Great Expectations: Thanksgiving Edition

So, I’m 53% of the way through Great Expectations. And since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I figured I’d focus on what I’m grateful for, regarding my reading of this work.

I’ve realized this year, 2019, has turned out to be my introduction to several 19th century classics. All published within a 20-year span during the mid-1800s. The Count of Monte Cristo was published in 1844, Moby Dick in 1851, and Great Expectations just ten years later, in 1861. Monte Cristo and Moby Dick are both relatively fresh in my mind, so I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between the three in my “gratitude” list:

  • I’m enjoying Great Expectations more than the other two. It’s definitely funnier. Granted, I don’t think Dumas or Melville were going for comedy, but their stories could have withstood being a touch less self-serious.
  • Pip is certainly the most relatable character in the three novels. Written in the first person, it begins when Pip is just a child. So many of Pip’s experiences, as Dickens relates them, ring true and timeless. Check out this quote: “In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.”
  • Speaking of injustice and timelessness, my ire hasn’t been raised as much with Great Expectations, as with the other two. There’s no getting around Melville’s racism, especially in the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Or Dumas’s misogyny — in my numerous posts about Monte Cristo, I went on at length about how much I hated how Mercedes’s character and story line were handled. While Dickens is hardly a model of modern sensibilities — I’ve already read at least one dreadful depiction of a Jewish person — if I were to weigh the three works, I feel like Great Expectations has less to offend.
  • On a lighter note, I might be most grateful for the Serial Reader app. It’s reawakened my reading habit in more ways than one. I’ve found that I like reading on my phone so much, that I downloaded the Kindle app. I’m about halfway through Hugh Howey’s Wool series, all read on my phone. (Wool has been on my TBR list for years.)

I could go on, but I won’t. For everyone celebrating the holiday, have a happy Thanksgiving!

Great Expectations: 4%

“As soon as the great black velvet pall outside my little window was shot with gray, I got up and went downstairs” — Great Expectations, Chapter 2

So, not much has slowed down since I last posted here. I’m still struggling to find the time to put the finishing touches on The Conclusion on the Causeway, and my hopes of having it ready for public consumption before the holidays are dwindling.

But — I’ve started a new book on my Serial Reader app. I found I was missing the 15 to 20 minutes I put aside each day for the specific sort of reading Serial Reader enables. That little chunk of time is like an anchor, connecting me to my writing vocation, and helping me not drift too far on the currents of my day job and other obligations.

Up ’til now, the authors I’ve read via Serial Reader (Herman Melville, Alexandre Dumas, et al), were completely new to me. I’d never read any of their works before. I can’t say the same for Dickens. I remember enjoying A Tale of Two Cities when I read it in high school, and I remember really liking Sydney Carton.

I was considering David Copperfield, because it’s supposed to be a semi-autobiographical account of “a young man’s journey to becoming a successful novelist.” (I’m hoping to pick up a few tips.) But Great Expectations is about half the length of David Copperfield in Serial Reader issues. So I can reasonably expect to finish Great Expectations by the end of this year.

My way of managing my own “great expectations” into at least one goal I’ll be able to reach by year’s end.

The Count of Monte Cristo: 100%

Count of Monte Cristo 2002
I’ve never seen the 2002 movie version, a deficiency I plan to correct soon.

Well, that was an interesting read over four and half months. I just (finally) finished The Count of Monte Cristo on my Serial Reader app. While I can’t say I loved the book, I definitely feel enriched by the experience.

Here’s my two-sentence review: Edmond Dantes is a likeable character, the Count of Monte Cristo is not. The set-up for his vengeance takes up a boatload of the narrative, and the final pay-off for all that plot building is a mixed bag.

Since the book is really about two people, Edmond Dantes and the Count of Monte Cristo (okay, two sides of the same person, but, I’m going for theme, here); and I just gave a two-sentence review, I’ll attempt to keep up with the “two” lists.

The two characters I liked the best:

  • Maximilien Morrel: dashing, brave, loyal — I loved this guy. Though his mopeyness toward the end was very off-putting.
  • Abbé Faria: Witty, warm, full of faith — I like to believe he would not have been so bent on revenge, had he made it out of the Chateau d’If alive.

The two scenes I liked the best:

  • Chapter XXIV: “Dazzled” — When Edmond Dantes finds the treasure on the island of Monte Cristo.
  • Chapter LXXI: “Bread and Salt” — When the Count and Mercedes talk at her summer party.

Hmph. Don’t get me started on poor Mercedes. I really like the character, but I hate how Dumas ties up her story line. There’s a line in V for Vendetta, when Evey Hammond (played by Natalie Portman) says, after watching the 1934 movie version of The Count of Monte Cristo with V (played by Hugo Weaving):

Evey: …it made me feel sorry for Mercedes.

V: Why?

Evey: Because he cared more about revenge than he did about her.

Now I totally get what Evey meant.

I’m off the “two” kick now, because there are a lot of thoughts spinning around in my head, many more than two, mostly revolving around the nineteenth century world of Dumas. Slavery was legal (although not in France). Women were second class citizens. Dueling was a thing. All these things factor into the book in some way. And not as a statement, as they might if the story were written today as historical fiction. It was all just part of the story, part of the culture.

Invaluable for gaining insight into an ancestral mindset. And very troubling when regarding the legacy of that mindset.

To conclude on a more positive note, I did find the ending pretty satisfying. Of course, Monte Cristo leaves Maximilien and his betrothed, Valentine, without saying goodbye. It’s just like him to be so annoying. But he at least leaves a letter, which kinda makes up for it. I’ll leave you with that letter’s last lines:

…until the day when God deigns to unveil the future to mankind, all human wisdom is contained in these two words: ‘wait’ and ‘hope’!

 

Little Murders

Little Murders is a movie starring Elliott Gould, directed by Alan Arkin, released in 1971. It was first a Broadway play, written by cartoonist Jules Feiffer.

I’ve never seen the movie. But I have a vivid memory of seeing a local (New Orleans) production of the play when I was very young. Too young to fully grasp the dark satire underpinning the story.

About the story, here’s a brief synopsis, from Playbill.com: “Carol Newquist sees the world going to hell and taking his children with it, until the family is forced to shoot back at bullets coming through their home, in Jules Feiffer’s absurdist comedy.”

I remember it being set in a world (New York City) rife with random violence. And I specifically remember the ending, when the protagonist’s husband and brother take turns with a rifle, becoming snipers from an apartment window. I was probably younger than ten years old when I saw the play, and the depiction of senseless violence made an indelible impression on me.

According to Wikipedia, Jules Feiffer says the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the subsequent assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, were the initial inspiration for Little Murders. Both of those events pre-date me, and I was blessed to have a childhood full of love and adventure and absolutely no gun violence. So, personally, Little Murders was not a commentary on the 1970s, which were rather idyllic for me as a child. Rather, it was a terrifying prophecy of some future I did not want to witness. Or that I prayed would only exist in fiction.

Enter the very real era of mass shootings. Another vivid memory: waiting in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport in April of 1999, for an Air France flight back to the U.S., and seeing news reports (tout en francais) about something happening at a school in Colorado. I would return to a country reeling from the aftermath of Columbine.

Twenty years on, it terrifies me to write that this is indeed an era. There is no question of “if” a mass shooting will happen again. Two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Just thirteen hours lapsed between the two. Just 1,500 miles separating these two cities.

And forty-plus years since a play planted a vision of a horrible future in a child’s mind. I hate that the future is now.

 

The Creepiness of Summer

I’ll state it from the outset —  summer is my favorite season, hands-down. Even despite the oppressive heat we experience in south Louisiana, there’s something about the freedom and abundance of the season that makes it number one in my book. Lush greenery, late sunsets, blooming crape myrtles, warm breezes off the beach; these are all things I look forward to, year after year. And there’s nothing inherently creepy about any of it.

So perhaps it’s because I’m watching season three of Stranger Things, which is set around the 4th of July, 1985, that I’m thinking about the flip-side of summer. Or the “Upside Down” of summer, if you prefer. Some creepy things about summer that have occurred to me:

  • Heat stroke seems much more gruesome that hypothermia. Thinking about my internal organs cooking inside of me just sounds excruciating.
  • Necrotizing fasciitis. Caused by flesh-eating bacteria. These bacteria apparently love warm water.
  • Flying, giant, cockroaches.
  • Sad clown balloons behind chain-link fences. (In all fairness, this particular piece of graffiti in New Orleans City Park has probably been there for a few seasons. But I noticed it for the first time as I was mulling over this “creepy summer” idea, and it felt like a perfect visual).
  • Grasshoppers contemplating abandoned cigarettes. (See note above. Except that I don’t think the cigarettes or the insect will be there very long).

Maybe this stuff feels extra creepy to me because of the contrast to all the things that I love. But I certainly appreciate the duality of it all. Bottom line: I don’t resent the creepiness; in a way, it makes me embrace summer even more.

 

Starbuck

The name Starbuck fascinates me. I’ve mentioned in this space before the first time I encountered Starbucks coffee, circa mid-1980s in New York City. (see Ode to the Starbucks on Upstream) For those who remember the 1980s, you’ll know it was a time when the coffee chain was not as ubiquitous as it is today.

I was excited by the name because of Lieutenant Starbuck, the character played by Dirk Benedict in the original Battlestar Galactica. At the time, I thought the name was a great fiction, like Luke Skywalker or Derek Wildstar. (Yes, I’m going full-geek with a Star Blazers reference. One day, I’ll expound upon how influential this animated series has been to me.)

It was probably young adulthood before I realized that Starbuck is a bona fide surname. And then not long after, that a famous fictional character held the name a century before Dirk Benedict suited up in his 70s-era space opera attire. I’m referring, of course, to Starbuck from Moby-Dick. Since I’m now 37% into that tome, I’ll share with you what I’ve discovered about the surname Starbuck.

The Internet tells me there was a renowned whaling family in Nantucket named Starbuck, who likely inspired Melville in naming the first mate of the Pequod. And that the name hails from the village of Starbeck in Yorkshire. Which dates at least as far back as the 1086 Domesday Book, where it appears as Starbok, a name likely derived from the Norse-Viking “Stor-Bokki.” There’s some Internet consensus that “Stor” means great, or large in size. “Bokki” is a little less clear — it either means “man” or “river.”

Whatever it’s supposed to mean, I think it’s pretty cool that Starbuck (or some variation thereof) appears in the Domesday Book. And it kind of blows my mind that almost exactly 900 years later, I see my first Starbucks coffee shop.

Bringing it one step further, I doubt I ever would have made the connection, had it not been an affinity for the name.

Lucky 13

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

Portentous. That’s the word that comes to mind when thinking of this past Sunday, January 20. The Saints played the NFC Championship game in the Superdome, there was a lunar eclipse, or “blood moon,” later that evening, AND Husband Tim and I celebrated our thirteenth wedding anniversary.

First thing that comes to mind, honestly, is that I can’t believe I’ve been blogging for more than three years. I wrote about our tenth anniversary in this post: Notching a Decade. And, the second thing, is that thirteen has never been a big deal to me. Not to make light of it — I get that triskaidekaphobia is a very real thing. Every time I get on an airplane with no row 13, or in an elevator in a building with no apparent 13th floor, I understand that the number inspires a real enough fear in enough people that such decisions get made.

It’s just never been a big deal to me. My feelings are akin to Jim Lovell’s, in one of my favorite movies, Apollo 13. His wife, Marilyn, expresses concern over the number of his mission: “Naturally, it’s 13. Why 13?” she asks. Jim Lovell’s reply: “It comes after 12, hon.”

The same thing goes for eclipses. I’m fascinated by the synchronized timing and alignment of these giant celestial bodies, and the tricks they play on us earth dwellers (click here for my observations of fireflies during a solar eclipse). But I don’t think they herald any particular play of luck: good, bad, or otherwise.

So, I did not feel any particular foreboding ahead of that NFC Championship game. Tim and I were there together, as part of our anniversary celebration. Our spirits, and optimism, were high. Yet, the Saints lost, in a particularly painful fashion. (A missed call by game officials in the last minutes of regulation play turned the tide against us.) For those not in New Orleans, let’s just say, to qualify the loss as heartbreaking is a grand understatement.

In retrospect, do I think the number of years we’ve been married, or the red moon, had any impact on the unfortunate turn of events for the Saints? No. I didn’t pre-game, and I still don’t. But as a fiction writer, these are the types of noteworthy details that add compelling dimension to any conflict.

And for the record, if I was writing this story, the Saints would have won. 😦

First Chapter on Soundcloud! (And here, too)

So, a few weeks ago, I wrote about my appearance on WRBH Reading Radio (link here). That appearance is now up on Soundcloud (link here). Two disclaimers:

  • It opens with a reading of the first chapter of The Trouble on Highway One, which contains a bit of singing. Yes, sorry, I do sing for a bit. It’s warbly, but honest.
  • The full recording is close to 30 minutes. After Chapter 1 of TOHO, which takes less than ten minutes, I read the first chapter of The Incident Under the Overpass, and then a bit from Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

And since The Trouble on Highway One is now available on Amazon (link here) and Barnes & Noble.com (link here), I’m not giving anything away by publishing Chapter 1, Part 1 below. It opens with a decades-old mystery that our heroine, Lacey Becnel, gets drawn into.

I’ll publish Chapter 1, Part 2 next week at this time!

1 

South of Cut Off, Louisiana

One summer in the mid-twentieth century

Ga-dunk.

Birdie drove down Louisiana Highway One, the same stretch of highway she’d driven a thousand times before, it seemed. Galliano to Larose in the evening. Larose to Galliano in the morning.

Ga-dunk. She passed over a crosspiece for a bridge over Bayou Lafourche. Ga-dunk, over the other side of the bridge.

The night was complete darkness, no moon, the sky swathed in an inky haze. She’d left the Becnels late, waiting for Mr. Becnel to return home from a business trip.

She imagined the lights from her truck’s headlights were the only lights for miles around.

You are a light for the world. Light your lamp where it shines for everyone.

The actual Bible verse was a little different, she knew. But that was how Momma used to say it to her. When she talked about her gift.

Birdie smiled wistfully. She still missed her mother. But she still felt her with her.

She missed Momma, but she didn’t feel empty. Just like she’d never felt empty about Daddy. Her father—the source of her gift—had died when she was very young. Barely old enough to remember him. But he had passed on his traiteur ability to his little daughter, just learning to move in the world. It was Momma, and her brother, Ronnie, who had taught her the lengths, and the limits, of her ability. But Daddy always seemed present, especially in Momma’s and Bubba’s memories.

Now it was her mother who seemed present. Right now. She thought of Ronnie, and was glad she had just seen him recently. She thought of young Cecil, his precious son. A young man, now. Several years older than she was when Daddy passed the gift to her.

She reached for the radio dial. She’d reached the spot on the highway where she could pick up the radio station in New Orleans. And she was in luck, they were playing one of her favorites. “Amazing Grace.”

She looked to her empty passenger seat and imagined Momma sitting right there. They would sing together.

Birdie hummed along, until the last passage. Then she sang aloud, her voice like salted honey. A warm, earthy, resonant note.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”

Birdie didn’t see the man standing in the road until it was too late. Too late for her.

 

 

October Surprise

So, October 30 snuck up on me. October 30, yesterday, was the release day for my second novel, The Trouble on Highway One. I had intended to do more pre-promotion than I did. Send out an email blast. Take out more Facebook ads. Update the front page of this website. Alas, the best laid plans…

However, while my publicity efforts may be a tad lacking, or, at the very least, a tad behind; I feel the opposite way about the story itself. I’m very excited to get it out there, I feel it’s absolutely ready for the world. I had in my head that I did not want to push its release past October; and all my writing, editing and re-writing efforts were aimed toward that goal. So it made it on the last Tuesday in October.

Kind of like how I wanted to finish the last marathon I ran in under four and a half hours. I ran it in 4:29:29.

And speaking of running, I’m compelled to bring up Haruki Murakami. I just read an article that quoted the famed novelist (and avid runner). At an event in New York, just a few weeks ago, he shared his thoughts on what he could do—what he could offer—in light of all the suffering constantly around us.

He concluded that he could write good stories:

“…I thought, ‘What I can do is to write good fiction.’ After all, when I write a good story, good fiction, we can understand each other if you are a reader and I’m a writer. There is a special secret passage between us, and we can send a message to each other.”

I am by no means comparing myself, or my stories, to Murakami. Or even claiming that my fiction is “good” by his measure. But I am eager to share this latest story I’ve written. If for no other reason than the chance to provide some entertainment or diversion to those in need of it.

Happy Halloween, y’all!

Cover Reveal!

I’m very excited to reveal the cover of my second novel, The Trouble on Highway One! I’m working to make it available for pre-sale on Amazon, and I hope to accomplish this in the next few days. Once I do this, I’ll announce its release date (I’m aiming for October 30).

Here’s what I have for the blurb, so far:

Things are looking up for recent widow Lacey Becnel. A short-term job assignment on California’s beautiful Central Coast, and a new love interest fill her days after a tumultuous summer. But as she discovers more about the mysterious traiteur power bestowed upon her, she will learn that she is not the only one with potent, supernatural abilities.

I’ll have more details next week!