Shame of the Nation

There are few pricklier subjects in urban areas than the concept of gentrification.

It’s happening in New Orleans now–has been, really, ever since we moved here, but it seems to have truly accelerated in the sixteen (!) years since Hurricane Katrina. You see it everywhere–the condos for sale for outrageous prices in targeted Facebook ads; the insanely high rents in targeted Facebook ads; the insane asking prices for houses up for sale, again in targeted Facebook ads. I also get email alerts and notifications from a few local realtors; I had to sign up for their mailing lists in order to view the interior of houses and condos and apartments (this began because a house in the Garden District I’d always wanted to see the inside of was up for sale and I went to the realtors’ website to see the interior; I’d been thinking about setting a book–a ghost story–inside that house so I wanted to see the layout and interior design) and I am amazed, on an almost daily basis, on what condos, houses and apartments are going for these days in a city not known for having the economic base to support such high monthly payments.

When Paul and I first moved here, the friends we had who already lived here told us that crime was an issue in the city, but it really didn’t matter where you lived–it was that omnipresent and inescapable. We rented an apartment on Camp Street–mainly because it was gorgeous, had gated secure off-street parking, and there was a park across the street. Our rent was, I think, $600 for almost 1200 square feet, enormous windows, hardwood floors, high ceilings and enormous windows. Our apartment had both a front door (which opened onto the front porch) and a back door that led out to the parking area; there was also a coin-operated laundry (two of each) in a shed in the back of the building. What we didn’t know was that the house next door housed a drug dealer; that the lights in Coliseum Square had been shot out and never replaced, and it was a late night place for people to hang out and do drugs–we could look out into the parking lot and see the pipes being lit out there in the park. The park was surrounded by big, beautiful decaying houses; the former on-ramp to the highway was still out in the neutral ground on the next block downriver on the neutral ground between Camp and Coliseum streets; I always called it “the on-ramp to nowhere” because it literally still went up for about a block and then….nothing. The Coliseum Theater–best known for being the movie theater Brad Pitt playing Louis in Interview with the Vampire exited after seeing Tequila Sunrise (at the time the film was shot it was still a functioning on-ramp)–was still there; closed, but still there. (It would burn to the ground a few years later in what I am absolutely certain was an insurance fire.) But within that first year after we moved there, two of the big houses on the other side of the park were sold and the renovations started. Utne Reader declared the Lower Garden District as the “coolest neighborhood in the country”, and the gentrification began. Houses were sold and became construction sites. Rents started going up. The St. Thomas Projects, a few blocks away, were closed and the residents relocated; new businesses began opening on Magazine, and suddenly…gradually…it was no longer the same neighborhood that it once was.

And the city has dramatically shifted since Katrina, of course.

I actually go back and forth about the gentrification thing in New Orleans, to be honest. I hate that a city that once had a high percentage of African-American home ownership and inheritance is seeing those numbers go down, and once vibrant historically Black neighborhoods–which birthed so much of what makes New Orleans so special–on the decline. I’ve wanted to write something about gentrification for quite some time….and then here comes Alyssa Cole with an absolutely superb take on it, creating a new subgenre that I am calling gentrification noir.

History is fucking wild.

Last fall, on a night when my ass was getting well acquainted with the uncomfortable guest chair in Mommy’s hospital room, I’d numbly tapped and swiped my way to an article about a place called Black America. Not the label politicians use to place our concerns into a neat box full of worries they don’t have to attend to immediately or ever, but an actual, tangible place–a slavery theme park that’d opened in Brooklyn at the end of the nineteenth century.

Slavery. Fucking. Theme park.

Black America, the theme park, was billed as “an opportunity to become familiar with plantation life for those of the North who belong to a general to which the word slavery has but an indefinite and hazy meaning.” This was, like, twenty years after slavery ended, mind you. I mean, I too get nostalgic when an eighties ham starts playing on the radio, but these motherfuckers really needed to reminisce about owning humans?

Alyssa Cole has written in several different genres, including both romance and science fiction, but this–what think may be her first thriller?–is an exceptional and extraordinary work written by a master novelist. Her two point of view characters–a Black woman named Sydney who lives in her mother’s house in a Brooklyn neighborhood being taken over by gentrifying racists (there’s no other way to describe them) and is also researching the history of the neighborhood for a walking tour she plans to do, and a white Johnny-come-lately to the neighborhood named Theo, trapped in a dying relationship after going in on a house with a wealthy white girl named Kim who now not only wants him out but plans to screw him out of the money he put into the house–both have deeply distinct voices that clearly delineate them as individuals, both of whom are more than slightly unreliable and have secrets of their own, and are two new and original voices to this reader in any case. But something awful is going on in this neighborhood–people are disappearing, houses are changing ownership overnight, and Sydney is beginning to wonder, as she bonds with unemployed Theo as he helps her with research for the tour, if maybe she isn’t being paranoid because what her mind is piecing together based on what she has seen and what she has researched…but sometimes paranoia is your sub-conscience warning you.

And it’s not like primarily Black neighborhoods haven’t been cleared out so white people could come in and make money before.

Claiborne Avenue here in New Orleans used to be a prime Black business district…until the powers-that-be decided to build the elevated I-10 highway over it, destroyed the district and Claiborne’s viability as a business district. There’s certainly a book in that story, for sure.

I cannot recommend this book nearly enough. The characters, despite their secrets and flaws, are highly likable, so you can identify with them and root for them. The suspense and tension builds–I could not put this down once I got past page 100–and I am going to be looking for more of Alyssa Cole’s work.

LOVED it.

Style

And this is the first Tuesday of 2021, how are you all doing?

I was very tired yesterday. I slept well Sunday night, but the stress of finishing the book was messing up my sleep leading into Sunday night, so yesterday wasn’t an easy day for me. I also think my caffeine intake might have gone up while I was on vacation, so I am not really sure if it was book stress or perhaps caffeine messing with my sleep. I didn’t sleep particularly well last night either–and I am going to the gym after work tonight. I’m a little stressed out because I really allowed the Sisyphean task of answering my emails be pushed aside focused on getting my book finished, and it was more than a little traumatizing yesterday to see how out of control my inbox had gotten. But que sera sera, as Doris Day used to sing.

We finished watching The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina last night, and bravo to everyone involved. Sabrina was one of the most fun shows we’ve watched over the past few years, I highly recommend it. Kiernan Shipka is pitch perfect as Sabrina–the entire cast is perfect, really; not a false note anywhere–and of course, the guy who plays Lucifer is fucking gorgeous. The four seasons was a wonderful ride, as Sabrina went from wide-eyed, goody two-shoes half mortal/half witch to owning her own power and using it to save herself, her friends, her family–and eventually, the entire cosmos. I was bummed when I heard the fourth season would be its last…but the final season was perfectly written, and ended all of the story arcs satisfactorily, tying the entire run up with a bow. Sorry to see it go, but absolutely delighted that they clearly planned the show’s end.

I do feel a bit at sea, to be honest; the usual disorientation after the tight focus required to finish a book. I printed out #shedeservedit–it’s at around 100,000 words right now and needs to be trimmed down because there’s some additions that need to be made to it, but it cannot come in at 125+. I also periodically have some fears about Bury Me in Shadows–which is inevitable, I suppose; imposter syndrome never goes away, even after you’ve written over thirty books at this point in your career. I’m not certain why this happens to me still–or what I need to rewire in my brain to stop it happening–if that’s even possible at this point in my life. I rather am who I am, and I doubt that change is possible for me now. I do try to continue to learn and grow–I don’t think I ever want to stop learning and growing, as a person or as a writer–but sometimes I wonder if I am so deeply mired in who I am as a person for that to even be possible anymore. I was also thinking about books and stories I’d like to write in the future, and then wondering, am I the right person to tell that story? As an example, I had an idea I really liked a few years back (probably longer than I remember) which was centered around a family of Vietnamese refugees who owned a small business somewhere along the Gulf Coast, either Florida or Alabama, from the point of view of a teenager who was born in the US and so is torn between his family culture and becoming assimilated, when something from the matriarch’s past in Vietnam–from the war days–comes back into their lives,, affecting everyone and changing everything. It’s a really good idea…but then, am I the right person to tell that story? Wouldn’t a Vietnamese-American write a more authentic story, and would my writing such a book take a publishing slot away from a Vietnamese-American writer?

While I do believe that writers have a right–perhaps even a duty–to write the stories they are compelled to write, I also don’t see that compulsion as a “get out of jail free” card. You have to do the work to make sure you aren’t using cheap stereotypes, are creating authentic characters whose experience lives and breathes and is real to the reader, and are telling honest stories about them. You can’t just shrug and smile and say, “well, if people only wrote from their personal experience we wouldn’t have stories about vampires and werewolves and space aliens”; nothing makes me angrier than seeing someone using that to answer criticism about authenticity in their work.

Because people of color and queers, for the record, aren’t mythological creatures that only exist in fiction and in our imaginations. We all exist, and to have our lives, our experiences, and our very existence compared to “vampires and werewolves and space aliens” is not only insulting, it’s dehumanizing–which is absolutely what racism and homophobia are about when boiled down to their base point: people who are not straight and white aren’t REALLY human beings.

And anyone who uses that excuse most definitely should not be writing outside of their own experience, because they are NOT coming from a good place.

When I was first starting out, there was an ongoing debate/discussion about whether we should identify as gay writers or just as writers. The debate died off as traditional publishing backed away from publishing queer writers–and the ones they did continue publishing weren’t marketed as “queer.” I could see the merits on both sides of the discussion; sure, I’d prefer to be seen as a crime writer and have my works stocked in the mystery section of bookstore–but that was also not a reality. As I would say back then–and it’s still true today–“it doesn’t matter what we consider ourselves and our work to be; the publishers and the booksellers are going to label us and or work however they think best in order to sell it, and no matter what we do, our thoughts and opinions and definitions will always be overruled by Marketing.” That label also trumps everything that comes after it–whether it’s romance or mystery or literary or science fiction or fantasy or horror, gay or queer overpowers everything else. I think that is beginning to change. I see books written by queer writers centering queer characters being published by the big houses to great reviews and getting attention, which is lovely. I love the entire “#ownvoices” conversation, and the move to course-correct the overwhelming white straightness in book publishing.

Ironically, it causes me to doubt myself. When I was writing Bury Me in Shadows, I questioned myself constantly: do I have the right to write this book and tell this story? Can a white Southern gay man write about issues of race in the rural South? Am I writing authentic characters or perpetuating rural Southern stereotypes? Do I have anything really insightful to bring to the discussion, or have I gone completely off the rails? It’s a whole new kind of imposter syndrome I wasn’t expecting!

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

Wonderland

I see it’s time for all of the “end of the year” lists, from the best of’s to the worst of’s, and literally, I had to scroll back through my blog to find my “favorite” short story of the year to reply to a tweet in order to enter a giveaway–and it was such a confounding year that I just posted the first one I came to, whether it was the best or not–“The Day I Died” by Cornell Woolrich, and immediately after I hit send, I thought, “that wasn’t even my favorite Woolrich story I read last year; that was ‘It Had to Be Murder’ (filmed as Rear Window)”. But that’s indicative of the kind of year this 2020 has been, not just for me but for others: I can’t remember shit. I can’t remember what I read and when I read it; was the Diversity Project this year or last? When did I started the Reread Project? And the Short Story Project certainly didn’t het much traction here on the blog this past year. This year now blends with other years in my memory, and I am not sure when I read things or what I liked or what movies I watched or television shows I enjoyed–and there were a lot; but was this year the year we started watching foreign language shows like Elite and Dark? I know I watched a lot of films for the Cynical 70’s Film Festival–still have a lot to go on that, for that matter–but as for reading….I know I read some books this past year, and I know I started the Reread Project–not just to revisit books I’d enjoyed, but to get back into reading because the pandemic shutdown–and the basic state of the world in chaos–made it hard for me to focus.

Even more maddening, the lack of focus also hurt my writing schedule (which really needed no assistance–I can not write all by myself without assistance from outside influences, thank you very much), and I cannot keep track or remember what I wrote and what I sold and so forth. I know I wrote my first ever Sherlock Holmes pastiche this past year, and it will be out in the new year–“The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy” (and I am so glad to finally get that title used; although, in fairness, the title I had lying around forever was The Purloined Stripper; I was originally thinking to parody Poe titles with the Chanse series, hence Murder in the Rue Dauphine. But the publisher (Alyson Books) wanted to brand them with the Murder in the titles, and once I made Scotty a stripper and wrote about him, I revised the plot and made Chanse’s boyfriend a former gay-interest video wrestler and that book became Murder in the Rue St. Ann instead)–and I also sold some other stories, like “The Snow Globe” and “Night Follows Night”–but it also seems like I sold more stories than that? I think this was the year “The Silky Veils of Ardor” came out in Josh Pachter’s The Beat of Black Wings, and of course “The Carriage House” came out in Mystery Tribune this year. Was this also the year of “The Dreadful Scott Decision” and The Faking of the President? I think that may be the case.

I do know I spent most of the year trying to get Bury Me in Shadows finished and ready to go–it’s still not completely finished–and I also started researching Chlorine. I kind of am feeling a bit discombobulated lately–no idea what day it is; I really had to stop and think this morning before recognizing that it’s actually Sunday. Crazy, right? I went shopping yesterday to make groceries and get the mail and air up the car tires again–the ‘tires are out of balance’ light came on the other day, which means they are low in air–and then I came home. I spent some time trying to locate my copy of Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets, which I may have read already and donated; the library also didn’t have it, so rather than going through the storage space I ordered the ebook, which was only $7.99. I spent some time with it yesterday reading it–it’s a period that always fascinates me; my interest in Hollywood begins to die out in the 1980’s, and beyond 1990 my interest wanes considerably.

Last night we watched two movies: 1917 and Bombshell, neither of which proved to be very involving. Both movies were very well done, but…I really didn’t feel any emotional involvement with either. Bombshell was probably the more interesting of the two–primarily anchored by Charlize Theron’s terrifyingly spot-on performance as Megyn Kelly, which really dominated the film, and I’m glad there’s a film sort of documenting the crazy goings-on at Fox before the 2016 election; in all honesty I’d pretty much forgotten many of the pertinent details about Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly’s departures from Fox News, but once the movie had finished all I really thought–I’m a really terrible person, I admit it–was that while the working environment at Fox was indeed terrible for women….it also wasn’t a big surprise to me? Why would anyone think that a network that was so definitively anti-women would be a nurturing environment for women? But as we saw with the “#metoo” movement…men have been abusing their power and victimizing women over whom they have power–whether real or perceived–since the beginning of time, and that cuts across the political divide. And while there was some reckoning, there wasn’t nearly enough–and I am sure it is still going on in companies and businesses and corporations today.

But again, Charlize Theron was eerily perfect as Megyn Kelly; I’m sure Kelly didn’t care for it, and she has since proven that she’s still a garbage human being despite everything that happened and everything she experienced; she’s still anti-feminist, still homophobic, still racist—now she just spews her bile on Twitter instead of in front of a camera. Same with Gretchen Carlson–and I am willing to bet that both of them learned nothing from their own experience and still question women bringing charges against men.

I know that S. A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland was one of the best books I read last year, along with The Coyotes of Carthage. Elizabeth Little’s Pretty As a Picture was also a favorite. I think this year included my first-ever read of Mary Stewart’s Thunder on the Right (is there a more hard-boiled, noir setting than a convent in the Pyrenees?), and I also enjoyed Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat (although I recently read a review which suggested the book would have been much more interesting as told by the other doppelganger’s point of view, which is a very interesting suggestion). I know I reread several of Stewart’s books, including Airs Above the Ground, The Moon-spinners, and This Rough Magic, and in the case of the latter two, I remembered so little of them from my original read it was like reading something new. I also read a lot of histories of New Orleans and Louisiana, which was a lot of fun as well–and of course, my Chlorine research led me to reading some gay Hollywood histories–as well as some basic Hollywood histories. I know I also greatly enjoyed Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths.

Highlights of my television viewing have to include at the very top two of the best comedies ever done on television, Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso. Both shows were both funny and tender and heartwarming, and one of the great pleasures of 2020 has been watching other people discover how magic and wonderful both shows are. Paul and I also got into foreign language television at long last, thoroughly enjoying shows like Dark Desire, The Club, White Lines, and several others, but two of the best were Elite (from Spain) and Dark (from Germany), but Babylon Berlin was probably my favorite watch of the year. We also thoroughly enjoyed The Morning Show, Little Fires Everywhere (the book was also pretty spectacular), and of course, The Mandalorian. I also would be remiss without shout-outs to two of my favorite trashy binge-watches, Outer Banks and Tiny Pretty Things. Ozark continues to be terrific, as was the second season of Castle Rock and HBO’s The Outsider. We also saw Mr. Mercedes‘s first season on Peacock, and liked it a lot as well.

I still miss Game of Thrones, disappointing final season notwithstanding.

As for movies….I spent most of my time with my Cynical 70’s Film Festival, which included some rewatches (Cabaret, which I love more every time I see it) as well as first time watches of films like The Candidate, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, The French Connection, and Chinatown; all of which served as an interesting re-education into the decade that was the 1970s, and probably one of the more formative decades of my life. There are still some 70’s films I need to see for this–I really want to rewatch The Last Picture Show, which I’ve not seen in years, as well as The Sting, What’s Up Doc, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, A Woman Under the Influence, Starting Over, An Unmarried Woman, Saturday Night Fever, and so many others. It was such an interesting decade for film…but of the rewatched films, the ones I have always loved–Don’t Look Now, Cabaret, Chinatown–I appreciated even more than I have on previous watches, if that makes any sense. Of the ones I hadn’t seen before, I think my favorite would have to be The Conversation, which was simply brilliant, and a perfect illustration of what the 1970’s were really about on many different levels.

There are a lot of books coming out in the new year that I am excited for; new novels from Alison Gaylin and Laura Lippman and Megan Abbott at the top of the list, of course, and so many others! There’s never enough time to read everything I want to read or watch everything I want to watch, let alone write everything I want to write….which sounds like an excellent place to wrap this up and head back into the spice mines.

Have a lovely day, Constant Reader!

Cardigan

Yes, it’s cardigan/sweater/light jacket weather in New Orleans again; autumn has fallen. And yes, I recognize our weather undoubtedly would feel like spring/early summer to some people–lows in the sixties, highs in the seventies–but this is a thirty degree drop from the dreadful days of August/September, and this year it lasted into October. There’s always been something unsettling to me about the fall season–as things wither and die, as the sun recedes and is only around for about nine hours per day, and the season of rest for the earth approaches–which is undoubtedly why All Hallows’ Eve was dated around that time of change; and why the ancients undoubtedly believed the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was so thin at this time of year.

It’s also lovely because now it’s crockpot cooking weather, which I love–soups and chilis and meatballs with gravy! Yum!

I went to bed early last night, unable to continue watching the election results. I didn’t want to check this morning when I woke up, frankly, but one cannot live in denial forever. Obviously, there are no final results and it isn’t over, as I discovered as I woke up, but my pessimism remains firmly in place. I don’t like being proven right in these instances, but I deep down believed this was going to be close, with the possibility of the results not going the way I wanted and going the way I feared. It’s not quite as shocking to me as it might be to other white people; as a gay man, I’m quite used to being hated abstractly by a majority of Americans and having my rights considered, at best, unimportant and at worst not worth thinking about. I have seen the face of American white hatred and have, in fact, been dealing with it for most of my adult life–and it’s not just white Americans, either. There’s enough homophobia and transphobia out there for white Americans to share with people of color–it’s the one thing white Americans are willing to share with people of color.

But we survived the Reagan administration, when they were letting HIV/AIDS kill us–and not-so-secretly hoping it would kill all of us–and we survived the second Bush presidency, so if the worst comes to worst yet again, I am sure somehow we can survive another four years of this. Am I tired of it all? Yes, I am. Will I go on fighting? I have to, because what other choice do I have?

It’s very easy to give in to despair, which of course is what they want us to do. They want us to go quietly into that good night, disappear from public view, get swept back under the rug or securely locked back into our closets. But I do know I am not going to listen to any analysis; I am not interested in “understanding” the other side any more than they are interested in “understanding” me and my values and my beliefs. All I am interested in is the final results, and getting on with my life for as long as I can.

I worked on “A Dirge in the Dark” last night some, in bits and pieces here and there, because I couldn’t truly focus on anything for very long. I think the story is going to turn out really well, actually, which pleases me. I’ll try to spend some more time with it today and tonight, see if I can get that draft finished, and I also need to start working with Bury Me in Shadows again. I need to rouse myself from this stupor and start getting things taken care of again. That’s pretty much all I can do, and all of the negativity of the last year or so needs to be ignored, put away, shunted aside and locked up in a dark corner of my mind. I need to focus on me, and my career, and the things I have to get done; and not worry about things that are beyond my control.

I had also intended to go to the gym last night, but I was tired and got home late from the office. I decided to take the night off from working out and just go tonight when I get home from work; at least tomorrow I don’t have to get up at six in the morning, and then I can go on Friday and Sunday quite happily. There’s not an LSU game this weekend I don’t think, so I can spend all day Saturday cleaning and writing and reading–as I mentioned after the disappointment of last weekend’s LSU game, I no longer am vested in either the conference or national races, so I only have to watch LSU games and can ignore the rest of them quite happily while getting things done that I need to get done.

I want to finish reading The Hot Rock, and I also want to get back to both the Short Story Project as well as the Diversity Project. I feel like a lot of things have slid this year, and I need to snap out of this pandemic stupor and get back to being on top of things. There’s no telling when any of this might end, and I need to stop pinning thoughts on my mental bulletin board with post-its attached reading for when the pandemic is over. We’re going into month seven, with no end in sight, and I can’t keep pushing things back on my lists–no matter how much I want to.

I feel like this morning, in some ways, I’ve woken up, shaken off the malaise and stupor of the last year, and am seeing everything with a cold, dispassionate, clear eye. We shall see how long it lasts, of course–I know I’ll get tired again this afternoon, and run out of steam at some point, and of course going to the gym tonight will be exhausting–but might as well make some hay while I can.

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

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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