Dancing With Our Hands Tied

Good morning, Wednesday, how is everyone holding up so far this week?

So Laura apparently isn’t going to be too much of a thing in New Orleans, but things aren’t looking good for eastern Texas/western Louisiana. Keep safe, my friends, and everyone else, do keep them in your thoughts and send them positive energy, as I certainly shall be doing until this too has passed. It’s similar to 2005’s Rita; following the same path and intensifying pattern. We’ll still get about 2 to 4 feet of storm surge into Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain, and a lot of sudden, intense rain (street flooding), but for the most part, New Orleans has yet again dodged a bullet.

And compared to a direct hit, yes, that’s not too much of a thing in New Orleans.

It was very strange to not have to go into the office this week (I did have to go by yesterday–and will again today–to get more supplies) to do any work; especially when you take into consideration the vacation days I took last week. I’ve not been into the office to actually work now since last Wednesday–a full seven days–and it’s made me feel very disconnected from my job this morning; I really don’t know how all of you who’ve been having to work at home all this time without ever going into your offices have managed to do that without feeling untethered at best, disconnected at worst. At this point, it feels as though the pandemic has been going on forever, and the last days of what was previously our normal existence–late February, early March–seem like ancient history to me now, and I’ve already accepted the fact that life, that world, that way of existing, is gone forever. Whatever it is we will see when this ends–should it ever end–will be completely different. This is one of those “sea change” experiences, where life and society and culture change irrevocably forever. The world before the first World War ceased to exist after it ended; the interregnum between the two wars was a kind of stasis world, where all the problems unresolved by the Treaty of Versailles coupled with the crash of the American–and by extension, world–economy created a bizarre vacuum which fascism swept in to fill, with the inevitable war that followed–one that took a look at what had been, up to that time, called “the Great War” and basically said, “Hold my beer, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” The world in the spring of 1914 was almost completely different in almost every way in the fall of 1945–a span of only thirty one years.

So what will our world, culture and society look like in a post-pandemic environment? Will we ever get to said post-pandemic environment? Or will those of us who survive this look back at this time and say, “ah, yes, the beginning of the dystopia?”

How depressing. Which is one of many reasons why I never look forward or back, and try to live in the now. The now is depressing enough as is, if you let it be.

While I didn’t work on the book yesterday or read anything, I did educate myself somewhat by watching the Kings and Generals channel on Youtube, something I discovered recently. I watched the episodes on the Battle of Lepanto and The 1565 Siege of Malta, which were extremely informative and educational. I had previously watched the Fall of Constantinople in 1453; the Sack of Constantinople in 1204; the Battle of Mojacs; and the Siege of Vienna. Most of my study of European history has always been western-centric, primarily focusing on Great Britain, Spain, and France, with a smattering of Germany/Holy Roman Empire thrown in for good measure (and primarily the Hapsburgs); it is only recently that I’ve realized how much I’ve not looked at eastern Europe, other than some post Peter the Great Russian history–which also is primarily because it impacted western Europe. My knowledge of Asian history is non-existent; and if you ignore the scanty knowledge of ancient Egypt, I really don’t know much about African history either, other than the colonial period and not much of that. I also don’t know much about Latin America, either. Several years ago–after the Italy trip of beloved memory–I started looking into Venetian history, which is entangled heavily with that of the Byzantine Empire and its successor, the Ottoman Empire–both of which I know very little about, and as I started reading more about these eastern European empires (the Venetian included), I began to get a better concept and grasp on how little of world history I actually knew.

I would love to have the time to study more of the history of Constantinople/Istanbul, as the capital of two major historical empires that covered 1500 years of human history.

We also watched a two part documentary on HBO about the Michelle Carter/Conrad Roy case, I Love You Now Die. If the names mean nothing to you, it’s the case where the boyfriend committed suicide while his girlfriend was texting him supposedly ordering him to do it. The facts of the case–which I hadn’t really looked much into before–aren’t what they seem and it was an interesting case; her conviction, held up under appeal, set a legal precedent that can be seen as either scary or good. Was she a sociopath? Or were they both emotionally damaged teenagers locked into a strange co-dependent relationship that was actually toxic, made it even more dangerous because no one else knew how toxic it had actually become? As I watched, I wondered–as I am wont to do–how I would tell the story were I to fictionalize it, and finally decided that the best way to do it would be from multiple points of view: both mothers, the sister of the suicide, and one of the Michelle’s “friends” from high school–all of whom claimed to not be really friends of hers in the first place–and the real story is loneliness, on the parts of both kis, really. A truly sad story, without any real answers.

While I was making condom packs yesterday I also continued with my 1970’s film festival by watching the 1972 Robert Redford film The Candidate, which is one of the most cynical political films I’ve ever seen–and almost every political film made since that time has been highly cynical. The 1970’s was an interesting decade for film; a transitional period where the old Hollywood was done away with once and for all and cynical, brutal realism took its place. Watching these films has also reminded me, sometimes painfully, how questionable style and design choices were in that decade–clothing, cars, buildings, etc. It was an ugly decade–remember the hair styles, with the carefully blown dry “feathered bangs” hair-sprayed into place? Sideburns and porn-staches? The bell bottoms and earth tones? The enormous steel cars that were essentially tanks? How dirty everything seemed, and how trash littered the sides of the roads and waterways? It’s all there in these films, as well as that dark, bitter cynicism.

The Candidate is about an idealistic young lawyer who works for social justice causes named Bill McKay, whose father was a powerful two-term governor of California. Recruited by a political operative played to sleazy perfection by Peter Boyle, McKay–who has always disdained politics–agrees to run for senator against a long-term, popular Republican incumbent. No one expects him to win, and McKay agrees to it so he can talk about issues that are important to him–and he immediately makes it clear he wants his campaign to  have nothing to do with his father. The movie follows him from his own first faltering public appearances and watches as he slowly develops into an actual politician. He’s perfectly fine with everything, and he wins the primary–but the numbers extrapolate to a humiliating defeat in the general…so he starts watering down his message, speaking in generalities and never addressing issues directly–and his campaign begins to take off, and winning becomes more important to him than the issues, to the point he even allows his father, played with sleazy perfection by two-time Oscar winner Melvyn Douglas, to get involved in the campaign. He pulls off the upset and wins, and as the celebrations begin, he asks his campaign manager, “So, what happens now?” as no thought has ever been put into the future should he actually win; and that’s how the movie ends, with that question unanswered. It’s a very strong indictment of modern politics, and still relevant today; essentially, he wins because he is handsome and never says anything that means anything. We never really are sure, as the viewer, what he wants and what he stands for; which is a very deliberate choice by the filmmakers–we’re basically shown a little bit behind the curtain, but mostly we see what the voters would see. This movie doesn’t have a Frank Capra ending, but the typical cynical view of the 1970’s. The screenplay, incidentally, won an Oscar.

Aliens was the second movie on yesterday’s condom packing double feature. I had originally intended to watch Alien and Aliens back to back; don’t remember why I didn’t rewatch Aliens back then, but I didn’t, but I also figured it was equally appropriate to rewatch the day after rewatching Jaws, because it too is a monster movie, and one of the best of all time. Sigourney Weaver is even better in this one than she was in the first; and while I love Marlee Matlin and think she’s a terrific talent, I still think Weaver should have got the Oscar for this (if not for Alien). Once again, a primary theme for the movie is “no one listens to the woman who is always proven to be right”–amazing how timeless that theme has proven to be–and again, as in the first film, the Ripley character is given a relationship to soften her and make her more “womanly”; in the first film it’s the cat–which really, I felt, weakened her character, while at least in this one it’s the little girl, Newt, that she risks her life to go back for when everyone else, including me, is screaming get the fuck out of there are you fucking crazy? There are also some other terrific performances in this movie, which is a non-stop adrenaline ride, including Bill Paxton’s first performance of note as Hudson; Michael Biehn (why was he not a bigger star?) in a  great follow-up to The Terminator as Hicks; and Paul Reiser, who was so sleazily perfect as the company rep (and should have been nominated for an Oscar himself) that I have never been able to stand watching him in anything else since I saw this movie for the first time because I hated him so much as Burke that I cannot see him as anything else. Everyone in the cast is terrific; but there are some small things that date the film–Hudson makes an illegal alien joke about Vasquez (would this still be a thing that far into the future?); the analog transmissions rather than digital; and of course–the cigarette smoking; would cigarettes never evolve over time?

If all goes well, I expect to be here tomorrow morning. Have a great day, Constant Reader.

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Between Two Islands

One of the best parts of the Reread Project is reminding myself how much I truly love and appreciate certain writers.

Mary Stewart is certainly at the top of that list.

As I’ve mentioned before, I read most of Mary Stewart’s so-called “romantic suspense” novels when I was a teenager or in my early twenties, my favorites being The Ivy Tree and Airs Above the Ground.  Unfortunately, the mists of time and my faulty memory have robbed me of just how good the other books she wrote were; I recently reread The Moon-spinners and loved it more than I remembered loving it the first time; likewise, I started rereading This Rough Magic this week (finishing yesterday) and it, like The Moon-spinners, is fucking brilliant; far better than I remembered it being–and frankly, far better than it had any right being (says the incredibly jealous author).

Like most of Stewart’s novels, the book is set somewhere other than England–this one is Corfu, just off the coasts of Greece and Albania. (The Moon-spinners was set on Crete, and My Brother Michael was also set in Greece.) I’ve always wanted to visit Greece; it’s on my bucket list with Egypt, France, Germany and England. I loved Greek mythology and history when I was a kid, and of course I absolutely loved Mary Renault’s novels about ancient Greece. Lately I’ve become more and more interested in the history of the Eastern Roman Empire; aka the Byzantine empire, as well. Paul also would love to return to Greece–he spent a summer there as a teenager as an exchange student.

Stewart is often described, and counted amongst, romantic suspense novelists of the mid to late twentieth century, primarily because she was a female writing suspense novels about women in a time period where publishing didn’t know how to market women-driven suspense novels written by women. While there are slight elements of romance included in her novels, it’s often an afterthought, and rarely actually drives the plot–it’s more like a little lagniappe; something extra tossed in to appease editors and readers that she really had no interest in exploring. At first, you think, wow, her characters kind of fall in love awfully quickly with total strangers–and then you realize, oh, of course they did–women weren’t really allowed to be sexual beings in those days so it had to be masked as falling in love plus the “romance” elements were easily explained by the “trench warfare mentality”–in which soldiers become bonded to the guys they are serving with because they are responsible for each other’s lives; it’s not a stretch to see a romantic attachment grow between two people who are in a tough, difficult situation in which they could easily both wind up dead.

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“And if it’s a boy,” said Phyllida cheerfully, “we’ll call him Prospero.”

I laughed. “Poor little chap, why on earth? Oh, of course…Has someone been telling you that Corfu was Shakespeare’s magic island for The Tempest?

“As a matter of face, yes, the other day, but for goodness’ sake don’t ask me about it now. Whatever you may be used to, I draw the line at Shakespeare for breakfast.” My sister yawned, stretched out a foot into the sunshine at the edge of the terrace, and admired the expensive beach sandal on it. “I didn’t mean that, anyway, I only meant that we’ve already got a Miranda here, and a Spiro, which may not be short for Prospero, but sounds very much like it.”

“Oh? It sounds highly romantic. Who are they?”

“A local boy and girl: they’re twins.”

Lucy Waring, a twenty-five year old British aspiring actress, finds herself on the island of Corfu visiting her very pregnant sister who married very well–to a wealthy Italian banker whose family owns an enormous property on Corfu, which includes an enormous castle-style main structure and two guest villas some distance away, all gathered together on the shoreline of a small, private bay. Lucy’s big break has just come and went in a play that closed after only two months, so she has gratefully accepted her sister Phyllida’s invitation to come stay for a while with her on Corfu. There’s a photographer staying in the other villa; the main castle is being rented to a retired British actor, Sir Julian Gale, best known for his performances in Shakespeare (The Tempest in particular) and his son Max, a composer–and trespassers are forbidden and frowned upon. That very first day Lucy decides to go down to the beach and sunbathe, and while she is down there she makes the acquaintance of a friendly dolphin, much to her delight–and the suspense begins when someone starts shooting, with a silenced gun, at the dolphin. She assumes the shots are coming from the castle, so she goes storming up there, and soon becomes entangled in the affairs of Sir Julian and his son Max.

Stewart’s mastery as a story-teller is so complete that she doesn’t waste a word or a scene; her economy of writing is astonishingly complex and clever. For example, that opening sequence, quoted above, seems like simply a lovely back-and-forth introduction to Lucy and her sister while establishing their affectionate closeness; but Stewart uses that dialogue to tell the readers things that are going to be important to the novel: they are on Corfu, references to The Tempest are scattered throughout the book and are incredibly important, not just to the story but for the atmosphere (Stewart was an incredibly literate writer; references to classic literature are scattered throughout her works, be it Shakespeare or Greek mythology or Tennyson, etc.), and even the throwaway line about the twins, Spiro and Miranda, isn’t a throwaway–the two are very important to the story.

And Lucy Waring is no shrinking violet, either–none of Stewart’s heroines are. Lucy courageously thinks nothing of putting herself in danger in order to help catch a monstrous, sociopathic killer:

He must have felt me watching him, for he flicked me a glance, and smiled, and I found myself smiling back quite spontaneously, and quite without guile. In spite of myself, in spire of Max, and Spiro’s story, I could not believe it. The thing was, as I had said to Max, impossible in daylight.

Which was just as well. If I was to spend the next few hours with him, I would have to shut my mind to all that I had learned, to blot out the scene in the cellar, drop Spiro out of existence as if he were indeed dead. And, harder than all, drop Max. There was a curiously strong and secret pleasure, I had found, of speaking of him as “Mr. Gale” in the off-hand tones that Godfrey and Phyllida commonly used, as one might of a stranger to whom one is under an obligation, but whom one hardly considers enough to like or dislike.

There’s also a few amazing chapters in which Lucy, having found the definitive evidence to convict the killer, is trapped with nowhere to go on his sailboat when he returns–she hides, but is spotted, and then reveals herself and in an astonishing display of bravado tries to play the entire thing off, but winds up going overboard herself and trying to make it to shore–only to be helped by the very dolphin she herself had helped rescue earlier in the book.

As I said, nothing happens or is done in a Stewart book that doesn’t have significance or come into play later.

I cannot tell you how much I loved rereading this book, and while I’d love to dive into another Stewart reread, I’m probably going to do another Phyllis Whitney–oh, and I buried the lede! I read the entire thing as an ebook on my iPad–so I have finally broken through that final barrier to reading books electronically, and may never pack a book to take with me when I travel again as long as I live!

Who says you can’t teach an old queen new tricks?

Golden Years

When I wrote Jackson Square Jazz, an important part of the plot had to do with the 1989 fire at the Cabildo. Shortly after moving to New Orleans in 1996, I’d seen a documentary about the Cabildo fire and how the New Orleans Fire Department had fought the fire–choosing to rescue as many of the artifacts and treasures inside before training the water hoses on the building. I made it a plot point because I wanted to preserve, even if in fiction, what an amazing job the NOFD had done, as well as point out how fragile and delicate our history can be. Doing the research on the fire kept putting a thought in my head–how heartbreaking would it be if St. Louis Cathedral caught fire?

After Katrina, seeing that the cathedral had survived without damage was the first semblance of hope I had after the levees failed that New Orleans would recover.

I cannot imagine how Parisians and other Frenchmen must have felt yesterday, seeing that iconic image that has stood for over eight hundred years aflame. I am not French, but it broke my heart to see the images from this horrible disaster.

One of my dreams, my bucket-list items, was to spend a day at Notre Dame, to soak in all the history and the beauty and the art. I love French history; I love France, although I’ve never been. I remember reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the first time. I remember all the French histories and biographies I’ve read; so much history took place in and around that beautiful, beautiful building. As I write this I remember a scene I wrote once; for a book I never wrote but one day I had this glorious image in my head and I wrote it down: the marriage of Henri of Navarre to Marguerite de Valois on the steps; because he was not a Catholic they could not wed inside. It was after their wedding that the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day began; I remember reading about it in Dumas’ Queen Margot, and in assorted other historical fictions or biographies of Catherine de Medici or Henri of Navarre (who later was the first Bourbon king, Henri IV). I remember having this vivid image in my head of a lady watching the ceremony; and her impressions of it, and wrote them down. I always thought it would be an interesting historical suspense novel–the lady in question was one of the “flying squadron”; ladies trained in the erotic arts who used seduction for information in service to Catherine de Medici. I enjoyed writing about Jeanne-Charlotte de Sevigny in that scene; I’ve always liked the character and the period has always fascinated me. Perhaps someday…

I still think about that novel every once in a while.

But now, when I finally make it Paris, if I finally make it to Paris…depending on when I go, the iconic landmark, one of the major symbols of both Paris and France, won’t be the same. It will be repaired and rebuilt–it was under renovation already when the fire broke out yesterday–but will it be the view that millions have already enjoyed, admired, gasped in awe at?

And of course there’s the fear that it won’t be the same.

On the other hand, the Cabildo was rebuilt after the fire and it’s still the Cabildo, so there’s that. Future generations won’t know anything other than there was a fire and it was rebuilt–and the interior, it turns out, survived a lot more intact than anyone had originally anticipated.

It also reminds me of John Berendt’s wonderful book City of Falling Angels, about the fire that destroyed a Venetian landmark, the Opera House, and the rebuilding process.

And now, tis back to the spice mines with me this Tuesday morning.

Vive le France.

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Jingle Bells

Getting used to being back at work is always a chore at the best of times.

Having to go in early two of the only three days I have to work is simply insult to injury, quite frankly. I only hit the snooze button three times this morning, though, and while I am not completely awake as of yet, I don’t feel sleepy or groggy. I am hoping this is a good sign.

I managed to eke out another thousand or so words on the book yesterday; which I am taking as a triumph. I am not certain why this is moving so slow, or why it is so hard for me to get used to working on it; I don’t think my writing muscles are rusty or as tired as I would like to think they must be–any excuse in a storm, really–but if I can get through today and tomorrow it’s another four day weekend and hopefully this discombobulated feeling will pass soon enough.

One can hope, any way.

I watched a great documentary on Youtube after work last night about Versailles, and personal hygiene at the court of Louis XIV. It was very interesting; one of the things that is almost always missing from biographies, historical novels, and histories are the personal touches from daily life–dentistry, breath, body odors, cleanliness, etc.–and how it has changed over the years. We would consider Versailles and the courtiers disgustingly filthy and revolting; they thought they were at the pinnacle of personal cleanliness. The documentary–you should watch, if this sort of thing interests you–is called Versailles’ Dirty Secrets.

Speaking of Versailles, I am hoping the third and final season will be free to streaming soon.

I do feel sort of adrift, I have to say; I realized it last night as I worked on the book. Ever since the Great Data Disaster of 2018 I no longer trust my computer or its back-ups; nor do I remember exactly what I was working on or what was going on in my head with my writing before it happened. I know I had a lot of momentum and quite a head of steam, and was forging ahead full speed and damn the torpedoes…and I hate that I am kind of lost and floundering now.

Thanks for that, Apple.

So if last weekend had a “catch up on your rest, do some deep cleaning, and clear out electronic files” theme, this weekend will have a get back to work and remember what you were doing and GET BACK ON TOP OF THINGS theme.

And I have luncheon at Commander’s Palace on Monday to look forward to.

And now back to the spice mines.

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I Know There’s Something Going On

Yesterday I got notified that one of my favorite comic book runs, DC’s 1988-1992 Starman, is now available digitially on Comixology. I may have squealed like an excited little gay boy. This version of Starman, which came after the Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot, was one of my absolute favorite comic series of all time. As a birthday gift to myself, I bought and downloaded the first two issues. I am really looking forward to reading this series again in its entirety. I hope it’s as good as I remember. It never really took off, and was eventually cancelled for low sales, which was a real pity. I’m curious to see what I think about it now that I’m older.

Yesterday was one of the most miserably hot and humid days in New Orleans that I can remember. I took a shower after my workout yesterday morning–and then another after running errands. The thing about humidity that you tend to forget is how it sucks the life right out of you; it’s exhausting navigating and operating and trying to function in it. I have nothing but the utmost sympathy for those who have to work outside in August in New Orleans–meter maids, mail carriers, construction workers, etc.

And last night, we went to see Dunkirk.

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The story of the mass evacuation of the Allied forces at Dunkirk is one that has always stirred me; had the evacution/rescue of the British/French forces there not happened, the war would have been over and Nazi Germany would have won. The way the ordinary British people stepped up, in the face of incredible danger and possible death, and sailed personal boats across the English Channel to help rescue their army is one of the greatest war stories of all time. As soon as I heard that Christopher Nolan was making a film about it I knew I wanted to see it.

And while it took a while for me to go, we finally saw it last night.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more affecting film about the horror of war before.

Nolan’s film is a completely immersive experience, and everything about the movie is designed to keep you anxious and on the edge of your seat the entire running time of the movie. There are only a few, brief moments where you can actually sort of relax; and those brief seconds of respite immediately fade into another rush of tension and adrenaline and anxiety. There is very little dialogue in the movie, and almost all of the emotion is conveyed by the faces of the actors, which is even more affective than over-the-top histrionics would have been.

One of the things I learned from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was that the reality is far harsher and much more horrifying to witness in person than to see on television or on film; the reason Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke is so affecting is the film of the aftermath, after the water was gone and what was left behind, triggers the memories inside my own mind from when I returned and drove around to see the  devastation for myself. A film camera is limited–even in IMAX–to how much it can capture in a shot; the reality of the flood aftermath was immersive; you couldn’t look another direction and not see horror.

As immersive an experience as Dunkirk is, it therefore stands to reason that the horrors faced by the soldiers and sailors and the British citizens in their pleasure boats sailing the channel and watching as war planes flew overhead, witnessing ships being bombed and torpedoed in front of them, was at least a thousand times worse than watching a fictionalized film version in an IMAX theater in Harahan. The choice to show the story from three different perspectives–a soldier wanting to get home, an RAF pilot, and the crew of the private boat Moonstone crossing the channel to answer the call–and to not show those stories unfold in the usual timeline but rather at different times–was a calculated risk that could easily could have failed, turning the movie into a mess that made no sense–but superb editing and cross cuts made it quite effective in unsettling the viewer and ramping up the tension and terror. (I predict many, many technical Oscar nominations for this movie–from sound editing to editing to cinematography–and it will probably win more than a few of them.)

It’s an amazing achievement in film.

Is it historically accurate? Probably not; it leaves the viewer with the sense that it happened over the course of a day or so when it was really a little over a week; all the soldiers and sailors seen on camera were all  white; and obviously some of the characters, if not all of them, were fictional. But…when the credits rolled I was emotionally drained and exhausted, and I am still processing the images I saw.

It also occurred to me, as we drove home in a downpour, if ever there was a time for TCM to schedule a World War II film festival–after the events of the last week or so, it’s now, as some people need, apparently, to be reminded of the horrors that were Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Have a lovely Sunday, every one.

Picture to Burn

Good morning, Constant Reader! It’s my official release day for my latest Todd Gregory tome, Wicked Frat Boy Ways, which I am kind of excited about. For one thing, I love the cover. For another, I am kind of proud of this book. I did something completely different than anything I’ve ever done before, and it’s also an homage to one of my favorite stories of all time: Les Liaisons Dangereuses. (I’ve also discovered that young people will just look at me blankly when I mention that; or even say Dangerous Liaisons, the award winning film with Glenn Close and John Malkovich from the late 1980’s; however, mention Cruel Intentions with Ryan Phillippe and Sara Michelle Gellar, and their eyes will light up.) It’s a wonderful story; after all, to date, there are four film versions thus far, and a stage version. The Glenn Close movie inspired Madonna’s MTV Video Awards performance of “Vogue”–which I absolutely loved. I am a sucker for the costumes of that era; Bourbon France (1589-1792) is one of my favorite periods of history; the French Revolution is endlessly fascinating to me (Les Liaisons Dangereuses was set in the early 1780’s, and there are those who call the at-the-time scandalous novel as one of the flagstones in the pathway to the French Revolution, by pointing out the corruption and evil behavior that boredom amongst the wealthy and spoiled aristocracy in France to a wider audience); and so my personal favorite film version of the story are the Glenn Close with the Annette Bening/Colin Firth Valmont coming in second. But Cruel Intentions is also very well done, and both Phillippe and Gellar inhabit the evil characters absolutely perfectly. I’ve always wanted to do my own version of the story; but I wanted to follow the novel (which I absolutely loved, and have reread several times) more so than the film.

I’ve played with the idea a lot over the years; the trick is that the novel is epistolary. The epistolary novel was very popular in previous centuries (Dracula is also epistolary for the most part; a mix of letters and diary entries), although it has fallen out of favor in modern times. I’ve always thought they were great; it was a way to get inside character heads much more so than just alternating third-person point of views, and it’s even harder to do alternating first person point of views–which I also didn’t know how to do, and was afraid to try (Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is perhaps the best example of this ever published). I thought about doing it in the form of emails years ago, and then. after Bold Strokes agreed to publish it, tried to figure out how to do it with modern technology–a combination of texts messages, emails, Facebook posts, etc. But that would also be a formatting nightmare for the technical side of publishing;  I even asked the formatter how it could be done, and the response wasn’t encouraging.

And then I reread one of my favorite books, The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis, and I saw how it could be done–alternating first person point of view, present tense; in other words, tell the story in the present from the point of view of characters as it is happening to them, so you can also see, as in the letters, how their perspectives change and how the manipulations happen, and how they really feel. Yes, it was similar to how Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying, but at the same time, it was a challenge I wanted to take on: an erotic novel with a strong plot, told in the present tense, in alternating first person point of view.

Instead of using the same Beta Kappa chapter at CSU-Polk, I moved it to another campus; one that is more rich and more elite: the University of California at San Felice (a shout out to Margaret Millar, who used San Felice in some of her novels as a stand-in for Santa Barbara), on the California coast a few hours north of Los Angeles. I had the character of Brandon Benson, from Games Frat Boys Play, transfer and now he’s a senior, friends with Phil Connors, chapter president. Phil and Brandon are the primary characters in the story; the others the chess pieces they move around the board; Ricky Monterro is the nephew of a very wealthy self-made lawyer who is president of the alumni association, and a recent drop out from the seminary at Notre Dame who’s just realized he doesn’t want to be a priest, preferring to live openly and honestly as a gay man; Dylan, an incoming transfer from UCLA who is engaged to a soldier on a tour in the Middle East; and Kenny, a shy young gay virgin with no self-esteem who falls head over heels for Ricky at first sight.

Jordy from Games Frat Boys Play even makes an appearance, having rented a house on Fire Island for the summer, which is where Brandon and Dylan first run into each other.

Damn, this book was fun to write. Hope it’s as fun to read!

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Here Comes the Sun

For right now, I am trying to clear my head and figure out what I need to do. In the meantime….

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been watching Versailles and really enjoying it. I often talk about the sixteenth century and how I am utterly fascinated by it; I also love the seventeenth century, but in that particular century my fascination is almost entirely with France. Don’t get me wrong–the Stuarts in England were very interesting, and Charles II and the restoration period is definitely one of my favorites; but my heart, alas, is really in France.

And part of that, of course, has to do with Louis XIV.

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The Sun King, le Roi Soleil, le Grande Monarch. The third king from the house of Bourbon, who took the throne at age five and reigned for seventy-two years; which is the longest reign by a king (there were dukes and princes who ruled longer; but his was the longest for an actual King) in European history. His father was Louis XIII, the feckless and foppish king from Dumas’ The Three Musketeers; his mother was Anne of Austria, the Spanish princess whose honor the Musketeers and d’Artagnan were trying to protect/save (despite the fact, of course, that covering up the Queen’s adulterous affair with the Duke of Buckingham, the nation’s biggest enemy, was actually treason). His younger brother was Phillippe, duc d’Orleans; from whom most of Europe’s royal houses are descended. Louis XIV was the king who said l’etat c’est moi (I am the state), ruled without a chief minister, and centralized all political power in France in the person of the King; making him an absolute monarch and the envy of every other king in Europe who chafed under the rules and restrictions placed upon them by their governing bodies.

He also built the magnificent palace that was (is) Versailles; and because nobles couldn’t be trusted away from court–and also because he didn’t trust Paris, he made it mandatory for the court to live at Versailles, where he could keep his eye on them. It enhanced and centralized his power, but at the same time it planted the seeds for the eventual collapse of the French monarchy. But he built France into the major power all of Europe always had feared it could become; the conspiracies and ambitions of the great nobles had crippled the country for centuries–going back to the Norman conquest, which made the great northern province of Normandy the property of the king of England, setting both countries on the road to centuries of war and hatred.

Louis XIV fought several major wars in his later years, and France lost both, and was greatly weakened by those wars. But one must also take into consideration the fact that it took almost ALL of Europe combined years to defeat France in first the War of the Grand Alliance, followed almost directly by the War of the Spanish Succession. The fact that France was able to rally so quickly after defeat to wage another major war against almost all of Europe is indicative of just how strong and powerful the country became under Louis XIV. (Germany was also divided and squabbling for centuries, but that’s a tale for another time.)

I heard about this series a while ago, and it’s only recently become available in the US. I got it from iTunes.

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The series takes place early in the reign of Louis XIV, shortly after his mother/regent Anne of Austria has died and he has taken control of the reins of government. (No mention of Cardinal Mazarin, though.) Louis’ distrust of his nobility and his capital came from the civil wars known as the Fronde, which took place when he was still in his minority, and were basically a revolt of the nobility–which the backing of the Parisians–against his mother and Cardinal Mazarin’s regency. It was eventually suppressed, but Louis never trusted his nobles again, nor did he ever live in Paris once he started turning his father’s hunting lodge at Versailles into the palace it became.

The show is beautiful. I know some of it was shot on location at Versailles itself, and the palace is breathtaking and awe-inspiring. I cannot imagine how amazing it must be in person. I’ve always wanted to go there, and now I really do.

The costumes! The sets! I love the way men dressed–well, royalty and the nobility, anyway–during this period. (The 1974 version of The Three Musketeers is one of my favorite movies of all time.)

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Stunning.

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And of course, the fountains and the grounds.

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The plot itself isn’t great–it gets off to a very slow start; and Louis XIV, while interesting, isn’t Henry VIII; his life doesn’t quite loan itself to the soapy fun that was The Tudors.

But they did not shy away from his brother Philippe’s sexuality…Monsieur, as he was known, preferred men to women; he had lots of children with his two wives, but he always had a male lover, or “favorite”, as they were called then.

I’m enjoying it, but it may not to be everyone’s tastes.

Let Her In

I often talk about the sixteenth century, primarily in the context of how in that particular century women held major positions of power, or were in positions to not only have an impact on history but did. Constant Reader knows I love me some history–right now I am thoroughly enjoying Versailles and having a bit of a seventeenth century period–but during this past football season, during games, I was rereading a book I first read when I was ten years old: Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots.

Ah, the tragic romantic heroine that is the Queen of Scots! I first discovered her, I think, when I was maybe eight years old when I read Genevieve Foster’s John Smith and His World; and there really wasn’t much about her, as Smith was only alive in the late Elizabethan period. I do remember reading the entry about her execution, and about how her spaniel was hidden inside her skirts as she went to her death–and how when the headsman held up her head, she was wearing a wig, her head fell to the ground, and the whimpering spaniel curled up around it.

How romantic! Almost sounds like the start of a ghost story, doesn’t it? “And ever after, at Fotheringhay Castle, the sound of a whimpering spaniel could be heard on the anniversary of her mistress’ death.”

Hmmmm….

Anyway, the first book I read about Mary Queen of Scots was one I found in the school library (her title always bothered me–shouldn’t it have been Queen of THE Scots?), and it was sanitized for children, and again, highly romantic: Mary was a romantic heroine, doomed by her gender to be treated as a pawn by the men of her court and, of course, her cousin Queen Elizabeth I was the villain of the piece. The 1971 film, with Vanessa Redgrave as Mary and Glenda Jackson (who was AMAZING) as Elizabeth pretty much told the same story; Mary was a romantic heroine and Elizabeth the villain.

It makes for a lovely narrative, and it’s one that is incredibly popular in fiction; the young beautiful Scottish queen who falls in love with and marries her cousin Lord Darnley only to realize it’s a colossal mistake, but then throws everything away because of her deep love for the Earl of Bothwell, winds up imprisoned by her wretched cousin Elizabeth who eventually has her executed. It does make for a lovely story.

Fraser, in her bestselling biography, tried to get to the truth of who Mary was, rather than paying lip-service to the romantic narrative. It is her thesis that Mary was actually much smarter than anyone at the time or since has given her credit for; and that her decisions weren’t emotional but made coolly as political moves in the game of thrones she was playing–and the end goal, of course, was to ascend the throne of England, uniting the entire island into one realm; an ambition her son James finally achieved.

Mary’s life, once she started getting into her marriage entanglements, was the stuff of high drama. She inherited her throne when her father died from wounds inflicted in the Battle of Solway Moss against the English; she was only six days old. She was the third child of King James V and his second, French wife, Marie de Guise; her two older brothers died of fevers while her mother was carrying her. (Inheriting the Scottish throne as children was a sad Stewart family tradition; James V was less than a year old when his own father was killed in battle–again against the English–in the Battle of Flodden Field; Mary herself abdicated in favor of her own son when he was less than a year old; James I was only twelve when he became king; James II was only seven; James III was nine, and James IV fifteen. These minority reigns helped empower the Scottish nobility and prevent the throne from becoming strong, as it did in say England, France and Spain.)

Her royal family was Stewart; her marriage to her cousin Henry Stuart changed the dynasty to the English spelling, which is why the royal family of England was known as the Stuarts, not Stewarts.

Her grandmother was Margaret Tudor, eldest surviving child of Henry VII of England and elder sister of Henry VIII, which is where her claim to the English throne came from. Until the birth of Edward VI to Henry VIII’s third wife in 1537, James was the only male heir to England. The marriage of Edward VI to young Mary was probably the wisest move, uniting the two crowns and ending centuries of strife between the two kingdoms, but Marie de Guise, Mary’s mother, was French and instead sent her infant daughter to the French court, where she was engaged to the Dauphin. The Tudor direct line ended with Henry VIII’s children, who were all childless; the death of Edward VI in 1553 brought the Catholic Mary to the throne. Once Mary died in 1558, Elizabeth became queen; but Catholics didn’t recognize Elizabeth’s legitimacy–Henry’s marriage to her mother Anne Boleyn was bigamous in the eyes of the Catholic Church and so therefore Elizabeth was a bastard. The nearest legitimate heir, in their eyes, was the young Queen of Scots–who was married to the heir to the French throne and a Catholic.

Obviously, the thought of those three crowns being united was a threat to both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, so they recognized Elizabeth. A year later Mary and her husband were King and Queen of France–a year later Mary was a childless widow returning to Scotland. Elizabeth never forgave her for claiming herself to be queen of England; and the game of thrones was on.

Four years after her return, Mary married her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. This is where it gets complicated. Margaret Tudor, Mary’s grandmother, only had one child with James IV; after he died she married again and had a daughter, Margaret Douglas–who had no claim to the Scottish throne but a claim to England as a Tudor. She in turn married Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox–who was a descendant of James I and thus also was an heir to the Scottish throne. Their son Henry thus had claims to both thrones; he married Mary, and their son James would obviously be King of Scotland thru his mother; had a claim through his paternal grandfather, and a claim to the English throne from both his mother AND his father, both of whom were great-grandchildren of Henry VII.

Madness.

Lord Darnley, her husband, and other lords of the court were jealous of her closeness to her Italian secretary, and they murdered him in front of her when she was about six months pregnant. Somehow, later that night, as a prisoner of her husband and lords, Mary convinced her husband to come back to her side and they escaped together, rose an army, and with her loyal lords defeated the conspirators–who included her illegitimate brother. Mary had a son, and then, a few months later, her husband was murdered–the house he was recuperating from an illness in was blown up, but his strangled body was found in the gardens. Mary then married the Earl of Bothwell, who was commander of her armies–it was an incredibly volatile time, the Queen was Catholic and most of her subjects were not–and so it was very easy for public opinion to turn against her; particularly since most people believed Bothwell had murdered her husband so he could marry her.

Was she complicit? The marriage made it appear so–and soon enough her army was defeated, she was a prisoner, and forced to abdicate. She escaped to England, where Elizabeth promptly placed her under house arrest.

George R. R. Martin has nothing on the Queen of Scots.

She was eventually implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth–after being a prisoner for almost twenty years–was tried and found guilty and sentenced to death.

So, was she a wanton adulteress and murderess? Was she a silly woman who allowed her emotions to lead her down the wrong path, or was she a calculating player who wound up being outplayed? Despite her high station, she had a pampered and spoiled childhood, and wasn’t raised or educated to be a regnant Queen; it was always assumed her husband the King of France would rule for her. So the odds were stacked against her from the beginning; and she learned her lessons the hard way; unlike her contemporary, Elizabeth, who spent her childhood and early twenties with the shadow of the executioner across her neck.

Fraser does a great job of defending her thesis; I’ve read many other books about both the royal cousins and the game they played with each other, and I think Fraser probably paints the most accurate picture of the Queen of Scots: a smart woman who played the game against overwhelming odds and lost.

Is there anything so romantic as a lost cause?

One of the biggest disappointments of the CW show Reign was, in order to try to draw in the younger audience, they told the story when she was a young girl in France–probably the most boring part of her life. Her life in Scotland was MUCH more interesting, and would have made for greater television. The best part of Reign was Megan Follows as Queen Catherine de Medici of France–one of the most fascinating women in history. Apparently, the struggle between the cousin queens became a part of the story in the third season…but Paul and I had bored of the show long before then.

And now back to the spice mines.