King of My Heart

I went down a wormhole thought pattern of sorts this morning, triggered by reading a Crimereads essay about spy novels, and their genesis; it mentioned that Rudyard Kipling’s Kim was one of the first spy novels, and I also realized that only had I not read Kim, I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever read Kipling; however, a quick Internet search just not has reminded me that I have, indeed, read Kipling: Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, but I really don’t remember anything about them (let’s be honest, all my memories of The Jungle Book are naturally from the Disney animated film). I may have also even read Just So Stories, but am not entirely sure. I’m sure Kipling’s work does not stand the test of time–just the title of the poem “The White Man’s Burden” made my eyes almost pop out of my head when I came across it this morning–as they undoubtedly reflect the white supremacist view of Imperialism and the need for the British Empire.

On that same note, I feel relatively certain that the M. M. Kaye novels I once enjoyed (Shadow of the Moon and The Far Pavilions) probably wouldn’t hold up well, either.

I always read for pleasure and for enjoyment; to escape the world in which I found myself inhabiting and feeling like a changeling for the most part; I still do, for the most part. I haven’t been paid to write a book review in over a decade; I’ve always felt that as an author myself, there was a conflict of interest in accepting pay to read and critique another author’s work, and there was always, inevitably, the possibility that an honest view on something that didn’t work for me as a reader would be seen as a vindictive move on my part to torpedo another author, out of jealousy or spite or both. There are any number of these reviewers being employed, and paid quite handsomely, by major newspapers, and I don’t want to be one of them. I don’t like writing negative reviews, and if I am reading something I don’t care for, having to finish reading it because I am being paid to write about would inevitably make me resent the book and its author and would thus color the review.

I generally read things I think fall under my purview as a writer–mostly crime novels, some horror now and then, and maybe something every once in a great while, that would be considered literary. Often these are books by writers I already have discovered, or new ones recommended to me by others whose tastes I respect–The Coyotes of Carthage came to me in this way; Lisa Unger was recommended to me by numerous friends; and yes, Paul Tremblay came to me as a recommendation from a friend. I know I need to expand my horizons to improve as a writer, which is why I am not only committed to the Diversity Project (books by marginalized writers) but also to the Short Story Project. The Diversity Project has been a terrific learning experience, and the Short Story Project has helped me become a better short story writer. I’ve been trying to read New Orleans history lately–with a dash of Louisiana thrown in for flavor–in order to get a better sense of the city and state, so that I can write about them both more knowledgeably; plus there is so much inspiration in reading about the past of both city and state! It’s also incredibly humbling to know how little of that actual history I did know, and even though I knew how rich that history was, I had no idea just how much of a gold mine of inspiration and ideas it would prove to be.

Like I said, I tend to read things I think I will enjoy, and if I am not enjoying the experience, I inevitably stop reading. I have started things and put them aside, only to go back to them again and greatly enjoy them; Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts being the best and most recent example of this I can remember; I started it, got several chapters in, and wasn’t feeling it. I went back to it months later and couldn’t put it down, and frankly, after The Cabin at the End of the World, Tremblay is becoming one of my current favorite authors.

So, I’ve been wrong about books before, and I’ve also been wrong about authors before. Hence the dilemma in being a book reviewer, and why I have chosen for many years now to seek extra income by reading for reviews. I enjoy writing about books I enjoyed on here, my blog; that’s part of its reason for existence, and I also curate what I read and write about here. No one chooses for me what I read or what I write about; and I will only review something negatively if the writer is, frankly, long dead; and even then, it’s simply an explanation of why the book didn’t work for me (an example of this latter type was Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich; I appreciated the book but there were things about it I didn’t like, that I felt didn’t “play”, but since he is long dead–over fifty years–I wasn’t overly concerned about hurting his feelings….and I have enjoyed other works of his).

I often talk about how my education in what the Academy considers to be classic American literature (British, too, for that matter) is sorely lacking. It’s something that I occasionally wonder about; should I go back and read these so-called classics as decided by a group of people whose opinion I generally don’t respect very much? It’s entirely possible, I know, that books I was forced to read as a teenager in high school and college were actually better than I thought at the time because I loathed being forced to read anything and I despised the way they were taught by pompous pseudo-intellectuals with tenure (I really enjoyed mocking that world in my story “Lightning Bugs in a Jar”, and will probably mine it again at some point as story fodder).

But I can honestly say I went back twice to reread The Great Gatsby only to discover that I loathed it even more than I remembered loathing it the first time; I also spent some time in my twenties trying to read other works by the writers I was forced to read and found that I did, in fact, enjoy some of them. I hated Sinclair Lewis when I was forced to read Main Street in college; I later went back and enjoyed both Elmer Gantry and It Can’t Happen Here very much. I disliked Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise very much, and I loathed the Hemingways I was forced to read (The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms) so much that I just can’t bring myself to read anything else of his. I was very surprised, actually, to find myself enjoying Faulkner quite a bit, and I keep meaning to go back and reread both The Sound and the Fury and Sanctuary–but there are also a lot of other Faulkner novels I’ve not read, and probably should. I also despised Tom Sawyer and the other, celebrated Mark Twain short stories I was forced to read; but as an adult greatly enjoyed Puddinhead Wilson, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Life on the Mississippi.

But I am not someone who became a writer because I wanted to have a legacy, or be lionized; I became a writer because I wanted to tell stories, and I wanted to tell the stories that I wanted to tell. I never had any desire to have my work be taught in colleges, or for students to be forced to write papers about my work. I always say that sort of thing isn’t up to me to decide, and it’s never been my aim. If I’m forgotten after I die, well, I won’t be the first.

I justify to myself not reading a lot of literary fiction by saying there simply isn’t enough time for me to read everything that I actually want to read, let alone find the time things people think I should read. But I also have this sense in my mind that perhaps I am missing out on something; I know I’ve read books that have gotten critical acclaim that were more on the literary side and liked them very much and learned from reading them. Colson Whitehead, for example, is simply brilliant while also writing genre fiction–The Nickel Boys and Underground Railroad were stunningly brilliant; I really need to read more of his work–and thinking about Colson Whitehead led me to thinking about, of all people, Cormac McCarthy. I’ve not read McCarthy, but from what I have gathered from what I have heard about his work is it technically is also genre fiction; The Road is a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, after all–a friend whose opinion I respect read and hated the book, so I’m probably not going to go there–so I started going through his canon on the web and I finally settled on one to add to my TBR pile at some point, Outer Dark, because it too sounds like genre fiction. We shall see how that goes, shan’t we?

Laura Lippman often says that genre fiction is literature, and by claiming literary classics as genre (the most common is, of course, Crime and Punishment) we are demeaning the great genre work, which stands on its own without the necessity of claiming Dostoevsky or Faulkner’s Sanctuary as crime fiction (although I do believe Sanctuary is pulpy noir of the best kind). I do agree with her to some degree; as I said, I do think Sanctuary is noir, and an argument could be made that An American Tragedy by Dreiser is as well. (I’ve also pointed out numerous times that The Great Gatsby is really a murder mystery told in reverse) But her point is spot on: genre fiction doesn’t need to claim classics from the Academy in order to be recognized as literature, and claiming those books does make it seem like trying to make fetch happen.

I also like to believe that my best work is still ahead of me.

Of course, that means I actually need to do it.

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

Casting a Shadow

And it’s Friday again! Cue the dancing horses.

I have a lot that I want to get done this weekend. I need to get those stories pulled together, and I want to get started on finishing off the Secret Project. Stupidly, I also started writing another short story yesterday, “The Flagellants,” which I am not really sure what it’s going to be about, or how to even finish the stupid thing. (An\d because I am twelve years old, sometimes when I think the title quickly it sounds like flatulence, which is a joke I may make in the story because I am twelve years old.) And yes, I got the idea from the bubonic plague chapter in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror; during the fourteenth century’s bubonic plague outbreak, the church was already in disrepute and many felt that the plague was God’s judgment on a sinful mankind, so there were some religious cults that sprang up; the flagellants movement was one of these, and it was enormously popular and spread throughout central Europe, primarily Germany. These penitents would march through town and flagellate themselves with whips and cat o’nine tails and knotted ropes, trying to take on the sins of all mankind.

Naturally, I found this interesting, and I really liked “The Flagellants” as a title, and we’re kind of in the midst of a pandemic…granted, we’re not that far into it as of yet, but we’ve already seen ridiculous behavior in the name of Jesus–so far, nothing I’m aware of from other faiths–but I began to think about it some more and wondered, what if this becomes more lethal and lasts longer than anyone is even considering now? The second wave of the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 was much worse than the first, and in the wake of the Great War (aka World War I) and said pandemic there was a huge religious revival in the US during the 20’s–we tend to only think of that decade as flappers and bathtub gin, but that wasn’t all that was going on during that decade (it was also the decade that inspired Sinclair Lewis to write Elmer Gantry, and the decade of Aimee Semple McPherson)…and the old “what if” questions started running through my head, and I remembered the religious fanatics who always protest at Mardi Gras and Southern Decadence…and yeah, that’s kind of how stories get born. I’m not sure where this story is going to go or what it’s going to become–it’s kind of fun and different than anything I’ve written before–and I’m not entirely sure it’s going to end up as a crime story, which makes it even more fun.

I slept really long and well last night, and didn’t want to get up this morning, which was lovely–and a long time coming. It’s been a while since I’ve had such a great night’s sleep, and it was absolutely wonderful. I feel rested and ready to go mine some spice this morning.

As expected, Joey Burrow was the Number One draft pick last night, taken by the Cincinnati Bengals–and I said to Paul, “it’s going to be weird rooting for the Bengals now”–one of the many reasons I don’t get so far into the NFL is it is impossible for me to not root for former LSU players and their new teams to do well; and I really can’t devote more time to the NFL than I already give to the Saints. But after last night, I feel it’s pretty safe to say the Saints are Louisiana’s favorite team, and now the Bengals are our second favorite. I also never pay attention to the NFL draft, but I did last night because I wanted to see how the LSU players would do in it. Five players in the first round, I believe–Joey Burrow, K’Lavon Chaisson, Patrick Queen,  Justin Jefferson, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (which is a record, I believe, for LSU and one short of the overall record)–and now I need to go read the Advocate to see how the rest of the team did, and where they wound up.

Obviously, I will always love this 2019 team and everyone on it. It’s kind of hard not to, after the dream season they just gifted us with–and it’s going to be a very hard act to follow; every LSU team going forward is going to be compared to this one.

This weekend, I hope to get some more writing done. I didn’t get hardly anything written this week (after having such a great writing weekend last weekend), but I do need to finish revising and polishing these stories that are due, and maybe even work some more on some of these ones that are in progress–I may just keep writing “The Flagellants” and see where it goes, just letting it develop as it goes–and I need to start getting some other stuff prepared to get back to work on. I also want to do some reading this weekend; I’ve really fallen behind on that, and I want to make reading more of a priority; it certainly is a better thing to do with my time than falling into Youtube rabbit holes.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Shame on the Moon

I have, as an almost fifty-six year old gay man, witnessed some history throughout the course of my over half a century on this planet. When I was young, I used to hear about the great wisdom you acquire with age; I’m still waiting for that to happen. I remember when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were shot; I remember the Tet offensive and when the first man walked on the moon. I remember the Watergate break-in, the scandal that followed, and how a newspaper toppled a corrupt presidency that was abusing its power. I remember the Iranian revolution and the taking of American hostage in the embassy in Teheran; I remember the slaughter of Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village in Munich. I remember watching my gay brethren die from AIDS while the political establishment laughed and made jokes about the right people dying; and I remember the Towers falling that beautiful September day in 2001. I watched CNN non-stop while a military coalition liberated Kuwait,  when the Berlin Wall fell,  when Communism in eastern Europe collapsed.

There have been times in my life when I’ve shaken my head over the actions of my government, the ruling of our courts, and at legislation debated and passed by Congress.

But never did I imagine, in my wildest dreams, that I would bear witness to Nazis marching with torches in a college town in support of white supremacy, bigotry, anti-semitism, racism, misogyny, and homophobia in the United States of America in 2017–or that scores of people would be defending them.

Have I been a good ally to the oppressed people of this nation? I don’t know, but I tend to doubt it. I tend to focus, as most people do, on my own rights and that of my community; I’ve spent most of my adult life fighting for my rights as a gay man but have always advocated for people of color and women, because I do recognize that the oppression of one is the oppression of all; that none of us are truly equal until we are all equal. I’ve studied history; I’ve studied civics; I’ve studied the Constitution. The entire point of learning and studying is history is to learn from the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them.

Sinclair Lewis was an extraordinary social critic and fiction writer who probably isn’t remembered, and studied, as much as he should be in this modern day.  I’ve not read enough of Lewis; most of his canon remains, sadly, unread by me. But I did read Elmer Gantry about ten years ago, and was stunned by how true it was; and how it still applied in so many ways today. Shortly after that I read It Can’t Happen Here, which is one of his lesser known works and considered to be highly flawed in terms of being a novel. The point of the book, written and published in the 1930’s, was that so many Americans of the time didn’t believe what was going on in Italy and Germany could happen in the United States; Lewis, ever the social critic and commentarian, took that as a challenge and titled his book that, and wrote a novel detailing exactly how fascism could rise in the US and take over our government. It was chilling reading it, in the wake of some of the laws and executive orders passed in the wake of 9/11. I don’t really remember much of the story, frankly; the days when I could remember plots and characters and quotations from every book I read have long passed. But it is, I think, due for a reread.

We often wonder how the good German people allowed what happened there to happen. It is easy  for evil to persuade basically decent people to take its side, and how, when things are going well, incredibly easy it is for people to only look at the good and turn their heads away from the bad. The towns near the concentration camps, who claimed they didn’t know what was going on? Bitch, please. You never noticed the smell? You never wondered what that smell was? But, hey, I’m prospering and we don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from and how to keep the lights on, and aren’t the streets clean and the trains running on time? I don’t believe those stories we’re hearing about what’s happening to the Jews! And since they’ve been oppressed, look at how much better things are!

That’s how it happens, people.

I will do better. We all must do better. No one is free and equal until we are all free and equal.

In 2006 I was invited to speak at the Virginia Book Festival in Charlottesville. I was given a tour of the town and a tour of the University of Virginia campus; I was shown where Edgar Allan Poe lived when he was a student there and other landmarks. I was not only impressed with how beautiful the town and campus were, by how friendly and welcoming the people who lived there were. I always meant to go back again, to spend more time there–I didn’t get to see Monticello–and it was with horror that I watched the news over the weekend, seeing what was going on in the lovely little town I remembered, appalled and ashamed that this was being broadcast to the entire world.

This is unacceptable. The state of the union is unacceptable.

I have to do better. We all have to do better. As a nation we can do better by our most vulnerable citizens, and we must.

The eyes of history are on us.

Have you ever wondered what you would do if you’d been a German in the 1930’s? What you would do during the Civil Rights era of the 1950’s and 1960’s?

This is your chance to find out who you are as a human being and as an American.

This is Heather Heyer, who gave her life on Saturday to oppose evil. May she never be forgotten.

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