Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Winter reading

Started reading The Girl on the Train last night and was caught by the totally familiar, depressing existence of the main girl, Rachel. She's in her early thirties, takes the train to London to work every day, and likes to imagine the lives of the people she passes as the train creeps by the apartments. She's mostly interested in one particular couple who seem to have an ideal life. She calls them Jess and Jason, and imagines that they are totally in love and problem free. She's also got a fairly serious drinking problem, brought on by her loneliness. Or maybe the loneliness is exacerbated by the drinking. In any case, the drinking has led her to lose her fiancé and she finds herself becoming more and more out of control with the her consumption, having moments where she blacks out and comes to with vomit on the floor and a cut on the back of her head with no recollection of what happened. Then, one day, she sees the woman kissing another man on her patio, and later the same day, the woman disappears.

That's about where I am so far, but was most distressing to me was the drinking, because it reminded me of my drinking days and all of the shameful stories that go along with that. First, there's the shame of always drinking too much at parties or social events when everyone else seems fine with just the one glass of wine. For me, it was always like, I don't want one glass, I want all of it. Why wouldn't you want all of it? What's the point of one glass? But then most people around you seem fine with a single drink, and so there's the need to hide that desire for more and to wonder why you're so weak or different from everyone else.

Then there are the memories of the dumb thing said or done while drinking. Fortunately, I wasn't someone who liked to drink and then take crazy chances (this is the case for Rachel in the book). It didn't cause me to want to meet strangers at bars or take late night walks through the city in my bathrobe or knock on neighbors doors or call ex-boyfriends. But it did make me say things I later regretted or sometimes to cry over stupid things or to ask inappropriate questions. I cringe when I think about some of the philosophical conversations I tried to have while drunk.

Someday, I'll write about the actual incident that caused me to stop drinking. It wasn't anything dramatic (thank God), but it was startling enough for me to realize that something bad could've happened. And it didn't. And so I'm okay and that was three years ago. Now, I check out by watching Judge Judy, which is also probably not good for my brain and is also embarrassing, but not quite as unhealthy.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

No NaNo for me

Is it too early to concede that I've failed at National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)? The goal with this annual challenge is to get you to write an entire novel or most of a novel or to write at least 50,000 words, whichever comes first, in the month of November. That breaks down to about 1,600 words per day. I try to write 750 words a day and so far this month, have done that twice. Intention must count for something. I have every intention of writing every day and I get to work at least a half an hour early each morning, but often, I end up checking email, checking the sheep on my virtual farm (this is a full time job) and leaving myself ten minutes to write. For this year's writing challenge, I did write over 1,600 words a day for five days in a row, but it was at I wanted to see what it felt like to try to produce that amount of content in one sitting. I found it wasn't too difficult. It took about 45 minutes.

I started with what I thought would be a fun and easy project, a murder mystery with a female detective who is attempting to solve a string of violent murders of men throughout Philadelphia. These are young, handsome men, and their body parts are being found all over the city. But then I started to get hung up in the procedural stuff. Like, do the detectives first interview any witnesses or the people who find the bodies? Or is that the job of cops? Are detectives cops? How hard is it to become a detective? I realize that all of the answers to these questions are readily available in the universe, but I also promised myself I wouldn't drop out to the writing to Google anything. Not a word. Not even to conduct a spell check or determine the Latin word for dog. Then the second thing I realized is that I have no idea how to write a murder mystery.

So, I confess, during my non-writing time, I did look that up, and discovered that most everyone recommends that the writer know from the very beginning who the killer is, and work backwards from the climax of the story. I didn't know who the killer was, other than that I wanted her to be female. See, my original plan was to flip the switch on the typical murder mystery, which often has lovely female bodies piling up like mad. Mystery writers are prone to killing off the young and beautiful and female. Not every mystery writer does this.  Laura Lipman, a writer who I have only recently discovered, has a strong female detective, Tess Monaghan,  and the book I just finished last night had a total body count of six--four were young black men, and one of the women was, unfortunately, a female prostitute. I wonder if most mystery writers have a hard time not killing off destitute, drug addled prostitutes in their stories? So, this is what attracted me to the idea, that I would write something that was unexpected, that the victims would be hot young men, killed not by a crazy woman who had been rejected by them, but by someone whose justification for murder was more specifically cerebral. I won't tell you what my idea was for the main bad gal, but even the solution I came to has some gender bias in it that I can't seem to figure out how to erase. Okay, the hint would be that the murderer has an ethical reason for doing what she's doing, even though it's extreme. But what I'd like to do is to figure out a way to have the killer not have any of the traditional tropes--she's not killing because she feels rejected, or because she was harmed by a man in her life or because she craves love an d attention or because she's a straight up psychopath. Maybe I have to figure out more about what the motives typically are for men murderers in these stories.

If you would like to offer me a $20,000 advance to continue writing, I wouldn't say no.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Borrowed time

I almost choked on a Corn Pop the other day and thought for a second, "Oh, is this how it ends? Death by Corn Pop." Could  anyone have predicted it? Possibly my college roommates since my taste in cereal and inability to create a meal for myself has remained unchanged since those days.

And then, when I realized I was going to survive, I thought, "Oh, I have all of these extra days now, what will I do with them?" Days when I should've been dead, were it not for my coughing reflex. It seems like I should make some changes, travel to India, stop playing Hay Day, do something with my life so it will have had meaning. Today, I started that journey by ordering a large coffee with a shot of pumpkin spice in it. Taking risks, changing things for the better, getting out of my comfort zone.

And then there was another moment of realization of my mortality last night. We were watching Dolores Claiborne with Kathy Bathes and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Have you seen it? It's disturbing and interesting, about an abused woman accused of murdering her boss and her angry daughter who returns home to help her.

There's one scene where Dolores/Kathy is caring for now very old and very undignified boss and the older lady starts crying, because she doesn't want to live like anymore, not in a life filled with wash and wear nightgowns, confined to a wheelchair and soiling herself. Dolores makes her stop crying by bringing her a china pig that plays "Happy Days are Here Again," and that quiets her for a minute, but then she tries to throw herself down the stairs.  And Chap was on the footstool, sleeping and I thought, Oh, no, one of us is going to die first. It's probably going to be Chaplin. How will I survive that? Which then reminded me of that scene from the movie and book Olive Kitteredge when Olive's elderly Dachshund dies, her last tie to her dead husband, and she goes into a field and puts a gun to her head. I understand that impulse better now. Life with a dog only produces good memories and positive attachments. Unlike with humans, you don't have a history of grudges and hurt feelings; it's just joy mixed in with a teensy bit of tedium in maintaining their daily care.

I asked Dan what he thought we should do when Chaplin dies; should we make a suicide? He said, "Yes. Or we can just get a younger dog when he starts to get old."

Friday, October 16, 2015

Being frank about Frank

We watched the movie Frank, starring Michael Fassbender, though unfortunately, he is not nude in this film as he was in Shame. In fact, you don't see his face until near the end of the film, because he's wearing a giant paper mache head for most of the time. The head is cartoonish, with big blue eyes and painted on brown hair and a red-lipped mouth. Kind of like the Big Boy character except without the Brillo cream whoosh to his hair. 

The film is about this wanna-be redheaded keyboard playing musician who works in an office and lives with his parents. By an accident of fate, he ends up being asked to perform with this odd band passing through town and then joins them in the woods to make an album. Frank is the main dude in the band and the others are hostile misfits, including Maggie Gyllenhall at her frown-iest. She wears her hair in a page boy with bangs and walks around in a silky robes as if she's just stepped out of Joan Crawford's dressing room. She doesn't like the redhead (fondly nicknamed "gingerbread" by Frank) but neither do any of the band memos, at least two of whom met in a mental institute. 

In the end, the band comes apart, partially because of the insistence of the redhead that they attend South by Southwest (he's been tweeting and adding YouTube videos of the band recording and running around the woods and they develop a small but intense following), and partially because Frank is unstable. And of course, like the main character, you spend much of the time wanting to know why Frank wears this fake head and what he looks like without it. My favorite scene involved the main character realizing that Frank was in the shower, seeing his head abandoned on the floor, and tip-toeing into the bathroom to catch a glimpse of him without the head, only to have Frank pull back the shower curtain suddenly and be wearing another of the heads, covered in plastic. 

The film had artful, funny moments. Dan said it reminded him of This is Spinal Tap, the Christopher Guest mockumentary of a failing rock band, but for me, it wasn't so much a parody of the rock band documentary--it had whimsical, unexpected moments (Frank twirling on the front lawn with a stranger) and darkly funny moments (one of the band members hangs himself wearing a Frank head so that they first think it's Frank dangling from the tree), but I wasn't that interested in this kid's journey into the fantasy of belonging to a band and it seemed clear that they wouldn't make it. The last few moments were interesting--when you get to see who Frank really is and why he's opted to wear a fake head, but I am still not sure what it was about. 

Finding your own group of people who are as messed up as you? Using your creative energy to stave off your internal demons? The folly of wanting to make it big? How art in some form can save you, especially if you express it in a supportive and equally screwed up community? Paper mache heads are fun? You watch it and tell me. It's on Netflix, which tends to have some really interesting films and you don't have to pay extra to watch them, like you do with On Demand. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Mayhem and Murder and the need for more novels where the male body is at risk

Just finished a book called Mayhem but Sarah Pinborough. It's a suspense novel set in Victorian England around the time that Jack the Riper and the Thames Torso Killer were at large, murdering and dismembering women. In real life, neither were ever caught, but this book focuses on Dr. Bond, a man who helped try to solve the murders. In the novel, he's plagued by an addiction to opium and laudanum, but you get the sense that his sleeplessness and need to numb are due to this evil force that has come to England and wrecked "mayhem" (see title) on the city. The book is interspersed with real newspaper articles from the time, describing the murders. I finished that book in about four days and then yesterday, I checked out the second book in the series, Murder, joking with the librarian that the other rewrote them out of order (mayhem and murder vs. murder and mayhem--she laughed politely but didn't teem to have a clue what I was saying).

The second book also features a now sober Dr. Bond, but a new demon has come the city, and it's killing children. I really like the writing, and how the write moves among several different points of view (first person of Dr. Bond, third for other characters, intertwined with medical sports and London Times articles and letters).  I like too that the novel is written by a woman who seems to have no trouble taking up the male point of view. I feel like male writes do this often, pick up the voice of a female protagonist, but women writers don't try on the male voice as often. I admire Pinborough for that.

It also makes me think of a short story I'd like to write where all of the murder victims are beautiful young men. And the murder would have to be a woman as well, some crazed woman who has no discernible motive. Like, it's not that she was rejected by men, it's just that she kills. And she's deadly smart, despite her insanity. Because 99.9 percent of mysteries novels unravel in this way--women being killed by men for sport. The lead detective would have to be a woman who lives alone and gets obsessed by the details and has no desire for a love life of any kind, though the men she encounters seem to find her attractive and wish for her attention. Has there been a female Holmes? It must exist somewhere, right? If not, I think it should and so I will write it.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Wherein I reveal the ending to a film you were problably never going to watch anyway

We recently watched a documentary called Dear Zachary. The description appealed to me because it was about a murder and a custody battle, so like, this longer version of a Dateline or 48 Hours, but more artfully done. The film was about a man named Andrew who was killed after being shot five times by his ex-girlfriend. Whether she did it or not isn't in dispute. Andrew told his friend he was going to meet her one last time and then turned up dead. She lived 16 hours away but had driven in and cell phone records pinged in every location, showing her movement into his town of Latrobe, PA (where he was a well-liked resident doctor) and then away after the murder, and also acknowledging that she had bought a 22 caliber gun and taking shooting lesson a few days prior. And a history of violence and erratic behavior.

And so the documentary (made by one of Andrew's closest childhood friends) isn't about figuring out her guilt or innocence; it's about getting to know the victim. The friend has been a filmmaker since he was a kid, and so has lots and lots of footage of Andrew through the years, as he was an actor in many of his movies. There's also footage of Andrew giving a toast at a friend's wedding, and then dozens of interviews with the people who knew and loved him. And the parents. The parents are devastated.

The murderer, Shirley, is from Newfoundland, and somehow is allowed to get out on $75,000 bail (not a penny of which is actually eve collected), and goes back to the island. Then, the parents discover that she is four months pregnant with their dead son's baby. So, in order to get to see him, they move to Newfoundland and have to endure these weird crazy visitations with the woman who murdered their child. This goes on and on and they are loving grandparents and the baby, this chubby blue eyed carbon copy of their son, stays with him while Shirley is temporarily in jail awaiting something, and so then there's all of this film of him tottering around and scenes of him with the grandmother and Shirley, sharing time with him. In one scene, you watch this game they're playing where the adults are sitting on the floor and calling to the baby, and the baby always goes to his grandma, not his mom, as if he knows something is missing in her.

The movie is called Dear Zachary because the filmmaker's quest is to show this baby what his dad was really like, so that when he grows up, he can hear from all of these people about his dad who he will never know in real life. And then... And then I will tell you what happens next and if you want to see the film, you shouldn't continue.

And then, the mother disappears with the baby, after being again let out by a judge who finds her not to be a threat to the general public, using some twisted logic like, Well, she already killed the one person she wanted to kill, no reasons to think she will kill anyone else. She's still not gone on trial for the murder, due to different legal maneuvers, so the hope is that eventually, eventually, she must be convicted. But she vanishes, and takes Zachary with her. And then a little while later, the baby washes up on shore, eyes to sky, because she has strapped him to her chest and jumped into the Atlantic Ocean, murdering her son and killing herself. Here's when Dan got up from the couch and left the room. Here's when I clutched the sleepy dog to my chest. The parents, having lost their son to this woman, then lose their second best love, their 18 month old grandson.

What is the meaning of this? The parents survive, somehow. The dad becomes an outspoken activist for harsher legislation and writes a best-selling book about the experience. Laws change, people are fired, but their two family members are still dead, and the filmmaker has to find a new ending, so the movie becomes a letter to the parents, Dear Kate and John...

I think I might talk about this in class tomorrow, because I'm trying to convince my class that they need to be willing to change their minds about issues. They need to understand why someone might want the death penalty, or fight for incarceration before trial. Until something of this magnitudes happens to you, how can you ever expect to understand the wave of rage and grief that threaten to swallow up this mom and dad? Empathy and open mindedness, that's what I want them to strive for in this class. And what I need to do in my own writing.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Monster Speaks

Somehow during my middle school, high school and undergrad education, I missed reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (I can't even write that name without thinking about the movie Young Frankenstein where Gene Hackman keeps correcting the pronunciation of his name, "It's Frankenstein!").  In fact, the only book I can remember easing in high school was Silas Marner by George Eliot (a female writer, by the way). I wrote a paper about it or put on a play about it, or something, and I remember that the little girl's name was Eppie, and she had sausage curls to color of gold. One of my first brushes with symbolism--the gold of her curls mirroring Silas' own love of gold. But I can't recall any other books we were required to read. I read a lot anyway, so I got my Bronte and Austen from the public library or as gifts from my mom or grandma (Little Women, The Girl of the Limberlost). We probably read Mark Twain's Huck and Tom and we may have read some Conrad (not Heart of Darkness though. That's another classic I haven't read and don't want to). We did read a lot of short stories too, but books...I do not recall.

I've read Dracula a couple of times and liked it because it's got different points of views and it's scary and because Lucy dies. Frankenstein though...I started reading it this weekend and was surprised to discover that it doesn't take place in a deserted castle on a hill, there are no flashes of lightning that bring the monster to life, and the monster does not have greenish skin, a square forehead and bolts in his neck. In fact, he's very human, he speaks well, and like a gentleman. He also has only turned violent because he's been rejected by society. Did you know this? Did you know that the monster (unnamed or referred to as Prometheus in the books subtitle) could say things like, "I felt as though I had been pushed asunder by my almighty, my God, my creator" instead of only being able to say "Ugghhhh..."

Here's the story, in a nutshell: an ardent natural sciences student learns how to create life while at the university. In his dorm room, not a castle. No one ever suspects what he's doing or finds it odd that his room smells like decaying flesh. He is purposefully vague about how he re-creates life, by saying that he doesn't want others to figure it out. He then makes a man out of bones he finds in the cemetery, though this part of the story is skimmed over, so that it reads like, "The next day, I created a creature in my likeness from bones I stole and saw his limbs stir." The man he makes runs away to the woods (somehow, he makes it to Frankenstein's home town, though he has no money, no language, no knowledge of where the guy lives, no transportation and he looks like a giant freak). But forget that for a minute. He makes it this forest and then finds a hovel next to a house and learns how to speak by watching the poor people who live there. He spends most of his time watching them through a peephole. That's where I stopped for last night, but my guess is that the family will discover him someday soon and be repulsed by him and then he will have to kill them. Also, it's not scary. It's sad. and melodramatic, but not frightening.

I will probably finish it this weekend. I'll let you know if there is a surprise ending.