Tales from the Holy Land

Rafael Alvarez (Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing)

If Baltimore is the Holy Land, Alvarez is its Pope of pulp. These 19 short stories exude hardboiled fortitude and an aversion to pretension of all types. Populated with anti-heroes and set mostly between Fells Point and Highlandtown, they pull the vigorous specificity of Mencken’s Happy Days through The Wire (a show he helped write) with so many details intact that they feel utterly real. But Alvarez’s fiction also traffics in the mysteries of human kindness and cruelty, and his soulful rendering of characters such as Basilio Ballousa, Pio Talle, and Gibby Lukowski makes these stories true. His people are from the streets, but they believe in something bigger——be it a familial bond, Catholic mysticism, or the music of Johnny Winter——and that’s what ultimately makes these tales transcendent.

Unruly Catholic Women Writers

Edited by Jeana DelRosso, Leigh Eicke & Ana Kothe (Excelsior Editions)

Put together by DelRosso, an English professor at Notre Dame of Maryland University, and two co-editors, this literary anthology seems especially timely with Pope Francis shaking up things at the Vatican. It spotlights writers who are, indeed, unruly. But they’re also thoughtful, witty, and sensitive, and their irreverence is part of a two-sided coin in the air. Here, their personal essays, monologues, short stories, plays, and poems are grouped in three sections: “The Joyful Mysteries,” “The Sorrowful Mysteries,” and “The Glorious Mysteries.” Mystery, not dogma, infuses the pieces, as these women grapple with the inspiration and indignation Catholicism has produced. Many of them continue contemplating the silences and empty spaces that religion fills for many people.

Gentlemen of the Harbor

Captain Bill Eggert (self-published)

The opening story in Rafael Alvarez’s Tales from the Holy Land involves a teenager losing his virginity aboard a tugboat. Eggert’s tugboat history includes nothing as racy as that——though, coincidentally, its cover and the Alvarez cover are nearly identical——as its captains and crews generally live up to the book’s title. Superbly illustrated with photographs by famed Sun photographer Hans Marx and others, it depicts a way of life that is hidden in plain view. Tugboats have been a common sight around the harbor for generations, but most people aren’t privy to the culture arising from these decks and docks. Eggert remedies that with a pithy mix of maritime history and local legend, augmented by old newspaper stories and even an occasional poem.