The Moment I Knew


Thursday, y’all, and I think I am going to take a vacation day tomorrow to try and help me get caught up on all the things I need to get caught up on. Another three day weekend, following up on the one just past already? To be fair, it kind of needs to actually happen, to be honest. I also have to remember to dedicate myself to making sure all the things I need to get done actually get done.

Which, you know, is the real trick here.

I also kind of need to pull myself together. While I am fully aware that there are certain things about myself I cannot control–depression, the mood swings, etc–it is still enormously frustrating to have to deal with them, try to work through them, get through them while trying to keep going with everything I am juggling these days. Part of it comes, undoubtedly, from my inability to ever get a handle on everything; even when I am making lists and working from them there’s always something I am forgetting when I make the list or something that comes up new after I make the list–and the list is so long and daunting to begin with that the thought of adding something else to it is paralyzing, which drags me back into the endless cycle of plate spinning to “Flight of the Bumblebee” again.

Obviously, the insomnia never helps either, nor does fearing, every night when I go to bed, that I am going to have insomnia again.

We started watching Mythic Quest last night on Apple Plus, and it’s not bad; we watched two episodes and I think it has the potential to become really funny; it stars Rob McIlhenny of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and I was really surprised to discover that not only was he the driving force behind that show, but this one as well. We’re also watching We Hunt Together on Showtime–we started the other night, before getting distracted by Ted Lasso, which I absolutely love–and while it’s not bad, it’s not the best British crime show I’ve watched. It’s very unusual in that it features two mixed couples (a Black man and a white woman) on opposing sides of the law–the investigating detectives and the criminal couple killing people–and reflects the similarities of relationships and their dynamics in both; it’s like they are mirror images of each other if it’s a funhouse mirror. It’s an interesting choice, and the acting is superb; the female cop is played by Eve Myles of Torchwood fame, whose work I always enjoy.

During my condom-packing hours yesterday I also returned to the Cynical 70’s Film Festival, this time watching Jane Fonda in her Oscar-winning role as Bree Daniels, the call girl, in Klute (what is with women winning Oscars playing prostitutes, anyway?). Klute is a very strange film, and it’s the first of what is called, by film scholars, the Paranoia Trilogy of director Alan J. Pakula (I have recently watched the other two, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men). Klute, to me, is a deeply flawed film, but an interesting one all the same. It’s a crime movie, the title character is a cop who takes a leave of absence to investigate the disappearance of a friend, and yet neither the cop nor the investigation are the lead story of the movie; it’s really a character study of Bree Daniels. Klute, the detective, is played almost completely emotionlessly by Donald Sutherland (obviously a choice made by both director and actor; since this is also the same period that produced his stunning performance in Don’t Look Now), so the emotional heart and center of the movie is Fonda’s performance. I came away from the film not entirely convinced by that performance; there was complexity there and some moments of truly fine acting, but over all–the film hasn’t really aged all that well (the underground world of orgies and call girls and pimps and heroin of Manhattan in the 1970’s it is trying to depict feels very screenwriter-ish to me; a film studio’s thoughts about how that particular subculture would look, walk and talk)–but I can see why she won an Oscar; those scenes where she is able to really inhabit the character are stellar. Klute is a subversion of noir/crime thrillers, really; by focusing on the character study of Bree rather than the story, it becomes less a crime story than the story of the unfortunate aspiring actress/model who turns to tricking to pay the bills and then is trying to leave the life but isn’t entirely able to; not only because she needs the money but because she likes the power of being in control–or at least, the allusion of control hooking brings her.

Imagine Double Indemnity if the focus of the film wasn’t the plan to kill Phyllis’ husband, but rather who she is and why she is the way she is.

The paranoia is also there in that Bree’s phone is tapped, not only by Klute but also by the killer. There’s another part of the film that is a flaw; the motive for the killing and the motive for hiring and paying Klute doesn’t really wash; but’s that probably also the crime writer/editor in me. I had also thought the film was based on a book but was apparently wrong; I could have sworn I remember seeing a paperback novel of Klute on the wire racks at Zayre’s, but of course it could have simply been a novelization of the film.

I did find Don’t Look Now also available to stream somewhere as I idly looked through all my streaming services apps last evening before we started watching Mythic Quest; I definitely want to watch that film again–and it’s not a bad idea for me to delve back into Daphne du Maurier’s short stories again. I may even have to read one of the novels she wrote that I haven’t read yet; there appears to be an adaptation of The Scapegoat (which I’ve not read) available to stream as well. The concept of the book intrigues me–the concept of the look-alike, which is something I’ve always wanted to write about myself. I’ve always had this idea of a bartender in a gay bar being approached by someone who thought he was someone else as a great starting place for a thriller; the problem, of course, being that now DNA would take away any possibility of an imposter passing for someone else. (FUCKING technological improvements.)

This idea came to me–not the least because of The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart–but because when I used to visit New Orleans before moving here, consistently people–locals–would come up to me and start talking to me like I was someone else; eventually I would point out to them that they didn’t actually know ME and they would be very startled. This continued for a year or so after we moved here–I would sometimes get bought drinks by total strangers who thought I was someone else, and now that I think about it, perhaps the reason so many bartenders gave me a drink for free now and then was because they thought I was someone else. But it stopped after living here for a few years–I’d forgotten this used to happen–but they would always tell me I had a double here in New Orleans; one that I never met or saw anywhere. Isn’t that strange? But I always thought it was a good opening or idea for a story–but of course now, as I mentioned before, DNA has ruined the imposter stories forever.

Today is a better day, so here’s hoping it lasts and I can get back on track.

Only the Young

And it’s already Wednesday! Well done, everyone, for making it this far.

Okay, so it wasn’t as big of a deal as usual, since this is a short work week (huzzah for Labor Day!) but there it is, you know. And it is a Wednesday, nevertheless, and we should be truly grateful that we have again made it to the midway point of the week, even if was relatively easier (comparatively speaking) this week than usual. But you know what? It’s still Wednesday, and I may–just may–take this Friday off and have another three day weekend. How’s about that?

I was very tired yesterday; we were busy during clinic hours and since I had to get up early, of course I had insomnia Monday night. So by the time I got home from work I was very tired–too tired to really think about starting to read Babylon Berlin, or to work on the book much–I did get a bit into the seventh chapter, but still, not very far–but I did decide to rename my story “After the Party” to something else: “No Place Like Home,” which I am still not crazy about, but it’s much better than “After the Party,” which is one of the lamest story titles I have yet to come up with, and I was quite happy to change the name of the file and folder on my computer, as well as print out the thousand words or so I’ve written on it with the new title on it, so I can get rid of the old print out and can deny to myself that I ever gave a story such a shitty title. It’s also a bait-and-switch story; it starts out going in one direction and then completely switches gears; the problem is I’ve gotten to the gear switch and am not entirely sure how to drive it in the new gear.

I really hate when that happens.

Then a friend on Facebook recommended everyone watch a show I’d had my eye on, Ted Lasso, and I clicked on the Apple Plus app, queued up the first episode, and was immediately entranced. The premise of the show is one of those that seems sort of predictable, like Schitt’s Creek was as well; a small-time American college football coach is hired to manage a major league (Premier league? I don’t really follow soccer, my apologies) team in England that has been fairly mediocre for a time. My first thought, when I first saw a preview for it, was why on earth would anyone do such a thing? And again, like I did initially with Schitt’s Creek, I thought, so of course his small time ways will be mocked and the Brits will be brutal with him and then he will win them over and they will become champions and I’ve seen this before, so I didn’t make it a priority to watch until last night, when I saw my friend’s post about it, so I thought, well, let’s give it a whirl.

Wow.

I’ve been a fan of Jason Sudeikis for a while now; not the oh I have to see everything he’s in type but the I’ve certainly enjoyed everything of his I’ve seen; the movie We’re the Millers was surprisingly sweet, funny, and enjoyable. The premise of the show goes a bit deeper than what it appears at first; a loathsome British billionaire has been divorced after thirteen years by his long-suffering wife, and in the settlement she got his soccer team; which is his pride and joy, and she has hired Ted Lasso for no reason other than she wants to punish her loathsome ex by driving his beloved team into the ground; her exact words are “burn it to the ground completely.” She manages to somehow play off the mysterious coaching hire very well–and Game of Thrones fans, I had to look her up because she looked familiar to me; imagine my surprise to see that Hannah Waddington, who plays her and is stunningly beautiful, tall and sexy; PLAYED THE SEPTA, the one who followed Cersei on her Walk of Shame ringing the bell and saying “Shame”–and the character of Rebecca, whom she plays, is pretty awful; but you also understand why–which is a credit to the show nd the writers, frankly. Horrible Malcolm publicly and openly cheated on her for years, playing out in the tabloids, and often she is mocked and humiliated by them as well. She treats her assistant, Higgins, terribly; but Waddington also plays her so well you also can’t help but feel for her even as she is terrible.

But the key to the show is Jason Sudeikis as Ted Lasso, who is the kind of person who always looks for the best in everyone and genuinely is a nice guy; no matter how rude or nasty someone is to him, he sees their humanity and rather than thinking what a dick or what a bitch, he thinks how can I get through to this person? And he does it with kindness, by treating everyone with respect and dignity. The show walks a very tight rope, as it could easily descend into schmaltzy sentimentality, but it never does, and that’s not an easy trick by any means. The show follows Ted as he slowly begins to win over everyone in Richmond (the town where it’s set) and the team, by being a genuinely kind person. There’s a very strong episode where Ted spends the day with a very cynical journalist who can’t quite figure out what the point of hiring this buffoonish-seeming American could possibly be; a coach/manager who flatly tells the press he doesn’t care about wins or losses. The point of the interview is, of course, so that this cynical journalist who has asked him pointedly insulting questions at press conferences can write a hit piece on him that will further damage the team, and it was all set up by Rebecca; but as the journalist, whom he always treats with respect and kindness and appreciation, spends the day with him and watches him interact with people, he’s won over. He writes the piece, and he still thinks Lasso is going to fail managing the team, but its not a hatchet job at all; the final line of the piece winds up being something along the lines of “I still think he is going to fail, but I am not going to enjoy watching it the way I thought I would.”

The show sneaks up and hits you in the feels, the same way Schitt’s Creek did, and it makes you laugh and it makes you tear up because you find yourself loving the characters so much, and caring about what happens to them. Six episodes have already aired, and we blew through them all last night; the next will air on Friday, and I am already looking forward to it.

It’s also wonderful watching the character of Rebecca, so determined to avenge herself on her husband, becoming conflicted with her plan because she isn’t really the icy bitch she thinks she is, and responding not only to Ted’s kindness but that of other characters.

I do recommend it highly.

And Archer comes back next week!

I have to also add that Apple Plus is really upping their game. The first two shows there we tried to watch didn’t hold our interest and we abandoned them after a couple of episodes–the story and the characters didn’t hold out attention, despite how well the shows were produced. But The Morning Show and Ted Lasso are exceptional television, and the previews for the service’s adaptation of Azimov’s Foundation series looks amazing, airing in 2021.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Check out Ted Lasso; if you liked Schitt’s Creek, this is right up your alley as well.

Sad Beautiful Tragic

And here we are, Tuesday morning before the sun comes up. Huzzah?

I’m very pleased that I did manage to read three terrific books over the course of the Labor Day weekend, even if it meant not getting as much writing done as I would have liked. But sometimes, as I rationalize to myself fairly regularly, one has to allow the creative mind and batteries to rest and recharge, and it never hurts to read works by really gifted writers while allowing the creativity to recharge. I do, however, pity the author of the next book I read, as Celeste Ng, Steven Wright, and Paul Tremblay have truly set the bar ridiculously high.

Ergo, I must choose wisely.

But I do believe I have chosen wisely: next up is Babylon Berlin. I loved the show, and from a glance over the first page it looks to be really well written (or should I say translated? I’m never really sure about these things), and I love the idea of going back in time with my reading.

I did work on a chapter yesterday, adding some important things to it, including a scene where my main character goes to the grocery store in town and is recognized by someone he doesn’t know; this happens to me every time I go back to where we are from in Alabama, without fail, and I was realizing, as I looked at the chapter yesterday, that several things were missing from the story thus far: him running into someone who recognizes him because of the family resemblance (including the unsettling “I changed your diapers!” which always bothers me, and I am only sorry I never said what I always think when someone says that to me, “Why do you want me to know you’ve seen my dick?”), any mention of guns or church; and more information about what the town is like. The book is already too long; the next draft/version will be about trimming the fat and making it more lean, but I am still pretty pleased with it and how it’s coming, even if it is coming more slowly than I would like.

When I get through this version, I think I am going to have to take some time off from work and spend like five concentrated days with it.

I am also still thinking about Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, which is really saying something; and I keep thinking about things I could have said in my review yet somehow didn’t. I am really looking forward to my next venture into reading Mr. Tremblay, which will most likely be Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. He also has another one coming out soon, Survivor Song, which sounds absolutely terrifying.

I am treating myself to cappuccinos this morning, as a reward for having to get up so early. I do love my cappuccinos, even if they are made with a rather cheap machine I got somewhere as a kind of back-handed gift to myself, but I now have a really terrific milk frother that I love and does a truly terrific job on making my milk nice and warm and frothy. (Plus I need the extra kick from the concentrated caffeine to help me get underway with my day.) I had insomnia again last night–which seems to always inevitably happen the night before I have to get up early; I wonder if stress about oversleeping or sleeping through the alarm is part of the problem? If so, it’s not something I am consciously aware of, and perhaps something I should take some kind of initial steps to take care of–less caffeine the day before, etc.

We started watching a new crime show last night on Showtime, We Hunt Together, which seems to be rather clever; particularly in depicting the police team investigating the crimes as a mirror image of the couple committing the crimes; white woman, Black male immigrant. So far their victims have been pretty awful men who kind of had it coming, so there’s that, and it’s cast very well. We also watched the older Netflix film The Babysitter, which was interesting and funny in parts; we primarily watched because a sequel is being released soon that is highly recommended. You also can never go wrong with Robbie Amell shirtless–he is absolutely beautiful, and he must have a Netflix contract because he shows up in a lot of their movies/shows…as do any number of other young actors and actresses; makes you wonder if the studio system is sort of coming back.

But this is a short week–feels like Monday, even though it’s really Tuesday–and so that’s also a win.

I’ve also decided not to stress too much about what I get done this week; I always have extremely high hopes going into the week every week, only to suffer crushing disappointment at my inability to get things done. Maybe it’s not the best thing to lower expectations, but it’s better to feel good about getting things finished rather than bashing yourself for not getting more things done, isn’t it?

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Tuesday, everyone.

End Game

I’m really becoming a huge fan of Paul Tremblay.

I’ve always enjoyed horror, ever since I was a kid; I used to love watching Creature Features on WGN in Chicago, and getting scared–sometimes having nightmares. But the supernatural has always interested me, as well as horror; in the 1980’s and even into the early 1990’s I saw myself as becoming a horror writer rather than a crime writer. And while I’ve written some “scary” stories and novels, I don’t know that I could classify them as horror– I think Sara and Sorceress are probably the closest I’ve ever come to writing horror; maybe even Lake Thirteen would count (it certainly bears my favorite cover of all my novels). But I see myself as more of a fan of horror than a writer of it; as I’ve said many times, I tend to write more about human monsters than supernatural ones. I had heard great things about Paul Tremblay before I started reading his actual work; my friend Megan in particular is a big fan of his, and based on her recommendation I started reading A Head Full of Ghosts, but it didn’t really strike my fancy that first time, and so I put it aside and moved onto something else. I did pick it up again later, and then, of course, I couldn’t put it down.

After finishing The Coyotes of Carthage, I was looking through the TBR piles, pulled out a book or two before putting them back, and then finally decided to read a second Tremblay, The Cabin at the End of the World.

It was a most excellent choice.

The girl with the dark hair walks down the wooden front stairs and lowers herself into the yellowing lagoon of ankle-high grass. A warm breeze ripples through the blades, leaves and crab-like petals of clover flowers. She studies the front yard, watching for the twitchy, mechanical motion and frantic jumps of grasshoppers. The glass jar cradled against her chest smells faintly of grape jelly and is sticky on the inside. She unscrews the aerated lid.

Wen promised Daddy Andrew she would release the grasshoppers before they got cooked inside the homemade terrarium. The grasshoppes will be okay because she’ll make sure to keep the jar out of direct sunlight. She worries, though,, that they could hurt themselves by jumping into the sharp edges of the lid’s punched-in holes. She’ll catch smaller grasshoppers, ones that don’t jump as high or as powerfully, and because of their compact size there will be more leg-stretching room inside the jar. She will talk to the grasshoppers in a low, soothing voice, and hopefully they will be less likely to panic and mash themselves against the dangerous metal stalactites. Satisfied with her updated plan, she pulls up a fistful of grass, roots and all, leaving a pockmark in the front yard’s sea of green and yellow. She carefully deposits and arranges the grass in the jar, then wipes her hans on her gray Wonder Woman T-shirt.

Ironically, in my earlier paragraphs I talked about writing crime because I want my monsters to be human; ironically, the monsters in Paul Tremblay’s latest, sublime entry into the horror genre could easily be considered a crime thriller as well because his monsters are all too human, and this set-up is just as terrifying as any supernatural horror novel I’ve ever read. Being out in the country has never really appealed to me very much (ironically, my current work-in-progress is set out in the country) precisely because it’s no safer out in the country than it is in the city; at least in the city someone will hear your screams or cries for help. The very isolation of the country is part of its terror for me; in no less part because country people always smugly assert (and reassure themselves) that crime and murder are MUCH more likely to happen in the big, bad, dangerous city.

Sidebar: I still think there’s a terrific essay to be written about the proliferation of rural horror/crime novels in the 1970’s, directly tied to the inherent racism of white flight from integrated schools and neighborhoods to the suburbs and the country, and perhaps someday I will have the confidence to write the essay based on that abstract theme.

Tremblay has set his terrifying tale in a small cabin on a lake in upstate New Hampshire, close to the Canadian border, where our heroes–a married gay couple (Andrew and Eric) are spending a ‘back-to-nature’ vacation with their adopted child, Wen. The story is told in the present tense (always creepier in horror, seeing the action unfold as it happens rather than in the much safer past tense–it’s happening as opposed to it’s already happened) and the point of view shifts between the two dads and their young daughter. Wen is out on the lawn catching grasshoppers and naming them when a big man appears suddenly out of the woods, friendly and nice, he tries to win her over but ultimately fails, sending her running inside to warn her daddies that they are no longer alone in their rustic cabin–with no cell service and no wi-fi (which, ironically, was part of the cabin’s original appeal–to unplug; that appeal will righteously bite the in their ass now that a Dionysian influence has arrived in their idyllic world).

The big man, Leonard, isn’t alone; he has three friends with him, all wearing similar button-down shirts in different colors and jeans: Redmond, kind of an asshole every-straight-man; Sabrina, a nurse; and Adriane, who is older. As the three family members barricade themselves into the cabin, the four seemingly normal visitors let them know they are there to present them with a horrible, horrific choice: they have seen, in visions and dreams, that the apocalypse is nigh, but have been shown the cabin and the small family, and told that if one of them will voluntarily sacrifice himself, the end of the world will be stopped.

This is, of course, every parent’s worst nightmare: a threat to not only their family but to their child, and Tremblay does an amazing job of letting us, the readers, get to know all three of the family members, developing them into complicated, realistic characters with backstories and levels and layers; I also applaud him for writing about a same-sex family and making the characters absolutely real. (This is how you do it, people; read the book and take notes). Wen is completely believable as a little girl; the family bond and love is absolutely real; and that makes the horror even more horrible, more horrifying, more of a gut-punch…as we go through every step of the process with them, all over the course of less than twenty-four hours, as their lives are irrevocably altered and changed, as they refuse to believe the story of their visitors, but slowly but surely the wonder begins to creep in…what if this is absolutely real and they are indeed messengers from God?

I will leave it to the horror academics to discuss the symbols and symbolism threaded throughout the story–but I have to bring up the colors of the shirts the visitors are wearing, and the fact there are four of them: representing the four horsemen of the apocalypse along with their warnings of doom. The questions of faith, of existing as gay in a heterosexist society, of family and love–all of these are beautifully explored and written about, and the building of tension and suspense is unparalleled; it’s really hard to put the book down and walk away from the story without finding out how it all ends–will they make the sacrifice, or will the world end? Are the visitors right–and how will anyone ever know if they were, because the world not ending doesn’t prove anything if the sacrifice occurs.

Or are they just insane?

I highly recommend this book, and cannot wait to read more Tremblay.

Cold As You

Politics has rarely interested me when it comes to fiction; the reality all too often reads like unbelievable fiction, and it’s also there to read in all its horror in history. I stopped reading political non-fiction back in the day, probably some time around or after Katrina–and when I became involved with the National Stonewall Democrats, I was actually living in that world part time, and had no desire to read about it any longer. Paul and I avoided The West Wing for years for this very reason–only to become completely addicted to it when Bravo was running reruns, eventually renting the back seasons from Netflix and bingeing through its entire run, while watching the final seasons as they aired. It remains one of my favorite television programs of all time; sometimes I think it would be lovely to go back and rewatch it, but it was a balm for us during the Bush administration.

I used to, as I said, read political non-fiction from both sides of the aisle as well as from theoretically unbiased journalists; I used to read, believe it or not, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and Peggy Noonan, along with Al Franken and Matt Taibbi and others. I always felt it was important to read not only those who were in theory unbiased, but also to read the extremes of both sides–it’s always important, I thought, to know what both sides are saying and thinking to rev up their own extreme bases. While I always paid attention to politics I always considered myself more apolitical than anything else; my primary concerns were initially to stop people from dying from HIV and then to get some sort of legal recognition that my sexuality was not grounds for inequal treatment in the eyes of the law. The 2000 election debacle energized me; the country seemed to be veering off course and the results of that election changed the country and not for the better, which meant it was time to get to work.

I never read Allen Drury’s Washington novels; as I said, I was never all that interested in fiction based in politics. Robert Ludlum was the closest I ever came to reading political thrillers, and I was a huge fan of his throughout the late 1980’s and 1990’s. But political thrillers can be terrific reads; my question is are they crime novels? Thrillers are a subgenre of crime fiction, but do political thrillers actually count as crime novels? I suppose, in theory, they are; this is the question I’ve been grappling with since I finished reading The Coyotes of Carthage yesterday.

Andre marvels, watching a kid, a stranger of maybe sixteen, pinch another wallet. This lift makes the kid’s fifth, at least that Andre’s seen this morning–two on the train, two on the underground platform, and now this one on the jam-packed escalator that climbs toward the surface. The kid’s got skills, mad skills. He makes his lift and keeps on moving. There. Right there. The kid picks up another, his sixth, with the practiced grace of a ballerino, this time the mark, some corporate chump, probably a lobbyist, with slicked-back hair and a shit-eating grin. No one suspects a thing, and why should they? This kid blends in, looks like a prep-school student–and , who knows, perhaps he is–his aesthetic complete with a bookbag, khakis, and a dog-ered copy of de Tocqueville tucked beneath his arm. The kid reminds Andre of himself at that age–lean, hungry, steel eyes with smooth skin–but Andre concedes that he never possessed this kid’s talent.

Aboveground the kid disappears into the big-city bustle, and Andre thinks, Good for you, li’l man. Go in peace. For sure, the kid has plenty of places to hide. Northwest this morning is a mess: snowy, busy, noisy, the perfect urban jungle in which to flee. Andre works around the corner, and a lifetime ago, his family made a home inside a boarded-up rathole six blocks over. Andre has, in fact, loved in the District his entire life, thirty-five years save a stint across the river, two years in juvie for a grift gone bad on a nearby street. Seventeen years ago, when he left kiddie correctional, he never imagined he’d work on K Street, or that he’d own a walk-in closet full of three-piece suits, and the sudden realization, that he might lose it all, cuts like shards of glass crushed into the lining of his stomach.

Dre, our main character in this exceptionally fine debut novel by Steven Wright, isn’t necessarily likable, but he is understandable, and really, that’s the key with unlikable and unpleasant characters: as long as the reader can understand and empathize with an unlikable character, they will come along for the ride and may even root for that character. (As I like to say, the best note on character I was ever given by an editor when I was writing an unlikable character: even Hitler loved his dogs. ) The key is to find their humanity, and even when the character is doing unlikable things, you won’t lose the reader. It’s a skill set to be sure, but Steven Wright does this extremely well in a debut novel, and that’s really saying something.

Dre is a Black man who works for a political consulting firm in Washington, and one who is very good at what he does. He went overboard on his last assignment and almost blew a slam-dunk election, so his job is in jeopardy and if he weren’t being mentored by one of the founding partners of the firm, he would definitely be out already. Instead, he is given a punishment assignment: to get an initiative passed in a rural backwoods South Carolina county that really isn’t in the best interests of the local electorate but rather that of a large corporation who will poison everything in the county but will inevitably suck it dry of its resources and then leave behind nothing but wreckage. Dre comes from a broken home and has a brother who was also an addict; as teens they were small-scale dealers in order to survive and a deal gone horribly wrong put Dre into juvie. But he came out of juvie determined to go on the straight and narrow and build a life for himself…so politics seemed like a natural place for him to go.

But now in his mid-thirties, his life is crumbling around him: he has self-destructed his career; his fiancee has just dumped him for another man; his brother has ALS and he’s having to pay for his care as well as support his brother’s caregiver/girlfriend; and he’s questioning the decisions he’s made throughout his life to bring him to this place where he is now stuck in a backwoods redneck part of South Carolina running a campaign with no staff other than a rather sweet young intern–who turns out to be his mentor’s grandson. This election is a microcosm of everything that is currently wrong with our political system, and its deep cynicism; and Dre is having to face all of that, along with questioning what he is doing with his life for money, while his world continues to crumble around him.

All of the characters, while seen through Dre’s cynical eyes, are well-developed and well-rounded and completely believable; he sees very clearly their worth and their value and yet is incapable, because of who he has become through this cynical work, of connecting with any of them because of his own loss of humanity. This ballot initiative, so important for him to win if he wants to keep his job, is symbolic of his life; what do you do when you realize that not only have your sold your soul, but it may be too late to buy it back?

I greatly enjoyed this book from start to finish, and it’s a very powerful debut. It says a lot about humanity, the state of politics in this country, and the influence of dark money and how that has further corrupted an already corrupt system. But Dre’s search for his own humanity, his dark night of the soul, is what drives this strongly written story, and through Dre, requires the reader to do the same. The book offers no answers, of course; because those answers have to come from us.

What cost freedom?

Invisible String

Labor Day morning, and I feel rested. I’ve not felt this good in quite some time, frankly–I am sure ignoring my emails and staying away from social media over the course of the long weekend has something to do with that, indubitably–and now I am having my morning coffee and slowly coming alive. May as well enjoy it while I can, since tomorrow I have to get up unbearably early, but we only have one clinic day this week and it’s also a four-day work week, so maybe it won’t be so bad on my physically.

I worked on the book for a little while yesterday; not very much, not nearly as much writing as needed to be done over the long weekend–which is inevitably always the lament, is it not? But getting rest–both physical and mental–is also inevitably necessary and a necessity. I did manage to not only finish reading Little Fires Everywhere over the course of the weekend, but I also finished The Coyotes of Carthage (which will be getting its own entry eventually) and started reading Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, which is not only extraordinary but nothing like I was expecting–and I was also going in blind, knowing nothing about the book other than I had read his earlier novel A Head Full of Ghosts and really enjoyed it. It features and centers, for example, a happily married gay couple and their adopted child; didn’t see or expect that coming. I’m about halfway through the book, and while I certainly don’t want to give anything away, I am already planning on spending some more time with it today. Reading is such an escape (always has been) and a pleasure for me my entire life; I never really understand what it’s like for people who don’t read, or who don’t like to read–its so outside of my own experience I’m not sure I could ever understand choosing not to read.

The work I did on the book yesterday, while not a lot, was also quite good work, and I am certain that the rising quality of this novel I am writing has everything to do with the high quality of what I am reading these days. I mean, between Matt Ruff, Celeste Ng, Steven Wright, and Paul Tremblay, one really cannot go wrong, can one? I’ve also come to understand that my deadlines–while arbitrarily set–are also set up to maximize time, and are also predicated on the idea that I can actually have the energy–both physical and creative–to do good work every day. I’m not sure that I can anymore–not sure that I ever could–but the mindset is the key, and I know after seeing clients for eight hours, I really don’t have the bandwidth to write anymore the way I used to; which inevitably, I am sure, has something to do with the malaise this current world in which we live has created. Malaise is probably not the right word; depression is probably closer to what I really mean–there’s this weird depressive thing going on in my subconscious that makes macro issues I would ordinarily blow off or ignore or brush off much more micro and much more draining on me.

So, what is a writer to do in these days? Self-care, as I have noted before, is more important than ever. I am going to use the massage roller this morning, and possibly do some stretching exercises as I get ready to face this day–I intend to write today; it’s been lovely dipping my toe into it most of the weekend but I really need to dive into the pool today–and I’d also like to get some more cleaning done at some point. There are electronic files to sort as well, and filing to be done; floors to be cleaned and laundry to fold; all the endless minutiae I always intend to keep up with as I go but inevitably push the back of the priority list and do nothing about until they reach a point like the one they are at now: a literal mess that requires more focused work than ordinarily they would. And while my energies are frequently scattered…I have found that the binge reading I’ve been doing has done a lot to create a sort of inner peace that I’ve been missing lately. I also think I’ve sort of been in mourning about the loss of football season–yes, I know they are going to try to have a season, but it’s not a real season and thus not the same thing; this will be the first year since 2010 that Paul and I have not gone to at least one game in Tiger Stadium–but at the same time, that has also freed up my weekends. My goal for this week is to read a short story a day, as well as a chapter or two per day of whatever book I am currently reading–I suspect I may finish the Tremblay today, it’s that good and that unputdownable–as well as to do some stretches every morning after I get up and before I take my shower. I think regimenting my days into a sort of routine–since I clearly love routines when I can manage to stick to them–is perhaps the smartest way to go.

We watched the new episode of The Vow last night, and it’s getting more and more chilling the deeper into the series we go; I’m glad it’s currently not binge-able, because watching one episode per week makes it more easily digestible. They are doing a most excellent job as well of showing how attractive NXIVM was; a lot of the things they talk about, when it comes to taking responsibility for yourself and changing your mentality and behavior to become more successful, sounds like practical advice you can apply to improve your life–but there’s certainly a dark side to the whole thing. Last night’s episode, which brought up the branding and master/slave “sorority” within the organization, was positively chilling.

We also started watching the new Ridley Scott series for HBO MAX, Raised by Wolves, which is extraordinary. We watched all three episodes that were made available immediately, and it’s quite an accomplishment; it looks very expensive, with no expense spared on production design and special effects. The story itself is also interesting, if a bit hard to understand to begin with; it’s set in 2145, and Earth has been ravaged to the point of becoming unlivable because of a religious war, between Mithraic religion (worship of the sun) and atheists. Since Earth was becoming uninhabitable, both sides launched space ships to another Earth-like planet to save humanity; and it gets a lot more complicated from there. It’s a very high-concept show, and I am curious to see how it all plays out going forward. If you’re a science fiction fan, I’d recommend it; I don’t know if people who generally don’t watch sci-fi would like it as much–I could be wrong. I would have never guessed, for example, that Game of Thrones would have become the cultural phenomenon that it was.

And I still haven’t decided what short stories to focus on writing, although I am leaning towards “After the Party”, “The Flagellants”, “Waking the Saints”, “Please Die Soon,” and “He Didn’t Kill Her.”

And on that note, tis back into the spice mines with me.

Starlight

And so now it’s Sunday.

I won’t lie; I’ve lost my sense of time and date and day already this weekend and I’m perfectly fine with it. I hope everyone who has the good fortune to have the weekend off–I know there are many who do not–are in the same state of what day is this that I found myself in most of yesterday and when i woke up this morning–I overslept again, which was amazingly lovely, but i really need to stop indulging myself this way–and am now awake, on my first cup of coffee, and ready to get shit done today. I did get shit done yesterday–I cleaned and organized quite a bit (not enough, it’s never enough) and while I do have some little bit of cleaning and a lot of organizing left to get done, at least I made a start on it yesterday. My desk, for example, this morning is clean and clear; which will make writing later much easier.

I finished Little Fires Everywhere yesterday–I blogged about it already, so I won’t repeat anything other than that it’s a fantastic book I encourage you all to read–and started reading The Coyotes of Carthage, which was originally recommended to me by my friend Laura, who was lucky enough to receive an advance copy. It, too, is fantastic and unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and I am really looking forward to getting more into it–I will undoubtedly take a reading break or two at some point today. It seems to be a political thriller about dark money and political consultants in a very rural county in South Carolina, with a Black male protagonist, so I am sure it’s going to be quite interesting to read.

But I really also need to write today; I’ve not looked at the manuscript since last weekend, and this “only writing on the weekends for one day” simply cannot continue to stand, really. I have too much to write, and I need to stop giving into the laziness or the tiredness or self-destructive patterns or whatever the hell it is that keeps me from finishing this damned book. Heavy sigh. I also have any number of short stories I need to wade through to pick out some to work on for submission calls.

Again, I think there’s something to that I am so overwhelmed believing I’ll never get everything done so why bother doing any of it thing.

Repeat after me: SELF-DEFEATING.

While I waited for Paul to finish working on a grant last night I watched, or rather, rewatched (although I didn’t really remember watching it before, and I figured, meh, if I’ve already seen it I can do stuff on my iPad while it’s on in the background) a documentary called Master of Dark Shadows, about Dan Curtis and how the show came about, and its legacy (I’m sure most people don’t remember Curtis also produced and directed the mini-series based on Herman Wouk’s novels The Winds of War and War and Remembrance). I was one of those kids who watched Dark Shadows only in the summertime, because my elementary school didn’t get out until 3:15; even though we lived only a block away from the school I couldn’t ever get home fast enough to watch even the end. I did love Dark Shadows–our sitter/caregiver, Mrs. Harris, also watched One Life to Live and General Hospital, which were my first exposures to soaps–and it always stuck in my mind; I always give it credit for my interest in horror and the supernatural. I enjoyed watching the documentary (and for the record, I loved the NBC reboot of the series in prime time in the early 1990’s, and was crushed when it was canceled; I rewatched it with Paul and he too was disappointed it ended on its cliff-hanger) and then we started watching a documentary about a double murder in India called Behind Closed Doors, in which the investigation was so incredibly fucked up–I mean, if the primary take-away from all the other true crime documentaries we’ve been watching has been man is our system seriously fucked up, the takeaway from this one is yeah, but ours is clearly better than others.

Which is kind of scary, really.

While I was also bored yesterday waiting for Paul–and only really sort of watching Master of Dark Shadows–I was right, I’d seen it before–I started looking things up on-line; which was an absolutely lovely example of how one can fall into a wormhole on the Internet. As you know, I’ve been having this Cynical 70’s Film Festival, and thinking about the rise, and proliferation of, conspiracy theories in that suspicious, paranoid decade, and one that I hadn’t remembered until yesterday sprang up into my min, completely unbidden, while I was reading about the Bermuda Triangle: Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Daniken. Does anyone else remember von Daniken and his theories, which were based in nothing scientific or archaeological? Von Daniken believed that ancient texts–the Bible, the Code of Hammurabi, etc.–all contained evidence that in Ancient Times the Earth was visited by space aliens–Alien Astronauts, as he called them–who brought knowledge and information with them to the primitive creatures of our planet at the time, and also assisted them in the massive building projects that modern man cannot conceive of them building back then–the pyramids, for one thing, and the lines on the plains of Nazca (which I first read about in the Nancy Drew volume The Clue in the Crossword Cipher)–and those aliens with their vastly superior technology, were seen as gods by the primitives and those visits have come down to us in the form of mythology. It’s an interesting idea for sure–but it was all conjecture, with no proof. I read all of von Daniken’s books back in the day; others included The Gold of the Gods, and were simply further conjectures, but he developed quite a following, and set the stage for what is called the pseudo-science of Graham Hancock, his modern day successor. (I’ve also read some of Hancock’s work; his theory that the Sphinx is far older than we suspect based on water wear on its base is interesting, as is his other theory that the Ark of the Covenant’s final resting place is in Ethiopia; before reading that book I had no idea that Christianity was so firmly entrenched there) So, I spent some time looking up von Daniken’s theories yesterday, as well as some other conspiracy theories of the time–I also did a deep dive into the entire Holy Grail Holy Blood thing which provided the basis for The Da Vinci Code and Dan Brown’s entire career; and of course we certainly cannot forget the apocryphal writings of Hal Lindsay and The Late Great Planet Earth–which, really, is where The Omen came from; we forget how “end times” theory truly began flourishing in the 1970’s.

I’ve always been interested in stories about lost books of the Bible, or lost Biblical theory, along with the end-times prophecies Lindsay wrote about; Irving Wallace’s The Word, which was built around the rediscovery of a lost testament of Jesus which would revolutionize and make-over the Christian theology was one of the first novels of this type I read; it was also made into a mini-series, which made me aware of it in the first place (Irving Wallace isn’t really remembered much today, but he was a huge bestseller back in the day, and he wrote incredibly thick novels, mostly about international conspiracies or legal issues–The Seven Minutes, for example, was about censorship and “blue laws”; The Second Lady was about a Soviet conspiracy to replace the First Lady with a lookalike imposter who was a Soviet spy; The Prize was about the machinations around how the Nobel Prize was given out; etc etc etc). The Da Vinci Code fits clearly into this category, as does The Gemini Contenders by Robert Ludlum and The Fourth Secret by Steve Berry (which is about the fourth secret Our Lady of Lourdes–or was it Fatima?–revealed to either Bernadette or the peasant children; Irving Wallace also covered this in The Miracle); Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade also kind of fit here, as both films are about the search for Biblical relics. I’ve always, always, wanted to write one of these. Years ago I had the idea for one, in which there was a secret document or testament hidden in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople for years, and that part of the reason the 4th Crusade sacked the city was the Pope’s desire to get his hands on those documents, which were thus smuggled out of the city by the Patriarch and lost forever…this is the idea I always come around to for a Colin stand-alone (I also realize I could do Colin stand-alones set at various times throughout the last twenty years or so of Scotty books, as he is gone a lot of the time on missions), and the working title for it always is Star of Irene, because the Byzantine Empress Irene–contemporary of Charlemagne–has always fascinated me.

But I will never write a Colin stand-alone, or series, unless I get this fucking book finished, so I suppose it’s time for me to head back into the spice mines.

Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

Look What You Made Me Do

It probably goes without saying that I wasn’t a typical boy-child; a complete mystery and disappointment to my parents. For years, I attributed the disappointment and confusion to my complete inability, and resistance, to conform to gender expectations of how little boys were expected to behave and what they were supposed to be interested in because I was not born heterosexual despite being born into a overwhelmingly heterosexual society, country, and culture. It took many years for me to recognize and understand that even had I not been innately attracted to males romantically and sexually and emotionally I still would have been an unfathomable mystery to my parents because I was an artistic child born into a family where an interest in the arts was just as foreign to them as if I had been a foundling from another planet they discovered on their doorstep one morning. We were a family of readers–everyone in my family was a reader–but no one was as voracious a reader as I was; because I was interested in stories and fictions, and because I felt like such an outsider in my own life that I was more interested in escaping it into the different worlds that books offered me.

Even when my parents, mystified, encouraged my reading habit (it was really more of an addiction more than anything else; the most effective punishment was denying me books) they were also mystified by what I wanted to read; I was interested more in books by and about women than I was in books by and about men. I’ve always wondered if their violent reaction to this interest in women pushed me further, in my innate stubbornness, along that path; why the forbidden Nancy Drew books were of greater interest than the Hardy Boys–the greatest irony, of course, being that my favorite series, in truth, were always books about boys (the Three Investigators, Rick Brant, Ken Holt) rather than girls. This preference for books by women over men continued into my adulthood; I inevitably read more books by and about women than I do by and about men. I am digressing a bit from the point of this entry, but one thing I’ve always rebelled against is this notion that men’s stories are universal while women’s are more micro and intimate; I prefer more micro, intimate stories to universal ones, and there is often more universal truths and intellectual honesty and curiosity in an intimate story than in what is supposedly a more universal one.

Take, for example, Celeste Ng’s brilliant Little Fires Everywhere.

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough–or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow–and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss. A little after noon on that Saturday in May, the shoppers pushing their grocery carts in Heinen’s heard the fire engines wail to life and careen away, toward the duck pond. By a quarter after twelve there were four of them parked in a haphazard red line along Parkland Drive, where all six bedrooms of the Richardson house were ablaze, and everyone within a half mile could see the smoke rising over the trees like a dense black thundercloud. Later people would say that the signs had been there all along: that Izzy was a little lunatic, that there had always been something off about the Richardson family, that as soon as they heard the sirens that they knew something terrible had happened. By then, of course, Izzy would be long gone, leaving no one to defend her, and people could–and did–say whatever they liked. At the moment the fire trucks arrived, though, and for quite a while afterward, no one knew what was happening. Neighbors clustered as close to the makeshift barrier–a police cruiser, parked crosswise a few hundred yards away–as they could and watched the firefighters unreel their hoses with the grime faces of men who recognized a hopeless cause. Across the street, the geese at the pond ducked their heads underwater for weeds, wholly unruffled by the commotion.

Mrs. Richardson stood on the tree lawn, clutching the neck of her pale blue robe closed. Although it was already afternoon, she had been still asleep when the smoke detectors had sounded. She had gone to bed late, and had slept in on purpose, telling herself she deserved it after a rather difficult day. The night before, she had watched from an upstairs window as a car had finally pulled up in front of the house. The driveway was long and circular, a deep horseshoe arc bending from the curb to the front door and back–so the street was a good hundred feet away, too far for her to see clearly, and even in May, at eight o’clock it was almost dark, besides. But she had recognized the small tan Volkswagen of her tenant, Mia, its headlights shining. The passenger door opened and a slender figure emerged, leaving the door ajar: Mia’s teenage daughter, Pearl. The dome light lit the inside of the car like a shadow box, but the car was packed with bags nearly to the ceiling and Mrs. Richardson could only just make out the faint silhouette of Mia’s head, the messy topknot perched at the crown of her head. Pearl bent over the mailbox, and Mrs. Richardson imagined the faint squeak of the mailbox door opened, then shut. Then Pearly hopped back into the car and closed the door. The brake lights flared red, then winked out, and the car puttered off into the growing night. With a sense of relief, Mrs. Richardson had gone down to the mailbox and found a set of keys on a plain ring, with no note. She had planned to go over in the morning and check the rental house on Winslow Road, even though she already knew that they would be gone.

At this point, writing about Little Fires Everywhere is probably a bit of overkill; it was a New York Times bestseller and selected by Reese Witherspoon for her book club and adapted by same into a critically acclaimed and highly watched mini-series on Hulu; Kerry Washington currently is an Emmy nominee for Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for her stunning personification of Mia, the photographer whose arrival in peaceful quiet Shaker Heights with her daughter sets into motion the story of both book and television series. But this entry is about the book and not the television series (which you should watch, if you haven’t already), and the book is a gem all by itself.

Little Fires Everywhere focuses, on the surface, on the interactions between two completely different women, and by extension, their families. One is Mrs. Richardson; easy to recognize in any number of women we all know–we’ve all known, at one time or another, a Mrs. Richardson: the uber-organized working wife-and-mother who has definite opinions on everything and sees the world in black-and-white with no shades of gray; the woman who is so certain of her ultimate rightness that she can shape reality, and interpret things that happen in her life, to fit her worldview rather than expanding her worldview to fit new data, new experience, new people. It seems cruel to suggest that these women have calcified, but there’s also an element of truth to that; they have constructed their lives in such a way that they must convince themselves that they’ve always made the right choice, because anything that might make them question anything about themselves and their lives would create a crack in that facade of perfection they’ve built to show the world–but they are more worthy of pity and compassion than judgment and contempt, if not for the damage they cause in their correctness.

Mia, whose choices were so different from all of Mrs. Richardson’s (and therefore wanting, which also makes Mia suspicious to Mrs. Richardson if fascinating at the same time), is a Dionysian force in peaceful, nothing-ever-happens Shaker Heights. (Mrs. Richardson is the embodiment of Shaker Heights: planned, perfect, progressive.) Mia is a vagabond, an artist who pulls up stakes and moves on, following her drive to create and make art, choosing the kind of life Mrs. Richardson once might have chosen–but ultimately didn’t; so of course Mrs. Richardson must judge Mia and find her wanting, otherwise she might start questioning and doubting herself. We are, of course, meant to identify with and like Mia, while holding Mrs. Richardson at a cold distance and judging her and her choices. Ng always refers to her as Mrs. Richardson and her husband as Mr. Richardson, very formal, just as they think themselves above judgment and disapproval, while Mia is simply Mia: companionable, likable, a peer.

Mia’s past has its own secrets and choices, some of them questionable, others causing pain to others–not the least of which are her own parents. Like Mrs. Richardson, Mia is convinced her decisions were the right ones, and so she is kind of her mirror image; reflecting back at each other who they might have become had they made other choices at those crossroads of their lives, when they set their feet down on their opposing paths. The two women are much more alike, certainly more than either wants to think, or believe; this is inevitably why they come into conflict, and their very different choices about what it means to be a mother and parent, is clearly reflected in their children; the Richardson children are very different from each other, and often accurately named, and how they are treated and react to their mother, and who they become, is very much because of how she mothers them. Pearl is very much Mia’s daughter; compassionate and understanding yet mysterious at the same time–she understands her mother and is much closer to her mother than any of the Richardson are to theirs. To the Richardsons, their mother is an abstract presence that is always there–supportive and loving with Lexi; sometimes exasperated but caring with Trip; absent with Moody and antagonistic with Izzy.

The trigger that drives them all into opposite corners is of course the custody battle over Mirabelle/May Ling; the Richardsons are friends of the McCulloughs; Mia is a friend of the birth mother, and the book really is, ultimately, who or what is a good mother?

How that could not be a universal story is a mystery to me, frankly.

Ng is also a brilliant writer; sentences and paragraphs constructed as beautifully and carefully as her characters, all of whom are realistic and believable, people we all know, or at least, think we do. The book left me wanting more; wanting to know what happened to them all (the book set twenty years into the past) and where they are now. Are they happy? What choices did they make? And the writing is so strong and poetic that as I read along, the truths and honesty inspired me–new stories, new ideas, new insights into the characters of my own creation.

And for me, that’s the sign of a masterful writer: one whose work inspires other writers to new ideas, new creations, and to do better.

Teardrops on My Guitar

Saturday, and the first blog entry of the three day Labor Day weekend.

Labor Day.

September.

Sep-fucking-tember.

I think the kindest thing anyone can say about this year is that it hasn’t been a pleasant experience for most people, and putting it that way is perhaps a bit of a stretch. I do feel bad for people who are actually having good things happen to them in this year of utter misery and repeated horror; as I said recently, this is why we  need to get our joy where we can find it. Adaptability is one strength (supposedly) of our species, and I do see people adapting left and right; on the other hand, I also see others desperately clinging to the past and resisting adaptation most stubbornly. This has been quite a year on every level–and it has been interesting seeing how people have adapted, and how people are handling it all so differently.

This is why it surprises me when I see authors talking about how they are going to handle the pandemic in their work–or rather, how they are not going to address the pandemic in their work. It’s so global and so intense and it’s affected everyone, changing how we do things and how we live our lives, from the most mundane things like picking up prescriptions to grocery shopping to going out to eat, to the big things like jobs and house payments and school attendance and daycare. It has affected every part of our lives, so how can we ignore it or pretend like it never happened? It’s very similar to the Katrina situation New Orleans writers found ourselves in afterwards; we couldn’t pretend like the city hadn’t been destroyed or that we’d all been through a horrible trauma. But when I, for example, started writing my post-Katrina work, we were over a year into the recovery and so I could write about what it had been like, rather then trying to figure out what it was going to be like. Pandemic writing, of course, will inevitably date your work, just like Katrina divided my career into before and after. I’m still, frankly, trying to decide how to deal with it in my own work–or if I even want to continue writing the series or not.

And let’s be honest: my first and thus far only attempt to write pandemic fiction, started in the first weeks of the quarantine/shutdown, quickly became dated; I am very glad I didn’t finish it because a lot of the work would have been wasted. I do want to finish the story, though, see if anyone wants to publish it.

Today is going to be my catch-up day; I am going to try to get a chapter revised today, but my primary concern is getting things caught up; I want to finish reading Little Fires Everywhere (I really got sucked into it for a few hours last night) and get started on The Coyotes of Carthage, and I also think I might spend some time today with some short story reading–that Sara Paretsky collection keeps giving me side-eye whenever I sit down in my easy chair–and of course, there’s always electronic files to sort and clean up as well as physical ones. The house really needs some serious cleaning, frankly, and I know I’ll feel much better once that chore is actually accomplished.

Then again, who knows? This could easily turn into another lazy day.

Yesterday during condom-packing time, I watched the season finale of Real Housewives of New York (Dorinda’s recently firing makes a lot more sense now) and moved on to the next on my Cynical 70’s Film Festival, All the President’s Men. To digress for a moment, can I just say how fucking ridiculously good-looking Robert Redford was? I know, I know, commenting on the almost insane beauty of Redford isn’t like anything new, but good lord. Dustin Hoffman was also never considered to be particularly good-looking, but he looks pretty good in this movie and isn’t completely overshadowed by Redford, which would have been expected. It’s a very good film, from top to bottom; everyone in the cast is superb (it was also interesting to see so many people in bit roles that would later become stars on television–Polly Holiday, Stephen Collins, Meredith Baxter Birney), and it also made me miss the heyday of the thriller featuring the intrepid, dogged, never say die investigative journalist. This is something we’ve lost with the rise of the Internet, 24 hours news channels, and the death of print: with magazines and newspapers either shuttering or cutting back staff, it’s really no longer realistic to have the crusading journalist as the heroic center of your book or movie; as I watched the show I kept thinking about the old Ed Asner series Lou Grant, and whether it was streaming anywhere.

All the President’s Men, of course, is the film version of the book Carl Bernstein and Robert Woodward wrote about their investigation into the Watergate break-in in 1972, which was the tiny thread that was pulled and eventually brought down the Nixon presidency and almost destroyed the Republican party in the process. I read the book initially when I was in college–it was required reading for my Intro to Journalism class (I was torn between majoring in journalism or English; being unaware that I could have gone to college somewhere and majored in Creative Writing–but actually, I am very glad I never did that)–and it was my first real experience with understanding, for the first time, what Watergate was all about. It happened in real time during the course of my life, but I was also between the ages of 11 and 13 from the first reports of the break-in and the resignation of a president, and so I didn’t really understand what was going on and only had a vague idea as it infiltrated every aspect of the culture beyond the news. It certainly gave rise to the concept of conspiracy theories and the belief that the government couldn’t be trusted–which gave rise to Reaganism in the 1980’s–but reading the book was my first baby-step forward to shaking off the ideology with which I had been raised. I had never seen the film, and so it really seemed to be perfect for my Cynical 70’s Film Festival…although it was difficult for me to get up the desire to actually queue it up and click play, frankly; the utter failure of the 4th Estate to do its job properly in this century plays no small part in why we are where we are today. But it’s a good film, and it also depicts the back-room aspect of journalism–the battle for column inches, the struggle for the front page, the competition with other newspapers and television–which is really kind of a lost world now. (I had always wanted to write about a newspaper–which is partly why I made Paige a journalist, morphing her gradually into a magazine editor.) I will say watching this movie now made me think about writing about a modern-day journalist; the struggle between the print and on-line copy, etc. If I only had more time.

It’s also very sad to know that if Watergate was happening now, the story would be killed by an editor, and we’d never know the truth.

We also finished watching Outcry last night, which was terrific, and the latest episode of Lovecraft Country (it dropped early because of the holiday weekend), and its continued brilliance is really something. We also saw the preview for Raised by Wolves, the new Ridley Scott series for HBO MAX, and it also looks terrific. A new season of The Boys also just dropped on Prime; so there’s a wealth of things for us to watch, and I rediscovered (oops) my Showtime watch list last night, which also has a cornucopia of delights on it.

And on that note, tis time for me to head into ye olde spice mines for the day. May you all have a lovely, lovely day today.

IMG_4205

Picture to Burn

Thursday, Thursday, is today’s child full of woe? I used to know that rhyme when I was younger–one of those things that would pop out of my mouth and brain every now and then when I wasn’t expecting it to–and now I cannot seem to summon it from the depths of my memories. I think it was Tuesday’s child, anyway; was Thursday’s child full of grace or something like that? Possible, I suppose.

Another good night’s sleep was had yesterday evening, which is lovely. I have to go into the office today and run errands on the way in.  I’m just glad to be feeling more rested, to be honest, and then tomorrow is a work-at-home day, and then I slide into the three day weekend, which is kind of nice. I hope to finish reading  Little Fires Everywhere this weekend, start reading The Coyotes of Carthage, and perhaps dip my eyes back into the Short Story Project–I have Sara Paretsky’s short story collection glaring at me from the end table as well as the new Lawrence Block anthology, and so many others I’ve not finished reading–and of course, I want to get a lot of writing done. I want to spend some time on Bury Me in Shadows, as well as maybe get some short story writing done, which would be lovely.

One can certainly hope, can’t one?

But I’ve also learned my lesson about over-planning for the weekend; I know I need to just make a list of things to do that need to be done and not overly pressure myself to get it all done over the course of the long weekend, while recognizing that I also need to recharge my batteries and I also need to do some cleaning; perhaps even work on that damned file cabinet which I never finished working on.

Yesterday’s Cynical 70’s Film Festival choice wound up being nothing I was considering. Instead, I choose to rewatch The Exorcist, which I’ve never seen other than the “edited for television” version. The Exorcist was a phenomenon at the time, and most people still, to this day, consider it the scariest film they’ve ever seen and it regularly pops up on lists of best horror films ever made. I read the book at the height of its popularity, when I was in junior high school, and while it didn’t precisely scare me, it was lurid–we all read it for the lurid parts, like the crucifix masturbation scene and so forth; there was something sacrilegious about reading it, like actually reading it was an act of subversion. The film broke all box office records of the time and was nominated for a lot of Oscars, and the soundtrack–Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”–always brings up mental associations with the film. It was the first outright horror film to get that many Oscar nominations, or to be nominated for any, really, other than Rosemary’s Baby, which wasn’t nominated for a lot; William Friedkin, fresh off his Oscar winning outing with The French Connection–which is also on my list–directed it. A more traditional entertainment, The Sting, wound up sweeping the Oscars that year. A few years ago, I reread the book to see how well it held up, and as an adult who is also now a writer and has been a reviewer, and has read thousands of other books in the interim, I can say it doesn’t hold up well at all–it really isn’t all that scary, either; it was a product of its time and it might not even get published were it written today. The characters were very cardboard and one-dimensional and behaved in ways that made no sense whatsoever; the focus was on the sacrilege, really, and the shock. I wondered if that would be true of the movie, as well, in its unedited version.

The acting was fine, really; Ellen Burstyn is never bad in anything, and Linda Blair was also fine; but the truth is the direction of the film doesn’t really develop the characters enough to make the viewer empathize with them, or identify with them. The scares weren’t as scary as they were; it’s hard to be scared when you know something is coming and you’ve already seen it, after all; part of the thrill of a horror film is not knowing when the scares are coming, so rewatches never have quite the same effect. I watched this time in a more analytic way, rather than as a viewer–but while others I’d seen before–Aliens comes to mind–really hold up incredibly well, The Exorcist doesn’t; I don’t feel like I got to know enough about Chris MacNeil or Father Karras enough to care about either one of them; and I found that I had more questions about them and who they were than I did when I viewed it as simply an entertainment. I think had the film been filmed more intimately, rather than from a cold distance, it would have held up a lot more; I don’t know, I am neither a filmmaker or a critic. But it didn’t trigger much of a reaction in me, and that’s rather telling. I think the problem, from a story-telling point of view, is that it couldn’t make up its mind whether it was about the MacNeils or Father Karras; although the title would tend to make you think the focus was on Father Karras; it should have been titled The Exorcism, really, and that, I think, was the end problem result for me: the book and film were really about Father Karras and his struggle with his faith, but only touched on that issue glancingly; because it also wanted to focus on how dismissive we are of spiritual issues in our modern scientific world, and wanted to show how an atheist, irreligious woman would try to get her child scientific treatment and slowly come around to the idea that in the modern world, something rooted in past superstition was the issue. Both are great stories, but for me, it failed in trying to tell both and wound up just skittering across the surface like a needle on a warped vinyl record.

Ultimately, though, The Exorcist–both book and film–are important works in both disciplines; along with Rosemary’s Baby, ushered in the 1970’s revival and rejuvenation of horror, in both film and literature, and that influence cannot be denied. Without either of those books, would Carrie have been published, or Peter Straub’s first horror novel? It was The Exorcist, after all, that first really introduced me to horror.

And I absolutely loved the television series inspired by it.

And on that note, tis time for me to return to ye old mines of spice. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader, and I’ll catch you again tomorrow.

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