Love Vigilantes

Friday! Friday! Gotta get down it’s Friday! Although I kept thinking yesterday was Friday, actually. It occurs to me that I actually keep this blog so religiously primarily because it helps me keep track of what day of the week it actually is, if not the actual date so much. I am of course working at home today–lots of data entry to do once I got this posted, and of course, it’s laundry day for the bed linens. Yesterday I spent the day making condom packs and then went to the gym, afterwards coming home and feeling completely brain-dead and unable to make any progress on the book–which I will have to correct tonight; I need to be revised through Chapter 10 by this weekend was the goal, which means I need to get four chapters revised tonight or tomorrow, so Sunday I can spend the day copy-editing and coming up with some plans for the second half of the book. If I have some spare moments that I wish to use not being a vegetable, I may work some more on “The Sound of Snow Falling,” which I am actually enjoying writing.

Shocking, right? And at some point I need to get back to Jess Lourey’s marvelous Edgar finalist, Unspeakable Things.

I also went into a bit of a wormhole last night about Louisiana’s “cancer alley,” and have long thought, in idle moments, that I need to address Cancer Alley in a Scotty book; I can think of nothing local that would drive his parents into full-on protest mode than that. (For those of you who don’t live in Louisiana,”Cancer Alley” is what Louisianans call the strip of petrochemical plants along a stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The plants are generally located in relatively poor parishes and areas,; there is also a very high prevalence of cancer in those communities, hence “Cancer Alley.” Since the petrochemical companies have deep pockets and Louisiana politicians have always gone relatively cheap, nothing is ever done about it….Louisiana is slowly being destroyed from within because our state legislature, many of our state politicians–including those we send to Washington–are owned these companies in tandem with the oil companies, who are responsible for our gradually eroding coastline and increased vulnerability to hurricanes) Cancer Alley has been back in the local news (it never makes the national news) again because people are protesting again–this happens periodically–but this could be an enormous departure for a Scotty book, which is why I’ve never done Cancer Alley Canard (yes, I came up with the title for it yesterday), but it also doesn’t make any logical sense for Scotty’s parents to never ever talk about, or protest, Cancer Alley…and of course, it would have to begin with a protest (perhaps Scotty and Storm bailing their parents out from yet another arrest) and then an activist would have to be murdered–maybe even a journalist, I don’t know. But corporate evil is something I have always wanted to write about, and perhaps it’s getting closer to the time I do that with Scotty. (For those who are paying attention, that means I have ideas for at least four more Scotty books–this one, Twelfth Knight Knavery, French Quarter Flambeaux, and Quarter Quarantine Quadrille, with Hollywood South Hustle also in the mix.)

But I have to write Chlorine next. That’s the most important thing once I have this one sent off to my publisher.

As Constant Reader is aware, one of the things I do to entertain myself while making condom packs is to continue improving on my vastly inferior education in film. I decided to take a bit of a break from the Cynical 70’s Film Festival, and am again saving horror films for this coming October season. I had wanted to do a study of teen films and how they changed and evolved from the 70’s to the 80’s; but yesterday as I scrolled through those options I really didn’t feel like any of them were particularly appealing, given my mood. But as I scrolled, I came across A Room with a View, an 80’s classic from Merchant-Ivory, and I recognized that I had, in fact, never seen a Merchant-Ivory film. I’ve never been a particular fan of E. M. Forster, and while I do recognize the appeal in fictions set during the high noon of the British Empire (likewise, I felt much the same about the Regency period, but found myself thoroughly enjoying Bridgerton and have thus had to alter my thinking about that period, so why not?) at the same time, I have also recognized that the appeal of most of those fictions lies in there being about the privileged–those with country homes and scores of servants, and the ability to travel abroad. The Imperial English were also horrific racists and nationalists as well as classists, so while I was relatively certain Merchant-Ivory films were well made and well done, my attitude towards viewing them was more of a “meh” than anything else. Yet…I had never seen one; this film was one of Helena Bonham Carter’s first big roles; and you really can never go wrong with a cast filled with English actors. So, I queued it up and began watching.

Imagine my delight when within minutes of the film opening I discovered the cast included one of my all-time favorite actresses–the magnificent Maggie Smith–and Judi Dench! And of course, the first section of the film is set in my beloved Florence and Tuscany! I settled in, starting stuffing condom packs with a very delighted sigh, and began watching. The film seemed a bit slow at first–I felt the build-up into the love story between Lucy and George (gorgeous young Julian Sands) perhaps took a little too long, and then the whole matter of the “scandalous” secret that he kissed her in a poppy field during a rainstorm a bit silly (fully acknowledging that in their class, this was the kind of thing that could ruin a young woman’s reputation; one of my frustrations with older periods is how atrociously stifled women were), but once they were all back in England and Daniel Day-Lewis appeared on the scene as a fiancé for her, it got really going. (Might I add how marvelous it was seeing Day-Lewis, who would go on to win three Best Actor Oscars, in an early role as the pompous and very straight-laced Mr. Vyse? He was marvelous in the part, and of course, watching him I couldn’t help but marvel that the man inhabiting this role so perfectly would go on to My Beautiful Laundrette, My Left Foot, The Last of the Mohicans, There Will Be Blood, Gangs of New York, and Lincoln–yes, what an exceptional talent indeed) And of course, Rupert Graves is so astonishingly beautiful as a young man. Visually the story is sumptuous; the writing witty and clever; and of course, the acting is top notch. I shall indeed have to watch more Merchant-Ivory films…and it also occurred to me, as I watched, that I have also never seen A Passage to India, and really should correct that oversight.

And perhaps should give Forster another try.

After completing my daily tasks and chores and the gym, I came home to clean and reorganize a bit. As I was putting books away, I came across my copy of Sanctuary, which I had taken down recently thinking about rereading it. I did reread the first chapter, but then I got caught up in Alyssa Cole’s amazing When No One Is Watching and digressed away from it. One of the reasons I was thinking about Faulkner again was, naturally, because I had been working on Bury Me in Shadows, and the whole world I’d created in that book– as well as a couple of published short stories, and numerous others unfinished–was rather inspired, not only by the region my family is from, but by Faulkner; I wanted to write about Alabama much the way Faulkner did about his jawbreaker of a county in Mississippi (Yoknapatawpha?) and writing various books and stories that were all set there and loosely connected; I also wanted to revisit Faulkner a bit because I wanted to remember the way he wrote; the dreamy texture and atmosphere of his prose, and how he presented his world as honestly and realistically as he could. (I know there are those who consider Faulkner’s works to be racist, and yes, of course they are; the use of the n-word is prevalent, of course, as well as depictions of racial inequities and racist white people; but he also doesn’t excuse them or try to present them as heroic or being right–he leaves that to the reader. Usage of the worst racial slur will never cease to make me recoil or flinch, which makes rereading his work more challenging than it did when I was younger, I am sad to confess.) I had originally read Sanctuary when I was in high school, and really do need to revisit it as an adult and as a published writer, so I can grasp it better and I am also curious to see how I will react to it. I began reading other Faulkner works after I had a very encouraging creative writer teacher in California (as opposed to the monstrous troll in Kansas); he recommended As I Lay Dying to me, and I not only devoured it, but then moved on to The Sound and the Fury, which remains to this day one of my absolute favorite novels. “A Rose for Emily” is also one of my all time favorite short stories as well–and I think it was this story that actually pushed me along the path to coming up with ideas for a fictional county in rural northwest/central Alabama; that story is so beautifully Southern Gothic…and so many small Southern towns have those kinds of eccentrics that it seemed like writing about those eccentrics was the proper way for me to go with my own writing.

My writing career has truly had so many stops and starts over the years…

And on that note, tis time to. head into the spice mines for today. It’s gray outside my windows this morning, and today is a day when I most likely won’t be leaving the house at all, which is also kind of lovely. I am going to be doing data entry until I finish it all; if there’s time left in my work day I shall then go back to my easy chair and condom packing….and seeing if I can find Maurice on a streaming service for free, or A Passage to India.

Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader!

Blue Monday

And Monday again; the work week is reborn and refreshed and ready to go again. Whether one Gregalicious can say the same about himself remains to be seen, but it is early yet and this is still my first cup of coffee, so the rest remains fairly unclear. I have high hopes for today and this week; I am hoping that I will have the energy, drive and will to finally get caught up on everything.

Then again, this week could also bitch-slap me back into place at any particular moment, so there’s that as well.

It turned out to be stunningly beautiful yesterday–mostly cloudy, but still managed to get up into the lower seventies. As I walked to and from the gym, I marveled at how lovely the weather was for late January…but stopped myself from the false hope the fake early spring we always seem to get in late January inevitably gives rise to; there’s always another cold front that seems to roll in, with rain and damp and cold winds, before March returns with the first hints of real spring. The workout was also nice; I always love that post-workout tired feeling, when your muscles are fatigued.

I also had a great morning reading yesterday. I read the opening chapter of Faulkner’s Sanctuary; three short stories (“Miss Bianca” by Sara Paretsky, originally published in MWA’s Ice Cold and reprinted in Paretsky’s own collection, Love and Other Crimes; “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” by Edith Wharton, from The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton–also my first time reading Ms. Wharton; and “Mermaids on the Golf Course” by Patricia Highsmith, from The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith. The Paretsky was my favorite of the three, but I do feel there will inevitably be a blog post about older ghost stories vs. modern); and then dove headfirst into Alyssa Cole’s When No One is Watching, which is particularly quite marvelous, and a solid entry into a new subgenre I hope we’ll see more of–gentrification noir. I had thought about doing a Scotty book about New Orleans gentrification–Bywater Bohemia Bougie–and I still might–it’s an awesome title, after all, but I am not sure of what the actual story would be; an unscrupulous developer is kind of a no-brainer, wouldn’t you say, though?

We only have one episode left of Flack, and I must say we are really enjoying it. I hate to see it end, but season 2 of Apple Plus’ chilling Servant has also dropped, so we have something interesting and disturbing to move onto.

Yesterday was kind of lovely; I felt rested, did a lot of reading and cleaning, and eventually did some more brainstorming on the book, which I am almost ready to start revising. Always a plus.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Monday, Constant Reader!

Singularity

I am starting to feel good again. I am not sure what that is all about–nor am I certain how long it’s going to last, but no worries, Constant Reader–I am going to ride this wave until it inevitably breaks around me. Thursday, I must confess, wasn’t a good day for one Gregalicious, and I hate those days and the inevitable despair that comes along with those awful days. An emotional and physical and intellectual valley, if you will; which generally manifests itself as the inability to do much or face anything or accomplish anything.

It’s gray again this morning in New Orleans. It rained off and on all day yesterday, never heavy enough to be of any real concern for anything but mostly mist more than anything else; one of those winter days where it’s so humid it eventually turns to water in the air because it isn’t warm. The clouds are very low this morning, brushing against the tree tops in the distance. I spent most of yesterday working–trying to get organized, cleaning up the office space in the kitchen as well as doing some cleaning and so forth–but I also took time out to finish reading the Patti Abbott story I had started at the dealership on Friday morn, which I greatly enjoyed–and while I most definitely would have preferred getting more done than I did, I’ll take what I got done and try to get even more done today. I have to go to the gym today at some point as well. But now that football season is over for Louisianans, my weekends are completely freed up now for rest and work and anything else I might be up for getting accomplished along the way. This is good, because I need to really start getting focused on the Kansas Book, as its deadline looms large in the near future. AUGH.

But as I sip my coffee on this gray foggy New Orleans morn, March 1 seems a long time off and so I can still muse about being able to get it finished without physically working on it just yet. My final revision is taking place in my head, as I revise and rewrite and restructure the story in my head and put in the things that are missing from the story. The theme I am mostly trying to follow for it–that many societal ills truly are based and steeped in misogyny, and how that harms everyone–is, I think, important; and I have a relatively strong grasp of my point of view character; I spent quite a bit of time yesterday putting other pieces into place and figuring out some things, which is never a waste of time. I’ll probably spend some time with the manuscript today, mostly reading it over and trying to get a fixed outline in place. There are things missing from the manuscript, as I mentioned already; there are several characters who primarily are just talked about and never actually appear in the story itself, and that’s kind of a cheat, and unfair to the reader and the characters. Heavy heaving sigh.

We started watching Anna Paquin’s new show on Amazon Prime last night, Flack, in which she plays Robyn, a deeply troubled young woman who works at a PR firm for high-end celebrities, cleaning up the messes they make and controlling the narratives of their lives. It’s quite good–Paquin is always amazing when given great material (Sookie on True Blood could become annoying and irritating, but then when given material worthy of her she was shined)–and we will most likely delve back into it this evening when we are ready to relax and recharge from this day. I’ve got a stack of folders and papers that really need to be put away–more like find a place to put more than anything else–and I’ve got some more organizing to get done. I’d also like to start reading my next book; I’m not sure which I am going to choose, to be completely honest, but I have such a plethora of riches from which to choose that I know I’ll pick something absolutely delightful that I will greatly enjoy. Maybe even a reread? There are any number of books that I would like to reread–and you know, even as I type this I am thinking perhaps a revisit of Faulkner’s Sanctuary might be just the trick. I was a teenager when I originally read it, and so didn’t quite grasp much of the story and what was going on; it would be interesting to take another look at it now and see how I react to it. It’s definitely noir, or borderline noir; and I do remember enjoying it the first time I read it, even if a lot of it went over my head. If not the Faulkner, maybe I should read something that isn’t a crime novel, just to expose myself to other characters and narratives and styles of writing. I don’t read enough outside of my own genre, which isn’t a good thing; I’ve always felt it important to read outside of the genre whenever I can, but there are always so many good mysteries to read and so many wonderful ones that are already published and new ones being published all the time I know that I will never have the time to read everything I want to read, which is kind of sad, really.

I could, of course, reread Sanctuary slowly, and read something else at the same time more quickly. Hard to say, really. I could also dive back into the Short Story Project; I certainly have enough anthologies and single-author collections to get through.

Ah, well, I shall certainly figure it all out at some point.

Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

Everything’s Gone Green

My memory has truly become amazingly awful and limited as I grow older. Yesterday was one of those days that reminded me just how bad it’s become–and how rarely I follow through on plans I make.

I started writing about Kansas when I was a teenager living in Kansas, and I wrote a long, messy manuscript by hand that was essentially a kind of Peyton Place tip-off, with tons of characters and plots and subplots that meandered about and never really had one cohesive central story. Over the years since that handwritten, almost a thousand page first draft was finished, I came to the realization that as a single novel itself I would need to cut out a minimum of fifty percent of the characters and even more of the subplots while tightening it into one cohesive story. The name of the town changed multiple times, as did the names of the some of the characters, while others remained the same from beginning to end. I had no idea at the time of how to write a novel, or how to structure one…but since it already existed, I began mining it for other novels and short stories, pilfering names and subplots and so forth (the murder story in Murder in the Garden District, and the Sheehan family in the book, were directly lifted from this old manuscript; I changed the family name from Craddock to Sheehan). My young adult novel, Sara, also had a lot of story lifted from this same old manuscript–even characters’ names–so when I started building this iteration of what I’ve taken to calling “the Kansas book” over the years, I knew it was possible I was repeating names from the old original, and at some point I would have to check Sara at some point to get the character names from it, to not repeat them. The Kansas book was also intended to be set in the same world as Sara–Sara being primarily set in the county and the small grouping of three small towns consolidated into one high school; with this book set in the county seat, the small city/large town I called Kahola. Kahola never really sat well with me for the town name; it’s perfectly fine for the name of the county as well as the lake (there actually is a Lake Kahola; it’s where we went when I lived there and “went to the lake”), so I decided to change it to Liberty Center (which I got from Philip Roth’s When She Was Good, so it’s also an homage) and Sara geography be damned. So, yesterday while the Saints played terribly and ended their season (and possibly Drew Brees’ career), I was scanning though the ebook of Sara and pulling out character names–even minor ones– as well as place names and so forth.

I am very pleased to report that there is only one character name that traveled from the original manuscript to Sara and finally into this new iteration of the Kansas book, and obviously that needs to be changed. I am not willing to change the name of the county seat back to Kahola; it never really seemed to fit, and Liberty Center works much better on every level, but I can change the name of the character in #shedeservedit to avoid confusion…not that there would be much, since Sara is my lowest selling book for some reason I certainly don’t get, but it would unsettle me, so it cannot be. As I was pulling names out of the ebook, and place names and places of interest, I also began remembering other things.

I had originally intended for all of my young adult novels to be connected in some way, kind of how R. L. Stine had done his Fear Street series, where all of the books take place in the same town and high school, and a minor character in one would become the hero of another. I was reminded of this because Laura Pryce is mentioned by name in Sara; she was the protagonist of Sorceress, and she was from the same rural part of Kahola County and went to the same consolidated high school. Sorceress tells the story of how Laura goes to live with her aunt in a huge house outside the California mountain town of Woodbridge; Woodbridge is also the setting for Sleeping Angel, and characters overlapped from Sorceress to Sleeping Angel. The Chicago suburb in Sara where Glenn is from is the same suburb that the main character in Lake Thirteen was from; it is the same suburb where Jake’s father, stepmother, and half-siblings live in Bury Me in Shadows; and of course, this latter is set in Corinth County, Alabama–which is where my main character in Dark Tide was also from. As I was picking out the character and place names from Sara, I was also reminded of other books I’d wanted to write, and I had introduced some of these characters in this book intending to revisit them again at another time in another book or story–books and stories I have since forgotten about completely, and yet there are the characters, crying out to me from my Kindle app for me to write about them.

Having triggered my brain into the creative mode yesterday by doing this chore during the Saints game (I started during the men’s finals at the US Figure Skating Championships; congratulations to our world team o Nathan Chen, Vincent Zhou, and Jason Brown) I also began remembering other things I was working on–like “The Rosary of Broken Promises” and “To Sacrifice a Pawn,” two stories I started for a submissions call I didn’t manage to make; or some of my pandemic story ideas (inspired by the pandemic or during it) like “The Flagellants”, “The Arrow in the Cardinal’s Cap”, and “The Pestilence Maiden”; amongst so many, many others. This is why I despair of ever writing everything I want to write during the limited time I have on this earth; I could spend the rest of my life trying to write every story and novel idea I already have and would never be able to finish them all.–and I have new ideas, all of the time; it’s almost ridiculous.

I already know I am most likely going to revisit Corinth County in Alabama again–it’s basically where my already-in-progress novellas “Fireflies” and “A Holler Full of Kudzu” are set, amongst many other ideas for short stories, novellas, and novels. I will undoubtedly return to Liberty Center at some point as well; I have ideas for other Kansas books and stories, too; I’ve revisited Kahola County, Kansas in my short stories numerous times already as well. I’ve also got my own parish in Louisiana–Redemption Parish, which I wrote about in Murder in the Arts District, The Orion Mask, and some other short stories. I’ve also already invented a fictional town on the north shore–similar to Hammond–that showed up in Baton Rouge Bingo and will undoubtedly turn up again in my work, although perhaps not under my own name.

I spent some more time with Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and am thoroughly enjoying the ride. King’s authorial voice is so strong (and reminiscent of the late great Elizabeth Peters) that I cannot wait to read more of the Mary Russell series–it’s so different from her Kate Martinelli series, which I also love–and intend to spend some more time with it this morning with my coffee as well; I see a new tradition for non-working days developing; reading with my coffee in the mornings, which is simply wonderful. I recently acquired Alyssa Cole’s thriller When No One Is Watching, which I am also looking forward to, and I have added both Stephen King’s The Stand and Faulkner’s Sanctuary to the reread pile…and I’d also like to get back to the Short Story Project at some point….and of course there are all those ebooks piled up in my Kindle as well.

We also spent last evening after the Saints’ loss getting caught up on The Stand, which I am enjoying, although it’s made some choices I find questionable. I’m okay with everything having to do with the plague and the characters making their way to either Boulder or Las Vegas being done entirely in flashback, but the focus on the character of Harold Lauder–whom, while important to the story, was at best a supporting character in the novel and the original mini-series–is an interesting choice. They’ve certainly spent more time with him than they have with any of the people who were the novel’s protagonists–Stu, Larry, Glen, Frannie–so the focus of the mini-series seems a bit off to me….but props to them for casting the delightful Alexander Skarsgard as Flagg; his beauty and charisma–so evident as Eric on True Blood–playing perfectly into the role of the dark leader of the other side. Over all, the series is well done and well cast (Whoopi Goldberg as Mother Abagail doesn’t quite work for me; in the book she was old and frail and Whoopi is many things but frail is not one of them; I’d have gone with Cicely Tyson or any of the other gifted Black actresses who are older now) and I am a bit more forgiving than most when it comes to adaptations, I think–especially since the key part of the word is adapt. (I saw some more Hardy Boys enthusiasts bitching about the Hulu series somewhere again yesterday; honestly–I really have to center a book and a mystery around a kids’ series’ overly enthusiastic fans) We still have the rest of the first season of Bridgerton to watch, and season two of Servant has dropped on Apple Plus–do NOT sleep on this creepy-as-fuck show; you will not regret it–and I am also anticipating the release of Apple Plus’ adaptation of Foundation, starring Jared Harris, and we’ve also got a second season of The Terror somewhere to watch, and the second season of Mr. Mercedes on Peacock as well…so we seem to be set for things to watch for a good while.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Today is going to be mostly spent reading Laurie King this morning, and then the rest of the day spent with my manuscript as I try to work out the kinks and figure out what else needs to go into it. Have a happy holiday Monday, and do try to remember Dr. King’s message of equality, unity, and freedom for all.

King of My Heart

I went down a wormhole thought pattern of sorts this morning, triggered by reading a Crimereads essay about spy novels, and their genesis; it mentioned that Rudyard Kipling’s Kim was one of the first spy novels, and I also realized that only had I not read Kim, I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever read Kipling; however, a quick Internet search just not has reminded me that I have, indeed, read Kipling: Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, but I really don’t remember anything about them (let’s be honest, all my memories of The Jungle Book are naturally from the Disney animated film). I may have also even read Just So Stories, but am not entirely sure. I’m sure Kipling’s work does not stand the test of time–just the title of the poem “The White Man’s Burden” made my eyes almost pop out of my head when I came across it this morning–as they undoubtedly reflect the white supremacist view of Imperialism and the need for the British Empire.

On that same note, I feel relatively certain that the M. M. Kaye novels I once enjoyed (Shadow of the Moon and The Far Pavilions) probably wouldn’t hold up well, either.

I always read for pleasure and for enjoyment; to escape the world in which I found myself inhabiting and feeling like a changeling for the most part; I still do, for the most part. I haven’t been paid to write a book review in over a decade; I’ve always felt that as an author myself, there was a conflict of interest in accepting pay to read and critique another author’s work, and there was always, inevitably, the possibility that an honest view on something that didn’t work for me as a reader would be seen as a vindictive move on my part to torpedo another author, out of jealousy or spite or both. There are any number of these reviewers being employed, and paid quite handsomely, by major newspapers, and I don’t want to be one of them. I don’t like writing negative reviews, and if I am reading something I don’t care for, having to finish reading it because I am being paid to write about would inevitably make me resent the book and its author and would thus color the review.

I generally read things I think fall under my purview as a writer–mostly crime novels, some horror now and then, and maybe something every once in a great while, that would be considered literary. Often these are books by writers I already have discovered, or new ones recommended to me by others whose tastes I respect–The Coyotes of Carthage came to me in this way; Lisa Unger was recommended to me by numerous friends; and yes, Paul Tremblay came to me as a recommendation from a friend. I know I need to expand my horizons to improve as a writer, which is why I am not only committed to the Diversity Project (books by marginalized writers) but also to the Short Story Project. The Diversity Project has been a terrific learning experience, and the Short Story Project has helped me become a better short story writer. I’ve been trying to read New Orleans history lately–with a dash of Louisiana thrown in for flavor–in order to get a better sense of the city and state, so that I can write about them both more knowledgeably; plus there is so much inspiration in reading about the past of both city and state! It’s also incredibly humbling to know how little of that actual history I did know, and even though I knew how rich that history was, I had no idea just how much of a gold mine of inspiration and ideas it would prove to be.

Like I said, I tend to read things I think I will enjoy, and if I am not enjoying the experience, I inevitably stop reading. I have started things and put them aside, only to go back to them again and greatly enjoy them; Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts being the best and most recent example of this I can remember; I started it, got several chapters in, and wasn’t feeling it. I went back to it months later and couldn’t put it down, and frankly, after The Cabin at the End of the World, Tremblay is becoming one of my current favorite authors.

So, I’ve been wrong about books before, and I’ve also been wrong about authors before. Hence the dilemma in being a book reviewer, and why I have chosen for many years now to seek extra income by reading for reviews. I enjoy writing about books I enjoyed on here, my blog; that’s part of its reason for existence, and I also curate what I read and write about here. No one chooses for me what I read or what I write about; and I will only review something negatively if the writer is, frankly, long dead; and even then, it’s simply an explanation of why the book didn’t work for me (an example of this latter type was Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich; I appreciated the book but there were things about it I didn’t like, that I felt didn’t “play”, but since he is long dead–over fifty years–I wasn’t overly concerned about hurting his feelings….and I have enjoyed other works of his).

I often talk about how my education in what the Academy considers to be classic American literature (British, too, for that matter) is sorely lacking. It’s something that I occasionally wonder about; should I go back and read these so-called classics as decided by a group of people whose opinion I generally don’t respect very much? It’s entirely possible, I know, that books I was forced to read as a teenager in high school and college were actually better than I thought at the time because I loathed being forced to read anything and I despised the way they were taught by pompous pseudo-intellectuals with tenure (I really enjoyed mocking that world in my story “Lightning Bugs in a Jar”, and will probably mine it again at some point as story fodder).

But I can honestly say I went back twice to reread The Great Gatsby only to discover that I loathed it even more than I remembered loathing it the first time; I also spent some time in my twenties trying to read other works by the writers I was forced to read and found that I did, in fact, enjoy some of them. I hated Sinclair Lewis when I was forced to read Main Street in college; I later went back and enjoyed both Elmer Gantry and It Can’t Happen Here very much. I disliked Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise very much, and I loathed the Hemingways I was forced to read (The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms) so much that I just can’t bring myself to read anything else of his. I was very surprised, actually, to find myself enjoying Faulkner quite a bit, and I keep meaning to go back and reread both The Sound and the Fury and Sanctuary–but there are also a lot of other Faulkner novels I’ve not read, and probably should. I also despised Tom Sawyer and the other, celebrated Mark Twain short stories I was forced to read; but as an adult greatly enjoyed Puddinhead Wilson, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Life on the Mississippi.

But I am not someone who became a writer because I wanted to have a legacy, or be lionized; I became a writer because I wanted to tell stories, and I wanted to tell the stories that I wanted to tell. I never had any desire to have my work be taught in colleges, or for students to be forced to write papers about my work. I always say that sort of thing isn’t up to me to decide, and it’s never been my aim. If I’m forgotten after I die, well, I won’t be the first.

I justify to myself not reading a lot of literary fiction by saying there simply isn’t enough time for me to read everything that I actually want to read, let alone find the time things people think I should read. But I also have this sense in my mind that perhaps I am missing out on something; I know I’ve read books that have gotten critical acclaim that were more on the literary side and liked them very much and learned from reading them. Colson Whitehead, for example, is simply brilliant while also writing genre fiction–The Nickel Boys and Underground Railroad were stunningly brilliant; I really need to read more of his work–and thinking about Colson Whitehead led me to thinking about, of all people, Cormac McCarthy. I’ve not read McCarthy, but from what I have gathered from what I have heard about his work is it technically is also genre fiction; The Road is a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, after all–a friend whose opinion I respect read and hated the book, so I’m probably not going to go there–so I started going through his canon on the web and I finally settled on one to add to my TBR pile at some point, Outer Dark, because it too sounds like genre fiction. We shall see how that goes, shan’t we?

Laura Lippman often says that genre fiction is literature, and by claiming literary classics as genre (the most common is, of course, Crime and Punishment) we are demeaning the great genre work, which stands on its own without the necessity of claiming Dostoevsky or Faulkner’s Sanctuary as crime fiction (although I do believe Sanctuary is pulpy noir of the best kind). I do agree with her to some degree; as I said, I do think Sanctuary is noir, and an argument could be made that An American Tragedy by Dreiser is as well. (I’ve also pointed out numerous times that The Great Gatsby is really a murder mystery told in reverse) But her point is spot on: genre fiction doesn’t need to claim classics from the Academy in order to be recognized as literature, and claiming those books does make it seem like trying to make fetch happen.

I also like to believe that my best work is still ahead of me.

Of course, that means I actually need to do it.

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

DJ Culture

Ah, Kansas.

I only spent five and a half years there, and yet somehow, it more shaped my psyche and who I am than the years as a child in Chicago or the four and a half years in its suburbs; even more so than the eight years spent in California. I’m not entirely sure why precisely that is, but it’s true. I think perhaps it’s because it was there I really and truly started writing, and started seriously thinking that my both life and career were going to be about writing. By the time we took the 1:30 a.m. train out of Emporia for California, my identity as a writer was firmly fixed in my head; when I stepped off the train into the California sunshine, I knew I was going to be a writer someday, somehow, some way.

And when I lived there, in Kansas, I wasn’t really aware of other Kansas writers. (I also wasn’t aware of other gay people there, either.) Now, of course, I know Sara Paretsky is a Kansan, along with Nancy Pickard and Kay Kendall and Lori Roy; I don’t know if Scott Phillips is a native, but he writes about Kansas. Alafair Burke grew up in Wichita.

And of course, there’s Scott Heim.

I recently read a novella by Scott, “Loam”, which was really good, and it put me to thinking about Mysterious Skin, the first of three novels he published, and alas, the only one that I’v actually read. I read it back in the late 1990’s, methinks, when I was scrabbling around trying to get caught up on gay lit and read as much of it as I could. I also saw the film (I’ll watch anything with Joseph Gordon-Leavitt in it, quite frankly), and while I have met him and spent a little time with him, and we follow each other on both Facebook and Twitter, I don’t know that I would safe in referring to him as a friend, I do consider him an acquaintance of whom I am very fond. He’s quite witty on social media, and I admire his skill as a writer…so I thought I should take a reread whirl with Mysterious Skin. 

I also wanted to read it as a dark crime novel, borderline noir; I was certain the story would hold up, but since Mystery Writers of America classifies it’s definition of a mystery as writing about the commission, solving, and/or aftermath of a crime….while it can be a stretch, Mysterious Skin kind of fits into that broad definition. Laura Lippman thinks we need to stop claiming literary works, like Crime and Punishment and Sanctuary as crime novels; but I honestly believe Sanctuary absolutely and positively is a masterwork of literary noir; the line between “Southern Gothic” and “crime fiction” is relatively tiny and there is a lot of crossover. Some of Flannery O’Connor’s work, definitely Southern Gothic, crosses over that fine line between literary fiction and crime.

I am not defining literary works, or works from other fields, as crime fiction to try to elevate crime fiction; it doesn’t need elevating to get respect, which was Laura’s point. Crime fiction deserves respect because it is good, and those who dismiss sneeringly as genre need to remember that literary fiction is just as much a genre as anything else.

As Nevada Barr said, “It’s either mystery or romance or just plain boring.”

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The summer I was eight years old, five hours disappeared from my life. I can’t explain.  I remember this: first, sitting on the bench during my Little League team’s 7 P.M. game, and second, waking in the crawl space of my house near midnight. Whatever happened during that empty expanse of time remains a blur.

When I came to, I opened my eyes to darkness. I sat with my legs pushed to my chest, my arms wrapped around them, my head sandwiched between my knees. My hands were clasped so tightly they hurt. I unfolded slowly, like a butterfly from its cocoon.

I brushed a sleeve over my glasses, and my eyes adjusted. To my right, I saw diagonal slits of light from a small door. Zillions of dust motes fluttered through the rays. The light stretched ribbons across a cement floor to illuminate my sneaker’s rubber toe. The room around me seemed to shrink, cramped with shadows, its ceiling less than three feet tall. A network of rusty popes lined a paint-spattered wall. Cobwebs clogged their upper corners.

My thoughts clarified. I was sitting in the crawl space of our house, that murky crevice beneath the porch. I wore my Little League uniform and cap, my Rawlings glove on my left hand. My stomach ached. The skin on both wrists was rubbed raw. When I breathed, I felt flakes of dried blood inside my nose.

Like some of the best crime novels, Mysterious Skin is about survivors of a trauma, and the different ways people react to suffering through trauma. It actually isn’t a stretch to call it a crime or mystery novel; the central story is trying to determine what happened to Brian Lackey when he was seven years old and lost five hours of time. Brian at first becomes obsessed with UFO’s and alien encounters, as those are the only places he can find where other people also lost time; so he becomes convinced that he was kidnapped by a UFO and experimented on; all the evidence, such as it is, certainly points to that. The other boy, Neil, had a sexual relationship with his Little League coach, which he believed was consensual and that Coach loved him; as he grows up he becomes a hustler, tricking with johns cruising a park in Hutchinson (all these small cities in Kansas have/had gay cruising places; Emporia even had one) and eventually moving away to New York, where he continues hustling. Neil’s trauma is actually even unknown to him; he’s convinced himself that he was special and that Coach loved him; their sexual relationship wasn’t perverse or perverted or anything wrong, but rather based in love and consent; his own memories are very clouded, and as a young adult hustler he finds himself drawn to older men, much like Coach was.

It’s very definitely a literary novel, make no mistake, but it is, at heart, a novel about a crime and the trauma that comes from that crime and its aftermath; which fits the definition of “mystery” that comes from Mystery Writers of America. I doubt very seriously the panel of judges for the Best First Novel Edgar the year this was released would have picked it as a finalist (which it deserved to be); the subject matter is hard enough for people to deal with, let alone the sexuality of Neil, who is essentially a teen hustler, getting paid by older men for sex.

Beautifully written with a sparsity of language that Megan Abbott or James M. Cain or Shirley Jackson would embrace; Heim chooses words carefully to evoke powerful images and emotions and realities in as few words as possible, and while some might think the ending a bit of a cheat, leaving the door open to many possibilities–I feel like he found the absolute perfect place to end his novel: Neil coming to realize that what he experienced with Coach wasn’t love (something he has been adamantly refusing to understand since it happened–that whole I’m different than the others thing so many children feel under those circumstances–I’ve known any number of gay men who had relationships with adults when they were very young and didn’t realize it wasn’t love until they aged out of their Lolita-like relationships) and Brian finally piercing through the veil his mind has hidden the truth from all these years because it was too much for him to handle…until he could handle it.

Mysterious Skin is also an incredibly powerful depiction of what it’s like to be grow up working class in a sparsely populated state like Kansas–the worries about money, the beater cars you keep coaxing more life out of, that college might not be an option, and there aren’t that many good jobs to be had–and what it’s like to grow up queer under those circumstances. At one point in the book Heim says something incredibly smart and true–about how the stuff that is hip and cool on the coasts takes about three years to get to the center of the country; which is something I learned very quickly when I moved to California and all of my clothes were dated and wrong and out of style.

This is a truly terrific book, and I encourage you to read it, if you haven’t already.

Round and Round

So, I did it. I went to the gym yesterday for the first time in months, and God knows when the last time I went without a trainer appointment. I am very proud of myself for taking this first step, and I have to remember to stay motivated. It felt fantastic. I’d forgotten how great endorphins feel. I went in, and did some stretches before heading to the weight machines. I went all the back to my origins (something I seem to be doing a lot this year), and started doing my work outs the way I did when I first got back in shape way back in 1995: a full body workout (chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, leg press, and calf raises, then abs and cardio) and did low weights, tried to not overdo it, and only did one set of 15 on everything. I will go up to two sets of everything on the fourth workout; three sets on the seventh, and up the weights on the tenth, and then on every fourth thereafter. I am not concerned about gaining size; this is more of a cardiovascular than strength workout. Maybe by the summer I might change to something more muscle building, but any workout with weights is going to gain some size. I’d like to hit my goal weight of 200 by July; we shall see. I also am not certain what that is going to do to my build, to be honest. But I can adapt…and posting publicly about this is also going to shame me into being more consistent.

And this morning I still feel good; I can tell I exercised, but am not sore. Yay! SO lovely to know I am doing it right. It’s hard to believe that it’s been so long since I learned about the body and how to exercise properly. I wonder–yes, I just googled my old gym in Tampa; it closed in 2003 and was still owned by the same person when it closed as when it opened. Good ole Metroflex and Alan. When I wrote Murder in the Rue Dauphine I based the gym Chanse worked out at on Metroflex; I even named the manager Alan. I’d completely forgotten about that until just now….

We watched I, Tonya last night and really enjoyed it. I have a lot of thoughts about it, but I’m going to let them digest for a few days before I post about it. The cast is excellent, and I think the movie is, too.

I have lots I want to get done on this holiday Monday; I am making an excursion to Metairie, and have lots of writing to do, and lots of editing, and tons of emails to anwer and get caught up on.

The Short Story Project continues. Yesterday I read the first story in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey and Me, “Between the Sheets”:

I squinted at the woman sitting across the desk from me. I could have sworn she’d just told me there was a dead man in her daughter’s bed, which seemed like a strange thing to say, accompanied, as it was, by a pleasant smile and carefully modulated tone. Maybe I’d misunderstood.

It was nine o’clock in the morning, some ordinary day of the week. I was, I confess, hungover–a rare occurrence in my life. I do not drink often or much, but the night before I’d been at a birthday party for my landlord, Henry Pitts, who’d just turned eighty-two. Apparently the celebration had gotten out of hand because here I was, feeling fuzzy-headed and faintly nauseated, trying to look like an especially smart and capable private investigator, which is what I am when I’m in good form.

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m thirty-two years olds, divorced, a licensed P.I., running my own agency in a town ninety-five miles north of Los Angeles. The woman had told me her name was Emily Culpepper and that much made sense. She was very small, one of those women who at any age will be thought “cute,” God forbid. She had short dark hair and a sweet face and she looked like a perfect suburban housewife. She was wearing a pale blue blouse with a Peter Pan collar, a heather-colored Shetland sweater with grosgrain ribbon down the front, a heather tweed skirt, hose, and Capezios with a dainty heel, I guessed her to be roughly my age.

“Between the Sheets’ is a delight, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s actually a traditional mystery story; one that is solved by viewing the crime scene, interviewing people, and observing the clues left behind by the killer and making deductions. This is particularly fun because the Kinsey novels are hardboiled style private eye novels, tough with sparse prose and told from Kinsey’s slightly cynical, world-weary point of view. This short story, still in that voice, though, has several moments os humor, and could easily have been an Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason story, or an Agatha Christie–although Christie’s short stories always seemed to me to border on the noir side.

The other story I read was “Barn Burning” from The Collected Stories of William Faulkner, an enormous volume I’ve only occasionally dipped into:

The store in which the Justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of  cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish–this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little but of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy, he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and him both! He;s my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet:

“But what proof have you, Mr. Harris?”

Faulkner is one of my all-time favorite writers; his “A Rose for Emily” is one of the greatest short stories ever written–if not the greatest–and both Sanctuary and The Sound and the Fury are works of art most writers can only aspire to. There’s no sentimentality in Faulkner, at least not to me; he doesn’t romanticize poverty, he doesn’t romanticize the rural Southern experience, nor does he write about heroic figures. He writes about damaged and flawed human beings, and while his work is called “Southern Gothic,” I’m not sure if gothic is the right word. For me at least the descriptor gothic conjures up an entirely different image and style of story and writing. Reading Faulkner reminds me of home, reminds me of relatives and summers spent in rural Alabama, of orange-meat watermelons and fireflies and  four o’clocks and screen doors and ticks on dogs and red dirt and big red Coca-Cola coolers with a bottle opener on the side. “Barn Burning” is told from the perspective of a young boy, Colonel Sartoris Snopes, and opens with his father being found not guilty, for lack of evidence, of burning the Harris barn after a dispute about a loose hog; but despite the lack of evidence the Snopes family is banished from the county and sent on their way to the next sharecropping farm, where things go bad yet again, but this time Sarty can’t let it happen. It’s about learning the difference between right and wrong, and learning that sometimes loyalty to blood simply because of blood isn’t enough. It’s a terrific story, with great imagery and beautiful language use, and yes, reminded me of my long love affair with Faulkner’s work. He’s not easy to read by any means; but so worth the effort.

And now,  back to the spice mines.

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