Eyes Open

Well, it’s Tuesday and so far, we’re still here.

This time of year is always enervating, to say the least; one always wants to keep a close and careful eye on any and every storm that comes into the Gulf of Mexico, but at the same time it’s very easy to fall prey to panic and fear. It’s never easy, particularly around the anniversary of Katrina (fifteen years ago) and all those memories that entails, and while Marco fortunately fizzled somewhat, making landfall as a mere tropical depression (nothing to be sneezed at, in and of itself), one always has to remember Laura is still out there, and there’s yet another making its way across the Atlantic in our general direction–or at least there was; I’ve not heard a word about the system that will become the N storm, should it become organized.(I just looked for it on-line and can find nothing, so I am assuming it just fizzled out and died, which is, of course, good news for now). We’re going to be on the wet side of Laura, should she not continue tacking to the west, so we need to be braced for that, too.

I rewatched Jaws yesterday for the first time since the summer of 1975, when we went to see it in the theater after church (we often went to see matinees after church on Sundays; kind of like a treat of sorts. Now that I think about it, I wonder if it was a bribe to get us not to complain about going to church in the first place? Ironically, I didn’t mind going to church once I’d met some of the other kids and got active in the Youth Group–how things have changed, eh?). The theater was so crowded the usher actually had to find us seats, and the only three together (Dad didn’t go to church with us) were in the center front row. IMAGINE watching Jaws on the big screen in the front row! It’s actually a very well-made movie, and it still holds up after all these years; it didn’t scare me at all the way it did that first time because, of course, I still remembered all the jump scares and all the shark attacks–which clearly means the movie had made an impression on me. I had already read the book before we went to see the film; and the changes made to the movie from the story of the book–Mrs. Brody didn’t have an affair with the oceanographer in the movie and the ending was different–actually improved the story; the ending of the book wouldn’t have played in the movie (the shark finally dies as its coming in for a final attack on Sheriff Brody–just stops moving and disappears into the depths, and he swims for shore) and I also liked that the oceanographer didn’t die in the movie (the shark kills him when he’s in the cage; Brody is conflicted about this because he knew his wife was fucking the kid), but the end of the movie is kind of anticlimactic. But Jaws was the movie that changed everything: it was the first summer blockbuster, which changed Hollywood and how movies are released; it started out national obsession with sharks–there would be no “Shark Week” without Jaws; it turned Stephen Spielberg from a nobody into an A-list director; and–this is just a theory–set the stage for the revival of horror films that was to come in a few years, with Halloween and Friday the 13th, because above all else that Jaws was, it was a monster movie that scared people. I bought a copy of the book a few years ago–I think the fortieth anniversary edition of it–and have always meant to get around to rereading it; I still haven’t.

Jaws was also a bestseller, and it also set the stage for the huge hit the movie was, and the success of the movie also brought the book back to the bestseller lists. Peter Benchley, who’d written a non-fiction book about the sea already, became a bankable author–his next novel, The Deep, which I would argue is a better book than Jaws, was an instant bestseller and of course became a huge hit film–but the movie wasn’t as good as the movie of Jaws, and the success of the film was largely driven by the images of Jacqueline Bisset in a wet T-shirt, her nipples clearly visible (I could be wrong, but those images might have started the wet T-shirt craze as well; who knows?), and I’d always meant to reread The Deep  as well. When I was acquiring Benchley novels, triggered by the anniversary of Jaws, I also got some of his other, later books–also successful, not to the level of the earlier books, which include The Island (which I liked) and The Girl of the Sea of Cortez, which is probably his best, and definitely the most literary, of his books.

Today all of our appointments were canceled, just in case, so it’s another work-at-home day for me; I do have to run over to the office to restock my condom packing supplies as well as drop off the boxes I made yesterday, and I am not really sure what movies I want to watch today. After I finished working yesterday I managed to get another chapter done in Bury Me in Shadows, which was pleasing, Ironically, I found myself doing precisely the thing I described yesterday–revising and editing without looking at the hard copy pages, only to remember and discover that I had input the changes exactly as detailed in the notes–but am also getting a little worried that I am not remembering things and am making continuity errors; so to ease that worry I’m probably going to sit down and reread the first five chapters again before I started on Chapter Six tonight–which means I probably won’t have time to read Lovecraft Country tonight, alas. I’m also planning on making dinner tonight–it’s been a hot minute, believe me–and so my time this evening will be very limited, sadly.

We also started watching the documentary series The Vow, currently airing on HBO MAX last night, and it’s absolutely fascinating. This first episode was all about the people who are telling the story of the documentary getting involved in NXIVM, and I have to say, listening to the leaders and their conversations about working on yourself and being honest with yourself and realizing your own potential and that you often set up your own roadblocks–I was frankly thinking there’s something to this and was thinking about the ways I often roadblock and self-defeat myself. Of course, it’s really just another “power of positive thinking/reaffirmations” thing, and there really is something to that methodology; of believing in yourself and having the confidence to really chase your dreams, and how so often the self-destruct mechanisms we all seem to have inevitably have something to do with negativity introduced into our psyches by someone else (example: I may not remember his name, but I will never forget that writing professor who told me I had no talent and would never be published, as long as I live), and why do we let those things fester in our minds and allow them to continue to affect us–in this case–some forty years later?

I’m really looking forward to the next episode.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, everyone, and see you tomorrow.

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Mama He’s Crazy

Believe it or not, back before the Internet and social media, it was possible for a book to go viral; to become so popular and so talked about it would sell a gazillion copies and establish the author–usually–as a long-time bestseller. To this day, I don’t know how I became aware of the viral books of the 1970’s (titles like Coma by Robin Cook; Jonathon Livingston Seagull by Richard Back; Jaws by Peter Benchley; The Other by Thomas Tryon; The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty; and The Godfather by Mario Puzo, among others), yet I did become very aware of them, and read most of them (true confession: I never read Jonathon Livingston Seagull, despite being a number one fiction bestseller for two consecutive years).

Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are The Children? was a viral sensation when it was first published in 1975; I read it in paperback, and distinctly remember plucking it off the wire rack in the Emporia Safeway. I started reading it in the car as my mom drove us back home to Americus–the little town seven miles or so northwest of Emporia, where we lived; population less than a thousand, and the only time I’ve ever lived in such a small town–and couldn’t stop reading. I helped her bring the groceries in, went to my bedroom, and piled the pillows up and went back to reading.

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He could feel the chill coming through the cracks around the windowpanes. Clumsily he got up and lumbered over to the window. Reaching for one of the thick towels he kept handy, he stuffed it around the rotting frame.

The incoming draft made a soft, hissing sound in the towel, a sound that vaguely pleased him. He looked out at the mist-filled sky and studied the whitecaps churning in the water. From this side of the house it was often possible to see Provincetown, on the opposite side of Cape Cod Bay.

He hated the Cape. He hated the bleakness of it on a November day like this; the stark grayness of the water; the stolid people who didn’t say much but studied you with their eyes. He had hated it the one summer he’d been here–waves of tourists sprawling on the beaches; climbing up the steep embankment to this house; gawking in the downstairs windows, cupping their hands over their eyes to peer inside.

He hated the large FOR SALE sign that Ray Eldredge has posted on the front and back of the big house and the fact that now Ray and the woman who worked for him had begun bringing people in to see the house. Last month it has been only a matter of luck that he’d come along as they’d started through; only lyck that hed gotten to the top floor before they had and been able to put away the telescope.

Time was running out. Somebody would buy this house and he wouldn’t be able to rent it again. That was why he’d sent the article to the paper. He wanted to still be here to enjoy seeing her exposed for what she was in front of these people…now, when she must have started to feel safe.

I bought another copy of Where Are The Children? in 2014; my original copy lost years ago to one of many moves, intending to go back and rereading it at some point. The importance of Mary Higgins Clark, not just to women crime writers but to the genre in general, cannot ever be overstated. Clark was the bridge between the domestic suspense masters of the past–Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, Dorothy B. Hughes, among many others–and the next generation of women crime writers that dawned in the 1980’s, as well as to the modern domestic suspense writers–women like Alison Gaylin, Lori Rader-Day,  Catriona McPherson, and Wendy Corsi Staub, among many others–and her example–of grace, generosity, kindness, and assistance–is one other writers should emulate.

We could all use more Mary Higgins Clarks in the world.

Anyway, because of this importance, I thought I should reread her first as an homage to her importance; I’d recently met her, in passing, and was shocked when I ran into her again a year later that she remembered my name and the short conversation we’d had as I’d helped her onto the escalator at the Grand Hyatt in New York; I, of course, remembered every word and that glowing smile she’d given me. There was little doubt in my mind she wouldn’t remember me; how many thousands of people had passed briefly through her life? But she was sharp as a tack, and remembered me. “Greg! I was hoping you’d be here if I needed help with the escalator again,” she said, holding our her hand to me with that thousand-watt smile of hers. Then she winked, “I’ll be looking for you later. How did that book you were writing turn out?” When I told her I’d worked out the problem (yes, as I helped her onto the escalator and chatted briefly, I somehow managed to tell her that one of the many reasons I admired her was her dedication to working hard, and asked if she ever got stuck–because I was stuck on my WIP. She laughed and said, “Work through it. That’s the only way.” She was right.) and the book was coming out that very month, she replied, “I look forward to reading it.”

I seriously doubt that she did, frankly–but it was an incredibly kind and generous thing to say to someone many many rungs on the ladder beneath her, if we can even be said to be on the same ladder.

Her recent death obviously saddened many, me amongst them. So I decided to memorialize her by rereading her first and most famous bestseller, Where Are The Children? 

And really, it was past time, wasn’t it?

Upon finishing my reread, I would say that Clark was most like Charlotte Armstrong, of the women who came before her; she wrote about, like Armstrong, normal every day women who were simply minding their own business when something evil came across their path, and they had to dig deep inside and discover their own strength to overcome it.

In Where Are The Children?, Clark came up with a devilishly clever plot about one of the worst things that could ever happen to a woman: the loss of her children. Nancy Harmon, now Nancy Eldredge, married one of her college professors and had two children by him, only to have them snatched away and murdered. Their bodies were found washed ashore, their heads taped inside plastic bags; dead before they went into the water. Nancy was tried for their murders, convicted–and then released on appeal due to a technicality. The disappearance of the prime witness against her made retrying her impractical; so she changed her hair and disappeared from San Francisco to Cape Cod, where she found and married a realtor and had two more children–where no one knows who she is. (This would, of course, be impossible–or incredibly difficult–today; with the Internet and 24 hour news, everyone in the country would recognize her, different hair color or no.) Nancy is still haunted by her past, most of which she has buried in her subconscious–but little does she realize her idyllic new life is about to upended: on the same day the local paper runs an article exposing her past, her two children, Michael and Missy, disappear yet again; and of course, it looks like she has killed yet another set of her children.

But what Clark does is let the reader know immediately that Nancy is not only innocent of killing this set of children, but the first set as well. The book opens, as seen above, with a chapter in the point of view of the villain of the story; she does this consistently throughout the book–we see the events from other points of views, other than just Nancy’s and the villain’s, which also helps the suspense build and keeps the reader turning the page.

Also, it should be noted that the entire timeline of the book is less than one day, and probably not even ten hours; the children disappear around ten in the morning and the climax of the book happens after nightfall. Also, the book takes place during a particularly nasty thunderstorm, which includes hail.

Another excellent way she builds suspense is bringing in minor characters on the periphery of the story, puts a scene in their point of view, and of course it turns out that each one of these minor characters holds another, crucial piece of the puzzle.

Where Are The Children? is a subversive novel in many ways, and it’s easy to see how it became a phenomenon, and why Clark won the hearts of millions of readers. She plays with the tropes of what it means to be a mother; how quickly we blame mothers for anything that happens to their children or how they behave; and how quickly the admiration for motherhood can turn to contempt and scorn–and how easy that turn is made.

It can also be seen as a sequel, of sorts, to those Gothic novels where a child is endangered and the heroine has to act to save the child; this was a well Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt drew from, many many times. Instead of trying to save the child, in this case this is the aftermath of what happened should the mother (or young governess, whomever the heroine was) not have succeeded the first time in saving the children–but has a chance at redemption by finding and saving the second set of children.

It reminded me somewhat of Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief, which is also long overdue for a revisit.

And now, back to the spice mines.

He’ll Have to Go

Saturday morning, and I slept in until nearly eight thirty! Living large here, I have to say.

Yesterday was one of those days; the temperature dropped, as you may recall, and once again when turning on the heat Thursday night, it didn’t really come on–it did, but it never truly got warm in the Lost Apartment, either upstairs or down. So, I wound up having to stay home from work to wait for the HVAC guys, who actually arrived dutifully when they said they would (this is so rare as to merit mention), and worked on it for a while. They did eventually leave, and I went to the gym and ran my errands.  I don’t know if the heat is actually fixed or not; we didn’t need it last night anywhere other than the kitchen, and I have a space heater for in there (it never warms up in the kitchen, ever) but I did manage to get a lot of cleaning and organizing done. I also managed to start watching the film of The Talented Mr. Ripley on the iPad yesterday at the gym (the Anthony Minghella version) and it veers away from the book’s narrative much more than I ever had supposed; the character of Meredith (played by Cate Blanchett) doesn’t exist in the book, nor does the entire subplot about Dickie’s affair with the village girl in Mongibello. But the one thing I will say about this film–and the thirty or so minutes of it I watched–Matt Damon is exceptionally great in the role of Tom; far more so than Jude Law as Dickie (he was nominated for an Oscar; the film made him a star), and this just might be one of Damon’s best performances.

Paul, I believe, is off to the office later today, and has plans with friends to go watch Krewe de Vieux tonight; I intend to stay home and work on the Secret Project, get my taxes together and sent off to the accountant, and emails to answer. There’s also organizing and filing to do, and I need to do the floors; I always leave the floors for Saturday vacuuming. Paul’s absence also gives me no excuse for not reading and writing for most of the day; around the cleaning, at any rate–and I am actually looking forward to getting a lot of both done today.

I’m still reading Tracy Clark’s Broken Places, which is really good, and in fact, once I finish writing this I am most likely going to  head over to the easy chair and spend a few hours with it this morning before moving on to the Secret Project. I am also really enjoying Jason Berry’s City of a Million Dreams, which I am not very far into, but I feel confident in recommending just based on the introduction and part of the first chapter. I’ve not read Berry before–he’s local, and has written quite a few books, including taking the Archdiocese to task for covering up the sexual abuse of children–but I am impressed enough to start adding his canon to my TBR list. We started watching Avenue 5, which was much funnier than I thought it would be–and Hugh Laurie is terrific as the captain; the entire cast is actually quite good. We’re probably going to also start watching The Outsider on HBO, which presents a conundrum for me; I generally like to read the book while I am watching the TV series based on it (I did this with Big Little Lies, and found it to be incredibly enjoyable; I’ve not read the King yet, but once I am done with the Clark, I am definitely going to pull The Outsider down from the shelf and give it a go)., but I guess pulling down The Outsider and moving it up to the top of the TBR list won’t hurt anyone or anything.

Parades also start this coming Friday on the St. Charles Avenue route; the challenge is going to be continuing to write and go to the gym around my job and the parades; parade watching is always a blast–it will probably never get old for me–but it’s also exhausting and keeps me up later at night than I probably need to be awake, given how early I will have to get up the following mornings.

It’s also lovely to wake up and sit at my desk and glance around and see clean, clear counters and a sink that is primarily empty of dirty dishes. There’s a load in the dishwasher that needs to be put away, and a load of laundry in the dryer that also neede to be fluffed and folded, but like I said, other than that and the floors (and these stacks of file folders and scribbled notes scattered around my desk), there’s no cleaning to be done this morning. My muscles are tired this morning from the gym yesterday, but I’m not sore, and I feel more stretched than I usually do, which also actually feels good–I may just stretch out a bit a little later; I’d forgotten how good it feels to have stretched muscles as opposed to tight ones.

So, that’s the plan for today, at any rate. I’m going to go pour yet another cup of coffee, take my book and repair to the easy chair; after that, it’s back to the desk to do some writing and answer some emails (I never actually send them until Monday morning; emails beget emails, and I’d rather not wake up Monday morning at the crack of dawn with an insane amount of emails to answer; it’s too, too daunting to deal with on a twelve hour day).

I was also thinking the other day–thanks to a post by someone on Facebook–about books that should be paired together, like a good wine and some good cheese; how reading the two back-to-back can enhance the reading pleasure of both. Michael Koryta’s The Prophet (which is one of my favorite books), for example, pairs beautifully with Megan Abbott’s Dare Me (and you need to be watching the television adaptation of Dare Me); Alafair Burke recommends pairing Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and there was one more I can’t quite remember, but it was also quite brilliant. (I also think pairing Stephen King’s Carrie and Christine together enhances the pleasure of reading each even more.)

I was also thinking about “event” books; Gone Girl was probably the most recent “event” book–a book that sold a gazillion copies and everyone was talking about. There have always been “event books”, which in the pre-Internet, pre-social media days was harder to have happen, and yet it did, all the time. Two such books from the 70’s include Thomas Tryon’s The Other and Peter Benchley’s Jaws; the fame of Jaws was spread even further by an event film based on it that has almost entirely eclipsed the book. Robin Cook’s Coma was another one of these; I intend to include The Other in my Reread Project this year, but rather than Jaws I am going to reread Benchley’s second novel, The Deep, and Cook’s second novel, Sphinx–which was Cook’s only non-medical thriller thriller.

And on that note, I am going to repair to the easy chair with my coffee and Tracy Clark. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader; I certainly intend to.

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Sara

Sunday morning, and the time change has me bleary-eyed and irritated. I hate losing an hour, absolutely hate it, and would gladly give up that extra hour of sleep in the fall that makes up for it being taken away now. It’s always disorienting, and it’s been hard enough recovering from the one-two-three punch of the Great Data Disaster of 2018 followed by the weeks of Carnival followed  by the Laptop Death of 2019. Seriously, I am so not in the mood for this.

But I suppose it’s a sign that spring is on its way, with the blasting heat of the summer right behind. I need to get caught up on my homework for the panel I’m moderating–I did have a lovely experience yesterday at the car wash while reading Alafair Burke’s The Better Sister while I waited for them to finish cleaning my car. I spent most of yesterday being a trifle on the lazy side; I was worn out and the rest was kind of necessary, although I probably should have read more. I did do the laundry, ran the errands that needed running, and wound up back home extremely worn out, and made the perhaps not good decision to simply relax and rest for the rest of the day rather than doing anything constructive.

I watched American Graffiti again Friday night for the first time in decades; it’s available on Starz, and as I scrolled through the available options I thought why not? The movie itself, which was a huge deal when released, made a fortune, and got a number of Oscar nominations (including best picture), was one I remembered a bit fondly, and in all the hubbub of George Lucas/Star Wars, people tend to forget American Graffiti was the hit movie  that actually made him, and made Star Wars financing a possibility in the first place. I think he was even nominated for best director? I don’t recall. But American Graffiti was notable to me as a young teenager because it triggered a nostalgia wave for the 1950’s at the time; the soundtrack was hugely successful, and anthology albums of hits from the 1950’s became all the rage. (The irony that the film was actually set in 1962 was lost on everyone.) It’s actually kind of a dark film, really; while it reintroduced Chinese fire drills and cruising and sock hops and the music of the period to teenagers (the Beach Boys also came back to prominence; their double album greatest hits compilation Endless Summer was released during this nostalgia craze) rewatching the film now, the darkness is plain to see. Vietnam is on the horizon, and the ‘innocence’ of these teens, on the brink of adulthood, isn’t all that innocent, really. There wasn’t really a cohesive plot; it was just a mishmash of interconnected characters with their own stories sometimes bisecting others–very Robert Altman-esque in that way.

And as I said earlier, it did lead to a 50’s nostalgia craze, which eventually led to shows like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, which also wound up starring Ron Howard and Cindy Williams, as the film did. Richard Dreyfuss also has a lead, and this was before Jaws and his Oscar for The Goodbye Girl and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The movie kind of launched quite a few careers. It was also one of the first “teen movies” to be quite so dark, a big change from the silliness of the Disney films for teens at the time or the beach movies of the 60’s. An argument could, in fact, be made that American Graffiti set the stage for the 1980’s teen movies that redefined the genre.

I’ve also always kind of thought that the kids from Graffiti who went off to college became the adults in The Big Chill, but that’s just me. (There was a sequel, More American Graffiti, that was made in 1979, but the less said about that the better.)

I also rewatched Play Misty for Me, which is also available on Starz. Play Misty for Me was the original Fatal Attraction, also was Clint Eastwood’s first film as a director (he also starred), and scared the crap out of me when I was a kid; we saw it as a family at the drive-in, part of a triple feature with another Eastwood film, High Plains Drifter (which I think is his best Western), and a really bad low-budget movie starring country singer Marty Robbins called Guns of a Stranger–which was so laughably bad it became kind of a benchmark/joke for my family for years. I’ve never seen Play Misty for Me again, and so was curious; I remember Jessica Walters played Evelyn Draper, the “Alex Forrest” of the movie, and was absolutely terrifying as the psycho woman obsessed with Clint Eastwood’s Carmel deejay (I also recognized a lot of the locations as the same ones used for Big Little Lies). It doesn’t hold up as well on a rewatch some forty years later, alas; it has a lot of “first director-itis”, and kind of has a “made for TV” feel to it, but it was a pretty adequate little thriller, and was groundbreaking in its way–it was really the first movie to deal with a stalker situation.

I seem to have also developed some kind of a strain in my right calf muscle; I’m not sure what that’s all about, but it’s not incredibly painful or anything; but I am always aware of it when I’m walking. Crazy.

So, I have lots of plans for today now that my coffee is starting to kick in; I’m looking forward to doing some cleaning today, writing some, and of course, reading. Alafair Burke’s The Better Sister is quite good, and I can’t wait to get caught up in it later today when I finish my chores and to-do list.

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

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