It gets points for not being touted as “the next Gone Girl!” or compared to Gillian Flynn anywhere on the cover. There’s still a trend, though–the narrator who witnesses a terrible crime, but no one believes her because she’s unreliable, and she’s unreliable because she’s mentally ill or a drunk or a pillhead or some combination, and she is styled in the book title as the girl/woman/wife/sister/daughter. Of course you’ve seen these books; they’re everywhere. I’m surprised I even picked it up. Not disappointed, because I actually did like it, but surprised that I picked up a bandwagon book. (I guiltily admit to reading the Twilight books, but only where no one could see me doing it, and I will no longer read anything about vampires not written by Anne Rice. And maybe Stephen King.)
I have a few gripes. The writing is what I’ve seen others call “MFA-Style” and I’m totally stealing it. That flowery, uber-descriptive way of writing each and every moment and emotion and impression and insight that I imagine must be the mainstay of modern writing curricula: “Help,” I shout, only it’s a whisper, creeping through my throat on tiptoe, smearing itself across my tongue. “He-elp,” I try again; this time my teeth bite into it, sparks raining from my mouth as though I’ve chewed a live wire, and my voice catches like a fuse, explodes. (I’m an Elmore Leonard girl: “He-elp,” I croak. I try again: “Help.” Better.) And it seems there wasn’t a single page when Anna wasn’t craving wine, pouring wine, sipping wine, chugging wine, sloshing wine, spilling wine, dropping her wine and shattering the glass, fuddled from wine, trying to remember if this her fifth or seventeenth glass of wine, hungover from wine, opening more wine, swallowing multiple sleeping pills with wine. It wore thin. She stumbles or sinks or slumps or falls to her knees a lot, too–and no wonder, with all that wine–which I cannot recall ever seeing anyone do even once in real life. Between the beating her knees take and all the wine, I’m amazed Anna doesn’t break her neck navigating the endless flights of stairs in her (admittedly charming) gentrified-Harlem five-storey brownstone.
But. A lot of people like that writing style and if you do, good on ya. I don’t hate it; it’s just not my favorite. And even if the premise is rather derivative, the story is still a suck-you-in popcorn-type psych-thriller page-turner, on a par with The Girl on the Train (which I see I never reviewed, but loved) and easily outstripping The Woman in Cabin 10. I find the unreliable narrator hard to resist and Anna’s obsession with film noir darkens the atmosphere nicely. I saw through both of the prestiges well in advance of the reveals but still devoured it in about 24 hours, even with time out for beauty zzz’s and a full workday. It loses a star for being an obvious bandwagon book but is still worth reading, particularly recommended if you’ve got long flights and a layover to deal with.
Jane laughs. She pulls a bottle from her backpack with a flourish. “It’s not much, but we can celebrate.”
“I’m honored to help you celebrate, dear girl,” the old man says. “I wish I had proper glasses, to appropriately savor the bouquet of this lovely drop.” His eyes dance.
“Bouquet,” Jane snorts, uncapping the wine. “Two-Buck Chuck doesn’t have a bouquet. More like a…twang.”
“A stench!” Jane squeals, giddy.
Henry drinks, wipes the the bottle, passes it. “I could not be happier for you,” he says quietly.
Every week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a bouquet. You can explore the meaning of the word or gather a bunch of flowers. Go where the prompt leads.”
Jane’s eyes open to the phone alarm. She pokes her nose out of the sleeping bag: Cold.
Just today off? Just one day? To lie around, to not strain her eyes at job listings, to not duck the judging eyes of the homed and employed. One day to pretend her life is good enough to relax into.
One day of not trying leads to one missed opportunity leads to another damned lifetime of this life she’s lived too long already.
Growling, she flings back the top of the sleeping bag and jerks her legs out of the warmth.
Every week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about warrior women. It can be myth or everyday mothers and wives. Go where the prompt leads.”
I think I’ve figured it out, what I do and don’t like about Tana French.
I was disappointed with The Secret Place. It seemed to drag, then picked up about a third in, and the last quarter slogged again. It was bogged down by the same things I didn’t like about The Likeness: the miniscule description of each individual moment, done for moment after moment after moment after, every nuance of feeling and thought and spoken word between each and every character…it was too much. Both books had groups of characters who were close and constantly interacted, so that a two-minute conversation took 30 minutes to read. French’s ability to distill a flash of time into its essence is admirable and her writing is lovely, but I find that more enjoyable in small doses.
I loved the premise for The Likeness even if I found the execution lacking, but I found the gist of The Secret Place to be thin and unbelievable–you get to the solution of the mystery and it’s like, is that all? Somebody killed somebody else for that? If you removed all the flowery atmospheric description and rewriting the same thing from three or four different pov’s, you’d have 200 pages of nothing-much-of-a-mystery. And maybe this is a personal prejudice, but the teen-speak got old after so much of it. I mean, excuse me? It’s just so not totes amazeballs, hello?
In the Woods, Broken Harbor, and Faithful Place are much better bets.
“Mommy, please call me back. I want to know what happened last night. Why did we have to go to the police station? Please answer, Mommy. Please answer, Mommy. Please answer, Mommy. Please answer. ‘Bye.” ~ Eight-year-old Sydney Simpson on her mother’s answering machine the morning after
I like Jeffrey Toobin’s true crime. They are not merely recounts; they are in-depth analysis of entire cases, including enlightening portraits of the principals and with clear and engaging explanations of forensics, legal machinations, and jury dynamics.
Factoid 1: The O.J. Simpson trial was not the first to be live-broadcast as it happened, but it was the one that proved the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, that the very act of observation changes the outcome. Since this trial, judges have been much less inclined to allow the media to turn criminal trials into reality TV. Thankfully.
Factoid 2: This trial was the first big one to include DNA evidence, and the science was new and confusing, perhaps not to be trusted by a jury that, for the most part, was not educated beyond high school. Barry Sheck and Peter Neufeld, co-founders of the Innocence Project that has used DNA technology on old physical evidence to prove that hundreds of rape and murder suspects were wrongfully convicted, were the DNA specialists who effectively twisted the DNA science for the Simpson jury. Reading about their work for the Simpson defense cost them several notches on my esteem-o-meter.
Factoid 3: Pat McKenna, the lead private investigator brought in by F. Lee Bailey for the defense, later worked to help acquit Casey Anthony,* and is in fact now living with her. The elite world of criminal defense is a small one.
I found it helpful to supplement this book with interviews given by a couple of the O.J. Simpson jurors. Even without that, though, when you look at it from a point of view of what the sequestered Simpson jury was actually given to work with, without news reports and all the media sensationalism, without the back-and-forth between legal teams and the judge, without the 20/20 vision hindsight gives, then it’s a bit clearer how the verdict came to be.
The “Dream Team” ultimately managed to do what it was paid millions of dollars to do: plant reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. But they did it in particularly slimy fashion. It is no longer permitted in criminal courts to slut-shame rape victims, but still almost de rigueur to defend a murderer by trashing the victim, in this case by intimating that Nicole Brown Simpson somehow deserved to be hacked to death on her own front walk with her children sleeping in the house. (And let’s not forget Ron Goldman, who is so often overlooked and whose grieving family has worked so hard to keep a murderer from profiting from his crimes.) The defense, principally Johnnie Cochran, very deliberately turned the “Trial of the Century” into a racial maelstrom. Robert Shapiro later stated, in what to me is a jaw-dropping admission, that they played the race card early, and they “dealt it from the bottom of the deck.” Ignore the veritable mountain of damning physical and circumstantial evidence, folks, and ignore his previous abuse of his ex-wife as well–O.J. Simpson is only sitting at the defendant’s table because he’s black. Was Simpson acquitted partially because his jury was preponderantly black? Almost certainly. But it’s disingenuous to dismiss the importance of race and the weight of entire lives shaped by being on the receiving end of constant and insidious institutionalized racism. A country that insists on marginalizing a good part of its population cannot pretend to be surprised when that population closes ranks to protect its own, particularly when the accused is a celebrity.
Still, in my view, the biggest factors in Simpson’s acquittal were the prosecution and the LAPD itself. Not only did the LAPD bungle some of the physical evidence–and their entry onto O.J. Simpson’s property amounted to a Fourth Amendment violation–they had spent decades engaged in a concentrated war against the people of color in Los Angeles. Without these factors, perhaps the defense would not have been able to weaponize them so effectively. As to the prosecution, it was outmatched in the talent department and often painfully bumbling, clearly unsuited for this particular trial. Marcia Clark was hot-headed and arrogant and convinced that black women on juries loved her despite a professional jury consultant telling her they actually thought she was an uppity white bitch. Chris Darden, who could have been particularly effective as a black prosecutor convinced of Simpson’s guilt, was too easily baited and given to childish outbursts and sulking. Prosecutors worthy of the name should have been able to demonstrate how, despite what a flaming bigot Mark Fuhrman actually was (and he was), he could not have planted O.J.’s right glove and smeared the victims’ blood around O.J.’s home and Bronco without being both a precog and a teleporter. Calmer heads more inclined to cool-headed strategy, damage deflection, and, you know, actual trial and witness preparation may have prevailed here. We’ll never know.
All of this is not to say O.J. was innocent. He was absolutely positively one hundred percent guilty, and if you still doubt it, read his memoir If I Did It, if you can stomach it. (Factoid 4: If I Did It was ghostwritten by Pablo Fenjves, who lived sixty yards from the Simpson murder scene and heard the mournful barking of Nicole’s dog that night.) But reading this book has helped me understand the verdict a bit better. But only a bit. When you can see the evidence and hear the testimony,** all of the various factors pale. “Not guilty” heard twice in that courtroom was abominable.
An eye-opening, highly informative read.
*I was in the small minority who, even without hindsight, believed the Casey Anthony verdict was correct. It was ludicrous for the prosecution to expect a jury to convict and impose a death sentence when they couldn’t even show exactly what crime was committed, when whatever-the-crime-was was committed, where whatever-the-crime-was was committed, how whatever-the-crime-was was committed, and had virtually no physical evidence to support any thesis at all.
** I did not watch the FX dramatization based on this book. I’m not a TV watcher anyway, and I’ve seen several reviews of the book pointing out that the book is more accurate and complete. Hollywood liberties are the reason I read instead of watching.
“I say in my talks it takes two things to make it happen again, a new Hitler and social conditions like in the thirties. But that’s not true. It takes three things: the Hitler, the conditions, and the people to follow the Hitler.” ~ Yakov Liebermann, “The Boys From Brazil”
Eerie words to read from 1976, quite relevant in 2018’s Trumpmerica. This is not a book about the Holocaust per se. It is the story of a Jewish Nazi-hunter who stumbles upon a Kameradenwerk plot to kill 94 men, all around 65 years old, humble civil servants, in various parts of the world. His investigation leads him to an ongoing experiment by the fugitive Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death.”
This is a headlong, pull-you-in tale that stands the test of time. For some reason I had this marked as “read” even though I hadn’t, so I amended that. I recall I hadn’t liked Rosemary’s Baby all that much, am not much spooked by satanists (the ones I’ve run across have no idea what religion they’re perverting or how to do it correctly and their wannabe-ness really just cracks me up), but I loved The Stepford Wives when rereading it recently. I must now read the rest of Ira Levin’s books.
In reality, Mengele met his end in 1979 when he had a stroke and drowned while swimming in South America, where he’d successfully eluded capture by various Nazi hunters for thirty years. Rather anticlimactic, especially since the world didn’t even learn of his death until 1985. I promise you, you’ll like the ending of the book much better.
“But I don’t want to sell my house,” Michelle says.
“Property values are up,” Caroline presses. “Now’s your chance to make a killing.”
“Just move for no reason? I like my house.”
“Roll it into a bigger house, with land.” Duh, says Caroline’s tone.
“Uh-huh,” says Michelle, “with an even bigger mortgage, double the payment.”
“Not if you buy farther out, get ahead of the next gentrification rush.”
“Yeah, so then my commute is two hours one way instead of one. No thanks.”
“But property values–”
Michelle holds her hand up: stop. “There’s a big difference between value and worth.”
Every week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about property values. Perhaps its a home, business or pencil museum. What makes them go up or down? Go where the prompt leads.”
What is a to-the-manor-born family to do? Look at this housemaid, a charity case, an unwed mother, oh the scandal, the little strumpet! We took her in, gave her a job, gave her a chance to be respectable, and what do we get in return? She’s sly and manipulative and uppity with her betters, actually thinks she’s going to marry into this family! What are we to do?
Drug her cocoa and strangle her, of course. That’ll teach her.
Of course there is a tangle of suspects and motives and opportunities (not to mention a mystery baby daddy), but never fear. Inspector Dalgliesh will get to the bottom of it.
I read several, or perhaps all, of P.D. James’ mystery novels twenty years ago or more, and I remember that I absolutely loved Children of Men, but twenty years is long enough for them to read like new. I had forgotten how intricately plotted and well-written these books are. P.D. James is one of Britain’s four Queens of Crime for a reason. If you like period English mysteries — post-war, in this case — they are not to be missed.
Fresh to the city from her small hometown, she’d tilt her head back and get vertigo from the skyscrapers. First time she’d felt fear of heights looking up.
And the cranes. At first, she’d wondered when the buildings would be finished and she could get a pretty skyline photo without those unsightly cranes. Never, she eventually realized. The building never stops. She’d never thought of that, that cities are never finished. Bigger, better, faster, more.
She’s grown to appreciate having a skyline, but she surely does miss a horizon.
Although cranes strung with Christmas lights are kind of pretty.
Every week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story defining ‘the charisma of cranes.’ For centuries, cranes have inspired art and philosophy. You can write a crane story or create something new out of the phrase. Go where the prompt leads.”
This account of the shooting-star NFL player Aaron Hernandez is a lot like shallow whitewater; it pulls you right along, swirls and eddies and churns and is exciting enough, but it’s not all that deep. To be fair, In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter have already been done. Spoiler alert: There may be some in this review, but if you followed the headlines as events played out, then not really.
The book follows Aaron’s football career, from high school through his years with the Florida Gators and his signing by the New England Patriots. This is paralleled by his off-the-field life, with stops for various shootings and bar brawls, a couple of murder trials, and ultimately his death in 2017. There are a lot of major and minor players, and events spill over into each other, so things are occasionally hard to keep straight. But for all the detail included, there is much missing. Aaron’s fiancee doesn’t appear until he is signed with the Patriots, although they had reportedly been a couple for some years, and there’s next to nothing on the relationship that included her disposing of murder weapons and committing perjury on his behalf. There’s nothing on the investigative and legal teams beyond the tidbit that one defense lawyer was the one who got Casey Anthony acquitted.
It appears that things brought out in the investigations and trials were recreated in a narrative biography form that reads more like fiction, although I can’t say that definitely because no sources are listed. But that is not my preferred style for true crime. I prefer the more standard format of (1) crime (2) in-depth account of the investigation, and (3) solid showing of how all the evidence and testimony played out (or was disallowed) in the courts. I dislike the assumption of omniscience on the writer’s part, with little or no reference to where the information came from. It doesn’t give me what I want, which is to be a fly on the wall for the detective work, forensics, and legal maneuvering. I want to see and hear what the cops and the juries saw and heard, or why they didn’t see or hear it. That’s the reckoning. I want to know where the “facts” came from so I can reach my own conclusions. So ultimately, I don’t have much opinion on the verdicts, as I was left with a poor idea of what the different juries were actually given to work with. (I can say I don’t understand how Aaron’s agent and attorney could refuse to believe he committed suicide. The only reasonable alternative is murder, but the description of his death scene is the classic locked-room scenario.)
There’s enough actual football here for devotees, but not too much for non-fans. There is good backstory on Aaron himself, and I appreciate that every little detail of his childhood was not laid out; it’s tough to make anyone else’s toddler stage interesting to me. Aaron’s emotional chaos from the sudden and shattering death of his father and idol is reflected well, along with his long-term substance abuse and his associations with society’s bottom-feeders. But his advanced CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, brain degeneration resulting from repeated blows to the head) and how it may have worked with those other factors to produce his erratic, paranoid, and violent behavior is brought up almost an afterthought.
Whether intentionally or not, the book does serve as an indictment of the culture of the athlete in America, with the win-at-any-cost business model, exorbitant salaries, celebrity status, entitled attitudes, and tolerance, if not cover-ups, of domestic violence, drug use, drunk driving, sexual assault, and generally shitty and unsportsmanlike behavior off the field. Not all athletes, certainly not–but for every one that makes the news, how many don’t?
So, it’s not the best true crime I’ve ever read, but it’s still a page-turner. Patterson’s style is headlong, with little cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, and the chapters are so short that it’s easy to read just one more and just one more and just one more… I started reading on a Saturday night and couldn’t stop, fell asleep over it with the light on about 3 a.m. and finished it the next morning. For all its churned-out feel, it’s still an engrossing read.
This is the memoir of Lauren Drain’s years in the Westboro Baptist Church, from being forced into it as a teenager by her parents up until her banishment by both “church” and parents seven years later. I’m not even sure why I picked this book up, other than I love being a fly on the wall and I wanted to see what spiritual message could possibly support the vitriol they spew. I did not like the book, more for the content than the writing; the content was so nasty that I skimmed probably half of it. Still, I know more than when I started.
THE PREMISE: Doctrinally speaking, it’s masturbatory. Like Calvinism, the WBC believes only a select few are chosen for salvation before birth, and nothing can change that. No amount of faith, of love, of good works, of repentance, of atonement, nothing. If you are not pre-selected, you will burn in hell. Of course you can see the same thing I did, the tidy little paradox that renders the message and the “church” itself pointless. (Although it’s certainly arguable that living with faith in God and love of God is its own reward, that’s a dogmatic discussion for another time and in any case does not apply to the WBC.) And–but you saw this coming–the entire Phelps family is chosen. God talks directly, and only, to WBC “elders.”
THE MESSAGE: Hate. That’s it. Just hate. The “Thank God for dead soldiers” shit is explained by the cult’s hysterical homophobia: Any military that allows “fags” to serve, and which safeguards a country that “enables” homosexuality, is cursed. When I read, “Our primary motivation was to let people know God hated them,” I got sick of feeling sick and started skimming. Tragedies like 9/11 and Sandy Hook and hurricanes are all God saying he hates everybody except the WBC, but especially “fags.” Of course there is no reason for this message because even if God kinda sorta liked some of the rest of us, we still have only about a one in 110-billion chance of being one of God’s chosen few, but who cares about logic? We don’t need no stinking logic!
(Since hypocrisy and irony abound with these people, I have to wonder if the writer’s banishment and the defections of various Phelps family members opened up any spots on that Great Reservation List in the Sky.)
THE GODLY HUMILITY: Absent. “When prophets like us, who spoke only for God, were persecuted, our country was doomed.” She complains about feeling disrespected and misunderstood by the public. Sorry, sweetheart, but when you’re spewing venom into the faces of grieving families, you are not being misunderstood. At. All. At other points she wrote that she was “still confused,” or that she “just felt doomed,” which says her conscience and intuition hadn’t completely deserted her, but when you know you’d better cover up your picketing signs to board a plane, when your “church” is officially designated as a hate group, those are reliable hints you’re on the despicable side of humanity.
THE ORGANIZATION: It is facile to dismiss these people as merely ignorant. This brand of homophobia is not Cooter sitting in his trailer all beered up and hatin’ on the hommaseckshools. They are intelligent, many of them well-educated, with law licenses they use to defend their First Amendment rights all the way to SCOTUS. They are organized and strategic and detail-oriented to a gnat’s fanny. Everywhere they go, they know exactly what they can get away with. Baleful and vitriolic they may be, but stupid they are not. (The tragedy is that this evil narcissism is mostly taught, springing from the WBC founder, Fred Phelps, to his children and grandchildren. Without that upbringing, Phelps’ descendants might have been normal people, although that’s a nature-vs-nurture discussion, also for another time.)
THE INDOCTRINATION: As many memoirs and biographies do, this book suffered from Other People’s Childhoods Syndrome, so I skipped that part. I started reading in earnest when Lauren was thrust into the church by her parents at age 14. The immersion was absolute, including insularity, microrules, tattling and competition for favor, verbal and emotional abuse, isolation, constant monitoring, rote learning, public shaming for perceived wrongdoing–everything required to create a good little automaton. Of course, you also have to have a verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive father and a mother who’s essentially useless beyond giving birth. (Steve and Lucy Drain are utterly horrible people and that’s not open for discussion.)
THE REMEDY: Ignore them. Utterly. They are trying to engage people so they can show off how smart and well-informed they are (a repeated bragging point), and to get headlines and photos. Do not feed the trolls. However, it remains that I adore the Bikers Against Child Abuse and the Patriot Guard Riders, bikers who create a physical wall of protection around funerals so the WBC can’t get close enough to picket effectively. I also loved the approach of the band Panic! at the Disco, who promised a donation to the Human Rights Campaign per WBC picketer at one of their concerts, then increased it and threw in a percentage of their merch sales too. That’s how you fight hate with love.
THE AFTERMATH: Unsatisfying. I did read the final two chapters and the epilogue in their entirety, and was left wanting the rest of the story and some real insight. Life after banishment is glossed over. The homilies and apologies felt canned and impersonal. She feels terrible about the people she hurt, she wants everyone to know God’s love, she now accepts other religions, blah blah blah. “I will never be a political activist for gay rights, but I like gay people and have lots of gay friends, too. I don’t judge them, and I don’t believe anyone else has the right to judge them, either.” Ah, the but I have gay friends! schtick. Hint: If you don’t think the LGBT population should have the same rights you have, you are judging and you are not their friend.
Her experiences about picketing and learning “church” doctrine have a good-old-days feel to them, and I’m not convinced she wouldn’t go back if they’d have her. I realize that could be nostalgia for the family she’s lost–even if they are shits, a part of us still aches for their love. Of course she misses her siblings, who are still trapped victims. I suppose it’s normal to fondly recall performances that earned you feel-goods, even if the script was malevolent. But when recalling her friends from the WBC, she writes merely that her “misgivings are stronger.” Um, what? The writer seems immature, but perhaps that’s to be expected from what is probably a textbook case of arrested development. I’m trying not to see her NOH8 message and her bootylicious pictures all over the internet as nothing more than a great big “Fuck you, Mom and Dad!” That would be understandable, but I want more for her.
I’m trying to be fair. Really. What I read is conversational and matter-of-fact and with the viewpoint of someone who actually believes this poison, which makes sense since it’s what she was living at the time–but man, is it hard to stomach. I like to believe people can change. Lauren Drain suffered horrific abuse during some very formative years and I suspect much deprogramming and healing remained to be done as of the writing of this book. Banishing her is probably the kindest thing her parents ever did for her, but my impression is she’s not in a place to see that yet. I hope she gets there. I’m sorry they hurt her so badly. No child should be treated as she was and I’m glad she’s out. Many blessings as she finds her own path of light.
Disclaimer: No, I am not a Christian. Yes, I have read the Bible, cover to cover, and I still own mine. When I cherry-pick it, I cherry-pick the good stuff, like help people, be kind, act in love, and so forth, because that Jesus dude was pretty chill.
“I’m completely renewed, you know how revitalizing a whole makeover is — new cut, new clothes, new toilette, new everything,” Torrey chirps. She raises one wrist, takes a deep sniff, smiles at Lesley, smiles even more brilliantly at Alan’s attorney across the conference table. Alan couldn’t make this settlement negotiation; business. That suits Torrey. She flips her hair and sniffs her wrist again, simpers at the attorney.
“Ah, yes,” the man says drily. “Deep Woods Off No. 5.”
Torrey’s mouth snaps shut audibly.
“You were angling for a compliment, Mrs. Graff,” the attorney says. “Be careful what you fish for.”
Every week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a fish tale. It can be about fishing from any angle, about those who fish, or what might be caught. Go where the prompt leads.”
I always say if you’re going to read trash, read the good trash.
As a roman a clef, this is not the story of Alfred Bloomingdale, the soap opera that churned around his mistress, Vicki Morgan, his widow Betsy’s refusal to honor her husband’s promises to Vicki after his unexpected death, and Vicki’s palimony suit and grisly murder. But even if it was that story, the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
I’m still not sure how libel issues are avoided when characters and events in a “novel” are known to be only thinly disguised, but it’s fun. Jules and Pauline Mendelson are the quintessential high society couple with their endless millions, their highly-placed and rich friends, their palatial estate, their impeccable taste. Flo March is a rather more innocent Vicki Morgan, being a waitress with daydreams rather than a full-on prostitute. I idly wondered how many other characters and incidents were based in reality (except for Truman Capote; he was obvious), but it didn’t matter. The artfully interwoven threads sewn around a real-life scandal, the little details that turn out to be a big deal, the dish and the dirt and the naughty behavior and the $40,000 curtains, add up to a delightfully guilty pleasure of a book.
Bookshelves: biography, ugh, conspiracy-theories, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous, addiction, mental-illness, show-your-work, americana, hollywood
I’m fascinated by Marilyn Monroe. Not sure why. It’s not that my husband likes to say I look like her–I don’t. He’s just being sweet. But it’s odd that it took me this long to read a Marilyn biography or watch a Marilyn movie. I chose this one because it was the highest-rated on Goodreads. I almost decided not to finish it, and now I’m pissed that I did finish it.
1. Much of Marilyn’s life was mysterious, glamorous, tragic. Mostly mysterious, particularly her death. I was annoyed several times as the author glossed over speculations about her death and things rumored to have factored in to it such as the possibility of an affair with RFK as well as JFK, with statements like, “Fresh research assembled for this book says it didn’t happen.” That’s it. Just take his word for it. But it’s even worse than that. He starts the sources section by saying that appendices are just typing exercises, they’re a waste of ink and paper, nobody reads them anyway, so he’s not actually going to set out his sources. He refers to a few documentary sources in the narrative, such as reports from the FBI (whom he trashes). But he doesn’t cite them as a source.
What the what? Math and biographies, dude: SHOW. YOUR. WORK.
I’m one of those people who does read appendices.
But here’s the real kicker. He dismisses speculation about her death this way: “If she had been a stable woman who had never overdosed in her lifetime, then, yes, one might legitimately question the circumstances of her death. However…” And I am not using that quote that out of context.
What in the actual fuck. She was an addict, so any questioning of suspicious circumstances is not legitimate? She was an addict, so she can’t also be a victim of foul play? Is the author one of those assholes who thinks a rape victim’s sexual history is relevant? This is especially galling after you’ve read an entire book themed around poor-Marilyn-nothing-was-her-fault; see #2.
2. The writer was perhaps a bit too dazzled by his subject. To hear him tell it, she was incapable of making a stupid decision or simply acting like a shit sometimes like the rest of us. Every negative behavior is blamed on mental illness, her sad childhood, her crazy mother, her daddy issues, power-tripping studio heads, greedy and controlling acting coaches, hyperprescribing doctors, too much therapy and wallowing, abusive husbands, the effects of alcohol and pills, the nature of addiction, paranoia from the FBI following her around. Marilyn herself was never culpable for anything. It wore thin.
Except for her death, of course; she evidently had that coming. It’s appalling.
3. It suffers from Other People’s Childhoods Syndrome. Normally I’d give the author a pass for this one because it’s so tough to make anybody else’s childhood interesting to me, but I’m throwing the book at this book, ha ha. I skipped ahead to the James Dougherty marriage and the beginning of modeling, and don’t feel I missed anything, especially since he repeats so much; see #4.
4. The writing is meh, and the narrative jumps around in time and repeats things so I was always flipping back and forth to see if I really already had read something, and yes, yes I had. Overall, it reads like a not-quite-finished draft; do some more editing, tighten up the timeline, cut about 200 pages of minutiae. One photo is said to have been taken at a party hosted by producer Harvey Weinstein, who would have been ten years old at the time. Understandable mistake, I suppose, but then it appears that Harvey Weinstein, writer Walter Bernstein and producer Henry T. Weinstein are all conflated when the book references the (as far as I can determine) non-existent producer Harvey Bernstein. Exhaustive detail is not always a good thing, and there’s way too much of it here…
5. …right up until her death, which the author treats almost like a postscript. The book bogs down with detail and it was getting annoying, glancing down and seeing I was only at 35%, 43%, good Lord, I’ve been reading for a day and a half and I’m only at 48%? I initially skipped what I was sure would be the most interesting parts (the Rat Pack, the Kennedys, the Lost Weekend) because I’d had enough, and jumped ahead to her death. I couldn’t believe the treatment he gave it, so I went back and read what I’d skipped to see if I’d missed some justification for the conclusions. I had not.
Yes, my interest may be morbid, but in my own defense, I also like true crime. Marilyn’s death remains so mysterious but the author skims right over it. After endless imagined or third-hand conversations, interviews with people only peripherally involved in her life, detailed descriptions of what she was wearing, allusions on virtually every page to her vulnerability and mental illness and despair and emotional spirals and loneliness, she’s a poor-little-lost-girl-victim all the way, over and over, okay, okay, I get it, and then the last chapter is like, “Marilyn was found dead from a drug overdose. Lots of contradictions and different theories. Ignore the suspicious stuff because I said so. Accidentally or intentionally, she did it herself. So sad. Legend, icon, live forever in our hearts, blah blah blah. The End.”
Since I was lying around feeling lousy, nursing a sinus infection/allergies/spring crud, I decided to continue being unproductive and turned to YouTube clips. Yes, she did have a certain something, a fascinating blend of innocence and sophistication. We’ll never know if she could have become a good dramatic actress, but she certainly had a gift for the sexy and funny. All glammed up she was the quintessential movie star but au naturel her beauty was ethereal. The woman was stunning, and cameras loved her. (Some of her nude shots don’t even try to cover a surgical scar, and I appreciate that.)
Movie clips led to Marilyn documentaries, the conspiracy stuff. Good Lord, I’d never known. What really gets me is the story of how she was found: The housekeeper became alarmed when Marilyn’s door was locked, she called the doctor, he came over, he looked through the window of the French door to her bedroom, saw her lying face down with the phone in her hand, he broke the window and reached in to open the latch so he could get to her. Fine, but now Google photos of the house. (1) Where she was lying on the bed, Marilyn would not have been visible through the window at that angle; there’s a bureau or something with stuff piled on it, in the way, and (2) no intelligent person would reach through that broken window; you’d shred your hand and arm.
That’s just for starters. Yes, innuendo and rumor are one thing, but suspicions raised by officials and forensic science are quite another. Those officials’ statements and crime scene reports are not even referenced. What about the later statement that none of the interior doors in the house had locks, including the one to her bedroom? What about the assistant district attorney who says that Marilyn’s organs and other samples and slides disappeared, that what tissue analysis was done was almost perfunctory? What about her completely empty stomach and the lack of any water glass at the scene? What about the claims that bruising and lividity indicated her body had been moved after death? (And if you look at the “death” photo, that shows her lying face-down on the bed, that lividity is clearly visible.) What about the missing diary? What about the Hollywood cop who stated that on the evening of Marilyn’s death, he’d pulled over a car driven by Peter Lawford with Bobby Kennedy in the passenger seat, even though Kennedy was supposedly in San Francisco that night? Rumors of the FBI, the CIA, the mob? Only some of that is here, and it’s glossed over and dismissed out of hand.
There’s a lot floating around out there; the only conspiracy I didn’t find online is that she faked her death and is off somewhere living it up with Jimi Hendrix and Elvis. And I understand how it is. One person says this, another says that, the first person later says another thing, and things contradict other things. People misspeak during trauma, perhaps remember differently later, misjudge times and whatnot. Memories fade after 50 years. I get that. But it’s one thing when a conspiracy blogger says “research shows” without citing that research; I expect better from a journalist.
This book has a lot (a lot) of information about Marilyn’s relationships with her mother and half-sister, other friendships, her marriages, her movies. The author hammers on indications that she was borderline paranoid schizophrenic. But as far as her death is concerned, and life circumstances that contributed to it, it’s hardly definitive. Not when the writer doesn’t address discrepancies, justify conclusions, or cite sources.
I’m quite annoyed that this is the Marilyn biography I chose to read. We can call it my Lost Weekend.
P.S. My daughter and I just watched The Seven Year Itch in its entirety. Loved it.
P.P.S. A good friend of mine is adamant that he saw Marilyn’s ghost at the Hollywood Roosevelt. I believe him.
My mom and I were bashing our fake president one day when Mom pronounced Ivanka with a flat A, as in apple. I said no, Mom, it’s i-VAHN-ka, and Mom replied, “I-vank-a Stank-a.” Oh Mom, I love you so much.
I wasn’t going to read this book. I am already so utterly sick of this White Trash White House, with its 14 new contentious/sordid/idiotic headlines every morning. I changed my mind when I read that the Pussy Grabber in Chief sent a cease-and-desist letter to the publisher, in his typical wannabe-dictator-and-screw-the-Constitution style. Then I almost actually bought a copy, figuring it was the most patriotic thing I could do, but in the end I couldn’t make myself shell out 17 smackers that could, based on any possible agreements the author had with his sources, end up in any of these slimeballs’ pockets. So I patiently worked my way up from #1,947 on the waiting list at my library. No joke.
And here I am. Wiser? Who knows. I figure anybody should take this with a margarita-rimful of salt. More depressed? Certainly. More convinced we’re all going to die? A bit.
There’s a lot of dish here, but not the fun salacious-gossip kind of dish. Ugly, moronic, appalling dish that showcases just how badly eroded the Republican party has become over the last 30 years (I am a recovered Republican, finally got disgusted and jumped ship after Dubya’s first term, and who’da thunk I’d be missing him?). Wolff is an engaging enough writer, and his probes into Trump’s psychological state feel absolutely correct. Still, the whole book has a slapped-together, not-entirely-edited feel that isn’t helped by the cheap paper and the (satisfyingly) unflattering photo on the cover. The takeaways are even more alarming than what you read in the news: Trump himself is a childish narcissist who is bored by, you know, policy, doesn’t read, and is influenced most by whoever he last spoke with. The real evil here is Steve Bannon, followed closely by Jarvanka (the only portmanteau couple name I’ve ever actually liked; makes me think of Jar Jar Binks), who are also flaming incompetents along with virtually everyone else in the West Wing. It’s frightening.
Ultimately, the whole book is like Trump himself: An unfiltered, diarrhea-stricken bull in a china shop, somehow managing to look like a used-car salesman even in a ten-thousand-dollar suit, no real plan, instant gratification only, thrown together with enough glitter and hoo-rah to suck in the masses and make a quick buck by telling us what we want to hear.
Some of it might even be true though. It certainly rings true. I’m glad I read it, for the same reason I follow our Narcissist in Chief and his grifter family on social media–always know what the assholes are up to. But now I feel like I have a film of slime all over me. I’m going to go have a bath, and dream of Democrats retaking Congress at the midterms so impeachment proceedings will actually mean something. With a huge margarita, extra salt.
Five stars, just to push it higher and piss Emperor Hirocheeto off even more.
Bookshelves: memoir, non-fiction, politics, in-the-news, controversial, current-social-issues, feminism, women
I read this immediately after reading Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, although at that point I was tired of it all, from Wolff’s book and keeping up with current headlines. Who wants even more election upheaval? But I’d only read the author’s introduction to What Happened before I felt better. No matter what she has to say, I thought, at least what I’m reading is compassionate, considered, intelligent, articulate–everything the Trump campaign was not.
The biggest takeaway: “All or nothing” does not work when fighting for change. Reluctance to compromise can bring about defeat. The forces opposed to change have it easier. They can just say no, again and again, and blame the other side when it doesn’t happen. If you want to get something done, you have to find a way to get to yes. Hillary Clinton understands that at its core, this is how politics is done.
Critical reviews say Hillary is merely justifying herself, telling things so she looks good. Oh, like Trump–or anyone else for that matter–wouldn’t? I found her explanations of policy enlightening and her optimism refreshing. One zinger I particularly loved, when she talked about those who figure she and Bill must have some kind of “arrangement” that kept them together through the Monica Lewinsky scandal (and I paraphrase): “Yes, we had an arrangement. It’s called a marriage.”
Other critical reviews suppose that she couldn’t possibly have written this herself and done such a good job. Perhaps. But if that’s the case, at least she had the goddamn sense to hire someone who could write it. Unlike someone else who comes to mind, Mr. “Only-I-Can-Fix-It” who evidently considers a model and Twitter to be an adequate substitute for a politically qualified and experienced communications director. (Oh, whoops – now Hope is gone, too.) And the book is well-written.
Hillary recalls the harried and hectic life of the campaign trail, the career that led to the campaign, the particular difficulties faced by any woman in a professional setting and particularly politics, friendships and family, and the constant, partisan, fruitless investigations she endured. And, of course, those fucking emails, blown up by the media and James Comey to be one of the biggest, stupidest, and least scandal-worthy political scandals in the last 100 years. She owns her campaign and admits the mistakes she made and the missteps she took, and talks frankly about her shock and bitter disappointment and what it took to crawl out of bed and keep going after 11/9.
My own great-great-aunt was deep in the fight for women’s suffrage, and I was so happy to cast my vote for a woman for President of the United States. I cried the next morning when I saw the headlines, but not only because she’d lost. It was who she’d lost to. And why. James Comey has a lot to answer for. It’s true that I lean more left than right, but there are some Republican principles I support as well–and you will never convince me that the current administration is anything less than a circus. You might not like her personally, but Hillary is infinitely more qualified, in education, intelligence, experience, temperament.
This book got the bad taste out of my mouth, left me feeling a little bit hopeful, and reminded me that while we didn’t break that highest glass ceiling this time, we’re still so much closer. I still believe it will happen in my lifetime, and Hillary Rodham Clinton did a lot to get us there.
Torrey steps out the front door and into full spring. Azure sky tops the budding trees, home to birds gone mad with singing, still-ragged yard blooming. Happy to be out of bulky sweaters and boots, Torrey knows she is a vision in cream slacks and shell, draped cardigan in petal pink, neutral pumps, her favorite pink-and-gold-chain envelope bag barely still fashionable. Sunshine. Spring, finally!
Thirty minutes later she emerges from the parking garage on Pike Street into a downpour. Of course she left her umbrella at home. Of course she’s wearing cashmere and suede.
Spring? April Fool’s, silly girl.
Every week at the ranch, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a silly sun story. Up north, “sun silly” is the energetic and playful response to returning sunlight. It could also be an April Fool’s jest, a silly story, or a reaction to spring fever. Be silly and write playfully! Go where the prompt leads.”
Suck-you-in premise. Alice wakes up one day after fainting while at the gym, wondering what the hell she was even doing at a gym, worried that her tumble off the stationary bike hurt the baby she’s carrying, needing the comfort and steadiness of her love-of-a-lifetime husband, Nick. Only problem is, she gave birth to the baby ten years ago, and she and Nick are in the throes of a knock-down-drag-out divorce and custody battle over all three of their kids – none of whom she can remember. And to add insult to injury, she’s not 29, but staring down the barrel of forty.
One little bump on the head and ten years of her life are gone. Poof. Amnesia is not quite as cool as daytime TV would have us think.
Alice’s journey as she tries to put all the pieces together is hilarious on one hand and heartbreaking on the other. Who are these miraculous and frustrating little beings she is told are her children? What happened with Nick? Who is this Gina woman? Has she already slept with this guy she’s apparently dating? Why do she and her sister barely speak anymore? Why does she have such a piece of work as a best friend? How does anyone find time for all these projects and committees? And what in God’s name was she doing in a gym?
I admit, I was rooting for Alice and Nick to remember all the wonderful things about each other that brought them together, to remember what’s important and that you have to work to hold on to love in the midst of making careers and raising children. At the same time I was fully prepared to be disgusted if Moriarty had tied things up with such a neat and facile bow.
Fortunately, she didn’t do that. Alice’s memory comes back. Not just the good stuff, but all the stuff. It’s true what they say, that you can’t go home again. But sometimes we can all use a slap-you-upside-the-head mirror to view our lives and those we love.
“I recommend you start your foreign language requirement right away,” the department assistant says. “You need three quarters so you don’t want to leave it too late.”
“Huh.” Jane looks down at the catalog. French, her nemesis. Couldn’t get it in high school; no reason to think anything’s changed. “No Italian?” she asks hopefullly. Italian is so beautiful.
Movement in her peripheral vision draws her eye: Two people entering the language office, hands fluttering like birds, fingers flying.
It’s a sign.
Jane double-checks the catalog for confirmation. “American Sign Language. That’s what I want to take.”
Every week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about fingers that fly. Think about the different ways we use our fingers and what happens when we add speed. Go where the prompt leads.”
“You’re awful cocky, considering it’s only luck we’re in a no-fault state and I didn’t hang you out to dry instead of the other way around,” Allan says sweetly, handing her this month’s check. “Luck and ancient housing design.”
Torrey narrows her eyes at him.
“Oh, Torrey, baby, I knew you were screwing around from the the day it started. Your obsession with that old dump of a house, I’da thought you’d know not to have private phone conversations sitting next to the heater vent.”
Torrey feels her eyes widen before she can stop them, turns her face to try to hide the flush flaming up to her hairline, but Allan’s already walking back to his car, laughing and slapping his knee theatrically.
The fates of several very different people meet when a troubled teenager with an attitude is dumped on the rez from her father’s car, and a desert rat steps in to help against his better judgment, as the young girl makes a play for money by trying to expose the desert rat’s hidden identity. A blogger/journalist shows up right in time to be caught up in the showdown between the modern and the traditionalist members of the tribe and the fallout from the trophy-hunt killing of a shapeshifter.
This is a suck-you-right-in tale, rural-fantasy rather than urban-fantasy because of the setting. The characters are compelling, the plot rich, with lots of interwoven threads.
My only complaint was that throughout the teaching moments, when the tribal elders or the shaman would talk about principles of Native belief, the younger tribe members never knew what they were talking about, didn’t understand, had to have it explained again. If they grew up as traditionalist tribal members, they’d surely had exposure to and grasp of the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of the Red Road…wouldn’t they? They all acted as if they’d never heard of shapeshifting or sympathetic magic or spirit animals or dreamwalking. I surmise it was the author’s way to incorporate exposition, but it left me feeling like these people just weren’t all that bright. I found it awkward.
That aside, though, very good read. The real jewel here is the setting, a fictional Native reservation in Arizona, reminiscent of Chelly Canyon. Under de Lint’s pen, the Painted Lands come alive in all the stunning glory that is the desert, and made me incredibly homesick for my own desert home.
Jane jerks awake, the dream still strong. She’s scraped her fingertips against the rough concrete floor before she remembers there is no lamp. No bed, no matching nightstand, no electricity at all. Just her sleeping bag on the cold floor of the abandoned house she squats in.
The dream had felt so real. Safe in her bed. Her roses outside the window. Her house.
Follow your dreams, they said; it makes life rich. Except when you end up losing it all. She’d moved here with such high hopes. Now she knows that sometimes what’s over the horizon should stay there.
Every week at the Ranch, Charli hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using the theme ‘follow your dreams.'” More great flashes from other writers are at the link.
Bookshelves: ya, those-meddling-kids, mystery, crime, thriller, multiple-povs, epistolary, pnw
I got some pretty heavy heebie-jeebies from this story of a bright, pretty, spirited young girl named Kayla who is abducted one night while working at her job at a pizza place in the Pacific Northwest. As it happens, my own wonderful, bright, pretty, amazing young daughter is named Kayla and she works at a pizza place in the Pacific Northwest.
Yeah, that totally wasn’t creepy or anything.
It’s a testament to the author’s talent that I kept reading. This is a fast-paced YA mystery-crime story that adults can get into as well. I read the whole book in a single day. I like books with multiple pov’s. I like epistolary bits. Good plotting, well-drawn characters, page-turning pacing. Good stuff.
The extra helping of weird was totally not the author’s fault. I will read more of her books, as I quite liked this one and I’m happy to have discovered another author I enjoy. Unless, of course, the next Henry book I read somehow has something awful happening to a devastatingly handsome young librarian who’s preparing to defend his master’s thesis and has the same name as my son. I mean, I like it when things get weird, but there are limits. 😉
The mindless chatter of two dozen people washes over Jane’s head, normally a wall of sound to hide behind but today, something to navigate. She balances her paper plate of cake – carrot, with cream cheese frosting, a favorite – careful not to jostle as she makes her way to where Barbara sits, queenlike, amid bona fide paralegals.
“I’m so sorry to hear Marianne is leaving,” Jane plunges in as Barbara glances up. “Are you accepting applications for her position?” She smiles brightly even as Becca’s eyes shoot daggers from across the room.
One woman’s going-away cake is another woman’s chance.
Every week at the Ranch, Charli hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about carrot cake. It can be classic or unusual. Why is there cake? How does it feature in the story. Go where the prompt leads.”
I selected this for my 2017 Reading Challenge (yes, I know we’re well into 2018; I’ve been busy) because I like steampunk and wanted to read the book credited with starting it all. Plus, I love love love time travel.
I am very disappointed, and I feel like I shouldn’t be, which is why I read as far as I did. There’s a lot packed in here–time travel, Egyptian gods and magic, gypsies, a combination bodysnatcher/werewolf, the girl-dressed-as-a-boy (romantic interest later on, no doubt), Coleridge and Lord Byron, homunculi, organized rival bands of beggars like Oliver Twist meets West Side Story, a demented clown on stilts. But for all that, there’s no urgency, nothing compelling. I don’t care about the characters.
Having our hero stuck in Regency England could be fun, but there’s no related conflict. No figuring out how to make tea in an 1810 kitchen, no trying to explain his Gore-Tex and Ray-Bans–the author gives him convenient little saves that keep him from all that (he comes through in period costume and is promptly robbed of his clothes anyway; he is given the almost deus ex machina disguise of a deaf-mute beggar so no one will hear his modern, educated, American speech). He doesn’t even seem to want to go home all that much. He’s a gamepiece being moved about a board, no feeling, no desire.
I see no steampunk elements at all beyond, possibly, a pair of springloaded shoes. There is no science or technology; the time travel and the homunculi are accomplished with magic. Shoes are not enough. I was expecting steampunk.
I never gave all that much thought to mansplaining until recently. I’d picked up on the word and knew what it meant but that was about it. I couldn’t even remember running into it all that much with the notable exception of a then-husband (who shortly became an ex-husband) telling me that giving birth can’t possibly hurt all that much and I should stop making a big deal out of it. But we didn’t even have the term “mansplain” back then. He was just a horse’s ass.
Until Manny McMansplainer came to work for me a few weeks ago, not hired by me but under my direction and my training, in what is now a two-person office. You have no idea how much I wish for a third person now, as both a foil and a witness.
And just in case you’ve been living in a cave (which sounds marvellous and I’m jealous), or you pay zero attention to the latest buzzwords (very sensible), mansplaining is when a man explains something to a woman in a manner that is condescending, patronizing, and often about which she knows as much or more than he does. Examples include a man telling a woman something about her own body or experiences as a woman, or explaining a basic principle of motion to a woman, because a pretty little thing like her would certainly know nothing about that, no matter that the pretty little thing has a doctorate in astrophysics.
HIM (THE NEWBIE): We can hook up this other computer and get it working. I’ll go ahead and do that for you.
ME (THE OFFICE MANAGER): We can’t hook it up yet. We need another switch. I’ve ordered one.
HIM: There’s one in that spare box of cables and stuff.
ME: That’s a router. I’ve discussed it with I.T. and have ordered a switch.
HIM: [without warning, unplugs my network thus zapping my unsaved spreadsheet out of existence, rummages through the McGuyver box, bangs around under my desk, unplugging things and plugging them in again, for several minutes]
ME: [sits back from my desk, arms folded tightly across my chest, sipping tea, tapping my foot, watching in amused and judgmental silence]
HIM: [backs out from under my desk, bumping his head hard enough that I hope for blood]: Huh. This isn’t a switch. It’s a router. We need a switch.
ME: Yes. I know.
HIM: Well. Huh.
ME: Fucking wanker. [I didn’t actually say that.]
ME: Please feed documents in the scanner in groups of no more than 10. There’s a glitch in the FTP that means I often have to manually correct dozens of them after they’re scanned in. Feeding small batches is a good workaround for that.
HIM: But the paper feeder takes up to 50 pages.
ME: The paper feeder isn’t the issue. The FTP is the issue. It glitches with large batches of papers and takes me a lot of time to fix manually. I need papers scanned in bunches of 10 so it doesn’t do that.
ME: File Transfer Protocol. If papers are scanned in smaller batches it’s less likely to glitch and I spend much less time making manual corrections.
HIM: Well, I don’t see why. The paper feeder takes 50. [puts a bonkzillion papers in feeder and presses the start button]
ME: [presses the cancel button and pulls papers out] I. Said. Scan. Them. In. Batches. Of. Ten. That’s how I want it done.
HIM: [sulks rest of day]
ME: What are you, six? [Okay, I didn’t really say that either]
HIM: This subpoena came back from skip trace asking you if we can serve this guy at this local address if the resident has power of attorney, but the guy actually lives in another state.
ME: I don’t believe we can. Please email in-house counsel and explain the problem, see what he says.
HIM: Well, I think we can serve it.
ME: Why do you believe that?
HIM: Well, whenever service members are deployed–deployed is when you’re sent from your home base to actual action–
ME: I know what deployed means.
HIM: Oh, good. They have to sign a power of attorney before they ship out.
HIM: And part of my job in the Army was to pull power of attorney from soldiers’ files and transmit then to JAG. JAG is the legal department.
ME: One issue we have here is venue. Generally collections cases have to be filed in the jurisdiction where the defendant lives. If this guy doesn’t live in this state, the plaintiff’s attorney may have to dismiss the case and refile it in the proper court.
HIM: Well, if he’s in the military, he might not live where his home of record is.
ME: Correct. Serving someone on active duty has special procedures. My process servers have good relationships with the base legal departments. But we don’t even know if this defendant is in the military, and we don’t know what powers this POA grants.
HIM: Power of attorney gives the person power to do anything the person themselves could do. We can serve this on the POA.
ME : Of course. Please, allow me to bow down to your superior expertise, since you used to pull documents out of a drawer and mail them somewhere else and now you’ve worked here for five whole weeks.
[Okay, that’s something else I didn’t really say]
ME: [dead stare]
ME: Well, Mr. Manny McMansplainer. I’ve been a certified paralegal for more than 20 years. I’ve drawn up and worked extensively with estate planning and powers of attorney, including general ones, durable ones, durable general ones, health care ones, limited ones, special ones, and springing ones. I’ve worked on contracts and on breach of contract and money damages cases, both plaintiff and defense. I’ve arranged for service of process for hundreds of cases and ascertained it was done correctly. I’m well-versed in the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act, the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act, and state law on process service. I’ve run this branch office of our litigation services company by myself, with glowing reviews, for several years. And with all that, I am still not expert to make the call on this situation. It needs to be handled by someone who’s actually licensed to practice law. Please kick it up to in-house counsel.
ME: I hate you.
[Okay, I didn’t actually say that either. But I thought it REALLY REALLY REALLY LOUD.]
And then there’s general rudeness, which may be misogyny or may be simple douchiness but given his other propensities, I’m going with more mansplaining. He talks over me when I’m conversing with one of my process servers. When I’m on the phone with someone, he comes over and leans in close to the mouthpiece and starts talking very loudly, interjecting himself into a conversation he could only hear one side of.
I have not simply put up with it. I have been assertive and direct. “Please don’t do that” and “Actually, that’s not correct” and “I was talking, and I’m going to finish what I was saying” do not penetrate beyond the moment.
My dutiful and devoted son, Monster, has promised that in the event I snap , he will establish a GoFundMe for my legal defense.
Please be generous, dear readers.
I love this mansplaining skit with Hillary Clinton and Jimmy Kimmel. Hillary, you have a fun, sharp sense of humor and I wonder if you’d have appealed more if you’d let it show more. Really. You should smile more, hon.
(In case the video doesn’t stay embedded, which happens to me all the time in WordPress, here’s the link.)
Becca finishes her lunch, reluctant to go back to the office and forsake the cool, green quiet of the cemetery, when movement stops her short.
Workmen are returning to the scene of the funeral, the mourners long gone to someone’s house, gone to vegetarian quiche and cake and punch and discreet nips of whiskey. Becca peers through the trees as the workmen load stands and vases of flowers into a van, followed by the slender podium they surrounded, then return to the graveside, a small, right-orange earth-mover waiting behind them.
She hears the squawk of machinery, sees one of the men operating a lever, the casket moving lower, then stopping, the man gathering straps that had been hidden under the casket, misstepping at one point to sacrilegiously stand on the coffin, flowers sliding off as he wobbles for balance.
Well, no wonder they rush everyone off before they actually lower the casket into the ground–how very industrial burial has become, with its cranes and backhoes! Definitely cremation when her time comes.
The Six Sentence Stories flash fiction linkup and blog hop has been handed off to Girlie on the Edge. Many thanks to Ivy for the work she’s done hosting SSS, and I’m hoping she’ll now have time to write some sixes! I’ve had a blast with Ivy and I’m looking forward to Girlie. Feel free to join us; we have a lot of fun. (This week’s cue was “crane.” I know my take on it is a little weird but that’s what happens when you have a weird dream after trying to write something all evening. Go where the Muse takes you.)
I knew very little about this case going in to this book. I was 12 when Patricia Hearst was kidnapped and all I remember of anything political during that pre-CSPAN era was being extremely put out when the Watergate hearings preempted my favorite TV shows for, like, ever.
The basic facts: In 1974, heiress Patricia Hearst was kidnapped by a radical guerrilla organization calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army, appeared to begin sympathizing with them and joined them as a soldier, committed numerous crimes as their member, then defended herself at trial by claiming she had been brainwashed and went along with them because she feared for her life.
The basic question: Was Patricia Hearst, in truth, a victim of Stockholm Syndrome?
In the nomenclature of the times, what a trip. This exhaustively researched, unputdownable analysis of the entire case is a vibrant portrait of 70’s San Francisco and the Berkeley counterculture well-set in historical context. Factoid 1: The police shootout with the SLA in Los Angeles remains one of the biggest in American history and was the first instance of a live broadcast of breaking news. Factoid 2: The 2010’s and the 1970’s share similar sociopolitical goings-on, including economic woes, highly active movements for gender and racial equality, mistrust of the government, wealth, and the “Establishment.” The years 1972, 1973, and 1974 averaged 1,987 domestic bombings per year with an average of 24 people killed each year. Now we don’t have bombings; we have mass shootings. I’m not saying they’re directly parallel, but I think it’s interesting and would like to know more about it.
The drawback is that Patricia herself refused to cooperate with Toobin as he researched and wrote the book, but I feel he did his best to present her claims regardless and to keep his account judicious. Toobin used not only Patricia’s own memoir Every Secret Thing as source material, but transcripts of hours and hours of interviews she gave to others, interviews with hundreds of officials, witnesses, and people who knew her personally, FBI and police case documents, attorneys’ papers, private investigators’ reports, and court testimony to fill in what Patricia herself would not tell him.
If you don’t know much about the case and want to draw your own conclusions, stop reading this review and read the book instead. I recommend it highly. My own opinion follows.
So. Was Patricia Hearst brainwashed? Only she will ever know for sure, but I seriously doubt it.
I think she was a rich-girl rebel. At 16, she hooked up with her 23-year-old teacher, who turned out to be the fiance possessed of such incredible dickheadedness during the kidnapping and aftermath. I think that once she realized the SLA did not intend to kill her, that they were willing to accept her as one of their own, she took the whole thing as a lark. I think Toobin nailed it when he wrote that Patricia Hearst was sensible to the moment and always saw exactly where the butter on her bread was. I call bullshit, Patty, for the simple reason that I would have been the same way. I was also a self-centered, rebellious twit, easily blown by any wind, a sucker for the glamorous and the shocking, and embracing what was most expedient for me at any given time. For a period of roughly four days when I was 19, I thought Scientology was cool. Revolutionaries do have a romantic draw, and Che Guevara was hot. I get it. So, I see you, Patty, because if I’d been in your shoes, I might well have done everything you did, and for all your wrong reasons. At least I can admit it.
I understand the theory of Stockholm Syndrome and don’t deny it out of hand. I remained open-minded throughout the descriptions of Patricia’s time with the SLA and tried to put myself in her shoes. The entire time I read I kept asking myself, was she brainwashed? I doubt the SLA capable of it, honestly; they reminded me of the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. They were led by a black man who fancied himself the general of a black army but managed to recruit no black members, they had no clear agenda, they were so whack that other radical left organizations shunned them, they didn’t even know what they intended to do with Patricia once they had her. Months later, as she fled the manhunt during a cross-country drive with sympathetic people unrelated to the SLA, Patricia steadfastly refused their offers to help her get home. She refused to go home when the SLA told her she should go home. I laughed out loud when one kidnapper compared holding Patricia hostage to O. Henry’s The Ransom of Red Chief.
But…was she brainwashed? In fear for her life?
I can buy it through the Hibernia bank robbery. That could have been the test Patricia said it was, the first time since being taken that she was out in sunshine and fresh air, surrounded by armed kidnappers who said they’d kill her if she looked at them cross-eyed. The problems come up after that, when she was no longer under watchful and unblinking eyes, out and about buying groceries and stealing purses and casing banks on her own like any normal urban guerrilla does all day.
The turning point for me was the shootout at Mel’s Sporting Goods, when two comrades went in to shop and Patricia was left alone in the car, with a crapton of weapons and the keys in the ignition, and she chose not only to stay but to narrowly miss killing at least two bystanders while providing covering fire for her comrades.
The clincher was that her Stockholm Syndrome seems to have magically cured itself virtually overnight once she was arrested, looking down the barrel of life in prison and realizing how much she’d missed mascara and not eating horsemeat. Only then did she say she was terrified and browbeaten the whole time and start referring to the SLA as “them” instead of “us” and drop her brother-in-arms-lover like a hot rock. Turns out the life of a revolutionary is not really all that glamorous, I guess.
And I’m not angry that she came out of her trial pretty sweet or that her lawyer got her immunity for a second bank robbery that included murder. The lawyer is supposed to get the best deal possible for the client, and that’s what her lawyer did. But it’s galling to hear her claim she was persecuted because her name is Hearst and the “fascist pigs” were only after her, and then to remember that only the bourgeoisie she claimed to despise have access to top-drawer lawyers and two presidents, one for a sentence commutation and the other for a full pardon.
Brainwashed? Under duress? Ultimately, the only evidence I saw that Patricia was not doing what she wanted to do is her own say-so; every single other circumstance and witness says otherwise.
I considered reading Patricia’s book for balance but then I watched (painfully, because I cannot stand Larry King) a lengthy interview where in her country-club-eye-rolling-I’m-so-terribly-bored-by-all-this-daahling diction, she brushed off her own actions and refused to take a single iota of responsibility for anything while lambasting other SLA members for exactly the same thing. I think that anyone with the introspection capacity of a gnat, who had taken part in the things she did, would feel bad, feel guilty, feel ashamed, feel terrible about it, whether they were under duress or not. She doesn’t. She is completely without affect and shows not a whit of remorse. Victim all the way. Ugh. I still might read her book at some point, but right now I feel I’ve heard enough.
YMMV of course, and if you believe her story, I don’t blame you. Patricia Hearst is a chameleon, if nothing else. Read it.
Jane bends to scatter crumbs from her morning muffin. Will Edgar come today?
Ravens. Birds of Apollo and Odin, messengers from these gods of prophecy. Harbingers of death and loss. She can’t lose much more. She’ll feed her raven instead; give him a name.
Flapping heralds Edgar’s arrival. He pecks his breakfast, fixes his unnerving gaze on her. He hops aside and she sees it.
She edges forward but Edgar has already retreated, perching on the fence. She stoops closer, in awe. A ring, gold in color only, plated finish well-scraped.
“Yes, Edgar,” she laughs. “I love you, too.”
Every week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts a flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a raven. It can be in nature or used to describe humanity as a metaphor. Follow the bird. Go where the prompt leads.”
This would have been five dazzling stars if not for some stylistic gripes.
The first is in the floor, such as “He sat down in the floor” or “The water spilled in the floor.” The first couple of times I thought they were typos that are annoyingly typical in e-books, but then I noticed its consistent use. Google tells me this is a colloquialism local to North Carolina. I can appreciate dialects, but I dislike stumbling over things and this one is, to me, nonsensical. If something is “in the floor,” I think it is inside the goddamn floor, like soaked-in liquid or ground-in dirt. It’s the difference between in the ground and on the ground, or on the bed and in bed. This was as annoying to me as Laura Lippmann’s Baltimoreon colloquialism “I am a police,” which I bitched about here.
My other gripe is about McCarthy’s disdain for apostrophes. Googling around, I read that he dislikes “cluttering up the page with unnecessary marks.” I take exception. When you omit apostrophes in can’t and won’t and we’ll then you’re using the entirely wrong goddamn word, and the apostrophes are hardly unnecessary clutter. McCarthy’s language is poetic and lyrical and beautifully archaic at times, and it interrupts a truly mesmerizing flow when I have to go back and reread the phrase or sentence because it doesn’t make sense as written. It’s like walking through a familiar room and constantly stubbing my toes and barking my shins because some madman just decided to move the couch into the doorway. Artsy-fartsy literary pretensions like this are, um, pretentious.
Other reviewers were also irritated by the lack of quotation marks around dialogue. I suspect these are more of what McCarthy deems unnecessary clutter, but Margaret Atwood uses this device to particularly good effect and it didn’t bother me here.
Now that we’re past my gripes, all I can say about this book is — wow. I mean, wow. I cannot remember ever reading a book as bleak and hopeless. McCarthy’s use of language lends an eerie beauty to the endless gray desolation of his post-apocalyptic world. There isn’t much plot to this setting- and character-driven story, and there doesn’t need to be. The deceptively simple repetition of days and nights and ash and cold and hard-won survival and persevering love is where its power arises. It’s stunning.
If you are a fan of dystopian fiction, this book is not to be missed. Perhaps the style choices will not irritate you as they did me.
Jane blinks as the man comes fully into the bus stop shelter. His open shirt flaps in the winter breeze, his chest white and cold-looking, ribs like slats. But the shirt looks starched and his trousers are sharply creased. A wool coat is clamped to his side, under one arm. He sets a strapped attache case onto the bench, buttons his shirt, produces an already-knotted tie and slides it into place. He smooths his hair, his neatly trimmed beard. Puts on the coat, slips the attache strap onto his shoulder, checks the posted metro schedule. His shoes glow with polish. Mr. Businessman, just another commuter waiting for his connection.
Jane’s seen this guy before, every time finishing his dressing as he arrives at the stop. She looks around at an area she already knows too well. Blocks away from the nearest homeless camp. There’s no gym nearby; only dirty concrete buildings nestled into industrial yards full of equipment and unidentifiable junk. She looks at her own barely-pressed self, trying hard to look like anything other than what she is. If he’s homeless too, he’s pulling it off a lot better than she does.
Then she spots the battered booth back across the median, behind them.
This bit is in response to Carrot Ranch’s monthly #twitterflash challenge. February’s cue: “Write a 200-word story (give or take on the words) incorporating the theme of congruency.” The guy in this story is real. I can’t figure him out and decided to plunk him into Jane’s world. I can’t remember the last time I saw a phone booth, though.
1. I kept hearing Sheryl Crow singing, “This is the movie of the screenplay of the book about a girl…” The story-within-a-story-within-a-story of this book is like an Escher drawing.
2. The story goes that Get Shorty was Leonard’s revenge on Hollywood culture in general and Dustin Hoffman in particular. After Leonard did endless rewrites of a proposed script for his book LaBrava at Hoffman’s insistence,Hoffman ultimately bailed on the project, leaving Leonard unpaid for all his work. Get Shorty is all sly and smiley about it, but it’s still exactly why you don’t piss off writers. They will put you in a book. I have no particular dislike for Dustin Hoffman, but it all makes me happy.
3. The good guy is a mob-connected shylock. I like antiheros.
This is Elmore Leonard doing what he did best: Insanely good dialogue, one-of-a-kind characters who stay with you, a run-for-the-money romp, and corkscrew twists you don’t see coming. Good stuff.
Jane feels her heart plummet to the soles of her feet at the thought of it, of him, this good-looking and funny and warm guy, this young guy, his eyes smiling at her, waiting for her to say yes, I’d love to have dinner with you. And then her stomach roils at what his reaction must surely be when he finds out — and he will find out, because how do you keep it a secret, that you are such a loser who’s squatting in the basement of an abandoned house?
So very many things are already almost unnavigable when you’re homeless, and now this too. Romance is, indeed, smoke from a distant fire.
This book isn’t quite getting me there. But I didn’t set out purposely to read it, don’t feel like I was drawn in by false hype, so there’s room for forgiveness. My husband found it abandoned on a depot bench while he was waiting for my train and grabbed it for me because I love books. I’ve found some good books in bus seats and the like – a tattered copy of the I Ching comes to mind – but this one was a bust.
It started out well, even if it was a very Stephen King-ish mashup of The Stand and Firestarter and The Dead Zone, even it was very trope-ish with the magical child, the father-figure-protector, the psychic black holy woman. I was enjoying it. Then about a third of the way in – bam, that world is gone and we’re rocketed forward a hundred years or so, leaving behind the well-drawn characters struggling through the military-virus-fuckup-apocalypse to build a new world. WTF? I liked those characters. I wanted to see where they went, how they pulled it all off. And I could have kept with it and even put up with vampires from anyone other than Anne Rice, if the new setting and the new characters had been as compelling, but they weren’t. The new characters are numerous yet two-dimensional, and the pacing is bogged down. I put the book aside after an evening’s reading and never cared enough to pick it up again. (To be fair, I had an Elmore Leonard novel on deck and it’s tough to compete with the Duke.)
Which is not to say that Justin Cronin is utterly unskilled as a writer, because he’s not. He can create a realistic setting, can turn an evocative phrase. Other people loved this book. Perhaps I’d like one of his non-genre novels.
I will leave this on another metro bus, that it may continue its journey and hopefully find its way to someone who can appreciate it.
“Well, at least you got out of it. You corrected your mistake.”
“That marriage wasn’t a mistake,” Jane says.
The counselor raises her eyebrows.” Oppression, abuse…how was it not a mistake to marry a man like that? Not that I’m blaming you. You couldn’t have known.”
“Our daughter,” Jane says. “Only he and I together could have made that wonderful human being. Without him, I wouldn’t have her. She’s the fireweed that redeems it all.”
“Your daughter? Didn’t know you had a daughter. Where is she?”
Jane looks at the floor, silent. That’s a volcano all its own.
Every week, Charli Mills hosts a flash fiction challenge at the Ranch. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes fireweed. You can use it as the plant, a flower, a metaphor or as the name of someone or something. Go where the prompt leads. Burn bright when you write.”
Jane makes her way through the neighborhood, feeling for the vibe and feeling the stares — you’re new here — wondering if she could make a home here.
Too many kids are playing in front of that place; a raucous group of young men drinks tall cans of generic beer in front of another; this next place is awash in garbage. Jane shudders and moves on.
Then she spots a quieter residence, one that is neatly kept, a tiny, wizened elderly man reading in a camp chair, small dog at his feet, even a small pot of flowers. And hallelujah, there’s some open space next to him.
No applications or deposits required to move into the homeless camp, provided you can find a decent place to pitch a tent.
Every week at Uncharted, Ivy hosts the Six Sentence Stories flash fiction linkup and blog hop. This week’s cue was PITCH. Fun sixes from other writers are at the link. Come join us!
“Okay, everybody, quiet, focus, stare at the flame, hold each other’s hands…good…good…I feel a spirit here with us. Spirit, who are you? Who are you here for?”
” I’m getting R…O…B…Robert? Robert. Yes? Robert B. Parker…oh my God… Robert B. Parker!”
“How are you Mr. Parker? Knock once if you’re resting in peace, knock twice if you’re spinning in your grave.”
I knew that Killing the Blues was the first Jesse Stone novel written by a substitute author after Robert B. Parker’s sudden death. And I did have my doubts. I came into this book steeling myself against a quite-possibly-unpleasant dose of not-RBP, although I was also hoping to be pleasantly surprised.
Not only is this not-RBP, which is forgivable because the writer is not, in fact, RBP, but it’s not even quality not-RBP, which is not forgivable. And I’m not saying I wanted someone to pretend to be RBP and succeed only in being a pale imitation, no no. I would be even more derisive than I am now. But someone of RBP’s godlike stature deserves a decent writer to carry on with his characters and his world, and that is not what we have. This is simply not very good writing at all. This is clumsy, all telling and no showing, like fan fiction written by a high-schooler. Jesse and Molly are cardboard standups of themselves, and I didn’t make it to Suit. I only made it through the first chapter.
Really, this is even worse than Whatshisbucket pretending he’s Stieg Larsson. Money grabs that exploit the exemplary craft of dead writers piss me off. But I have only myself to blame. After Go Set a Watchman and The Girl in the Spider’s Web, I swore I would not read any more of them. Live and don’t learn, that’s me.
Becca heaves her bag onto her shoulder, making sure she has her lunch, her phone, her bus pass. Another Monday. Joy.
Out of the elevator, she pauses at the door to the street, looking down.
New shoes. Brilliant new shoes. Stylish new shoes. Affordable new shoes. Comfy new shoes. She couldn’t wait to wear them. Brilliant black, blinding white. Wannabe swoosh.
And before she walks an entire block in the Pacific Northwest wet, the black and white will be gray all over. Ruined.
“…point of having shoes I can’t even wear outside,” she mutters, heading back up to change.
Each week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts a flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that features something black and white. It could be a nun in a zebra monster truck, a rigid way of thinking, a bird in a tuxedo — be imaginative and go where the prompt leads.”
I adored The Martian. I loved it so much I neglected important things like a research paper with a looming deadline and clean socks and sleep, because I couldn’t put it down. So at the same time I looked forward to reading Artemis, I dreaded it. I knew that The Martian was going to be a tough act to follow.
And I was right. The storytelling is just as good, but Jazz Bashara is no Mark Watney. I see the free-wheeling spirit, the principled criminal, the grudge-nursing, heartbroken, sarcastic introvert with the heart of gold, but the “Pants on fire!” “You take that back!” type of exchanges she often had with people were a turnoff. She carried her flip and biting remarks too far and I spent a lot of time wanting to knock her on her ass–fairly easy to do in 1/6 gravity. It felt like Weir was trying to put the spirit of Mark Watney into a female character, and it came off forced.
Still, it’s a good enough story. The science is made interesting and is simplified enough for my non-science brain to follow. I love heist stories. I think Weir gave us a realistic portrait of what life on the Moon would really be like physically – a lot to get used to and much less romantic than we tend to think of it. The pacing is good, the characters are good, and the setting is excellent. It’s an entertaining read, and I might be rating it higher if I hadn’t had the amazingness of The Martian to hold it up against.
Jane is halfway across the bridge when the panic hits. Suddenly she is gasping, hot, her hands clammy and her mouth dry. She barely catches herself from bolting backward, right into rush-hour traffic. She clutches at the fencing with one sweaty hand, her eyes drawn over the edge.
Why not? How long can she keep trying, keep losing? The open air calls beyond the chain-link mesh, beckoning to the water far below. It would be hard, and it would be cold, and then it wouldn’t. And for a few seconds, she would be flying.
Would it be so bad?
This week’s flash fiction challenge prompt at the Ranch: “In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that goes to the edge. Consider what the edge might be and how it informs the story. Go where the prompt leads.”
Jane labors out of her sleeping bag, into her jacket, out of the tent. Breath steams, frost crunches, but she smiles, fumbling pocketknife and cooler. Tasty breakfast, meat and cheese, cold frappuccino. The only way winter is a friend to the homeless–no ice needed. #Twitterflash
Over at the Ranch, @Charli_Mills and @CJaiFerry are giving us monthly #Twitterflash challenges. January’s prompt: In a single tweet, write a story about seeing coldness in a new light. Extra challenge one: Realizing a tweet’s limit of 280 characters includes spaces. Extra challenge two: Realizing the hashtag takes up 13 of those characters. Yowza!
So. I like Jesse and his department and I love Molly and Suit, and I like Paradise and the people in it, and the mysteries are entertaining, and I love RBP’s writing. But I cannot stand Jenn. I cannot stand Jesse’s obsession with this bimbo. I. Can’t. Stand. It. She annoys the living crap out of me every time I read one of these books. And every time I finish one, I’m sure that’s the last one I’ll read because I cannot take one more page of Jenn, and then I turn right around and check out the next book, hoping this time it’s what I want it to be.
Huh. Just like how Jesse is with Jenn.
Did you do that on purpose, RBP? Nice one. But it’s still pissing me off.
<checks out the next Jesse Stone novel against her will>
Jane shrinks back into her corner, trying for invisibility. Office birthdays. She hates them.
She hides behind her slice of cake, eying the other women, each one wearing fashion boots with the onset of autumn. Ankle-high, calf-high, thigh-high, like who thinks those are appropriate unless your job title is Dominatrix? Black, brown, trimmed with fur, leopard pattern, silver work, buckles. All sleek, all stylish. All expensive.
She shoves her own feet back under her chair, hoping no one has noticed the clunky black Wellies she was fortunate enough to find at the thrift store.
Her luxury is dry feet.
Every week, Charli Mills hosts a flash fiction challenge at the Ranch. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes boots. Whose boots are they, where do they go and what is their significance? Go where the prompt leads.”
TUFF – The Ultimate Flash Fiction – is a brilliant way to write. Whether it’s an entire story, a chapter, or a scene, it expands upon the strict formats I typically follow, either the 99 word challenges held weekly at Carrot Ranch, or the Six Sentence Stories blog hop hosted by Ivy at Uncharted each week.
This final contest in the Flash Fiction Rodeo consisted of five submissions total. The first was raw writing, timed writing for five minutes, total unedited draft. The second was distillation of that draft to the standard 99 words. The third challenge was to pare that down further, to 59 words. Fourth was essentially a blurb, a recap in nine words. Then we were free to stretch our legs and fill the story out in 599 words.
It was amazing. I am well used to the 99-word challenge, participating most weeks. This constraint (and that of the Six Sentence Stories) requires me to really practice the craft, learn to be concise where I can so I can get wordy when I really need to, to paint the lushest picture I can with as few brushstrokes as possible. The next part, 59 words, was hard. An entire story arc in 59 words? But I did it. Nine words wasn’t hard at all. Then back up to 599 words, Paring things down, I’m used to; expanding things out, not so much. 599 words took some work. I loved every syllable of it.
And it wasn’t just the five different submissions, oh no. Part of the challenge was to follow the archetypal hero’s story. Charli explains the hero’s journey and elixir of transformation:
The call: the opening scene in which the hero is called out of the ordinary world.
The test: the story develops conflict through tests, challenges, temptations, allies and enemies.
The cave: the story leads to a crisis, the hero’s darkest hour in the abyss of ordeal.
The transformation: survival transforms the hero who begins the journey home.
The return: the hero returns to the ordinary world with the elixir of knowing one’s own transformation.
Throughout the Flash Fiction Rodeo I’d tried to expand my horizons, to stretch myself beyond my homeless heroine, Jane Doe, and the people she shares her world with. But with the TUFF contest, Jane was irresistible. What an opportunity to flesh out her entire story arc, even I don’t intend to publish it in its entirety! So Jane is back, thinly disguised as Marlie. I have never personally experienced homelessness but it loomed in the windshield of my life not too long ago, and it terrified me. It is an epidemic in this country that breaks my heart. I donate toward ending homelessness when I can. (Nickelsville, appearing in the 599-word finished product, is a real place, a tent city named in karma-esque fashion after a heartless Seattle mayor who made life even harder for the homeless than it already was.)
I didn’t win this one either, and I don’t care. I had a ball just being there, for this final contest and the other six I entered. The winners were fantastic — you can read them here, including the prizewinning “The Sun Shines on the Half-Moon Cafe” by Liz Husebye Hartman.
TUFF Five-Minute Free-Write (No laughing! It’s hard to expose the initial writing process. Yes, I know I started with “Once upon a time.” At least it wasn’t “It was a dark and stormy night.”)
Once upon a time, there was a woman who was a talented paralegal. She worked for an attorney in a small town, for more than 15 years. But times got hard, and she was laid off from her job. She’d seen it coming, and had been looking for something new for more than a year, with her boss’ blessing. But nothing new had come her way in that time, and she had no replacement job waiting when the ax finally fell.
Casting her net wider, she soon got an offer for a position in another state. Expand her horizons, move up to the Big City, a new environment, a liberal community rich in the arts…what could be more wonderful? She happily spent money to relocate two states away, happy knowing family was a short flight away, happy for new opportunities.
The job was horrid. Miserable. She’d landed in a viper’s nest of emotional abuse and bullying, working for what she surmised was a true narcissist. After two months, she made an appointment with a job recruiter in her new city. After another month, she’d had no success. Fired. Far from home. Alone.
And the spiral downward began.
She applied for job after job, with no success. She was able to do temp work from time to time, but that wasn’t enough to keep her in rent money. She was evicted from her apartment, escaping with only a few possessions and the beat up old truck she’d intended to replace with her glittering new job.
TUFF 99-Word Challenge
“You don’t know what it’s like,” the man snarls. Fetid breath, brown teeth. “All your stupid paperwork, all smug, with your nice house to go to, your fancy clothes. But you’re clueless.”
Marlie recoils as if slapped. “You have no idea what I know,” she snaps back. “I used to make six figures a year. From there to unemployed, to suicide attempt, to the streets, until I finally got this job. And I’m grateful.” Deep breath. You’re not supposed to be mean to the clients. “I’m sorry, okay? Now let’s finish these forms, get you a place to live.”
TUFF 59-Word Challenge
Janine sips coffee. “I don’t get it. You used to have it all. Luxury apartment, Benz…now you’re in that sweathole, surrounded by deadbeats all day.”
Marlie cradles her own cup. “Ten years, I couldn’t get something at my old level. But I make a difference now. I get by.” She sips. “Sometimes you don’t make hay; you make do.”
TUFF 9-Word Challenge
Psych. I can’t find where I saved what I wrote for the 9-word part. Let’s say it was “I get knocked down, but I get up again,” with a nod to Chumbawumba.
TUFF 599-Word Challenge
“We’ve got the facts and figures for you, ladies and gentlemen, but I’ve also got the personal experience.”
Marlie pauses, takes a deep breath and a sip of water, plunges ahead before she can lose her nerve. She’s never excelled at public speaking.
“Seven years ago, I was in the same position our clients are, the same position homeless people are in all over this country. Businesses were downsizing everywhere, people being laid off. They lost their homes, their retirements, everything, through no fault of their own. I’m one of them.
“I relocated across the country when I couldn’t find something at home. And then I lost the job here. And then I lost another. I lived off my savings, and I didn’t worry. I was confident in my skills and my experience. The mantra in America is that if you’re willing to work hard, you can have anything, be anything, isn’t it? But it’s not true.”
Another breath, another sip.
“Over the next ten years, I submitted half a million resumes and applications. I’ve worked with countless different recruiters. I’ve been awarded a few temporary contract positions, but nothing went permanent like they’d promised. The long-term contracts were canceled before they ran to the end. It only took a couple of times before I learned to live frugally even though I was making six figures, because I had no guarantees. None. Why didn’t anyone want me? Why couldn’t I get anyone to hire me permanently?” Marlie shrugs. “I still don’t know.
“I hit a real down four years ago, when I’d run completely out of money again, been turned down for another sure thing yet again, and I attempted suicide. This wasn’t a ‘cry for help.’ Four hundred pills—I meant it. But I wasn’t as secretive as I thought, because a friend figured it out from across the country, called the police. I was found and saved.” She laughs, short and dry. “I couldn’t figure out saved for what, though. Things only got worse from there.”
Marlie pauses again, looks around at the legislative committee, seated with their water bottles and laptops, paying attention, unbelievably enough, to what she’s saying. Her eyes light on her boss, who nods encouragingly.
“While I was in the hospital and rehab, I was evicted from my apartment. No job, no rent. My things were put into storage and I eventually lost all of them. A friend took me in for a little while but then she moved out of town and I was left with nowhere again. And that’s when I ended up on the streets.”
“I didn’t stop trying, though. I got a very little money leftover from Pell grants by going back to school. I sold homeless-benefit newspapers. I squatted in an empty house, until I moved to a tent in Nickelsville.”
More water, more air. Almost done. “Through all of this I kept applying, kept interviewing. Finally I landed this more or less permanent job, general office help at the homeless exchange. I earn a fifth of what I used to. I can’t even afford a whole apartment, but that’s okay, because I can’t furnish it, either.” Laughter. “I take the bus everywhere and I rent a single room from a nice family in Koreatown.
“It’s all okay. Sometimes you don’t make hay. You make do. I’m making do, and I’m making a difference to people who really need it, not just lining corporate America’s pockets. If the committee will approve our proposal, these funds can give real, solid help to people like me all over the state…”
A huge thank-you to Charli Mills, blogger extraordinaire at Carrot Ranch Literary Community and lead buckaroo of the Congress of Rough Writers. I had a blast.
Sherri Matthews led the Rodeo’s Contest #7, Murderous Musings, inspired by true crime stories, intrigued by the “why” behind it all. I am fond of true crime as well. I do believe that the right tumbling of dominoes could lead any of us to dastardly deeds and the workings of the mind and heart behind such things are fascinating to me. Contrary to what it’s easy to believe, most killers are not serial killers or mass murderers, dangerous to no one but their single victim, brewed up by a set of circumstances that are just so. According to both NPR and a Scripps Howard News Service review of FBI records, approximately one-third of murders in America go unsolved. I’ve often considered how easy it would be to get away with murder if I did it right, and I’m not even the smartest cookie on the sheet. One of my NaNoWriMo novel drafts was about exactly that. As much as most killings are one-time crimes of drunkenness or passion, it’s easy to ponder how many could be carefully planned, meticulously carried out, and successfully covered up.
This contest was simpler than some of the previous ones: “Write a flash fiction in 109 words, no more, no less and weave a murderous vibe through an every-day setting, either in thought or deed.”
Reading back over my own entry, I didn’t do much weaving, didn’t turn up quite enough heat. And that’s okay. Perhaps the main reason I write flash fiction, and participate in flash fiction linkups and blog hops, is to practice my own wordsmithing and to watch how others do it–watch and learn. Other writers let their murderous musings run free and took their characters far enough, and they were fantastic. I think I would do very well not to cross some of these characters, or their creators!
I am now of a mind to reread Arsenic and Old Lace.
“Why would I know where he is? We’ve been divorced fifteen years. That was a happy day, being rid of that abusive piece of –”
“I’m just following up, Mrs. Burg. I’ve got two clients he owes child support to. He’s disappeared.”
“It’s Ms., and it’s Smith. I dumped his name when I left the state to get away from him. Try asking your clients.”
I’m asking you. Any ideas?”
Macie’s shrug can almost be heard over the phone. “There’s old abandoned mine shafts all over the place down there. And if he’s in one, I hope one of those exes had the pleasure of putting him there.”
So, here’s the thing. I didn’t care all that much for the 80’s, with the exception of Mario, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and MTV actually playing music videos. I had thin, flat hair that wouldn’t go big no matter how much hair spray I used. I don’t care for loud colors, can’t stand sitcoms in general, and I never got into hair band music. I lived my teenage years in the 70’s, playing Dungeons and Dragons and listening to better music and wearing cooler clothes, although I will admit that avocado green appliances were fuuuugly.
But this book is still just awesome. Willy Wonka meets The Matrix is right. It’s not the writing, which sometimes falls a little flat and is prone to telling rather than showing. It’s not the characters, who are standard (80’s) issue hero-cleverly-disguised-as-poor-geeky-orphan-kid, staunch-and-funny-best-friend, and super-hot-wicked-smart-love-interest. It’s obviously not the absolute saturation of 80’s pop culture with constant references to movies I’ve never watched and video games I’ve never played and comic books I’ve never read. What it is, is a grim dystopia, the year 2044, the world suffering a 30-year great depression due to damage from climate change, various nuclear altercations, and the widespread, abject poverty caused by unchecked capitalism. This dismal life is saved only by the OASIS, a virtual reality consisting of thousands of worlds and any type of magic and technology you could dream up, free for anyone to access, a gamer’s paradise and general escape from the desolation of real reality, and I can totally be down for that. If I had a billion dollars, one of the first things I’d get is a holodeck.
All of this makes a rollicking good tale, the worldwide free-for-all hunt for an Easter egg inside an incomprehensibly huge virtual reality/MMO game that will give the winner the entire Bill-Gates-ian fortune of the man who invented it. It’s a page-turning romp that may not be literary brilliance but is still written competently enough to get you there. I couldn’t put it down.
(It’s worth noting that I almost didn’t read this book, as it’s adored by a lot of the same people who love Ender’s Game, which pretty much nauseated me with its utterly unlikable Gary-Stu-little-shit of a main character and its disturbing number of scenes centered around naked prepubescent boys in the group shower. What is wrong with you, Orson Scott Card? Fellow bookaholics, if you’ve been avoiding Ready Player One because you threw Ender’s Game into the wall as hard as I did, trust me. They don’t compare.)
“…to hold you in shadow and light, in doubt and certainty, when times are hard and when they are easy…”
Richard’s sister may have legally taken his earthly possessions, but this single page covered with scribbled bits of the vows he was writing are worth more than his computer equipment and manga art collection could ever be. Vows for the wedding they would never have. Becca gives in and allows herself to weep for a minute, then flings the pages away in horror at her carelessness. She can’t even read his words now, his pages smeared with her tears.
Every week at Carrot Ranch Literary Community, Charli Mills hosts a flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about wet ink. It can be artistic, writerly, or completely off the wall. Go where the prompt leads.”
With a slam of the stairwell door, Michelle and Becca are gone. No invitation for Jane to join them, but as much as she dislikes them and can think of no one she’d want to eat lunch with less than those two, it still rankles, all the snapping orders and barking at her like she’s a dog and general condescension, no acknowledgement that she’s their co-worker and is human and might actually have a feeling or two. Not being invited to lunch, again, is really the least of it.
But then Jane sees it, shining like her own personal grail on the desktop of Becca’s Mac — the file Becca has been laboring over for the last two weeks, the electronic reams of police reports and witness statements and diagrams and photographs and medical records and deposition transcripts needed to prove their case, meticulously indexed and cross-indexed and Bates-stamped, ready for final approval and transmission to opposing counsel and the court.
It takes Jane only three clicks of the mouse before the magic words display on the screen: Delete file permanently – are you sure?
“Wages of sin, payback’s a mother, karma’s a bitch, and all that,” she mutters, and clicks Becca’s mouse once more.
Every week at Uncharted, Ivy hosts the Six Sentence Stories flash fiction blog hop and linkup. This week’s cue was “wage.” Fun sixes from other writers are here. Join us! It’s fun!