Dancing With Our Hands Tied

Good morning, Wednesday, how is everyone holding up so far this week?

So Laura apparently isn’t going to be too much of a thing in New Orleans, but things aren’t looking good for eastern Texas/western Louisiana. Keep safe, my friends, and everyone else, do keep them in your thoughts and send them positive energy, as I certainly shall be doing until this too has passed. It’s similar to 2005’s Rita; following the same path and intensifying pattern. We’ll still get about 2 to 4 feet of storm surge into Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain, and a lot of sudden, intense rain (street flooding), but for the most part, New Orleans has yet again dodged a bullet.

And compared to a direct hit, yes, that’s not too much of a thing in New Orleans.

It was very strange to not have to go into the office this week (I did have to go by yesterday–and will again today–to get more supplies) to do any work; especially when you take into consideration the vacation days I took last week. I’ve not been into the office to actually work now since last Wednesday–a full seven days–and it’s made me feel very disconnected from my job this morning; I really don’t know how all of you who’ve been having to work at home all this time without ever going into your offices have managed to do that without feeling untethered at best, disconnected at worst. At this point, it feels as though the pandemic has been going on forever, and the last days of what was previously our normal existence–late February, early March–seem like ancient history to me now, and I’ve already accepted the fact that life, that world, that way of existing, is gone forever. Whatever it is we will see when this ends–should it ever end–will be completely different. This is one of those “sea change” experiences, where life and society and culture change irrevocably forever. The world before the first World War ceased to exist after it ended; the interregnum between the two wars was a kind of stasis world, where all the problems unresolved by the Treaty of Versailles coupled with the crash of the American–and by extension, world–economy created a bizarre vacuum which fascism swept in to fill, with the inevitable war that followed–one that took a look at what had been, up to that time, called “the Great War” and basically said, “Hold my beer, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” The world in the spring of 1914 was almost completely different in almost every way in the fall of 1945–a span of only thirty one years.

So what will our world, culture and society look like in a post-pandemic environment? Will we ever get to said post-pandemic environment? Or will those of us who survive this look back at this time and say, “ah, yes, the beginning of the dystopia?”

How depressing. Which is one of many reasons why I never look forward or back, and try to live in the now. The now is depressing enough as is, if you let it be.

While I didn’t work on the book yesterday or read anything, I did educate myself somewhat by watching the Kings and Generals channel on Youtube, something I discovered recently. I watched the episodes on the Battle of Lepanto and The 1565 Siege of Malta, which were extremely informative and educational. I had previously watched the Fall of Constantinople in 1453; the Sack of Constantinople in 1204; the Battle of Mojacs; and the Siege of Vienna. Most of my study of European history has always been western-centric, primarily focusing on Great Britain, Spain, and France, with a smattering of Germany/Holy Roman Empire thrown in for good measure (and primarily the Hapsburgs); it is only recently that I’ve realized how much I’ve not looked at eastern Europe, other than some post Peter the Great Russian history–which also is primarily because it impacted western Europe. My knowledge of Asian history is non-existent; and if you ignore the scanty knowledge of ancient Egypt, I really don’t know much about African history either, other than the colonial period and not much of that. I also don’t know much about Latin America, either. Several years ago–after the Italy trip of beloved memory–I started looking into Venetian history, which is entangled heavily with that of the Byzantine Empire and its successor, the Ottoman Empire–both of which I know very little about, and as I started reading more about these eastern European empires (the Venetian included), I began to get a better concept and grasp on how little of world history I actually knew.

I would love to have the time to study more of the history of Constantinople/Istanbul, as the capital of two major historical empires that covered 1500 years of human history.

We also watched a two part documentary on HBO about the Michelle Carter/Conrad Roy case, I Love You Now Die. If the names mean nothing to you, it’s the case where the boyfriend committed suicide while his girlfriend was texting him supposedly ordering him to do it. The facts of the case–which I hadn’t really looked much into before–aren’t what they seem and it was an interesting case; her conviction, held up under appeal, set a legal precedent that can be seen as either scary or good. Was she a sociopath? Or were they both emotionally damaged teenagers locked into a strange co-dependent relationship that was actually toxic, made it even more dangerous because no one else knew how toxic it had actually become? As I watched, I wondered–as I am wont to do–how I would tell the story were I to fictionalize it, and finally decided that the best way to do it would be from multiple points of view: both mothers, the sister of the suicide, and one of the Michelle’s “friends” from high school–all of whom claimed to not be really friends of hers in the first place–and the real story is loneliness, on the parts of both kis, really. A truly sad story, without any real answers.

While I was making condom packs yesterday I also continued with my 1970’s film festival by watching the 1972 Robert Redford film The Candidate, which is one of the most cynical political films I’ve ever seen–and almost every political film made since that time has been highly cynical. The 1970’s was an interesting decade for film; a transitional period where the old Hollywood was done away with once and for all and cynical, brutal realism took its place. Watching these films has also reminded me, sometimes painfully, how questionable style and design choices were in that decade–clothing, cars, buildings, etc. It was an ugly decade–remember the hair styles, with the carefully blown dry “feathered bangs” hair-sprayed into place? Sideburns and porn-staches? The bell bottoms and earth tones? The enormous steel cars that were essentially tanks? How dirty everything seemed, and how trash littered the sides of the roads and waterways? It’s all there in these films, as well as that dark, bitter cynicism.

The Candidate is about an idealistic young lawyer who works for social justice causes named Bill McKay, whose father was a powerful two-term governor of California. Recruited by a political operative played to sleazy perfection by Peter Boyle, McKay–who has always disdained politics–agrees to run for senator against a long-term, popular Republican incumbent. No one expects him to win, and McKay agrees to it so he can talk about issues that are important to him–and he immediately makes it clear he wants his campaign to  have nothing to do with his father. The movie follows him from his own first faltering public appearances and watches as he slowly develops into an actual politician. He’s perfectly fine with everything, and he wins the primary–but the numbers extrapolate to a humiliating defeat in the general…so he starts watering down his message, speaking in generalities and never addressing issues directly–and his campaign begins to take off, and winning becomes more important to him than the issues, to the point he even allows his father, played with sleazy perfection by two-time Oscar winner Melvyn Douglas, to get involved in the campaign. He pulls off the upset and wins, and as the celebrations begin, he asks his campaign manager, “So, what happens now?” as no thought has ever been put into the future should he actually win; and that’s how the movie ends, with that question unanswered. It’s a very strong indictment of modern politics, and still relevant today; essentially, he wins because he is handsome and never says anything that means anything. We never really are sure, as the viewer, what he wants and what he stands for; which is a very deliberate choice by the filmmakers–we’re basically shown a little bit behind the curtain, but mostly we see what the voters would see. This movie doesn’t have a Frank Capra ending, but the typical cynical view of the 1970’s. The screenplay, incidentally, won an Oscar.

Aliens was the second movie on yesterday’s condom packing double feature. I had originally intended to watch Alien and Aliens back to back; don’t remember why I didn’t rewatch Aliens back then, but I didn’t, but I also figured it was equally appropriate to rewatch the day after rewatching Jaws, because it too is a monster movie, and one of the best of all time. Sigourney Weaver is even better in this one than she was in the first; and while I love Marlee Matlin and think she’s a terrific talent, I still think Weaver should have got the Oscar for this (if not for Alien). Once again, a primary theme for the movie is “no one listens to the woman who is always proven to be right”–amazing how timeless that theme has proven to be–and again, as in the first film, the Ripley character is given a relationship to soften her and make her more “womanly”; in the first film it’s the cat–which really, I felt, weakened her character, while at least in this one it’s the little girl, Newt, that she risks her life to go back for when everyone else, including me, is screaming get the fuck out of there are you fucking crazy? There are also some other terrific performances in this movie, which is a non-stop adrenaline ride, including Bill Paxton’s first performance of note as Hudson; Michael Biehn (why was he not a bigger star?) in a  great follow-up to The Terminator as Hicks; and Paul Reiser, who was so sleazily perfect as the company rep (and should have been nominated for an Oscar himself) that I have never been able to stand watching him in anything else since I saw this movie for the first time because I hated him so much as Burke that I cannot see him as anything else. Everyone in the cast is terrific; but there are some small things that date the film–Hudson makes an illegal alien joke about Vasquez (would this still be a thing that far into the future?); the analog transmissions rather than digital; and of course–the cigarette smoking; would cigarettes never evolve over time?

If all goes well, I expect to be here tomorrow morning. Have a great day, Constant Reader.

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Why Don’t We Live Together?

Saturday, I think, right?

God, it was miserably hot yesterday. I know, it’s New Orleans in July; the dog days of summer (I’ve never really quite understood what that meant, honestly; probably something about how a dog pants or something–so hot I was panting like a dog, or something along those lines anyway–it always makes my think about my grandmother’s mutt dog, Shag, lying down in the shade and panting) as it were, but it still does bear comment periodically about how motherfucking hot it is here sometimes in the summer.

I slept deeply last night, and didn’t really want to get out of bed this morning. I’ve been feeling tired again lately–not that horrible exhaustion I had for those months earlier this year, thank the heavens–and yesterday was one of those days again. It may be the heat, which is the most likely explanation, but I am not wanting to go back out into it today either–I am debating the wisdom of waiting to go to the grocery store until tomorrow or even seeing if it can be put off until next week sometime–which is probably self-defeating in some ways; but I also need to write this weekend (since I didn’t do much of that this past week) and I worry that going out into the heat and lugging bags of food into the house will defeat me for the rest of the day (which is always a possibility).

Decisions, decisions.

During our The Faking of the President on-line promotional appearance the other night we were talking about the 1970’s–if I considered myself a child of the that decade, and I actually do; I do remember bits and pieces of the 1960’s, but I turned nine in 1970 and that decade more shaped who I am rather than the 1960′–and as I mentioned yesterday, I’ve kind of started looking into the films of that decade a bit more. I kind of wanted to watch more Hitchcock movies yesterday–I was going to go for some of his 1970’s work, Frenzy and Family Plot, to be exact–but they are no longer on Amazon Prime for free (they were for quite a while) and that interface has also changed again and become even more user unfriendly; I cannot understand why Amazon cannot get its shit together on their streaming service, but came across the original film version of The Stepford Wives, either on Prime or the TCM app on HBO MAX, and settled in to watch that again. It’s a film (and novel) that is firmly anchored in the paranoid zeitgeist of the 1970’s, and fits very well into a reexamination of what was going on in that decade.

As I mentioned on the live stream the other night, the 1970’s were still a decade where wives were still defined as people in terms of their husbands; it was still very difficult for women to get credit on their own (this was actually how the subject came up–student loans and student credit cards), and I mentioned that my mom’s first credit wasn’t actually in her name, but as Mrs. (Dad) Herren. She had been working as long as I can remember, but her financial identity was still as the spouse of my father. The Women’s Liberation Movement began in the late 1960’s–espousing the radical concept that women were actual human beings in their own right and didn’t solely exist in terms of the man in their lives–and the 1970’s was when the stigma of divorce began to lessen; women no longer stayed in bad marriages or with abusive husbands. Rape was still basically a misdemeanor; spousal abuse was accepted and almost expected, and women were very much second class citizens, primarily defined as wives and mothers (this has changed somewhat, but really, not enough). Ira Levin wrote The Stepford Wives as a sort of social satire, but it was no less terrifying as a result; the revenge of men against women’s liberation. (You never hear the terms Women’s Lib or ‘libbers’ anymore) The Stepford Wives basically took the concept of how dehumanized women were to the nth degree; men really only want beautiful women who don’t think for themselves, think they’re wonderful lovers, live for their men and children, and should primarily focus on making sure their homes are spotless and perfect so their men don’t have to worry about anything but their jobs. The film leaned into this fully; I think the best part of the book was the fact that it never really explained what was going on in Stepford; it was alluded to, of course, but the truth was so terrible that the women–main character Joanna and her friend Bobbie–couldn’t possibly imagine what it was.

But seeing the actual Stepford wives, played by actresses, up on screen, truly epitomized not only how horrible what was happening in Stepford was, but how strange it was for Joanna and Bobbie to deal with, strangers who had only recently moved into town. Paula Prentiss played Bobbie–and why she was never a bigger star was something I never fully understood–and of course, stunningly beautiful Katherine Ross played Joanna–which made it all the more terrifying; she was so perfectly stunning and beautiful, how could you possibly improve on Joanna? The film of course couldn’t leave the truth ambiguous and merely hinted at; which was part of the power of the book…you never were completely sure if Joanna was simply going crazy because the truth of Stepford was presented so casually and normally. (Don’t bother with the remake; despite a stellar cast, it’s truly a terrible movie.)

The Stepford Wives, book and movie, both also fit perfectly into the paranoia of the decade; the 1970’s was a time where conspiracy theories abounded; there was a lot of interest in UFO’s and the Bermuda Triangle and Revelations/the end of the world, not to mention after Vietnam and Watergate mistrust of the government and elected officials were higher than ever before. But I also see The Stepford Wives as part of another literary trend/trope of the decade; the 1970’s was also a time when, as I mentioned on-air the other night, that white flight from the cities to the suburbs and rural eras began in earnest (although it was never, in the books, attributed to its real root cause: integrated public school systems and neighborhoods). There are at least three novels I know of that take the white flight to the rural areas (better schools! clean air! zero crime!) and turn them into horror novels–Burnt Offerings, The Stepford Wives, Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home– where the urbanites discover far greater horrors out in the country than they ever encountered in the city; there are probably more (I am not certain The Amityville Horror fits into this category), but those three would make a great starting point for a thesis/essay. (Interesting enough, both book and movie of The Stepford Wives ends with a throwaway bit about the first black family moving into Stepford; I would absolutely LOVE to see a reimagining of the film by Jordan Peele from the perspective of the black family moving in, because the paranoia of the wife beginning to suspect that all is not right with all these white women who are devoted to housework and their families could also be played with from a racial as well as gender perspective.)

And as I watched the film again yesterday, I realized that my mother, with her obsessions with cleanliness and order, kind of was/is a Stepford wife.

I plan on spending the rest of this morning getting my kitchen/office–horribly out of control yet again–into some semblance of order before diving back into Bury Me in Shadows. I’d like to get the changes necessary done to the next three to four chapters today, and perhaps another four to five tomorrow, which would get me almost to the halfway point. I also need to compile a comprehensive to-do list for the coming week. I also want to spend some time with Blacktop Wasteland today as well.

We started watching a new series last night–Curon, which is an Italian show set in the Tyrol, in a region that changed hands between the Austrians and the Italians numerous times. The town is built on the shores of a lake, where the original town was submerged when the river was dammed; all that remains of the old town is the church’s bell tower, jutting up out of the water. There’s a story that if you hear the bells ringing, you’re going to die–and some seriously weird shit is going on in this town. The show opens with a flashback to the past, when a seventeen year old Anna is hearing the bells ringing and her father orders her out of the massive luxury hotel they live in; she’s not sure but she thinks she sees herself shooting her mother–a nightmare that haunts her the rest of her life. Flash forward to the present, and Anna is coming back to Curon, after leaving an abusive (it’s hinted at) husband with her twin children, now seventeen–Mauro and Daria–from Milan. Her father makes it clear they aren’t welcome there–but when Anna disappears the next day the twins are there to stay. It’s filmed very well, and there are apparently tensions still in the village from the olden days of the war between Austrians and Italians; Mauro is also hard of hearing and wears a hearing aid; Daria is boisterous, outgoing, and kind of a badass; and the teenagers they encounter, both outside of school and in it, are also kind of weird. There’s all kinds of history there, slowly being revealed to the viewer, while the tension continually builds. What is the dark secret of the town of Curon?

I also, while typing that last sentence, realized Curon also fits in with the trope of the urbanites coming from the big city to the country, and discovering far greater horrors there than they left behind in the city.

Interesting.

Rose Garden

My paternal grandmother–the one who went undiagnosed for bipolar disorder until she was in her eighties; better late than never, I suppose–was also the first person in my life to encourage me to not only read but to become a writer. She also introduced me to old movies–including horror, suspense, mystery, and noir–and also was the person who introduced me to some of my favorite writers, including Ellery Queen, Victoria Holt, Erle Stanley Gardner, and the magnificent Mary Stewart. My grandmother gave me a copy of Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree in hardcover, saying, “This one has a huge surprise in it.”

She wasn’t wrong, either.

Flash forward a few years, and a friend in high school convinced me to read a novel called The Crystal Cave. I started reading it and couldn’t stop reading it, and then immediately went out and bought my own copy of the sequel, The Hollow Hills. The friend–Felisha–told me I should also check out some of Mary Stewart’s other, non-Arthurian novels, so the next time I went to the library, I went to the S’s in fiction and there it was on the shelf: The Ivy Tree, even the same edition I read when I nine or ten. Of course I checked it out, and also checked out Airs Above the Ground, The Moonspinners, and This Rough Magic. Spoiler: I loved them all. I would eventually read the rest of the Arthur books, buying them in hardcover when they were released (The Last Enchantment and the Mordred story, This Wicked Day), and gradually went back and read the majority of her suspense novels…but there are some, to this day, that I have not read–primarily because I don’t ever want to run out of Mary Stewart novels to read.

And now that I think about it…truth be told, it’s been so long since I read so many of these novels that I could probably reread them now and they would seem new to me. But I have reread both The Ivy Tree and Airs Above the Ground many times; I always considered The Ivy Tree my favorite of her novels because it was the first I read–but in truth, Airs Above the Ground is definitely my favorite of them all. I am including Mary Stewart in the Reread Project, naturally; but I definitely need to make time to reread some of the ones I don’t remember.

Mary Stewart is often frequently mis-categorized as a Gothic writer, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth; perhaps some of her novels (Touch Not the Cat, The Gabriel Hounds) might skirt the edge of Gothic suspense, but that isn’t what she wrote. She is also often called romantic suspense, and again, while some of the book danced close to that (Madam Will You Talk? and Nine Coaches Waiting–which, come to think of it, might also fall into that Gothic category again), she basically wrote suspense novels about headstrong young women who took charge of their situations and rarely, if ever, needed rescuing.

.airs above the ground

Carmel Lacy was the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal. The only reason I was having tea with her in Harrods on that wet Thursday afternoon was that when she rang me up she had been so insistent that it had been impossible to get out of; and besides, I was so depressed anyway that even tea with Carmel Lacy was preferable to sitting alone at home in a room that still seemed to be echoing with that last quarrel with Lewis. That I had been entirely in the right, and that Lewis had been insufferably, immovably, furiously in the wrong was no particular satisfaction, since he was now in Stockholm, and I was still here in London, when by rights we should have been lying on a beach together in the Italian sunshine, enjoying the first summer holiday we had been able to plan together since our honeymoon two years ago. The fact that it had rained almost without ceasing ever since he had gone hadn’t done anything to mitigate his offence; and when, on looking up ‘Other People’s Weather’ in the Guardian each morning, I found Stockholm enjoying a permanent state of sunshine, and temperatures somewhere in the seventies, I was easily able to ignore the reports of a wet, thundery August in Southern Italy. and concentrate steadily on Lewis’s sins and my own grievances.

“What are you scowling about?” asked Carmel Lacy.

“Was I? I’m sorry. I suppose I’m just depressed with the weather and everything. I certainly didn’t mean to glower at you! Do go on. Did you decide to buy it in the end?”

God, how I love this character. Vanessa March was not your ordinary run-of-the-mill heroine; look at how much we learn, not only about her, but who she is and where she is at emotionally, in that opening paragraph! We learn she is married; has had a horrible fight with her husband about having to change their vacation plans; is completely and utterly convinced she was in the right; and would rather spend time with someone she clearly doesn’t like rather than stay in her lonely apartment with her memories of the argument–which she is still angry about. But this tea at Harrod’s with silly Carmel Lacy is what sets the story in motion: you see, Carmel is divorced; left by her husband who now lives in Vienna, and she needs someone to travel with her teenaged son who wants to go see his father. Why would Vanessa be interested in making such a trip? And that’s when we get an insight into Carmel’s personality; she slyly mentions having seen Lewis in a newsreel at the cinema; something about a fire involving a traveling carnival in Austria, and surely Vanessa is going there to meet him? Vanessa never lets Carmel see she doesn’t have the slightest idea why or how Lewis could be in Austria rather than Sweden. Instead, she goes to the same cinema, watches the newsreel, sees that it is, indeed, her husband in the newsreel–he’s obviously lied to her, and then she calls Carmel and tells her she’d be delighted to escort her son to Austria.

Vanessa has no idea what’s in store for her in Austria, and yet she has no qualms about taking off for there, with a teenaged boy who’s practically a stranger to her, in tow; this is one of the reasons I love Stewart’s heroines; they were definitely not shrinking Violets, and impetuously always set off for adventure to parts unknown. The second chapter, which details the flight from London to Vienna, is another gem of a chapter. Timothy Lacy, a young teenager, cannot hide his disdain, dislike, and disapproval of his traveling companion; like all teenagers, he doesn’t think he needs an escort or a glorified babysitter. After a while, he buys a carton of cigarettes from the flight attendant, much to Vanessa’s inward amusement, and finally she says:

“You know, I couldn’t really care less is you want to smoke all day and all night till you die of six sorts of cancer all at once. Go right ahead. And as a matter of fact, the sooner the better. You have the worst manners of any young man I ever met.”

The paperback dropped to his knees, and he looked at me full for the first time, eyes and mouth startled open. I said: “I know quite well that you’re perfectly capable of traveling alone, and that you’d prefer it. Well, so would I. I’ve got troubles enough of my own, without bothering about yours, but if I hadn’t said I’d go with you, you’d have never got away. I know you’re sitting there fulminating because you’ve had a kind of nursemaid tagged onto you, but for goodness’ sake aren’t you adult enough to know that there are two sides to everything? You know you’d get on fine on your own, but your mother doesn’t, and there’s no sense in making gestures to reassure oneself, if they’re only distressing other people. Surely all that matters now is that you have got your own way, so why not make the best of it? We’re stuck with each other till I get you–or you get me–safely into Vienna and you meet your father. Then we’re both free to go about our own affairs.”

I don’t think I’ve ever loved a character more than I loved Vanessa March at that moment. It’s an excellent icebreaker, and she and Timothy Lacy–Tim–become friends after that exchange. But Tim, like Vanessa, has secrets of his own–for one thing, his father has no idea he’s showing up; has a new, younger fiancee; and no place or welcome for Tim–so without any other option, Vanessa brings Tim along on her search for the carnival from the newsreel. Tim is absolutely fascinated with horses–and Vanessa, as it turns out, is, like her father, a certified veterinarian.

I cannot say more without giving away spoilers–and spoilers in a Stewart novel are quite distressing; as part of the joy of reading her novels for the first time are the surprises she pulls on her unsuspecting readers; surprises that, even on a reread when you know what’s to come, you still can’t spot the stitching in her seamless plots. One of my all time favorite reveals in crime fiction takes place in this book–the brilliantly composed scene in which the old horse begins to dance in the moonlight, and what all that scene means–every time I reread the book I still get chills…and that’s not the only surprise Stewart pulls on the reader in Airs Above the Ground. It’s quite an exceptional thriller, with Vanessa and Tim making an exceptionally fun and interesting and witty team of sleuths trying to get to the bottom of what is going on around the carnival–and one of the best climaxes to a suspense novel I’ve ever read; then again, it’s hard to go wrong with a speeding train.

Genius, absolute genius.

And of course, being a devotee of Airs Above the Ground (which was, in fact, an Edgar nominee for Best Novel) also enabled me to surprise people with a Jeopardy! answer–“The horses known for the airs above the ground”–to which I quickly replied, “What are the Royal Lipizzan stallions of the Spanish Riding School, Alex?”

If you’ve not read this–despite it being slightly dated, you really need to.