Moving on Up

Wednesday, the halfway point of the week and now it’s all downhill into the weekend. Huzzah? Huzzah!

Edwin Edwards, elected governor of Louisiana four times AND also spent eight years in jail for corruption while in office, died this week,. Governor Edwards was the candidate whose campaign slogan was vote for the crook–it’s important (he was running against David Duke), and was the last of an old breed of Louisiana politicians (which may or may not be a good thing); incredibly charismatic and beloved, yet also a bit of a crook.

Now, most Louisiana politicians are not charismatic, just crooks or incompetents.

Last night I didn’t go to the gym. I was tired for one, and for another all of my workout clothes–I have exactly two sets–were in the laundry. SO I finished the laundry last night, but not in time for me to make it to the gym, so I will have to go tonight after work, which is fine. I also managed to get started on Chapter Two of Chlorine–I wrote exactly three sentences–and then sat down to reread “Festival of the Redeemer,” to figure out what needs to be done with it. I was actually pleased with it, honestly–for something that was written without being planned, just pouring it out as it came to me, often in batches of three thousand words or so, it’s really not bad. There were some inconsistencies that need to be cleaned up, and some restructuring is going to be terribly necessary–the start needs to be revised and reordered, as it begins too slow–and some things will need to be added, some things edited out, etc etc etc; but over all I am very happy with it. Hopefully, the same will be true of “Never Kiss a Stranger,” which is up for a reread next.

If I am not too worn out from the gym, that is.

I’ve been sleeping well this week, which has been marvelous–so well that I don’t want to get up in the mornings and feel a bit groggy for most of the morning hours at the office. I’ve managed to function, but I am also kind of looking forward to sleeping in a bit tomorrow as well. I don’t much care for my early morning days, frankly; there’s nothing I hate more than waking up to an alarm trilling in my ears. It always makes you feel like you’ve been cheated out of some sleep–from your bed untimely ripp’d, to paraphrase Shakespeare–and I always spend the day feeling like, well, like I could have slept more.

Honestly; do I really think you’re all that fascinated by my thoughts on sleep, Constant Reader?

I was thinking the other day about what I am trying to accomplish with these novellas; is there a point to them? Thematically, I suppose they both are about, basically, being broken human beings and trying to find love in a crazy world that doesn’t encourage nor support queer people in trying to find love and companionship and building relationships; they are also about how little we actually know other people–even those we think we already know very well. “Redeemer” is really about a relationship that has never really been defined between the two deeply damaged men involved with each other; both are afraid to tell the other how they really feel, or what they are actually thinking, because they are afraid they will scare the other off, or will find out it’s not reciprocal. It’s an interesting dance Grant and Dane are embarking on throughout this story; it probably will wind up being closer to 25k, if not 30k, when it is finally finished–I did notice places where I just kind of skimmed over some thing or a scene that actually kind of belongs there. I also need to get deeper inside Grant’s history and his past–and he and Dane need to know more about each other than they do. I had originally written this with them having been together a weird six months only at the opening; I have slowly come to realize–and it was further emphasized in last night’s reread–that they need to have been together at least a year at this point when they arrive in Venice; and there also has to be something else going on–another explanation for them staying at the extremely expensive palace turned hotel on the Grand Canal–and I also have to figure out where exactly this palace/hotel is located. I originally had them staying in the actual Gritti Palace (now a hotel); but decided to use a fictional one instead of risking getting all kinds of things wrong. It’s bad enough I am trying to use seven year old memories of Venice to write about it!

Ah, the joys of writing.

My goal and plan for today is to get caught up on some things–minutiae, really, the kind of shit you have to do but never want to–and write the second chapter of Chlorine; stop at the grocery store on the way home; and make it to the gym tonight for a workout. I also intend on sleeping until at least eight tomorrow–oooh, crazy, right?

And on that note, I guess I should get started on my day. Have a happy Wednesday, Constant Reader!

Between Two Islands

One of the best parts of the Reread Project is reminding myself how much I truly love and appreciate certain writers.

Mary Stewart is certainly at the top of that list.

As I’ve mentioned before, I read most of Mary Stewart’s so-called “romantic suspense” novels when I was a teenager or in my early twenties, my favorites being The Ivy Tree and Airs Above the Ground.  Unfortunately, the mists of time and my faulty memory have robbed me of just how good the other books she wrote were; I recently reread The Moon-spinners and loved it more than I remembered loving it the first time; likewise, I started rereading This Rough Magic this week (finishing yesterday) and it, like The Moon-spinners, is fucking brilliant; far better than I remembered it being–and frankly, far better than it had any right being (says the incredibly jealous author).

Like most of Stewart’s novels, the book is set somewhere other than England–this one is Corfu, just off the coasts of Greece and Albania. (The Moon-spinners was set on Crete, and My Brother Michael was also set in Greece.) I’ve always wanted to visit Greece; it’s on my bucket list with Egypt, France, Germany and England. I loved Greek mythology and history when I was a kid, and of course I absolutely loved Mary Renault’s novels about ancient Greece. Lately I’ve become more and more interested in the history of the Eastern Roman Empire; aka the Byzantine empire, as well. Paul also would love to return to Greece–he spent a summer there as a teenager as an exchange student.

Stewart is often described, and counted amongst, romantic suspense novelists of the mid to late twentieth century, primarily because she was a female writing suspense novels about women in a time period where publishing didn’t know how to market women-driven suspense novels written by women. While there are slight elements of romance included in her novels, it’s often an afterthought, and rarely actually drives the plot–it’s more like a little lagniappe; something extra tossed in to appease editors and readers that she really had no interest in exploring. At first, you think, wow, her characters kind of fall in love awfully quickly with total strangers–and then you realize, oh, of course they did–women weren’t really allowed to be sexual beings in those days so it had to be masked as falling in love plus the “romance” elements were easily explained by the “trench warfare mentality”–in which soldiers become bonded to the guys they are serving with because they are responsible for each other’s lives; it’s not a stretch to see a romantic attachment grow between two people who are in a tough, difficult situation in which they could easily both wind up dead.

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“And if it’s a boy,” said Phyllida cheerfully, “we’ll call him Prospero.”

I laughed. “Poor little chap, why on earth? Oh, of course…Has someone been telling you that Corfu was Shakespeare’s magic island for The Tempest?

“As a matter of face, yes, the other day, but for goodness’ sake don’t ask me about it now. Whatever you may be used to, I draw the line at Shakespeare for breakfast.” My sister yawned, stretched out a foot into the sunshine at the edge of the terrace, and admired the expensive beach sandal on it. “I didn’t mean that, anyway, I only meant that we’ve already got a Miranda here, and a Spiro, which may not be short for Prospero, but sounds very much like it.”

“Oh? It sounds highly romantic. Who are they?”

“A local boy and girl: they’re twins.”

Lucy Waring, a twenty-five year old British aspiring actress, finds herself on the island of Corfu visiting her very pregnant sister who married very well–to a wealthy Italian banker whose family owns an enormous property on Corfu, which includes an enormous castle-style main structure and two guest villas some distance away, all gathered together on the shoreline of a small, private bay. Lucy’s big break has just come and went in a play that closed after only two months, so she has gratefully accepted her sister Phyllida’s invitation to come stay for a while with her on Corfu. There’s a photographer staying in the other villa; the main castle is being rented to a retired British actor, Sir Julian Gale, best known for his performances in Shakespeare (The Tempest in particular) and his son Max, a composer–and trespassers are forbidden and frowned upon. That very first day Lucy decides to go down to the beach and sunbathe, and while she is down there she makes the acquaintance of a friendly dolphin, much to her delight–and the suspense begins when someone starts shooting, with a silenced gun, at the dolphin. She assumes the shots are coming from the castle, so she goes storming up there, and soon becomes entangled in the affairs of Sir Julian and his son Max.

Stewart’s mastery as a story-teller is so complete that she doesn’t waste a word or a scene; her economy of writing is astonishingly complex and clever. For example, that opening sequence, quoted above, seems like simply a lovely back-and-forth introduction to Lucy and her sister while establishing their affectionate closeness; but Stewart uses that dialogue to tell the readers things that are going to be important to the novel: they are on Corfu, references to The Tempest are scattered throughout the book and are incredibly important, not just to the story but for the atmosphere (Stewart was an incredibly literate writer; references to classic literature are scattered throughout her works, be it Shakespeare or Greek mythology or Tennyson, etc.), and even the throwaway line about the twins, Spiro and Miranda, isn’t a throwaway–the two are very important to the story.

And Lucy Waring is no shrinking violet, either–none of Stewart’s heroines are. Lucy courageously thinks nothing of putting herself in danger in order to help catch a monstrous, sociopathic killer:

He must have felt me watching him, for he flicked me a glance, and smiled, and I found myself smiling back quite spontaneously, and quite without guile. In spite of myself, in spire of Max, and Spiro’s story, I could not believe it. The thing was, as I had said to Max, impossible in daylight.

Which was just as well. If I was to spend the next few hours with him, I would have to shut my mind to all that I had learned, to blot out the scene in the cellar, drop Spiro out of existence as if he were indeed dead. And, harder than all, drop Max. There was a curiously strong and secret pleasure, I had found, of speaking of him as “Mr. Gale” in the off-hand tones that Godfrey and Phyllida commonly used, as one might of a stranger to whom one is under an obligation, but whom one hardly considers enough to like or dislike.

There’s also a few amazing chapters in which Lucy, having found the definitive evidence to convict the killer, is trapped with nowhere to go on his sailboat when he returns–she hides, but is spotted, and then reveals herself and in an astonishing display of bravado tries to play the entire thing off, but winds up going overboard herself and trying to make it to shore–only to be helped by the very dolphin she herself had helped rescue earlier in the book.

As I said, nothing happens or is done in a Stewart book that doesn’t have significance or come into play later.

I cannot tell you how much I loved rereading this book, and while I’d love to dive into another Stewart reread, I’m probably going to do another Phyllis Whitney–oh, and I buried the lede! I read the entire thing as an ebook on my iPad–so I have finally broken through that final barrier to reading books electronically, and may never pack a book to take with me when I travel again as long as I live!

Who says you can’t teach an old queen new tricks?

Another Brick in the Wall

We’re in a flash flood warning until six this evening, which doesn’t bode well for running my errands today. But all I have to do is stop at CVS, get the mail, return my library book, and possibly stop somewhere to get a gift for Paul for Christmas (which doesn’t have to be done today; I might even be able to do it on-line; I will probably check on that once I finish this blog entry).

I didn’t get nearly as much cleaning done as I’d intended last night; I hit a wall of exhaustion at one point, and so the cleaning still mostly needs to be done. I pretty much spent the rest of the evening lying in bed and reading, and part of today is probably going to fall into that category as well. I am fluffing the last load of clothes right now in the dryer, and I also have a dishwasher load to put away. The floors need to be done, and of course, there’s the disaster area currently passing as the upstairs. I also need to start rebuilding my flash drive and organizing the former back-up back-up hard drive to be the back -up hard drive. My biggest concern over the Big Data Disaster of December 2018 is that I’ve lost a lot of momentum–not knowing what I was working on, or where I was at with it, is, as you can probably imagine, more than a little annoying.

I remain hopeful that reconstructing both drives will somehow get my momentum going again. We shall see.

So, once I finish with the dishes and the laundry this morning I’m going to start cleaning while doing the reconstruction work. I am also going to try to work on revising the early chapters of Bury Me in Satin, which I am considering renaming We Shall Die in Darkness. I’m not convinced that I should make this change, of course; it occurred to me last night that as spooky and Gothic as Bury Me in Satin sounds, it doesn’t really fit the book; perhaps part of my problem with getting this bitch of a novel written is coming directly from slight dissatisfaction from the title not really fitting perfectly. Maybe I’ll read some T. S. Eliot, see if there are any great lines in The Four Quartets I can use.

Eliot is often good for that; so is Shakespeare.

I also have some organizing to do for a project I am going to be spending most of next year coordinating; and if I start out organized, I will be ahead of the game.

We shall see how that works out, won’t we?

I already feel like I’ve wasted this entire weekend, and it’s only Saturday morning.

So, without further ado, ’tis back to the spice mines with me.

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Loverboy

The ballet last night was exquisite.

I’ve seen ballets–or parts of them–on television or Youtube; and I remember, as a child, being taken to see The Nutcracker (isn’t everyone dragged to that as a child?), which I hated (interestingly enough, many things that most children love are things that I didn’t; The Nutcracker is one; The Wizard of Oz another). But as lovely and awe-inspiring as seeing ballets on Youtube or on television can be, there is nothing like being in an auditorium and watching one being performed live on the stage in front of you. I liken it to the difference between watching figure skating on television and then watching it in person; it’s very different, and you never watch it on television in quite the same way again. Romeo and Juliet is, of course, an ubiquitous story; everyone knows it, to the point that it has become almost trite and hackneyed; it’s been adapted for everything imaginable–opera, ballet, film, and of course West Side Story–but, at its heart, it is still a beautiful and sad story.

The opening sequence of the ballet reminded me so much of the opening of West Side Story that I couldn’t help wonder how much the ballet influenced the musical’s choreography, or vice versa.

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I read Romeo and Juliet when I was a sophomore in high school. I’d taken a class called Dramatic Literature; a class in which we read plays. Romeo and Juliet was paired with West Side Story (it’s also the class where I first read Tennessee Williams; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to be exact); we even watched the films (the version of Romeo and Juliet was the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli production, with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey with the gorgeous score by Michel Legrand). Shakespeare’s language was, to me at fourteen, a mysterious puzzle I couldn’t unlock; archaic references I didn’t understand written in verse, yet somehow beautiful in how the words were put together. At the time, I didn’t understand how two families could feud so bitterly and violently in an Italian city during the Renaissance; of course, now that I’ve read so many Italian histories (I am still greatly enjoying The Black Prince of Florence), I am more than a little surprised that the feud between Capulet and Montague was so bloodless (see the Pazzi-Medici feud, circa fifteen century).

Yet, despite the overwhelming familiarity with the story, it was impossible not to be drawn into last night’s version of it; despite there being no dialogue, no words. The entire story was, as is typical with the ballet, acted out without words and through dance. The choreographer’s choices in telling the story were quite interesting; the stage setting was incredibly minimalist, with emotions and passions being evoked through the movement of the two curved walls that served as set pieces; the long rising ramp that served as not a way to exit the stage but as Juliet’s fabled balcony; and the use of costume and lighting.

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The friar was used as a connective device throughout each scene; he was, if anything, the true star of the show, and its emotional heart. The dancer who played the role was magnificent. The ballet was a thing of beauty; I couldn’t stop marveling at how fantastic the dancers were, the exceptional shapes and lines they could form with their bodies, the almost super-human stretches and leaps and twirls and spins, the intimacy of their lifts and how they could mold their bodies around one another’s.

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It was also my first time inside the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts since Katrina; ironically, it was also the first time the Ballet des Monte-Carlo performed there since 2005. Both the outgoing and incoming mayor were there; the Honorary Consul for Monaco, and the ambassador from Monaco were all introduced and thanked from the stage.

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And yet, as a crime writer, and someone with a vested interest in group dynamics and politics, who has viewed documentaries about ballet companies, with a knowledge of human nature and interaction,I couldn’t help wondering, as the company took its well-deserved bows to a long standing ovation last night,  what turmoils and temperaments boiled beneath the surface of the linked hands and bowing bodies; what slights and grudges boiled behind the smiling faces; which members of the company were friends and which were enemies; who were lovers and friends and who were enemies and rivals, who was gay and who was straight.

I definitely want to write a ballet noir.

And here are two short stories, for the continuation of the Short Story Project.

First up is “Split Second” by Daphne du Maurier,  from the New York Review of Books collection of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories:

Mrs. Ellis was methodical and tidy. Unanswered letters, unpaid bills, the litter and rummage of a slovenly writing-desk were things she abhorred. Today, more than usual, she was in what her late husband used to call her “clearing” mood. She had wakened to this mood; it remained with her throughout the morning. Besides, it was the first of the month, and as she ripped off the page of her daily calendar and saw the bright clean 1 staring at her, it seemed to symbolize a new start tom her day.

The hours ahead of her must somehow seem untarnished like the date; she must let nothing slide.

“Split Second” is an exceptional exercise in character. Du Maurier thoroughly examines and exposes Mrs. Ellis’ character from beginning to end, and while she doesn’t go into a great amount of detail, it isn’t hard to figure out exactly whom she is from what we are told as readers. She’s a widow and her entire world revolves around her daughter, who is off at school; she decides, after a thorough cleaning of her home to go for a walk and is almost run down by the laundry truck as she walks back home. But when she gets back to her house, things are different. It is her house, but it’s no longer the house she left behind; other people are living there, her neighbors are gone–the entire world has changed and shifted as she walked home. It’s a horrifying story, even as the reader begins to glean what has actually happened long before Mrs. Ellis does; not that she ever does, even by the end of the story, and that is part of what makes it so sad, so effective, so powerful; no one has ever quite captured that elegant, melancholy sadness the way du Maurier does.

I then moved on to “The Picture of the Lonely Diner” by Lee Child,  from the Mystery Writers of America anthology, Manhattan Mayhem:

Jack Reacher got out of the R train at Twenty-Third Street and found the nearest stairwell blocked off with plastic police tape. It was striped blue and white, tied between one handrail and the other, and it was moving in the subway wind. It said: POLICE DO NOT ENTER. Which, technically, Reacher didn’t want to do anyway. He wanted to exit. Although to exit, he would need to enter the stairwell. Which was a linguistic complexity. In which context, he sympathized with the cops. They didn’t have different kinds of tape for different situations. POLICE DO NOT ENTER IN ORDER TO EXIT was not in their inventory.

Lee Child is one of the most successful writers in our genre today; everything he publishes is a New York Times best seller, and his character, Jack Reacher, is one of those ubiquitous characters that will go down in the history of the genre, like Poirot, James Bond, and Kinsey Millhone. I am years behind on Lee’s novels; but if you’ve not read Lee Child, you simply must read The Killing Floor, the first Reacher novel. It is quite superb. This story isn’t Child at his best, but Reacher the character is at his best at novel-length, with the labyrinthian plots Child somehow concocts and manages to keep track of (one of my favorite fanboy moments was having lunch with him and Alafair Burke at the Green Goddess here in New Orleans several years ago; while I just sat there wide-eyed and listened to the two of them talk about writing and publishing, praying that I didn’t have sauce running down my chin), but this story does evoke the melancholy that Child evokes in his novels; the inevitability of fate and the powerlessness of humans to counteract it once the gears are moving. I do recommend the story; there is some amazing imagery in it as well.

And on that note, I am back to the spice mines. There are bed linens to launder, and short stories to edit, and a chapter to write; it is rainy and gloomy outside my windows this morning but I am well-rested and ready to work.

Or maybe it’s just the caffeine kicking in. Who knows?