I Would Have Loved You Anyway

And suddenly, it’s Friday again: WEEKEND EVE!!!!

Late September is a gift Mother Nature gives to New Orleans; one that’s kind of owed to us after the brutality of a normal New Orleans summer. I greatly enjoyed my walk Wednesday afternoon, and walking to the gym after work yesterday was equally marvelous. The gym workout felt incredible; my muscles had clearly been aching to be worked and stretched, and they feel absolutely wonderful this morning. My creativity is slowly coming back–the walk on Wednesday kind of kick-started it all; and I’ve been having a lot of thoughts about this upcoming new series book I have to write, that I am looking forward to writing. First and foremost, as with all my books set in New Orleans, it needs to be more about New Orleans than what I’ve already written on it; I think I am going to spend some time over the next few days revising and rewriting those first four or five chapters to get more of a “New Orleans” feel to them; I think that’s what is missing and why I feel so dissatisfied with them.

I definitely need to reread them, at any rate.

I also need to reread and edit the first three chapters of Chlorine; I’d like to get chapter four written this weekend as well as–if not an actual outline for the rest of the book, than at least– a working synopsis of how it all is going to come together in the end. I am very behind and i need to start getting caught up, even if that means no more lazing around in my easy chair watching documentaries from the BBC/Odyssey about ancient Egypt with a bizarre British Egyptologist/historian with raspberry colored hair as the star–but the woman clearly loves not only history but all things Egypt, so it is very difficult to not get caught up in her enthusiasm about her subject. Each documentary is about an hour, and I’ve not been watching them in order; I’ve watched the one about Amenhotep III and the Armana revolution, as well as the one about the foreign conquerers, leading eventually to the final recognized dynasty of pharaohs, the Ptolemies–who fascinate me; there’s so much more there than the story of the final and most famous Cleopatra (yes, she’s fascinating, but I’ve long been more interested in her sisters/rivals, Berenice and Arsinoë).

I also watched, for the very first time, the original film of The Postman Always Rings Twice, which, surprisingly enough, I’d never seen. I’ve never really been much of a Lana Turner fan (I’ve never had a lot of respect for her as an actress–certainly in Peyton Place and Imitation of Life she never seemed to inhabit her characters and simply followed her director’s orders) and I’ve never really thought she was all that pretty; there was always something artificial about her to me–though the body was definitely stunning. The costume designer was incredibly smart in putting her always into white ensembles, that went with the stiff white hair, and John Garfield was pretty good as the homicidal, lovesick drifter; he had the right “beaten around by life” lived-in look that was perfect for the character. Cecil Kellaway as Cora’s husband was the best performance in the film, really; he stole every scene he was in, but was the movie progressed Turner seemed less stiff and mannered, and Garfield’s performance of a man so driven mad by lust and love that he would cold-bloodedly murder Cora’s husband to be with her (Body Heat was often compared to Double Indemnity, but I think it’s more like Postman, in all honesty). I also felt the changes to the script and to the ending actually worked better than in the book (same with Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, even though I love Cain as a writer). I also couldn’t help thinking, as I watched, what Marlon Brando or Montgomery Clift could have done with the role of the drifter, and Marilyn Monroe could have done with Cora. (Dream casting: filmed in 1954 with Brando and Monroe; with Karl Malden as the husband–what a film that would have made!) But it’s a very good movie, very well done, and I greatly enjoyed it; it’s definitely a classic. I’ve never seen the remake with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, but what a terrific version could be made today, starring someone like Robert Pattinson along with Margot Robbie or Rosamund Pike.

It also got me thinking about noir again, and what fun it is to write, plot, and think about; as well as got me thinking about Laura Lippman’s marvelous Sunburn and everything by Megan Abbott.

I’ve also been, since my walk the other day, thinking about my noir story about the condos built recently on my street, “Condos for Sale or Rent” and so maybe I can squeeze in the time to work on it a bit this weekend…

Big dreams, as always, but at least I am thinking in terms of getting things written again, which is a big step in the right direction.

We also finished watching season two of The Other Two, which is fantastic and has one of the best, most honest and realistic gay characters–struggling actor Cary Dubek–that I’ve ever seen on television. The premise of the season finale–Cary takes a photo of his butthole to send to a potential Grindr hook-up, only he has his camera on LIVE rather than PHOTO, and the little LIVE feature means you can not only see his face at the beginning but you can also hear the flight announcements (he does it in the First Class bathroom on a flight from New York to LA)…and it kind of goes viral. It’s hilarious, and the fact that this is the primary STORY for the gay character in a TV show (granted, it’s HBO MAX) had me impressed for the writers’ willingness to go there, but how fucking funny it all turned out to be.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines, and a happy Friday to all.

After the Event

I’ve loved, and been fascinated, by ancient Egypt ever since I was a kid. I don’t remember when, precisely, Egypt became so lodged into my brain; but for as long as I can remember, the ancient history of one of our oldest civilization has intrigued me, and held my interest. I’m hardly an expert–not even close–but I remember pestering my parents to subscribe to the Time-Life Great Ages of Man series; the very first volume of which was, naturally,  Ancient Egypt (for the record, I still have my entire set of those books). Cleopatra, of course, also interested me; I’m not sure if my Egyptian interest came before or after watching the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra on television. (I still am terribly interested in Cleopatra; the court intrigues and politics of the Ptolemy dynasty makes the Borgias and the Medici look like pikers. I always wanted to write a book about–of all things–Cleopatra’s older sister Berenice, who briefly overthrew their father and took the Egyptian crown. The Romans sent legions to support her father, so her reign was very brief. Her younger sister, Arsinoe, who fought Cleopatra for the throne–only to be defeated by Caesar, also interests me.) I’ve always been interested in Akhenaten (loved Allen Drury’s two books about the Amarna revolution, A God Against the Gods and Return to Thebes), Tutankhamun (of course), and Hatshepsut (I read a great Scholastic mystery set during her reign called The Mystery of the Pharaoh’s Treasure, and I think I bought a copy from eBay a while back; I may have the name wrong.)

But as much as I love Egypt, I didn’t love it enough to read Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. I borrowed it from the library, and couldn’t get through the first chapter.

Sorry not sorry.

As a teenager who loved mysteries, I gravitated towards women authors once I’d fairly exhausted the canons of Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and Erle Stanley Gardner primarily because I couldn’t relate or identify with the crime novels being written by men at the time. Grim and hard-boiled and toxic masculinity wasn’t a combination I was terribly interested in at the time; I did appreciate noir (discovering James M. Cain when I was about nineteen was wonderful), though–but that was because I associated it with all those great movies I used to watch with my grandmother. I eventually came around, and started enjoying John D. MacDonald and Hammett and Chandler as I got older.

But when I saw this book on the paperback rack at the grocery store in Emporia, I had to get it. It was a mystery; blurbed by one of my favorite writers, Phyllis A. Whitney, and of course, that was the Sphinx on the cover. I bought it, read it, loved it–and forgot about Elizabeth Peters for about a decade or so (I came back to Barbara Michaels in my mid-twenties, and when I discovered she was also Elizabeth Peters, it didn’t register with me.) Then one day I was in the Waldenbooks and More on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa when I saw a book on the end cap that called to me: The Last Camel Died at Noon, plus an unmistakably Egyptian scene on the cover. The title and the cover alone sold me–and I also knew by then that Elizabeth Peters was the same writer as Barbara Michaels. I bought it and when I got home, I opened to the first page and started reading….about a page in I stopped. Wait, Emerson and Peabody? I turned back to the beginning of the book and there it was, on the BY THE SAME AUTHOR page: THE AMELIA PEABODY SERIES, and the first title was Crocodile on the Sandbank! 

You can only imagine my delight. I loved those characters, loved that first book, and to find out now there was a series? I read The Last Camel Died at Noon cover to cover in about twenty-four hours, and the next day I went back to Waldenbooks and More and bought the entire series, and settled in to get reacquainted with two of my favorite fictional characters of all time.

crocodile on the sandbank

When I first set eyes on Evelyn Barton-Forbes she was walking the streets of Rome–(I am informed, by the self-appointed critic who reads over my shoulder as I write, that I have already committed an error. If those seemingly simple English words do indeed imply that which I am told they imply to the vulgar, I must in justice to Evelyn find other phrasing.)

In justice to myself, however, I must insist that Evelyn was doing precisely what I have said she was doing, but with no ulterior purpose in mind. Indeed, the poor girl had no purpose and no means of carrying it out if she had. Our meeting was fortuitous, but fortunate. I had, as I always have, purpose enough for two.

I had left my hotel that morning in considerable irritation of spirits. My plans had gone awry. I am not accustomed to having my plans go awry. Sensing my mood, my small Italian guide trailed behind me in silence. Piero was not silent when I first encountered him, in the lobby of the hotel, where, in common with others of his kind, he awaited the arrival of helpless foreign visitors in need of a translator and guide. I selected him from amid the throng because his appearance was a trifle less villainous than that of the others.

I was well aware of the propensity of these fellows to bully, cheat, and otherwise take advantage of the victims who employ them, but I had no intention of being victimized. It did not take me long to make this clear to Piero. My first act was to bargain ruthlessly with the shopkeeper to whom Piero took me to buy silk. The final price was so low that Piero’s commission was reduced to a negligible sum. He expressed his chagrin to his compatriot in his native tongue, and included in his tirade several personal comments on my appearance and manner. I let him go on for some time and then interrupted him with a comment on his manners. I speak Italian, and understand it, quite well. After that, Piero and I got on admirably. I had not employed him because I required an interpreter, but because I wanted someone to carry parcels and run errands.

My God, that incredible, incredible voice.

By the end of the second page, I was madly in love with Amelia Peabody; by the end of the third, I wanted to be Amelia Peabody. How could you not love her? She’s fiercely intelligent, even more fiercely independent, spoke her mind, got straight to the point, and had no desire whatsoever to deal with frivolities, sentimentality, and so forth. The youngest child and only daughter of a classics scholar, her six older brothers got married and left her home to take care of their father. She speaks four languages fluently, and frequently curses the accident of birth that left her a female. Her father died and left her everything–which her brothers thought was fair, until it turned out he was a lot richer than anyone thought and had left her half a million pounds, which was an insane amount of money in the late nineteenth century. Unmarried at thirty-two, she considers herself to be too plain, too old, and too sharp-tongued to ever marry, and has decided she is going to die a spinster. (I could never respect a man who would allow his wife to dominate him, but at the same time I could never allow any man to dominate me.) She decides to use her fortune to travel to visit the places she’s always dreamed of and read about in books–which is what brings her to Rome, along with her paid companion–whom she doesn’t care for, and just chance puts her in the forum at the same time as Evelyn, who faints and Peabody, of course, takes charge. She decides to help Evelyn–who was seduced away from her wealthy family and “ruined”, as well as cut off, and she’d come to Rome with the man she thought she loved only to be abandoned by him, with no clothes but what she is wearing and not a penny to her name. Peabody and Evelyn hit it off, she sends the paid companion back to England and engages Evelyn as her new companion, and they depart for Egypt.

So, now two of our players are now in place; it’s time to meet the other two. Once they are all checked in at Shepheard’s in Cairo, Peabody is quickly besotted with Egypt, and pyramids, in particular–and reading Peabody’s descriptions of the country, you cannot help but fall in love with it, too (not a problem for me; I was already there before I read the book). They go to the Antiquities Museum one afternoon–the director was a friend of Peabody’s father–and Peabody is put off by how disheveled and disorganized–and dusty–everything is. She picks up a dusty pot and begins to wipe the dust from it, only to have an enormous man explode with rage at her. They give each other what-for–they are suitably matched in that regard–and this is Emerson, archaeologist with a passion for discovery and knowledge and preserving the past. Emerson’s brother makes apologies, and a spark is lit between Walter and Evelyn. Soon, the Emersons are off to their dig at Amarna, and Peabody and Evelyn rent a sailboat–a dahabeeyah, to be exact–and begin their trip down the Nile.

Naturally, they stop at Amarna, and stumble into quite a bizarre mystery, which includes an animated mummy and several attempts on our troop’s lives. But the four are definitely up to the task–there are times when I laughed out loud–and hilariously, while both Peabody and Emerson become quite irritated with Walter and Evelyn, who can’t see that the other is madly in love with them; Peabody and Emerson are also falling in love, and refuse to see it, bickering and fighting and–oh, it’s just wonderful and charming, and I know I am failing to do the magnificent Ms. Peters’ work any kind of justice. Amanda is just so, so wonderfully fearless and courageous and pure, and doesn’t even worry about her own safety when those she loves are in danger. The book has a most satisfying resolution, and I remember putting it down that first (much as I do every time I reread it) with a happy smile on my face. The Peabody and Emerson books bring me a lot of joy.

I devoured the entire series, loving them all–the way Peters deftly ages her characters and deepens their relationships, and of course the children…one thing that will always make The Last Camel Died at Noon special for me was that was also the adventure that introduced our merry band of archaeologists to Nofret–and therein lies another tale, for yet another time.

I am so, so delighted I reread Crocodile on the Sandbank. If you’ve not read this series, you really should treat yourself to it, because it is just that: the most amazing gift you can give yourself.

Take Time to Know Her

I finished reading  Cleopatra’s Shadows last night. Over all, I enjoyed it, but with all due respect to Emily Holleman, I didn’t love it. I already knew the story of Cleopatra’s sisters, Berenice and Arsinoe, so I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new from it, so that wasn’t the issue I had. I thought it was interesting that the book focused on the brief period of time when Berenice deposed her father and took the Egyptian throne. Usually, fiction about Cleopatra generally begins with Julius Caesar’s arrival in Alexandria and her being snuck into his presence rolled up inside of a rug; which, admittedly, is quite a romantic beginning and you can’t really go wrong starting there. The first book I ever read about Cleopatra–a bio for kids called Cleopatra of Egypt, written by Leonora Hornblow and illustrated by W. T. Mars–began with her fleeing from Alexandria out of fear her brother/husband Ptolemy XIII was going to kill her; and she rose an army and started a civil war. This war interrupted grain shipments to Rome–which was in the midst of its own civil war, between Pompey and Caesar. Caesar had just defeated Pompey, who fled to the court of the Ptolemies; Caesar pursued him there and also aimed to settle the Egyptian civil war. Ptolemy famously beheaded Pompey, thinking he would please Caesar by doing so; instead, he pissed him off, which made Caesar more inclined to be sympathetic to Cleopatra, who was actually Cleopatra VII. But one of the most interesting things to me about Hornblow’s book–which was for kids, mind you–was that she talked about Berenice’s rebellion and usurpation, as well as that of Cleopatra’s younger sister, Arsinoe–and how Cleopatra was present in Rome for the Roman Triumph in which Arsinoe was marched, in chains, behind a chariot…and that was the motivation behind her own suicide when she lost to Rome; she refused to be subjected to the same humiliations in front of the Roman mob that her sister endured.

cleopatra of egypt

I found a copy of it on ebay a few years back, and bought it again. I kind of always wanted to write about both sisters, honestly.

So, obviously, I was very excited to read Cleopatra’s Shadows.

It isn’t that the book wasn’t well-written; it was, and I am sure, as Holleman is a historical scholar, it was undoubtedly incredibly well-researched. What was disappointing to me was that Holleman didn’t give either sister agency. The Ptolemy dynasty,  Macedonian Greeks descended from Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals who was rewarded with Egypt after Alexander’s death and the break-up of his empire, was known for it’s intelligent, highly educated and ruthless women. Like the Egyptian pharaohs of old, the Ptolemies married their sisters to keep the dynasty pure, and while there aren’t a lot of records–the burning of the Great Library at Alexandria to blame for this–there is enough evidence that the sister-wives were actually, in many instances, co-rulers and just as ruthless as the males. Each male pharaoh took the name Ptolemy; their sister/wives/queens were named either Cleopatra, Berenice, Arsinoe or Selene–or a combination of two of those names. Again, there is also evidence that Ptolemaic queens disappeared–probably murdered by their husbands, and the ‘pure bloodline’ wasn’t quite so pure, as the unions were sometimes sterile and other women, concubines, were brought in to bear children for the pharaoh. The plotting and machinations of the Ptolemaic court, the struggles for power, are endlessly fascinating to me; even in the children’s book which was my first introduction to the most famous (notorious) Cleopatra this was very clear.

So, the characters of Berenice and Arsinoe as Helleman chose to depict them were disappointing to me. Berenice was, per this novel, the only true child of a royal brother/sister pair; and her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, the Piper, was not a popular ruler. The premise of this story is that Ptolemy tired of his sister/wife Tryphaena and her inability to bear him a healthy son, so he banished her from court and replaced her with a beautiful concubine, who bore him four children–Cleopatra, Arsinoe, and two young males both named Ptolemy. Berenice’s revolution and overthrow of her father was apparently more based in the bitterness of mother and daughter in being supplanted by the concubine (never named) and her children more than anything else. And while it is all too frequently true that kingdoms and history were shaped by family disputes, rivalries, and romances/loves/jealousies, but I always kind of admired Berenice. The strong woman I always imagined she must have been, strong enough to raise a rebellion against an unpopular king, and to be successful, was not the character Helleman wrote about, who was vacillating, weak, and insecure.

Likewise, the younger sister, whose point of view the story is also told from, Arsinoe, is completely obsessed with her older sister Cleopatra, and barely a page in her point of view passes without so mention of how much she misses her sister. She never thinks about either her father or her mother, and given she is a child, that’s a bit more understandable. But Arsinoe eventually leads her own rebellion against Cleopatra’s rule, so clearly she too is an ambitious young woman as well as intelligent one, one foolhardy enough to rise the Egyptian people up against the Roman legions who have come to Alexandria to back up her sister, and I get no sense of that strong woman in this child. Things just happen to Arsinoe, and while there are slight hints of the politician in her being trained and brought to the fore in the lessons she is learning at the court of a sister who despises both her and her mother, for the most part she is just someone things  happen to–and she never grasps the idea that she should stop being passive and maybe make things happen. The Ptolemies were notoriously ruthless in killing people and relatives who might pose a threat; a pragmatism that may seem horrific to our modern-day sensibilities of family ties but something that was absolutely necessary for them to keep their thrones and their power secure. In fact, Berenice’s advisors want her to kill Arsinoe, but she refuses, and never gives any reason for doing so, which weakens her character still further.

It’s a good read, and it’s well-written and interesting, but I was disappointed with the characters, frankly. I can recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, and is interested in the period.

And it did revive my interest in the Ptolemies.

And now, back to the spice mines.