It's gray and drizzly outside, and has been since I rolled out of bed this morning. I've been sleeping well lately, which is lovely; but on mornings when I have to get up early it's problematic. I don't want to get up, which is a nice change from all those awful sleepless nights I used to suffer through.
I'm writing a lot these days, thanks for asking. I find myself wanting to work on short stories (right? Who AM I?) more than anything else, but am keeping my nose firmly affixed to the grindstone, as it were, and getting inexorably closer each day to finishing projects. Periodically I do freak out about everything I need to get finished by the end of the year (AIEEEEE!) but hey, what else is new, right?
I am now rereading James M. Cain's Love's Lovely Counterfeit (I am thinking, despite my enormous and ever growing TBR pile) that a thorough reread of Cain is necessary; I've also never read all of Cain's canon--because of that I don't want to ever know there isn't more Cain to read thing I do with a lot of dead authors I love, like du Maurier and Highsmith--and I do love rereading his work. I do think he has had a lot more influence on me as a writer than I've thought or realized before; but I think his influence is more felt in my stand-alones and my short stories than in my series novels. Love's Lovely Counterfeit is one of his lesser-known novels--everyone knows The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce--but I remember this one, when I first started reading Cain back in the earliy 1980's, as one of my favorites of his (currently Serenade holds that honor; really an extraordinary work, especially for when it was published originally; and I definitely need to read that one again), but I don't really remember what it's about; other than gangsters and politics in a large Midwestern city called Lake City (gee, I wonder which city that was supposed to be?). I started reading it again last night while I was waiting for Paul to come downstairs to stream an episode of Twelve Monkeys with me, and this line:
which was standard for hotels of the first class in cities of the second class
which I wish to God I had written. Genius, really.
It's really amazing what you can do with specific word choices and how you can make the rhythm of those chosen words create a mood. I can totally visualize that hotel lobby; because I have been in hotels of the first class in cities of the second class before.
And of course, reading the first few pages of this brilliant novel has given me ideas for several stories and book ideas already.
Perhaps I should get back to the spice mines else I'll never get to write 1/10th of everything I want to write.
Here's an Olympic athlete:
Yesterday I saw the preview trailers for both Wonder Woman and Justice League; both of which looked amazing, I might add, so last night I thought, after we finished watching Stranger Things, that it was time to finally watch Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
I really enjoyed it.
I was expecting to be disappointed, of course. When it was originally released, it was bashed everywhere I turned around. I was expecting Ben Affleck to suck, the movie to make no sense, Jesse Eisenberg to be horrific as Lex Luthor—the list of all the things I’d seen bashing it could go on forever. But I did enjoy it. I was never bored, the plot made sense to me, and the effects were terrific. I even think Eisenberg’s take on Lex Luthor was actually kind of interesting; at the very least it was different, rather than the same-old same-old. I also thought the film made some interesting points, and gave me some things to think about in terms of a Superman; what really would be the way people would react to a superhuman being who is all-powerful? I do think those aspects could have been further explored, and maybe they are in the comics now; when I was a kid reading all the Superman titles from DC Comics, Superman’s ultimate good-guy character was pretty much taken for granted, almost to the point where he was a bit on the sickening side (same problem I had with Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the majority of mystery series for kids; I enjoyed them, but the one-dimensional goody two-shoes characters annoyed me); I much preferred the more nuanced Batman. (In a side note, in the comic books, Batman was always called the world’s greatest detective; in fact, one of his titles was Detective Comics, which was my actual favorite comic book every month. I do know Detective Comics still exists, but it has always disappointed me that this aspect of Batman has been primarily left out of the movies; not only was he strong and agile he was also incredibly observant and smart) But I’ve always been a fan of Superman; I’ve seen all of the movies and enjoyed them all for the most part (until the later Christopher Reeves ones kind of went off the rails); likewise, I’ve enjoyed every incarnation of Batman, even the cheesy later films in the series with George Clooney from the 90’s.
Then again, I also liked Man of Steel, which also kind of took a drubbing from the fans.
I don’t consider myself to be either a comics nerd or geek or whatever those who follow the comic books/movies/TV shows call themselves; I am a fan. I watch the television shows, I see the films, and periodically I dip back into the comic books themselves. I grew up with DC; I didn’t come to Marvel until I was in my twenties, and so there’s also a nostalgic sentimentality attached to the DC characters for me, like my same attachment to the kids’ mystery series. I will always be a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys/Ken Holt/Three Investigators et al fan; likewise, I will always be a DC fan.
But I can appreciate different takes on the characters and their stories; DC has rebooted itself several times since I’ve become an adult, and seriously, the first one was, for me, the big betrayal—despite the genius involved with Crisis on Infinite Earths, and I appreciated the new take on all of the characters, including (and especially) the John Byrne reboot of the Superman mythology (the mini-series The World of Krypton was another big favorite; I still have my copies of it somewhere). So, yeah, I don’t really see the big deal with reboots and new takes on the characters for the movies and television shows, nor do I see these new takes as betrayals when the comic books themselves have done this over and over again. DC is currently rebooting its entire line of comic books superheroes yet again after the most recent reboot failed; I’ve been following it and reading them on my iPad and greatly enjoying them.
I will also admit that I was disappointed and taken aback by some of the film casting; and am a big enough person to admit I was wrong. Affleck is much better as Batman than I thought he would be; Gal Gadot is terrific as Wonder Woman; and while I am a BIG FAN of Jason Momoa, I didn’t think he was right for Aquaman. I also wasn’t pleased that Grant Gustin, so appealing as television’s The Flash, was passed over for Ezra Miller.
But the Justice League and Wonder Woman trailers convinced me otherwise.
And yes, I’ve been a BIG fan of Henry Cavill’s since he played Charles Brandon (one of my favorite characters from the Henry VIII history to begin with)in The Tudors.
And without giving any spoilers—really, if you haven’t watched this movie yet, you shouldn’t get upset at finding some on-line at this point—as soon as the word “doomsday” was uttered, I wondered if the film plot was going to follow the comics, and thought it did an excellent job of doing so.
And I can’t stop thinking about Lex Luthor’s question, “Can an all-powerful being be all good? Because if evil exists than the being can’t be all-powerful? So doesn’t it stand to reason that an all-powerful being is both good and evil?”
And now, the spice mines are a-calling me.
We finished watching Stranger Things last night, and I really enjoyed it, I have to say.
Then again, for some reason, I've been on a nostalgia kick lately.
Stranger Things is an incredibly well done homage to the 1980's; particularly in comparison to Free Form's also 80's set horror series, Dead of Summer, which we abandoned because it was so badly done. Dead of Summer attempts to pay homage to the great teen horror films of the 1970's and 1980's, but as Paul said, very early on, "This is set in the 1980's because the story won't work if they have cell phones." He was absolutely right, and there were many other thing about the show that made it very clearly a 2016 production merely set in 1989 for convenience. (Modern views in films/books/television shows set in a different era is a topic for another essay and another time; suffice it to say I had a serious problem with the fact that in 1989 the camp counselors in Dead of Summer had absolutely no problems with a gay kid sharing their cabins and showers and so forth with them; not one--and no parent had an issue with a gay teen being their child's camp counselor. Sorry. This was the time of AIDS; the horrifically homophobic Republican National Convention of 1992 was three years in the future. I appreciate the inclusion, but just no.)
Stranger Things hit almost everything about the 1980's right; from the clothes to the cars to the music to the hairstyles (I did have a few quibbles with accuracy; "Hazy Shade of Winter" by the Bangles was recorded for the soundtrack for Less Than Zero, which wasn't released until either 1986 or 1987, and I don't think the concept of 'stalking' or calling someone a 'stalker' was a thing yet in 1983) but that's just pedantry. Other than those few things the show was pitch perfect, down to the casting of two stars of iconic 1980's teen movies (Winona Ryder from Heathers and Matthew Modine from Vision Quest) as adults. It was like stepping back in time; it looked like a lost mini-series based on a book by Stephen King produced by Steven Speilberg with a screenplay written and directed by John Hughes: four nerdy kids who like to play Dungeons and Dragons become the focal point of the story when one of their friends disappears; there's a mysterious kid who may or may not be an alien and has strange powers/capabilities that they hide from the adults and the 'bad guys' who are looking for her; they have two bigger and stronger bullies who pick on them all the time and eventually get their comeuppance; and they eventually save the day--so many homages to Spielberg films here as well as Stephen King novels--there's even a scene where they are walking along the railroad tracks in the woods that could have been shot for shot lifted from Stand by Me. There's also the paranoia and fear of the government that was interlaced throughout so many 80's movies and books. The story of the older teens could have been a John Hughes movie if John Carpenter was also involved.
There are also scenes at a flooded quarry that reminded me of either a book or a movie, but I could never quite put my finger on which one.
In another scene, the boys are trying to escape the bad guys on their bikes...and I wondered if they were going to start flying, a la E. T. The Extra Terrestrial.
Even the title cards were done in an 1980's font and style mean to evoke Stephen King:
look an an awful lot like
Frankly, the rhythm of words are even similar: Stranger Things/Stephen King.
The soundtrack was pitch perfect; I even mentioned to Paul at one point it sounded like it had been done by Tangerine Dream, who did so many amazing soundtracks in the 1980's, like Risky Business and Thief.
But talking about all of this does the show a disservice; it wouldn't have held my interest no matter how accurately it paid homage to the period had it not been well written, well acted, and well done. The suspense plays out beautifully; I was never bored, always on edge, always wondering what was going to happen next. Eight episodes was the perfect length for character development as well; we got to know and care about the characters so that we cared what happened to them.
And, as I said the other day about Megan Abbott, the best work inspires me and makes me think about things. Watching this made me think about the development of young adult movies and novels in the 1980's; how the 1970's were a transitional decade for those, and how they really came of age in the 1980's. It made me realize that, sadly, the decade of my twenties was now the decade of nostalgia and period pieces for our current decade, much as in the 1980's it was all about the 1950's and early 1960's. It made me think that the time might be right for a book exploring young adult culture of the 1980's as reflected in the books and movies of that time (I recently read a wonderful essay about how problematic the iconic John Hughes movies of the time are now; watching this made me think about the ones outside the John Hughes oeuvre--Risky Business, Red Dawn, Dirty Dancing, All the Right Moves, War Games, Real Genius and so forth). It made me think that maybe it was time for someone to write a compelling novel--maybe horror, a la Stephen King's It--that flashed back between the 1980's and the present (although Alison Gaylin's superb What Remains of Me does this very thing; you should read it if you haven't already, Constant Reader).
There is going to be another season of the show; I don't know if it will be a continuation of the story just done, or if it will go the anthology route that seems to be growing in popularity. But I do recommend the show.
I love things that make me think.
And now, back to the spice mines.
Saturday morning, and I have some errands to do before coming home and cleaning and organizing and writing and editing. Yes, 'tis a busy weekend at the Lost Apartment; but despite the daunting nature of the to-do list, I actually do prefer being busy for the most part. The depression still comes and goes; I've learned to recognize those I don't feel like doing anything because what's the point days as symptomatic of depression; and rather than allowing myself to give into the episodic despair, I do things that combat it while not trying to actively fight it, which can be self-defeating. Something that really helps is cleaning; another is reading or losing myself in a television show or a movie. Sometimes I can write my way out of depression.
Sometimes it takes a Xanax and a glass of wine.
And sometimes, it takes a little shopping.
I have now, over the course of the last week or so, replaced all of my electronics. I now have a new iPad Pro, a new iPhone, and thanks to an after-work drive to Metairie to the Apple Store, a new iMac computer. It is astonishing how slow my old computer was; it's even more astonishing how fast this one is. I was also having trouble seeing the old computer screen but I can see this one clearly without having to zoom in on things, which is all kinds of lovely; you have no idea. I also used my vision insurance yesterday morning to get an eye exam and order a new pair of 'progressive' lenses--which of course means bifocals. I had them before and didn't much care for them, but this taking my glasses on and off has gotten rather old quickly and I'm completely over it. But the clarity of my computer screen is truly something to behold; and the speed! Good Lord, I cannot get over how fast it is. And I am going to recycle the old one--as well as the iPad and my old iPhone--through Apple. I actually looked up on-line how to erase the hard drive on the old one last night so all of my information is no longer on it, boxed it up, and it's ready to go.
Look at me, being all green and shit! SO proud of myself.
So, today it's off to Office Depot for some office supplies, to the post office, to get the oil changed and the car washed, and the grocery store. Then it's home to write and edit my ass off. :) Yeah, for Saturday! And then tonight we'll continue watching Stranger Things, which we are enjoying, and then tomorrow it's write and edit all day.
And clean. There's always cleaning to do.
I started writing yet another short story yesterday; a great opening line came to me and the next thing I knew was about a thousand words in:
Their marriage had been crumbling for years, but neither of them realized it until Dylan died.
All right, it's back to the spice mines with me for the rest of the day; have a lovely weekend everyone!
And here's today's Olympic athlete:
As Constant Reader is undoubtedly aware, I am a big fan of the Olympics. Few sporting events quite capture the drama and the excitement of the Olympic Games; I’ve been watching them since the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble. I am literally counting the days until the opening ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro this August. I have nothing but the utmost admiration for Olympic athletes; the dedication, the desire, and the drive that is required to excel at any of these sports is exceptional. Gymnastics is very emblematic of this; my earliest Olympic memories are of Olga Korbut in Munich and then Nadia Comaneci in Montreal. The rise of the United States as a world power in the sport, beginning with Mary Lou Retton’s All Around gold in Los Angeles in 1984 (along with the US men claiming their only team gold at that same Olympics) has been thrilling to watch; and the gymnastics competition is always one of my favorite parts of the games. Gymnastics has always provided drama: Nadia’s perfect scores, Kerri Strug vaulting on an injured leg; the vault horse being set up to the wrong height in Sydney; Paul Hamm’s remarkable comeback to win the All Around gold in Athens—the list goes on and on. I’ve always wanted to write about Olympic athletes (Constant Reader will probably remember that one about figure skating has been bouncing around in my head for the last few years; I also kind of did in Jackson Square Jazz way back in 2004 as well); so you can imagine my excitement when I found out one of my writing heroes, Megan Abbott, was writing one, You Will Know Me, and yes, it was about gymnastics.
The vinyl banners rippled from the air vent behind them, the restaurant roiling with parents, the bobbing of gymnast heads, music gushing from the weighty speakers keeled on the window ledges.
Slung around Devon’s neck were three medals, two silver and one gold, her first regional-champion title on the vault.
“I’m so proud of you, sweetie,” Katie whispered in her daughter’s ear. “You can do anything.”
And so we enter the world of Devon Knox, Olympic hopeful and prodigy, a young girl with big dreams but at the same time poised on the brink of adulthood, the possibility of her body betraying her by changing at the wrong time, or in a way that would lessen her ability to perform prodigious feats of acrobatic prowess.
One of the most fun things about reading Megan Abbott is seeing how she transitions from themes and styles in her books. The writing is always exemplary; the way she can breathe life into characters and create scenes and setting with such a sparing use of words is genius: just look at the first italicized sentence above. Even the simple choice of the word slung in the second sentence creates tension and mood; remove that word from the sentence and it creates a completely different tone; one that isn’t quite so strong and evocative.
One simple, five letter word.
Abbott’s work is always like that, a pleasure to read because not only does she create characters the reader cares about, wants to know more about, wants to root for, she also tells stories of almost unbearable suspense and tension. Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong and Patricia Highsmith were all masters of this; Abbott is a worthy successor to those women while forging her own identity.
Comparisons to other masters are also inevitable and deserving; her sparity of language is reminiscent of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson; her hard-boiled edge has echoes of Hammett, Chandles, both McDonalds (Ross and John D.). Her first books (The Song Is You, Queenpin, Bury Me Deep, Die a Little) were amazing period noirs, told from the point of view of women getting themselves into dangerous situations and the things they did to get out of them. She turned the trope of the femme fatale inside out and on its head; reinventing the genre and making it her own. The End of Everything, her next book, was set in an amorphous 70’s/80’s era in the suburbs, and was also her first foray into the dangerously dark world of teenaged girls on the cusp of discovering and owning their own sexuality. Her next two, Dare Me and The Fever, further explored the power dynamics of high school and the relationships between girls. Always she has been interested in those dynamics; of women and their relationships, how they relate to one another. (Queenpin is absolute genius at this; it also won the Edgar Award, deservedly.)
While You Will Know Me is ostensibly about Devon Knox on its surface, it is also about the power dynamic within a family with a child who is a prodigy of some sort. Also different is rather than focusing on Devon, we see the story from her mother’s point of view; exploring what it’s like to be the mother of a child with an amazing gift, the drive to not only protect your child but to help that child achieve her dreams, make it possible for her to rise as high as she can in her chosen world. But this isn’t Mildred Pierce, although it is a story about a mother’s love and sacrifice for her daughter.
But that isn’t all this book is about, either.
Once again, Abbott tackles group dynamics, and power. The mothers of the gymnastics club to which Devon belongs, where she trains, is almost like the cheerleading squad from Dare Me, only grown up and with children of their own they are pushing forward. There are, as with every such group, alphas and betas, queen bees and drones. There are resentments and snark; jealousies and bitcheries, gossip and micro-aggressions. Kate herself isn’t so much a part of this group as she is almost a hanger-on; it is her husband who runs things for the Booster Group of parents, finds the needed money for the gym, organizes events and fundraisers and raffles and car washes. On the surface they all support Devon’s drive for perfection and stardom and glory—but only because they see her rise bringing their daughters and their gym along in her wake. Her failures, thus, are all of theirs. Kate often feels slightly outside the group, listening and observing and always, always watching out for her own child.
The dynamic within the Knox family itself is fascinating to observe, to think about, to digest. How does a family adapt to having a prodigy, to doing everything they possibly can—including a second mortgage on the house—to help that child achieve her dreams, while balancing parenting a second child in the home as well?
For me, one of the marks of a great writer and a great book is if it inspires me. Megan's work always inspires me, to be a better writer, to try harder, work harder, and push myself further. A classic example of this is the character of Drew, the younger Knox child; an incredibly smart young boy who, under normal circumstances, be the star child of the family. Instead, he is an almost afterthought, good-naturedly doing his homework and playing on his laptop while at Devon's constant practices, waiting for her to finish so they can all go home. He doesn't resent his sister (not yet), and is angelic, goes along with everything, is not a problem at all...which had me constantly thinking about what it must like to be the sibling of the prodigy; what must it have been like to be Michelle Kwan's older sister Karen? Chris Evert's sister? Patrick McEnroe? And yes, I started spinning off stories in my mind when I would reluctantly have to put this book aside when I was reading it.
There's a crime in the story, of course; the strange hit-and-run death of a young man dating one of the coaches at the gym, a cute sweet young man on the surface whose death triggers all kind of conflicting emotions and unleashes secrets about everyone at the gym, not the least of all Devon...and begs the questions how well do you know your child? How far will you go to protect your child when you've already sacrificed so much for her??
I've always considered Megan Abbott one of our best writers, and this book is destined to be a classic in every way. The reviews have been outstanding, and deservedly so. This is a great writer at the absolute top of her game--and she's going to keep getting better.