On the Dark Side

Sunday morning. I didn’t get as much done as I would have liked yesterday, but I did get some things checked off my to-do list, so i call that a win. I finished a first draft of my short story “The Trouble with Autofill,” which will need some serious revision and work–not a problem–but while I am displeased with the result, I am pleased that I got the first draft done. As I always say, you can always fix what you wrote–but you have to have something to fix. 

We finished watching Broadchurch last night, and my, was that series finale, wrapping up not only the story of the Latimers–whose son was murdered in Season One–but also the rape case that opened Season 3. I have to say, the show was really terrific; I greatly enjoyed it, and I thought it did a great job of putting real human faces on terrible tragedies. As I processed what I’d seen once it was finished, I realized that probably the reason I enjoy crime fiction so much is precisely that; it’s exploration of humanity through dealing with the unimaginable; and that’d also kind of what I’m doing with my short stories. I’m also really glad that I made the Short Story Project a year-long thing; I’m learning so much about short stories by reading so many different ones by so many different writers.

I also have to correct myself; I  do have a hard copy of Lawrence Block’s anthology In Sunlight or in Shadow. I was moving books around in the bookcases yesterday–and uncovering more anthologies and single-author collections as I went–and even though I’d spent a lot of time trying to find it over the past week to no avail, yesterday there it was, right next to Cary Elwes’ memoir of filming The Princess Bride, As You Wish. Why I hadn’t seen it or noticed it prior to this moment in time is one of the unsolved mysteries of my life and brain.

We also watched the first episode of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and I wasn’t overly impressed with it beyond the surprisingly strong performance of Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan. Visually, it’s splendid, but…I’ll give it another episode or two before consigning it to the scrapheap. The beauty of our streaming society is I can always give it another shot later; maybe I’ll like it better at another time. Black Sails, for example, continues to be something I really am enjoying; I watched half of Episode 3, Season 1, on the treadmill Friday and yes, I can’t help but keep asking myself why on earth did you not like this the first time?

The only problem I’m really having with the Short Story Project is that I am not reading any novels; so my TBR pile is not being reduced in any way. I want to read John Morgan Wilson’s Moth and Flame, and it’s been sitting on my side table next to the easy chair for over a week now; but I’m in such a short story groove…anyway.

Tomorrow is the release day for a book I read in ARC (advanced reader copy) form months ago, The Wife by Alafair Burke.

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In an instant, I became the woman the assumed I’d been along: the wife who lied to protect her husband.

I almost didn’t hear the knock on the front door. I had removed the brass knocker twelve days earlier, as if that would stop another reporter from showing up unannounced. Once I realized the source of the sound, I sat up straight in bed, hitting mute on the TV remote. Fighting the instinct to freeze, I forced myself to take a look. I parted the drawn bedroom curtains, squinting against the afternoon sun.

I saw the top of a head of short black hair on my stoop. The Impala in front of the fire hydrant across the street practically screamed “unmarked police car.” It was that same detective, back again. I still had her business card tucked away in my purse, where Jason wouldn’t see it. She kept knocking, and I kept watching her knock, until she sat on the front steps and started reading my paper.

Alafair Burke’s The Ex made my Top Ten list of 2016; it was the first of Alafair’s books I’d read (I have a bunch more in the TBR pile) and it absolutely blew me away. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and having met and liked Alafair, there was an element of worry; what if I don’t like her book? But it wasn’t an issue; from page one on, I was hooked and it was a book I deeply resented having to put down to do other things. Obviously, I was really looking forward to The Wife–maybe I’ll focus this year on reading the rest of her canon–and was thrilled when I got an ARC at Bouchercon this year.

The Wife does not disappoint, either, and boy is it ever timely! Angela Powell, the wife of the title, has a pretty terrific life; married to a very successful man who is getting even more successful every day, a beautiful home in Manhattan, good friends she can rely on, and a son she dotes on. Angela’s almost too-perfect, too-good-to-be-true life slowly but surely begins to unravel when one of her husband’s interns goes to the police and files a criminal complaint for sexual harassment against him. But Angela is not only rocked by the charges against her husband–she’s also worried about any investigation into their lives, particularly by the press…because she has some dark secrets in her own past that she doesn’t want seeing the light of day. No one, other than her husband and her mother, knows anything more about her past other than she was a catering service waitress who eventually started her own business and is a great chef–she met Jason at a party she was working at–but there is a lot more there. And as the truth about Angela’s past slowly is revealed to the reader, each revelation is even more shocking than the last.

The book has a powerful enough story, with just Angela dealing with this assault on their life and having to wonder if her husband has done what he’s being accused of, and if so, how did she not see it–or whether she should believe in his protestations of innocence and stand by his side? The exploration of what does a woman do in this instance might have been enough for a lesser novelist, but it’s not for Alafair Burke; there’s a reason why she has moved onto my ‘must-read’ list.

The Wife is going to be one of the best books of the year, and will be surely nominated for every crime writing award in 2019. I urge you to read it. You won’t be sorry.

Tonight

SNOW DAY!

Yes, we had freezing temperatures in New Orleans the last two nights, and when I woke yesterday morning it was only 20 degrees; it’s 21 today. There was snow and ice outside both yesterday and today–not much, it’s New Orleans, seriously–but the exciting news yesterday morning was work was canceled because the roads were closed! The text went out around nine in the morning, but I, good boy who is determined to stick to his goals that I am, was at the gym. Yes, I got up yesterday morning, bundled up against the cold, and went to the gym. There were tumbleweeds blowing through there, of course, but I did my stretches, my workout, and twenty minutes  of cardio(okay, it was 17:58, but it was nine and I thought I needed to get home and get ready for work). I came home, did the dishes, packed Paul’s lunch, got cleaned up, packed my own lunch and headed out to the car, which had ice all over its windows. I got inside, started the car and turned the defrosters on, and was about to plug my phone into the stereo when I saw that I had 15 text messages….the initial messages about the office being closed and responses from co-workers. I immediately shut off the car and came inside and put my sweats back on.

Here is the horror that was New Orleans yesterday morning:

Really not much of anything, seriously. But as I told my boss last night, I know how to drive in snow and ice, but these people down here? Not so much.

The problem, apparently, was that the bridges into New Orleans–we’re kind of an island, surrounded by water and swamp and you have to cross a bridge to get into the city no matter from what direction–were icy, and of course, that makes them dangerous because people here don’t know how to drive on ice and the bridges are all pretty high. So the bridges were closed and so commuters couldn’t get into the city; the highways are also raised in many places and therefore dangerous when icy. So basically, the entire city shut down. I could have made it to work, but hey, you know, the office was closed. Today so far I’ve not heard about anything–I doubt very seriously we would close two days in a row, and I have no problem with going in.

But it was nice having a free day to stay home with the cat, you know? I did laundry, and since it was so cold at my desk in the kitchen even with the space heater on, decided to make it a real Snow Day and simply retire to my easy chair with the cat in my lap and work on the Short Story Project. I read a Lee Child story from one of the Lawrence Block painting anthologies, and a Laura Lippman from her collection Hardly Knew Her.

Lee Child’s story was “Pierre, Lucien, and Me”, from Alive in Shape and Color:

I survived my first heart attack. But as soon as I well enough to sit up in bed, the doctor came back and told me I was sure to have a second. Only a matter of time, he said. The first episode had been indicative of a serious underlying weakness. Which it had just made worse. Could be days. Or weeks. Months at most. He said from now on I should consider myself an invalid.

I said, “This is 1928, for fuck’s sake, They got people talking on the radio from far away. Don’t you have a pill for it?”

No pill, he said. Nothing to be done. Maybe see a show. And maybe write some letters. He told me what people regretted most were the things they didn’t say. Then he left. Then I left. Now I have been home four days. Doing nothing. Waiting for the second episode. Days away, or weeks, or months. I have no way of knowing.

I’m a fan of Lee Child, and one of my favorite memories was walking to Green Goddess with Alafair Burke when Romantic Times was here one year, and we ran into Lee on the street. I was a big fan, of course, but had never met him. Alafair, of course, knew him, and she invited him to join us. So I not only got to have lunch with Alafair Burke but also Lee Child. (How awesome are my namedropping skills?)

Anyway, he was as charming and self-deprecating as I’d heard–ridiculously tall and slender as well.

I love his Reacher series, but am many years behind on it, alas–so many books, so little time–but this story was short and quite lovely. The main character, as you can tell from the opening, is dying, and reflecting on his life; thinking back on whom he might need to apologize to or make amends with, and cannot really think of anyone. Then a name pops into his head; a millionaire he rather swindled, and the tale of the swindle makes up the rest of the story. The voice is charming and the swindle itself isn’t really that terrible, as far as these things go; he didn’t cause any harm, really, even if what he did was a crime.

I then moved on to Laura Lippman’s “Hardly Knew Her”, from her amazing collection Hardly Knew Her:

Sofia was a lean, hipless girl, the type that older men still called a tomboy in 1975, although her only hoydenish quality was a love of football. In the vacant lot behind the neighborhood tavern, the boys welcomed her into their games. This was in part because she was quick, with sure hands. But even touch football sometimes ended in pile-ups, where it was possible to steal a touch or two and claim it was accidental. She tolerated this feeble groping most of the time, punching the occasional boy who pressed too hard too long, which put the others on notice for a while. Then they forgot, or it happened again–they touched, she punched. It was a price she was more than willing to pay for the exhilaration she felt when she passed the few yew berry bushes that marked the end zone, a gaggle of boys breathless in her wake.

But for all the afternoons she spent at the vacant lot, she never made peace with the tricky plays–the faked handoffs, the double pumps, the gimmicky laterals. It seemed cowardly to her, a way for less gifted players to punish those with natural talent. It was one thing to spin and feint down the field, eluding grasping hands with a swivel of her nonhips. But to pretend the ball was somewhere it wasn’t struck her as cheating, and no one could ever persuade her otherwise.

Sofia, called Fee by her family and by no one else–she won’t allow it–has a father with a gambling problem; he plays in a game in the neighborhood tavern every Friday night. When he does well, there are gifts for the family on Saturday; when he doesn’t, he takes those gifts in the middle of the night and pawns or sells them, or turns them over as payment for a debt. He’s not a good bluffer, like his daughter, depending on the luck of the draw for his success or failure. But Fee is given a lovely amethyst necklace for her birthday–an heirloom–and when her father takes it to pay a debt, Fee is finished with her father, finished with this existence, and decides she is getting her necklace back. How this all plays out for Fee is a coming-of-age tale like no other I’ve read; one that only a talent like Laura Lippman could write. This collection of short stories is really quite extraordinary; as is the Block anthology; y’all really need to read these two books if you are a fan of short stories.

I also started watching, of all things, original episodes of Scooby Doo Where Are You? through Amazon Prime; I’ve been thinking a lot about Scooby Doo and its predecessor, Jonny Quest, since getting to meet one of the directors/animators for Hanna-Barbera at Comic-Con a couple of weeks ago. Jonny Quest is actually the first memory I have of watching something mystery/adventure related, and my love for Jonny Quest never really abated; I think, therefore, that the show was what triggered my lifelong love of mysteries and the crime genre; Scooby Doo came along around the time I was discovered the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I’ll keep watching and musing about this some more, before making a post. I also still owe a post about I Tonya. I also finished reading Joan Didion’s Miami last night; so I’ll have to post about that as well.

So, that was how I spent my Snow Day; resting and relaxing and reading. It was actually quite lovely; we watched two episodes of Broadchurch last night and only have three to go before finishing the show. This third season is also quite good, and it’s cool how they’ve woven characters from the initial story into the present investigation; this entire season is an exploration about sexual assault, sex in genre, and porn. I am looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.

And now, back to the spice mines. As I said, I don’t think we’ll get another Snow Day today, so I have to get back to work. But how lovely to have a day where I didn’t really have to do anything; it’s been a long time. (Okay, I did the dishes and a load of laundry, but overall, it was a light responsibility day.)

 

 

Head over Heels

Well, I survived yesterdays’ trip to Metairie and Target (shudder) and also spent way more money than I should have; which of course is part of the Target trap. But none of the money was wasted and it was all things we will use, and things we needed. So there’s that. I’m still flummoxed, though, at how much I spent. Heavy heaving sigh.

I wasn’t sore at all from my workout Sunday yesterday, although I did start feeling tired/sleepy early in the evening. I wrote two thousand words of a short story I got the idea for while watching Broadchurch Sunday evening (we finished season two, and started season three last night); the show and the story are kind of linked as the show gave me the idea for the story; it’s called “Neighborhood Warning” and the story really flowed, at least until I started getting sleepy. AT that point I retired to my easy chair to read; I worked on the Short Story Project while waiting for Paul to come home. I read  “Safety Rules” by Jill D. Block from Lawrence Block’s anthology Alive in Shape and Color.

Day One

This was my third time, and I knew exactly what to expect. I got downtown early, so I had time to stop at Starbucks when I got off the subway. I was upstairs, in the appointed room, at 8:55. I found a seat, took out my magazine, flipped past the fashion ads, and was already pretty well into Graydon Carter’s piece on Trump by the time things got started. The lady told us to tear our cards along the perforated fold, and after she collected the bottom piece, she turned on the instructional video.

I wasn’t at all surprised when a court officer came into the room, about thirty minutes after the video ended, to call for the first group. I knew the drill–twenty or twenty-five of us would be taken up to a courtroom where they’d be selecting a jury. Everyone else would stay here, and other groups would be called for throughout the day and maybe into tomorrow. Three days tops, and I’d have done my civic duty. I hoped that I would be called in this first group–early in, early out. Maybe I’d even have time to look for boots before I headed uptown.

Veronica Ellis, our main character, is following the rules; summoned for jury duty, she assumes it’s going to be the same as it always has been before. But this time is different, and she starts paying more attention as she realizes a lot more people have been called than she is used to, and soon enough the jury pool finds out that their case is the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Milo Richter, a young boy and the person who may have committed the crime at long last is being brought to trial. The Richter case is famous, but has even more resonance for Veronica–when she was young, around the same time as the Richter case, her best childhood friend Micheline was kidnapped and murdered. At first, Veronica sees that is a kind of karmic justice–she is meant to serve on this jury, as a way of getting justice for Micheline…but then she begins to wonder if she actually should serve on this jury. Block skillfully juggles her timelines between the present day going through the motions of jury duty with Veronica remembering Micheline and what happened when she was a little girl. I was totally sucked into this story, and enjoyed it very much.

I also read Barry Hannah’s “Testimony of Pilot,” from his collection Airships.

When I was ten, eleven and twelve, I did a good bit of my play in the backyard of a three-story wooden house my father bought and rented out, his first venture into real estate. We lived right across the street from it, but over here was the place to do your real play. Here there was a harrowed but overgrown garden, a vine-swallowed fence at the back end, and beyond the fence a cornfield which belonged to someone else. This was not the country. This was the town, Clinton, Mississippi between Jackson on the east and Vicksburg on the west. On this lot stood a few water oaks, a few plum bushes, and much overgrowth of honeysuckle vine. At the very back end, at the fence, stood three strong nude chinaberry trees.

I’ve always felt my lack of appreciation for the talents of Barry Hannah an obvious intellectual failure on my part. This edition of Airships, which was originally published in 1978, had an introduction–or rather, an “appreciation”–by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford; the collections itself won the PEN/Malamud Award back when I was just graduating from high school. I bought my first copy of this collection back in the early 1980’s, when I was attending Fresno City College after flunking out of school in Kansas, to try to get my GPA up to a level that would warrant admission into the California State University system. I took another Creative Writing class there, after my first horrible attempt in Kansas, and there I found an instructor who not only believed in me and my talents, but actively encouraged me to take writing up as a profession; several of the stories I wrote for his class he encouraged me to submit to magazines and professional journals. None of those stories ever saw print, of course, but I always appreciated him as a teacher. He was very into Barry Hannah and Raymond Carver (the other text for the class besides Airships was Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet Please), and while I could see why, at the time, he appreciated and loved Hannah’s writing style so much, it didn’r work for me. We were asked to read the story “Love Too Long” to discuss in class; the rest was independent reading, and after “Love Too Long” I never picked the book up again. Hannah didn’t resonate with me. I bought another copy of this book last year, along with Hannah’s novel Geronimo Rex when I was looking at Southern Gothic literature; I found a list of Southern Gothic writers somewhere and Hannah was listed. I thought, perhaps I can appreciate him now and bought the two books.

One of the things that has to be addressed right off the bat is the racism and homophobia in this story. I didn’t address the issue of racism in Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning” yesterday; primarily because the use of the n-word was only in dialogue and was only used in dialogue by the character of the asshole redneck father; it worked in that instance, even as it was jarring to read for me, and while Faulkner used the word “Negro” to refer to people of color in the text, at the time the story was written that was the commonly accepted, socially acceptable word to use. But Hannah’s character is very much a racist and very much a homophobe; the words fag and queer are used in this story as casually as the n-word. This automatically renders the main character of this story unlikable to me, and likewise unrelatable; I am predisposed to dislike him and he gets none of my sympathy. In fact, nothing he does in this story makes him sympathetic in any way. Maybe that was what Hannah was trying to do in this story, but I couldn’t help but think, as I read it, that the story was loosely slapped together and in a strong need of editorial guidance. I’m still not even sure what the point of the story was. The story opens when the main character is a kid, with his psychotic neighbor kid launched M-80’s from a makeshift cannon at a house where people of color live (lovely); turns out they are sending them at the wrong house and the kid who lives there for some reason comes across the field to tell them to stop and for some reason brings his saxophone with him–I guess that’s because it’s something kids would do? They launch an M-80 at him and injure him without much remorse. He then becomes friends with the main character when they are both in the high school band and the story keeps following them from point to point until the sax-player, Arden Quadberry, winds up a fighter pilot in the Nacy during Vietnam and…I guess this is a slice of life story.

It was originally published in Esquire, which paid what would be considered a lot of money now, let alone in the 1970’s, for short fiction.  Maybe Hannah was a writer of his time, who hasn’t aged well–Richard Ford notwithstanding–but it’s just more of the straight white cisgender male macho posturing to me, and his literary word choices/flourishes just don’t work for me, which is clearly my own failing; I ‘d rather read a genre short story than something like this. I’ll continue to read Hannah, hoping to have that aha moment where his genius will reveal itself to me–after all, they’re short stories so it’s not a colossal time suck if I never get it–but yeah, I just don’t get it.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Come On Feel The Noise

Day two of the New Year, and it’s still miserably cold here in New Orleans. This cold spell is supposed to last through the weekend, but next week the range will be between the high forties and mid-sixties, which is more normal for New Orleans winter. The lovely thing about this cold snap is that I am sleeping magnificently; the problem is I don’t want to get out of the bed in the morning.

First world problems, right?

This weekend is Comic Con here in New Orleans; I am speaking on two panels and I am doing a signing; the panels are on Friday and Saturday and the signing is Sunday afternoon. While it’s kind of a drag having to have something to do every day of my weekend, it is Comic Con, which is always fun. My favorite thing to do is walk around and look at the costumes, to be honest. Every year I promise myself that next year I’ll wear a costume; and when it rolls around every year I am not physically costume ready. But one of my life-goals is to wear a costume to Comic Con one year; maybe if I stick to my gym goals this year I’ll be able to do so next year.

The journal is working out great so far; I did some more brainstorming in it yesterday, and the WIP is really starting to take shape–a better shape than it was. It’s strange, but thinking things through, hashing them out on paper and writing them down makes the process work better for me. I can’t believe I’ve not been doing the journal thing for so long. I’ve really come up with some good stuff over the last few days since buying it. I am quite excited about this new development, and am getting quite excited about writing again; which, to be honest, it’s been kind of a while since I’ve felt the creative joy of writing.

I also started reading several books over the weekend which didn’t pass the fifty-page test; so off into the donation pile they went. This isn’t to say the books were bad, they just didn’t grab me, and there are just too many books to keep trying to read something that hasn’t grabbed me by page fifty; that turns the reading into the category of pulling teeth and then I don’t read as quickly and then the books continue to stack up. One I put aside to try again at a later date; I really like the concept of it, but the writing just didn’t grab me and encourage me to keep going. I’m starting another one tonight; hopefully it will work out better.

I also didn’t read a short story yesterday; I started reading one, but Paul and I also started binge watching Broadchurch this weekend, and we are totally sucked into the show. The first season was truly wonderful; lots of twists and turns that i certainly didn’t see coming, which was lovely. We’re one or two episodes into Season 2 now; the addition of Charlotte Rampling and Jeanne Marie-Baptiste to the cast can only make it stronger. The acting in Season One was pretty spectacular, and I have to say, after The Night Manager and this, I’ve become rather a fan of Olivia Colman.

I have a lot of emails to get caught up on today, and I also want to get some writing done. The illness is mostly past; all the remains is a tubercular cough; deep and throaty and phlegmy, but at least it no longer hurts to cough. Baby steps.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Here’s a hunk for you for today, Constant Reader. In honor of Comic Con, this is cosplay specialist Michael Hamm as Nightwing.

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