Week in Review – Vaccines, These Women, Fake Fruit


I’m taking it slow on taking off my mask
What’s normal anyway” is a great song by Miguel. Also, it describes where I’m at in this weird moment of CDC pronouncements that do nothing to help the fact that you can be vaccinated but you still have to be around other people and they might be wackos. Do you trust the people around you? Do I even want to get back to normal? It feels normal to mask up and be careful about sharing air with strangers.

Sirens and helicopters
You can be careful but on the other hand, things happen. Two people just died when their car went airborne going down a street by my house—a 25% grade and apparent brake failure. Crashed just as the elementary school across the street was getting out. More than 200 comments on Berkeleyside offer food for thought and will give you a good sense of what people who know a lot about manual transmissions think about in their spare time.

Listening and writing
Made a new writing playlist as I enter a swoony, power-mad new phase of writing this book. I finally think I know what I’m doing (or do I?). There’s no way I can pull this off. But maybe I can… Am I crazy, or crazy like a fox? The songs fitting my mood just now:
MIRENME AHORA by Myke Towers – bluster and drama
No Mutuals by Fake Fruit – guitars and attitude
Dakotas by Sofia Kourtesis – dreamy bliss

Vacation?
Earlier in April we went to Mendocino for a few days for a nominal Spring Break. It was less of a vacation than it should have been due to 1) having to work the weekend in order to take off the Monday and Tuesday and 2) Grant getting taken down by shot #2. But we did get a pretty interesting half hour in the parking lot of Van Damme beach. If you’re heading north on Highway 1 to Mendocino, this is the part after Little River that dips down and flattens out momentarily with a beach on one side and state park on the other. We watched a succession of RVs pull in. The first, a big old gray thing, was parked in the very middle of the empty lot piloted by a skinny guy with dreadlocks and one metal leg (pant leg rolled up). He let his pit type dog run out to the beach, sniff excitedly, he walked around a bit, and then they were off. He was noticeable, and I think he liked being noticed. Five minutes later, another vehicle pulled in. A man and a woman, both with the carriage of people who do serious Cross-fit. Their van was black with custom siding – I don’t even have the vocabulary to describe it. But they immediately hopped to, sliding out various panels as if the whole thing were a bit of metal origami, revealing bikes and folding slats. They put on black, well fitting jackets – technical fabrics. And went through a production of folding and opening and revealing. When that was done, they climbed up onto seats they had somehow produced out of all that activity, watched the sunset for five minutes and then replaced everything. Both experiences made me realize what very different people you encounter in parking lots like this.

Reading
I’m working my way through the “Mystery/Thriller” finalists lineup from the LA Festival of Books from last month. (“Five of 2020’s best crime writers on where mystery fiction is today”). I’d earlier read S.A. Cosby’s exciting “Blacktop Wasteland,” had already read one book by Rachel Howzell Hall, so was eager to read “And Now She’s Gone.” Soaked up the Venice of Christopher Bollen’s “A Beautiful Crime.” Just finished the very satisfying “Little Secrets” by Jennifer Hillier and am now almost done with with Ivy Pochoda’s “These Women” (the voices!). These are five very different books, but all have these interesting, twisty characters and an incredibly strong sense of place. Crime fiction contains multitudes.

Vaccines
Social media in Berkeley has been all pictures of kids lining up near Berkeley High School to get vaccinated. We are all weeks past shot 2 and I’m just so so grateful to mRNA scientists, all the cool kids working the Curative drive through site at Albany Bulb, and even Big Pharma. These things are miracles. A year after lockdown, and I’m getting a shot? The timeline just blows my mind. And it’s so amazing that now you can just walk into a pharmacy or stand in line at a city park and get one of these things. Now, share them with the rest of the world, please. Thinking of my colleagues in India and hoping there’s a way out of the Covid nightmare soon.

Week in Review – Taxes, Navy Blue, Stop Asian Hate

The last week was a bit under a cloud. I always intend to get taxes done by the end of February, but usually find myself scrambling as the days climb into mid-March. I’m not sure why we itemize deductions any more – royalties and outside writing income have been pretty underwhelming. But there’s something I find strangely enjoyable about looking through a year’s report on each account and seeing all the stuff I spend money on. I remember reading somewhere that Virginia Woolf’s husband Leonard did not keep a diary, but his detailed records of household expenses could be considered just as revealing. Tons and tons of takeout – that’s what my ledger shows for the past year.

Feeling – Stop Asian Hate
I’m feeling so alarmed and heartbroken. Really feeling the pain of friends and people I look up to in the wider community as they talk about what they’re going through, their fears, and their experiences. Inadequate though my little gesture is, it’s still worth saying I stand with AAPI against Asian Hate.

Listen
I have lately been really into “1491” by Navy Blue, which I heard on Pitchfork’s “Best New Music” on Spotify.

Also been listening to “Moonwalking in Calabasas” from DDG with Blueface, Drake’s Scary Hours 2 (great to work to, since it feels vaguely auto-pilot). And for something completely different (thanks to one of my brother’s playlists), I’ve been playing a lot of soft rock from Ambrosia.

Watch
Judas and the Black Messiah. Aside from just being a super compelling story, this movie had some of my favorite actors. I’ll watch just about anything with Lakeith Stanfield in it. And Jesse Plemons reminds me of Philip Seymour Hoffman – mesmerizing no matter what he’s doing. Dominique Fishback was new to me, but I have a feeling she’s only getting started. This movie has a great soundtrack, too, with one song, “Deep Gully” by the Outlaw Blues Band, which I had never heard of but instantly recognized from something more my era, Cypress Hill’s “When the Shit Goes Down.”

Book
The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi. Enjoyable, terrifyingly clever, with some very talented pastiche of Golden Age detective novels. I can see this being very satisfying if you enjoy puzzle mysteries and the gorgeous island setting doesn’t hurt, either. I’m in awe of this kind of plotting and twisting, especially since I’m terrible at it.

Walk
Took a great walk with friends along Wildcat Creek Trail on a moody Sunday afternoon. We saw cows, got rained on, and I made very minor contributions to a discussion of the current NBA season.

Writing
Not very much because of taxes, absolute squalor in the house, and hiking commitments. But I did find this odd note on my phone: what you learn about characters from how they act when they try to fight the fact that their world has changed. Now if only I can go back forensically into my thoughts and figure out which character I was thinking of and what I meant by this.

Week in review – Nomadland, Jack Harlow, Too Much Noticing

Just a quick update because it is 11 pm on a Tuesday night and I am still working. Or rather, I’m stealing a moment before setting my alarm early so I can get up early and work. I used to think of ways I could fill little gaps of time with writing. Now I strategize how to find more time for email.

Listen
I saw Elliot Wilson tweet something about Jack Harlow and remembered I had put “Tyler Herro” on one of my playlists. It’s a fun song. But who is Jack Harlow? Actually he’s appearing on SNL and in GQ and now he’s got a song with DaBaby and another one with Big Sean. Turns out he is quite well known, with a sweetly scruffy look like he could be Post Malone’s younger brother without the face tattoos.

Watch
Nomadland. I feel conflicted over this one. It’s absolutely beautiful with a great soundtrack and every little moment is riveting. I fell under its spell, even thinking, well maybe I should try being a camp host in a van somewhere in South Dakota. Looks great! I started watching thinking I would feel torn apart by a wrenching look at the displacement of American elders, families, vast numbers of unhoused being forced on the road and exploited by Amazon. And instead, found a bit of an advertisement for van life. Side note is this great article from the LA Times on the real star: Swankie.

Book
I’m reading a book by a writer who’s talented beyond belief, but it’s not quite doing it for me. The problem is too much noticing. It’s exhausting. Every moment noticed perfectly. But who can tolerate such sustained attention? Especially when it’s clear right away these middle class people are the worst. There’s really nowhere for them to go except some sad, exquisite realization that their modern lives are built on illusion. I know from jacket copy that some plot does occur – but don’t know if I’ll be able to stick it out. Even if something bad happens, they’ll probably just notice it to death.

Writing
Ah it’s so easy and enjoyable to diagnose the deficiencies of others… In my own book, I’m really stuck. These last chapters are terrible. Part of the problem is I have scenes I’ve written, and I want to save the work because I’m tired. From my writing diary: I think part of the issue is I need to throw stuff away. I need to clean slate it, and I don’t want to because I think, aww, I wrote all this stuff, I should be able to use it. But every time I step into one of those files, it’s like I’m stepping into a straightjacket or padded room. And I beat my fists against the padded walls, waaah, I can’t see a way out. But the answer is right in front of you. Make the room disappear. Step into white space and make the bridge appear under your feet as you walk it. It’s actually easier with nothing there.

Week in review – Albany Bulb, Troubled Blood

Little bits of life and pleasure from the past week…

Music
Cassandra Jenkins, “Hard Drive” – how I love this. When she says “We’re going to put your heart back together” I tear up. The last week of February was the end of an era for my brother, who closed his cross-fit gym and is now off to other ventures, but not before leaving a great, nostalgic wrap-up playlist, which has been helping me work.

Book
Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith from Berkeley Public Library. Actually, this took me two weeks to read, it’s quite a monster. Overstuffed, very comforting despite the dark crimes, and like all of JK Rowling’s books, always a touch of the old fashioned.

Watch
Call My Agent! I am in love with Andrea Martel.

Writing
I’m still struggling to write the last bits of this draft. Very little accomplished in the last week due to work, and also the problem of somehow having failed to write anything interesting. From my writing diary: Just re-reading chapter 16. There is no tension! You’d never know you were in the final quarter of a tense psychological thriller (haha). What does she have to lose? Nothing! What’s at stake? Who cares! Good Lord.

Perfume
Troubled Blood has some fun moments around perfume and a running issue is Robin’s struggle to find a new scent. JKR takes it seriously, which I appreciate. Although unlike Robin, I adore Fracas.

Workout
Took a wonderful walk around the outer edge of Albany Bulb with my friend Kate. Picked our way along the crumbling rind of smashed asphalt at the edge of the Bay. Just challenging enough footing to force attention to where I stepped, so it felt like a wonderful exercise in presence, noticing sun, water, and a great variety of rocks – all slimy and mussel crusted.

Meal
A weekday lunch of falafel sandwich and spicy sweet potatoes from Fava on Vine St.

Moment
Remembering a night earlier in February when we had rain. A Thursday, on the couch at 8:22 pm still at work, and hear a very loud owl from all the way inside the house. Step outside, smell the woodsmoke, rain, and hear the owl insistent and unseen. Think of my friend CJ who loved owls and books, she died of cancer younger than the age I am now.

Last week in review – Valentine’s Day, The Assistant


Casual update for the last week. What I’ve been doing outside of nearly all-consuming work.

Listening
Bartees Strange – “Boomer” and “Mustang.” I’m so into Bartees Strange!
Also played while writing or working: Madlib, Sound Ancestor, Roisin Murphy, “Something More,” Nirvana, Nevermind

Book
Snow, by John Banville from Berkeley Public Library. Atmospheric, masterful prose. But the shape of the crime is quite obvious and some of the characters are stock.

Watched
The Assistant – Julia Garner is fantastic. And it really captures the mundane hellscape of office work.

Perfume
Rose et Cuir, Frederic Malle. I ordered a bunch of samples from The Perfumed Court. Love a tougher rose, but some days felt too much leather

Writing
I’m still in a bit of a tough part. From my novel diary for this book:
Sometimes I think plotting a book like this is an exercise of making lists. Make a list of what’s true. Now what are the clues for those truths? Make a list. Now what are things that are true but they aren’t clues. And now, what are things that aren’t true at all. Sprinkle in liberally and stir.

But how do I get to what’s true? I don’t have that yet. And that I don’t know how to do except go blindly by feel.

High point
A drizzly, misty coastal walk on Valentine’s Day with good friends up from Muir Beach to the Coastal Ridge Trail with Green Gulch on our left and Tennessee Valley on our right, then down to Green Gulch, through the farm, back toward Muir Beach. Capped off with takeout shepherd’s pie from the Pelican Inn. Heavenly.

2020 in review

Charles Yu's novel "Interior Chinatown" in front of Christmas treeMore than most years, 2020 has been hard to pin down. It seemed like several small epochs fit into the space of 12 months, as if 2020 were a kind of magical bag with limitless capacity, sort of like the sack Hermione has in one of the late Harry Potters, where she produces shelter, a radio, possibly cookware??? (if memory serves) from a small bag when the trio are on the run.

At the start I was still commuting to Redwood City and spending hours in the car listening to Civil War audiobooks. January and February I made my way through Eric Foner’s A Short History of Reconstruction, then The Second Founding, then W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, pulling out of my driveway before 6 am and starting the day with another chapter of armed intimidation, violence, murder, double dealing, and struggle. I would annoy friends and family by sagely opining that everything we were going through was connected to the Civil War, everything in our society reflected a power structure designed around racial disenfranchisement – by violent means if it came to that. Months later came the summer, George Floyd, and reckoning. I felt both glad I’d made this paltry foundation of a reading list and ashamed at how much further I had to go.

Lunar new year and the virus – that was the first holy shit moment, reading about all the travel within China that was going to vector this thing everywhere. In conference rooms at work we remarked how it was surely much worse than the Chinese authorities were telling us. I was sure, with so much air travel across the Pacific, the Bay Area would be hard hit, a scene out Contagion. I’d gotten into the habit of calling my parents on my drive home, once I had made the merge from 101 onto 92 East, often a cluster that could take 40 minutes to complete, plenty of time to sit in traffic and catch up. I remember calling my mom and telling her it wouldn’t be long before it emerged in California. It will look apocalyptic, but we’ll be ok. We’re taking it seriously. Don’t go to church. Don’t go anywhere.

I still went places. My last indoor restaurant meal was in early March, it felt risky and foolish. That night I went to the ballet and sat in a theater, aware of every cough and breath around me. By my daughter’s birthday in mid March we were in lockdown and I worried about being able to get a cake.

Then it was Tiger King, one package of toilet paper per customer, Zoom. Nine months of blur punctuated by an election.

Everything turned out not so bad but also a lot worse. We’ve been working from home. My son had a virtual graduation and then started college a virtual freshman. My daughter’s been thriving in online school, but she’s like that – driven, and a pandemic won’t stop her. We’ve got tons of masks. We see friends on walks or outside on our deck. But more than 300,000 deaths? Full ICUs and refrigerated trucks to hold the bodies? WTAF. I was never particularly rah rah USA, but I never thought I’d see America totally humiliated on something we were set up to lead. Brought low by ignorance, sectarianism, and cynical self-interest. Everything goes back to the Civil War…

Writing

Slow. Pointless. A joke. Having learned enough about publishing now, I realize how quixotic it is to still pursue novel writing at this point in life. I look benignly on the shiny new debut novelists and wish them well in their journey through capitalism.

That said, I’m still diligently writing a novel of crime, memory, ghosts, my favorite Northern California coastal spots, oysters, redwoods, murder, teenage lust and betrayal. An “anti-romance” I think I described it to a friend. I’m pretty into it. Hopefully in 2021 I’ll start getting it out for beta readers and see if anyone else is into it too.

Listening

Maybe because I did less time in the car this year I feel like I listened to less new music. Some highlights:

  • Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell!
  • Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, though it took me a few listens
  • Four Tet, especially “Baby”
  • Flo Milli – lol, Ho, why is you here? (the attitude more than anything, which is kind of how I felt about Rico Nasty – need to give a few more listens, though I’m sold on “OHFR”)
  • Noname, indispensable
  • Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist, Alfredo (nice album cover…)
  • I grieved for Pop Smoke, play “Dior” and think about the career he should have had
  • Burna Boy, ready for him to be huge
  • Tons of BROCKHAMPTON earlier in the year
  • Oddly taken with “Cue Synthesizer” by Destroyer
  • Taylor Swift, maybe I should stop underestimating her
  • Roisin Murphy (I played “Incapable” A LOT)

I listened to a lot more oldies than I normally do. I’m working my way through a great playlist Matthew Perpetua created for the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums 2020 Edition. There’s worse things than listening to Rush, “Tom Sawyer” again.

Reading

What did I even read this year? I have no idea. But I remember:

  • Alexander Chee on writer’s block in Medium
  • Have One on Me, Rumaan Alam in Esquire
  • Luster by Raven Leilani – the hype is real
  • Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu – kept thinking he’d fall off the highwire in this, but nope, stuck the landing
  • Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby, can’t wait to see what he does next
  • Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest
  • Jean-Patrick Manchette, discovering his wild “atrocity exhibition” type of marxist noir
  • Ross Macdonald, The Zebra Striped Hearse
  • Presidio by Randy Kennedy
  • Detective by Day series by Kellye Garrett

Watching

At the beginning of the lockdown, I watched a lot of this – incalculably soothing, ultra-British bridge instructional, “Join Us for Bridge with Shaw Taylor.” So good I may start watching it again, it’s the ultimate sleep aide, brain gym, portal into an alternate universe.

And I couldn’t have made it through the year without:

  • The Last Dance – an absolute gift
  • Call My Agent (Paris!)
  • The NBA finals
  • The Queen’s Gambit
  • Nathan Apodaca’s “Dreams” TikTok
  • And of course, Watchmen

I think the last movie we saw in theaters may have been Cats…?? That should have been a clue right there we were in for rough times.

Happy 2021 all. May the new year bring us more justice, more peace, more fun, and vaccines!

Kellye Garrett’s Hollywood mysteries

The summer of 2020 has been a slog of work and California wildfire. I’m catching up on some books I read over August.

Picture of Kellye Garrett's Hollywood Homicide and Hollywood Ending books
It’s hard to write light. Or at least I think so. And I haven’t found very many fun, engaging, contemporary mysteries that work for me. Tonight, after reading the news about Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation and not having slept the night before because of fire anxiety (high winds and red flag warning in the hills) I am thinking how important – essential! – light books are. Really, they aren’t light at all for the work they do to ease worries and reassure. I remember one day when my grandmother was ailing, I was over at her house and my aunt was there. She’d come out from Rhode Island and brought a stack of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books. I wish I could remember exactly how she’d described them – but it was clear they helped that sad, difficult time go by.

I hope Kellye Garrett writes as many books as Janet Evanovich. I can use more than the two so far: “Hollywood Homicide” and “Hollywood Ending.” Her amateur sleuth is Dayna Anderson, a transplant from Georgia to Hollywood. Dayna had a brief moment of fame appearing in commercials as a spokewoman for a fried chicken restaurant, but her acting and on-camera days are behind her. Broke, out of work, and fearing that her parents’ house will be repossessed, Dayna is desperate enough to call the LAPD tipline about a hit and run accident she might have information about – and maybe collect a reward.

Garrett writes in a very real, relatable first-person voice. And I really like how naturally Dayna integrates modern communication (Twitter, Instagram, cell phones) in her sleuthing: I’ll google surveillance tips. You drive.

At first I didn’t know if I wanted to read about Louboutin shoes and gossipy blind items. But before long Dayna had completely won me over:

Having two of something normally was a good thing. Socks. Dumbbells. Twinkies. Earrings. Shoes. Parents. Boyfriends. The list went on and on. Unfortunately, it didn’t include murder suspects.

The other thing that I appreciate so much about these books is that while Dayna and her friends are fun to hang around with, the stories are really well-structured and fast-paced. I took a lot of notes while reading both of these. Garrett’s written some great things on Twitter and elsewhere about plotting and process. I vaguely recall sitting in the Danville public library on a Saturday morning a couple years ago while J. did SAT prep in the community center building next door (I think we couldn’t find the class we wanted in our area?? It now seems crazy to drive out to Danville) and leafing through issues of Writer’s Digest and finding an article by Garrett on some craft related topic. It stuck with me. If I ever do see my way through the thicket of plot in the story I’m writing I may have Garrett – and Dayna Anderson – to thank.

Been listening to: Today the thing helping me get through the workday was Matthew Perpetua’s playlist of the Rolling Stone 2020 list of 500 greatest albums on Spotify. This has been perfect music for a rather tough day – everything’s familiar and good, but some things I haven’t heard in a long time. And this playlist has two songs for each album, so if you don’t like something it’s over pretty soon.

The Double Mystery – Reading The Lost Man by Jane Harper

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

I’m writing a mystery novel, and that has me thinking a lot about plot.

Just before Berkeley shut down for shelter in place, I managed to go to the library and scoop up an armload of books. One of them was “The Lost Man” by Jane Harper.

Harper is an Australian writer, and part of the pleasure of reading her has been to fall under the spell of the beautiful – but often deadly – Australian landscape. In “The Dry,” a punishing drought adds extra tension to a remote community where a man has killed his family – the place is just waiting for a spark to set things off. In “Force of Nature,” a corporate offsite in a wilderness area goes awry when a group gets lost (and one of their number doesn’t make it out). In “The Lost Man,” the brutal December heat is the murder weapon.

I think one reason Harper has been successful has to do with her inclusion of what I’m calling a double mystery – that is, a mystery from another timeline that troubles the present. Here’s promotional copy from Harper’s website:

“And as [Federal Police investigator Aaron] Falk probes deeper into the killings, old wounds start bleeding into fresh ones. For Falk and his childhood friend Luke shared a secret… A secret Falk thought long-buried… A secret which Luke’s death starts to bring to the surface…”

I’ve read all three of Harper’s novels, and I’m sure I’ll read “The Survivors,” which looks like it comes out next year in the States (“When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away…”).

Sounds very similar to “The Lost Man” – not the same thing exactly – but a family, a painful past, old wounds, old mistakes, and so on. The elements are similar, although the details and settings are different. There’s a death in the present, which must be solved – but it’s just as critical to come to terms with what’s happened in the past.

This doubling of mysteries from different timelines isn’t unique to Harper’s novels – far from it. As I was writing this, more than a few books came to mind, like Tana French’s “In the Woods,” or Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects.”

When it works well, it’s very satisfying (and I admit, I’m attempting a similar thing in what I’m writing these days, one reason I’m reading Harper).

Like anything in a plot, it can be skillfully or clumsily executed. It can feel formulaic. Sometimes you see an author reaching for “buried secrets” in their character’s past and immediately see a crutch to bring the stakes closer to home, to raise the tension. (I see this in some mass market fiction where it’s constantly open season on a sleuth’s family, friends, loved ones, second cousins, etc. Just to be in their orbit means you’ll soon be targeted by a serial killer.) But if the job of a writer is to put their protagonists through hell on the way through the narrative, it seems you can do worse than throwing them a mystery that fits exactly like a puzzle piece into their secret wounds. (Of course, in some types of mysteries – many that I dearly love – it’s not a goal to psychologically push the protagonist to the edge!)

This double mystery (or maybe it’s a “past-present”/”inner-outer” mystery – I searched for what to call this and landed on a bunch of trope sites without finding a good classification for it) is challenging because both past and present mystery must feel compelling, but the balance is hard to get right. When I first started drafting the book I’m writing now, I realized I was putting too much emphasis on the past – a clear avoidance strategy because I wasn’t sure enough about my character and what she goes through in the present.

Despite the difficulties, I am trying to master this. I do love it when a main character must grapple with their own demons to solve a crime. However, it seems like many writers who do this really well don’t continue with their characters through a series. How many demons can one character have, and doesn’t it get a bit tiresome revisiting them in every book? It’s hard work to raise emotional stakes. To do it well and believably you often exhaust the demons. I believe that’s why Tana French’s novels skip around among various Dublin detectives. That close psychological mystery can become too claustrophobic and repetitive over multiple books (at least to my taste) if you keep with the same character. I find it interesting that Harper wrote two books with a detective (Aaron Falk), and then has moved to standalones.

Maybe it’s a tradeoff between psychological depth and longevity? I’m not sure. For now, I’m still studying…

Hardboiled – Reading Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Library of America Dashiell Hammett
After a long time away from blogging, I’ve had an unexpected impulse to take it up again.

I’m writing a mystery novel, of sorts. Though I’m proceeding in my own uncomfortable way. My idea is simply to jot down a few notes about what I’m reading or thinking as I go through it.

This week I started reading my Library of America edition of the novels of Dashiell Hammett, starting with Red Harvest. What an amazing opening:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.

Red Harvest has a ridiculously high body count. (One chapter is called “The Seventeenth Murder,” and that murder only serves to set in motion many more.) The gunplay is so constant, the details of who dies, when, by whose hand become immaterial. A lot of the fussy stuff in mysteries of solving things become background – the narrator is often too busy dodging bullets – so what floats to the top is a breathtaking hardboiled style.

On Hammett’s style, in this essay, “Tough Guy” in the New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpont writes:

Silence was always at the edge of Hammett’s style. The white space on many of his pages nearly equals the quantity of print, the short lines of dialogue snapping off as soon as the necessary thing is said, if not before. He made inarticulateness into a style and a heroic mode of being; few American writers—not even Gertrude Stein—came so close to the radical purity of words stripped down to their far from routine nakedness.

I’ve often fallen for books and movies that build a style around violence and for a long time I admired a hardboiled aesthetic. Now I realize it’s the sort of thing I could never attempt with a straight face. Still, it’s interesting to see Hammett create this style with its rules that Chandler picked up later. And there’s a lot of things to like and aspire to in Red Harvest – beautiful, brisk movement and confident economy. And humor.

Here for instance is the narrator’s colleague, Mickey Linehan, a fellow operative in the Continental Detective Agency, who’s newly arrived in Personville to help the investigation:

“After I take this Finnish gent,” Mickey said, “what do I do with him? I don’t want to brag about how dumb I am, but this job is plain as astronomy to me. I understand everything about it except what you have done and why, and what you’re trying to do and how.”

I laughed because I felt very much in the same position as Mickey, although he was no doubt more clued in than I was and his confusion was just part of his act. Only a page earlier, Hammett has summed him up in a few quick strokes:

Mickey Linehan was a big slob with sagging shoulders and a shapeless body that seemed to be coming apart at all its joints. His ears stood out like red wings, and his round red face usually wore the meaningless smirk of a half wit. He looked like a comedian and was.

Reading that description, I think of Jay Landsman, the homicide sergeant in The Wire (rewatching during shelter-in-place), who’s overweight, comic relief, but someone it’s best to watch out for. It’s an enduring character type that I’ve seen millions of places, although Mickey Linehan still feels fresh and enjoyable. Kudos to the writers who can create a character from a couple sentences and have them linger in memory.Detective Jay Landsman

Listening to: I love these survey playlists Matthew Perpetua (Fluxblog) has created. Right now, working through the one for 1979, pretty amazing to think one year saw Rapper’s Delight, I Wanna Be Your Lover, Highway to Hell, and California Uber Alles, just to name a few.

2018 in Review

This was a difficult year, although whenever I compare our circumstances with people truly suffering I have to give thanks for how fortunate we are. I had a huge professional setback on the writing front (no longer have a book coming out with Putnam). Grant and I increasingly feel the energy drain of maintaining intense day jobs while trying to keep a writing practice. Someone Jules knew from soccer was shot and killed. My agency sister and all-around delight Kate Dopirak passed away tragically from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. And basically, we realize that with the kids headed toward college, we’re probably facing financial ruin (perhaps only a slight exaggeration). But the kids are fantastic people, so there’s no one else I’d rather be ruined by. Jules spent the summer living in a community in rural Panama. Simone continues her march to world domination while demonstrating impeccable shopping abilities and astonishing musical taste.

Meanwhile I’m trying to be disciplined about not subsiding into mental and physical mush. It’s too easy to glance at headlines on my phone, so I’ve tried to commit to doing something cognitively hard each day (which certainly doesn’t always happen) And perhaps more importantly I’m trying to be hopeful about the future. The news about the climate, our political dysfunction, and authoritarian malfeasance around the globe has at times overwhelmed me. I realize it’s so easy to feel helpless and give up — an attitude I’d never accept from a fictional character, so I refuse to allow it in myself.

Writing
So my beloved middle grade has suffered a setback and I’ve been grieving that. But I am writing something new, which gives me great hope, when it’s not giving me fits of uncertainty. I continue to struggle to find time to write – between the job and kids and other responsibilities it only gets harder and I have to be super careful about my energy and mood. I’ve found it helps to track my time, to think in advance of the scene I’m trying to tackle, and to begin each writing session with a visualization or affirmation. Even so, I’ve been facing major negative self-talk (“why do I even think I can plot?”) and I’m not always successful at fighting back. I hope to have a new manuscript in first half of 2019. Fingers crossed.

Music
Spotify tells me I listened to close to 4,000 songs in 2018. I know streaming music has been hard on musicians, but speaking as a consumer, I couldn’t live without it. Standouts for me:

Travis Scott, Astroworld – I admit I didn’t used to respect Travis Scott. The kids and I would laugh through all the goofball catchphrases in “The Antidote.” But I straight up love Astroworld. “Sicko Mode” is such a beast of a song. But the entire album is great. I’ve been listening to “Stargazing” a lot.

Kacey Musgraves, The Golden Hour – Not my usual genre (country-ish), but this is amazing. Thanks to Pitchfork for turning me onto her.

Deerhunter, Death in Midsummer – I’ve been adding more Deerhunter to my writing playlists. Over the years I’ve been listening less and less to rock and more to rap and classical. Of the few rock acts I listen to these days, Deerhunter stands out.

Juice WRLD, Goodbye & Good Riddance – Super listenable and surprisingly tender.

Also listening to:
Kali Uchis (thanks to Sarah Vollmer for the intro)
Blood Orange
Kamasi Washington
Billie Eilish (thanks to my daughter for introducing me to her)
The 1975
Leon Bridges (another Simone pick)
Lil Peep, especially “Runaway” from Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 2
Earl Sweatshirt, absolutely love “Minted, (ft. Navy Blue)” from Some Rap Songs

Movies
I haven’t seen Roma yet, so this list of favorites is probably incomplete.

The Favourite – So brisk and bold and delightfully female-centered. I wish all historical films were this sure and clever.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? – I loved this story of a writer in 1990s New York who discovers a talent in literary forgery. It features several scenes of antiquarian and used bookstores that had me melting into little puddles of nostalgia. And only after I left the theater did it occur to me that almost everyone was queer.

Eighth Grade –I don’t think I’ve ever felt such an intense identification with a character onscreen. I had my heart in my mouth for every moment, feeling every hope and mortification.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Smart, fun, with stunning animation. I fell in love with Miles Morales. I’ll happily keep going to superhero movies if they are anything like this.

If Beale Street Could Talk – Like a favorite poem you’ve memorized or a haunting snatch of music, this was a mood, a feeling—delicate and extraordinary.

Also really enjoyed:

Vice
Black Panther
Blockers
Juliet, Naked
BlacKkKlansman

Books
I don’t have an exact tally, but I read maybe 30-40 books this year. Here are some that stood out for me:

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai – On a rainy day over Thanksgiving Break, I fell into this book and didn’t emerge from its spell until I was finished. Beautiful, life-affirming, and heartbreaking

Jade City by Fonda Lee – This had fantastic world building and I got caught up in the characters’ lives. This was an incredible series start, and I cannot wait to read on.

The Annotated The Big Sleep – I love Chandler as a prose stylist and a mood creator. The Long Goodbye is one of my favorite novels of all time. Of course he has all the faults of his era, but that is one of the pleasures of reading this annotated edition—misogyny, racism, and bigotry are called out, but also put into context, along with a host of other insights and illuminating facts.

The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran – I’ve now read all three Claire DeWitt novels, and this might be my favorite. In a way, these are my ideal detective novels—very meta, unresolved, layered, and featuring a woman who moves through the world as a complicated individual who’s both compassionate but DNGAF.

Also really enjoyed:

Dead Girls: Surviving an American Obsession, by Alice Bolin
November Road, by Lou Berney
An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
A Lucky Man, by Jamel Brinkley
Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado

I’ve read a bit less MG and YA this year. The industry seems to be making steps toward more diversity, which is really exciting to see. But I still find many books to be ploddingly trope-driven and predictable in a way that doesn’t quite engage me. I think I just need to step away from the genre for a little bit and come back with renewed interest. There are plenty of titles that look amazing and I hope to read soon, among them The Poet X, Darius the Great Is Not Okay, Finding Yvonne, and many others.

Health, hope, love, and joy to everyone in 2019!