Keep Coming Back

It dropped into the forties overnight, and this morning, it’s struggling to get up into the low fifties. This is utter and complete madness; we even are looking at a possible freeze alert by Tuesday–a freeze alert in November. Utter, total, unquestionable madness.

The LSU game…well, they won and let’s just leave it at that.

The Saints play Cincinnati today at noon; I intend to write all morning and then take a break to watch them play, after which I will try to get some more writing done. I wound up spending most of yesterday relaxing and reading. I dove back into ‘salem’s Lot, my Halloween reread for this year (you see how well that went), intending to only read a chapter, but promptly got sucked into the narrative. I finished reading part one, and chose to stop with Part II, “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” The essay about ‘salem’s Lot that is currently brewing in my head–“Peyton Place, But With Vampires”–is slowly taking shape within my head, which is lovely. Whether or not I am ever going to have the time to write it is an entirely different question, of course.

One of the interesting things about rereading ‘salem’s Lot is also seeing how carefully King structured his novel; the book isn’t–which is the point of my essay–so much about the vampires and the fearless vampire killers (well, they are hardly fearless), as it is about the town. I love that King shows how the other people in the town react to what’s going on; they of course aren’t privy to what the main, core characters (Ben, Mark, Susan, Matt, and the doctor–whose name is escaping me now) are; one of the other things King does so remarkably well in this, only his second novel, is depicting how small towns really work–hence the comparison to Peyton Place. His depictions of small towns only got better and more realistic as his career progressed; I think the secret strength of Needful Things is the honesty and truth in how he depicted Castle Rock; with all the resentments and anger and feuds all simmering just beneath the surface (I also need to revisit Needful Things).

I plan to get back to Bury Me in Satin today. I wrote less than three hundred words yesterday, and this shall not stand; I also need to get back on track with this manuscript. I am a little torn about how to proceed–I am also having questions about the time line and so forth–but these things should sort themselves out as I write and move the story forward. We’ll see how it goes today. I also need to work on these short stories. Heavy heaving sigh.

I also managed to read something yesterday for the Short Story Project: “Remaindered” by Peter Lovesey, from Bibliomysteries Volume 2, edited by Otto Penzler:

Agatha Christie did it. The evidence was plain to see, but no one did see for more than a day. Robert Ripple’s corpse was cold on the bookshop floor. It must have been there right through Monday, the day Precious Finds was always closed. Poor guy, he was discovered early Tuesday in the section he called his office, in a position no bookseller would choose for his last transaction, face down, feet down and butt up, jack-knifed over a carton of books. The side of the carton had burst and some of the books had slipped out and fanned across the carpet, every one a Christie.

Last Sunday Robert had taken delivery of the Christie novels. They came from a house on Park Avenue, one of the best streets in Poketown, Pennsylvania, and they had a curious history. They were brought over from Europe before World War II by an immigrant whose first job had been as a London publisher’s rep. He’d kept the books as a souvenir of those tough times trying to interest bookshop owners in whodunits when the only novels most British people wanted to read were by Jeffrey Farnol and Ethel M. Dell. After his arrival in America, he’d switched to selling Model T Fords instead and made a sizable fortune. The Christies has been forgotten about, stored in the attic of the fine old weatherboard house he’d bought after making his first million. And now his playboy grandson planned to demolish the building and replace it with a space-age dwelling of glass and concrete. He’d cleared the attic and wanted to dispose of the books. Robert had taken one look and offered five hundred dollars for the lot. The grandson had pocketed the check and gone away pleased with the deal.

Hardly believing his luck, Robert must have waited until the shop closed and then stopped to lift the carton onto his desk and check the content more carefully. Mistake.

This is actually my first experience with reading Peter Lovesey.  I mean, I know who he is and that he is in the upper stratosphere of crime writers, but I’ve not read him before. Reading “Remaindered” certainly has made me want to change that. The story is multi-layered, and exceptionally cleverly structured. It begins with the sad and sudden death of a second hand bookstore owner; due to a crate of Agatha Christie novels he’s just purchased, as indicated in the excerpt above. And that is where the story starts to twist and turn, changing shapes and throwing out the occasional surprise, twist after twist after twist; all of them organic and foreshadowed, and the story itself does an excellent, highly honest job of depicting the characters, their needs, their wants, and their incredibly surprising histories. I do highly recommend it.

The entire point of The Short Story Project was intended to be a sort of graduate course in short story writing for me. At the beginning of this year, the intent was for me to write a lot of short stories and to work on my craft with them, to improve as a writer. I’ve not had that much success with any of the new stories I’ve written this year; the rejections continue to stack up. But I shall continue to try writing them. I also realized last night that two stories I have coming out in anthologies next year are similarly themed, and I have like two or three more following not only a similar theme but a similar pattern in the works. Ruh roh.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Venus

My sleep patterns are so messed up. I woke up this morning (several times) before eight (the first time was at three) before finally getting up around seven thirty. This is the first time I’ve gotten up early on my own without an alarm in weeks, maybe even months. I’ve been sleeping later and later every morning, but lately, if I don’t set an alarm I seem to not wake up until sometime between nine-thirty and ten; which is a lot of sleep. I’m not complaining, mind you–the sleep is restful and good when it comes–but at the same time I hate that I always mentally default to oh, I’ve wasted my entire morning in bed.

Sleep is never a waste; nor is my morning wasted because I didn’t get up until almost ten.

And yet this morning, my Sunday this week, I somehow managed to wake up early. Let’s see how much I can get done this morning, shall we? I’d like to get back to the gym today, try to reestablish that workout pattern I slipped so easily out of a few months back. Those months of regular workouts for naught now; I have to start over again and try to get back into the swing of regular workouts before trying to start pushing myself and trying to burn off the fat and gain some additional muscle. I’ve been very dissatisfied now (for years) with how my body shape has changed; and if I don’t start doing something about it soon it might become more permanent; and above all else, it’s not healthy.

And healthy has to be the primary motivating factor now, not appearance.

I did finish reading Philip Roth’s When She Was Good this past weekend, Constant Reader.

I didn’t love it. It’s one of his early novels, like Letting Go, which I also didn’t care for, and am now wondering if I should actually try to read one of his later novels. I am giving him more chances than I usually give an author, but I also do think it’s kind of unfair to judge an author solely based on early works. When She Was Good is about small-town morality and small-town mentality; set in some ambiguous Midwestern state in the small town of Liberty Center (just across the river from the bigger city of Winnisaw), it focuses on the tragedy of young Lucy Nelson, whose life and world views are shaped by being the daughter of an alcoholic failure. The end result is she sets impossibly high standards of success vs. failure, of morality vs. immorality, and she makes people miserable. Her big failure is getting pregnant while in college (which she takes no responsibility for her part in) and proceeds to make her husband miserable. The whole book is about responsibility; and it’s not a terribly exciting read. Lucy is awful but so is her husband and his family; if anything, the book serves as a commentary on the phoniness of small town values, like Peyton Place; the primary difference between the two being Roth’s novel is smaller in scope while Metalious’ has a plot and characters you care about and you want to know what happens to them.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Head over Heels

There was an article somewhere recently that described a new trend in literary fiction, inspired by Elena Ferrante: writing about women’s friendships. I literally did a double-take when I saw it; because there have been books, across all genres, about female friendships for many, many years–for example, the examination of women’s friendships and relationships with other women were at the root of every Rona Jaffe novel; the primary strengths of both Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls lie in the friendships between the women; going back to Jane Eyre, there are always friendships between women at the heart of novels (hello, Jane Austen?). The point is this is nothing new, so to describe this as a ‘new trend’ is short-sighted to say the least, lazy writing at the worst.

Rebecca Chance novels kind of defy description, to be honest. They are called ‘bonkbusters’ in her native England (where they are runaway bestsellers); some call them ‘glamorous thrillers.’ She writes about what used to be called ‘the jet set’, or ‘the beautiful people’, or the ‘rich and beautiful’; territory that used to be mined by Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon, Harold Robbins, and Jacqueline Susann. And while I don’t mean to demean her predecessors in the field, who were quite good at what they did and wrote yarns you simply could not put down, Chance’s novels are different; in that they combine sharp social commentary, wit (at times, they are laugh out loud funny), and characters that you can’t help but like and identify with.

Her latest, Killer Affair, is no exception.

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It was an ocean liner come to rest in the heart of London, its glittering, prow-shaped facade jutting towards the Thames. From its terraces and balconies, the view was unparalleled: the beautiful curve of the Playhouse Theatre with its glowing lights, the flow of boats along the wide river, the sprawl of the South Bank beyond, London’s bounty spread like a fabulous offering of endless possibilities to the gilded, privileged guests who occupied the penthouse suites.

However, the young woman who was climbing out of the black cab outside the hotel entrance in Whitehall was in no mood for relaxing on a private balcony with a glass of champagne, resting her arms on the rail, gazing down over the glittering city as she made plans for that evening. Her jaw was set determinedly, her eyes hard. The liveried doorman, reaching into the can for her two suitcases, asked if she was a guest at the hotel, to which she responded curtly that no, she had a booking at the spa and needed to check her luggage.

If the doorman thought it was strange for a day spa visitor to arrive with a pair of large, battered suitcases, there was not a hint of that reaction on his face; his demeanour remained entirely polite and neutral as he carried them inside.

And so begins the latest Rebecca Chance novel–who is this woman, and what is she doing at the spa? The prologue ends with her discovering her target–another woman with whom she is angry–and dumping ice all over her recumbent figure as she spits out angrily, “You bitch! You’ve ruined my life!” (With hints of Shirley Conran’s brilliant, memorable opening to her novel, Lace: “Which one of you bitches is my mother?”)

The book then flashes back to the beginning of the story; how the two women met and became involved with each other’s lives. One of them is Lexy O’Brien, a reality television superstar in the UK who quite literally and ruthlessly climbed to the top of the pile of reality stars by carefully planning her every move, maximizing every bit of publicity she could gather, and is now quite happily married to a sexy former footballer who now is a TV commentator. The two live with their two children and various staff in a beautiful mansion in Sandbank, one of the most expensive places to buy property in the world, and Lexy is planning her next assault on the tabloids/entertainment journalism: writing a memoir. Of course, Lexy isn’t going to write it herself but needs a ghostwriter, which is where young, chubby Caroline comes in. Caroline works writing press releases and also writes a blog, shares a flat with four other broke young people, and dreams of becoming a successful novelist. She is quite dazzled at first by Lexy and her life; Lexy, while immensely narcissistic and self-absorbed (two vitally necessary personality traits for any reality star) is not a bad person–she just sees everyone around her as tools for her stardom and vehicles for publicity. She is actually quite generous with the bedazzled Caroline, and the young woman is grateful at first…but the more she writes, the less dazzled by Lexy she is…and the little nickname Lexy gives her at first–“Ghost Mouse”–begins to rankle…especially as Caroline, by being quiet, listening, and paying attention, learns a lot more than Lexy could ever imagine. And soon, she begins to not just envy Lexy her life, but to believe Lexy doesn’t deserve it.

To tell anymore would spoil the twisty, clever and wickedly funny plot (although it has strong elements of All About Eve), and despite all appearances to the contrary, neither Lexy nor Caroline is a villain. Chance, as always, has created three dimensional characters, strong women with good and bad sides, whose behavioral motivations make complete sense–and her keen insights into reality television, writing and publishing, and how intricate and delicate relationships between friends, family, and lovers can be, make the book completely un-put-down-able. I deeply resented having to put the book aside to work on my own writing, or go to work, or to go to bed. Yesterday I sat down in my easy chair to read for an hour before doing my own writing–and seven hours later put the book down with an enormously satisfied sigh.

Americans, you can either order the book from Amazon.co.uk; the Book Depository; or from Murder by the Book in Houston. It’s soooooo worth it, believe me.

A Beautiful Morning

Well, I finished reading The Underground Railroad yesterday, and will most definitely be blogging about it, once I’ve digested it some and thought about it some more. It was, to say the least, very powerful, and not only did it made me think about the subject matter–it also made me think about a lot of other things, which I will be more than happy to discuss once I’ve digested them. I also started reading The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, which I am enjoying as well.

We were supposed to get heavy weather yesterday, but it arrived over night instead–everything out there is wet and dripping, which is always a joy. Ah, well.

I didn’t write yesterday, or at all over the weekend, which is, of course, terrible. I did get some cleaning done and some organizing–not as much as I would have liked–but we’re also working on getting caught up on our shows and I did want to power through and finally finish the Colson novel, which I did manage to do, and then we got caught up on The Walking Dead, watched last night’s Feud, and then it was bedtime.

I am greatly enjoying Feud, and am very impressed with how it’s taking on the issue of how Hollywood/entertainment treats women; which also, in some ways, goes along with another show I am looking to finishing watching–the season finale of Big Little Lies was also last night; which we will undoubtedly watch tonight as well as continuing to get caught up on Bates Motel (a show that is KILLING it now in it’s final season). The way two of my favorite old Hollywood actresses–Bette Davis and Joan Crawford–are being depicted is brilliant, and the two women playing them, Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, are turning in stunning, award-worthy performances. Last week’s episode, in which both Davis and Crawford are still not fielding any offers before the movie opens–and then it becomes a huge hit–was particularly brilliant; the moment when Joan Crawford, leaving the theater after the preview of the film that ended with a standing ovation, is recognized in the lobby and then mobbed with fans–when this happens, the look on her face–surprise evolving into pure joy at being treated like a star again, is so poignant it’s heartbreaking.

Last night’s, Oscar night when Crawford was snubbed in favor of Davis, was also almost painful to watch; the naked need Davis had for that third Oscar, the pain and anguish Crawford felt about being overshadowed once again by her rival (the scenes where Crawford talks to Geraldine Page and Anne Bancroft, asking them if she can accept for them, and the pity and sympathy Page and Bancroft feel for her, agreeing to let her do it because she needs to…wow)–and Judy Davis is also killing it as Hedda Hopper.

And last night, for the first time, Catherine Zeta-Jones actually delivered as Olivia de Havilland.

I got the idea for an essay yesterday about women’s fiction–using three novels to not only compare and contrast to each other but also to talk about how fiction by, for, and about women is so regularly disdained and dismissed as somehow lesser–the three being The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe, Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, and Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. I’ve been toying with the idea for quite some time, and I thought about it again yesterday, partly because of Feud, but also partly because of Big Little Lies. Of course, I have no idea where to publish the thing…and it’s not like I don’t have a million other things to write as well.

Heavy heaving sigh.

And on that note, back to editing.