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.

Chiseled in Stone

Sunday! It’s raining and gray outside this morning; I’m not sure (because I haven’t looked) what that means for today’s parades (Femme Fatale, Carrollton, and King Arthur–which is over fifty floats and loaded down with gay men, most of whom I know so I always get buried with beads), but I will take a look later. This morning i need to get some work done, and I need to make it to the gym for the start of week three of my workouts–which means today is three sets rather than two of everything. However, I decided it only made sense to cut the treadmill/cardio part of my workouts during parade season; it only makes sense, you know–as I am doing a lot of standing and jumping and walking during the parades. We only went to the night parades yesterday–Sparta and Pygmalion–because Paul was sleeping during the day (it’s festival crunch time, and he stays up really late working) and yes, I could have gone by myself–but it’s not as much fun without him. If the parades are–heaven forbid–rained out, then I will have a lot of free time to get things done, rather than trying to get them done before and after the parades.

Instead of parades yesterday afternoon, I spent most of the day writing some and finishing rereading Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are the Children? It really is a hard book to put down, which was, of course, Mrs. Clark’s biggest strength as a writer–that, and her ability to tap into women’s biggest fears. I’m writing a rather lengthy post about the book already–so I won’t discuss it too much here. And if the parades are cancelled, I’ll probably get that finished today.

So, I intend to spend this morning prepping for the gym and answering emails, then when I get home from the gym I’ll get cleaned up and write some before the parades get here–if they are, indeed, coming; they might just be delayed. There aren’t any evening parades today, so of course they can all have their scheduled departures pushed back; they may also abandon the marching bands and walking crews to roll in the rain. I don’t know if we have the physical stamina to stand in the rain for four hours–neither one of us can risk getting sick at this point–but then again, there are overhanging balconies at the corner, so who knows? I guess I’ll judge how bad the weather is when I am walking to the gym this morning.

I also now have to make the all-important decision on what to read next. I think I’m going to take a break from books that I have to read and read something just for the fun of it, and I think I’m going to choose a cozy by a writer I’ve not read before. When I said I wanted to diversify my reading–and started, last year, doing so by reading more authors of color–I didn’t just mean reading books by authors marginalized by race or sexuality; I also meant books outside of what I generally read. I don’t read a lot of cozies, and I’m not exactly sure why that is; I’ve read Donna Andrews, Elaine Viets, Leslie Budewitz and others, but I am now questioning whether or not those actually qualified as cozies? I generally get cozies in the gift bags given out at conferences, and I do buy them from time to time–I support women writers, and I do feel like cozies are treated as somewhat less than by the crime  genre in general–and I also feel like it’s time to change that perception, and give cozies their due. I have an interesting looking one on hand from Ali Brandon, Double Booked for Murder, and I think that’s what I am going to read next. My cozy reading is woefully less than what it should be, and I want to start making up for that lost time. After that, I’ll probably move on back to the books I need to read and one of my reading projects, whether it’s the Reread Project or the Diversity Project (I am thinking Mary Stewart’s The Moonspinners is way overdue for a reread), or even, perhaps, some Cornell Woolrich.

Woolrich is one of those pulpy writers from the mid-twentieth century who wrote a lot of books and short stories, but was also a miserable alcoholic and a gay man who lived with his mother most of his life. He wrote the story Hitchcock adapted as Rear Window, and wrote several other important noir-esque pulpy novels. I had started reading The Night Has a Thousand Eyes a few years ago, but got sidetracked by something else–probably reading for an award–and never got back to it, which is a shame; I greatly enjoyed it, and I find Woolrich to be an interesting character. I wish I had the time and the energy and the wherewithal to devote more to writing nonfiction; I think a biography of Woolrich would make for interesting reading (I also have always wanted to do one of John D. MacDonald, but again–would I ever have the time to read his–or Woolrich’s, for that matter–entire canon? Not entirely likely; maybe once I’ve retired from the day job and have days to fill with writing and reading and research); I am also curious because it seems most writers from that time period–including Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald–all had drinking problems; as did Woolrich. I’m not surprised a gay man living in those times lapsed into alcoholism–it’s a wonder more gay men of my generation don’t have lingering addiction problems.

I’m still dealing with my creative ADD problem, alas; being aware that it’s going on and happening doesn’t make it easier to control. I just realized yesterday–as I was writing notes in my journal about another short story idea (“Die a Little Death”) that I’d also completely forgotten about “Never Kiss a Stranger”; which is still yet another long story (novella?) I am in process with, along with “Festival of the Redeemer,” and still another I’ve not pulled out and worked on in over a year. It’s absolutely insane how many works I currently have in some kind of progress, which means ninety-five percent of them will most likely never be finished or see print. (Well over a hundred short stories or novellas; I have at least four novel manuscripts in some sort of progress; and fragments of at least five other novels–and none of this is counting essays in progress, either…yeah, it’s unlikely that I will ever finish all of this. And still I persist. Just like I will never read all the novels I want to read, I will never finish writing everything I want to write. Sigh.)

All right, I’m going to go read for a little while before I brave the rain to go to the gym. Have a lovely Sunday, everyone.

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Billie Jean

So, I didn’t get any writing done yesterday because I sat down with Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham at long last, intending to read only one chapter–and then the next thing I knew it was time to make dinner and I was on page 100. Reluctantly I put the book down and made dinner; after which we watched Orphan Black, Game of Thrones, and the first episode of Amazon Prime’s The Last Tycoon before repairing to bed for the evening. Lyndsay’s book is extraordinary and exceptional; I’m both sorry and glad that I waited so long to read it–glad because I am clearly going to love every word of it; sorry that I could have savored it so much sooner. Heavy sigh.

So many books, so little time.

I am greatly enjoying this season of Game of Thrones, and am very curious as to how it is all going to shape up. Last night’s episode was terrific; when the credits started rolling I was like, “it’s over already?” That’s always a good sign, frankly; and Dame Diana Rigg’s final line as Lady Tyrell was just absolutely perfect.

We then switched over to Amazon Prime to try out The Last Tycoon. I’ve never read the Fitzgerald novel because, frankly, it was unfinished, and God knows I’d never want anyone to read anything of mine after I die that was unfinished. But I was curious to see this, as a sucker for old Hollywood. The show is set during the era of the big studios and their star system; where the studios crafted very careful images of their stars and turned out movie after movie after movie. My fascination with this time began when I was a kid and read Bob Thomas’ biography Selznick; I went on to read Tracy and Hepburn, biographies of stars like Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Clark Gable, amongst many others; histories of Hollywood, and so forth. I’ve always wanted to write about that period; it’s really a great time for noir and crime, but again–research. Anyway, I was curious to see how the show was, and I was more than a little impressed. Fitzgerald had first-hand experience with Hollywood and the old studio system, and clearly the character played by Matt Bomer (who is just breathtakingly beautiful, and would be stunning in black and white) is based on Irving Thalberg; the genius producer with a heart problem who is aching to make the perfect film before he dies. Kelsey Grammer is also good, as always, as the studio boss, and the rest of the cast, none of whom I really recognized, are all good in their parts. There was also a big plot twist at the end of the first episode that I didn’t see coming, so kudos to that! It’s also filmed beautifully; the sets and costumes are spot on and everyone looks like they just stepped off the set of a 30’s movie. I am really looking forward to seeing more. I hope it’s not disappointing!

All right, back to the spice mines. Here’s a Monday hunk to get your week off to a great start!

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I’m a Believer

Thursday!

Paul leaves this afternoon, so I will come home from work tonight to an empty house, a herd of hungry cats outside, and an incredibly needy one inside. Which is, of course, fine; I can handle Scooter’s neediness, and of course the herd outside just wants to be fed and petted on the head every now and then. But I am always somewhat amazed by how much space Paul takes up; the apartment always seems enormous, silent and empty when he’s gone. Ah, well. I can get started on the Cleaning Project tonight, while watching documentaries or movies on the upstairs television; the upstairs is Paul’s responsibility–so whenever he’s out of town I, of course, give it a thorough cleaning/organizing. After I get off work tomorrow I don’t have to be back at work until 3 pm on Wednesday next week; four-and-a-half glorious days of cleaning and organizing and writing and revising and reading and–let’s face it–being incredibly lazy and just sitting in the easy chair watching shit on television with Scooter sleeping in my lap.

There are worse ways to spend an evening.

I’ve been, alas, too tired when I get home the last few evenings–after making dinner and doing laundry and cleaning the kitchen. etc–to do anything other than sit in my easy chair and watch television, so I’ve not been able to get back to Daniel Woodrell’s amazing Tomato Red; hopefully I can spend some quality time with it this weekend and get it read. I think after that I am going to read a book by a woman; my reading has been overly male lately (other than that wonderful Lisa Unger Ink and Bone, which is going to be on my Top Ten list for the year, along with Dan Chaon’s Ill Will), but I am also thinking I might read The Great Gatsby next.

My Fitzgerald set arrived this week:

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Aren’t they lovely? I can’t wait for the Steinbeck set to arrive.

To be honest, I was stunned to pick it up and see how short The Great Gatsby actually is; it’s less than 200 pages. I should be able to read that relatively quickly.

So, anyway. Back to the spice mines with me.

Can’t Fight This Feeling

Saturday! Yesterday was so obnoxiously humid that I was completely exhausted when I finished all the running around I had to do yesterday; it was all I could do to stay awake. Regardless, I cleaned the kitchen–even doing the floors–and started work on the living room before collapsing into my easy chair with a book in the early evening and dozed off while reading Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Not that it’s not a good book, but I was simply tired.

I often talk about how, despite my voracious habit that goes back as long as I can remember, that there are many classics of literature I’ve not read (including Huckleberry Finn). I was thinking about that this week, because I’d ordered two sets of books–a set of Hemingway and a set of Fitzgerald–that my dad owned, having gotten them from a book club, when I was a kid (I’d already found the Faulkner set on ebay; which is where I found these others as well). I don’t remember if it was the Literary Guild or the Doubleday Book Club or what, but my dad joined one of those mail-order book clubs and got those three sets of books–I suppose thinking that we needed nice copies of classic books by three of American literature’s most shining (straight white male) lights (I think he later added a set of Steinbeck, but I could be wrong; that might have been me in my teens.)

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I took an American Lit class my sophomore year in high school, and it’s from that class–as well as the American Lit class I took in college–that my antipathy to many classic writers was born. I think reading The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Babbitt, The Old Man and the Sea, and A Farewell to Arms in high school, when I was too young to really appreciate them kind of ruined them, and those authors, for me. I’ve not reread the books, so I don’t know if I still wouldn’t care for them; but I do know that I’ve gone on to read other books by some of those authors and liked them (Steinbeck’s East of Eden is one of my favorite books of all time; Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry and It Can’t Happen Here are terrific; and I really enjoyed This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald). I’ve never revisited Hemingway, as my visceral response to the two books of his I did actually read was so strong. But I am going to give it another go; I am going to read The Sun Also Rises (my father thinks For Whom the Bell Tolls is the greatest American novel; but Dad and I rarely agree on anything cultural), and I am also going to reread The Great Gatsby at some point. I may even give The Grapes of Wrath another go; it actually kind of bothers me that there are ‘American classics’ that I didn’t like and may not have because I wasn’t old enough or mature enough, as either a human or a reader, to have enjoyed and appreciated.

But Christ, there is so little time to read everything!

Which is one of the reasons I am reading this McCullers novel (although calling it a novel is quite generous; it’s only 127 pages so it’s really a novella) is because I’ve not read much of McCullers (The Member of the Wedding in college, didn’t like it–but there is, I think, something about being forced to read something that makes me dislike what I am being forced to read; I should probably revisit Flannery O’Connor as well), and I am thinking that I probably should.

Ah, today’s storm is about to break, so I shall take that as indication that I should put on my helmet and get back to the spice mines.