Out of My Head and Back in My Bed

We are all unreliable narrators of our own lives.

Probably one of the most interesting things–to me–about getting older is discovering for myself how differently I remember things in my past than other people do.  I used to think about writing personal essays–“I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet” is probably the best one I’ve ever done, and one of the few that have ever been published–because I love them, and the way some of my favorite writers can produce the most insightful and touching ones. But then I always have that doubtful voice in the back of my head–who cares about your personal experiences? Why do you think your insights are more valuable than anyone else’s? Who would be the audience for these?–and you know, FUCK that voice. I fucking hate that voice, and it’s always there, whispering, not sweet nothings, but vicious you’re nothing’s in my head.

And for the record, I’m pretty damned proud of “I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet.”

But perhaps the worst part of that snide, hateful voice is that it’s always there, you know? When I think to myself, hey, you should write a personal essay about this and then…yeah. My friend Laura, whose amazing personal essay collection My Life as a Villainess will drop soon–buy it buy it buy it–and I were talking about this very thing once over drinks (always over drinks) several years ago; I was telling her how much I loved her essays and that I wished I could write personal essays, with my usual “I can’t do anything” default, and she replied, “You write one every day. What do you think your blog is?”

Touche, as it were.

But….I can never seem to silence that voice.

Another reason why I back away from writing personal essays or the occasional thought that I might want to write a memoir–or a lengthy series of personal essays about my life which can then be stitched together into a memoir–is because my memory is so faulty, and the older I get, I find–when checking actual facts against my memory–inevitably I remembered wrong. For years, I believed we left the city of Chicago for the suburbs in the winter of 1969; why that winter, I don’t know–even though intellectually, after thinking about it some more, I realized my memories were lying to me. I was ten when we moved, I turned ten in 1971, so we moved in the winter of 1971–and we only lived there for four and a half years–which seemed so much longer than it actually was! Just as how I thought, after Katrina, I’d sheltered at my parents’ for months, when it was actually just a little over two weeks. I was only gone from New Orleans for about six weeks in total, actually; it seemed like I was gone for an eternity. My memory lies to me, all the time.

And how I remember things is different from how other people remember the same things. I think we tend to make ourselves the heroes in the story of our own lives, and so we rewrite our histories a little, so we look better than we actually were. Our memories are also seen through the haze of our collective other experiences, emotions, and perceptions; I might remember someone as being distant and cold, why they remember the encounter as two strangers being polite to one another. I used to think my first impressions of people were always the correct ones and evidence of my remarkable perception; but that is also demonstrably false. After all, once you’ve closed your mind to someone it’s terribly easy to interpret their behavior and the things they say through the filter of that initial observation, thereby turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve taken to not entirely trusting my first impressions of people the older I’ve gotten, and people who put me off when we first met have turned out to be lovely; and lovely people I instantly liked have turned out to be horrible.

So, how could I trust my memories enough to write them down?  Joan Didion said we tell ourselves stories in order to live, but I think we tell ourselves lies in order to live with ourselves is actually a more accurate statement.

So, what is real and true in our pasts? How does one examine the truth of your own memories?

I am regularly amazed at the lies I tell myself about my past, and how I’ve told myself those lies so many times that I’ve become convinced they are truth. How can I ever write any kind of memoir when I already don’t trust my memories–all of which I would have been willing to swear at some point were honest-to-God truths?

This blog is, in some ways, a remembrance project for me; to remember events in my life, and career, and how things actually were. I kept a diary for years–I still carry a journal around with me, but I don’t record my thoughts and feelings in it; it’s mostly for ideas about books I’m reading or movies I’m watching or for working through issues with things I’m writing or for writing down ideas for stories or books or essays; hoarder Greg has kept most of those journals from the days before blogging, when I used to record things down in a book so I could process emotions and anger and other things I was going to do; to talk about my dreams and my ambitions; as a way to escape whatever misery was going on in my life. I rarely revisit them; perhaps some weekend when I am bored and don’t want to write I should start going through them again–but in all honesty, the self-absorption can be a bit much to take.

I also don’t like to revisit my past that much, which is yet another reason for me not to write a memoir. I wasn’t a person I liked very much until I was in my mid-thirties, and even then I was still a work in progress. My friend Jeffrey Ricker said to me the other day on Twitter: “I always forget you weren’t born full formed in New Orleans, like Athena from Zeus’ forehead.” A lot of it had to do with being miserably unhappy with my life, of just kind of drifting, of having no self-confidence (I may have issues with that still–particularly when it comes to my writing–but it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be, so I have made progress; I don’t let it ruin my life anymore, which is a good way to go), and not having the slightest idea of how to go about making my dreams come true. I always wrote–I wrote short stories in high school, I wrote a novel while in college, and then wrote three more, and of course was writing short stories the entire time–but it was very easy to give up after getting some rejections; to assume that becoming a publisher writer was something outside of my particular skillset, and to just give up and go back to being miserable. There’s really nothing from that period of my life I think would even be interesting enough to write about.

So, I generally shy away from the idea of writing a memoir, despite the enormous temptation. I don’t remember things the way they actually happened, but rather, how they happened through the prism and fun-house mirrors of my own mind. Whenever we tell stories about ourselves, we inevitably make ourselves sound better than we may have actually beenLook at the carefully curated lives we see of friends and acquaintances and relatives on social media.

My blog served me well for remembering things during the Time of Troubles; it actually began as a way to start writing again, of making myself sit down and write something every day. It has evolved over the years into something else, something different; I’m not even really sure how to classify it. I talk about television shows and movies and books I enjoy; I talk about my day to day life and experiences; the way I view things and my hopes and dreams, and my struggles with my writing. It is, of course, much more carefully curated now than it was in the beginning–more lies of omission, I suppose, is how it would best be described. It’s now a habit; on those rare days when I don’t have the time, or can’t find the time, to write an entry it bothers me all day–in fact, it’s been awhile since I have missed a day, and usually it’s because I’m out of town.

I guess this entry counts as a personal essay, doesn’t it?

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All I Want for Christmas

Joan Didion once wrote “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” in her title essay in the collection The White Album. 

I have grown to love and appreciate Didion’s work over the last couple of years, but I’ve always puzzled over that particular quote. The full quote is “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Often that first sentence is taken from its original context and used as a stand-alone quote; my first thought on seeing it somewhere (without having read Didion) was, yes, this is true. This is why our memories of the same event are all different; we interpret and remember that event through the prism of our personal experience and therefore it is colored by who we are as a people; we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives.

This is one of many reasons I am hesitant to even attempt to write personal essays or a memoir; my memory lies to me all the time. It was only recently that I realized, for example, that my recollection of when we moved from Chicago to the suburbs was in 1969; I’ve always believed that, but recently remembered wait, I was ten when we moved; I turned ten in 1971 and sure enough, looking at the dates on some old pictures, yup, it was December 1971 when we left the city for the burbs…so writing personal essays, or a memoir, would require me to research and fact check my own life.

Which would be bizarre, to say the least.

So, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. Christmas is sort of like that, isn’t it? All of these Christmas stories, all these myths…all these stories and traditions that have absolutely nothing to do with what the actual holiday means and was originally intended to be; it’s also kind of amusing to me that something that theoretically began as a Christian religious holiday has been so thoroughly secularized; and at the very least, the majority of Christmas “traditions” are heavily Catholic; so much so that in the early days of the Reformation Protestants didn’t celebrate Christmas (or Easter); some still don’t to this very day. Santa Claus is derived from St. Nicholas; so evangelical children who are taught about Santa Claus are actually celebrating Catholicism–which is why I am always amused by the bumper stickers and billboards stating “Keep the Christ in Christmas.”

Um, there’s no Rudolph or Frosty or Santa Claus or reindeer in the New Testament, so telling your children those stories, or letting them watch the specials or movies, or making that a part of their Christmas isn’t keeping the Christ in Christmas; if anything, it’s helping take the Christ out of Christmas. (And Christmas is a contraction of Christ Mass, so again, Catholic in the first place.) What do lights and a Christmas tree or any of that have to do with the birth of Jesus?

NOTHING

Most Christmas stories–novels or film or television–inevitably are predicated on a belief in Christianity; the stories always boil down to having faith in the unseen and having that faith reaffirmed, or developing that faith. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol probably did the most in popularizing and secularizing Christmas; it’s a morality tale which everyone knows by heart–how many fucking adaptations of that classic story have their been? (I think the first one I saw was with Mr. Magoo.) But it’s a ghost story–ghost stories have always been a part of Christmas, for some reason; the Holy Ghost, perhaps?–and it’s a classic story, even if repetition has made it cliche and tired. It’s also a compelling psychological breakdown of a desperately unhappy man, who takes out his misery on everyone else around him and doesn’t celebrate, or enjoy, Christmas; the ghosts of his past Christmases show him how he became the man he is today–and his future. It has been adapted so many times–even It’s A Wonderful Life is a variation on the story–that is, as I said, the hoariest of all the Christmas cliches; I think the vast majority of sitcoms when I was a child would always, inevitably, do a take on the story for a Christmas episode, to the point that I would cringe when it opened. I read the actual story about twenty years ago, and I was quite surprised to see the changes that were made to it in order to film it…changes that were incorporated into every version filmed ever since. (Bob Cratchit wasn’t Scrooge’s family in the original story; just an employee. Scrooge’s nephew is never in the story, except at the end when Scrooge joins his nephew’s family, not the Cratchits, for the holiday feast.)

But none of these traditional stories, as I’ve mentioned, center queer people–or even include them. A queer version of A Christmas Carol has probably been done by someone–I don’t keep up with queer publishing outside of mysteries the way I used to–but it would be incredibly difficult to do it well; making Scrooge a gay man wouldn’t be enough of a change to make it fresh and new…although the nineteenth century trope of the “broken hearted man who vowed to never love again and thus died a confirmed bachelor” has always read as code for “big old homo” to me (hello, James Buchanan?) because it is incredibly difficult for me to believe that a man of any time would go his entire life without having any sexual experience; although I suppose they wouldn’t have recorded “So instead of a loving marriage, Buchanan spent the rest of his life using prostitutes for his needs.”

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines.

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Bridge over Troubled Water

Looks like we made it, Constant Reader; through another week of trials and tribulations and who knows what all, quite frankly. I woke up at six, but stayed in bed until just before eight, and feel obscenely well-rested, not tired at all; maybe a bit of a sleep hangover, but other than that, in tip-top shape for this lovely weekend. There’s condensation all over the windows around my workspace this morning; I suspect it rained over night and the air out there is probably warm and thick with water. It’s also not cold inside, which is a tip-off that it’s probably a lovely day outside. Paul is going to go into the office at some point today; I intend to go run some errands later as well as get some serious writing done. Conference championship football games are on television all day, but I really don’t care who wins any of them, if I’m going to be completely honest. The kitchen seems scattered and messy today, so does the living room, and of course, Paul is leaving for his winter visit to his family on this coming Wednesday, so I will have almost a full week of alone time.

I am, for December 1, disgustingly behind on everything; from Bury Me in Satin, stalled at Chapter Six, to finishing touches on both the Scotty book and the short story collection. I also need to proof read Jackson Square Jazz at some point so that can finally be available as an ebook; it never seems to end, does it? But I did somehow manage to tear through my to-do list this past week (other than anything writing/editing related that was on it) and I think now, finally, the day job is finally going to settle into a kind of routine schedule. I also picked up Bibliomysteries Volume I, edited by Otto Penzler, at the library yesterday, so I have a wealth of short stories to read. (I also still have all the volumes of anthologies and single author collections I was reading earlier in the year on the mantel in the living room; I should probably get back to those at some point as well.) I am probably going to keep The Short Story Project rolling into the new year; I do love short stories, and I keep finding more unread collections on my bookshelves.

I got some books in the mail yesterday; the two most recent Donna Andrews Meg Langslows, Toucan Keep a Secret and Lark! The Herald Angels Sing (which I wish I could read over the Christmas holidays; I love reading Donna’s Christmas books during the season but I doubt I’ll have time to read Toucan first; and yes, I have to read them in order DON’T JUDGE ME); two novels by Joan Didion, Democracy and The Last Thing He Wanted; two books by Robert Tallant, one fiction (The Voodoo Queen, an undoubtedly error-riddled and racist biographical novel about Marie Laveau) and one nonfiction (Ready to Hang: Seven Famous New Orleans Murders); the next volume of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, A Clash of Kings; and Hester Young’s follow-up to The Gates of Evangeline, The Shimmering Road. 

So, yes, my plate is rather full this weekend–but I shall also have plenty to do while Paul is gone. I am also thinking about buying the third and final season of Versailles on iTunes to watch. I will probably make an enormous list of all the things I want to get done while Paul is in Illinois and wind up doing none of them.

Heavy heaving sigh.

I also need to figure out his Christmas presents while he’s gone, so I can get them and have them all wrapped before he gets home.

And so now, ’tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

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Keep on Walkin’

I’ve never really thought I could write personal essays (or non-fiction, for that matter). They never held much appeal to me, as either a reader or as a writer.

A lot of this has to do with my checkered educational history; for someone who aspired to be a writer, it now amazes me how many college professors desperately tried to stomp that aspiration out of me–yet at the same time, it enormously pleases me that I proved them all WRONG. When I first started college, the week before my seventeenth birthday, my basic English Comp class required us to spend the first day writing an essay, predicated around the question you are going to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island, what three people and three things would you take with you, and why? I don’t remember what I wrote; I know one of the people was Stephen King so he could keep writing books to entertain me. But the end result of that essay was me being moved from Basic Comp to Honors English. This was not only a surprise but exciting; whomever that professor was, he recognized my ability! 

Honors English, however, turned out to be a horrific nightmare…as did all of my experiences with the English department of that particular college. My new professor–whom I shall never forget, like I shall never forget my first creative writing professor at that benighted plague of a university–was, quite frankly, a moron. There were only twelve of us in the class; she advised us on the very first day that she never gave A’s because that left no room for improvement. I was not an Honors student, so this didn’t phase me, but it caused a lot of discomfort in my extremely-driven-by-GPA classmates. And she stuck to that; none of us ever got an A on any of our essays or papers, and she certainly didn’t teach us anything. My essays were shredded by her on a regular basis; she also liked to proclaim that we would never get so honest an opinion on our writing as we got from her, and even as a naive teenager, I sensed that she took malicious pleasure in being as nasty as she could with our work. We never got anything productive or useful from her; no editorial guidance whatsoever; just nasty condescending commentary in red ink on our papers. That, coupled with a kinder yet equally unhelpful professor in the second semester of Honors English Comp, convinced me that I would never be able to write non-fiction; that writing essays and personal essays were a skill set I neither possessed, nor could learn.

Thanks for that, bitches.

And when you factor in the creative writing professor the next semester who told me I’d never publish…well, you can see why I became absolutely disinterested in college and it just became something else I had to endure and get through.

So, as I grew older and evolved and continued reading and pursuing from time to time my desire to write, I avoided nonfiction and essays. I was never going to write them, I wasn’t any good at them, so why bother? This negative perception continued throughout my life until a friend told me, several years ago, that you write a personal essay on your blog every day. I’d even written and published some, yet I still had that wall up in my mind: I’m not smart enough. I’m not clever enough. Anything I have to say has already been said better by someone else. Anything point I’d try to make would get the response “well, duh, LOSER.”

I started reading Joan Didion last year, beginning with her book Miami, and suddenly, began to see essays in an entirely new light.

This is a book about books. To try that again, it is a book about my fatal flaw: that I insist on learning everything from books. I find myself wanting to apologize for my book’s title, which, in addition to embarrassingly taking part in a ubiquitous publishing trend by including the word girls, seems to evince a lurid and cutesy complicity in the very brutality it critiques. If I can say one lame thing in my defense, it is that I wanted to call this book Dead Girls from the moment I realized I was writing it, in the spring of 2014 I wrote an essay on the finale of the first season of True Detective, trying to parse a category of TV I identified as the Dead Girl Show, with Twin Peaks as this genre’s first and still most notable example. People seemed to like that essay, so I understood that Dead Girls was something I could hitch my wagon to.

So begins Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. To be honest, while I greatly enjoyed reading this book, I didn’t find that most of the essays were, in fact, about ‘surviving an American obsession’; I thought this was going to be a lengthy look at how the trope of dead girls runs through, and is repeatedly used, over and over, in all aspects of crime fiction; be it a television show, novels, or films. Bolin instead extrapolates her theme to encompass society as a whole, and I’m not entirely sure she succeeds.

Didion, on the other hand, opens this way:

This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there. The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun; those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is also the title of one piece in the book, and that piece, which derived from some time spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, was for me the more imperative of all these pieces to write and the only one that made me despondent after it was printed. It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder. That was why the piece was so important to me. And after it was printed I saw that, however directly and flatly I thought I had said it, I had failed to get through to many of the people who read and even liked the piece, failed to suggest that I was talking about something more general than a handful of children wearing mandalas on their foreheads. Disc jockeys telephoned my house and wanted to discuss (on the air) the incidence of “filth” in the Haight-Ashbury, and acquaintances congratulated me on finishing the piece “just in time,” because “the whole fad’s dead now, fini, kaput.” I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.

It seems unfair to critique Bolin negatively simply because the book went in a different direction than I thought it would; but I ultimately was disappointed in her collection primarily because I was looking for, I don’t know, a feminist point of view about the misogyny in crime fiction, both written and filmed. That was, actually, my primary carp about her book. I enjoyed it otherwise; Bolin has a dry wit and she wrote about a lot of things from a perspective I hadn’t considered–that of the young millennial female trying to make it in an increasingly hostile world with very little opportunity for young writers to make a living. She also critiques Didion harshly; harsher then perhaps I might have, although I do periodically take some issue with the lens through which Didion sees the world and writes about it–that of a very privileged white woman, whose inability to recognize her own privilege sometimes colors her observations.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the third non-fiction book of Didion’s I’ve read over the last two years; the others being Miami and After Henry. I also read her novel A Book of Common Prayer, which, while bizarre, was also terribly interesting and exceptionally written. Regardless of what one might think of Didion’s privilege and how it might color her lens, the woman is an exceptionally skilled writer. Her sentences are flawlessly constructed, and the rhythm manages to convey an almost world-weariness, a sense of being jaded by what people do. The two books are actually good to read together, because they seem to focus on the same thing, even though written decades apart. Bolin uses the trope of the dead girl to launch into her consideration of a world where young people are disillusioned by the lack of opportunity, where intelligence and talent perhaps do not provide a means of making a living anymore, and how the misogyny of society, as depicted through the dead girl trope, helps stack the deck against young women. Didion’s book looks at the beginning of that erosion, the decay of the mythology of the American dream. Her observations of Haight-Ashbury during the days of the hippies and the flower children, and conversations with the young people who flocked there, is an interesting contrast to the world Bolin is writing about: those young people were disaffected by the box of the American dream, felt trapped by the opportunity their parents were pushing them towards; they didn’t want the white picket fence and the 2.3 children and the dog and the split-level house in the suburbs and the long commute into the city for a 9 to 5 existence. They rejected the American Dream; Bolin’s generation wishes it were even an option to reject.

Were I teaching Freshmen English Comp, these two books would be my required texts for my students. Both books made me think; both books inspired me to write myself and gave me ideas; both writers have depth and perception and skill. I got more than I was expecting from Bolin’s book; I got precisely what I thought I would from Didion’s.

I highly recommend both.

Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad?

Well, it’s Sunday morning and there’s a Saints game today; I will probably ignore it, as my blood pressure and heart can’t really take it, and spend the day continuing to keep my head down and try to plough through all this work I have to get done today.

I got very little done yesterday. I had, despite the good night’s sleep and the good rest I got Friday night, it turned out my batteries were still too low for me to get anything requiring a great deal of thinking and thought done. It’s a shame, and I may not have been wise to spend the day resting and watching television and reading, but it was what my brain and my soul needed. I also refuse to beat myself up for taking me time anymore; I am too old and no longer have the energy and/or wherewithal to work constantly without taking time to refresh and recharge and revisit.

The news of course doesn’t help; the constant sense of outrage and anger at events transpiring in the world every day drains me of a lot of energy. Social media, which used to be a fun way of recharging and seeing what people are up to, has turned into a cesspool of lies, ignorance and weaponized hatred. I refuse to engage with trolls or trollish behavior; my rule of social media has always been if I won’t say it to your face I won’t say it on-line. This, of course, can be intensely problematic because I will say it right to your face. But my energies are best spent elsewhere; hearts and minds cannot be changed or altered through nasty social media battling, and I have neither the patience or energy to waste on lost souls with no capacity for reason or logic or compassion for other human beings.

So, today I am going to get cleaned up, do some chores, and I am going to focus on getting some writing/revising/editing done. I had hoped to be finished with the Scotty revision today, but the end goal of being able to turn it in by November 1 is still a distinct possibility, even by not doing any work on it yesterday. One of my primary concerns, as I may have mentioned, was the fear that I am rushing the revisions on these final chapters in an attempt to get it finished on my self-imposed deadline, and yesterday I also realized that I still have an additional three to four days to get this done by the 1st. There’s no need, absolutely no none, to revise three chapters today when I can actually manage one per day and still finish on time. Stop adding stress and pressure to your life, Gregalicious–it will be done when it is time for it to be done.

I got a copy of Joan Didion’s essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and dived into it some yesterday while football games played in the background (I have to admit I enjoyed watching Georgia do to Florida what LSU did to them; and that untimed play touchdown for the win by Kentucky over Missouri was amazing–definitely going down in Kentucky lore, which is usually about near-misses and coming close. As it happened, I thought to myself, you know, these are situations where Kentucky used to always lose. Maybe there has been a sea-change in the Bluegrass State; we will see what happens when they host Georgia next weekend). Didion is a great stylist; the way she uses words and creates sentences and paragraphs with an eye for a very telling detail is extraordinary. (I have some issues with Didion and the lens through which she sees things, but despite that lens the way she writes is exceptional. If I ever sit down and write about Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls, I will probably address them at that time.) And as with any writer who is truly terrific, reading her words made me think about my own, and gave me some thoughts.

As I said at the time, reading Bolin’s Dead Girls made me start thinking about my own essays; I’ve written quite a few over the years, and of course, as my friend Laura points out to me, my blog is essentially me writing a daily personal essay. I don’t know if I ever say anything truly earth-shattering or profound; I don’t think of myself as a great thinker, or being particularly perceptive and incisive in my points of view on many subjects. My intellect–and my ability to write essays–are still things I don’t have a lot of confidence in; thank you, public education and land grant colleges for making me insecure about these things. One of the myriad of reasons I started writing this blog back in December of 2004 on Livejournal was because I wanted to write about things no one would pay me to write about; to share my observations of the world, society, politics, and culture through the lens of a gay man in a highly homophobic world; it was also why I wrote about gay characters and themes in my fiction. My writing, by virtue of my lavender lens, is always going to be somewhat political; despite my privilege as a white man I still didn’t hit the privilege trifecta of straight white male, and while the privilege of being white male is still much better than any other variation of that, gay also negates a great deal of that.

I had originally, and always thought, that if I ever wrote about the Virginia experience, it would be an entire book, which I always jokingly called, to myself, Gay Porn Writer, because that was the way I amused myself throughout the entire banning experience–laughing about me being described in so many newspapers and angry emails and complaints as “gay porn writer Greg Herren.” Over the years since all that nonsense, and over the last few years in particular, I realized that isn’t enough material to write an entire book around, and realized I needed, if I was ever going to write about that experience, another hook. I thought about extrapolating that happening to me in 2004 with the changes in publishing and society since then; but it was always kind of amorphous. I thought maybe using that experience as a jumping off spot to talking about race, gender, and sex might be a great idea. Realizing that the Virginia experience was the basis for a personal essay, a long one, to be added to a collection of other essays I’ve written as well as others I could write, that I could write about my life and my experience and call the collection Gay Porn Writer: The Fictions of My Life was probably the best way to do this, and more workable than simply trying to piece together a non-fiction narrative about how gay work is seen as porn by so many homophobic people because the very word gay makes them think about sucking cock or butt fucking.

And I’ve written so much! I had no idea how much non-fiction I’ve actually done in my career; how many author interviews, how many book reviews and fitness columns and whatever else may have you I’ve written and published over the years.

One of the things I did do yesterday around the laziness was start writing down essay titles I remember having written in my journal, in order to start searching through files and computer drives for them, to put them all into one easily accessible folder for me in the future…which also startled me; I remembered so many, and there are probably many more that I don’t remember. But that’s one of the chores I’ve assigned myself today; start pulling those together. I know my essay from Love, Bourbon Street, about Katrina and the evacuation, is rather lengthy and would have to be the anchor to the book.

And now, back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

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Good for Me

The LSU game on Saturday was not pleasant, alas; it’s never fun to lose, particularly when it’s to a hated rival. I was far too tense during the game, and realized that it was because of pent-up nervous energy. I correctly diagnosed that if I got out of my easy chair, turned both the upstairs and downstairs televisions to the game, and used the time to listen–occasionally watching–while cleaning and organizing, I could remain calm and cool and not get overwrought. I love football, but I don’t love the anxiety and stress that comes from total immersion in a game…so I think from now on I am primarily going to listen while cleaning the house.

And when the game was over and LSU had lost, I had a clean apartment and had done several loads of laundry and several loads of dishes. So that counts, at least for me, as a win. I also started another book purge; recognizing that some of my justification for hoarding some books (“someday I’ll write a non-fiction book about blah-blah-blah”) was just that: justification. Rather grimly, as I started pruning books off my shelves I told myself, you’d only ever have time to write that non-fiction book if you reached a place where you could support yourself solely by writing. And if that is the case, you can always buy another copy of the book.

The Saints didn’t play yesterday; rather they are on Monday Night Football playing the Washington Racist Stereotypes Redskins, which means getting home from the main office tonight will be a chore–which means I have to go the long way to avoid the Superdome and the Central Business District. Yay. It also means Paul will have to walk home from work, but I am sure he is already expecting that outcome.

Yesterday I didn’t feel well; a fever that kept coming and going, runny nose, congestion…very unpleasant. I couldn’t focus because I had sick head; my mind couldn’t focus. I tried writing for a while and finally had to give up on it. Instead, I curled up in my easy chair and finished reading Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls.

 

 

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Love Touch

Sunday morning, as I sit here in my cool workspace swilling coffee, trying to wake up and figure out what to do with the rest of my day. I need to go to the grocery store and I should also probably make an attempt to go to the gym; but I can’t seem to find my iPad, which makes doing cardio pointless (I read or watch TV on my iPad while on the treadmill; perhaps not having my iPad is simply an excuse for not going; what if it’s gone, lost, stolen? I am trying not to think that way and am hoping that I simply left it at the office. If not, I am terribly screwed because I don’t know where it is and I currently don’t have the cash on hand to replace it. So, yes, let’s just continue pretending happily that it’s as the office, shall we?)

I could, of course, just go to the gym and do weights. That always feels good, at any rate. Perhaps once I finish swilling this coffee….

I slept late yesterday, and I slept even later today. I spent most of yesterday not only reading but doing chores around the house, on the pretense that today I would not only go to the grocery store and the gym, but I would also spend some time writing today. I need to finish a short story; I need to revise still another, and there’s that new one struggling to take root in my brain that I haven’t really decided what to do with just yet. There are two others swirling around up there in my head, as well as others I’ve not thought about or have forgotten about in the meantime. But now, now as I wake up I feel more confident about running the errands and going to the gym and actually doing some writing today.

I’ve been reading The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, and greatly enjoying it; is there anything quite like well-written non-fiction? It’s why I love Joan Didion and Barbara Tuchman; one of the things I love to do while reading is to learn, and non-fiction fills that need quite beautifully. I also like non-fiction that makes me think; which is why I am looking forward to reading Dead Girls by Alice Bolin. I still would love to do a collection of my own essays, book reviews, and so forth; but egad, what an odious chore pulling all of that together would be. I struggle with essays, but I also think that the writing of essays; the ability to pull thoughts from my head and extrapolate them out to their fullest meaning, is vitally important and a skill-set I wish I had honed more properly. A friend once pointed out to me, as I bemoaned my inability to write essays, that my blog itself is nothing more than years of personal essays. That took me aback, because it was, in many ways, correct; there is definitely some truth to that, but it’s hard for me to take the blog seriously in that fashion, because so much of it is simply written off the top of my head in the morning as I wake up and drink coffee and try to figure out what to do with the rest of my day.

One of the problems for me with personal essays is, ultimately, the issue of self-deprecation, which I’ve addressed in previous blog entries about my writing and my career and my books; who am I to write about this subject? Am I expert enough in this to write about it, or am I simply talking about things that smarter, better-educated people have written about long ago and having the hubristic belief that I am the only person to see this truth for the first time? 

And, in considering myself self-deprecatingly as not that special or particularly smart, I defeat myself and never write the essay.

And of course, there is the problem of all the lies my memory tells me.

But yesterday, I took the afternoon to finish read an ARC of Lou Berney’s new novel, November Road, and was blown away by it.

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Behold! The Big Easy in all its wicked splendor!

Frank Guidry paused at the corner of Toulouse to  bask in the neon furnace glow. He’d lived in New Orleans the better part of his thirty-seven years on earth, but the dirty glitter and sizzle of the French Quarter still hit his bloodstream like a drug. Yokels and locals, muggers and hustlers, fire-eaters and magicians. A go-go girl was draped over the wrought-iron rail of a second floor balcony, one book sprung free from her sequined negligee and swaying like a metronome to the beat of the jazz trio inside. Bass, drums, piano, tearing through “Night and Day.” But that was New Orleans for you. Even the worst band in the crummiest clip joint in the city could swing, man, swing.

A guy came whipping up the street, screaming bloody murder. Hot on his heels–a woman waving a butcher knife, screaming, too,

Guidry soft-shoed out of their way. The beat cop on the corner yawned. The juggler outside the 500 Club didn’t drop a ball. Just another Wednesday night on Bourbon Street.

Lou’s previous novel, The Long and Faraway Gone, won every crime-writing award under the sun that it was eligible for: Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and I don’t know what all; it was the crime publishing equivalent of the EGOT. It was, obviously, an exceptional novel. I met Lou when we were on a panel together at the Raleigh Bouchercon, along with Lori Roy and Liz Milliron; moderated by the amazing Katrina Niidas Holm. It was funny, because the panel topic was, I think, writing about small towns which, in fact, none of us on the panel really did, but we had fun with the topic and I know I brought up Peyton Place at least once and pointed out that suburbs are small towns with the primary difference being suburbs are bedroom communities for cities while small towns aren’t attached in any way to a larger city. It was fun and spirited and I liked Lou, thought he was incredibly smart, as were Liz and Lori. Lori and Lou went on to win Edgars for that year; and I admire their work tremendously. I’ve not had the opportunity to read Liz’ work; but she did have a terrific story in the New Orleans Bouchercon anthology, Blood on the Bayou.

Anyway, I digress.

I’ve been looking forward to November Road since I finished reading The Long and Faraway Gone, but I still need to go back and read Lou’s first two novels, Whiplash River and Gutshot Straight. 

I also have to admit, I was a little hesitant about Lou’s new book; it’s built around the Kennedy assassination in 1963, which always gives me pause (I have yet to immerse myself in Stephen King’s 11/22/63). I’m not sure why I don’t care to read fiction around the Kennedy assassination, but there you have: an insight into my mind. But the Kennedy assassination, while a primary plot device, is just that: a device to set the story in motion. Frank Guidry is involved with a mob boss in New Orleans, and after the Kennedy assassination he is given instructions to fly to Dallas, retrieve a car, and drive it to Houston to dispose of it. While he is doing this, he realizes that he is getting rid of evidence that may be of vital importance to the investigation into the president’s murder–and as such, is a loose end who knows too much and figures out he’s got to disappear now because they’re going to want to kill him. And sure enough, they do send someone after him, Paul Barone, a remorseless killer and tracker. The cat-and-mouse game between them builds suspense throughout the book.

But it’s not just about Frank, and it is a credit to Berney’s talent, creativity and imagination in that he throws in another primary character, constructed carefully in all the facets and layers that make her live and breathe: Charlotte. Charlotte is a wife and mother in a small town in Oklahoma, married to a useless drunk fuck-up with whom she had two daughters, and her salary working for the local town photographer is the primary thing keeping a roof over their heads. Her own ambitions for being a photographer herself are constantly shat upon by her boss, her society and culture and environment: she is a woman, a wife and mother, and in 1963 that so thoroughly defines her that any other ambition she might have throws her identity as wife and mother into question. Trapped, with the walls closing in on her closer every day, Charlotte takes the president’s assassination as a sign for her to run away with the girls and start over. Charlotte is an extraordinary character;  her relationship with her daughters is the strong backbone of this story. You root for her, you want her to make her escape and make her dreams come true.

Frank and Charlotte cross paths in New Mexico, and Frank sees them as his salvation; his murderous pursuers might be thrown off as they are looking for a single man, not one traveling with his wife and kids; the book becomes even stronger and more suspenseful once they are all together. Frank and Charlotte become close, despite not being completely honest with each other; they are both keeping their cards close to their vests, but yet form a loving bond. WIll they escape, or will they not?

November Road reminded me a lot of Laura Lippman’s Sunburn; the same kind of relationship building between a man and a woman where a lot of information, important, information, is held back from each other, and that lack of trust while falling in love is an important theme in both books: women trying to make their best lives, even if it means making morally questionable decisions, while becoming involved with a man who isn’t completely honest with her. Berney’s writing style, and tone, and mood, also put me in mind of Megan Abbott’s brilliant Give Me Your Hand. If you’ve not read yet the Lippman and Abbott novels, I’d recommend getting them and holding on to them until Berney’s book is released in October and reading them all over the course of a long weekend.

Bravo.

Smooth Operator

April Fool’s Eve!

I slept in this morning, after staying up much later than I intended last night. I’d read somewhere that you should stop looking at a screen of any kind–television, computer, phone, iPad–at least half an hour before going to bed to help with sleep, and frankly, I’ll try just about anything that will help in that regard; so I’ve started keeping a non-fiction book on my nightstand, to read for about half an hour every night before attempting sleep. The last two I read were The Black Prince of Florence and Joan Didion’s After Henry; last night I started onJon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I couldn’t stop reading it, of course, and before I knew it, I’d read through the first two people he’d interviewed about their public shamings–Jonah Lehrer and Justine Sacco–and wanted to keep going; but I forced myself to put the book down because it was much later than I wanted to stay up and I was worried about not getting up this morning.

I was right.

It’s kind of interesting to be reading the Ronson book about how public shaming destroyed the lives of two people–one who did something terrible (Lerner) and the other who made a really dumb joke on Twitter that went viral–and Ronson is really a good writer; I actually have some sympathy for the people he is writing about. But this is another, perfect example of why Twitter terrifies and fascinates me at the same time. I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to go viral in such a way on social media, but then again, I try to be very careful with social media. Is that cowardly? Perhaps it is, but i also don’t have time for arguing with people on social media, nor do I have an inclination to do so. I am frequently exposed to different viewpoints on my own social media–but as long as it is couched respectfully and is not in any way nasty or vicious, I like seeing points of view that are different than my own. (Homophobia, misogyny, and racism, however, are always deal-breakers. I never have any sympathy or interest in seeing that point of view.)

As you can tell, I am finding the book to be very interesting.

We also finished watching Season 2 of Santa Clarita Diet, which is hilarious. I highly recommend it. I also got caught up on Krypton and Riverdale yesterday, and did some more writing–not very good writing, mind you; for some reason “Don’t Look Down” is becoming increasingly more and more difficult to write, but I am determined to get that first fucking draft done this weekend. I also want to get some revisions done today. I am going to run some errands and go to the gym in a little bit, and then I am hoping to be able to get home and sit down and just write for the rest of the afternoon, which is going to require me shutting down all social media and closing my web browsers. I think I’ll clean the windows today as well, and maybe do some cleaning…which is the best way to deal with getting stuck on writing.

As I said, I finished reading Joan Didion’s After Henry this week.

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It’s a collections of essays she wrote that were published in various places, and tackle various subjects in that amazing style of writing she had; the way she constructs sentences, and puts words and paragraphs together, is so amazing that it’s hard sometimes to drink in what she is actually saying. These essays, about politics in Los Angeles; natural disasters in southern California; the Central Park jogger case in New York; the political conventions in 1988; the Reagan administration and the face it presented to the world; and several others, are pretty amazing and also serve as a kind of time capsule of recent history. I am really looking forward to reading another non-fiction Didion book, and possibly another of her novels.

I had finished reading The Black Prince of Florence before I took up the Didion.

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As Constant Reader is aware, I am fascinated by the Medici family of Florence, who rose from being merchant class to one of the wealthiest banking families in Europe to popes and queens to royalty in their own right. Alessandro de Medici, the little known subject of this biography, was the first Medici to attain royalty on his own; due to the machinations of his uncle, Pope Clement VII (better known to history as the pope who refused Henry VIII’s request for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon), he became Duke of Florence and the republic came to an end. Alessandro was illegitimate, and there is no proof of whom his mother was; his legitimate sister, Catherine, became queen of France. Fletcher does an excellent job of explaining the tumult of the times; how Italy had been riven by a series of wars between different city-states as well as between France and the Holy Roman Empire, both with extensive claims to various places on the peninsula, along with all the machinations in Rome for the papacy. The question of whether Alessandro’s mother was an African slave, or that was simply a slander to discredit him during his lifetime by his enemies, is one that Fletcher takes up; she also explains the differences between modern day views of race as opposed to those of the sixteenth century. I found the book to be endlessly fascinating, and really helped me get a better grasp of just how the Medici family became royalty. Alessandro’s sister Catherine is probably the most famous (notorious?) member of the family; I have numerous biographies of her on my shelves I look forward to reading.

I’ve also read some more short stories for the Short Story Project. First up is”A Poison That Leaves No Trace” by Sue Grafton, from Kinsey and Me:

The woman was waiting for me outside my office when I arrived that morning. She was short and quite plump, wearing jeans in a size I’ve never seen on the rack. Her blouse was tunic length, ostensibly to disguise her considerable rear end. Someone must have told her never to wear horizontal stripes, so the bold red-and-blue bands ran diagonally across her torso with a dizzying effect. Big red canvas tote, matching canvas wedgies. Her face was round, seamless, and smooth, her hair a uniformly dark shade that suggested a rinse. She might have been any age between forty and sixty. “You’re not Kinsey Millhone,” she said as I approached.

“Actually, I am. Would you like to come in?” I unlocked the door and stepped back so she could pass in front of me. She was giving me the once-over, as if my appearance was as remarkable to her as hers was to me.

This story is kind of clever, with a surprise twist at the end that caught me off guard; a woman hires Kinsey to prove that her niece murdered the woman’s sister for the insurance money. It’s fraud, all right, but not what Kinsey was originally led to believe, and the twists and turns are spooled out very cleverly.

The next up was another Sue Grafton tale from Kinsey and Me, “Full Circle.”

The accident seemed to happen in slow motion–one of those stop-action sequences that seem to go on forever though in tryth no mare than a few seconds have elapsed. It was Friday afternoon, rush hour, Santa Teresa traffic moving at a lively pace, my little VW holding its own despite the fact it’s fifteen years out of date. I was feeling good. I’d just wrapped up a case and I had a check in my handbag for four thousand bucks, not bad considering the fact that I’m a female private eye, self-employed, and subject to the feast-or-famine vagaries of any other freelance work.

I glanced to my left as a young woman, driving a white compact, appeared in my driver’s-side mirror. A bright red Porsche was bearing down on her in the fast lane. I adjust my speed, making room for her, sensing that she meant to cut right in front of me. A navy blue pick-up truck was coming up on my right, each of us jockeying for position as the late afternoon sun washed down out of a cloudless California spring sky. I had glanced in my rearview mirror, checking traffic behind me, when I heard a loud popping noise. I snapped my attention back to the road in front of me. The white compact veered abruptly back into the fast lane, clipped the rear of the red Porsche, then hit the center divider and careened directly into my path. I slammed on my brakes, adrenaline shooting through me as I fought to control the VW’s fishtailing rear end.

This story opens with one of the best descriptions of the slow-motion horror of an accident on the highway; how it happens right before your eyes and how you basically have to rely on instinct and automatic reaction to try to avoid the accident because your brain is so busy processing what it’s seeing. The story is worth reading for that alone, but it turns into a case when the mother of the girl driving the compact, Caroline Spurrier, hires Kinsey because it turns out the accident didn’t kill Caroline; she’d been shot. The man driving the truck also has disappeared. From that point on, it’s a great example of a private eye story.

Sigh. I’m going to miss Sue Grafton.

Axel F

GOOD FRIDAY. I slept in, which was absolutely lovely, and am now enjoying my first cup of coffee this morning. The herd of cats are outside my windows, gathered for their morning feeding, and Scooter is firmly ensconced on my desk–it’s going to be a long day of him needing attention, I suspect–and am looking forward to  my three-day weekend. It looks gorgeous outside, honestly; I think I might clean the windows today, as well as work on cleaning the house. I also need to hit the gym; it’s been well over two weeks at this point, and I’m not going to get leaner sitting on my ass thinking about it, quite frankly.

I am also procrastinating running some errands as well as cleaning. I am also planning on getting some writing done, and some reading. I’ve gotten some fantastic ARC’s this week, and there are a couple of other novels I’ve been meaning to get to  as well; I am hoping to get to one of those this weekend. The primary problem here, of course, is that I can’t decide which to read. I am also almost finished with Joan Didion’s essay collection, After Henry, which, despite its bad name, is quite enjoyable. I am still abstaining from buying new books until I get the TBR more manageable and under control, but am itching to get my hands on another Didion non-fiction.

Yesterday I worked some more on “Don’t Look Down” and another one that’s been languishing, “A Holler Full of Kudzu,” but I also realized yesterday as I looked at the unholy mess that is “Don’t Look Down” that I am going to simply approach these stories as I do a novel; in other words, just write everything as it comes to me, and worry about editing and revising later. That quite often works for me when I am writing a novel, so why not apply it to a short story? I also want to get a final first draft of those stories done this weekend, as well as “Once a Tiger” while also revising and reworking “My Brother’s Keeper”; Sunday is not only Easter but it’s also April 1st, which is when I intended to put all short story work aside and dive back into the novels. (I may use Sunday for the short stories, and move on to Scotty on Monday; I may just use Sunday as a buffer day between them all, who knows? We’ll see, won’t we?)

We are also watching the second season of Santa Clarita Diet, which is just as funny, charming and clever as the first. I have also started watching Krypton, the Superman prequel on Syfy, and I am enjoying it. It’s getting some so-so reviews, but I am enjoying it so far; I’ve always loved the Krypton stories, and John Byrne’s comic book mini-series The World of Krypton from the original DC reboot in the 1980’s is still one of my all-time favorite comics. Some of the elements from that mini-series are showing up in this show–not having followed comics as much over the last twenty years or so has limited my knowledge of things; of what is considered canon now and what is not; but some of the things I am seeing in this show were things I first became aware of in The World of Krypton. I also need to get caught up on Riverdale; at least I have things I can watch while doing cardio at the gym!

I also managed to read some short stories. First up is  “The Downward Path to Wisdom” by Katherine Anne Porter, from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter.

In the square bedroom with the big window Mama and Papa were lolling back on their pillows handing each other things from the wide black tray on the small table with crossed legs. They were smiling and they smiled even more when the little boy, with the feeling of sleep still in his skin and hair, came in and walked up to the bed. Leaning against it, his bare toes wriggling in the white fur rug, he went on eating peanuts which he took from his pajamas pocket. He was four years old.

“Here’s my baby,” said Mama. “Lift him up, will you?”

This is another one of those Porter stories that just wasn’t for me. I mean, I get what she was doing; the entire story is told from the point of view of a small child, and she manages to really get that way children have no sense of time perfectly. The passage of time either seems incredibly slow and other times is really fast; and the way the child observes the clashes and moodiness and volatility of the adults around him is sort of interesting; but the story itself isn’t interesting at all. Not really for me, I guess; I should just park Ms. Porter’s collection back on the shelf and be done with it, frankly. But I also remember that I had a much greater appreciation of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” this time around, and keep thinking, well, maybe I’ll appreciate one of the others in a different way this time.

Yeah, well, it didn’t happen with this story.

Next up was another Sue Grafton story from Kinsey and Me, “Falling off the Roof.”

It was six a.m and I was jogging on the bike path at the beach, trotting three miles in behalf of my sagging rear end. I’m thirty-two years old, weighing in at 118, so you wouldn’t think I’d have to concern myself with such things, but I’m a private eye by trade and I’m single on top of that. Sometimes I end up running for my life, so it will never do to get out of shape.

I had just hit my stride. My breathing was audible but not labored, my shoes chunking rhythmically as the asphalt sped away underneath my feet. What worried me was the sound of someone running behind me, and gaining too. I glanced back casually and felt adrenaline shoot through my heart, jolting it up to jackhammer pace. A man in a black sweat suit was closing ground. I picked up speed, quickly assessing the situation. There wasn’t another soul in sight. No other joggers. None of the usual bums sleeping on the grass.

This story is terrific. Kinsey is hired by a man who thinks his brother brother was murdere; he fell off his roof and the police ruled it an accident. However, he was in a really bad marriage that seemed to suddenly settle down some in the weeks before the death, and the brother suspects the wife had something to do with the death–despite her rigid, airtight alibi. Kinsey starts looking into things, and soon becomes fairly certain that it was a murder; the trick is figuring out how she did it and got away with it…which leads Kinsey to going undercover at a Mystery Book Club. This story is clever, clever, clever, and one of my favorites of the Kinsey short stories.

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

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Dancing in the Sheets

The sun is shining, and the temperature has climbed to 49 degrees. The boil-water advisory ended finally last evening–it’s just not a crisis in New Orleans unless we have a boil-water advisory!–and here I sit this morning, ensconced at my desk with a cup of coffee, a load of laundry tumbling in the dryer, with great expectations of the day. I went to the gym last evening after work, and my muscles, while a bit tired, still feel stretched and worked and supple, if that makes sense. Probably the best thing about rededicating myself to physical exercise again is how much better I feel; I don’t ache or feel tired the way I did just last week, and the stretching and the treadmill are also making me feel ever so much better. Today, I am going to clean (if it’s Saturday I must be cleaning) but I am also going to write, edit and read today. Paul is going into the office to work (it’s that time of year again) and so I have the day to myself. I want to finish the first draft of “The Trouble with Autofill” and I want to edit “Cold Beer No Flies.”

Among many other things; my to-do list is ridiculous, quite frankly. But the only way to make progress is not to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the list but rather to keep plugging away at it.

I finished reading Miami by Joan Didion earlier this week, and it was quite good. Didion’s writing style is quite amazing, actually, and while the story of the book might seem, at first glance, to be rather dated; the truth is it is still very much appropriate to our modern times. Miami is a look at the Cuban exiles in the city, how they relate to each other, and how they impact south Florida politically; and to a lesser extent, the relationship between the US government with them as well as with Castro’s Cuba. During the Cold War Cuba was a much more terrifying apparition, close as it was to Florida, and it’s amazing how people do not realize the political clout, as a result of their sheer numbers, that the Cuban immigrants weld in that part of the state, and in the entire state as well. The importance of Florida as a swing state cannot be discounted; and therefore the Cuban-American community’s influence on national politics is something that has to always be considered. (A present day comparison would be the Puerto Ricans moving to Florida today in great numbers as a result of the hurricane destruction of their island; the difference being those Puerto Ricans are already American citizens who can register to vote and can impact 2018 already.) Didion’s look at Miami in the 1980’s, as a Caribbean city on the mainland, is also reminiscent of descriptions of New Orleans as the northernmost Caribbean city; the thing I love the most about Didion’s work is how she makes you think. Reading Miami made me want to write about Miami; I’ve been wanting to write about Florida for a long time, as Constant Reader already knows. Something to ponder.

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I also started reading Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution, which is a look at the film industry through the lens of the five films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967, and how they were made. Harris’ thesis is that was the year that bridged the gap between old and new Hollywood; and the five Best Picture nominees illustrated that perfectly: an expensive musical flop (Doctor Dolittle); two old style Hollywood pictures about race (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night), and two films that illustrated new Hollywood and its influence by European filmmakers like Truffaut and Fellini and Antonioni (Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate). I, of course, have always been fascinated by Hollywood history and have been ever since I read Garson Kanin’s Tracy and Hepburn and Bob Thomas’ Selznick as a kid; this book is right up my alley, and since it’s been awhile since I’ve read any Hollywood history, I am looking forward to reading this (and his Five Came Back–I’ve already watched the documentary based on it).

The Short Story Project also moves apace; I am frequently surprised as I look through my shelves for something to read how many single author collections and anthologies dot them. My Ipad also has quite a few loaded onto the Kindle app; I often buy them when they are either free or reduced in price, and so my Kindle app is filled with books I’ve not yet read, primarily because I don’t like to read on it (which I realize is nothing more than stubbornness; if I can watch movies or television programs on it, why resist reading books there?) Yesterday I found my battered old Dell paperback of Agatha Christie’s The Golden Ball and Other Stories, which I remember loving as a child. I was looking for my copy of Lawrence Block’s first anthology inspired by paintings–those of Edward Hopper– In Sunlight or in Shadow, which I would have sworn I’d purchased in hardcover; yet it wasn’t anywhere on the shelves or in any of the TBR piles, before remembering I’d bought it as an ebook when the Macavity nominations come out; Block’s story “Autumn at the Automat” was a finalist, along with mine (I still can’t believe it) and I wanted to read all the other nominated stories for an entry, so the immediacy of the need required buying the ebook. It is a handsome volume, though, so I’ll need to buy a hard copy to pair with the new one. (New bucket list item: write a story for one of these anthologies by Lawrence Block)

Once I’d located it on the iPad, I scoured the table of contents and landed on a Joyce Carol Oates story, “The Woman in the Window.” I have to confess I’ve not read much of Ms. Oates; I am not even remotely familiar with what she writes. But she, too, was a Macavity finalist last year, for her story “The Crawl Space” (which also won the Stoker Award), and that story creeped me the fuck out. I know she’s been a Stoker finalist before, but I also think she tends to write across genre a lot and therefore isn’t pigeon-holed in one way or the other.

Beneath the cushion of the plush blue chair she has hidden it.

Almost shyly her fingers grope for it, then recoil as if it were burning-hot.

No! None of this will happen, don’t be ridiculous!

It is eleven A.M. He has promised to meet her in this room in which it is always eleven A.M.

This story, frankly, isn’t as strong as “The Crawl Space,” but it’s an interesting exercise in how thin the line between lust and loathing is; the woman of the title is a secretary having an affair with a much wealthier man, and as she gets older and older she is feeling more and more trapped in the relationship; he is married and he often has to break plans with her for his wife. There is also a shift occasionally to his point of view, and he’s not so fond of her anymore, either. Passion has cooled but habit has set in; and the way those lines can get crossed is chilling–and how destructive such a relationship can be to both parties, emotionally and mentally, is explored in great detail yet sparse language by Ms. Oates. The story’s not as creepy, as I said, as the other; but the end–which she leaves kind of hanging–you do feel that something awful is going to happen; maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually.

I’ve not read Joe Hill before, and there are several reasons for that; none of which would make any sense to anyone who is not me; I am nothing if not aware of my own eccentricities, which is why I generally don’t share them with people; I don’t need someone else to point out that something doesn’t make sense. But I do have a copy of his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, which I spied on the shelves as I looked for my copy of the Block anthology. Aha, I thought, perfect. I can read a Joe Hill story for the Short Story Project. So, I curled up under a blanket in my easy chair, waited for Scooter to get settled in my lap, and started reading “Best New Horror.”

A month before his deadline, Eddie Carroll ripped open a manila envelope, and a magazine called The True North Literary Review slipped out into his hands. Carroll was used to getting magazines in the mail, although most of them had titles like Cemetery Dance and specialized in horror fiction. People sent him their books, too. Piles of them cluttered his Brookline townhouse, a heap on the couch in his office, a stack by the coffee maker. Books of horror stories, all of them.

No one had time to read them all, although once–when he was in his early thirties and just starting out as the editor of America’s Best New Horror–he had made a conscientious effort to try. Carroll had guided sixteen volumes of Best New Horror to press, had been working on the series for over a third of his life now. It added up to thousands of hours of reading and proofing and letter-writing, thousands of hours he could never have back.

He had come to hate the magazines especially. So many of them used the cheapest ink, and he had learned to loathe the way it came off on his fingers, the harsh stink of it.

I did not mention the elephant in the room; said elephant, of course, being that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. (The Kings are a very literary family; Mr. King’s wife Tabitha is a poet and a novelist; their other son Owen also writes, as does Owen’s wife, Kelly Braffet; I read a novel by Ms. Braffet sometime in the last couple of years–not aware of the King connection–and greatly enjoyed it.)

But simply based on a reading of “Best New Horror,” I have to say Joe Hill is also a terrific writer. And while it, like some of his father’s work, bears a strong resemblance to something I would have read in an Tales from the Crypt or House of Mystery comic book–that is not a criticism. I loved those comics, and the stories I read in them; they had a deep influence on me not only as a writer but as a reader. “Best New Horror”, as you can tell by the opening, tells the tale of Eddie Carroll, a writing teacher and a long-time editor of the Best New Horror series, a chore he has learned to loathe and, basically, phone in every year for the money. This resonated with me; as an anthology editor myself, one of the reasons I stepped away from editing them–or took a break from doing it–was because it was becoming rote; a chore rather than something I found joy in doing. Eddie is an example of why I stopped–I didn’t want to become like him; embittered by the experience and tired of not finding anything fresh or new (unlike Eddie, I was able to keep the experience fresh because each anthology I did was a new topic; if I had done twenty anthologies with the same theme I would have gone on a killing spree). But in the mail comes a story from a new writer that is simply brilliant; original and fresh and resonant and horrifying in its reality; the story reinvigorates Eddie and makes the editing job no longer a chore; he has to have this story, and will do whatever he has to in order to track the writer down…but as with any horror  tale of obsession, it’s not going to end well. But Hill brilliantly keeps stringing the reader along, and the ending is just absolutely brilliant and clever. I am really looking forward to reading more of these stories.

And now, I must get back to the spice mines. There are clothes to fold, dishes to wash, floors to clean, stories to write and edit; I am probably coming back here for another entry later as I am trying to get caught up on posting the stories I’ve read–but I make no promises. I have another story to write as a call for submissions crossed my computer screen on Thursday; I have an unfinished story that I can repurpose, but I also need to get a first draft done so I can work the story out.

Until later, Constant Reader.