Penny Lover

Also over the course of the weekend, as I was desperate to find an excuse to neither clean nor write, we watched a horror film on Prime called Don’t Hang Up.

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To be honest, I doubt that we would ever have watched this film had I not been scrolling through the listings of horror films on Prime. I actually had started House on Sorority Row because Eileen Davidson and Harley Jane Kozack were in it, but lost interest really quickly. When I saw this listing, and saw that it starred Gregg Sulkin and Garrett Clayton, my first thought was I’ve never heard of this and my second was well, they’re cute boys at the very least.

(Sulkin was the romantic lead on an MTV series I watched called Fakin’ It, and of course, Clayton played underage gay porn star Brent Corrigan in King Cobra.)

It was actually kind of good, although the premise–a group of four male high school friends prank call people, filming the entire thing for Youtube–seemed a little shaky to me; I was all do people still prank call people? Is that still a thing? But things take a turn for the dark side when they prank call the wrong person; a psycho who wants to get revenge on them, and then the movie becomes classic horror movie, a la Scream and Halloween, etc. As far as the genre goes, it’s actually well done, and the two boys do a credible job of acting. There are also some surprise twists, and the end was absolutely perfect. Well done, folks!

We also started watching AMC’s The Terror.

The Terror is based on a novel by Dan Simmons and in the episodes we’ve seen so far, it’s very well done, well acted, well written with high production values. I do have some questions–the show begins with the two ships trying to get through the Arctic Ocean to map the northwest passage; a northern route around North America to the Orient. The ships get frozen into the ‘block’ when the sea freezes over…and then it jumps ahead eight months.

The Terror is based on the true story of  the Franklin Expedition–which vanished; the wrecks of the ships were found recently. I have to say, as I often do, that I love fictional stories that are based in real history. Fiction can often, for me, provide a jumping off place to start reading history or about a region; Steve Hamilton’s Misery Bay got me fascinated in the history of the Great Lakes, and Lake Superior in particular; which led to me reading a lot about shipwrecks in that largest of the Great Lakes, and the Edmund Fitzgerald in particular. Watching The Terror will probably lead to me reading up about the search for the Northwest Passage more, and perhaps some Canadian history as well.

But I particularly want to compliment the cast of The Terror, which is quite excellent in their roles; Ciaran Hinds is always terrific, as is Jared Harris. There is also a quite extraordinary Inuk actress, Nive Nielsen, who is giving an Emmy worthy performance. Tobias Menzies is also delivering; and I have a bit of a crush on him, and have ever since he played Brutus in the long-lamented two-season only series Rome, which I loved. I’m not sure what it is about Mr. Menzies that I find so appealing; he’s not classically handsome, but there is just something about his unusual jawline that I think is interesting.

I am quite looking forward to watching a few more episodes. I am also looking forward to the BBC America series Killing Eve, which is also available on the AMC app.

And Adam Rippon is killing it on Dancing with the Stars.

And now, back to the spice mines. I almost am finished with Chapter 13, and need to get some headway on Chapter 14.

Saving All My Love For You

Saturday morning. I have an eye appointment in Metairie this afternoon, but I definitely need new glasses. I also have to get groceries this morning (ugh), and I should probably figure out some time to go get the mail as well. Heavy sigh; the house is also a mess and this kitchen needs a-cleanin’. Paul’s going into the office today, so I’ll be alone; I am hoping, after I get home, to spend some time writing. I was very tired and didn’t feel good yesterday; my throat’s kind of sore this morning as well; I woke up a lot last night, but I did sleep. Tomorrow I am going back to the gym to get my workouts going again, so hopefully that will help in the sleep department. I’ve noticed that I’m not sleeping as well since Carnival started and I stopped having time for working out.

I can’t not sleep. I have too much to do and I can’t be tired. Yesterday was my short day at the office and after I got home, I didn’t feel well and was too tired to do anything besides sit in my easy chair and watch Adam Rippon videos on Youtube. (I told you I was stanning.) Then it was time to watch the Olympic figure skating, which was terrific. Very proud of our US skaters! Nathan Chen had six quads in his program, and made Olympic history, and young Vincent Zhou skated magnificently as well. All three of our skaters wound up in the Top Ten, which was terrific, and Nathan came close to medaling. If only he’d turned that second quad in his short program into a combination jump and gotten points for it, he would have. He had the highest score in the long program. Had they both skated clean short programs, they both would have medaled. So, there’s a lot of hope there for the future. Part of the fun of the Olympics is also seeing the future of the sport out on the ice as well–the silver medalist, Shoma Uno, is very young as well, and there was a young Russian who is very artistic. Worlds this year will be very fun to watch.

Oh, Adam. What would it have meant to fifteen year old me, deeply closeted and terrified someone might find out who I really was, to see you skate at the Innsbruck Olympics in 1976? Watching you this past week brought tears to my eyes every time; my heart was in my throat every time you went into a jump. You made me laugh in your interviews, you made me cry with your oh-so-beautiful skating. I can’t remember the last time I was so emotionally invested in seeing a skater do well? Michelle Kwan, whom I loved and still miss? Rudy Galindo in 1996? And how happy and proud to see all the love for you, to the point where even the trash tweeting shit about you could just make me smile and think he has a bronze medal, and you have your phone and bitterness. I feel SORRY for you that you can’t find joy in this, what a sad, bitter, pathetic life you must lead. Especially the gay Republicans, so desperate for the love and acceptance they’ll never get from their abusive relationship with a party that hates them. Adam is a star; will be a star, and he’ll always, always, have these Olympics, three gorgeous performances, and a bronze medal. No one can ever take that away from him with petty nastiness.

Watching Adam and his great joy in his sport and doing his best also made me realize something; it’s about doing something you love, and doing your best. I had already realized that I had lost my joy in writing sometime ago; I’m not sure when it went from being something I loved doing to an odious chore. But this year I’ve rediscovered how much I love it, how much I’ve missed it; how I love creating characters and telling stories and expressing myself on the page. I was already getting there on my own, but watching Adam, seeing him, took me to that final place. It’s not about medals, it’s not about awards, it’s not even about money; it’s about joy in doing something you love.

Thanks, Adam, for that–and for making me realize how I’ve been neglecting my eyebrows.

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I also read some more short stories.

To be fair, I had already read Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds”; her Echoes from the Macabre: Selected Stories is one of my favorite single-author collections of all time. But it had been awhile since I’d read this story; I knew it was vastly different from the Hitchcock film based on it, so I read it again.

On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter. Until then the autumn had been mellow, soft. The leaves had lingered on the trees, golden red, and the hedgerows were still green. The earth was rich where the plough had turned it.

Nat Hocken, because of a wartime disability, had a pension and did not work full-time at the farm. He worked three days a week, and they gave him the lighter jobs: hedging, thatching, repairs to the farm buildings.

Although he was married, with children, his was a solitary disposition; he liked best to work alone. It pleased him when he was given a bank to build up, or a gate to mend at the far end of the peninsula, where the sea surrounded the farm land on either side. Then, at midday, he would pause and eat the pasty that his wife had baked for him, and sitting on the cliff’s edge would watch the birds. Autumn was the best for this, better than spring. In spring the birds flew inland, purposeful, intent; they knew where they were bound, the rhythm and ritual of their life brooked no delay. In autumn those who had not migrated overseas but remained to pass the winter were caught up in the same driving urge, but because migration was denied to them followed a pattern of their own. Great flocks of them came to the peninsula, restless, uneasy, spending themselves in motion; now wheeling, circling in the sky, now settling to feed on the rich, new-turned soil, but even when they fed it was as though they did so without hunger, without desire. Restlessness drove them to the skies again.

One of the best parts of the film is that there’s no explanation why the birds have turned on humans; they just have, and there’s no way of knowing if they’ll ever go back to normal. The end of the movie is kind of left hanging; when I saw it the first time when I was a kid I was deeply dissatisfied with how the film ended. But there wasn’t really any way to end the film, and du Maurier herself gave no clues to what was going to happen at the end of her story. The story ends much the same as the movie; no end to the menace in sight, and even more chilling–I don’t remember if this was in the movie–but the BBC had stopped broadcasting; the horrifying part of this story is the incredible sense of isolation the family feels–are they the only people left alive in the world? On that level, the story is even more disturbing than the film; in the movie there are other people all around in the town. The story is set out in the country…and du Maurier never lets the reader know. The way the horror builds is almost unbearable; her mastery is truly amazing.

I also went back to the Laura Lippman well for “Easy As A-B-C’, from her collection Hardly Knew Her.

Another house collapsed today. It happens more and more, especially with all the wetback crews out there. Don’t get me wrong. I  used guys from Mexico and Central America, too, and they’re great workers, especially when it comes to landscaping. But some contractors aren’t as particular as I am. They hire the cheapest labor they can get and the cheapest comes pretty high, especially when you’re excavating a basement, which has become one of the hot fixes around here. It’s not enough, I guess, to get the three-story rowhouse with four bedrooms, gut it from top to bottom, creating open, airy kitchens where grandmothers once smoked the wallpaper with bacon grease and sour beef, or carve master bath suites in the tiny middle rooms that the youngest kids always got stuck with. No, these people have to have the full family room, too, which means digging down into the old dirt basements, putting in new floors and walls. But if you miscalculate–boom. Nothing to do but bring that fucker down and start carting away the bricks.

The premise of this story; a guy who owns a construction company is hired to renovate his grandparents’ old house for a young woman he finds attractive, despite his many years of marriage–is pretty clever. It also has a lot to say, in a very sly way, about gentrification and how old neighborhoods and their character are ruined by it; this is something going on to a very large extent in New Orleans, and has been for quite some time, and there’s a strong sense for us locals that with these changes, some of what made New Orleans so special, unique and different, is also being lost. Lippman inhabits the voice of this middle-age blue-collar man perfectly; she never once slips and makes an error that jars the reader out of the voice. And as the story builds to its own inevitable dark climax, you really can’t stop reading because you really aren’t sure how she is going to finish playing her cards. That’s the great joy of Lippman, and what makes her special and unique as a writer; you’re never really sure how this is all going to play out, but she never deliberately misleads you, ever–she doesn’t cheat, and once you get there, you think, yes, that’s the only way this could end.

Seriously, her new novel dropping this week, Sunburn, is definitely one of her best; check it out, if you haven’t already.

And now, I’ve got a jam to get Scotty and the boys out of.

Think of Laura

Zulu is passing now; I can hear the drums of the marching bands. It’s a gorgeous morning, the sun is shining and I am betting the crowds up at the Avenue are deep; they certainly were last night for Orpheus. Paul and I both have to work tomorrow, so we’re ending our Carnival early; taking today to rest and recover so we can hit the ground running on Ash Wednesday. I also have a lot of things to do today; emails to answer, things to write, things to edit, things to read, a kitchen to clean. Even though it was abbreviated this year (I was in Alabama for the first weekend of parades), I enjoyed every bit of Carnival this year; and am already melancholy to see it end as always.

I’ve also been enjoying the hell out of the Winter Olympics, and like millions of people worldwide I am–what’s the word kids use now? Oh yes–stanning Adam Rippon. As a long time figure skating fan, I’ve known of Adam long before these games; I remember when he had a mop of floppy curls; when gossip websites were pairing him and Ashley Wagner as a couple (I rolled my eyes every time I saw the photos), and I remember when he came out. I blogged about homophobia in figure skating a while back; when Adam came out while still on the Olympic eligible circuit I thought to myself you’re never going to win anything now; so I was pleasantly surprised to see him win US Nationals and make the world team in 2016; he missed last season with a broken foot, and this season he is full-on out: his short program is to gay club music, and his long program, as everyone saw the other night, is breathtaking. I’m so happy for both him and Mirai Nagasu, who became the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics that same night; they earned bronze medals as part of the team competition, and I couldn’t be happier for both of them–all of the Americans on the team, to be honest. Adam is so funny and refreshingly himself; a big personality and a natural wit he doesn’t try to hold back, and that honesty…I just can’t get enough. I had tears in my eyes when he finished his long program the other night; Paul and I both screamed when Mirai landed the triple axel. Seeing the trashy homophobes on Twitter trashing him or going after him makes my blood boil; I’ve resisted the urge to reply to them He’s got an Olympic medal and you’re a fifth-rate Twitter troll. Congratulations.

So. There’s that.

And in other news of the fabulous, the lucky world of readers can look forward to the upcoming release of a new Laura Lippman novel, Sunburn. I got an ARC at Bouchercon and read it in one sitting on a rainy Saturday back in October.

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It’s the sunburned shoulders that get him. Pink, peeling. The burn is two days old, he gauges. Earned on Friday, painful to the touch yesterday, today an itchy soreness that’s hard not to keep fingering, probing, as she’s doing right now in an absentminded way. The skin has started sloughing off, soon those narrow shoulders won’t be so tender. Why would a redhead well into her thirties make such a rookie mistake?

And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that. They’re building a big by-ass so the beach traffic won’t have to slow for the speed trap on the old Main Street. He saw the construction vehicles, idle on Sunday, on his way in. Places like this bar-slash-restaurant, the High-Ho, are probably going to lose what little business they have.

High-Ho. A misprint? Was it supposed to be Heigh-Ho? And if so, was it for the seven dwarfs, heading home from the mines at day’s end, or for the Lone Ranger, riding off into the sunset?  Neither one makes much sense for this place.

Nothing about this makes sense.

Laura Lippman has been one of my favorite writers since I read Baltimore Blues years and years ago. I tore through her Tess Monaghan series, and she very quickly became one of my buy in hardcover authors. I’ve never regretted making that switch, and as she has expanded her skills and pushed herself with her exceptionally brilliant stand alone novels, I’ve never once quibbled but I want another Tess novel! (I do, always, but the stand alones are so fucking fantastic that it doesn’t matter–I really just want a new Lippman, and wish she was on a yearly schedule rather than an eighteen month one.)

Laura’s career trajectory has been most impressive from a writing perspective; because as a writer of stand alones, she has gone from being a literary crime writer to a literary writer about crime, if that makes sense. Each of her stand alones are unique and different from the others; about as far removed from her series as any novels can be and still be by the same author. Each one of these novels are rare pearls, individual and vastly different from the others; different themes, different explorations, different everything. The one common thread that runs through these novels is that they are, for the most part, about women, and what women face in their lives; how they deal with crimes and tragedies that take them out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. Laura also regularly experiments with form and voice and tense; enormous, dangerous risks as a writer that she somehow always manages to pull off, make engaging and enjoyable, and always manages to tell a story that makes a very compelling point.

Sunburn,  her latest, is as different from anything she has done before as it could be unless she decided to write about vampires or a zombie apocalypse; but she also brings her incredibly powerful sense of empathy to this tale of murder, vengeance, and oh-so-careful planning. The book opens with the main character, Polly Costello, walking away from her husband and child on a beach vacation and winding up in the hard-knock town of Belleville; she is being observed by Adam, who is being paid to keep an eye on her, follow her–but not to become obsessed by her, which is what happens. Their story is told in a very limited third person point of view, alternating between them, and as we slowly get to know them, watch their physical attraction expand and develop into something more, the questions remain: why did Polly walk away from her family and child? How could she do such a thing? Who is this enigmatic redheaded bar waitress?

And just how fucking good does Adam’s grilled cheese sandwich taste?

The prose in this book is lean; not an extra word to be found anywhere, and it is an homage of sorts to the kind of lean, tight, dark noir that the great James M. Cain wrote. (Cain is a hero of mine, and I have always wanted to write something that dark and lean and tight…ironically, one of the ideas I had for such a noir–gay, of course–was also titled Sunburn) I’ve seen, in some of the early reviews, comparisons to Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, which seem obvious; there’s an insurance scam buried deep in the plot, it’s set in a bar/diner, it’s about an unexpected, explosive attraction between a man and a woman; there are side plots that end in mysterious deaths… but if anything, I’d say Sunburn is more reminiscent of Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress than anything else.

The book is extraordinary, and probably Laura Lippman’s best work to date; that wisecracking, tight prose; a complicated and complex plot that grows even more complicated as you read another page; fully developed characters you can help but root for, even if their motivations aren’t exactly pure; and ultimately, the book is about a woman with everything stacked against her all of her life, who  never gives up, and makes plans…risky plans; where she gambles everything, including her own happiness and desire, for her future, yet is flexible and smart enough to always adapt.

Polly Costello is a heroine Cain would have been proud to call his own.

I Feel for You

Adam Rippon is going to the Olympics as the first openly gay American figure skater to compete in Olympic history.

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Let’s not be coy, though–there have been plenty of gay male figure skaters throughout the history of the sport–but most came out (or were outed) after their Olympic-eligible careers were over. (And Adam Kenworthy–not a figure skater– is also out this year, but he wasn’t out when he competed in Sochi.)

One of the things that has always fascinated me about figure skating is the contradiction evident in its gender roles. Men are, while being artistic, also supposed to read as masculine and not feminine; likewise the women (it’s still called Ladies’ Figure Skating, for the record) are supposed to be feminine, graceful and lady-like, rather than athletic; a feminine and graceful skater would always win over someone who wasn’t as graceful but was more of an athlete than a ballet dancer. This bipolarity at the heart of figure skating kept gay male skaters deep in the closet, particularly if they were American men; Russian men had no problem with wearing gloves and performing ballet on the ice–but at the same time, those Russian men (Viktor Petrenko, Alexei Urmanov, Ilia Kulik, Alexei Yagudin, and Yevgeny Pluschenko won every Olympic gold medal between 1992 and 2006) clearly were athletes, flying across the ice in footstep sequences with their feet and blades changing directions and edges as rapidly as a machine gun fires; dizzying fast spins with beautiful positions; and of course, landing quad and triple jumps with the greatest of ease, and almost always on the beat of the music they were performing to.

There was also an unspoken understanding that being openly gay would hurt a skater in the marks, which were often subjective, frequently unfair, and, according to the ISU, above reproach. Rudy Galindo was the first openly gay American skater to win US Nationals in 1996, and went on to win a bronze medal at worlds that year; the next openly gay skater to win the US title was Adam Rippon, some twenty years later. Between them was flamboyant Johnny Weir, who didn’t come out until after his Olympic-eligible career was over… (I might add that, despite being US champion and a world medalist in 1996, the USFSA chose not to send Rudy to any of the Grand Prix events the following season; a clear indication to him that his Olympic-eligible career was over, and he went pro.)

Rippon, incidentally, finished fourth at the Olympic trials this year, but was chosen to go to the Olympics anyway; selected over a heterosexual skater who finished with the silver medal. Have things changed with male figure skating since Rudy’s big win in 1996?

As a long time figure skating fan, I’ve always wanted to write a book about a gay figure skater. I did in Jackson Square Jazz, with the character of Bryce Bell, a US Olympic hopeful who is introduced to the reader as someone a very drunken Scotty picked up at a French Quarter gay bar, only to see him competing that same night at Skate America, being held in New Orleans for the first (and clearly fictional) time. (As a joke, I also had Bryce become the first skater in history to land a quad axel; this has still not happened in real life, and may not ever happen.) But Bryce’s skating was relatively unimportant to the story and plot of the book; although his remaining closeted as a skater was.

I never felt that I was able to truly explore the issues of being a gay, Olympic-eligible, American figure skater in the book; Bryce was a supporting character, and the story wasn’t told from his point of view (I’ve been tempted to bring him back, but can never figure out a way to do it organically; just forcibly grafting him onto a story because I want to just feels wrong).

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Ironically, Adam didn’t win Nationals until after he came out. Coming out–and being able to truly be himself for the first time–paid off. He’s a much better skater than he was before; but I do remember thinking at the time he came out, well, you’re never going to win nationals now. But by embracing himself for who he really is, he changed; he found a look and costumes that work for him–he used to have this mop of blonde curls–and his short program this year, to what Paul and I immediately recognized as a gay techno dance remix from back in the day–is one for the ages.

So, does the central premise of the noir figure skating novel I’ve wanted to write–a skater being forced into the closet and not allowed to be himself so that I can explore not only the dynamics of what masculinity is but the class issues inherent in figure skating (I still haven’t posted about my thoughts on I Tonya, which have everything to do with femininity vs. athleticism and class); the masks skaters are forced to wear in order to play the game and get the marks they deserve to win–does that premise still exist today? As far as I know, Adam and Rudy are the only American skaters to come out and skate at the Olympic eligible level; are there others? Is coming out still a risk to your career as a male skater?

Probably so.

And on that note, back to the spice mines.