It’s One of Those Nights (Yes Love)

So, for today’s BSP about Bury Me in Shadows, I am going to talk about where the actual story that goes to the heart of the plot came from.

My grandmother was probably one of the biggest influences in my life, for both good and bad. I won’t talk about the bad—I was raised to believe you never bleed in public—and there was quite a bit of it; I didn’t speak to her the last thirteen or so years of her life. But the good was good, really. She loved old movies and passed that love of the glory days of Hollywood on to me; she always encouraged me to read and to be a writer; and she was the one who instilled in me my love for crime films and (to a lesser degree) horror ones—what she used to call “scary movies”; I watched The Haunting for the first time with her, and sometimes when I rewatch an old classic, like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers or The Letter, I remember watching it with her on the couch. She was also the one who introduced me to some authors I love, Victoria Holt (The Secret Woman) and Mary Stewart (The Ivy Tree), and she also encouraged my interest in history, which she also really enjoyed. She used to tell me stories about the past all the time when I was young—stories that at the time, and for most of my life, I remembered as being “family history” and was very surprised as an adult to find out they were fairly common legends and stories from all over the South, as well as from books and movies. In other words, none of the stories were true…but when I was thinking about this again the other day it occurred to me that it was entirely possible I was remembering it wrong—it was a long fucking time ago, after all, and my memory has been wrong before. It’s entirely possible she was just telling me stories, that I assumed were family histories…anyway, there were a lot of them, and when I was in college I started writing a lot of the ones I remembered down. They were often tales of blood and murder and crime; sometimes ghost stories.

The Lost Boys, the legend I used as the basis for the book’s background, is one of those stories.

And yes, bits and pieces of the story are apocryphal; sewn together by my grandmother into one story to entertain me.

Long story short: before the Civil War the county where my family comes from (again, not sure if this is true or not; the histories of the area I’ve read indicate that it’s not; so she either was weaving a story for me or I misunderstood the story or altered it in my memory as I got older) used to mostly belong entirely to one family—from which I am theoretically descended from (my grandmother also had a lot of delusions of grandeur)—and after the war, they lost nearly everything, except for a small tract of land that still remains in the family to this day. Anyway, the father and the oldest son went off to war, leaving his wife and two younger sons behind. The father was killed in the war. When the son came home after the war was over, the house had burned to the ground and there was no sign of wife or the two youngest sons anywhere; they’d vanished without a trace. No one ever knew what became of them; and the story, according to my grandmother, was that a deserting Union soldier burned the house and killed them (yes, the same story as appeared in Gone with the Wind, among others; my grandmother also told me another story about a Union deserter committing murder of a defenseless Southern woman—which I also turned into a short story that collects dust in my files), and that on or around the anniversary of their deaths, you could hear the younger boy calling for his mother in the woods near where the old house had been. Good stuff, right? I certainly thought so, and what a great basis for a story.

Of course, when I started researching the history of the county, none of this appeared to be true—the Union army never came any closer to the county than Tuscaloosa, for one, so the odds of a deserter making it all the way there on foot are pretty slim, and especially if no one else saw him—and of course, none of my ancestors owned most of the county. But it was a good story, even if not true, and I felt that writing about it could make for an interesting tale. My main character, Jake, is aware of the old family legend; he wrote a paper about it in high school, but doesn’t believe it’s anything more than a legend. I thought it would be cool to leave the ruins of the original house there, deep in the woods, far from the county road and the current domicile of the family, the crumbling house on the dirt road just off the county road. I also brought in a team of archaeologists from the University of Alabama, excavating the ruins—one of the few sites left that haven’t been excavated—and the professor leading the team, Dr. Brady (named after a historian friend), while intrigued and interested in the legend, isn’t trying to find proof one way or the other; he’s simply interested in what information about how the family lived can be unearthed.

The book is more than this, of course; but the Lost Boys legend was the starting point from which the rest of the book grew. I have a very complicated relationship with Alabama, to be honest; it’s my homeplace and I love the state. It’s stunningly beautiful. Even the poor rural county we came from is beautiful, with rolling hills and small mountains covered in pine forest, hollows filled with kudzu, muddy orange streams and rivers, riotously colored flowering bushes, and the air…oh, how wonderfully clean and fresh and pure the air smells. I love the orange dirt, and how round and smooth the gravel can be. The sky is a gorgeous cerulean, and of course, when it rains, it really rains. I can remember how still and heavy and damp the hot summer air was, the gnats and mosquitoes and dirt daubers and wasps and hornets and bees and horseflies. Whenever I stop as I drive through on my way somewhere else (usually Kentucky or Atlanta), I am always amazed at how lovely the young people are working in the small highway-side town’s fast food places. I remember screen doors with a coil so they’d always shut (or slam, if you just let go), and the big red Coca-Cola coolers with the bottle opener on the side in the general stores—and of course, the big old style Dr Pepper signs, that looked like a clock with only the numbers 10, 2 and 4—because that was the time for a Dr Pepper. (I also remember it was considered a cure-all when you were sick; just heat some Dr Pepper on the stove and add lemon; just like 7-Up was a cure for an upset stomach.)

But the state’s history– enslaved people, what happened to the indigenous tribes, Jim Crow, Selma, the institutionalized racism–is also deeply problematic. How does one write about the problematic history of the state? How do you point out how wrong all of that is without becoming preachy? I’ve often taken issue with white-written narratives about the pre-Civil Rights era in the South, as well as those set during that era and after; I remember reading one book where the heroine was doing research about the history of an incredibly racist town where a race-related murder had occurred, driven by the Klan–but focusing on the good, non-racist, non-Klan members of the town–what I call the see? We aren’t all bad take. I definitely didn’t want to write one of those stories. A few years back, I found a copy of a book I read when I was fairly young–it belonged to my uncle, actually–about the Civil Rights era in Alabama, called The Klansman by William Bradford Huie, whom I believe was actually a journalism professor at the University of Alabama…and it was different than I remembered, yet still chilling. I’m not sure what Huie was trying to do with the book, to be honest; the Klan sympathizers really came across badly, and even those who weren’t out and out members of the Klan were still racists who saw the Klan as a necessary “evil”–the sheriff couldn’t get elected without the support of the Klan, and he spends the book trying to walk the line between pleasing the Klan and not doing anything illegal…but you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas. (I read it the same summer as I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which also belonged to my uncle; the two books are forever linked in my mind.)

Bury Me in Shadows may be many things, but it’s not a Lost Cause narrative, nor is it a “look at the nice white saviors” novel, either.

And I think that’s enough about that for today.

Breathe

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

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

lovecraft country

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

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

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

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

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

And then I started reading, and watching.

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

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

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

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

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

I recommend this book highly.

Tear Time

Friday and a rather chilly, grayish day has come to usher in the weekend. I was exhausted last night when I got home from work–which has been happening more and more lately–and slept really well. Paul didn’t get home until late, so we weren’t able to watch anything last night–but we made our plans for the weekend; since we really don’t care about the Super Bowl we’re going to try to get caught up on the shows we watch this weekend. I also want to get deeper into the Dorothy Hughes novel I am reading, Dread Journey. It’s relatively short, so I should be able to get through it relatively quickly, if I can devote the time to it.

This week wore me out somehow–I can’t remember the last time I was so worn down by a week in which it wasn’t parade season or I wasn’t on a trip somewhere. Not sure what that’s about, but it’s also part and parcel of the reboot I need to do on my life and my weekly routine. Most of all I need to start taking better care of myself, for one thing–particularly when it comes to health-related issues; there’s doctor’s appointments and blood work I need to have done that I somehow never seem to get around to, and that’s a big no-no. Last year was supposed to be the year that got taken care of–and it actually didn’t turn out that way.

But…at least now when I am home and too exhausted after work to write or read or focus on a TV show, I have lots of LSU game highlights from this past season to stream on Youtube.

I’m not, I think, going to try to overdo things this weekend; or make a to-do list that I will never finish, you know? I do need to update the to-do list I have running–I think I accomplished almost everything I needed to on the list yesterday, and there are some emails I need to send this morning before I head into the office later this morning–and I have several blog posts I’ve started writing and need to finish–my rereads of Victoria Holt’s Kirkland Revels and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley have reviews I’ve started and not finished, for example. And as I begin to move on to the next book in the TBR pile, I should get those out of the way because I will also have to write a review of Dread Journey.

And I have some short stories I should finish, and others I should revisit.

The publishing world has really been a dumpster fire for quite some now–first the RWA mess, and now the whole American Dirt dust-up. Both dust-ups ultimately boil down to the same thing: what responsibility do writers have when they write outside their own experience? Particularly when it comes to the marginalized? I have always held that a writer can write about anything they wish; anything that intrigues them enough for them to sit down and spend the time constructing a novel is something they should write about. I chose to write a novel about rape culture in a small town, but I chose not to write it from the point of view of the victim, but rather that of someone else in the town, another player on the football team who wasn’t involved in the incident–but is close friends with the boys who did. I’ve been struggling with this manuscript for several years now; partly from a sense that maybe I wasn’t the right person to tell this story; was centering a teenaged boy rather than a teenaged girl in this story the right choice; was i doing a kind of To Kill a Mockingbird thing, trying to do a #notallmen type thing that would ultimately be offensive?

I like to think the fact that I actually do worry about these things is a good sign.

Anyway, I’ve always said that writers can write anything they are interested in, but have a responsibility to get things right. I’ve written from the point of view of women before; I’ve written from the point of view of a teenaged girl before. Do I, as a gay man, have a right to write about straight women/girls? Of course I do, and no one has ever told me that I don’t. But I also owe it to women–and all the women I’ve known–to create multi-faceted, complex, complicated women characters that are believable and whose experiences are also believable. Likewise, a cisgender straight person writing about gay men have a responsibility to gay men to get it right and create real characters rather than fantasy, and a white person writing about an oppressed racial minority particularly has a responsibility to that minority to do the work and get it right. As writers, we don’t always get it right, and we owe it to that minority to listen when they say we got it wrong.

We need to do better.

And comparing minorities of any kind–religious, racial, gender, sexuality, ethnic–to vampires and werewolves and zombies to justify writing outside your own experience? Shows that you don’t have the empathy to write about any minority. You can’t compare actual human beings to mythological creatures as a justification for writing about them because we actually exist. 

And if you can’t understand how horrible and odious making those comparisons are…well, I’m not going to read your work because I can be relatively certain it won’t be any good.

And on that note, those emails aren’t going to answer themselves.

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Killin’ Time

As Constant Reader is aware, on 2019 I embarked on something I called The Diversity Project for myself; an effort to read books by authors who were not straight or white or cisgender. I had hoped to use 2019, and this project, as not only a way to broaden my reading and make up for years of lost time, but also to broaden my mind, my knowledge, and my experience.

It does not escape me that it’s kind of shitty that I actually had to make an effort, make in into an actual project, to ensure that I read outside of my own privileged experience. I don’t deserve a cookie or praise for doing something I should have been doing my entire life. It’s horribly shitty that my entire reading life could best be described as a mayonnaise sandwich on Wonder bread. I’ve also been trying to remember something, anything, other than Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird that I read as a child that had people of color as characters (and frankly, those two problematic books don’t count). Bayport and River Heights and Rocky Beach and Sleepyside and all the other towns and villages in the teenaged sleuth series for kids I read were all lily-white.

Several  years ago, Brash Books brought the entire Blanche White series by Barbara Neely, all four of them, back into print. I had never read Ms. Neely’s books; I’d never, to be completely honest, even heard of them. But the concept sounded fantastic, and unlike anything I’d ever read before, so I went ahead and ordered Blanche on the Lam, the first book in the series, which proceeded to languish and collect dust in my (massive) TBR pile. Mystery Writers of America recently selected Ms. Neely as a Grand Master, and as I was heading up to New York for the board retreat/orientation for 2020, I thought to myself, self, take Ms. Neely’s book with you on the trip to read–it’s serendipity and meant to be, and also far past time.

And that’s exactly what I did.

blanche on the lam

“Have you anything to say for yourself?” The judge gave Blanche a look that made her raise her handbag to her chest like a shield.

“Your Honor…I’m sorry…I…”

“Sorry? It most certainly is sorry! This is the fourth, I repeat, the fourth time you’ve been before this court on a bad-check charge. Perhaps some time in a jail cell will convince you to earn your money before you spend it, like the rest of us! Thirty days and restitution!”

“But, Your Honor…” Blanche’s legs were suddenly weak. Her hands were freezing. Beads of sweat popped out on her nose. She wanted to tell the judge that a jail cell was cruel and unusual punishment for  a person who panicked in slow elevators. She also wanted to ask him where the hell he got off, lying about her like that! This was her second, not her fourth, charge. Furthermore, just as she’d done the last time, she would have made good on the checks even if she hadn’t been summoned to court. Hadn’t she already covered three of the five checks she’s written? And right here in her handbag she had the forty-two-fifty she still owed, plus fifty dollars for the fine–same as the judge had made her pay last time. But last time she’d had a judge with his mind already on the gold course. He’d hardly bothered to look at her. There’d been no talk of jail that time.

From the opening sentence, Neely is being completely subversive to her readers–not only is she writing about a woman of color, front and center, that woman is also working class and struggling to make ends meet. She is dealing with–in even a small way–with the criminal justice system that is tilted against her–poor, working class, of color–and sure enough, she gets screwed. And while some might argue she shouldn’t have bounced checks (it’s not really clear whether she deliberately wrote bad checks, or if she wrote them thinking she was going to get paid, and then didn’t), I think everyone can agree that thirty days in jail–and a judge sentencing her based on a false premise that she was a more habitual offender–is excessive.

Blanche’s voice is one that is rarely, if ever, heard in crime fiction, either before or after this series, and that’s a shame. The book itself is thoroughly enjoyable, as Blanche manages to take advantage of a distraction at the courthouse and walk out, unimpeded…thus going “on the lam”, and not knowing what to do or where to go, remembers that she was supposed to take a temp gig as a housekeeper, and goes to that address. She winds up going out of town to work at a wealthy family’s vacation home, and it soon becomes very apparent that there is something really wrong with the family.

It’s also next to impossible not to root for Blanche, to want her to do well, and somehow get herself out of the predicament she’s found herself in. After all–there is a murder, she’s a fugitive from “justice,” and of course she’s a woman of color in a corrupt, racist place–it would be incredibly easy for law enforcement to simply pin the murder on her and wash their hands of the entire mess. It’s an absolute joy to see Blanche–with her own heart and compassion, not give in to impulses she shouldn’t, and to think her way out of everything, and not only exceed the reader’s expectations but subvert them completely.

Read this book. Read the entire series. There’s seriously no question that Barbara Neely is a grand master. None whatsoever. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

Don’t Expect Me To Be Your Friend

I’ve always been a voracious reader, and when I was a teenager I loved nothing more than those enormous books that could also be used to shore up the pilings of your house–epic novels with paperback editions that occasionally topped a thousand pages, so thick that reading them inevitably cracked the spine, leaving loose and sometimes lost pages in its wake. They always seemed to lose their book shape, these enormous and theoretically disposable books, and looked ugly on the shelf when you tried to put them back. I’ve always liked clean lines on my bookshelves, and those enormous paperbacks always messed up the ramrod straight line of spines I liked looking at, admiringly, my own personal library.

It was during this time I discovered Herman Wouk.

The first Wouk novel I read was The Winds of War. It was my father’s book, actually, although all the books in the house generally wound up in my room eventually. It was mountainous, enormous, and while I was aware of World War II history–it was still fairly recent, and I had many family members in my grandparents’ generation who served–but it wasn’t my favorite period of history (although I would eventually come around to it and become fascinated by it, a fascination I still hold to this day) and I was particularly interested in reading it. One Saturday I was sitting in the living room, bored, and rather than walking to my room to get the book I was currently reading,  I picked up The Winds of War and started reading. It was summer, we were living in Kansas, and we’d just moved there and I knew no one. Several hours later I was deep into the book, completely fascinated, mesmerized by this story of the Henry family–a Naval family–caught up in the sweep of oncoming war in Europe and in the Pacific. The book closed with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States finally entering the war.

And I became a Wouk fan. I started reading all the Wouk I could find, loved them all, from The Caine Mutiny to Youngblood Hawke, and couldn’t wait to check War and Remembrance, the sequel to The Winds of War, out from the library when it was released.

And then there was Marjorie Morningstar.

lady in the lake

I saw you once. I saw you and you noticed me because you caught me looking at you, seeing you. Back and forth, back and forth. Good-looking women do that. Lock eyes, then look one another up and down. I could tell at a glance you’ve never doubted you were good-looking and you still had the habit of checking a room to  make sure you were the best-looking. You scanned the crowd of people on the sidewalk and your eyes caught mine, if only for a moment, then dropped away. You saw me, you tallied up the points. Who won? My hunch is you gave yourself the crown because you saw a Negro woman, a poor one at that. In the animal kingdom, the male performs for the woman, woos her with his beautiful feathers or flowing mane, is always trying to out-strut the other men. Why do humans do it the other way? It doesn’t make sense. Men need us more than we need them.

You were in the minority that day, you were in our neighborhood and almost everyone there would have picked me. Maybe even your husband, Milton. Part of the reason I first noticed you was because you were next to him. He now looked exactly like his father, a man I remembered with some affection. I can’t say the same about Milton. I guessed, from the way people gathered around him on the temple steps, patted his back, clasped his hands in theirs, that it must have been his father who had died. And I could tell from the way that people waited to comfort him that Milton was a big shot.

Laura Lippman’s latest novel owes the same kind of debt to Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar as her Wilde Lake did to To Kill a Mockingbird (and Thomas Thompson’s Celebrity); in some ways, her heroine, Maddie Schwartz, has a lot of the same history as Marjorie; the close strictures and mores of the 1950’s for a young Jewish woman in Baltimore molded and shaped her much as they did Marjorie. The book opens with Maddie walking out of her marriage and away from her young son; she just has a general sense of malaise and an unshakable sense there has to, needs to be, more in life for her. Maddie is beautiful and knows she is; she knows how to manipulate men and get them to do what she wants them to do. Needing money, she pretends her engagement and wedding rings were stolen for the insurance; one of the responding cops, a young black man named Ferdie, soon becomes her illicit lover. Maddie’s discovery of a missing young girl’s body is soon parlayed into a job at a Baltimore paper; she becomes interested in another murder–that of Cleo Sherwood, the so-called “lady in the lake”; a young woman of color murdered and dumped in the fountain in a park. Maddie eventually, in her careless way (one of the strongest character traits Maddie has is carelessness; she seems to just blunder her way ahead without giving a thought to the repercussions and fall out her actions might cause) she starts investigating Maddie’s death, using her position as a clerk at the paper to fool people into talking to her. SHe wants to be a reporter, you see, and this Cleo case–no matter how many people try to dissuade her, no matter how many roadblocks get put up in her way–is a way for her to get upgraded to reporter, and she doesn’t care what damage she might leave in her wake as she goes for what she wants.

Lippman has long been one of the leading lights of the crime fiction community; her Tess Monaghan series is one of the best, and her switch to stand-alone crime novels has firmly established her reputation as one of the best writers of our time. One of the great things about Lippman is how she pushes herself into new directions, new perspectives, and new approaches with every novel; each stand-alone is particularly distinct and exceptional in its own way. She explores in her work what it means to be a woman, whether in today’s world or in the recent past, and how societal mores and expectations can stifle a woman’s needs and ambitions. Her characters struggle against those strictures, but at heart her novels are about the complications, complexities, and layers of being a woman in American society. She’s explored love and marriage, the fallout from lust, what it means to be a mother, and above all else, the complicated relationships between women–whether it’s sisters, mother/daughter, or just friends. Maddie doesn’t regret walking out on her marriage for one moment; she doesn’t even seem particularly concerned that her teenaged son wants to stay with his father and her regular dinners with him are uncomfortable. She knows her leaving has damaged her relationship with her son, but she doesn’t really seem to care too much about that. Maddie is sometimes downright unlikable, yet what she wants, her confusion about who she really is and how to go about building the kind of life she thinks she wants make her sometimes unlikable actions and behaviors forgivable in the reader’s eyes; Lippman has constructed her so carefully the reader can’t help but care what happens to her.

Lady in the Lake is also a departure from other Lippman works in that it’s told in a vast array of points of view; when we are seeing things from Maddie’s point of view, it’s a remote third person pov–but everyone else is in a tight, first person present tense point of view. We even hear from the ghost of Cleo Sherwood from time to time. Multiple points of view are a hard row to hoe for even the best writers; Lippman somehow manages to imbue all these minor and supporting characters with unique voices and perspectives that make the reader regret, just a little, that we don’t get more than just a glimpse of these characters. In that respect, Lady in the Lake is a tour-de-force; a masterwork from a great writer at the top of her game. It’s one of the most unusual crime novels I’ve read, and its originality, along with Lippman’s cool expertise at her craft,  will result in it being one of the top books of the year.

It’s already been an exceptional year for readers–I’ve read so many amazing books this year so far, and am looking forward to reading more.

Clair

Well, I managed to get the round table thing finished yesterday afternoon, despite the best efforts of my computer to ensure I got nothing done yesterday.  I really don’t think I was the right fit for this conversation as I am neither a science fiction writer nor a buff; I am, at best, a casual fan of scifi more than anything else, and the questions were really in-depth and more than a little bit over my head. But I gave it my best shot, such as it was, and managed to get it done. I may have come across as a bit pessimistic about the future, but that’s kind of how I’m feeling these days–which makes me also very grateful to be my age and not younger.

I also wrote the first draft of “Moist Money,” which pleased me enormously (not the draft, just that I got it done). I went a few words over the three thousand word limit–but it’s also just a first draft, and it’ll tighten up some in the second draft. It’s a very dark, nasty, noir story that’s more than a little misogynistic (to be fair, my main character hates straight men as much as he hates straight women), but overall I am very pleased with it. It’s going to need some more work, obviously, but again, I am very pleased with getting it done. It seems like it’s been forever since I got a draft of anything finished, you know? And it’s been a while since I worked on Bury Me in Shadows (which I am planning on working on some today), so it’s not like I’ve been a writing machine lately, either.

I also started reading Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake, which already is fucking fantastic. She keeps raising the bar for all the rest of us, which is both intoxicating and intimidating. I read the first few chapters, then set it aside for a while. The writing and story-telling is so terrific it needs to be savored, rather than rushed through. One of the many things I admire about Lippman is she never writes the same book twice; each of her stand-alone novels is markedly different from the others. Sunburn was her exploration of noir; Wilde Lake was an homage to To Kill a Mockingbird with a modern twist to it; After I’m Gone was a complicated study of the women left behind when a slightly crooked man disappears; and so on. Her Tess Monaghan series (which I love love love) was also never formulaic, never predictable, and always a terrific, satisfying read. She even took chances with that series that most series writers won’t; Tess got pregnant in The Girl in the Green Raincoat, in order for Lippman to write her take on Rear Window; the most recent Tess novel, Hush Hush, was an exploration of motherhood and bad mothers. (I intend to read some more of Lady in the Lake this morning, after I finish this and write a little bit; I intend to spend the afternoon writing, and maybe even go to the gym at some point, as an early birthday present to myself.)

I had some serious computer issues yesterday, with the programs periodically “not responding” and the occasional screen freeze, which required force-restarting the computer or unplugging it. Eventually, the computer problems seemed to work themselves out somewhat; the computer still isn’t as fast as it used to be, and the programs do lock up from time to time, which is incredibly frustrating, as you can imagine. I guess I’m simply going to have to bite the bullet and get some on-line assistance from Apple techs, which I don’t think I should have to pay for, since the computer worked perfectly fine before the Mojave update.

Ah, well, such is life. I also need to get some Apple techs to deal with the Air on-line, but I did buy the Apple Care for it so it shouldn’t cost anything out of pocket.

Fuckers.

We also tore through the first three episodes of season two of Mindhunter last night on Netflix; it’s been so long (and my memory is basically worthless these days) I’d kind of forgotten what was going on with the show–but it didn’t take long to get back into the swing of the story and the plot. The show is simply exquisite; I think this season is even better than the first, frankly. Jonathon Groff, Anna Torv, and Holt McCallany are perfect in their roles, and they’ve recreated the time period perfectly. I can’t recommend Mindhunter enough; I can’t wait for Paul to get home tonight so we can dive back into it. I’ve said it before, and I will continue saying it; this is perhaps the platinum age of television; there are so many amazing shows it’s impossible to keep up with them all, and the Emmys are far more competitive, and interesting, than the Oscars.

There’s also a third season of Dear White People up on Netflix, as well.

It’s gloomy outside the windows this morning; I suspect this is going to be another rainy August day here in New Orleans, on my last day of being fifty-seven (although technically, it’s the last day of my fifty-eighth year) and I continue my steady crawl to sixty. Tomorrow of course is also the last day of this long weekend, and I do feel like it was necessary and needed. I feel a lot more relaxed and lot less stressed than I did Thursday when I came home from work–and this ‘mental health mini-vacation’ has certainly done the trick.

And on that note, I am heading back into the mines for spice. Have a lovely Monday, everyone.

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Dueling Banjos

Writing about the rural Deep South is difficult.

I’m from the deep south, yes, but I didn’t grow up there. I spent a lot of time there, my parents were Southern, and so a lot of my values and mind-view for a number of years were patterned in the Southern mindset. I draw from my memories of summers in the rural backwoods of the mid-central-western part of the state, about seventy miles from the Mississippi state line or so, but there are also so many attitudes and mentalities and stereotypes and tropes about the rural Deep South that it is easy to become lazy and fall into those. I am trying very hard not to do that, but as I said, it’s hard. Stereotypes and tropes exist for a reason, after all–they weren’t created from nothing; there’s always a core kernel of truth in them, whatever they’ve become once the seeds were planted–but the key is to burrow into them to dig out the core kernel of truth to build upon, so you’re telling the truth. But I worry, as I continue to excavate into this book, that I am relying on negative tropes and stereotypes.

I think I was thirteen when Deliverance was released; we saw it at the drive-in, which was something my parents loved to do with us when we were kids. I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on in the movie–it was the kind of macho bullshit I loathed as a child, a loathing that has only somewhat lessened as an adult, so I stopped paying attention to it and I think I may have even dozed off. But I did see the scene early in the movie which has forever cemented into people’s minds a link between the backwoods South and redneck morons–“Dueling Banjos.” The open notes of the song are all that is needed to reference a joke about passing from civilization into the land of the uneducated, probably inbred, backwoods hillbillies; it has come to symbolize moonshine-makin’, overalls-wearin’, cousin-marryin’, dangerous rural Southern people. I’ve made the joke myself from time to time–driving through the Southern countryside at night, “You can almost hear the banjo notes, can’t you?”

Deliverance and “Dueling Banjos” are such a part of our zeitgeist and popular culture that the book and film have become kind of shorthand Southern references–even for people who don’t know the origins of the references. I’ve never read the book, but I bought a copy a few years ago because I heard one of the references in something–a talk show, a book, a film, a television show; I don’t remember which–but I thought it was time for me to read the book and possibly watch the film in its entirety; that there was a possibly an essay in both about masculinity, rape culture, and the American male. (For those of you who don’t know, many male-on-male rape jokes were born directly of Deliverance.) I never did get around to reading the book or watching the movie; to be honest, I’d completely forgotten about them and the essay idea until recently. I also never got around to reading the book because I’d heard bad things about James Dickey, who wrote the novel. Dickey was primarily a poet, and considered one of the better American ones of the second half of the twentieth century by the Academy, and Deliverance was his only novel. I knew people who knew Dickey, and the reports back on him were terribly unpleasant, if not surprisingly so. (American letters has produced some horrific examples of toxic masculinity with its iconic, deified authors.)

Southern people are masters at grievance; they’ve been aggrieved for quite some time now–probably as far back as when the rumblings in the northern states began against slavery.  Everything is always someone else’s fault; even that language from the 1960’s came back to haunt Alabama during the special election to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate: “outside agitators.” That was always a favorite fallback of Southern white supremacy; people of color in the South were perfectly happy with the way things were set up, with not voting or having opportunities, and being segregated away from white people, until “outside agitators” stirred them up against their kind, genial white overlords. Outside agitation goes all the way back to slavery; Southern politicians and leaders railed against “Yankee agitation on the slavery issue.” It’s all there, in black and white, in the history books–if you know what to look for.

The politics of race in the South have always been problematic, but nothing is more irritating to me than white apologia fiction set in the South; in which the white people aren’t racists; those nasty lower class white trash people are the real racists, not the educated whites. I’ve seen this in any number of books and it never ceases to irritate me when I come across it; this historical revision that relieves the guilt of Southern white people is kind of like, as my friend Victoria says, how after the Second World War  no Germans had really been Nazis and everyone in France was a resistance fighter.

Bitch, please.

I guess all those southern white civil rights activists were working undercover, because they sure weren’t public in their opposition. (And yes, I know–not all Southern white people; but I sure don’t see any white faces in any of the footage from the civil rights marches and school integrations that weren’t in military uniform…or certainly not as many as novels and fictions would have us believe.) To Kill a Mockingbird is problematic to me in that I don’t believe for a minute that the sheriff and the cops in Maycomb, Alabama, were worried about the rednecks from the county lynching Tom Robinson and gathering up some of the good white people from town to defend the jail; history shows that the police were often Klansmen, or at least more sympathetic to the cause of white supremacy than they were to civil rights. That scene, while powerful, doesn’t ring true to me–it again divides Southern whites into the educated professionals and the uneducated racist rednecks, and I am not certain of the accuracy. The publication of Go Set a Watchman upset a lot of fans of the original work with its depiction of Atticus as a segregationist; they felt betrayed that the heroic white champion of racial tolerance and justice from Mockingbird was turned into a segregationist…but it was honest and real and rang true to me.

And seriously, I highly recommend anyone interested in looking at how Southern white people viewed civil rights during the 1960’s dig up The Klansman by William Bradford Huie.

This is, of course, part of the problem I am having with writing this first draft of a book set in the rural South that deals, in part, with issues of race in the modern rural South. I don’t want to be heavy-handed, nor do I want this to be another oh look another white person discovers how terrible racism is book, nor do I want it to be another “white savior” book; there are plenty of those already. But I also want to be honest; and how does one do that? There are always going to be those who criticize such a book for failing, or trying too hard, or some such. Southern racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny do exist, and having an openly gay teenager with roots in Alabama spend the summer there helping take care of his dying grandmother, while dealing with some other issues that arise during his visit, seems like a good lens to view all of these things through.

Or at least, seems to be one, at any rate.

I think this is one of the reasons I am having so much trouble writing this book and getting this draft done; I am so worried about being offensive or crossing some line as well as wanting to do it well and do it right that I am overthinking everything, and it’s like I have this incredible overwhelming sense of confidence about my abilities as a writer. But I am going to press on, all the while worrying…but I must needs remember: I can always fix everything in future drafts.

Part of my goals for the weekend are to finish writing a promised essay, to get three chapters of the book written, and to finish reading Steph Cha’s amazing Your House Will Pay. I also need to reread everything I’ve written for Bury Me in Shadows, and make notes as I go.

Heavy thoughts for a Friday morning, Constant Reader.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Cool Change

Saturday morning and I slept late, which felt positively marvelous. I feel rested and ready to kick some ass and take some names–at least for now, at any rate. Paul is going to be out of the house most of the day–appointments and going to the office–and therefore I have the Lost Apartment to myself for most of the day and no excuse not to get a lot of things done. I am still planning on walking over to the AT&T store to replace my phone–who knows how that is going to go?–but other than that, my day is pretty much set for cleaning, revising, and reading.

Last night, we started watching the new Netflix show The Umbrella Academy, based on the Dark Horse comic series–and while I didn’t madly love it, I am curious enough to continue watching. For one thing, it has both Ellen Page and Tom Hopper (who I’ve been crushing madly on since his days as Billy Bones on Black Sails), and it has an interesting premise. We will be continuing with it tonight, I think. I had just started reading Lori Roy’s Gone Too Long when Paul got home last night, and then was distracted by getting caught up on How to Get Away with Murder and then The Umbrella Academy.

And I’ve been dealing with yet another Apple upgrade issue that has fucked with my desktop, laptop, phone and iPad since last night. Now the cloud drive is missing from both my desktop and my laptop (I managed to resolve the handheld device issues last night) and so am trying to get that resolved this morning. Seriously, Apple–when you update/upgrade your systems, is it absolutely necessary to fuck up everything for your customers? 

Seriously, Apple. Do better.

So I am trying to resolve all this before scheduling a call from Apple Support…which I also don’t understand; you used to be able to do this in an on-line chat, but now of course they make you take a phone call. Why, precisely? And how able-ist is this? What about those of us who are hard of hearing, or those who are deaf? Seriously, fuck you in the ass without lubrication, Apple. HARD.

Thank you for allowing me to vent about these issues, Constant Reader. It’s helping me reduce the future body count.

This week I got a copy of Kyle Onstott’s bestselling Mandingo from the 1950’s. As Constant Reader is aware, I’ve been trying to diversify not only my fiction reading but to learn more about the horrible history of race in North America. Part of this has taking an amorphous shape in my head around a lengthy essay, tracing revisionism of slavery and the Old South and civil rights from such novels as The Clansman (which was filmed as Birth of a Nation) to Gone with the Wind to To Kill a Mockingbird and The Klansman, which I recently reread. As I was scrolling through Amazon Prime looking for something to watch the other night, I came across the late 1970’s film Mandingo, and remembered that it was also a novel. I bought a copy from eBay which arrived this week (I wasn’t able to get far in the movie because it was just incredibly bad; not even campy bad, like Showgirls, just bad.) The book arrived this week and….just looking at the note from the publisher in the beginning was horrifying. Yet Mandingo might just be the only novel about slavery and the Old South that actually tears the veneer of respectability and gentility away and exposes the true horror of what the “peculiar institution” was actually like. (Even John Jakes’ dreadful North and South series never delved deeply into the actual horrors; Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad was one of the first novels to truly explore this that I’ve read.) Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series, set in New Orleans before the Civil War, also does a terrific job of exploring how deeply entrenched and horrible racism/slavery were.

This essay I am thinking about would probably wind up, should I ever have the time to read the books and write it (it would, for example, require a reread of Gone with the Wind and it’s over eleven hundred pages, as well as some in depth reading of actual history) would probably be a part of Gay Porn Writer: The Fictions of My Life…which is a project I really do want to work on someday.  Mandingo takes on an aspect of slavery and the South that is rarely, if ever, touched on in fictions: the sexual abuse of the female slaves by their masters (come on, like it never happened. Really?) as well as the breeding of actual slaves for better, more valuable stock, as well as raising them for fighting–kind of a human version of cock-fighting or dog-fighting. Is it more likely that never happened, or that it did? Slavery, as Harriet Beecher Stowe repeatedly explained in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, debases both slave and master; are we really supposed to believe that slave-owners didn’t abuse their ‘property’?

Given how people of color–theoretically free and equal in the eyes of the law in the twenty-first century–are treated in the present day, I’m not buying the notion of the kind, gracious slave owner.

Take, for example, this passage from the Publisher’s Note to the movie tie-in paperback edition which I just received in the mail:

From today’s vantage point,, almost a hundred years after the cataclysm, the developing situation may be viewed objectively. Actually, the finger of blame should be pointed at no one geographical group of people. Although the factions that promoted the abolition of slavery were ethically in the right (emphasis: mine), Southern planters in general are shown to have been victims of circumstance rather than diabolical tyrants as they have sometimes been painted. (again, emphasis mine.)

Doesn’t get more apologetic than that, does it? Those poor planters. (massive eye roll)

And is it any wonder that we still have so many societal problems of racial injustice today?

And on that note, back to the spice mines.

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Coward of the County

Thursday! Didn’t think we’d make it this far, did you, Constant Reader?

Yesterday was cold–not as cold as it is pretty much everywhere north of I-10–but today’s not so bad. Forecast to be in the fifties with a high of 61, the sun is out and the sky is blue and full of puffy white clouds. I only have to work a half-day today and tomorrow, so I’ll be sliding into the weekend relatively casually.

I finished proofing Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories last night, and now just have to fill out the corrections form to turn in. I also watched another episode of Titans, which introduced us to Jason Todd, aka Robin 2.0, and the show has done an excellent job of casting and writing this character. The young actor who plays him–I didn’t take the time to look up who he is–is pitch-perfect; even more so than the actor playing Dick Grayson. Titans is so well-done that DC Universe really needs to use it as a guide for any other super-hero team shows it might do; so much better than Legends of Tomorrow, which I was very excited about but lost interest in very quickly; I think I only watched two episodes.

I really do miss Agent Carter.

I also read more of The Klansman yesterday, and while it is still wince-inducing, it’s actually really good–or so I think. The horror of the racism and sexism of 1965 Alabama is incredibly difficult to read, but it is in-your-face, pull-no-punches honest….a lot more honest, frankly, than To Kill a Mockingbird, which I also read for the first time the same summer I read The Klansman. One of the things the author, William Bradford Huie (who was from Alabama and lived there) does really well is pull aside the pleasant mask most racists were and expose the ugliness underneath, while also showing their humanity; a humanity that exists despite their malignant beliefs and values.

Take, for example, this paragraph:

The Atoka Hospital was the most visited institution in Atoka County. This was because the people of the county were friendly. Each day the local radio station broadcast the names of the patients admitted the previous day, so whenever a person remained in the hospital for several days he could count on being visited by most of his relatives, many of his friends, even a few of his casual acquaintances. But this visiting was not interracial. Whites visited whites; Negroes visited Negroes. In the first twenty years of the hospital’s existence, from 1945 to 1965, no white man, unless he was a doctor or a policeman, visited a Negro patient. A few white women visited their Negro cooks. But certainly no white man ever visited a Negro girl. So when Breck Stancill, after hearing Dr. Parker’s report, visited the private room occupied by Loretta Sykes at 11:20 pm, he gained invidious distinction and caused ugly talk.

(aside: I am really glad the word negro has passed out of usage; as you can see from the above paragraph, it was commonly accepted in the 1960’s and was preferred to the n word and colored. Huie also used the n word liberally throughout the book, but it’s always used in dialogue by racist characters and never in the prose, unless the prose is going inside the character’s head.)

This is the kind of world that racists want us to return to; one where ‘whites’ are superior and separated (above) from other ‘races.’ This book is set in 1965 Alabama; and I was four years old at the time. This was the world I was born into, this existed and changed during the course of my lifetime. Huie perhaps does one of the best jobs I’ve ever read of writing about the reality of racism and segregation; and by humanizing his racists he makes them all the more horrible to contemplate; the three-dimensional monster is always more frightening than the one-dimensional.

I’ll probably finish reading the book tonight, since I get off work early, and I am taking voluminous notes…but probably won’t review the book until this weekend.

And now back to the spice mines.

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More Love

So, yesterday I went to pick up the mail–I’d ordered some sleepy-time tea on line, and they’d arrived on Wednesday, and yes, this tea actually works–and discovered FOUND MONEY in the mail. Back when I worked for that Unnamed Airline (Continental), in my last year there they gave us stock–something I would imagine they continued doing–but it was Class B or something; whatever it was, we couldn’t sell it. Flash forward and they merged with United. Fine, it was only ten shares, whatever, I always get the notice every year and just toss it in a drawer.

Yesterday, I actually read the thing and discovered that–wait, it’s now the kind of stock you can sell. It took me five minutes, but I signed into the stock website and sold that. It only took another five minutes for it to actually sell. How cool! I love when found money suddenly shows up, you know? It makes me quite happy.

I knew when I woke up yesterday was going to be a marquee day for the week, and it was. Huzzah! Part of it was after feeling so low energy all week, despite being rested, was waking up with batteries recharged; that happened again this morning in time for my short day this week. I have some errands to run this morning before I go in this afternoon; and some other things I need to get done around the Lost Apartment.

I’m still reading Last Seen Leaving  by Caleb Roehrig, which I am enjoying. I hope to finish reading it today, and then I am moving on to another Diversity Project book (after reading some short stories), and I think I’ve decided to read The Klansman by William Bradford Huie. I read this book when I was about nine or ten originally; I know the book belonged to my uncle, and I read it one lazy summer I was spending in Alabama (the same summer I read To Kill a Mockingbird.) Huie isn’t really talked about much anymore–at least not that I’m aware of–and The Klansman was a look at the violence and horror of the Civil Rights Era from the perspective of a white sheriff in a small county in Alabama who’s trying to keep the peace. Huie also wrote The Execution of Private Slovik, and other books illustrating social justice issues. I liked the book a lot, and it was, I think, the first time in my life I was ever given a different perspective on civil rights other than what I was hearing at home or at school, so I am curious to see how it holds up. I can’t remember when I remembered the book and tracked down a used copy on line; but am pretty certain it was after some tragedy involving racism in the last few years–unfortunately I can’t be more specific than that because there have been so many.

So, I have a nice busy weekend ahead of me–reading, cleaning, reading page proofs, and perhaps working on the Scotty revision. I’d also like to go to the gym both days as well; it never hurts to get the working out monkey off my back and start making time for the self-care and self-improvement I desperately need to make this year a winner.

Our Internet was out last night, so we couldn’t watch anything on television–no Australian Open, no US Figure Skating championships, none of the shows we watch regularly, nothing–so I spent the night doing some cleaning and some more reading. The good news, of course, is that it back this morning and a lot faster than it was before the crash last night (or of the last few weeks or so), which is lovely.

And on that note, probably should get back to the spice mines. Happy Friday, everyone.

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