I’m In Love with a German Film Star

Thursday morning, how you doing?

So New Orleans is slowly beginning to open up this Saturday morning–I’m kind of skeptical, quite frankly, but at the same time, I’m also kind of happy that my gym will be open again. Yes, I’m that shallow gay man. But I had really gotten into a groove working out before the country shut down for the first time in over ten years, and my body was actually responding to it. So, yes, I’ll put on my mask and go to the gym, cleaning everything before and after I use it, and try to maintain distance from people as much as I can.

Does that sound selfish? Now that I’m putting it own into words, it kind of does.

And of course, the irony of catching a potentially lethal virus while working out to be healthier does not escape me.

But I’ve tried to maintain some sort of exercise; taking walks, stretching every other day, and when I’m feeling particularly ambitious, some crunches and push-ups. And the fact that I’ve missed going to the gym, and am anxious to get back to it, is a good thing, right? And yet at the same time, I can’t help but feel maybe I’m being stupid? Ah, the conflict and inner turmoil! I can also be smarter about this, too–going when there isn’t as many people there, for one, and determining whether I feel it’s safe or not to go ahead and work out after getting there and seeing how many people are there and so forth. I suspect with the gym opening up it’ll be similar to January–always crowded at first as people try to stick to their resolutions and then gradually tapering off to normal. I don’t know, I’m really torn. While continuing to do my best while at work to reduce my risk of exposure, is it really smart to be at risk for exposure while at work and then go to the gym?

Well, I have until Saturday to figure it all out and decide.

I slept really well last night, probably the best night’s sleep I’ve had in ages, frankly, and it was lovely. I am still a bit groggy this morning, but that good groggy feeling from sleeping well and wishing I could have stayed in bed a lot longer this morning. I was tired yesterday; and hopefully that will carry over into another good night’s sleep tonight. One can hope, at any rate. But the coffee is tasting particularly good this morning–another sign that I’m still groggy–and I have to leave work early today because I have a doctor’s appointment this afternoon, after which I’ll run some errands before heading home.

I almost finished reading House of Many Shadows last night–I am, according to my Kindle, about 85% finished with the book, so it shouldn’t be an issue to finish reading it tonight. I am also now wondering what I should reread next. I was leaning toward another Mary Stewart–Madam Will You Talk?–but I’ve reread a lot of Mary Stewarts since beginning the Reread Project (each of which was a gem and a total pleasure to reread), and perhaps it’s time to move on to another writer for now, and save the Stewarts for later in the year? I do have an awful lot of Phyllis Whitneys on my Kindle, as well as some other terrific books I would love to reread–there’s also some Agatha Christies, including one that never gets talked about much but was always a favorite of mine, The Man in the Brown Suit–and there are any number of others as well.

Paul was working on things last night, so I watched One for the Ages, the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary recapping LSU’s 2019 football season (I still can’t believe how amazingly good they were; better than my wildest dreams for an LSU football season) and then they replayed the national title game between LSU and Clemson. And no, I wasn’t really watching the game again, it was just on for background noise while I read. (I will admit to having watched it again more than once, but primarily skipping the parts when Clemson played well and scored; while I was doing my data entry yesterday in my easy chair I played through the games with Florida and Alabama on Youtube)

I am also hoping to get back to work on the Secret Project tonight. It took me awhile, but I think I have a better way to open the first chapter than the original way I had.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with yours truly. Have a happy Thursday, Constant Reader!

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Footsteps

I wound up deciding to take yesterday off from the world–computer, social media, you name it–because for whatever reason my desktop was acting wonky yesterday morning and eventually I grew so irritated I decided to run my errands. When I got home from that further irritation–nothing like people not only not wearing masks in public but not maintaining social distance as well–and I just wanted to scream at everyone: “do you want us to be on lockdown through September? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

But then I remember–this is New Orleans and nobody follows rules here; or at least, they ignore them when they’re inconvenient. It’s sadly part of the charm here, and now that it’s something important…I see how dangerous that can be. But it was nevertheless more fuel for my irritation, and by the time I got home my computer was still wonky so I decided to say fuck it and take the day away from the computer and social media. It was kind of nice–I fell into a Youtube hole of history videos (I am really glad to be studying history again; as I’ve said before, I kind of wish I’d majored in History in college–but would have never been able to narrow down a field of majority interest). I spent most of the afternoon moving and rearranging books and filing and cleaning while this Youtube videos played on continually; I learned some more about the Byzantine empire, the plague, and the Hapsburgs–who are so fascinating to me. Let other wars, you, happy Austria, marry.  Someday I’d still like to do a book about the powerful women of the sixteenth century; and many of those important women were Hapsburgs.

One of the things I’ve found interesting is how writers are engaging with their lockdown situation and their social media. Lists are popping up everywhere; and as I daydreamed yesterday while doing my chores and so forth, I started thinking about my own lists–rather than ten albums or books or movies that shaped me, I wanted to come up with more specifics: My Ten Favorite Agatha Christie novels, my favorite romantic suspense novels, my favorite crime novels by women, and so on. The reboot of Perry Mason, coming this summer from HBO (it looks worth a look, frankly; although I imagine there are any number of Mason purists who will naturally hate it; there always are), might be worth taking a look at some Perry Mason novels–I feel the books don’t get nearly as much attention as the TV series based on them; and the books don’t get talked about nearly enough, either. Talk about puzzles–Erle Stanley Gardner was a master of crime plotting, and red herrings, and confusing the reader; I don’t think I ever correctly solved a Perry Mason case until Perry revealed their identity, dramatically, in the court room (which is, of course, where that trope originated); and I do have a couple of them lying around on the shelves in the laundry room–The Case of the Calendar Girl and The Case of the Crying Swallow–so perhaps, as part of the Reread Project, I should revisit them both.

I also spent some time thinking about The Plot Against America–which is directly related to our finishing Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood last night on Netflix. Both are alternate histories, but one of the things about Hollywood is that it was an alternate history that was actually appealing; usually, alternate histories inevitably paint an uglier reality than the one that actually happened (although it’s hard to imagine a more dystopian alternate history for the present day than the actuality); Hollywood didn’t do that. Instead, it showed how horribly racist, homophobic, and misogynist the country was, and how Hollywood reflected that…and then gave us a lovely alternate history where a Hollywood studio saw its duty to change those things and open up society in the late 1940’s. It’s quite marvelous, actually; I kept waiting for reality to break over them, but it never did. It’s very well done, and it’s shot in the style of Hollywood films of the time, right up to the obligatory happy Hollywood ending. And of course, the boys were beautiful. The Plot Against America, on the other hand, was completely horrifying because it was so easy to imagine that we as a country could have gone that way. I don’t know how the novel ends–I never finished it; I have said before that I am not a fan of Roth and I never got past the first chapter of this one–but I thought the way the show ended was perfect, even if it was terrifying at the same time; it was more of an indictment of the United States (as I said to Paul, “this show is terrifying because it could so easily have gone this way here”) and humanity than anything else.  Hollywood also could be seen as an indictment of the way things used to be–its message seemed to be this could have all changed so much earlier if anyone in Hollywood had the courage to make these changes–and that is just as damning as The Plot Against America.

Today I am going to write and edit and revise and get things done. I think I am always teetering on the edge on Saturdays anyway; still leftover tired and so forth from the week, and then having to deal with the general public on top of that is always draining and rough on my moods. Computer issues on top only heightens the aggravation, and being already on the razor’s edge doesn’t make it any easier. I kind of have a mess here in the kitchen that needs to be handled–I deliberately avoided my desk yesterday, so there’s sorting and filing that needs to be done around here as well–but this morning, after I finish this, I am going to abjure to my easy chair and read for a bit. I want to get further into Mysterious Skin, and then I am most likely going to move on to another Mary Stewart reread, either Thunder on the Right (which I don’t remember at all) or Madam Will You Talk?, which I have some memory of; and there are also short stories I’d like to sink my teeth into. I haven’t touched the most recent Lawrence Block anthology, which looks terrific and has some amazing contributors. I want to get my story “Night Follows Night” revised today and possibly submitted somewhere; I’d also love to get some revisions done on “This Thing of Darkness” and “Never Kiss a Stranger.”

And of course, the Secret Project. I really need to get back to work on the Secret Project.

So, yes, I have my work cut out for me today. I also should spend some time drafting the replies to the massive amounts of emails I’ve accumulated over the last day or so. And then I feel like I can face Monday with a clear conscience.

Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader. I plan to.

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Stand by Your Man

Sunday morning and I’m feeling fine. Yesterday was kind of lovely; I am enjoying this healthy feeling I’m experiencing, and it’s been a while since I’ve not been feeling like shit, so this recovery has been absolutely lovely. Yesterday I managed to be productive yet again–I finished the floors and some odds and ends; there are a few odds and ends that I need to get done today as well–and I got some wonderful reading done; I also managed to get some writing done.

What’s that, you say? Actual writing? Yes, indeed. I wrote about a thousand words on the Sherlock story, give or take; I started writing two new short stories (don’t @ me, I am well aware, but I wanted to get both “Officer Friendly” and “The Pestilence Maiden” started, else I’d forget what they were about or the ideas), and I also did some thinking about all the books and projects that I have in some stage of completion, which was also lovely. It’s nice to slowly be working my way back into my writing again–I was beginning to think I’d never get there, frankly–and yes, it felt really good to be writing again. Today I have to make a run out to get some groceries–my first time leaving the house other than taking out the trash or using the grill–since I got sent home from work over a week ago. I have a mask and gloves, and portable hand sanitizer attached to my key ring. My goal for the morning is to finish this blog, do some other puttering around the house that I need to do before leaving, and then head to the store. When I get back home, I am going to sit down and bang out some more writing, and then at some point I’ll retire to my easy chair to do some more reading.

Now that I’ve actually started to read ebooks, I have to eat a lot of crow. I’ve been resisting reading ebooks for years–I’ve done it, when required, for book award judging, but never really like it and resented having to do it–primarily because I don’t like change, for one thing, and for another, I already spend far too much time looking at screens; the last thing I need to do is read something electronically to relax after staring at a computer screen for a minimum of eight hours a day. My eyes continue to get worse–and it’s a combination of age and blue screen effect, I am fairly certain–and reading electronically was probably not going to help that. But now that I’ve gotten started, I can’t seem to stop. I finished reading This Rough Magic yesterday morning–or was it Friday night? I don’t remember–and yesterday I read a Scott Heim story, “Loam”, and then moved onto another Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting, which is also fantastic. We watched Zombieland Tap Twice (it was something like that) which was much funnier than I thought it would be, and then the Octavia Spencer horror thriller, Ma–which could have been better, but was perfectly adequate. I do love Ms. Spencer, and wish she would get some better material to showcase her talents more.

I think we’re scheduled to  have shitty weather today, too–rain and so forth–and it looks kind of hazy and sepia-toned out there this morning, and windy–so I should probably get my act together faster this morning and get to the store  so I can not only get it over with, but get back home before the weather turns ugly. Good thing I just looked up the weather–that isn’t going to happen until this afternoon, and I should be able to get there and back before that occurs. It’s also fun to sit at my desk and write during crappy weather, I don’t know why that is, but I like having that tiny barrier of glass between me and the nastiness outside. I’m not sure why that is….but the only thing I like about driving in rain is the coziness of being warm and dry inside my car while only a thin sheet of glass and metal protects me completely from the elements. It’s weird, I know, but everything about me is actually pretty weird; always has been (and for the record, I never became truly happy until I stopped fighting and accepted the weirdness).

I greatly enjoyed Scott Heim’s “Loam”; he’s always been one of the finest writers that our community has produced over the last (gulp) thirty years, and his lack of production has always been a pity and a shame. I read and loved Mysterious Skin years ago, and have always intended to reread it; reading “Loam” got me to find my old copy and place it on the Reread Project pile, which now consists of it, two more Mary Stewart novels (Madam, Will You Talk? and Thunder on the Right), Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home, Moonraker by Ian Fleming, Sing Me a Death Song by Jay Bennett, Shotgun Opera by Victor Gischler, A Queer Kind of Death by George Baxt, and Harlan Ellison’s collection Strange Wine (I also have Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank on deck in my Kindle app).

“Loam” is a long short story about three triplets from the small town of Collingwood, Kansas (is this a nod to Collinwood from Dark Shadows? Perhaps), who are returning for the first time in years, to arrange and attend their father’s funeral. The story begins with the three of them dealing with the rental car arrangements at whatever airport they flew into–I assume Kansas City, which is where I’d fly into if going to visit my part of Kansas–and then slowly, as they make the drive, Heim begins to peel back a trauma the triplets–and the other kids in their first grade class–possibly survived when they were very young; a Satanism scare, in which the teacher and her mentally handicapped son were accused of using (and abusing) the children. This begins to resurface when they stop at a second hand store and find a stack of pictures of their classmates and themselves at that age, possible evidence from the case, which was eventually dismissed as a hoax and a scare–similar to the Satanic scare that happened somewhere else, where the cops basically convinced the children they were abused and to accuse the day care operators of Satanism and abuse–and so we’re never really sure, as are the kids themselves–whether or not it actually happened. It’s very gruesome, and very Gothic, and extremely well written. I recommend it highly; and I wish Scott would write more. I’d never gotten around to his other two novels, In Awe and We Disappear; I’m going to make the time this year, methinks. “Loam” is a Kindle single, part of a group of six stories called “Disorder collection,” whatever that is, and you can get it here for 99 cents. You won’t regret it.

And then I started rereading Nine Coaches Waiting. Again, this is a Mary Stewart novel that I read once, long ago, as I was making my way through the Stewart canon as a teenager; I remember enjoying it, but it didn’t make a strong impression on teenaged me. But as I begin rereading it again yesterday, I could not help but marvel at Stewart’s skill. Nine Coaches Waiting consists of the perfect Gothic romantic suspense set-up; a young orphan girl comes to a huge mansion near the French/Swiss border (she has to fly to Geneva to get there) to be governess to an orphaned young French comte; his estate, Chateau Valmy, is being managed for him by his aunt and uncle; he usually lives with another uncle in Paris, but that uncle, an archaeologist, has been called away for six months to a dig in Greece, and so he has returned to his ancestral home to live with his other uncle. Linda, our twenty-one year old heroine, is half-French and fluent in both languages, but it’s made fairly clear to her during the hiring process that they prefer someone who only speaks English, so that the young Phillippe’s English also will become fluent–as she can only speak to  him in English. Under the cover of that lie Linda comes to Chateau Valmy, and becomes attached to her young charge…while not entirely trusting Phillippe’s aunt and uncle, her employers. What Stewart is doing with this novel is completely subverting the meek governess trope of romantic suspense, that began with Jane Eyre; her employer even mockingly calls her “Miss Jane Eyre” at one point. Victoria Holt went back to the governess well over and over in her novels, from Mistress of Mellyn to The King of the Castle, sticking to, and mirroring, the original trope; I love what Stewart is doing with it, and this is yet another example of what a master writer Mary Stewart actually was.

And on that note, perhaps it’s time for me to get back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Easter Sunday, Constant Reader.

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Rose Garden

My paternal grandmother–the one who went undiagnosed for bipolar disorder until she was in her eighties; better late than never, I suppose–was also the first person in my life to encourage me to not only read but to become a writer. She also introduced me to old movies–including horror, suspense, mystery, and noir–and also was the person who introduced me to some of my favorite writers, including Ellery Queen, Victoria Holt, Erle Stanley Gardner, and the magnificent Mary Stewart. My grandmother gave me a copy of Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree in hardcover, saying, “This one has a huge surprise in it.”

She wasn’t wrong, either.

Flash forward a few years, and a friend in high school convinced me to read a novel called The Crystal Cave. I started reading it and couldn’t stop reading it, and then immediately went out and bought my own copy of the sequel, The Hollow Hills. The friend–Felisha–told me I should also check out some of Mary Stewart’s other, non-Arthurian novels, so the next time I went to the library, I went to the S’s in fiction and there it was on the shelf: The Ivy Tree, even the same edition I read when I nine or ten. Of course I checked it out, and also checked out Airs Above the Ground, The Moonspinners, and This Rough Magic. Spoiler: I loved them all. I would eventually read the rest of the Arthur books, buying them in hardcover when they were released (The Last Enchantment and the Mordred story, This Wicked Day), and gradually went back and read the majority of her suspense novels…but there are some, to this day, that I have not read–primarily because I don’t ever want to run out of Mary Stewart novels to read.

And now that I think about it…truth be told, it’s been so long since I read so many of these novels that I could probably reread them now and they would seem new to me. But I have reread both The Ivy Tree and Airs Above the Ground many times; I always considered The Ivy Tree my favorite of her novels because it was the first I read–but in truth, Airs Above the Ground is definitely my favorite of them all. I am including Mary Stewart in the Reread Project, naturally; but I definitely need to make time to reread some of the ones I don’t remember.

Mary Stewart is often frequently mis-categorized as a Gothic writer, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth; perhaps some of her novels (Touch Not the Cat, The Gabriel Hounds) might skirt the edge of Gothic suspense, but that isn’t what she wrote. She is also often called romantic suspense, and again, while some of the book danced close to that (Madam Will You Talk? and Nine Coaches Waiting–which, come to think of it, might also fall into that Gothic category again), she basically wrote suspense novels about headstrong young women who took charge of their situations and rarely, if ever, needed rescuing.

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Carmel Lacy was the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal. The only reason I was having tea with her in Harrods on that wet Thursday afternoon was that when she rang me up she had been so insistent that it had been impossible to get out of; and besides, I was so depressed anyway that even tea with Carmel Lacy was preferable to sitting alone at home in a room that still seemed to be echoing with that last quarrel with Lewis. That I had been entirely in the right, and that Lewis had been insufferably, immovably, furiously in the wrong was no particular satisfaction, since he was now in Stockholm, and I was still here in London, when by rights we should have been lying on a beach together in the Italian sunshine, enjoying the first summer holiday we had been able to plan together since our honeymoon two years ago. The fact that it had rained almost without ceasing ever since he had gone hadn’t done anything to mitigate his offence; and when, on looking up ‘Other People’s Weather’ in the Guardian each morning, I found Stockholm enjoying a permanent state of sunshine, and temperatures somewhere in the seventies, I was easily able to ignore the reports of a wet, thundery August in Southern Italy. and concentrate steadily on Lewis’s sins and my own grievances.

“What are you scowling about?” asked Carmel Lacy.

“Was I? I’m sorry. I suppose I’m just depressed with the weather and everything. I certainly didn’t mean to glower at you! Do go on. Did you decide to buy it in the end?”

God, how I love this character. Vanessa March was not your ordinary run-of-the-mill heroine; look at how much we learn, not only about her, but who she is and where she is at emotionally, in that opening paragraph! We learn she is married; has had a horrible fight with her husband about having to change their vacation plans; is completely and utterly convinced she was in the right; and would rather spend time with someone she clearly doesn’t like rather than stay in her lonely apartment with her memories of the argument–which she is still angry about. But this tea at Harrod’s with silly Carmel Lacy is what sets the story in motion: you see, Carmel is divorced; left by her husband who now lives in Vienna, and she needs someone to travel with her teenaged son who wants to go see his father. Why would Vanessa be interested in making such a trip? And that’s when we get an insight into Carmel’s personality; she slyly mentions having seen Lewis in a newsreel at the cinema; something about a fire involving a traveling carnival in Austria, and surely Vanessa is going there to meet him? Vanessa never lets Carmel see she doesn’t have the slightest idea why or how Lewis could be in Austria rather than Sweden. Instead, she goes to the same cinema, watches the newsreel, sees that it is, indeed, her husband in the newsreel–he’s obviously lied to her, and then she calls Carmel and tells her she’d be delighted to escort her son to Austria.

Vanessa has no idea what’s in store for her in Austria, and yet she has no qualms about taking off for there, with a teenaged boy who’s practically a stranger to her, in tow; this is one of the reasons I love Stewart’s heroines; they were definitely not shrinking Violets, and impetuously always set off for adventure to parts unknown. The second chapter, which details the flight from London to Vienna, is another gem of a chapter. Timothy Lacy, a young teenager, cannot hide his disdain, dislike, and disapproval of his traveling companion; like all teenagers, he doesn’t think he needs an escort or a glorified babysitter. After a while, he buys a carton of cigarettes from the flight attendant, much to Vanessa’s inward amusement, and finally she says:

“You know, I couldn’t really care less is you want to smoke all day and all night till you die of six sorts of cancer all at once. Go right ahead. And as a matter of fact, the sooner the better. You have the worst manners of any young man I ever met.”

The paperback dropped to his knees, and he looked at me full for the first time, eyes and mouth startled open. I said: “I know quite well that you’re perfectly capable of traveling alone, and that you’d prefer it. Well, so would I. I’ve got troubles enough of my own, without bothering about yours, but if I hadn’t said I’d go with you, you’d have never got away. I know you’re sitting there fulminating because you’ve had a kind of nursemaid tagged onto you, but for goodness’ sake aren’t you adult enough to know that there are two sides to everything? You know you’d get on fine on your own, but your mother doesn’t, and there’s no sense in making gestures to reassure oneself, if they’re only distressing other people. Surely all that matters now is that you have got your own way, so why not make the best of it? We’re stuck with each other till I get you–or you get me–safely into Vienna and you meet your father. Then we’re both free to go about our own affairs.”

I don’t think I’ve ever loved a character more than I loved Vanessa March at that moment. It’s an excellent icebreaker, and she and Timothy Lacy–Tim–become friends after that exchange. But Tim, like Vanessa, has secrets of his own–for one thing, his father has no idea he’s showing up; has a new, younger fiancee; and no place or welcome for Tim–so without any other option, Vanessa brings Tim along on her search for the carnival from the newsreel. Tim is absolutely fascinated with horses–and Vanessa, as it turns out, is, like her father, a certified veterinarian.

I cannot say more without giving away spoilers–and spoilers in a Stewart novel are quite distressing; as part of the joy of reading her novels for the first time are the surprises she pulls on her unsuspecting readers; surprises that, even on a reread when you know what’s to come, you still can’t spot the stitching in her seamless plots. One of my all time favorite reveals in crime fiction takes place in this book–the brilliantly composed scene in which the old horse begins to dance in the moonlight, and what all that scene means–every time I reread the book I still get chills…and that’s not the only surprise Stewart pulls on the reader in Airs Above the Ground. It’s quite an exceptional thriller, with Vanessa and Tim making an exceptionally fun and interesting and witty team of sleuths trying to get to the bottom of what is going on around the carnival–and one of the best climaxes to a suspense novel I’ve ever read; then again, it’s hard to go wrong with a speeding train.

Genius, absolute genius.

And of course, being a devotee of Airs Above the Ground (which was, in fact, an Edgar nominee for Best Novel) also enabled me to surprise people with a Jeopardy! answer–“The horses known for the airs above the ground”–to which I quickly replied, “What are the Royal Lipizzan stallions of the Spanish Riding School, Alex?”

If you’ve not read this–despite it being slightly dated, you really need to.