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.

Cold As You

Politics has rarely interested me when it comes to fiction; the reality all too often reads like unbelievable fiction, and it’s also there to read in all its horror in history. I stopped reading political non-fiction back in the day, probably some time around or after Katrina–and when I became involved with the National Stonewall Democrats, I was actually living in that world part time, and had no desire to read about it any longer. Paul and I avoided The West Wing for years for this very reason–only to become completely addicted to it when Bravo was running reruns, eventually renting the back seasons from Netflix and bingeing through its entire run, while watching the final seasons as they aired. It remains one of my favorite television programs of all time; sometimes I think it would be lovely to go back and rewatch it, but it was a balm for us during the Bush administration.

I used to, as I said, read political non-fiction from both sides of the aisle as well as from theoretically unbiased journalists; I used to read, believe it or not, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and Peggy Noonan, along with Al Franken and Matt Taibbi and others. I always felt it was important to read not only those who were in theory unbiased, but also to read the extremes of both sides–it’s always important, I thought, to know what both sides are saying and thinking to rev up their own extreme bases. While I always paid attention to politics I always considered myself more apolitical than anything else; my primary concerns were initially to stop people from dying from HIV and then to get some sort of legal recognition that my sexuality was not grounds for inequal treatment in the eyes of the law. The 2000 election debacle energized me; the country seemed to be veering off course and the results of that election changed the country and not for the better, which meant it was time to get to work.

I never read Allen Drury’s Washington novels; as I said, I was never all that interested in fiction based in politics. Robert Ludlum was the closest I ever came to reading political thrillers, and I was a huge fan of his throughout the late 1980’s and 1990’s. But political thrillers can be terrific reads; my question is are they crime novels? Thrillers are a subgenre of crime fiction, but do political thrillers actually count as crime novels? I suppose, in theory, they are; this is the question I’ve been grappling with since I finished reading The Coyotes of Carthage yesterday.

Andre marvels, watching a kid, a stranger of maybe sixteen, pinch another wallet. This lift makes the kid’s fifth, at least that Andre’s seen this morning–two on the train, two on the underground platform, and now this one on the jam-packed escalator that climbs toward the surface. The kid’s got skills, mad skills. He makes his lift and keeps on moving. There. Right there. The kid picks up another, his sixth, with the practiced grace of a ballerino, this time the mark, some corporate chump, probably a lobbyist, with slicked-back hair and a shit-eating grin. No one suspects a thing, and why should they? This kid blends in, looks like a prep-school student–and , who knows, perhaps he is–his aesthetic complete with a bookbag, khakis, and a dog-ered copy of de Tocqueville tucked beneath his arm. The kid reminds Andre of himself at that age–lean, hungry, steel eyes with smooth skin–but Andre concedes that he never possessed this kid’s talent.

Aboveground the kid disappears into the big-city bustle, and Andre thinks, Good for you, li’l man. Go in peace. For sure, the kid has plenty of places to hide. Northwest this morning is a mess: snowy, busy, noisy, the perfect urban jungle in which to flee. Andre works around the corner, and a lifetime ago, his family made a home inside a boarded-up rathole six blocks over. Andre has, in fact, loved in the District his entire life, thirty-five years save a stint across the river, two years in juvie for a grift gone bad on a nearby street. Seventeen years ago, when he left kiddie correctional, he never imagined he’d work on K Street, or that he’d own a walk-in closet full of three-piece suits, and the sudden realization, that he might lose it all, cuts like shards of glass crushed into the lining of his stomach.

Dre, our main character in this exceptionally fine debut novel by Steven Wright, isn’t necessarily likable, but he is understandable, and really, that’s the key with unlikable and unpleasant characters: as long as the reader can understand and empathize with an unlikable character, they will come along for the ride and may even root for that character. (As I like to say, the best note on character I was ever given by an editor when I was writing an unlikable character: even Hitler loved his dogs. ) The key is to find their humanity, and even when the character is doing unlikable things, you won’t lose the reader. It’s a skill set to be sure, but Steven Wright does this extremely well in a debut novel, and that’s really saying something.

Dre is a Black man who works for a political consulting firm in Washington, and one who is very good at what he does. He went overboard on his last assignment and almost blew a slam-dunk election, so his job is in jeopardy and if he weren’t being mentored by one of the founding partners of the firm, he would definitely be out already. Instead, he is given a punishment assignment: to get an initiative passed in a rural backwoods South Carolina county that really isn’t in the best interests of the local electorate but rather that of a large corporation who will poison everything in the county but will inevitably suck it dry of its resources and then leave behind nothing but wreckage. Dre comes from a broken home and has a brother who was also an addict; as teens they were small-scale dealers in order to survive and a deal gone horribly wrong put Dre into juvie. But he came out of juvie determined to go on the straight and narrow and build a life for himself…so politics seemed like a natural place for him to go.

But now in his mid-thirties, his life is crumbling around him: he has self-destructed his career; his fiancee has just dumped him for another man; his brother has ALS and he’s having to pay for his care as well as support his brother’s caregiver/girlfriend; and he’s questioning the decisions he’s made throughout his life to bring him to this place where he is now stuck in a backwoods redneck part of South Carolina running a campaign with no staff other than a rather sweet young intern–who turns out to be his mentor’s grandson. This election is a microcosm of everything that is currently wrong with our political system, and its deep cynicism; and Dre is having to face all of that, along with questioning what he is doing with his life for money, while his world continues to crumble around him.

All of the characters, while seen through Dre’s cynical eyes, are well-developed and well-rounded and completely believable; he sees very clearly their worth and their value and yet is incapable, because of who he has become through this cynical work, of connecting with any of them because of his own loss of humanity. This ballot initiative, so important for him to win if he wants to keep his job, is symbolic of his life; what do you do when you realize that not only have your sold your soul, but it may be too late to buy it back?

I greatly enjoyed this book from start to finish, and it’s a very powerful debut. It says a lot about humanity, the state of politics in this country, and the influence of dark money and how that has further corrupted an already corrupt system. But Dre’s search for his own humanity, his dark night of the soul, is what drives this strongly written story, and through Dre, requires the reader to do the same. The book offers no answers, of course; because those answers have to come from us.

What cost freedom?

Starlight

And so now it’s Sunday.

I won’t lie; I’ve lost my sense of time and date and day already this weekend and I’m perfectly fine with it. I hope everyone who has the good fortune to have the weekend off–I know there are many who do not–are in the same state of what day is this that I found myself in most of yesterday and when i woke up this morning–I overslept again, which was amazingly lovely, but i really need to stop indulging myself this way–and am now awake, on my first cup of coffee, and ready to get shit done today. I did get shit done yesterday–I cleaned and organized quite a bit (not enough, it’s never enough) and while I do have some little bit of cleaning and a lot of organizing left to get done, at least I made a start on it yesterday. My desk, for example, this morning is clean and clear; which will make writing later much easier.

I finished Little Fires Everywhere yesterday–I blogged about it already, so I won’t repeat anything other than that it’s a fantastic book I encourage you all to read–and started reading The Coyotes of Carthage, which was originally recommended to me by my friend Laura, who was lucky enough to receive an advance copy. It, too, is fantastic and unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and I am really looking forward to getting more into it–I will undoubtedly take a reading break or two at some point today. It seems to be a political thriller about dark money and political consultants in a very rural county in South Carolina, with a Black male protagonist, so I am sure it’s going to be quite interesting to read.

But I really also need to write today; I’ve not looked at the manuscript since last weekend, and this “only writing on the weekends for one day” simply cannot continue to stand, really. I have too much to write, and I need to stop giving into the laziness or the tiredness or self-destructive patterns or whatever the hell it is that keeps me from finishing this damned book. Heavy sigh. I also have any number of short stories I need to wade through to pick out some to work on for submission calls.

Again, I think there’s something to that I am so overwhelmed believing I’ll never get everything done so why bother doing any of it thing.

Repeat after me: SELF-DEFEATING.

While I waited for Paul to finish working on a grant last night I watched, or rather, rewatched (although I didn’t really remember watching it before, and I figured, meh, if I’ve already seen it I can do stuff on my iPad while it’s on in the background) a documentary called Master of Dark Shadows, about Dan Curtis and how the show came about, and its legacy (I’m sure most people don’t remember Curtis also produced and directed the mini-series based on Herman Wouk’s novels The Winds of War and War and Remembrance). I was one of those kids who watched Dark Shadows only in the summertime, because my elementary school didn’t get out until 3:15; even though we lived only a block away from the school I couldn’t ever get home fast enough to watch even the end. I did love Dark Shadows–our sitter/caregiver, Mrs. Harris, also watched One Life to Live and General Hospital, which were my first exposures to soaps–and it always stuck in my mind; I always give it credit for my interest in horror and the supernatural. I enjoyed watching the documentary (and for the record, I loved the NBC reboot of the series in prime time in the early 1990’s, and was crushed when it was canceled; I rewatched it with Paul and he too was disappointed it ended on its cliff-hanger) and then we started watching a documentary about a double murder in India called Behind Closed Doors, in which the investigation was so incredibly fucked up–I mean, if the primary take-away from all the other true crime documentaries we’ve been watching has been man is our system seriously fucked up, the takeaway from this one is yeah, but ours is clearly better than others.

Which is kind of scary, really.

While I was also bored yesterday waiting for Paul–and only really sort of watching Master of Dark Shadows–I was right, I’d seen it before–I started looking things up on-line; which was an absolutely lovely example of how one can fall into a wormhole on the Internet. As you know, I’ve been having this Cynical 70’s Film Festival, and thinking about the rise, and proliferation of, conspiracy theories in that suspicious, paranoid decade, and one that I hadn’t remembered until yesterday sprang up into my min, completely unbidden, while I was reading about the Bermuda Triangle: Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Daniken. Does anyone else remember von Daniken and his theories, which were based in nothing scientific or archaeological? Von Daniken believed that ancient texts–the Bible, the Code of Hammurabi, etc.–all contained evidence that in Ancient Times the Earth was visited by space aliens–Alien Astronauts, as he called them–who brought knowledge and information with them to the primitive creatures of our planet at the time, and also assisted them in the massive building projects that modern man cannot conceive of them building back then–the pyramids, for one thing, and the lines on the plains of Nazca (which I first read about in the Nancy Drew volume The Clue in the Crossword Cipher)–and those aliens with their vastly superior technology, were seen as gods by the primitives and those visits have come down to us in the form of mythology. It’s an interesting idea for sure–but it was all conjecture, with no proof. I read all of von Daniken’s books back in the day; others included The Gold of the Gods, and were simply further conjectures, but he developed quite a following, and set the stage for what is called the pseudo-science of Graham Hancock, his modern day successor. (I’ve also read some of Hancock’s work; his theory that the Sphinx is far older than we suspect based on water wear on its base is interesting, as is his other theory that the Ark of the Covenant’s final resting place is in Ethiopia; before reading that book I had no idea that Christianity was so firmly entrenched there) So, I spent some time looking up von Daniken’s theories yesterday, as well as some other conspiracy theories of the time–I also did a deep dive into the entire Holy Grail Holy Blood thing which provided the basis for The Da Vinci Code and Dan Brown’s entire career; and of course we certainly cannot forget the apocryphal writings of Hal Lindsay and The Late Great Planet Earth–which, really, is where The Omen came from; we forget how “end times” theory truly began flourishing in the 1970’s.

I’ve always been interested in stories about lost books of the Bible, or lost Biblical theory, along with the end-times prophecies Lindsay wrote about; Irving Wallace’s The Word, which was built around the rediscovery of a lost testament of Jesus which would revolutionize and make-over the Christian theology was one of the first novels of this type I read; it was also made into a mini-series, which made me aware of it in the first place (Irving Wallace isn’t really remembered much today, but he was a huge bestseller back in the day, and he wrote incredibly thick novels, mostly about international conspiracies or legal issues–The Seven Minutes, for example, was about censorship and “blue laws”; The Second Lady was about a Soviet conspiracy to replace the First Lady with a lookalike imposter who was a Soviet spy; The Prize was about the machinations around how the Nobel Prize was given out; etc etc etc). The Da Vinci Code fits clearly into this category, as does The Gemini Contenders by Robert Ludlum and The Fourth Secret by Steve Berry (which is about the fourth secret Our Lady of Lourdes–or was it Fatima?–revealed to either Bernadette or the peasant children; Irving Wallace also covered this in The Miracle); Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade also kind of fit here, as both films are about the search for Biblical relics. I’ve always, always, wanted to write one of these. Years ago I had the idea for one, in which there was a secret document or testament hidden in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople for years, and that part of the reason the 4th Crusade sacked the city was the Pope’s desire to get his hands on those documents, which were thus smuggled out of the city by the Patriarch and lost forever…this is the idea I always come around to for a Colin stand-alone (I also realize I could do Colin stand-alones set at various times throughout the last twenty years or so of Scotty books, as he is gone a lot of the time on missions), and the working title for it always is Star of Irene, because the Byzantine Empress Irene–contemporary of Charlemagne–has always fascinated me.

But I will never write a Colin stand-alone, or series, unless I get this fucking book finished, so I suppose it’s time for me to head back into the spice mines.

Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

Look What You Made Me Do

It probably goes without saying that I wasn’t a typical boy-child; a complete mystery and disappointment to my parents. For years, I attributed the disappointment and confusion to my complete inability, and resistance, to conform to gender expectations of how little boys were expected to behave and what they were supposed to be interested in because I was not born heterosexual despite being born into a overwhelmingly heterosexual society, country, and culture. It took many years for me to recognize and understand that even had I not been innately attracted to males romantically and sexually and emotionally I still would have been an unfathomable mystery to my parents because I was an artistic child born into a family where an interest in the arts was just as foreign to them as if I had been a foundling from another planet they discovered on their doorstep one morning. We were a family of readers–everyone in my family was a reader–but no one was as voracious a reader as I was; because I was interested in stories and fictions, and because I felt like such an outsider in my own life that I was more interested in escaping it into the different worlds that books offered me.

Even when my parents, mystified, encouraged my reading habit (it was really more of an addiction more than anything else; the most effective punishment was denying me books) they were also mystified by what I wanted to read; I was interested more in books by and about women than I was in books by and about men. I’ve always wondered if their violent reaction to this interest in women pushed me further, in my innate stubbornness, along that path; why the forbidden Nancy Drew books were of greater interest than the Hardy Boys–the greatest irony, of course, being that my favorite series, in truth, were always books about boys (the Three Investigators, Rick Brant, Ken Holt) rather than girls. This preference for books by women over men continued into my adulthood; I inevitably read more books by and about women than I do by and about men. I am digressing a bit from the point of this entry, but one thing I’ve always rebelled against is this notion that men’s stories are universal while women’s are more micro and intimate; I prefer more micro, intimate stories to universal ones, and there is often more universal truths and intellectual honesty and curiosity in an intimate story than in what is supposedly a more universal one.

Take, for example, Celeste Ng’s brilliant Little Fires Everywhere.

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough–or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow–and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss. A little after noon on that Saturday in May, the shoppers pushing their grocery carts in Heinen’s heard the fire engines wail to life and careen away, toward the duck pond. By a quarter after twelve there were four of them parked in a haphazard red line along Parkland Drive, where all six bedrooms of the Richardson house were ablaze, and everyone within a half mile could see the smoke rising over the trees like a dense black thundercloud. Later people would say that the signs had been there all along: that Izzy was a little lunatic, that there had always been something off about the Richardson family, that as soon as they heard the sirens that they knew something terrible had happened. By then, of course, Izzy would be long gone, leaving no one to defend her, and people could–and did–say whatever they liked. At the moment the fire trucks arrived, though, and for quite a while afterward, no one knew what was happening. Neighbors clustered as close to the makeshift barrier–a police cruiser, parked crosswise a few hundred yards away–as they could and watched the firefighters unreel their hoses with the grime faces of men who recognized a hopeless cause. Across the street, the geese at the pond ducked their heads underwater for weeds, wholly unruffled by the commotion.

Mrs. Richardson stood on the tree lawn, clutching the neck of her pale blue robe closed. Although it was already afternoon, she had been still asleep when the smoke detectors had sounded. She had gone to bed late, and had slept in on purpose, telling herself she deserved it after a rather difficult day. The night before, she had watched from an upstairs window as a car had finally pulled up in front of the house. The driveway was long and circular, a deep horseshoe arc bending from the curb to the front door and back–so the street was a good hundred feet away, too far for her to see clearly, and even in May, at eight o’clock it was almost dark, besides. But she had recognized the small tan Volkswagen of her tenant, Mia, its headlights shining. The passenger door opened and a slender figure emerged, leaving the door ajar: Mia’s teenage daughter, Pearl. The dome light lit the inside of the car like a shadow box, but the car was packed with bags nearly to the ceiling and Mrs. Richardson could only just make out the faint silhouette of Mia’s head, the messy topknot perched at the crown of her head. Pearl bent over the mailbox, and Mrs. Richardson imagined the faint squeak of the mailbox door opened, then shut. Then Pearly hopped back into the car and closed the door. The brake lights flared red, then winked out, and the car puttered off into the growing night. With a sense of relief, Mrs. Richardson had gone down to the mailbox and found a set of keys on a plain ring, with no note. She had planned to go over in the morning and check the rental house on Winslow Road, even though she already knew that they would be gone.

At this point, writing about Little Fires Everywhere is probably a bit of overkill; it was a New York Times bestseller and selected by Reese Witherspoon for her book club and adapted by same into a critically acclaimed and highly watched mini-series on Hulu; Kerry Washington currently is an Emmy nominee for Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for her stunning personification of Mia, the photographer whose arrival in peaceful quiet Shaker Heights with her daughter sets into motion the story of both book and television series. But this entry is about the book and not the television series (which you should watch, if you haven’t already), and the book is a gem all by itself.

Little Fires Everywhere focuses, on the surface, on the interactions between two completely different women, and by extension, their families. One is Mrs. Richardson; easy to recognize in any number of women we all know–we’ve all known, at one time or another, a Mrs. Richardson: the uber-organized working wife-and-mother who has definite opinions on everything and sees the world in black-and-white with no shades of gray; the woman who is so certain of her ultimate rightness that she can shape reality, and interpret things that happen in her life, to fit her worldview rather than expanding her worldview to fit new data, new experience, new people. It seems cruel to suggest that these women have calcified, but there’s also an element of truth to that; they have constructed their lives in such a way that they must convince themselves that they’ve always made the right choice, because anything that might make them question anything about themselves and their lives would create a crack in that facade of perfection they’ve built to show the world–but they are more worthy of pity and compassion than judgment and contempt, if not for the damage they cause in their correctness.

Mia, whose choices were so different from all of Mrs. Richardson’s (and therefore wanting, which also makes Mia suspicious to Mrs. Richardson if fascinating at the same time), is a Dionysian force in peaceful, nothing-ever-happens Shaker Heights. (Mrs. Richardson is the embodiment of Shaker Heights: planned, perfect, progressive.) Mia is a vagabond, an artist who pulls up stakes and moves on, following her drive to create and make art, choosing the kind of life Mrs. Richardson once might have chosen–but ultimately didn’t; so of course Mrs. Richardson must judge Mia and find her wanting, otherwise she might start questioning and doubting herself. We are, of course, meant to identify with and like Mia, while holding Mrs. Richardson at a cold distance and judging her and her choices. Ng always refers to her as Mrs. Richardson and her husband as Mr. Richardson, very formal, just as they think themselves above judgment and disapproval, while Mia is simply Mia: companionable, likable, a peer.

Mia’s past has its own secrets and choices, some of them questionable, others causing pain to others–not the least of which are her own parents. Like Mrs. Richardson, Mia is convinced her decisions were the right ones, and so she is kind of her mirror image; reflecting back at each other who they might have become had they made other choices at those crossroads of their lives, when they set their feet down on their opposing paths. The two women are much more alike, certainly more than either wants to think, or believe; this is inevitably why they come into conflict, and their very different choices about what it means to be a mother and parent, is clearly reflected in their children; the Richardson children are very different from each other, and often accurately named, and how they are treated and react to their mother, and who they become, is very much because of how she mothers them. Pearl is very much Mia’s daughter; compassionate and understanding yet mysterious at the same time–she understands her mother and is much closer to her mother than any of the Richardson are to theirs. To the Richardsons, their mother is an abstract presence that is always there–supportive and loving with Lexi; sometimes exasperated but caring with Trip; absent with Moody and antagonistic with Izzy.

The trigger that drives them all into opposite corners is of course the custody battle over Mirabelle/May Ling; the Richardsons are friends of the McCulloughs; Mia is a friend of the birth mother, and the book really is, ultimately, who or what is a good mother?

How that could not be a universal story is a mystery to me, frankly.

Ng is also a brilliant writer; sentences and paragraphs constructed as beautifully and carefully as her characters, all of whom are realistic and believable, people we all know, or at least, think we do. The book left me wanting more; wanting to know what happened to them all (the book set twenty years into the past) and where they are now. Are they happy? What choices did they make? And the writing is so strong and poetic that as I read along, the truths and honesty inspired me–new stories, new ideas, new insights into the characters of my own creation.

And for me, that’s the sign of a masterful writer: one whose work inspires other writers to new ideas, new creations, and to do better.

Should’ve Said No

Well, we made it to another Monday, did we not? The end of August is nigh upon us as well; soon the Earth’s continuous shifting will have the northern hemisphere turning away from the sun and our days will continue to shorten and at some point, cooler weather will arrive in New Orleans, and the humidity will dissipate for a season. Fall is quite spectacular here, and when it isn’t gloomy so are our winters; the six or so months from mid-September through early May is when we remember how lucky we actually are to live in these climes.

As I said yesterday, I am making an effort to see positivity in life rather than negativity; to focus on  what I finished rather than what I haven’t completed yet. Yesterday I overslept again, which seems to be more of a thing these days; but it was fine. I got up, did some organizing, worked on my electronic files a bit more, and worked on Chapter Six of the book, while also preparing Chapter Seven to be worked on, which I am hoping I’ll be able to do this evening after work. I also spent some time with Little Fires Everywhere, which is actually quite marvelous; Celeste Ng is a terrific writer, and I am glad I have this gateway into her work;  so much truth and honesty and reality and insight in this book–I may even have to go back and rewatch the television show (like I have the time for that) once I finish reading the book.

I also realized, over the course of the weekend, that I only have one more short story still out there in the submission ether–this is another rather long shot, and one I suspect I’ll never hear from if they don’t choose my story, which is frankly quite a long shot as I’ve already mentioned–but that’s okay and I don’t mind. It’s kind of nice to take a long shot every once in a great while, just to see what happens and keep your dreams alive. I want to get some more short stories out there into the submission ether, and so I suspect I am going to have to either finish rewriting some or get something unfinished finished; I kind of am missing working on my short stories, if truth be told, and why not get something out there again? I’ve not tried either Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock in a while; while also recognizing that I don’t really write mystery short stories in the traditional sense; I write crime stories that are also quite morbid. There are a couple of submission calls I’d like to write something for–or, rather, submit something for–which is also a matter of seeing if there’s anything on hand that might work if finished or revised; I really want to get “The Flagellants” finished and in some kind of shape to get out there, but am not really sure, to be honest, if it’s right for either market that currently has a call out; I am relatively certain it wouldn’t be right for either of the mystery magazines mentioned before.  But, between those magazines and the two other mystery magazines I submit to–that’s four potential stories to get out there, and then there’s the other two submission calls, so that’s a total of six stories I can get out there if I’d like to, and if I can get anything ready, or have something that’s close to being ready.

In other words, I kind of need to get my shit together and get back to putting nose to grindstone, or nothing will  happen. As it is, I already am going to go a second year now without a new book coming out; it’s unlikely even if I finish Bury Me in Shadows that it will be released in 2021 now.

I woke up earlier than I normally do on a Monday, primarily so I won’t have to be rushed this morning on my way out of the house to get to work, and in theory, will be more awake by the time I get to the office. That’s the theory, at any rate; I am already sort of groggy awake, and I am drinking cappuccinos this morning–that should also help, rather than the usual coffee–to help jolt my mind and body into wakefulness. It certainly can’t hurt anything to try something new, and while I abhor getting up at six the way I did this morning usually, so far it’s not been so bad.

We binged Cheer over the course of the weekend, and what a terrific documentary series it was. I remember when it was a thing and everyone was talking about it; it seemed so long ago that I was shocked to realize the show went viral in January of this year. But it was also that lost, pre-pandemic world, so of course it seemed like I was years behind the curve on watching it. Paul and I both got very into it–to the point that we were tense about how they’d do once they made it to nationals–and there were a few times during the series I was surprised to find myself moved to tears. I also don’t remember the last time I ever saw a docuseries of any kind that centered young gay Black men, and did so in such a moving, sympathetic way. We both fell kind of in love with both Jerry and La’Darius, as well as with Lexi and Morgan and Gabi as well. I kind of a had a love/hate thing going with their coach, Monica; and the routines they did were just kind of insane. The production team, who was already responsible for the junior college football series Last Chance U (which I am now thinking about watching), did an excellent job with it, and like everyone else who binged it back when it first aired, not only fell in love with the kids featured, but were bereft when it was over.

We also watched the new episode of Lovecraft Country, which was, as its two previous episodes, equally superb. Like the book, the central focus on this new section of the series centered Letitia; and the actress playing her, Jurnee Smollett, is absolutely killing it in the part. Again, there are monsters in the show, but again, the racists are the more palpable, and more horrifying, threat. It’s also lovely to see the horrible racist white people through the eyes of the Black people for a change, and there’s really no question about where the real threat primarily comes from for the characters. The show is also diverging from the book a bit, but it’s not harming the show in the least; if anything, the show is developing into its own thing, and that is actually a very good thing.

Ah, the cappuccino is starting to kick in, and yes, getting up earlier and drinking them instead of my regular morning coffee is certainly the smart way to go. I don’t know why I’ve been avoiding the idea of getting up at six since we reopened the STI clinic for Mondays and Tuesdays; but I have been, and it’s not been working–I wind up groggy all morning and I don’t get near as much done during my mornings at the office as I should. Here’s hoping that changes this morning, shall we?

I’m trying to shake off the lingering malaise of the pandemic–really, if I put my mind to it and think back through the fog, my productivity has been way down since my world basically shut down, and I also just realized, hey, this is a three day weekend because a week from today is Labor Day; this weekend would be my weekend to spend the evening Friday passing out condoms and taking pictures of hot boys with my phone. There’s no Southern Decadence this year, of course, despite my making thousands of condom packs thus far this summer; it’s another casualty of COVID-19, just as Halloween is likely to be as well. I’m not overwhelmingly confident that things will even been righted next year, and that 2021 won’t be second verse, same as the first.

And on that lovely note, perhaps it is time for me to head back into the spice mines and finish getting ready for work. I need to make my second cappuccino of the morning, pack my lunch, and get my backpack ready for imminent departure as well.

Have a lovely Monday, Constant Reader.

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You’re Not Sorry

There are few things I despise more than the non-apology.

These tumultuous times in which we find ourselves inhabiting now has, amongst its innumerable other crimes, introduced the world to the apology that really isn’t an apology; in which someone refuses to admit fault and isn’t sorry for what they said; they’re merely sorry you misinterpreted what they said. It generally runs along the lines of something like I’m sorry if my words offended anyone–which, to me, kind of places the blame on the people who were offended by the shitty thing said in the first place–and usually, for the record? What was originally said was pretty fucking offensive; insensitive to the point where I have to seriously question the empathy and humanity of the speaker, and generally leaves me feeling sorry for anyone related to said speaker, or who is forced to have to interact with them in any way, shape or form, because of work.

This happens constantly these days; it’s become sadly predictable: someone says something incredibly shitty, people are justifiably shocked, horrified and outraged, which inevitably leads to the person apologizing for their words, but at the same, they are also very careful not to take on any blame themselves. I don’t understand this mentality, but it’s a linguistic knot people are always very careful to tie with precision: I’m sorry what I said offended you, not I’m sorry I offended you by saying that. The difference is pretty clear; the first relieves the original speaker of any fault and places all blame on the people taking offense (really, it’s just gaslighting); while the second accepts blame and begs pardon and is actually a sincere attempt by a decent person to take responsibility and implies a promise to do better in the future.

And personally,  I don’t accept these non-apologies. I find them, frankly, to be worse than the original offense. My response? “Seriously, go fuck yourself. And yes, I fully intended to offend you and I am not sorry at all; in fact, you might to fuck off now before I really focus on hurting your feelings–because I can, and am quite good at it.”

I’m not sure when we as a people, society and culture ceased being able to admit we were wrong, admit fault, and promise to do better. What is so terrible about being wrong? We are all human, and we all make mistakes, don’t we? It’s inevitable; it’s embarrassing somewhat, but seriously–the world will not end if you ever admit you’re wrong. I’ve admitted I’m wrong and apologized even when I didn’t think I was wrong in the first place–because it isn’t about MY feelings.

I guess thinking about other people’s feelings isn’t something we do anymore? When, precisely, did that change? Or was the whole “care about others” thing just another part  of the massive gaslighting of me about everything else this life has turned out to be, from politics to history to religion?

I will admit it here, I will admit it there, I will admit it everywhere. I’ve been wrong many times in my life, and will probably be wrong quite a few more times before my ashes are sprinkled into the Mississippi (although I am beginning to think I may have some of them sprinkled there and some sprinkled into the Rigolets; I must remember to make provision for that in my will–and yes, now that I am in my sixtieth year, I need to start thinking about those things and taking them a lot more seriously than I have in the past). I see this bizarre “refusal to ever admit error” every day on social media–not as much as I used to, as I tend to unfriend and/or hide narcissistic sociopaths who have nothing better to do with their lives and their time than to troll people on the web as a way of making themselves feel superior to other people. To paraphrase  Sixteen Candles, “why do you want to be King of the Dipshits? Well, you can hold court without me, O Wise and All-Knowing One.”

I know I should be more tolerant, but I have neither the time nor the patience to deal with this kind of trash any longer, nor do I want to see it on my feeds. And as I grow more and more conscious of how little time I may have left in this world–I certainly don’t want to spend what there actually is left listening to this kind of nonsense anymore.

Enough! Life exposes me to enough toxicity that I cannot control; but I can control what I chose to see on my social media. And if you want to smugly assert that I am fooling and deluding myself by putting myself into an echo chamber–feel free to assume your moral and intellectual superiority. I, for one, am tired of being exposed to homophobia and racism and misogyny and bigotry and prejudice and ignorance; I’ve been around it my entire life and I’d really prefer not to be around it anymore.

Ugh.

I am also, in an effort to control this narrative that my life has become, trying to be more positive about things. Yes, I recognize the irony in that this entry began as a rant about awful people and their gaslighting ways; but cutting as much negativity as I can out of my life like the cancer it is will be the first step in looking at the world in a more positive light. It would be very easy to look at yesterday and think, ah, yes, started out the day terribly behind and after an enormously frustrating day where everything that could go wrong did, I am choosing to look at what I managed to get done, despite the endless frustrations, as a triumph. I did manage to get some organizing done. I got some research notes recorded for a future project. I got some chores around the Lost Apartment done, and tried to organize my computer files around a computer update that came out of nowhere and really annoyed the hell out of me at the time. It took a while–it always does after these things–for my computer to go back to functioning properly, but this morning it’s running better than it has in a while. So, I guess there’s that. I’m trying not to feel like I lost the day yesterday, and being frustrated and annoyed with the circumstances beyond my control isn’t going to help me get anything done today.

I started reading Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, and as I got through the first two chapters I began remembering the show more. The book is so well-written, and I love how Ng puts these little touches of truth in to deftly set the narrative up very quickly; after a mere two chapters I know what Shaker Heights is like to live in, the kind of relationship Mia and Pearl have, and the entire family dynamic of the other family–parents with their children, the children with each other. I can’t stop wishing Id read the book along with the show, but that cannot be helped now, and I’m really enjoying the book.

I slept later than I wanted to this morning, but then again I stayed up later than I’d intended to last night as well. We watched another HBO MAX documentary show, in two parts, Who Killed Garrett Phillips? Coming hard on the heels of The Case Against Adnan Syed, Paul and I have been having good conversations about just how broken our criminal justice system is. I’ve also been seeing some great conversations on social media between crime writers about this very thing as well, and about how we, as crime writers, are also sort of complicit in the perpetuation of the mythology of the infallible police department. The enormously popular Law and Order franchises have done an excellent job of depicting criminals as scumbags and our Constitutional rights as essentially “get out of jail free” cards that keep the good, hardworking cops from putting away the dangerous criminals that prey on every day citizens. Obviously, it isn’t that black and white, and there are many more shades of gray involved; people also tend to forget the entire point of our Constitutional rights are to protect everyone against abusive conduct from the state. Is it incredibly frustrating when someone isn’t convicted of a crime? Sure, but how do we–how does anyone–ever know that someone actually is guilty if theres little to no evidence one way or the other? I am stunned, frankly, that Adnan Syed was convicted based on how little evidence there actually was against him, other than someone who was pretty much an unreliable witness who testified against him. The multiple years of the Potsdam police and district attorney’s office trying to hang the murder of Garrett Phillips on a black man when the only evidence of anything they had against him was that they were in the school parking lot at the same time was completely racist and insane; they didn’t even look at anyone else or at any other option. Within 24 hours, based on NOTHING, they became convinced that one of the few black men in the area, an ex of the child’s mother, was guilty and only looked for evidence that would put him behind bars. It was infuriating to watch, frankly.

And it does make you wonder how many people who didn’t do anything wrong are sitting in jail right now.

I’ve briefly touched on this from time to time in my books; I know for a fact that I said once–probably in a Chanse book, but I don’t remember which one–that the cops decide early on who’s guilty and stop looking for facts and information that don’t bolster the case they are building. The question I’ve seen a lot on social media lately is whether we, as crime writers, are complicit in building up a mythology of police work as opposed to the reality. It’s a difficult question, one that is very nuanced, and brings up many philosophical questions as well. J. M. Redmann always says that we as writers write about the search for justice in a world where justice is rarely found; I think about that a lot when I write. I know that I also prefer to end my books with a criminal caught and behind bars; even if the justice is Pyrrhic, at least for a time, at the end of my books, the bad guys are in jail and order of a sort has been restored to the worlds of my characters. I never talk about the trials; I’ve thought about using Chanse testifying at a trial as a framing device for one of his investigations, but it was something I never got around to doing; Chanse novels inevitably always follow the A leads to B leads to C structure Ive used since the beginning; Scotty books inevitably do that as well, even if the story skitters about a lot more in a more confused pattern than the Chanse one do.

As citizens, we don’t like to think that our justice system has become corrupted or broken, or that it operates in a way that isn’t fair to everyone; in order to maintain our semblance on sanity (or what passes for it) far too many of us are willing to look the other way or just believe what we are told. In Who Killed Garrett Phillips? so many of the people of that small town simply found it so easy to believe that the black guy must be a killer (and did so very quickly) and when the cops told the family he was the guy, they simply believed it and never questioned it–likewise, the Korean family of the victim in The Case Against Adnan Syed never questioned the police and district attorney’s viewpoint that Hae Min Lee’s ex-boyfriend was so jealous of her new relationship that he would, with no previous indication before or since that he was that kind of person, plan to kill her and then execute the plan; a grieving family will always believe what they are told by the police, and nobody ever wants to question why they are so quick and easy to believe what the police say mainly because we want to believe they are right, because if we ever stop believing that the police aren’t impartial, that their investigations aren’t carried out in a professional, unbiased, and impartial way, then what happens when we need them?

The abuses in the Garrett Phillips case carried out by the now-sanctioned former district attorney, Mary Rain, and her obvious racism and bias was appalling to see, and disheartening. We may never know who killed that boy now, and it’s partially her fault; her determination to convict an accused black man and absolute refusal to even consider for a moment that he might not have done it, to follow any of the myriad of other leads that were possible, is a horrifying abuse of justice and power. And never fool yourself that prosecutors don’t have a lot of power, or that they can abuse that power for any number of reasons, not the least of which is political power and furthering their own political careers.

I had an idea recently–time has no meaning any more, so it may have been any time during the past three years–about writing a book about Venus Casanova’s last case as a New Orleans police detective. Having put in for retirement already, in her last month she’s been assigned desk duty to ease her out of the workforce–obviously you don’t want to assign an active case to someone who might not be able to see it through–and she’s essentially catching up on all of her paperwork and interviewing suspects for other detectives’ cases in her remaining time. Her ritual has always been to go out to the neighborhood coffee shop before going to work and reading the paper over her coffee. With less than a month to go she reads about a shooting of a young Black man in a sketchy neighborhood–but soon realizes that the young man’s grandmother, who was raising him, was someone she went to high school with many years ago and lost touch with when she went away to college. She decides to check with the investigating officer, and he tells her “it’s just another random shooting.” (The book would be called that, Just Another Random Shooting.) He’s not going to look into it anymore, dismissing it as another drug related crime with no witnesses and no evidence, and so she asks if he minds if she talks to the grandmother–and it turns out to be something else entirely; and that lackadaisical response from the police–‘just another random shooting’– was something the killers planned on. It’s an interesting idea, and it worries at my brain from time to time, particularly when I see another local news report about another young Black man being killed for no apparent reason in a sketchy neighborhood. And then I wonder, am I the right person to tell this story? Who am I, as a gay white man, to write from the perspective of a straight Black woman in a city with a violent history of oppressing people of color?

I can think of any number of reasons to justify writing from Venus’ perspective; I’ve always loved the character, I’ve always wanted to write from her perspective; I’ve thought many times over the years of centering her in a book about her; I feel like I know her inside and out already.  But…on the other hand, sure, writers write and have a right to write about whatever they choose, but….

It is a good idea, though, and I also don’t see the story working from any other point of view. Sigh.

And now back to the spice mines.

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All Too Well

Saturday morning, and there’s sunlight streaming through my windows–a lovely change from the majority of mornings this past week. I overslept this morning, something that has been happening with greater frequency over the last few weekends, but I also have been staying up later than normal and having trouble falling asleep when i finally do go to bed; I may have to change my pre-bed routine and go back to reading a bit before tumbling into bed. There was some study I read several years ago that indicated the light from screens made it harder for one’s mind to relax and turn off before bed, making sleep even more elusive than it already is for me.

The last thing I need in this world is to make it harder for myself to fall asleep.

I also realized yesterday afternoon when I finished work that I’ve been depressed for well over a week; going back to the week of my birthday. Depression is rather sneaky that way; I always forgot just how sneaky and malicious it actually is. You don’t have to feel sorry for yourself or have that ‘woe is me’ consciousness; it can manifest in being tired, having little or no energy, no desire to do your work, and thinking okay if I can just make it through this day. I literally felt myself come out of it, physically and emotionally, last evening after I finished my day’s work; the swing back to I can conquer the world was so palpable I actually can tell you what time it happened: 5:27, as I was loading blankets into the washing machine. These swings used to be much more obvious and apparent, and maybe…maybe I need something stronger than what I am taking to control all the chemical imbalances in my head. I don’t know. I worry so much about addiction that I am not even certain I should be taking the medication every day, and I also sometimes think I should take a week to wean myself off of it, to be certain, but then I remember that one of the symptoms of not taking the medication is an inability to sleep and like I need anymore assistance in THAT area.

It also never helps to have hurricane season amp up during the Katrina anniversary week. Sigh.

So, in this week’s film festival:

I watched Midway, the 2019 film about the climactic battle in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, which was the first American victory over the Japanese in the war and a major turning point; military historians consider it one of the most important naval battles in history, along with Salamis, Lepanto, and Trafalgar. I generally don’t watch war movies–I’ve never really cared for them much, and while I was watching Midway I realized why: I despise, and have always despised, toxic masculinity, and war movies are all about that amped up, testosterone driven macho bullshit. The main character of the film was someone who made me extremely uncomfortable with his posturing and, for want of a better term, dick-swinging; it wasn’t until he finally realized his posturing had resulted in the death of one of his airmen that he started to get it, and softened a bit, and became more likable (I also realize that this macho attitude is undeniably necessary for soldiers and the military; these are people who are putting their lives on the line and it really is a matter of kill or be killed; the problem is that it is incredibly difficult to shed that kind of training when you’re not on duty anymore or a civilian again, not to mention the PTSD). It also wasn’t until the end of the film, when the characters were shown as played by the actor with the story of what happened to them in their lives later, and the actor morphed into the real person on screen, that I realized that almost everyone in the movie was based on a real life person, not just the big admirals and so forth; that did make the movie a lot more powerful as I realized that not only was what I had just watched a fairly accurate depiction of the historical battle, but the individual experiences of the actual men who fought it. It’s a gorgeous film with stunning visuals, and the Pacific Theatre of the war never gets enough credit or recognition from us–we tend to remember the war primarily as being against the Nazis and the battle to free Europe from the Germans; bit the Pacific Theatre of the war is just as compelling, and the opening sequence–the horrific bombing and slaughter at Pearl Harbor–was just horrible to watch (one of the most moving experiences of my life was my first visit to the Arizona cemetery and memorial out in Pearl Harbor, where the water is so clear you can see the ship resting on the bottom, and oil bubbles are still escaping from the wreckage).

Yesterday I watched Blade Runner Final Cut  as part of my Cynical 70’s Film Festival (and yes I know it was released in 1982, but I consider it to be one of the last films that count as a Cynical 70’s film), and was most impressed. Rutger Hauer, of course, stole the film completely, and it was also a bit funny to me that the movie supposedly was set in 2019 (what an enormous disappointment 2019 turned out to be, given how Ridley Scott originally saw it forty years ago); visually it’s an amazing film, and I can also see how the visuals and art design of the film has influenced filmmakers ever since–the constant darkness and rain in Los Angeles (I kept thinking it’s rained more in this movie than it has in Los Angeles in the last year) reminded me of the  Alien film franchise and Altered Carbon and any number of other films. It was also interesting to see Sean Young and Daryl Hannah in the roles that first really brought them to audience attention–Sean Young was on the brink of major stardom for a while until she got labeled “troublesome and crazy; makes you wonder if she refused to fuck Harvey, doesn’t it?–and of course, a still young Harrison Ford just owns the screen. The concept behind the movie was interesting as well; it made me want to go back and read the source material (I’ve not really read much of Philip K. Dick, and given how influential his work was…yeah), and I still might. I bought a copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?–great title–a few years back, but I can’t seem to put my hands on it now.

We also watched two documentaries last night: Class Action Park, about the exceptionally dangerous water park in New Jersey and the Showtime documentary about the Go-Go’s,  The Go-Go’s. Both are excellent and I do recommend both; I’ve always wanted to write about an amusement park–I have a short story somewhere set in one based on the old Miracle Strip in Panama City Beach–and still might; I’d hoped to do a Scotty book back before Katrina set in Jazzland, which is now, of course, a derelict ruin. The Go-Go’s, of course, were and remain one of my all-time favorite bands; I still listen to their music today and of course, contributed my story “This Town” (one of my favorites) to Holly West’s anthology Murder-a-Go-Go’s.

So, I am now awake after two cappuccinos (Gosh, why do I have trouble sleeping? A mystery for the ages), and looking ahead, there’s a lot to get done for me this weekend. I am way behind on both emails and the book, and of course I want to start reading Little Fires Everywhere, and the filing! Good lord, the filing. I also need to make notes from All That Heaven Allows, the biography of Rock Hudson I recently read as research for Chlorine, so I can return the book to the library this week; and it wouldn’t hurt to go through Tab Hunter Confidential and at least mark the pages that would be of use to me later.

We also finished watching The Case Against Adnan Syed, and I definitely have some thoughts and opinions about that case and show.

Watching Magic the other day, and a young Jerry Houser’s appearance in a bit role as the cab driver reminded me of another movie from the 1970’s, which I wanted to rewatch to see how it holds up: Summer of ’42, which also has one of the most beautiful scores every recorded (it won an Oscar for Michel Legrand, who composed it). I read the novel by Herman Raucher, and the book and movie are both considered seminal works and examples of the “coming-of-age” novel–and thinking about it now, how exactly would that work out nowadays? The main character was a teenager–15 or 16, I don’t remember which–and he becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman in her early twenties whose husband is off to war; when the husband is killed in her insane grief she sleeps with the young boy, who returns, even more deeply in love with her, the next day to find a goodbye note and her gone. The book and movie are told in retrospect; many years later, as an adult, he returns to Nantucket, still remembering her, and then the story is told in flashback, and then at the end he sadly looks at her old beach house and drives away. This remembrance also reminded me that I had written, as a short story, my own version of the same story–which never really worked–called “The Island”, which I still have here somewhere and could possibly at some point revise and rewrite; the primary problem for me with the story I wrote was the main character was only thirteen–RED FLAG–and just now I figured out how I could revise it and make it work (definitely not with a thirteen year old main character).

I might to actually spring for the $1.99 to rent Summer of ’42 on Prime, and see how, and if, it fits into my Cynical 70’s Film Festival.

And now it is time for the spice mines. Enjoy your Saturday, Constant Reader!

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Breathe

One of the things I love most about books being turned into television series–or mini-series–is reading the book while I am watching the show. I discovered how amazingly fulfilling and fun and joyous this could be with Big Little Lies, and I’ve tried–sometimes failing–to do this every time Paul and I start binge-watching and loving another adaptation.  (Little Fires Everywhere remains my biggest disappointment; I cannot believe I did not have a copy of the book on-hand, or waited to watch until I had one in my clutches)

When I saw the first preview for HBO’s Lovecraft Country, it literally blew me away. I literally thought to myself, wow, I cannot WAIT to watch that, and was even more delighted to discover that it was, in fact, a novel. I got a copy, placed it on the mantle, and the week the first episode aired, I started reading. (Obviously, I do not read as fast as I used to.) I love love LOVE the show, and the book is actually pretty marvelous, as well. I finished it last night as I waited for the way-outer bands of Hurricane Laura to reach us here in New Orleans–all we got was a tropical storm effect, I am terrified frankly to look up what actually happened where the eye came ashore, and will have to gird myself with more coffee before I do look–and I am pleased to report the book finishes just as strongly as it starts–and that the entire book is fucking fantastic.

lovecraft country

Atticus was almost home when the state trooper pulled him over.

He’d left Jacksonville two days before in the secondhand ’48 Cadillac Coupe that he’d bought with the last of his Army pay. The first day he drove 450 miles, eating and drinking from a basket he’d packed in advance, stopping the car only to get gas. At one of the gas stops the colored restroom was out of order, and when the attendant refused him the key to the whites’ room, Atticus was forced to urinate in the bushes behind the station.

He spent the night in Chattanooga. The Safe Negro Travel Guide had listings for four hotels and a motel, all in the same part of the city. Atticus chose the motel, which had an attached 24-hour diner. The price of the room, as promised by the Guide, was three dollars.

I’m going to be honest right up front: I’ve never read H. P. Lovecraft. Oh, the horror, literally, right? When I was a kid I bought a copy of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath and other Stories, and it just…well, it just didn’t do it for me. I lost interest several pages in, and gave up; and have never since returned to try the Lovecraftian waters. As I grew older and became more and more aware of the horror genre, I also became aware of how much of an impact and influence Lovecraft had, not just on horror, but on the sisters that genre is usually lumped in with, fantasy and science fiction. Lovecraft is honored and saluted and studied and written about, over and over again; new anthologies explore his worlds and “cosmic horror”; so many horror writers and fans claim, on their social media pages, to have attended “Miskatonic University” (which, to be fair, is far less annoying than those who claim “the School of Hard Knocks,” har har); and of course, over the past decade (perhaps longer; who knows? I don’t, and don’t care to find out) you cannot be involved in publishing, or a fan, as I am, of the horror genre and not been aware of what I have come to call “the Lovecraft Wars.” (The Lovecraft Wars, in short, debate the legacy of Lovecraft and his vile, racist beliefs; the standard defense is a shrugged ‘he was a man of his time’–to which the only proper response, frankly, is so was Hitler–and whether or not he should continue to be honored as an influential author; I don’t know the answer to those questions, frankly, and it’s not my writing community so I have no skin in the game. But you cannot help but be aware of this ongoing conflict.)

Anyway, I was pleased when I saw the trailers for HBO MAX’s Lovecraft Country, which clearly centered Black people, and when I found out it was also a book, I decided to get it and read along while watching the series. I was also a little disappointed to see, based on the author photo on the back cover, that author Matt Ruff appeared to be white–which also seemed to be a whole other field of land mines; the #ownvoice debate.

And then I started reading, and watching.

The book is set in a post-Korean War pre-Brown v. Topeka Board of Education United States; when racism was not only permissable and acceptable to the majority of white people but was often enshrined into law; separate bathrooms, denial of service, mob violence and burning crosses were, horrifyingly enough, just a part of everyday life for Black people. The police weren’t there to help protect them; they were there to force them to continue to live their lives on their knees–and kill them if they tried to rise. Lovecraft Country doesn’t flinch away from this or try to downplay it in any way (either book or television show), and there were times I found it hard to keep reading and would put the book down–only to think to myself, that’s some serious privilege there, bud–this is what Black people experience to this very fucking day and they can’t just ‘put down the book’ and walk away from it; refusing to read it because it makes you uncomfortable and makes you squirm makes you even more complicit than you already are. So, yes, there are some parts to the book that will make white people uncomfortable–but you need to get over it, for any number of reasons but at least one is because the book itself is a revelation.

As I’ve said, I’ve not read Lovecraft, but I got the sense from reading the book that the interconnected stories that make up the book are all inspired by, or retellings of, some of Lovecraft’s; only now centering Black people and their struggle against not only supernatural forces but against the casual, every day racism of the society in which they live. Atticus is returning to Chicago from Jacksonville because he received a letter from his estranged father about a family legacy; Atticus’ mother, it turns out, was descended from a slave who was raped and impregnated by a master who was also a very powerful warlock and part of an ancient society with peculiar beliefs centered in the book of Genesis. His uncle George is the publisher/editor of the travel guide mentioned in the opening of the book; eventually Atticus and George go on a road trip to Massachusetts–to Lovecraft Country–along with a childhood friend named Letitia (Tish)–to find Atticus’ father and they wind up in a very chilling and scary place called Ardham (Lovecraft wrote about Arkham–and I will always wonder if Arkham Asylum from the Batman universe was an homage to Lovecraft as well). They deal with racism every step of the way, “sundown towns” (towns where people of color were required to be outside the city limits by sundown or else suffer the consequences), and corrupt racist cops.

Each section of the book focuses on another person who is a part of their immediate family/friends group, dealing with some kind of different, supernatural experience: the next part of the book centers Tish buying a big empty old mansion in a whites-only part of Chicago that also happens to be haunted, and so on–Tish’s sister has her own story; Atticus and his father go looking for journals of another warlock and encounter a haunting; George’s wife and son have their own stories as well–but all these stories are connected by a thread that goes back to Atticus’ family legacy and a war between different covens of warlocks for not only supremacy, but knowledge and power.

The book is exceptionally well-written, and as I said earlier, unflinching in its depiction of a racist society from the point of view of those consistently victimized by it, and it’s a toss-up between who is scarier–the warlocks and the forces they unleash, or the horrible racists, so entrenched in their horrific beliefs and values that they can’t see Black people as human beings. The fact Ruff chose to call his primary character Atticus didn’t escape me, either; Atticus being also the name of the noble white hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is, while a beautifully written novel, one which has become increasingly problematic to me over the years for any number of reasons. I greatly enjoyed reading the book–and in all honesty, it made me curious to read Lovecraft at some point after all these years; although it’s certainly not going to be a priority for me.

I will read more of Ruff’s work, though; the descriptions of his other books sound incredibly subversive, which appeals to me.

I recommend this book highly.

If This Was a Movie

I strongly suspect no one would buy into the concept of two hurricanes coming ashore in relatively the same area in such a short period of time. One of Tim Dorsey’s novels had this as a plot point, and I found it so damned far-fetched I actually decided to never read another one of his novels.

My bad, Mr. Dorsey, and my apologies.

Management decided to close the office for today yesterday, due to the state of emergency with Marco heading for us; so I’ll spend most of my day making condom packs and watching HBO MAX films while waiting for his untimely and unwanted arrival, all the while muttering prayers to every deity I can think of (agnostic, but it never hurts) so we don’t lose power. This morning, though, Marco has weakened to a tropical storm and has slowed down; I’m not exactly sure when he is forecast to come ashore; it looks like much later tonight than forecast and it’s going to skim along the coast rather than turning and coming inland–yesterday it looked like we were getting a direct hit. Laura has also drifted west so we are no longer in her Cone of Uncertainty, and has also slowed–it looks like her eye will be making landfall on Thursday rather than Wednesday as originally forecast. I suppose we can now sigh with relief here in New Orleans in dodging two bullets rapidly fired at us; but there’s still potential for wind damage and flooding. Not to mention one of the worst things that could happen in New Orleans in August: a loss of power.

I spent some time on the book yesterday; I didn’t make as much progress as I should have (do I ever?) but I am pleased with the work I am doing. There are good bones to this book; but the muscle tissue and sinew needs exercise and it also needs to lose some body fat. That’s why it’s taking me longer than I anticipated–I often get to a part where I think, ugh, I don’t want to fix this and make it better, it’s good enough and just as I am about to scroll on–I grab the print out with the post-its and scribbled notes on the pages (surprisingly enough, I remember most of it subconsciously, apparently–more on that oddity later) and force myself to fix it. Having the worked-on manuscript pages and post-its and notes in my journal and my notebook is a tremendous help; this is how I learned how to write a novel in the first place and it’s surprisingly helpful in accountability and in correcting laziness. I haven’t done this in years–certainly not this thoroughly–and often only work on electronic files. My working habit of writing books chapter by chapter and dividing up the electronic files that way–Chapter 1-3, for example, is the third draft of chapter one–and I rarely pull it all together into one document before turning it in. Having the actual physical document, and reading several chapters in a row as I correct and edit them rather than doing an electronic chapter file has helped me catch a lot of repetition, contradiction, and holes in the story. The way I’ve been doing this for the last ten years or so, which is undoubtedly faster but far less careful, probably isn’t the best way for me to be doing this. I didn’t reinvent the wheel and make it better after all. I can still write quickly, the way I always have–spewing out anywhere from three thousand to seven thousand words in one sitting–but I shouldn’t, mustn’t, won’t edit and revise that way anymore.

Something peculiar did happen yesterday–this is the more on this oddity later segment of the blog–in which I worked on Chapter Four and got pretty far into it without referring to the manuscript hard copy pages and notes. In fact, I didn’t even realize what I was doing until I got to a part I didn’t want to rewrite (even though it was necessary) and was going to pass through, thinking you can fix this in a later draft and stopped myself, thinking, what if you DON’T catch this next time? And why be lazy and ensure that the next time will take longer when you can just fix it NOW? I reached for the pages and realized that I had been revising/editing/rewriting without referring to them…and then discovered that most of the corrections I had already made were the same as the ones on the pages. Some of the changes were different–and better than the ones in my scribbled notes–and I had made changes to things I hadn’t caught in the hard copy. So, I interpreted this to be mean that I now have the voice and tone and mood of the story so deeply embedded into the creative corners of my mind that I know how it’s supposed to sound–and I also know the story so I can put the pieces in that are missing to make it come together properly.

It was actually quite marvelous.

I also spent some time with Lovecraft Country, which just gets better and better the further into the book I get. There were, as there have been every time I’ve sat down with the book, moments when the racism was so horrific I wanted to put the book down, but I reminded myself other people can’t walk away from racism by putting a book down and kept reading. It’s truly a terrific novel, and I am greatly enjoying it. We also watched the second episode last night, which is also fantastic. The show is pretty faithful to the book, with some minor tweaks and changes here and there, and it actually enriches the story in the book by expanding on it and the changes aren’t jarring; the fit in the context of the story the show is telling. I’m very glad the show was made, glad I am reading the source material–similarly to how I felt with Watchmen and its source material last year. It’s wonderful that so many books are being made into great television series; it’s enormously satisfying to read the book while watching the show. I did this first with Big Little Lies; and of course intended to do it with Little Fires Everywhere but failed; I’ve yet to read that book and am now thinking I should move it up in the TBR pile (I was planning on reading Babylon Berlin  next; I may still go ahead and read that but keep Little Fires Everywhere on deck). I also want to start dipping into reading short stories again–I’ve got the Paretsky collection, and the new Lawrence Block anthology, an so many other anthologies and single-author collections I’ve not finished–but it seems like there’s never enough time in the day, you know?

And it’s almost September already; how scary is that? Time is so weird anymore; it seems like we’ve been living in this pandemic forever, and this year has lasted a century, and yet still I looked at today’s date and freaked out a little bit because it’s like, did I waste this entire year already? There’s always something, I guess, I can berate myself about. It really never ends around here.

I found myself thinking about short stories I have written, or are in progress–there’s a ridiculous amount of them, seriously–and wondering about when I’m going to be able to get back to writing more of them, or finishing some of the ones that are currently in progress. This lengthy birthday weekend, followed up with an extra unexpected work at home day, has me feeling extremely well rested and my batteries recharged; I always forget how necessary that is, and with this weird new world we find ourselves living in these days–I forget that I used to take a three day weekend every six weeks or so in order to do just that: recharge my batteries. It’s just odd because I guess with the  work-at-home days every week where I don’t actually have to go into the office, I had the mentality that I didn’t necessarily need to take time off periodically for mental health purposes; that insidious sense that working at home isn’t really working.

Sigh.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely, storm-free Monday, Constant Reader.

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Mirrorball

And here we find ourselves, yet again, on the dawning of a new work week; the oft-despised and maligned Monday.

I’m feeling tired this morning–it’s not groggy; just kind of dragging, if that’s a thing. More like I should have slept for at least another hour kind of thing. But it’s a “to-the-office” morning, and we have a full schedule both today and tomorrow, which is great, actually–I really enjoy working with clients–and just wish I was a little more awake this morning.

Paul and I blasted through eight (!!!) episodes of Season 3 of Babylon Berlin last night; the third season is just as high quality as the previous two, and I am now thinking I might want to move the book higher in the TBR pile. I had planned on reading Lovecraft Country next, preparatory to the show airing on HBO this month–it’s nice to mix a different genre in every once in a while–and I do love horror, when it’s well done. This one explores racism and Jim Crow through a reimagining of the notorious racist H. P. Lovecraft’s horror, (Lovecraft has been the subject of a raging battle in the horror genre for the last decade or so; he was an enormous influence on the genre and is still quite widely read to this day–but was also a horrific racist. I’ve actually never read Lovecraft–I tried when I was a teenager and it didn’t hold my interest–so I cannot comment on his influence, other than what others say about it) and the trailers for the show look terrific.

I also have some anthologies and short story collections to start digging into; I have Sara Paretsky’s short story collection and Lawrence Block’s The Darkling Halls of Ivy sitting on my end table. (I would love to have a story in one of Block’s anthologies; they are inevitably terrific, and I’ve enjoyed every one of them I’ve read thoroughly.) I’ve kind of been diverted away from the Short Story Project during these dark times; and since they can be gulped down relatively easily and quickly, I may be taking the Block with me to work today for reading during my lunch break; the lovely thing about short stories are they are short and can be finished in a short period of time, without the sadness that comes with having to set aside a truly fabulous novel one is reading.

I’ve read some very good books thus far this year; as I said in my entry about S. A. Cosby’s quite marvelous Blacktop Wasteland, these are terrific times to be a fan of crime fiction because so much wonderful stuff is being published these days. I honestly think the move towards greater diversity and publishing more diverse voices is pumping new blood and new life into our genre; this needs to happen every so often, I think–and with no offense intended towards anyone, there’s a tendency for creative fiction to stagnate, to continue upholding the status quo–and new voices are vital for our genre to survive.

I spent a good portion of yesterday going over the first ten chapters of Bury Me in Shadows, and yes, I was correct; a lot of work needs to be done on them still. But I made some good progress, and if I can get these first ten whipped into shape the second ten, and the final five, will be much easier to work on and correct and fix. It took me about five hours to get through everything, as well as realize what all needs to be done to pull this all together; I am hoping to find the time to do it all during this week so I can spend the weekend working on the next ten, hopefully getting them all finished so I can have the entire book ready to be turned in by the first of September.

And on that note, back to the spice mines.