The Girl Is Mine

I’ve never been an enormous fan of Reese Witherspoon; I think she has talent and she had really shone in some things I’ve seen her in (Legally Blonde, Election, Cruel Intentions) but there was always just something about her, though, that set my teeth a little on edge; nothing I can explain, but she just always struck me as the “I need to speak to your manager” type. But her television work has turned me into a fan, and not just because she’s been killing it in shows like Big Little Lies, The Morning Show, and Little Fires Everywhere…she’s been terrific in all of these shows, but the bigger picture is these shows have introduced me to two writers with whose work I’ve become enamored; Liliane Moriarity and Celeste Ng. Moriarity has more of a backlist than Ng, who only has published two novels; I’m working my way through Moriarty as of yet, and loving her work, but Celeste Ng is a whole other story.

Little Fires Everywhere was a terrific novel, and I was holding off on reading her debut, Everything I Never Told You, primarily because I didn’t want to run out of work by Celeste Ng to read (one of my weird predilections; I never want to run out of books by writers I love). But during the aftermath of Ida and with no power, I picked it up, started reading, and didn’t put it down until hours later, when I’d finished.

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s Physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackle of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.”

Upstairs, Marilyn opens her daughter’s door and sees the bed unslept in: neat hospital corners still pleated beneath the comforter, pillow still fluffed and convex. Nothing seems out of place. Mustard-colored corduroys tangled on the floor, a single rainbow-striped sock. A row of science fair ribbons on the wall, a postcard of Einstein. Lydia’s duffel bag crumpled on the floor of her closet. Lydia’s green bookbag slouched against her desk. Lydia’s bottle of Baby Soft atop the dresser, a sweet, powdery, loved-baby scent still in the air. But no Lydia.

One of the things that strikes me as curious about Ng’s work is that it’s set in the past; Little Fires Everywhere was set in the 90’s, and this, her debut, is set in 1977. Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with writing stories set in the past, mind you, it’s just an observation. But the two books have very strong themes and look at the roles of women in the society in which they were born; that entire thing about “having it all” (which is mythology, of course; no one is superhuman enough to “have it all”) and the bitter reality that a woman cannot, ever, no matter how hard she works and no matter how much effort she puts into it, achieve this mysteriously, vaguely defined “all” she is theoretically able to have. It’s still a problem for women in our current time; the inability for gender roles to be completely redefined, for one, despite the fact that society and culture have dramatically changed and shifted over the last few decades (four or five of them, at the very least).

Anyway, I digress.

The Lee family, who live in a small college town near Dayton in Ohio, are a typical American family. Dad teaches at the university, Mom is a housewife and mom, and their two eldest children are academic stars at the local high school. The youngest child is a mere afterthought, an asterisk, to whom no one really pays much attention. Both parents are completely wrapped up in Lydia, their second child; much to the detriment of the oldest, Nathan (Nath). Lydia is soon found when they drag the nearby lake; whether she committed suicide, it was an accident, or foul play is pretty much up in the air–although they did find her things in a small rowboat floating out in the middle of the water, so accident or suicide is most likely, but Mom Marilyn refuses to believe her child could or would do such a thing and therefore it must be murder!

This is, of course, a classic set-up for a crime novel or a novel about families; the twist here is that James, the husband/father, is Chinese-American (his parents were immigrants) and Marilyn the mom, is white and from Virginia.; therefore their children are bi-racial, and this was still kind of a “thing” in the 1970’s (not that it isn’t still, of course; progress has been made but it’s also been rather on the slow side, really). When James and Marilyn marry, miscegenation laws are still on the books; Marilyn’s own mother is such a racist bitch she says horrible things to Marilyn on her wedding day–which is the last time Marilyn sees or speaks to her mother. They are the only Asians in their little college town, which also impacts the kids and how they see, not only their parents, but the world. Marilyn is also a frustrated feminist; she wanted to be a doctor, took Science classes against the advise of teachers and advisors, and only gives up on her dreams when she becomes pregnant and marries James, becomes a wife and mother….and channels all her frustrated hopes and dreams onto her daughter, Lydia–who has a lot of trouble, as we see over the course of the book, living up to those hopes and dreams. There are no villains or heroes in this book; just complicated human beings doing their best to get through their lives–and how the things unsaid to each other, for whatever reason…and as we get to know each character and their own foibles and flaws and dreams, they become fully realized, and the reader cannot help but love and empathize with them. The story structure, after the present day opening with Lydia dead, flashes back and forth between the present and the past, as we learn the story of the Lees and their broken hopes and dreams; watch them deal with the horrific and completely inexcusable casual racism of their white neighbors and classmates; as Marilyn meets women who followed their dreams and envies them, wonders how they managed to do it; and there’s also a queer subtext/plot thread that is handled delicately and beautifully–if perhaps not realistically for small town Ohio in the 1970’s; whatever issues I may have with the realism of the story in the time in which it is said can easily be set aside because of how beautifully Ng does it as an author.

Everything I Never Told You is an absolute gem of a novel, and I can highly recommend it.

I’m on the Road

We tried to stick it out, ever hopeful that Entergy would pull off a miracle, but today we cracked and couldn’t take it anymore. We were also out of food, and while some stores are indeed open (without power), it was incredibly ridiculously hot today; I’ve not really slept since the power went out Sunday morning; and we decided to go today. With it being the Thursday before Labor Day weekend, I knew–between Louisiana evacuees and “last holiday weekend at the beach” people, there was no point in following I-10 East and trying to find anywhere to stay. I only had a half-tank of gas, and wasn’t sure we’d be able to get any if we went north or west, so we headed east on I-10. We got gas near Biloxi (yay!) and once we hit Mobile we turned north. I knew we’d be able to find a pet friendly room somewhere between Mobile and Montgomery, and I was correct. Paul, Scooter and I are now checked into a motel in Greenville, Alabama. We’ve both taken our first hot showers since before the power went out, and are relaxing in the air conditioning (on high and full blast) while the US Open plays on the television. Everything is currently charging. Scooter isn’t sure what to make of this, as he has never stayed anywhere besides our house or the Cat Practice in the last eleven years, but he was great in the car and just slept…which is his usual state. I am looking forward to tonight’s sleep–you have no idea, Constant Reader, how much I am looking forward to finally getting some sleep. We have the room until Sunday–we’ll either go back to New Orleans or decide what to do next then. I’ll worry about it tomorrow.

It was very weird how quickly this storm came together–we barely had space to breathe or even think, and then it was already too late to go. I had to turn in my edits on #shedeservedit by the first; there were rumblings Friday morning that we were in trouble, and I had to power through the edits to get them done just in case (a wise decision, for once). I had to have my teeth cleaned Friday morning, and after I got home from that I just worked on the edits, finally finished about half an hour before I was due to meet my friend Ellen Byron for dinner at Red Gravy on Magazine Street. (The dinner and the conversation was marvelous.) Saturday morning I got up and by the time I was coherent–I overslept a bit, as did Paul–it was too late, really. I-10 in both directions a parking lot; I-55 and I-59 north both the same. We left very late for Katrina–and the crawl across the twin spans with the beginnings of the system starting to come in was not something I ever wanted to live through again. We just kind of looked at each other, and decided to ride it out and hope for the best–figuring if we made it through, we could leave afterwards. We watched a lot of television Saturday night, went to bed relatively early, and then of course, Sunday morning the power went out around eleven. I grabbed a book–I had started Megan Abbott’s The Turnout last week, and so I read for the rest of the day.

The storm was terrifying. The entire house rattled and shook, and there were times when I thought–I would swear to God this is true–I felt the house shifting before settling back to where it was once the gust had finished. I kept waiting for the windows to blow out–I moved my computer away from the windows–and finally, it was over. I never want to ride out a storm like that again, frankly; once was more than enough. And then we settled in to wait for the power to come back on, with no Internet and very very VERY spotty (did I say VERY) cell phone service, we were essentially cut off from the rest of the world. My friend Alafair texted me at some point and I asked her if the levees held; we literally had no idea what was going on, not only in the rest of the world, but in our own city–let alone our neighborhood. The weather was hot and humid but bearable–it was miserable, but it could have been much worse; had Monday been like today we would have left then.

I did manage to read a lot–I finished The Turnout and moved on to Yes, Daddy by Jonathan Parks-Ramage (loved it!), Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia (also recommend); A Beautiful Crime by Christopher Bollen; Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng; and A Letter of Mary by Laurie R. King. I started rereading Paul Monette’s The Gold Diggers, and also started Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Velvet Was the Night, which came with me to Alabama. I am going to do blog posts on all of these books at some point–it was a week of amazing reading, frankly–and I also thought a lot about things I am working on and things I want to be working on, so it wasn’t a total loss of a week. I cleaned and organized in the kitchen some, and of course today I had to throw away everything in the refrigerator and the freezer, which was sad–all that money into the trash–but better to clean it out now rather than let it sit in there rotting and then come home to it. (A valuable lesson from Katrina.)

I thought about bringing manuscripts to edit with me, but then decided not to–I have the electronic files, after all, and I have enough paper around as it is. I started purging books again too–and I spent a lot of time, as I mentioned, thinking about things and life in general and what my priorities should be going forward–there’s nothing like a catastrophe to make you sit down and think about what is and isn’t important–and I am going to probably make some changes going forward. I hate that this disruption came when I was on a roll–with my writing, with the gym, with the reorganization of the apartment–but I am glad that it did happen in some ways; I was kind of letting myself drown again and a reset was kind of necessary. I also don’t know how long this particular disruption is going to last, either.

So, I am going to relax, enjoy hot showers and air conditioning and having access to the Internet again–and read and write and try to dig out from under.

And now I am going to take a doll and go to sleep.

Til tomorrow, then.

Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

So we had a major thunderstorm yesterday afternoon, complete with street flooding and thunder and lightning and all the fixin’s. This naturally led me to wonder, as the lights flickered at the office and Elysian Fields (the street, not the Greek afterlife) filled with water, whether or not to wait until the advisory was lifted (in theory at 5:45 pm), or head home when my work day was complete? One can never be certain where and when parts of the city are going to flood; and the last thing in the world I need–being this close to having the car paid off–is to risk flooding it out and possibly ruining it.

Sigh. It’s never easy living in New Orleans.

Getting home was a challenge; Claiborne Avenue’s low-lying areas were filled with water, water was pouring down not just from the clouds but from the I-1o high-rise, and I decided to risk going through the CBD, never the best option, but potentially even worse than usual since the Plaza Tower started falling apart and

And now for some blatant self-promotion, The Queer Crime Fiction roundtable I participated in for Crime Reads can be found here. And my brief appearance on Writer Types recommending queer crime writers can be found at this link right here.

Thanks again to Lisa Levy for the roundtable, and to Eric Beetner for inviting me onto his podcast. Both were a lot of fun, frankly, and it’s always fun for me to have the chance to talk about books and writers and make recommendations of books and writers I admire and enjoyed. I really missed that during the pandemic.

We got caught up on Lisey’s Story last night–we were both dismayed to see that it hasn’t all aired yet, and so no new episode until Friday–and then went on to the second chapter of The Underground Railroad, which was equally as disturbing as the first, but in a completely different way; I do remember, reading the novel and thinking, my God, so many different ways white people have found to punish and hurt black bodies and souls throughout our history. The show, being a visual medium, is even more disturbing than the book, because my imagination wasn’t quite strong enough to erase the imagery from my head I had grown accustomed to throughout a lifetime of privilege, that kept elbowing the stark realities Colson Whitehead so poignantly and beautifully wrote about in his book, out of the way; the show does not allow this, and the beautifully way it is filmed so poetically reflects the beauty of Whitehead’s language, even as the subject matter in truly an abomination.

Laura Lippman’s Dream Girl drops today, and so those of you not fortunate enough to get an advance copy can now indulge yourselves in reading a truly marvelous book by a great thinker and a terrific writer. I need to get back to reading; Robyn Gigl’s By Way of Sorrow needs to be finished, and on deck I have Bath Haus by PJ Vernon, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Arsenic and Adobo by Mia Manansala, and several others. So much reading; I really need to focus on getting my reading done and caught up. Now that I’ve finished the novella I can take a look at duMaurier’s “Don’t Look Now” again, as well as her “Ganymede”; I already know, from doing some post-writing research today that there are some major adjustments that need to be made to my novella, and it may wind up being longer than than 20, 430 words it sits at now–not the least of them the days of the week, and so forth. I also have to figure out some way to make the story work a little better, more suspenseful, than it sits right now; but that has a lot to do with figuring out the story as it went. I also want to start pulling together the next short story collection–madness, I know–but I do love when I am basically overwhelmed with projects; so I always have something to be working on if something stalls out or I just don’t want to work on something in particular.

I also took some time and started plotting out another Scotty; yes, I know–I really need to dive into Chlorine again, but I had also decided that I was going to do that in July; it doesn’t hurt to have the Scotty’s various intertwining plots planned and mapped out. I generally don’t do this with Scotty books, primarily because the writing inevitably takes me in much different directions than I had planned, and thus inevitably all the planning turns out to be waste time. Also ironically, despite having any number of possible and potential titles on hand, none of them seems to fit this story–and since I can’t ever really work on anything without a title, and knowing that the title can be eventually changed–I am calling this one, for now, Mississippi River Bottom, which was actually the working title for Jackson Square Jazz. My editor didn’t like Mississippi River Bottom (which I rather thought was a clever play on words) and asked me to change it. I also know that this working title doesn’t really fit the alliteration patterns of the rest of the series, and thus will inevitably have to be changed. Perhaps while I am actually writing it, the title will come to me; stranger things have, indeed, happened before.

Last night’s sleep was terrific–there were strange dreams, of which I’ve been having a plethora of lately; last night was me working at Target for some reason–but I again feel terrific and rested this morning; everything looks wet outside, so I am assuming the rain continued over night. It must not have been terrible or dangerous, as we never got one of those horrible WARNING alerts during the night on our phones. Tonight when I get off work I’ll go uptown and get the mail before heading home and to the gym. The Tuesday night workout is somehow always rushed, with me skipping things–more to do with too many people being there than me being lazy, really; the free weight area is always so crowded I inevitably skip the two exercises I used free weights for–and then it’s back home to watch some television and possibly do some writing. This weekend is going to see weird; I have a broken tooth that needs to be extracted, and I scheduled that for Friday afternoon. That inevitably will mean a strange diet of soft food over the weekend and pain killers; but better that than the dull throb and swollen gums I’ve been dealing with since the molar broke. Ah, the endless saga of Greg and his bad, bad teeth. One thing I definitely envy in other people is good teeth…I also want to get to work on “The Sound of Snow Falling.” I am assuming I’ll be incapacitated this weekend after the tooth extraction, but I am hoping I can at least sit in my easy chair and edit.

And yesterday, the first active roster NFL pro football player to come out came out! Yay, and welcome to the team, as it were. I’m old enough to remember when David Kopay came out in the 1970’s; the first former NFL player to do so.

And on that note–writing ADHD, my bad teeth, NFL player out of the closet–I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely and winning Tuesday, everyone.