Always

I always learned from reading–which is probably why I was so bad at math, now that I think about it.

And while I’ve certainly read more than my fair share from reading non-fiction (history and biographies), I’ve also learned a lot from fiction (while admitting as an adult that some of what I’ve learned from reading fiction should be viewed with a much more critical eye)–the so-called “travelogue” books in the kids’ series, like Nancy Drew’s The Clue in the Crossword Cipher or the Hardy Boys’ The Mystery at Devil’s Paw was often how I learned obscure facts that frequently come in handy when watching Jeopardy or playing Trivial Pursuit (example: The Clue in the Crossword Cipher was where I learned that the Inca language is called quechua, and I also learned about the Nasca Lines and Macchu Picchu from that book). I love reading books that, through the course of the story, expose me to information about a culture or a society or country that I don’t know much about–I’ve generally heard of it, but don’t have any other knowledge and let’s face it, there’s only so much time in every day and it’s hard enough to keep the plates spinning as is–which is why I love fiction that tells me an entertaining story while at the same time teaching me something.

Julia Dahl’s debut novel, Invisible City, is one of those.

I was in Chinatown when they called me about the body in Brooklyn.

“They just pulled a woman out of a scrap pile in Gowanus,” says Mike, my editor.

“Lovely,” I say. “So I’m off the school?” I’ve spent the past two days pacing in front of a middle school, trying to get publishable quotes from preteens or their parents about the brothel the cops busted in the back of an Internet cafĂ© around the corner.

“You’re off,” says Mike.

The rest of the press is on the scene when I arrive at the gas station across from the scrap yard. Pete Calloway from the Ledger is baring his crooked teeth at the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, or as reporters call him, DCPI. DCPI is six inches taller and seventy pounds heavier than Pete. It’s barely twenty degrees out and Pete’s got his hoodie up, his shoulders hunched against the cold, but DCPI is hatless, scarfless, gloveless, coatless. His uniform jacket collar is pulled up, two inches of starched wool-blend against the icy wind.

“We’re hearing she was found without clothes,” says Pete. “Can you confirm that?”

Again, I am late to the Julia Dahl party. This book was an Edgar finalist for Best First Novel, and any number of my colleagues and friends in the mystery/crime community have raved to me about Dahl’s strong gift for writing. Invisible City was the final selection for me to take with me on last week’s trip, and it was a wonderful companion for me on my three and a half hour flight from Boston back to New Orleans. I was so deeply engrossed in the novel that–other than being interrupted by the flight staff to give me a bag of pretzels and a can of Pepsi, and then to collect my garbage–the plane could have caught fire for all I knew or cared; I just wanted to get to the bottom of the murder of the naked woman whose body discovery kicks off this well-written and very fast-paced mystery story.

Our main character here is Rebekah Roberts, and what a gift to the crime world she is! Well rounded, fully developed, and absolutely real, Rebekah is one of the most fascinating and complex series characters I’ve come across in quite a while. Dahl, like all great writers, lets us see Rebekah in all of her glory–with all of her flaws, her personality issues, her raw emotion–and while sometimes she might seem to an outsider as a bit brash or even much as I hate to say it, bitchy–Rebekah’s rawness and vulnerability makes her someone you not only enjoy spending time with as a reader, but you hate to stop spending time with her at the end. She’s fairly young, recently out of the University of Central Florida, and now living in New York trying to make ends meet (as well as build a journalism career) while working as a stringer for a tabloid paper in the big city. She’s not making a lot of money, and her small circle of friends are also terrifically rounded out as fully dimensional characters–and I hope, as the series progresses, we get to know them even better.

The case obviously begins with Rebekah going to cover the discovery of a nude woman’s body at a scrap yard in the dead of winter. But…the scrapyard is owned by Hasidic Jews, and the body is quickly taken away by a Hasidic funeral parlor rather than the medical examiner’s office, which strikes Rebekah as not only strange but not legal.

And this is where Dahl’s genius as a creator kicks in: Rebekah’s mother was Hasidic, questioned her faith, met Rebekah’s father and ran away with him. They were never married, but she gave birth to Rebekah, but the pull of her faith and her old life proved far too strong for her, and so she abandoned father and baby when Rebekah was six months old. She grew up without a mother, her father slowly changing the story of what happened to her mother as he deemed she was old enough and mature enough to handle the truth–from dead to gone to abandoned–and this, naturally, has caused some deep emotional issues for Rebekah to deal with. She hates her mother while longing to meet her and confront her–and gobbles anti-anxiety medication on the regular as she begins digging into the murder of this unfortunate Hasidic wife and mother, having to confront her own conflicted feelings about being not only half-Hasidic herself, but her own issues with that faith and way of life which she feels robbed her of her mother.

Dahl also does a magnificent job of exploring the Hasidic way of life–how alien it appears to the very much modern Rebekah, who cannot grasp why anyone in the modern day would choose such an archaic, ancient way of life, but as Rebekah learns more about why the Hasidim choose to live the way they do, my own understanding grew. The way she brings these Hasidic characters to life, refusing to simply turn them into stereotypical, one dimensional freaks and humanizing them instead, is a gift to her readers. I may not be able to comprehend living that kind of life, but I came away from this book with an understanding and empathy for them; why they self-isolate and remove themselves from the goyim in a way I don’t think I could have without Dahl unlocking that world in such a compassionate, empathetic manner.

And it’s a corker of a mystery too. I couldn’t put it down, and I am very excited to continue reading more in the series. Rebekah is an amazing heroine, destined to be ranked up there with the other great female crime series characters, and I look forward to watching Dahl continue to grow and flex her muscles as a writer–which are already, from this debut, clearly well-trained already.

Read this book. You can thank me later.

Freedom

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…

Happily, I made it through my first Monday back at work. Usually, I tend to take the day after I travel off from work–so if I fly home on Sunday I don’t work on Monday, so I can get acclimated and readjusted to being home–laundry, make groceries, get the mail, etc.–and usually I am exhausted from traveling so I need to sleep in a bit as well. But…yesterday somehow I managed to get up with the alarm, make some coffee, and got my shit together and wasn’t even the least bit grumpy about it. I was a bit tired–the legs especially; I walked a shit ton last week–but I made it through the day without incident and managed to run some errands on the way home. I had considered making a trip to the gym last night but decided it made more sense to go after work tonight–I know, I know, excuses to fail instead of reasons to succeed, but hey, I took a four hour flight yesterday, had to navigate two airports and so forth, not to mention the horrors of I-10 East through the burbs and into the city–no small feat. But I also started feeling low energy around three yesterday afternoon (nothing new; that’s when it usually hits me right between the eyes with a 2 x 4) so it wasn’t travel related at all, but was enough to make me rethink my gym strategy.

Ironically, once I get readjusted to my schedule, I’m off to Kentucky for Thanksgiving.

Which is not an excuse to not go to the gym this week.

The realization that Murder the Indigenous People Day looms on the horizon is also forcing me to rethink my grocery shopping necessities; I really don’t need to be buying anything perishable, and I need to make sure Paul is all stocked up with things he can easily prepare for himself (although he’ll inevitably simply end up eating out the entire time); but I have this weekend to worry about all of that and get it handled. I made significant progress yesterday on getting caught up on everything–still horribly behind on everything, of course–but at least I feel like I’m getting somewhere, and I don’t feel as terribly stressed out about being so far behind, which is also progress of a sort. I do want to get back to reading Barbara Ross’ delightful Shucked Away, which I started reading on the plane home Sunday, and I think next up will be another Leslie Budewitz; I loved the first in her wonderful Spice Shop series, but haven’t managed to get back to it yet, and of course, after Thanksgiving is the best time to read the next up in Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series, Owl Be Home for Christmas–it would actually be kind of great to have an entire season of Christmas books to read, wouldn’t it, and Andrews does one every year, which is also kind of marvelous as well, but I don’t want to read the books out of order.

I also began piecing together and outlining an article I am writing for Crime Reads to help promote the Kansas book when it’s released–I got the hook finally over the weekend at Crime Bake, for which I will always be grateful to that conference, and the New England chapters of MWA and Sisters in Crime–and that definitely counts as writing (I never count the blog as writing, despite the fact that every entry is more than five hundred words and sometimes even longer), so I am getting back into that saddle, which feels really great. I also managed to finish the laundry last night, emptied a load from the dishwasher so I could reload it, and got some filing and organizing done around the Lost Apartment so my desk area isn’t quite as disheveled and scattered as it was when I got home Sunday night. I still have to finish my blog posts on Invisible City by Julia Dahl and Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier (if you haven’t read them, Constant Reader, you really need to get on with it! Don’t wait as long as I did, which was a huge mistake), and I also want to get some boxes prepared to clear out some more books for the library sale. I think Saturday I am going to drag a box down from the attic to dispose of as well; might as well get that project started–because the attic is definitely not ever going to clean itself out at any point in time.

We watched the recent episode of Dopesick last night, and the acting is truly superb; the entire show has been extremely well done and well-written; everyone in the cast should be tapped for an Emmy nomination; the young woman who plays Bets, the lesbian mine worker who gets hooked after a back injury is particularly fantastic, as is Mare Winningham and Michael Keaton. Rosario Dawson is no slouch, either, and if there was ever an oilier, slimier villain–the actor playing Richard Sackler is Bond-villain worthy. We’ll probably get caught up on our other shows the rest of this week–The Sinner, The Morning Show–and there’s some other shows I want to watch as well; I really do need to start making a list. I also want to get back to Chapelwaite, which I don’t think Paul was enjoying as much as I did; we’ll have to have a chat about that tonight when we both get home from the gym.

Yes, I am planning on going to the gym tonight. We’ll see how that turns out, won’t we?

And on that note, I am going to head into the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader. I know I intend to.

Don’t Say You Love Me

Monday morning and I am back home. It was lovely to travel again, lovely to see people I’ve not seen in far too long, and even more lovely to be in a room full of people listening to writers talking about writing and books. I took voluminous notes during every panel I attended, got inspired about writing again, and it was almost kind of normal, like somehow (despite the masks) I had somehow slipped back into the Before Times.

Planes, trains and automobiles–last week I did them all, and I am still a little worn out from all the things I’m no longer used to; airports, train stations, being around large crowds of people. I am almost painfully shy and socially awkward (always have been) so interacting with new people has always been difficult for me, but Crime Bake was absolutely marvelous and welcoming. It so so nice being back in New York and taking the subway again and just walking around, marveling at the wonderful city. Boston is another place I love, and haven’t been there in many many years. Friends I hadn’t seen in years picked me up at South Street Station when my train rolled in; we then went to the incredible Isabella Stewart Gardner museum (Mrs. Gardner has always been of interest to me since reading Stephen Buckingham’s The Grande Dames a gazillion years ago), and her art collection–and the house itself–were absolutely stunning. We had dinner and they drove me out to my hotel, where Crime Bake was happening, and almost instantly I began running into people I’ve not seen and have long adored. I was very tired by the time I reached Dedham, but somehow found some more energy in the tank to talk and enjoy the company of people I’ve not seen in an eternity.

(I’d also forgotten–it’s been so long–how things tend to pile up when I am away to the point of being overwhelming; but one thing at a time and it will all get done, Gregalicious.)

I also read a lot of terrific books while I was traveling (These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall; Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier; Invisible City by Julia Dahl; and am halfway finished with Barbara Ross’ Shucked Away) and those reviews will be forthcoming–another thing to add to my now endless to-do list–which reminded me how much I love to read. Reading has always been the one constant love of my life, ever since I was a little boy, and sometimes I need to remember–no matter how tired I am, no matter how little energy I have, and no matter how easy it is to simply allow myself to head into a Youtube wormhole (which I can always justify as research), what I should do every night when I get home to unwind is spend an hour in a book. I was reflecting on that very thing last night on my JetBlue flight back to New Orleans from Boston (this was also my first JetBlue experience and one that I loved very very much; I think I might have a new favorite airline), but what I also remembered by my deep reading dive over this trip was that limiting myself to a mere hour of reading could be very difficult to accomplish when I am reading something I am very much loving. I never want to put the book down once I am caught in its spell–which happened quite a few times over the course of the trip; I wound up staying up later than I should have in order to keep reading.

But oh! What marvelous books I was reading! Is there anything more fun that getting caught in the spell of a wonderful writer? I think not.

But it was also lovely to sleep in my own bed again last night–I really could have stayed in bed most of the day, I think, and were it not for having to head into the office this morning to return to reality, I probably would have slept very late–and it’s lovely to have my own coffee in one of my own mugs this morning; it’s lovely to be sort of back to what passes for normal in the life of one Gregalicious; but now I have a lot of writing and editing and emails and other business to get caught up on; so the first thing I need to do once this is finished and posted is make a substantial to-do list. I need to get back into the swing of going to the gym three times weekly–despite the coming of the Thanksgiving holidays and yet another trip, but I can’t keep putting it off with that excuse else I will never get back into the groove, and my body is getting squishy again. I also need to edit two stories to get them ready for submission/publication and I need to get caught up on the book I am writing. I also have an article to write for promotion for the release of #shedeservedit–while on this trip the hook of the article came to me, which again is why writers’ conferences are so important for me, because I find them to be inspiring and motivating–and of course, I need to get through the endless amounts of emails that have piled up while I was away. I also have to recenter myself with my day job; it feels like I haven’t been to the office in months. I need to make a Costco run at some point this coming weekend, and of course I have to make groceries too. I can make pasta for dinner tonight, but after that I am completely out of ideas and who knows what all is in my kitchen cabinets!

And so, it’s time to get cleaned up and presentable for the office this morning. Sorry to be so brief and short after a rather lengthy absence, but…there’s a lot I have to get caught up on and it ain’t going to do itself, so off to the spice mines again.

Moon & The Sky

The first Monday morning after Daylight Savings Time kicks in–or kicks out? I never can remember if we borrow an hour or return it–and it’s an exciting day ahead for one Gregalicious. (Isn’t every day an exciting day for one Gregalicious, really?) It is rather nice that it isn’t dark outside this morning for once, but at the same time it means it will be full dark when I leave the office every day now, which always feels oppressive for me. I think I am not a fan of the winter primarily because of the shortened days (the colder weather isn’t, despite my frequent harsh reactions to it, the worst thing; as long as there is no snow and ice I can live with it, frankly). I don’t like the darkness, never have; still feel uncomfortable in the dark, if I am not entirely afraid of the dark still.

The terrors of childhood are never truly outgrown, are they?

The Saints game was eminently disappointing–never fun to lose to Atlanta, especially the way the Saints did yesterday–but I did get the sense the team is getting there, starting to gel after losing the starting quarterback, Jameis Winston–so I don’t think the rest of the season is going to be a total wash. We may not make the play-offs this year (!!!) but you know, it’s the beginning of a new era for the Saints, the post-Drew Brees era, and there’s no telling what that’s going to be like. LSU is also going to be getting a new coaching staff for next season…and again, no telling where LSU is going to end up next year either.

I wound up getting a lot more organized yesterday than I was before this weekend, which is lovely. I got folders put away, counter surfaces and inboxes are emptied for the most part, and I am traveling tomorrow. I am going to New York for a few days and then Boston for the weekend; as I have already mentioned, this is my first non-family related travel since the pandemic started, and after everything I’ve seen on-line about airports and flights being disrupted by people who think rules don’t apply to them (a personal pet peeve of mine; the rules apply to everyone else why have rules in the first place?), but at least I have a non-stop flight so the chances of misconnections and lost luggage and all of those other things that make traveling an utter nightmare have been lowered substantially.

We started watching the new season of Big Mouth last night on Netflix–this show is so funny and honest and out-and-out blunt about puberty (clearly, it couldn’t be live action) and burgeoning sexuality (and masturbation) that it still amazes me that it gets made; it would have never aired on basic cable or the original networks. I feel rested after this weekend–perhaps it’s the extra hour and my body hasn’t adjusted yet–more rested than I’ve felt in a very long time. I didn’t get as much accomplished this weekend as I would have ultimately preferred, but that’s life and beyond my control. It’s not easy to either write or edit when traveling, but I am going to give it the old college try and see what I can done while on the road. Obviously, that is something I need to get better about going forward.

But I feel good, am excited about the trip, and just have to get through today. My flight tomorrow is later in the day, so I don’t have to deal with any of the crazed “last minute” packing and so forth; I can leisurely check the weather in both places, figure out what I need to pack, make a list (the crazed list-maker never stops, apparently), and then carefully pack so as to be certain that nothing is left behind (a bigger and bigger fear the older I get, sadly) and then get up tomorrow and slowly get ready for the departure. I have an errand I must run tomorrow before heading for the airport, and there are some things around the house I need to get done before finally heading on my way out. It’s going to be weird traveling again–I did fly up to Kentucky earlier this year, but that now seems like it was an eternity ago–but I will have my phone and a book; I am taking These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall, Invisible City by Julia Dahl, Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier, and a Donna Andrews with me (not sure which Andrews; I am several books behind and desperately need to get caught up on them), which definitely should take care of my reading at the airport, on the trains, and on the planes. It will also help me fall asleep at night as well in strange hotels–I never sleep well in hotels, not sure what that’s about, but it has everything to do with it not being my own bed because I experience this everywhere–and I am looking forward to engaging with these books; it’s been a while since I’ve read a book through.

I reread Stephen King’s short story “One for the Road” from Night Shift yesterday, which, like “Jerusalem’s Lot,” is about the town from ‘salem’s Lot; this story clearly takes place after the events of the novel, so the two stories are book-ends for it–the former story being set over a hundred years in the past and explains how the town became basically cursed; the other being here we are a few years later when the town has become abandoned again. I’ve always wanted King to write a sequel to this book–it’s actually one of the few that kind of cries out for a sequel, as opposed to The Talisman and The Shining, which are the books he wrote sequels to; I know I read somewhere that he had the idea already of how to open such a sequel, and in all honesty it really whetted my appetite to read it. (‘salem’s Lot will always be one of my favorite Kings, if not my absolute favorite)

And on that note I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Monday, Constant Reader, and I will check with you later.