I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore

And so it is now Wednesday, and we’re already about halfway finished with this week. Isn’t that lovely? Of course, I always hear my mother’s voice in the back of my head whenever I say things like that–you know you’re just wishing your life away when you do that–ah, my mother. Someday I’ll stop hearing her voice in my head.

Although I still do and am staring down fifty-nine this year, so chances are that voice is never going to get out of my head.

We finished watching Little Fires Everywhere, and I have to say, Reese Witherspoon makes a terrific villainess. It’s extremely well done–the writing and acting are top notch–and it really is amazing what you can do with a soap-opera style plot with strong writing and an excellent cast and good directing. As I watched, I couldn’t help thinking what a great Abby Reese Witherspoon would make in a reboot of Knots Landing. But I do encourage everyone to watch. It’s a terrific show, Kerry Washington is also fantastic, as are all the young actors playing the teenagers, and while it reminded me some of Big Little Lies, it’s a completely different plot and a completely different story–although the character Witherspoon plays is remarkably similar in both (although in Big Little Lies she never went completely to the dark side the way she did in this). It also handles class and race and gender issues over the course of the story, showing that it can be done–and done well–with the right creative team in place, particularly if they are committed to properly handling the issues.

Now I think tonight we’ll go back to Gold Digger–I think the next two episodes dropped Monday–and see if it continues to hold our interest as well.

I slept deeply and well last night. I woke up at seven this morning, and was actually awake, but chose to lightly nap in bed for another hour because the bed felt so relaxing and comfortable–plus, I wasn’t really feeling the day, you know? The longer I stayed in bed relaxing the longer I could put off dealing with anything this morning. Not that there is anything I don’t want to deal with– as I am particularly fortunate in that nothing I have to deal with is terrible; I just get lazy periodically–which is why being described as hard working or prolific amuses me endlessly. Granted, I hold myself to a much higher standard than perhaps I should; on the other hand, sometimes I think I wouldn’t get nearly as much done if I were easier, and kinder, on myself.

I also started rereading House of Many Shadows by Barbara Michaels this week, and I am now getting to the meat of the story; all the characters are in place, in the enormous house in the Pennsylvania countryside; it’s established that Meg, the heroine, has been in a car accident that caused some sort of brain damage which causes her to have either visual or audial hallucinations; the caretaker of the place is the owner’s stepson, whom she knew when they were children and didn’t like each other; and the previous tenants were evicted and not happy about it. It’s interesting–I’ve been very careful with Bury Me in Shadows to not mimic Barbara Michaels, and yet…in rereading this one I realize how incredibly similar the set-up of my work-in-progress is to this particular Michaels novel. Not that I’m plagiarizing her by any means, and there are only so many story situations and set-ups one can come up with; but similar enough for me to be a teeny bit concerned.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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DJ Culture

Ah, Kansas.

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

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

And of course, there’s Scott Heim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electricity

Good morning, Tuesday, how it’s going with you, Constant Reader, on this lovely early May morning?

I sent out another story yesterday–why, yes, I am on a roll, kind of, thank you for asking. I could also easily go 0 for 4, which is certainly more likely than 4 for 4 (I know, I know, self-deprecation there, and yes, it’s a very hard habit to break but I am working on it).

Last night I managed to work througb some of my my computer frustrations. Apparently, at some point in the last few months or so, there was yet another Mohave update–I remember when it happened, and I didn’t install it, it somehow just happened–that rendered my flash drive unreadable or unworkable with Mac computers. Fortunately I have that shitty little PC laptop, which can still read it. So I then had to download a Cloud for PC app, which needed a Windows update to work, and–long story short, I found a backup to the flash drive from November backed up in the Cloud, and I honestly don’t think I worked on anything on the flash drive that wasn’t backed up to the Cloud already, so it was simply a matter of moving the working files from the back-up folder in the Cloud to the active area. An enormous pain in the ass, but there you have it–and I now have the files I need accessible. At some point I’ll be able to get that PC Cloud app working and save yet another back-up, but until then I am able to work with what I have, thank you.

Today is another early morning for me, but truth to be told, I’m pretty much starting to adapt to these mornings and they aren’t nearly as painful as they used to be. I’m actually getting rather used to this sort of 9 to 5 thing, which I never expected to ever happen in a million years. Last night I was home shortly after five, and had some time thus to work on these computer issues. And since it was May 4th, and Rise of Skywalker was newly available to stream last night on Disney, I decided to watch it again–more critically this time than when I saw it in the theater, and yeah. I enjoyed it on the big screen—I always enjoy Star Wars on the big screen, as a general rule, but when I was rewatching it, it seemed disjointed, poorly written and planned, and kind of all over the place. So, all those people who were so critical of it? Yeah, they were probably right, but this sequel trilogy didn’t “ruin my childhood” or anything; it was just disappointing on a rewatch. I’ll probably have some more thoughts about the whole thing later.

I also finished reading Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin last night, and it really is quite a wonderful book. Reading it as a crime novel was an interesting take, and I think I can quite solidly back up my theory that it is, in fact, while a very literary book to be sure, a crime novel. It certainly is structured and written kind of like one, and the mood and tone of the book is very dreamlike yet terrifying, like Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything, which I think is a good companion book for Mysterious Skin. There will, of course, be a blog entry devoted to the book; I’m still gathering my thoughts about it and trying to order them in some way. Afterwards, I tried to find my copy of We Disappear, but couldn’t put my hands on it–even though I am absolutely positive I located it the moment I started rereading Mysterious Skin…it’ll turn up, I’m sure.

I also started rereading Mary Stewart’s Thunder on the Right, which has some rather razor-sharp wit going on in the very beginning, which immediately (to me) added to its charm, and drew me in already. I also remember Thunder on the Right as being a “lesser” Stewart novel–kind of like The Moon-spinners and This Rough Magic, both of which I loved on the reread.

Tonight we’ll probably go back to watching Defending Jacob; I was already watching Skywalker when Paul got home, and he just fell asleep while watching that–he also pointed out that he doesn’t remember watching it in the theater at all; which is really not a sign of a movie that resonated with the viewers, really–so tonight it’ll be back to Defending Jacob. Apple is really putting a lot of cash into their streaming service, a and there are certainly a lot of impressive names being put to work on their shows, so who knows? I also need to sign into my CBS app so we can start watching their All Access Star Trek shows, as well as the reboot of The Twilight Zone from Jordan Peele.

There’s really so much good stuff to watch–and that’s only the stuff I know about. We’ve stumbled onto so many good shows over the years that we’d not heard about, and of course, season 3 of Killing Eve is also up now.

And on that note, tis time to get ready for the spice mines. Have a most lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader, and I’ll talk to you later.

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Footsteps

I wound up deciding to take yesterday off from the world–computer, social media, you name it–because for whatever reason my desktop was acting wonky yesterday morning and eventually I grew so irritated I decided to run my errands. When I got home from that further irritation–nothing like people not only not wearing masks in public but not maintaining social distance as well–and I just wanted to scream at everyone: “do you want us to be on lockdown through September? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

But then I remember–this is New Orleans and nobody follows rules here; or at least, they ignore them when they’re inconvenient. It’s sadly part of the charm here, and now that it’s something important…I see how dangerous that can be. But it was nevertheless more fuel for my irritation, and by the time I got home my computer was still wonky so I decided to say fuck it and take the day away from the computer and social media. It was kind of nice–I fell into a Youtube hole of history videos (I am really glad to be studying history again; as I’ve said before, I kind of wish I’d majored in History in college–but would have never been able to narrow down a field of majority interest). I spent most of the afternoon moving and rearranging books and filing and cleaning while this Youtube videos played on continually; I learned some more about the Byzantine empire, the plague, and the Hapsburgs–who are so fascinating to me. Let other wars, you, happy Austria, marry.  Someday I’d still like to do a book about the powerful women of the sixteenth century; and many of those important women were Hapsburgs.

One of the things I’ve found interesting is how writers are engaging with their lockdown situation and their social media. Lists are popping up everywhere; and as I daydreamed yesterday while doing my chores and so forth, I started thinking about my own lists–rather than ten albums or books or movies that shaped me, I wanted to come up with more specifics: My Ten Favorite Agatha Christie novels, my favorite romantic suspense novels, my favorite crime novels by women, and so on. The reboot of Perry Mason, coming this summer from HBO (it looks worth a look, frankly; although I imagine there are any number of Mason purists who will naturally hate it; there always are), might be worth taking a look at some Perry Mason novels–I feel the books don’t get nearly as much attention as the TV series based on them; and the books don’t get talked about nearly enough, either. Talk about puzzles–Erle Stanley Gardner was a master of crime plotting, and red herrings, and confusing the reader; I don’t think I ever correctly solved a Perry Mason case until Perry revealed their identity, dramatically, in the court room (which is, of course, where that trope originated); and I do have a couple of them lying around on the shelves in the laundry room–The Case of the Calendar Girl and The Case of the Crying Swallow–so perhaps, as part of the Reread Project, I should revisit them both.

I also spent some time thinking about The Plot Against America–which is directly related to our finishing Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood last night on Netflix. Both are alternate histories, but one of the things about Hollywood is that it was an alternate history that was actually appealing; usually, alternate histories inevitably paint an uglier reality than the one that actually happened (although it’s hard to imagine a more dystopian alternate history for the present day than the actuality); Hollywood didn’t do that. Instead, it showed how horribly racist, homophobic, and misogynist the country was, and how Hollywood reflected that…and then gave us a lovely alternate history where a Hollywood studio saw its duty to change those things and open up society in the late 1940’s. It’s quite marvelous, actually; I kept waiting for reality to break over them, but it never did. It’s very well done, and it’s shot in the style of Hollywood films of the time, right up to the obligatory happy Hollywood ending. And of course, the boys were beautiful. The Plot Against America, on the other hand, was completely horrifying because it was so easy to imagine that we as a country could have gone that way. I don’t know how the novel ends–I never finished it; I have said before that I am not a fan of Roth and I never got past the first chapter of this one–but I thought the way the show ended was perfect, even if it was terrifying at the same time; it was more of an indictment of the United States (as I said to Paul, “this show is terrifying because it could so easily have gone this way here”) and humanity than anything else.  Hollywood also could be seen as an indictment of the way things used to be–its message seemed to be this could have all changed so much earlier if anyone in Hollywood had the courage to make these changes–and that is just as damning as The Plot Against America.

Today I am going to write and edit and revise and get things done. I think I am always teetering on the edge on Saturdays anyway; still leftover tired and so forth from the week, and then having to deal with the general public on top of that is always draining and rough on my moods. Computer issues on top only heightens the aggravation, and being already on the razor’s edge doesn’t make it any easier. I kind of have a mess here in the kitchen that needs to be handled–I deliberately avoided my desk yesterday, so there’s sorting and filing that needs to be done around here as well–but this morning, after I finish this, I am going to abjure to my easy chair and read for a bit. I want to get further into Mysterious Skin, and then I am most likely going to move on to another Mary Stewart reread, either Thunder on the Right (which I don’t remember at all) or Madam Will You Talk?, which I have some memory of; and there are also short stories I’d like to sink my teeth into. I haven’t touched the most recent Lawrence Block anthology, which looks terrific and has some amazing contributors. I want to get my story “Night Follows Night” revised today and possibly submitted somewhere; I’d also love to get some revisions done on “This Thing of Darkness” and “Never Kiss a Stranger.”

And of course, the Secret Project. I really need to get back to work on the Secret Project.

So, yes, I have my work cut out for me today. I also should spend some time drafting the replies to the massive amounts of emails I’ve accumulated over the last day or so. And then I feel like I can face Monday with a clear conscience.

Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader. I plan to.

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Before

As Constant Reader is no doubt aware, I’ve been worried recently about my inability to sit down and write. I’ve done some writing, of course, in drabs and dribs here and there; applauding myself for getting as many as a thousand written in a day–which is a major drop off from what I used to be able to manage, pre-pandemic, although I must confess it’s been quite a while since I’d had one of those days before the world shut down. But I am very pleased to report–despite innumerable, continuous frustrations with my computer and its inability to function properly (thank again, Apple Mojave update; may your code-writers burn in hell for all eternity without respite or mercy)–that yesterday I managed to not only write, but I put down over three thousand words in slightly more than an hour and finished the first draft of the Sherlock story–thank you, baby Jesus–and now can let it sit for a while before I revise it again. It’s very rough, and probably more than a little bit jumbled, but I have it done and with a few reminders this week of Doyle’s style, I should be able to get it finished and turned in on time.

Huzzah!

I cannot tell you how nice it felt to get three thousand or so words down in such a short period of time, Constant Reader. It’s nice to know those muscles haven’t atrophied, and are still there when I need to call upon them. I’m also really glad to have the story draft finished; regardless of how good or bad it might be, it’s lovely to have a draft done so I can revise it and fix it at leisure during the last few days (eleven, actually) before the deadline hits. It’s caused me so much stress, quite frankly, and I am so relieved to know that I can still write, and my usual amount at that, even during a pandemic with all these additional stressors and irritants going on. And believe you me, there are plenty of those enough to go around.

I did start rereading Mysterious Skin again yesterday afternoon–after finishing the story, doing a load of dishes, folding clothes, and straightening the kitchen–and I am totally loving it. It’s weird–I do remember reading it before; I distinctly remember the cover, with pieces of cereal scattered across it, but I don’t remember actually reading it. I also remember the story, but mostly from the film. The reason I am finding it strange that I don’t remember reading it before (and to be fair, I didn’t remember a lot of things in the books I’ve reread in the Reread Project so far–I didn’t remember that there was a living mummy in Crocodile in the Sandbank; I thought the dolphin rescue was in Mary Stewart’s The Moon-spinners but it was actually in This Rough Magic; I didn’t remember there being a love interest in Nine Coaches Waiting…etc. etc. etc.) is because it’s resonating with me as I read it; I was a teenager living in Kansas during the time the book is set; I’d been to the state fair in Hutchinson; I’ve been to Pretty Prairie and I’vve even been through Little River, and the way Heim describes the countryside–it’s like being there again. Maybe when I first read the book I was still compartmentalizing my past; I used to do that quite a bit, shutting the door on painful memories of a deeply unhappy past, and lately I’ve begun unpacking all of those memories a bit more–not sure why, but that’s a subject for another time. But I am enjoying the book a lot, as I thought I would, and am really looking forward to getting deeper into it.

And reading it is making think about my own novel, Sara, to date the only novel I’ve published that is set in Kansas. Maybe I should reread some of my own work for the Reread Project? There’s quite a bit about my old books I honestly don’t remember–and I really should start keeping a list of my character names, at the very least. I think when I started up on the Kansas book again a few years ago, I had reread Sara and was horrified to realize I was using the exact same character names I’d used in it; in fairness, those character names have been hanging around in my head since I wrote my first novel forty years ago–the terribly written, highly cliched, trite handwritten manuscript that no one will ever see because I am not going to include it in my papers, should I ever get my shit together and get those donated–and I always recycle from unpublished work. I just started writing about Kansas and of course those names popped out–and so later, when I went back to work on another Kansas book those names popped right out again.

And oh, those Kansas memories, of towns named Council Grove and Salina and Cottonwood Falls; Neosho Rapids and Hiawatha and Yates Center; Garden City and Great Bend and Junction City; Derby and Newton and Pratt. The six towns that consolidated into my high school: Americus, Bushong, Allen, Dunlap, Admire and Miller. The other high schools we played against–Olpe and Madison and Hartford, Waverly and Lebo and Reading. Little towns that were drying up and blowing away; a couple of blocks, some abandoned buildings, maybe a little post office and a gas station. Bushong was just off the road the bus took from Americus to Northern Heights High School, which was about a half-mile or so east of Allen–which there wasn’t much to, either. You couldn’t see much of Bushong from the road; there were railroad tracks there when I was a teenager, and so the bus always had to stop, open the folding doors, and see if there was a train coming or not. There were bushes and trees hiding the remnants of the town from the state road–the Americus Road, is what we called it–but you could still see the roof of the abandoned all-grades-in-one school. Back when we lived in Americus we didn’t have street names or house numbers; Google Earth assures me that is no longer the case. We used to have to pick up our mail at the post office; everyone had a post office box. I remember our combination: three turns right, stop on 3,  a full left turn and stop between 8 and 9, turn back to the right and stop on 5.

The things you remember, right? But I’m sure I am remembering some things wrong; I invariably do, as I said the other day.

But, as I said, the thing is I am remembering, and I am not recoiling from the memories, which is also really nice. I’m not sure when the exorcism of my old demons from past lives occurred, but it did; I’m kind of sorry I shut all the memories away for so long. I think some of it has to do with writing Bury Me in Shadows, which started making me remember Alabama–I have no memories of living there, but I used to spend a few weeks down there every summer until we moved to the suburbs, at my grandmother’s house; I am setting the book in a county based on where we are from and my grandmother’s house is located precisely where my character’s grandmother’s house is located. (The funny thing is I keep trying to make things fit, but the truth is I don’t have to make anything fit into what I remember; it’s fiction, so I have the freedom to change whatever the hell I want to; the story itself is patched together from stories my other grandmother used to tell me when I was a kid–probably half-truths at best, outright lies at worse; perhaps some family legends? I don’t know, but those stories have hung around in my head for most of my life.) I’ve been wanting to write this story for quite some time, and even wrote it as a short story called “Ruins” back in my twenties, while I lived in Fresno.

The one thing I need to be careful about is I don’t want to mirror the ghost story I told in Lake Thirteen, which kind of makes me nervous. I’m always worried that I repeat myself; as a very kind reader gently asked me recently, how many car accidents has Scotty been in? 

Sadly, more than I want to admit.

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

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Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend

I was tired yesterday when I got home from work. My sleep has become unreliable again–I really miss those depression-assisted deep sleeps from the early days of the pandemic, quite frankly–and as always, I am terribly behind on everything. I need to get some writing done today–I want to finish a first draft of the Sherlock story, and I need to edit another short story (or two) for blind submissions to two anthologies with deadlines at the end of this month. I also have to run an errand this morning, and I am way behind on a lot of other things that I need to use this weekend to get caught up on. Alas, when I got home last night I was mentally exhausted, so I spent the evening doing dishes and finishing laundry and making dinner (pasta, for the record) and of course after a restless night’s sleep came downstairs to discover that I left the kitchen a mess and there’s another load of laundry to finish. Go me!

I’m not entirely awake yet this morning, either–I’m only on my second cup of coffee–but hope to be rarin’ to go by the time I finish this. The mess around here is quite disturbing, if I’m going to be completely honest, and I also have to start loading the bills into next month’s calendar to ensure that I don’t miss one, like I did this month. I also need to air up a tire; one of the tires in my car has a slow leak, and I probably should take it back to the dealership at some time to get it looked at–it has been a problem ever since I got the car, and it’s stupid to not get it at least looked at. The tires also need to be rotated again at some point, too.

The excitement of my life is a bit overwhelming, is it not?

We continue to enjoy the Lucy Lawless series My Life is Murder; I really do recommend it if you enjoy crime-solving shows. Netflix also dropped a new series called Outer Banks, which looks like it has potential. It’s amazing sometimes to think how our television viewing habits have changed over the years, isn’t it? We were watching the new Tales of the City last night, and there was an episode where Mouse and the Ellen Page character played on a team for a bar’s Trivia Night, and the questions were so ridiculously easy…the final question for the win was essentially by what name is Reginald Dwight better known as–the entire point of the thing was Mouse was bad at trivia after boasting to his younger boyfriend he was good at it, and of course, he was the only person who recognized Elton John’s birth name. I found this preposterous at first, and then realized, younger people who weren’t around during his hit-making heyday would probably NOT know that, and then I felt a bit old.

This led me into a spiral as well–the changes in technology I’ve seen over the course of my life, and how new technology rather quickly became obsolete. I’ve seen listening to music evolve from radio and vinyl and 8 track tapes to cassettes, then compact discs, and finally it became digital. (Vinyl is now making a comeback, though.) Listening to music has gone from having an enormous stereo with various interconnected components and enormous speakers to the Walkman to the Discman to the iPod/MP3 player. Even remembering the very first computer I worked on in the 1980’s (at work), which operated on MS-DOS. Our first Apple computer was enormous, and incredibly slow. We went from floppy discs to ZIP drives to flash drives over the course of about ten years, and now of course there’s these “cloud” things. Dial-up Internet to DSL to wireless connections. Landlines to cell phones to smart phones. My first laptop weighed about ten pounds, only lasted at most an hour or two on its own battery, and was such a pain in the ass that I got to the point where I refused to take it on trips because my shoulder and back would get sore from lugging it through airports.

My latest laptop weighs practically nothing, and is in fact so light I can’t tell if it’s in my backpack or not.

I also am doing a virtual panel tomorrow night on “writing during a pandemic” for a Bold Strokes Books reader-a-thon that’s going on all weekend. (I also agreed to do a reading for a bookstore event later this month; one thing this pandemic has already taught me is how little I understand technology and how to make it work). There’s nothing like new technology to make you feel like a fossil.

Heavy sigh.

But I’m hoping to spend some time rereading Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin this weekend, and I realized last night that I’ve not even cracked the spine of Lawrence Block’s latest “art as inspiration from crime stories” anthology.  So I am going to wrap this up, drink some more coffee, and clean the kitchen before running my errand, after which I will come home to my writing.

Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader!

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Being Boring

And just like that, we made it to Friday.

Do days and dates mean anything anymore? It’s hard for me to keep track, that’s for certain. And from what I gather, it’s not just me–everyone is having difficulty keeping track. I missed making a credit card payment this month because I didn’t put it on my Google calendar with an alert–the calendar alerts have literally been saving my ass since this whole thing started–and thank God for them, you know? They pop up on my computer, phone and iPad, so it’s unlikely that I will miss them, but stuff has to literally be on the calendar for me to get an alert, so that’s on me. It’s about time for me to start loading all the bills into the May calendar–perhaps that will be a chore for this weekend.

After all the pleasure I’ve had rereading Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Peters, I am thinking that I should keep the Reread Project going and reread something else that I loved and haven’t read in a long time. What that might be, I don’t know–there are so many books loaded into my Kindle app it’s terribly frightening–but I am also curious as to whether I’ll enjoy reading something new on there. I have some classic crime novels loaded in there–Charlotte Armstrong, Ellery Queen, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Mary Roberts Rinehart–as well as Ethel Lina White’s novel (blanking on the name) which was filmed as The Spiral Staircase, which is a great classic suspense story starring Dorothy McGuire (I think) that doesn’t get near enough credit or recognition. Then again, I haven’t seen it since I was a child, so who knows? Perhaps it doesn’t hold up. I just remember that the main character, the heroine, was either deaf or mute or both. And yes, the more I think about it, the more I think that should be my next read.

On the other hand, Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin is just sitting there, begging for a reread. I was thinking more about the book again last night–about how truly clever it was, and possibly about how it could be considered, perhaps, a crime novel; which of course made me want to read it again all the more.

Yesterday I was very tired when i got home; I had to get up early and so screenings at our other campus, and then come back to the other for the rest of the day. I slept better last night than I have previous nights of the week–although I did wake up a few times–and I really do need to get back to stretching and exercising here at home every morning. It helps with being tired, and it certainly helps me sleep better at night. I’ve lost seven pounds since the quarantine started–apparently every one else has gained weight?–and so, for the first time since around 2010 or 2011, I weigh less than 210, which was a plateau I was beginning to think I was too old to break through. And now I have, which means that getting down to my goal weight of 200 is possible. I’m not sure, with the muscle weight that I have now, that going below 200 is realistic; but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. I never thought I was going to get below 210 ever again, and here I am.

We continue to watch Murder is My Life with Lucy Lawless on Acorn, and I highly recommend it. Lawless looks amazing–those eyes!–and of course, she’s always been an incredibly talented actress–more so than she’s ever been given credit for (she deserved an Emmy for Spartacus) and the structure of the story around her and her character is really quite good. When I get home from the office today, I’m going to finally sign into the CBS All Access app on Apple TV I’ve been paying for, so I can start watching not only Picard but Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone reboot.

This weekend, I’ll need to run some errands–grocery store for a bit of odds and ends–and I am mostly going to spend the weekend relaxing, cleaning, organizing, and I need to polish a pair of short stories and finish the first draft of my Sherlock story, so I can revise and rewrite accordingly before turning it in at the end of the month. I’m also going to go back to the Secret Project, which I’d like to finish, along with these stories, by the end of the month. Then I can go spend May finishing the final draft of Bury Me in Shadows–I finally had the breakthrough on the story I was looking for–and then once that’s done, I can spend June and/or July doing a final of the Kansas book, and then–you guessed it–it’s time to tackle Chlorine.

Pretty cool, huh? I also want to start brainstorming on the next Scotty book, too. SO much writing to do, so little time….

And so I must return to the depths of the spice mines. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader.

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After the Event

I’ve loved, and been fascinated, by ancient Egypt ever since I was a kid. I don’t remember when, precisely, Egypt became so lodged into my brain; but for as long as I can remember, the ancient history of one of our oldest civilization has intrigued me, and held my interest. I’m hardly an expert–not even close–but I remember pestering my parents to subscribe to the Time-Life Great Ages of Man series; the very first volume of which was, naturally,  Ancient Egypt (for the record, I still have my entire set of those books). Cleopatra, of course, also interested me; I’m not sure if my Egyptian interest came before or after watching the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra on television. (I still am terribly interested in Cleopatra; the court intrigues and politics of the Ptolemy dynasty makes the Borgias and the Medici look like pikers. I always wanted to write a book about–of all things–Cleopatra’s older sister Berenice, who briefly overthrew their father and took the Egyptian crown. The Romans sent legions to support her father, so her reign was very brief. Her younger sister, Arsinoe, who fought Cleopatra for the throne–only to be defeated by Caesar, also interests me.) I’ve always been interested in Akhenaten (loved Allen Drury’s two books about the Amarna revolution, A God Against the Gods and Return to Thebes), Tutankhamun (of course), and Hatshepsut (I read a great Scholastic mystery set during her reign called The Mystery of the Pharaoh’s Treasure, and I think I bought a copy from eBay a while back; I may have the name wrong.)

But as much as I love Egypt, I didn’t love it enough to read Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. I borrowed it from the library, and couldn’t get through the first chapter.

Sorry not sorry.

As a teenager who loved mysteries, I gravitated towards women authors once I’d fairly exhausted the canons of Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, and Erle Stanley Gardner primarily because I couldn’t relate or identify with the crime novels being written by men at the time. Grim and hard-boiled and toxic masculinity wasn’t a combination I was terribly interested in at the time; I did appreciate noir (discovering James M. Cain when I was about nineteen was wonderful), though–but that was because I associated it with all those great movies I used to watch with my grandmother. I eventually came around, and started enjoying John D. MacDonald and Hammett and Chandler as I got older.

But when I saw this book on the paperback rack at the grocery store in Emporia, I had to get it. It was a mystery; blurbed by one of my favorite writers, Phyllis A. Whitney, and of course, that was the Sphinx on the cover. I bought it, read it, loved it–and forgot about Elizabeth Peters for about a decade or so (I came back to Barbara Michaels in my mid-twenties, and when I discovered she was also Elizabeth Peters, it didn’t register with me.) Then one day I was in the Waldenbooks and More on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa when I saw a book on the end cap that called to me: The Last Camel Died at Noon, plus an unmistakably Egyptian scene on the cover. The title and the cover alone sold me–and I also knew by then that Elizabeth Peters was the same writer as Barbara Michaels. I bought it and when I got home, I opened to the first page and started reading….about a page in I stopped. Wait, Emerson and Peabody? I turned back to the beginning of the book and there it was, on the BY THE SAME AUTHOR page: THE AMELIA PEABODY SERIES, and the first title was Crocodile on the Sandbank! 

You can only imagine my delight. I loved those characters, loved that first book, and to find out now there was a series? I read The Last Camel Died at Noon cover to cover in about twenty-four hours, and the next day I went back to Waldenbooks and More and bought the entire series, and settled in to get reacquainted with two of my favorite fictional characters of all time.

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When I first set eyes on Evelyn Barton-Forbes she was walking the streets of Rome–(I am informed, by the self-appointed critic who reads over my shoulder as I write, that I have already committed an error. If those seemingly simple English words do indeed imply that which I am told they imply to the vulgar, I must in justice to Evelyn find other phrasing.)

In justice to myself, however, I must insist that Evelyn was doing precisely what I have said she was doing, but with no ulterior purpose in mind. Indeed, the poor girl had no purpose and no means of carrying it out if she had. Our meeting was fortuitous, but fortunate. I had, as I always have, purpose enough for two.

I had left my hotel that morning in considerable irritation of spirits. My plans had gone awry. I am not accustomed to having my plans go awry. Sensing my mood, my small Italian guide trailed behind me in silence. Piero was not silent when I first encountered him, in the lobby of the hotel, where, in common with others of his kind, he awaited the arrival of helpless foreign visitors in need of a translator and guide. I selected him from amid the throng because his appearance was a trifle less villainous than that of the others.

I was well aware of the propensity of these fellows to bully, cheat, and otherwise take advantage of the victims who employ them, but I had no intention of being victimized. It did not take me long to make this clear to Piero. My first act was to bargain ruthlessly with the shopkeeper to whom Piero took me to buy silk. The final price was so low that Piero’s commission was reduced to a negligible sum. He expressed his chagrin to his compatriot in his native tongue, and included in his tirade several personal comments on my appearance and manner. I let him go on for some time and then interrupted him with a comment on his manners. I speak Italian, and understand it, quite well. After that, Piero and I got on admirably. I had not employed him because I required an interpreter, but because I wanted someone to carry parcels and run errands.

My God, that incredible, incredible voice.

By the end of the second page, I was madly in love with Amelia Peabody; by the end of the third, I wanted to be Amelia Peabody. How could you not love her? She’s fiercely intelligent, even more fiercely independent, spoke her mind, got straight to the point, and had no desire whatsoever to deal with frivolities, sentimentality, and so forth. The youngest child and only daughter of a classics scholar, her six older brothers got married and left her home to take care of their father. She speaks four languages fluently, and frequently curses the accident of birth that left her a female. Her father died and left her everything–which her brothers thought was fair, until it turned out he was a lot richer than anyone thought and had left her half a million pounds, which was an insane amount of money in the late nineteenth century. Unmarried at thirty-two, she considers herself to be too plain, too old, and too sharp-tongued to ever marry, and has decided she is going to die a spinster. (I could never respect a man who would allow his wife to dominate him, but at the same time I could never allow any man to dominate me.) She decides to use her fortune to travel to visit the places she’s always dreamed of and read about in books–which is what brings her to Rome, along with her paid companion–whom she doesn’t care for, and just chance puts her in the forum at the same time as Evelyn, who faints and Peabody, of course, takes charge. She decides to help Evelyn–who was seduced away from her wealthy family and “ruined”, as well as cut off, and she’d come to Rome with the man she thought she loved only to be abandoned by him, with no clothes but what she is wearing and not a penny to her name. Peabody and Evelyn hit it off, she sends the paid companion back to England and engages Evelyn as her new companion, and they depart for Egypt.

So, now two of our players are now in place; it’s time to meet the other two. Once they are all checked in at Shepheard’s in Cairo, Peabody is quickly besotted with Egypt, and pyramids, in particular–and reading Peabody’s descriptions of the country, you cannot help but fall in love with it, too (not a problem for me; I was already there before I read the book). They go to the Antiquities Museum one afternoon–the director was a friend of Peabody’s father–and Peabody is put off by how disheveled and disorganized–and dusty–everything is. She picks up a dusty pot and begins to wipe the dust from it, only to have an enormous man explode with rage at her. They give each other what-for–they are suitably matched in that regard–and this is Emerson, archaeologist with a passion for discovery and knowledge and preserving the past. Emerson’s brother makes apologies, and a spark is lit between Walter and Evelyn. Soon, the Emersons are off to their dig at Amarna, and Peabody and Evelyn rent a sailboat–a dahabeeyah, to be exact–and begin their trip down the Nile.

Naturally, they stop at Amarna, and stumble into quite a bizarre mystery, which includes an animated mummy and several attempts on our troop’s lives. But the four are definitely up to the task–there are times when I laughed out loud–and hilariously, while both Peabody and Emerson become quite irritated with Walter and Evelyn, who can’t see that the other is madly in love with them; Peabody and Emerson are also falling in love, and refuse to see it, bickering and fighting and–oh, it’s just wonderful and charming, and I know I am failing to do the magnificent Ms. Peters’ work any kind of justice. Amanda is just so, so wonderfully fearless and courageous and pure, and doesn’t even worry about her own safety when those she loves are in danger. The book has a most satisfying resolution, and I remember putting it down that first (much as I do every time I reread it) with a happy smile on my face. The Peabody and Emerson books bring me a lot of joy.

I devoured the entire series, loving them all–the way Peters deftly ages her characters and deepens their relationships, and of course the children…one thing that will always make The Last Camel Died at Noon special for me was that was also the adventure that introduced our merry band of archaeologists to Nofret–and therein lies another tale, for yet another time.

I am so, so delighted I reread Crocodile on the Sandbank. If you’ve not read this series, you really should treat yourself to it, because it is just that: the most amazing gift you can give yourself.

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One of the fun things about reading history is it gives me a lot of inspiration. Rereading the Black Death/bubonic plague chapter in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror recently, I stumbled across this:

The apparent absence of earthly cause gave the plague a supernatural and sinister quality. Scandinavians believed that a Pest Maiden emerged from the mouth of the dead in the form of a blue flame and flew through the air to infect the next house. In Lithuania the Maiden was said to wave a red scarf through the door or window to let in the pest. One brave man, according to legend, deliberately waited at his open window with drawn sword and, at the fluttering of the scarf, chopped off the hand. He died of his deed, but his village was spared and the scarf long preserved as a relic in the local church.

And so, an idea for my own story, “The Pestilence Maiden,” was born. So far it consists of one sentence: “Death again walked the crumbling, hole ridden streets of New Orleans.”

Great opening, isn’t it? But it’s not really a crime story; since the Pestilence Maiden would be a supernatural, purely symbolic creature representing the plague come to New Orleans, yet again.  After all, New Orleans has a long history of epidemics–yellow fever, typhus, cholera; hell, we even had bubonic plague in 1916–so is it so far out of the question that we would have a Pestilence Maiden walking the streets of the city? No, not really.

I returned to work yesterday, and it was lovely to get out of the house for a while and be out in the fresh air. I am working at doing the screenings; basically, our facility is open for certain services (the food pantry, the pharmacy, some lab work by appointment) and so everyone who goes into the building needs to be screened for symptoms, given a sticker and a mask, and some hand sanitizer before they go inside. Anyone with symptoms gets sent across the parking lot for COVID-19 testing; we no longer require a fever or multiple symptoms–all you need is one. We are also offering optional HIV testing for anyone who gets a COVID-19 test; we also have oral swab kits for people who want to pick one up and test themselves at home–but their exposure has to have been more than three months out, rather than our usual anyone can get an HIV test at any time we are open for testing. I’m very glad and happy that we are back to providing some HIV testing; we may not be what we were but at least we are able to do something, you know? I also suspect that people are violating quarantine for sex hook-ups, which means there’s going to be a strong need for STI testing once “shelter-at-home” orders have been lifted.

I mean, yay for job security, I guess? Even if it ghoulish.

I would much rather the HIV pandemic come to an end, frankly, even if puts me out of a job.

I finished rereading Crocodile on the Sandbank last night, and, well, Dr. Mertz deserved to be named a Grand Master for that book alone. The voice of Amelia Peabody–everything about Amelia Peabody–is absolute genius. Rereading the book, I fell in love with Peabody and Emerson and Evelyn and Walter all over again. The brilliance of how she constructed this book, those characters–I mean, wow, the woman was an absolute master. I mourn every year since Dr. Mertz’ death that there is no new Amelia Peabody adventure to enjoy, to laugh out loud at the rapier-like wit of the dialogue, and the frank adoration of both couples, not only for their partners but for their beloved friends, who all shared this initial adventure together and literally all met during the course of this book…wow. Just wow. It will get its own blog post soon enough, but oh, how I love and miss Peabody and Emerson.

I really missing visiting them and their Egypt.

It’s also Pay-the-Bills day, which is never, no matter what anyone might think, much fun. But I whipped through them all, and am glad to  have that mess behind me. I am also wondering about when I can schedule a Costco trip. I’d rather not go on the weekend, for obvious reasons–if there was a line to get in Wal-mart, I can’t imagine Costco isn’t doing the same thing, you know–but there are things I need to get from there, and so might as well bite the bullet and figure out when I can go. (The case of Pellegrino alone…)

We started watching Murder is My Life, an Australian crime series starring Lucy Lawless, on Acorn streaming last night. One can, of course, never go wrong with anything if Lucy Lawless is in it, and it’s actually quite fun and well done. (I was watching while at the same time racing to finish Crocodile on the Sandbank.) It’s always fun to find a new show, and let’s face it, Acorn is one of the esssential streaming services if you like British and/or Australian crime television.

How is everyone doing out there these days? Difficult times, to be sure–and it’s okay to get overwhelmed sometimes. While I have never–who has?–been involved or experienced anything this epic and global before, I’ve actually been through a local natural/manmade disaster; and some deeply personal level stuff that required my acquisition of numerous coping skills and mechanisms. Those coping skills have come in handy, believe you me, since the curtain came down and the world shut done to deal with this global pandemic. And as it seems to stretch out in front of us endlessly, with no real end in sight–there’s no way of knowing, so we are still charting strange new waters–just always remember this, Constant Reader: when you are starting to get overwhelmed by the scope and enormity of the macro, find something micro to fixate on, and focus on that–something small you can handle, get taken care of, and can be in control of; whether that’s cleaning out old clothes from the closet or dresser you will never wear again, or doing your windows, and a deep clean of your floors, including baseboards–that focus will get you through. Every single time, it will get you through.

And on that note, I am going to head back into the spice mines. I am working from home today–the endless data entry–and need to get working on my emails.

Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader, and stay safe.

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A Man Could Get Arrested

And today I am going back to work. I took a vacation day yesterday–one last gasp, as it were–and actually managed to get some writing done. I got another two thousand (almost three) words done on the Sherlock story; which was great because I was beginning to think I was never going to get back into a writing groove again. They may not be good words, but they are words, and I will take them gladly, thank you very much.

It felt really nice to be writing again, and writing something that I should be writing, instead of all these story fragments and openings that I’ve been working on lately; something I need to be getting finished rather than letting my creative brain ping all over the place uncontrollably, like a pinball. It’s also kind of nice to be going back to work this morning; I am very much a boundary person, and because i am so jealous of my free time, there are definitely boundaries I’ve set up around my job–primarily if you aren’t getting paid don’t spend time on it.

It can be tricky sometimes.

But I’ve been out for over a week now, and as you can imagine, isolating myself entirely from my day job for that amount of time has left me without a clue as to what is going on at the office, and I do have to swing by there today, if not to stay and work (I’m not sure what will be needed or required from me now) or if I have to come back home and do data entry (but there’s something at the office I need in order to continue doing that), so who knows what the day holds for me?

Heavy sigh. These are, after all, strange times in which to be living.

The weather here has cooled off–the cold front that resulted in those dreadful storms across the south on Sunday has lingered; yesterday was actually kind of a lovely day, all things considered–sunny and cool in the low seventies, a beautiful and rare spring day–but alas, my trip to the uptown Rouse’s yesterday did not yield what I needed it to, and am going to have stop at the one in the CBD on the way home from the office to get the other things I need.

Oh! I am also guesting over at Art Taylor’s The First Two Pages today, talking about my story “The Silky Veils of Ardor” in Josh Pachter’s anthology The Beat of Black Wings.

One of the more interesting things about this entire quarantine/shelter-at-home experience with COVID-19 is the behavioral changes I’ve made. I’ve already mentioned that I’ve become a bit addicted to my Kindle app on my iPad, after years of vowing not to read electronically; I’ve actually been using my phone as a phone as well, which is terrifying to consider. I’ve successfully avoided and staved off phone calls for years, other than calling in to board meetings. Who knows, I may even start listening to podcasts. The world has turned upside down.

But I also started a wondrous reread last night: Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandback, which is the first in one of my favorite series of all time, and introduces us to Amelia Peabody, the headstrong spinster heiress who decides to visit Egypt–her father was a classics scholar, while her older brothers married and moved away, she stayed with her father to take care of him and inherited his enormous fortune when he died, and decided to see all the places her father studied–and her wit and charm! Obviously, I loved the Amelia Peabody series, and the characters, but I had forgotten how much. My God, Amelia can make me laugh out loud, and revisiting the book, I remembered how much I loved her–and this book, where she meets the three people (Emerson, Walter, and Evelyn) who are destined to be her created family (along with Abdullah) and when she finally reaches Egypt and falls in love with the country…and that take charge and take no prisoners attitude….well, before I knew it, I was zipping along in the book and was close to being finished with it. Trust me, when I am finished there will definitely be a blog appreciation of Amelia Peabody.

And I should get to work now. Have a lovely day, all, and I’ll see you on the other side of the spice mines.

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