Keep on Walkin’

I’ve never really thought I could write personal essays (or non-fiction, for that matter). They never held much appeal to me, as either a reader or as a writer.

A lot of this has to do with my checkered educational history; for someone who aspired to be a writer, it now amazes me how many college professors desperately tried to stomp that aspiration out of me–yet at the same time, it enormously pleases me that I proved them all WRONG. When I first started college, the week before my seventeenth birthday, my basic English Comp class required us to spend the first day writing an essay, predicated around the question you are going to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island, what three people and three things would you take with you, and why? I don’t remember what I wrote; I know one of the people was Stephen King so he could keep writing books to entertain me. But the end result of that essay was me being moved from Basic Comp to Honors English. This was not only a surprise but exciting; whomever that professor was, he recognized my ability! 

Honors English, however, turned out to be a horrific nightmare…as did all of my experiences with the English department of that particular college. My new professor–whom I shall never forget, like I shall never forget my first creative writing professor at that benighted plague of a university–was, quite frankly, a moron. There were only twelve of us in the class; she advised us on the very first day that she never gave A’s because that left no room for improvement. I was not an Honors student, so this didn’t phase me, but it caused a lot of discomfort in my extremely-driven-by-GPA classmates. And she stuck to that; none of us ever got an A on any of our essays or papers, and she certainly didn’t teach us anything. My essays were shredded by her on a regular basis; she also liked to proclaim that we would never get so honest an opinion on our writing as we got from her, and even as a naive teenager, I sensed that she took malicious pleasure in being as nasty as she could with our work. We never got anything productive or useful from her; no editorial guidance whatsoever; just nasty condescending commentary in red ink on our papers. That, coupled with a kinder yet equally unhelpful professor in the second semester of Honors English Comp, convinced me that I would never be able to write non-fiction; that writing essays and personal essays were a skill set I neither possessed, nor could learn.

Thanks for that, bitches.

And when you factor in the creative writing professor the next semester who told me I’d never publish…well, you can see why I became absolutely disinterested in college and it just became something else I had to endure and get through.

So, as I grew older and evolved and continued reading and pursuing from time to time my desire to write, I avoided nonfiction and essays. I was never going to write them, I wasn’t any good at them, so why bother? This negative perception continued throughout my life until a friend told me, several years ago, that you write a personal essay on your blog every day. I’d even written and published some, yet I still had that wall up in my mind: I’m not smart enough. I’m not clever enough. Anything I have to say has already been said better by someone else. Anything point I’d try to make would get the response “well, duh, LOSER.”

I started reading Joan Didion last year, beginning with her book Miami, and suddenly, began to see essays in an entirely new light.

This is a book about books. To try that again, it is a book about my fatal flaw: that I insist on learning everything from books. I find myself wanting to apologize for my book’s title, which, in addition to embarrassingly taking part in a ubiquitous publishing trend by including the word girls, seems to evince a lurid and cutesy complicity in the very brutality it critiques. If I can say one lame thing in my defense, it is that I wanted to call this book Dead Girls from the moment I realized I was writing it, in the spring of 2014 I wrote an essay on the finale of the first season of True Detective, trying to parse a category of TV I identified as the Dead Girl Show, with Twin Peaks as this genre’s first and still most notable example. People seemed to like that essay, so I understood that Dead Girls was something I could hitch my wagon to.

So begins Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. To be honest, while I greatly enjoyed reading this book, I didn’t find that most of the essays were, in fact, about ‘surviving an American obsession’; I thought this was going to be a lengthy look at how the trope of dead girls runs through, and is repeatedly used, over and over, in all aspects of crime fiction; be it a television show, novels, or films. Bolin instead extrapolates her theme to encompass society as a whole, and I’m not entirely sure she succeeds.

Didion, on the other hand, opens this way:

This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there. The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun; those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is also the title of one piece in the book, and that piece, which derived from some time spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, was for me the more imperative of all these pieces to write and the only one that made me despondent after it was printed. It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder. That was why the piece was so important to me. And after it was printed I saw that, however directly and flatly I thought I had said it, I had failed to get through to many of the people who read and even liked the piece, failed to suggest that I was talking about something more general than a handful of children wearing mandalas on their foreheads. Disc jockeys telephoned my house and wanted to discuss (on the air) the incidence of “filth” in the Haight-Ashbury, and acquaintances congratulated me on finishing the piece “just in time,” because “the whole fad’s dead now, fini, kaput.” I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.

It seems unfair to critique Bolin negatively simply because the book went in a different direction than I thought it would; but I ultimately was disappointed in her collection primarily because I was looking for, I don’t know, a feminist point of view about the misogyny in crime fiction, both written and filmed. That was, actually, my primary carp about her book. I enjoyed it otherwise; Bolin has a dry wit and she wrote about a lot of things from a perspective I hadn’t considered–that of the young millennial female trying to make it in an increasingly hostile world with very little opportunity for young writers to make a living. She also critiques Didion harshly; harsher then perhaps I might have, although I do periodically take some issue with the lens through which Didion sees the world and writes about it–that of a very privileged white woman, whose inability to recognize her own privilege sometimes colors her observations.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the third non-fiction book of Didion’s I’ve read over the last two years; the others being Miami and After Henry. I also read her novel A Book of Common Prayer, which, while bizarre, was also terribly interesting and exceptionally written. Regardless of what one might think of Didion’s privilege and how it might color her lens, the woman is an exceptionally skilled writer. Her sentences are flawlessly constructed, and the rhythm manages to convey an almost world-weariness, a sense of being jaded by what people do. The two books are actually good to read together, because they seem to focus on the same thing, even though written decades apart. Bolin uses the trope of the dead girl to launch into her consideration of a world where young people are disillusioned by the lack of opportunity, where intelligence and talent perhaps do not provide a means of making a living anymore, and how the misogyny of society, as depicted through the dead girl trope, helps stack the deck against young women. Didion’s book looks at the beginning of that erosion, the decay of the mythology of the American dream. Her observations of Haight-Ashbury during the days of the hippies and the flower children, and conversations with the young people who flocked there, is an interesting contrast to the world Bolin is writing about: those young people were disaffected by the box of the American dream, felt trapped by the opportunity their parents were pushing them towards; they didn’t want the white picket fence and the 2.3 children and the dog and the split-level house in the suburbs and the long commute into the city for a 9 to 5 existence. They rejected the American Dream; Bolin’s generation wishes it were even an option to reject.

Were I teaching Freshmen English Comp, these two books would be my required texts for my students. Both books made me think; both books inspired me to write myself and gave me ideas; both writers have depth and perception and skill. I got more than I was expecting from Bolin’s book; I got precisely what I thought I would from Didion’s.

I highly recommend both.

Smooth Operator

April Fool’s Eve!

I slept in this morning, after staying up much later than I intended last night. I’d read somewhere that you should stop looking at a screen of any kind–television, computer, phone, iPad–at least half an hour before going to bed to help with sleep, and frankly, I’ll try just about anything that will help in that regard; so I’ve started keeping a non-fiction book on my nightstand, to read for about half an hour every night before attempting sleep. The last two I read were The Black Prince of Florence and Joan Didion’s After Henry; last night I started onJon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I couldn’t stop reading it, of course, and before I knew it, I’d read through the first two people he’d interviewed about their public shamings–Jonah Lehrer and Justine Sacco–and wanted to keep going; but I forced myself to put the book down because it was much later than I wanted to stay up and I was worried about not getting up this morning.

I was right.

It’s kind of interesting to be reading the Ronson book about how public shaming destroyed the lives of two people–one who did something terrible (Lerner) and the other who made a really dumb joke on Twitter that went viral–and Ronson is really a good writer; I actually have some sympathy for the people he is writing about. But this is another, perfect example of why Twitter terrifies and fascinates me at the same time. I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to go viral in such a way on social media, but then again, I try to be very careful with social media. Is that cowardly? Perhaps it is, but i also don’t have time for arguing with people on social media, nor do I have an inclination to do so. I am frequently exposed to different viewpoints on my own social media–but as long as it is couched respectfully and is not in any way nasty or vicious, I like seeing points of view that are different than my own. (Homophobia, misogyny, and racism, however, are always deal-breakers. I never have any sympathy or interest in seeing that point of view.)

As you can tell, I am finding the book to be very interesting.

We also finished watching Season 2 of Santa Clarita Diet, which is hilarious. I highly recommend it. I also got caught up on Krypton and Riverdale yesterday, and did some more writing–not very good writing, mind you; for some reason “Don’t Look Down” is becoming increasingly more and more difficult to write, but I am determined to get that first fucking draft done this weekend. I also want to get some revisions done today. I am going to run some errands and go to the gym in a little bit, and then I am hoping to be able to get home and sit down and just write for the rest of the afternoon, which is going to require me shutting down all social media and closing my web browsers. I think I’ll clean the windows today as well, and maybe do some cleaning…which is the best way to deal with getting stuck on writing.

As I said, I finished reading Joan Didion’s After Henry this week.

after henry

It’s a collections of essays she wrote that were published in various places, and tackle various subjects in that amazing style of writing she had; the way she constructs sentences, and puts words and paragraphs together, is so amazing that it’s hard sometimes to drink in what she is actually saying. These essays, about politics in Los Angeles; natural disasters in southern California; the Central Park jogger case in New York; the political conventions in 1988; the Reagan administration and the face it presented to the world; and several others, are pretty amazing and also serve as a kind of time capsule of recent history. I am really looking forward to reading another non-fiction Didion book, and possibly another of her novels.

I had finished reading The Black Prince of Florence before I took up the Didion.

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As Constant Reader is aware, I am fascinated by the Medici family of Florence, who rose from being merchant class to one of the wealthiest banking families in Europe to popes and queens to royalty in their own right. Alessandro de Medici, the little known subject of this biography, was the first Medici to attain royalty on his own; due to the machinations of his uncle, Pope Clement VII (better known to history as the pope who refused Henry VIII’s request for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon), he became Duke of Florence and the republic came to an end. Alessandro was illegitimate, and there is no proof of whom his mother was; his legitimate sister, Catherine, became queen of France. Fletcher does an excellent job of explaining the tumult of the times; how Italy had been riven by a series of wars between different city-states as well as between France and the Holy Roman Empire, both with extensive claims to various places on the peninsula, along with all the machinations in Rome for the papacy. The question of whether Alessandro’s mother was an African slave, or that was simply a slander to discredit him during his lifetime by his enemies, is one that Fletcher takes up; she also explains the differences between modern day views of race as opposed to those of the sixteenth century. I found the book to be endlessly fascinating, and really helped me get a better grasp of just how the Medici family became royalty. Alessandro’s sister Catherine is probably the most famous (notorious?) member of the family; I have numerous biographies of her on my shelves I look forward to reading.

I’ve also read some more short stories for the Short Story Project. First up is”A Poison That Leaves No Trace” by Sue Grafton, from Kinsey and Me:

The woman was waiting for me outside my office when I arrived that morning. She was short and quite plump, wearing jeans in a size I’ve never seen on the rack. Her blouse was tunic length, ostensibly to disguise her considerable rear end. Someone must have told her never to wear horizontal stripes, so the bold red-and-blue bands ran diagonally across her torso with a dizzying effect. Big red canvas tote, matching canvas wedgies. Her face was round, seamless, and smooth, her hair a uniformly dark shade that suggested a rinse. She might have been any age between forty and sixty. “You’re not Kinsey Millhone,” she said as I approached.

“Actually, I am. Would you like to come in?” I unlocked the door and stepped back so she could pass in front of me. She was giving me the once-over, as if my appearance was as remarkable to her as hers was to me.

This story is kind of clever, with a surprise twist at the end that caught me off guard; a woman hires Kinsey to prove that her niece murdered the woman’s sister for the insurance money. It’s fraud, all right, but not what Kinsey was originally led to believe, and the twists and turns are spooled out very cleverly.

The next up was another Sue Grafton tale from Kinsey and Me, “Full Circle.”

The accident seemed to happen in slow motion–one of those stop-action sequences that seem to go on forever though in tryth no mare than a few seconds have elapsed. It was Friday afternoon, rush hour, Santa Teresa traffic moving at a lively pace, my little VW holding its own despite the fact it’s fifteen years out of date. I was feeling good. I’d just wrapped up a case and I had a check in my handbag for four thousand bucks, not bad considering the fact that I’m a female private eye, self-employed, and subject to the feast-or-famine vagaries of any other freelance work.

I glanced to my left as a young woman, driving a white compact, appeared in my driver’s-side mirror. A bright red Porsche was bearing down on her in the fast lane. I adjust my speed, making room for her, sensing that she meant to cut right in front of me. A navy blue pick-up truck was coming up on my right, each of us jockeying for position as the late afternoon sun washed down out of a cloudless California spring sky. I had glanced in my rearview mirror, checking traffic behind me, when I heard a loud popping noise. I snapped my attention back to the road in front of me. The white compact veered abruptly back into the fast lane, clipped the rear of the red Porsche, then hit the center divider and careened directly into my path. I slammed on my brakes, adrenaline shooting through me as I fought to control the VW’s fishtailing rear end.

This story opens with one of the best descriptions of the slow-motion horror of an accident on the highway; how it happens right before your eyes and how you basically have to rely on instinct and automatic reaction to try to avoid the accident because your brain is so busy processing what it’s seeing. The story is worth reading for that alone, but it turns into a case when the mother of the girl driving the compact, Caroline Spurrier, hires Kinsey because it turns out the accident didn’t kill Caroline; she’d been shot. The man driving the truck also has disappeared. From that point on, it’s a great example of a private eye story.

Sigh. I’m going to miss Sue Grafton.

Axel F

GOOD FRIDAY. I slept in, which was absolutely lovely, and am now enjoying my first cup of coffee this morning. The herd of cats are outside my windows, gathered for their morning feeding, and Scooter is firmly ensconced on my desk–it’s going to be a long day of him needing attention, I suspect–and am looking forward to  my three-day weekend. It looks gorgeous outside, honestly; I think I might clean the windows today, as well as work on cleaning the house. I also need to hit the gym; it’s been well over two weeks at this point, and I’m not going to get leaner sitting on my ass thinking about it, quite frankly.

I am also procrastinating running some errands as well as cleaning. I am also planning on getting some writing done, and some reading. I’ve gotten some fantastic ARC’s this week, and there are a couple of other novels I’ve been meaning to get to  as well; I am hoping to get to one of those this weekend. The primary problem here, of course, is that I can’t decide which to read. I am also almost finished with Joan Didion’s essay collection, After Henry, which, despite its bad name, is quite enjoyable. I am still abstaining from buying new books until I get the TBR more manageable and under control, but am itching to get my hands on another Didion non-fiction.

Yesterday I worked some more on “Don’t Look Down” and another one that’s been languishing, “A Holler Full of Kudzu,” but I also realized yesterday as I looked at the unholy mess that is “Don’t Look Down” that I am going to simply approach these stories as I do a novel; in other words, just write everything as it comes to me, and worry about editing and revising later. That quite often works for me when I am writing a novel, so why not apply it to a short story? I also want to get a final first draft of those stories done this weekend, as well as “Once a Tiger” while also revising and reworking “My Brother’s Keeper”; Sunday is not only Easter but it’s also April 1st, which is when I intended to put all short story work aside and dive back into the novels. (I may use Sunday for the short stories, and move on to Scotty on Monday; I may just use Sunday as a buffer day between them all, who knows? We’ll see, won’t we?)

We are also watching the second season of Santa Clarita Diet, which is just as funny, charming and clever as the first. I have also started watching Krypton, the Superman prequel on Syfy, and I am enjoying it. It’s getting some so-so reviews, but I am enjoying it so far; I’ve always loved the Krypton stories, and John Byrne’s comic book mini-series The World of Krypton from the original DC reboot in the 1980’s is still one of my all-time favorite comics. Some of the elements from that mini-series are showing up in this show–not having followed comics as much over the last twenty years or so has limited my knowledge of things; of what is considered canon now and what is not; but some of the things I am seeing in this show were things I first became aware of in The World of Krypton. I also need to get caught up on Riverdale; at least I have things I can watch while doing cardio at the gym!

I also managed to read some short stories. First up is  “The Downward Path to Wisdom” by Katherine Anne Porter, from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter.

In the square bedroom with the big window Mama and Papa were lolling back on their pillows handing each other things from the wide black tray on the small table with crossed legs. They were smiling and they smiled even more when the little boy, with the feeling of sleep still in his skin and hair, came in and walked up to the bed. Leaning against it, his bare toes wriggling in the white fur rug, he went on eating peanuts which he took from his pajamas pocket. He was four years old.

“Here’s my baby,” said Mama. “Lift him up, will you?”

This is another one of those Porter stories that just wasn’t for me. I mean, I get what she was doing; the entire story is told from the point of view of a small child, and she manages to really get that way children have no sense of time perfectly. The passage of time either seems incredibly slow and other times is really fast; and the way the child observes the clashes and moodiness and volatility of the adults around him is sort of interesting; but the story itself isn’t interesting at all. Not really for me, I guess; I should just park Ms. Porter’s collection back on the shelf and be done with it, frankly. But I also remember that I had a much greater appreciation of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” this time around, and keep thinking, well, maybe I’ll appreciate one of the others in a different way this time.

Yeah, well, it didn’t happen with this story.

Next up was another Sue Grafton story from Kinsey and Me, “Falling off the Roof.”

It was six a.m and I was jogging on the bike path at the beach, trotting three miles in behalf of my sagging rear end. I’m thirty-two years old, weighing in at 118, so you wouldn’t think I’d have to concern myself with such things, but I’m a private eye by trade and I’m single on top of that. Sometimes I end up running for my life, so it will never do to get out of shape.

I had just hit my stride. My breathing was audible but not labored, my shoes chunking rhythmically as the asphalt sped away underneath my feet. What worried me was the sound of someone running behind me, and gaining too. I glanced back casually and felt adrenaline shoot through my heart, jolting it up to jackhammer pace. A man in a black sweat suit was closing ground. I picked up speed, quickly assessing the situation. There wasn’t another soul in sight. No other joggers. None of the usual bums sleeping on the grass.

This story is terrific. Kinsey is hired by a man who thinks his brother brother was murdere; he fell off his roof and the police ruled it an accident. However, he was in a really bad marriage that seemed to suddenly settle down some in the weeks before the death, and the brother suspects the wife had something to do with the death–despite her rigid, airtight alibi. Kinsey starts looking into things, and soon becomes fairly certain that it was a murder; the trick is figuring out how she did it and got away with it…which leads Kinsey to going undercover at a Mystery Book Club. This story is clever, clever, clever, and one of my favorites of the Kinsey short stories.

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

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