sports commentator for NPR, Deford knew this territory well.

His writing talent is on clear display in this page-turning story of fictional Gavin Grey, an All-American athlete, star running back for the University of North Carolina Tarheels team in 1954. Gavin — or “The Grey Ghost” as he was known during his glory days — starts out as a humble man, not prone to braggadocio during his college career, a true hero even off the field when he saves a young woman from a fire. He marries his college sweetheart, Babs, herself a former Blueberry Queen and dazzling beauty, and they seem destined for a good life.

But Deford shows you how a hero who outlives his legendary feats faces a slow decline if he can’t accept an average life, and Gavin’s creep toward oblivion, with a few stops at public embarrassments along the way, is heartbreaking to witness, even as you are frustrated by the The Grey Ghost’s inability to accept his fate.

Ironically, The Ghost loses his more endearing qualities as he grows older. From modest star, he eventually changes into a self-focused braggart whose only topic of conversation is football and only then the various master plays he executed in his youth or during his relatively short career in the pros.

As his star falls, Babs’s rises, and it’s no surprise that marital problems ensue, despite their great love for each other.

Deford fills the book with sometimes funny asides, sometimes laser-perfect observations on life, men, women, the South, and, of course, football.

“You cannot donate too much to youth,” he has an old friend of The Grey Ghost observe at one point, “and expect to sustain yourself in long life.”

He has the narrator, a young man entwined in the Greys’ life just as the narrator in The Great Gatsby is in the lives of the Buchanans, also observe at one point that the heat in the South leads to bad temper, and if they’d had air-conditioning in the 1860s, he doubts there would have been a Civil War.

The wives of football players, this narrator also notices, don’t mind their men looking away from them to other women so much as they mind them being pulled to the companionship of their male teammates with whom the women can’t compete.

In fact, one of the most touching scenes in the book is the end of the last collegiate game The Ghost plays, along with two of his best football friends, Lawrence and Finegan. Deford describes the pre-play action thus:

“Wait,” Gavin said, and he reached across the huddle to the linemen, and — first Finegan, and then Lawrence — he touched them on the chin strap, held his fingers there and looked them directly in the eyes. It was a very dear thing for a man to do, and daring, too, for what people would say. Maybe only The Ghost could have gotten away with it. It was a caress he gave them both; he was telling them that he loved them.

Deford’s book is filled with a sense of life in the 1950s through the ’70s, with all of its casual racism, sexism and vulgarity. The “n” word is sprinkled through the narrative, along with many other offensive terms. They’re not used gratuitously, to shock, however. Instead, they provide verisimilitude, and you have the feeling that Deford himself probably heard all these things said at one time or another, in locker rooms, interviews, or just at a bar swapping stories with former football stars.

In the end, the book is about heroism on the field of battle  — football is likened to a substitute for actual war, played by elites who otherwise don’t get a chance to prove their manly virtues.  To enhance this aspect of his storytelling, Deford starts each of the book’s three sections with an excerpt from a (not real) book about Confederate hero Jeb Stuart, who died young, thus never losing his legendary status.

In this more enlightened time, it’s hard to read romanticized snippets about men who fought to preserve the institution of slavery, so I ended up skipping those sections, or, at best, just giving them a quick skim. If they bother you, too, don’t worry — the main story of Gavin and Babs Grey sustains a reader’s interest. It’s their tale that keeps you turning pages until the denouement, shortly after the twenty-fifth anniversary of the The Ghost’s winning Tarheel team.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

 

 

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Articles I’d Like to Read if Someone Will Write Them

by Libby Malin Sternberg

I read a lot. But often I end up scrolling past a lot of articles that just don’t call out to me because it feels as if I’ve seen them before. Below, however, is a list of magazine/newspaper stories I’d take a look at if someone would bother to pen them. I’ve added fictional pull quotes, as well, that would definitely lure me in.

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Stop Mumbling My Lines: Actors Scriptwriters Hate

“I had to replay the damn scene nearly a dozen times, and still couldn’t catch all my words. They were gems, too, gems I’d sweated over.”

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A Theater Critic Rates Sunday Church Services

“For pure coziness, a good evangelical prayer meeting with top-notch praise band musicians will have you craving blue grass and wanting to come back for more…hide a flask of Kentucky bourbon in your pocket to make the theology a smoother swallow.”

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Never Buy Perfume Again:

How Strategically Timed Trips to Sephora Will Save You Thousands

“The key is to spray a little of the sample on your outfit. Trust me, the scent stays there for a while.”

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Why Do CEOs Think It’s Okay to Mock Customers in their Ads?

“I see these ads, and I think, ‘I’m not buying anything from a company that thinks I’m a jackass.'”

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Meet the One Democrat Not Running for President

“I work at a food bank on weekends and help out at the health clinic once a week. Every other month I do park cleanup, and I am the go-to driver when my friends are in trouble. A lot of people are surprised you can do so much good stuff outside of politics.”

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An Explanation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity Anyone Can Understand. No, Really.

“So you have a train…no, wait, more like a Disney ride…no, no, like the Acela–just kidding, here’s the real explanation…”

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All We Like Sheep: Apple Staff Talk about their Customers

“I own an Android. Updates don’t screw up my data. It’s way cheaper, even with my employee discount. Every time I go by the Apple store, I baaa softly. Nobody gets it. They’re too busy grazing at those tables they think are genius bars. They’re made of particle board, man.”

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Libby Malin Sternberg is a novelist who writes both serious and humorous fiction. Her romantic comedy Fire Me has been bought for film.

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Book Review: “Agnes Grey” by Anne Bronte

A serendipitous confluence of two events led me to read Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey this January, one of two novels penned by the youngest of the Bronte siblings. First, my daughter brought a bunch of books home recently that she was finished with and she’d thought I’d enjoy. This novel was among them. Second, I have resolved to read more in this new year. Because I’m a freelance editor, working on between 40 and 50 novels a year, my recreation in off hours is more likely to be doing crossword puzzles or watching television. Anything but reading more novels! I’ve missed losing myself in a good book for pure pleasure, though, so I swiped Agnes Grey off the to-be-read pile and gave it a whirl.

517w-whu7olAt first, I thought this slim book was going to be a Jane Eyre without the romance, without a single moment to relieve the drudgery and bad fortune of its protagonist, a daughter of a clergyman, whose mother was disinherited by her upper class father when she married beneath her station, and whose sister helps the family’s income by drawing. Agnes proposes to provide financial aid by becoming a governess. The book proved to be more than that grim story.

Agnes’s first job is with a family of psychopaths. They’re not described in those terms, but the children seem to take pleasure in tormenting and killing animals, and the parents tolerate the behavior with more satisfaction than rationalization. Good news for Agnes — she doesn’t work out well there, and the family lets her go but promises not to damage her with bad recommendations.

On to the next household, the Murrays, where she spends her days trying to teach the vain and flirty Rosalie and the boyish and bad-talking Matilda. In the course of her stay, she meets Rev. Weston, a new curate at the village church, and, you guessed it, falls for him in the way Victorian governesses do. That is to say, she meets him on walks sometimes or talks to him after church in some complex coded language about the weather, religion, villagers, anything but how they seem to like each other.

Eventually, Rosalie marries a rich aristocrat, as she and her mother wished, Agnes goes back to her home to help her now-widowed mother set up a school, and Rev. Weston reenters the pages near the end of the story. For a spoiler on how things work out, look no further than the opening line of Chapter 38 of Anne’s sister Charlotte’s most famous novel.

As I desired, this book swept me away, and I enjoyed many hours lost in its tale. Here’s the rub, though: through my modern eyes, I viewed some of the characters a little differently than I suspect Anne Bronte wanted me to see them. I suspect she wanted us to identify and sympathize with poor Agnes as she tried to instill lofty and pious thoughts in her charges, as she tried to move Rosalie beyond vanity to an appreciation of the interior world. While I certainly cheered on her efforts, I have to admit that sometimes I wondered if Rosalie wasn’t so obstinate because Agnes did seem at times to demonstrate a “holier than thou” attitude. Rosalie could be thoughtless, selfish, and sometimes even cruel, but she knew what she wanted and she went after it. Unfortunately, what she really wanted was something no woman of her age was allowed to contemplate:

“I shouldn’t greatly object to being Lady Ashby of Ashby Park, if I must marry; if I could be always young, I would be always single. I should like to enjoy myself thoroughly, and coquet with all the world, till I am on the verge of being called an old maid; and then, to escape the infamy of that, after having made ten thousand conquests, to break all their hearts save one, by marrying some high-born, rich, indulgent husband, whom, on the other hand, fifty ladies were dying to have.”

In other words, she wanted to live as independently as a man. These are sentiments, by the way, expressed in a different way in Jane Eyre, Anne’s sister’s great novel, when Jane declares her independence, not wanting to be the mistress of Rochester, even though no one was around to scold her for such an act:

“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”

Jane wants to be independent, too. Both she and Rosalie of Agnes Grey yearn for the same thing: to lead their own lives, independent of a man, only enriched by one should they so choose him.

In Agnes Grey, Rosalie’s sister, Matilda, too seems to prefer the activities of men of the era, everything from riding to hunting to cursing a blue streak just as the stable hands did. These are aspirations good Agnes Grey (or Anne Bronte?) doesn’t seem to understand or approve of.

To add to the picture of an over-scrupulous Ms. Grey, there’s her refusal to congratulate a buoyant Rosalie on her wedding day to the above-mentioned Sir Ashby. “I cannot congratulate you,” says stuffy Agnes, “till I know if this change is really for the better.”

Keep in mind that Agnes is supposed to be the good one here.

As it turns out, Rosalie does change, asking Agnes to visit her at Ashby Park, confessing to being lonely since her husband has contrived to keep her in the country rather than in London where she seems to have outshone him. She suggests in a letter to Agnes that her former governess could fill the same position for her own newly born daughter and raise her in a manner that will, essentially, correct the flaws of her frivolous parents. Self-awareness has dawned, and in a far more cheerful manner than Agnes herself is prone to exhibit. So, again, who’s the better woman?

I loved that ambiguity about Agnes Grey, even if Anne Bronte didn’t intend it. It’s fascinating to read the thoughts of a spiritual woman trying to be a good Christian (there’s a moving passage where a villager Agnes visits asks her to read the Bible passage about God being love), surrounded by girls just a few years younger than she is whose contemplations run to material things, yet who are not without redeeming qualities, as Rosalie exhibits.

In fact, one of the more fascinating passages to me in the tale relates how Rosalie conspires to flirt with Rev. Weston to a degree that she seeks him to fall in love with her. She keeps Agnes from any encounters with the clergyman during this little game, and it would seem cruel except for one question: Was Rosalie trying to force Agnes to stop being such a prissy sort and go after the man she wants…just as Rosalie does with the aristocrat she eventually snares?

I’ve written this little review before reading a single syllable of analysis of this novel by literature experts, but I heartily recommend it to fans of Jane Eyre and Victorian literature in general.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. She has written a retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre called Sloane Hall. It was one of only 14 books featured on a Simon & Schuster blog on the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth.

 

 

 

 

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