It’s been a good week for me. We’ve had unseasonably sunny days, lots of visits from kitties and plenty of snuggles from the domesticated pets. And there was NaNo, which brought me a good story and some nice story seeds this week.
Before I talk about National Novel Writing Month, I do want to say a word or two about Thanksgiving dinner. It’s almost always on a workday in Japan, so I often do my best with some roast chicken and wait for the community Thanksgiving that we do in a huge kitchen with loads of people. (Loads being about 60 or 70 people eating, in our case.)
I miss seeing those people, but it was relaxing not to have to get up early and drive 45 minutes each way for a day of cooking and cleaning (and the very, very nice meal). And since I’m not working for anyone but myself these days, I decided to make a modified Thanksgiving feast. Roasted chicken thighs with sage. My mom’s dressing, cut in half, and mutated with my mom’s scalloped chicken recipe. It’s onions and celery in way too much
It’s been a horrible year full of surprises and plot twists on the world stage. Late last year, COVID-19 made its first appearance, and by February, it had swept around the globe, and health officials were panicking. We learned about masks and social distancing, and those of us who could worked from home, and those of us who couldn’t washed our hands really well and hoped for the best.
The disease brought a lot of people to a standstill, and in that quiet time of reflection, a lot of things happened. I think a lot of the unrest in the US can be traced to people having time to do something about the injustices that have plagued our country for centuries (see my review of The Garies and Their Friends to see how much hasn’t changed since the 1850s for free Blacks).
Unrest brought about reaction from people who had a lot of time on their hands to think and plan, and then came the election, which still isn’t settled as a done deal in every American’s mind.
Does it help to think that the world has been through similar circumstances before, and managed to get through the times of trouble and even thrive again? I think it does. During the pandemic of 1918, we saw a lot of the same scenarios play out – masks, mask-deniers; the
I’m writing short stories for National Novel Writing Month, and here’s the elevator pitch for my work in progress:
Tabby Kate, caterwauler at the Brawler’s Grate, is on the run from her boss and former lover, Tuxedo Jones. Stowing away on Captain Alphabet Greebo’s ship seems like an easy solution for getting off the planet without getting noticed, but this stickler for the rules notices right away that he’s got trouble on his hands.
–Weird and Wonderful Stories for Every Holiday (WIP)
It’s about cats in space.
The Dynamic Duo: Captain Alphabet Greebo and Tabby Kate. Unlike their fictional counterparts, they don’t fight crime: they commit it. (E.M. Duskova)
Now, let me backtrack a little bit. We have two housecats and two dogs who have been featured on these screens before. But staying home this summer, I came to realize we’ve got at least seven outdoor cats. One mostly stays in the barn, and I rarely see him (a Tuxedo boy who is white and black), but the others hang around our house and the house next door, waiting
It’s a very weird NaNovember weekend if you are an American citizen or care about one. I feel like the race could be decided at any minute . . . but I also feel that we won’t really hear any significant news until Monday.
I’m going to go with that last feeling – it allows me to get some writing done for more than 15 minutes at a time. At any rate, being cautiously optimistic is doing wonders for my motivation, while the tension is producing some deliciously weird effects in my writing.
As I mentioned in the post title, it’s the first weekend of National Novel Writing Month, which has become a bit of a misnomer. The game started in 1999 with freelancer Chris Baty and a few of his friends who decided they’d like to try and write A Great American Novel, or at least a novel, in 30 days. By 2000, the game was international, according to Wikipedia, with 140 participants.
The website also started in 2000. I’m a nine-time player (including this year) and one-time winner, although “winner” is also misleading. Finishing a story makes you a winner in my book. I am also a multi-time “cheater” – the basic rules Baty set out was that the novel must be new, must not be co-authored, and has to be submitted in time to verify the 50,000 word count.
Sometimes I followed those rules; other times I tried working on second drafts as a “NaNo Rebel” (officially recognized on the website, too, as a rebel). I do have to admit, I never won (and never even completed a story) the times I tried working on a second draft. Only with fresh, new material did I complete a new story . . . usually coming in at around 40,000 words and with a fairly good through-line for my plot.
This year, though, NaNo has gotten very casual with the rules, and I fully approve! Your “novel” has been rebranded as a
Katie had snuggled into her afghan on the sofa, her gray and black Tabby nestled under her knees, and her laptop perched on them. Pete was on Zoom and it was Halloween – exactly one year after the terrifying events of 2019.
“Babe, it kills me that you’re there alone,” Pete said.
Kate pulled the afghan a little closer to her neck, and Tabby mewed in protest. “Don’t you dare come over. You’ve got chemo on Tuesday.”
“But if you’ve got no symptoms . . . you’ve been so careful.”
“Pete, stop it. Sky tested positive five days ago.” And she wasn’t going to tell Pete about the fever that had sent her to the sofa. He didn’t need that as well.
“Jesus, Sky too? I thought it was only Jessie. This fucking year, I swear . . . .”
There was nothing Kate could say to that; fortunately, Zoom let her nod along in sympathy. It had been a roller coaster of a year – her high school boyfriend, Jake, had turned out to be a cult leader and raised seven demons of hell last Hallow’s Eve. She’d had to drop a hay bale on him to save the tri-city area, and in her grief and guilt, she’d hooked up with Pete at Christmas and was in love by New Year’s Day. Pete was diagnosed with cancer on Valentine’s Day (Friday, 5 p.m. – all the bad news in 2020 had dropped on Friday at 5 p.m.), and her mother died from complications of eye surgery . . . shot in the eye by a rubber bullet on the third of July, dead on September fourth.
Tabby crawled out from under the afghan and curled herself around Kate’s neck.
Pete said, “Hey, Tabby, Tabby!” Tabby looked at him, ears forward. She liked Pete almost as much as Kate did.
The Zoom crackled and spit, and Tabby launched herself off Kate, and cowered under the side table across the room. “Hey, Pete, your camera is off. Pete?”
No answer. Which was par for the course. With her connection, she lost her Zoom companions at least three times a week. The static, like an old-fashioned television on an empty station, was new, though.
“Katie, Katie, Katie.” A horrible sound, a man’s voice was heard through the hisses on the screen, vaguely reminiscent of somebody calling a cat. Only Jake had called her Katie.
“Pete, is that you? What’s going on?”
“Not Pete, Katie.” There was a long pause, and Katie felt chills going up her spine and down her upper arms in marching rows of goosebumps. “Pete.” This was almost spit out, like the person behind the Zoom camera had bitten into the pit of a cherry. Another long pause, and Kate sought to organize her scrambling thoughts, but they eluded her. They ran for all the corners of her mind, leaving nothing but a blank space and this snowy screen. “Why, Kate? Why me? Not . . . .” Kate was frozen. “ . . . you?”
Ideas suddenly flooded into her head. She frantically hit the trackpad, trying to close the window, stop the program. She pressed on the power button once, twice, three times, and the third time for a long 15 seconds. Silence from the screen for this minute, but as soon as her finger released the power button, an evil laugh issued through the hissing fog of the computer.
She slammed the laptop shut, and instinct prompted her to roll off the sofa, crawl under the coffee table, and her butt caught on it, so she crawled across the floor, bringing the table along with her. Part of her mind wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of it, but the other part was wrapped up in fear.
The ceiling fan dropped, glancing off the coffee table, and knocking the laptop off the sofa. It flew open, still a screen with her desktop, and a Zoom app of black and white static fuzz. “I missed you, Katie.” Another long 15 seconds of static. “Come with me.”
“No!” Kate screamed. She tried to back away from the damned computer, when the oddest thing happened. A new person had been invited to the Zoom. It . . . it looked like her mother’s Zoom name. She crawled toward the laptop.
Little chunks of plaster rained down upon her, but the ceiling fan had brought down most of it when it fell. She allowed the new person to join the call. It couldn’t be her mother . . . it must be whoever bought her mom’s old desktop.
Two windows of static, but the one with her mom’s name was pink, and less hissy. It sounded almost as though someone was playing a theremin, or an electric harp with only three high strings. Whoo-whee-woooooo. “Kate.” It was her mother, she knew it. “I’m here.”
“Noooooooooooooooo.” It had to be Jake. Kate began mumbling the spell her friend had taught her that Hallow’s Eve. “I won’t stand for you running around. I won’t stand for you putting me down. I am mine. I am mine. I am mine.” The hissing of static became more quiet, and then winked out . . . exactly like the old tube TV her mom had owned, not at all like the digital Zoom window. Pete’s dear face showed on the screen again.
“Kate, darling. What happened?”
“I . . . I’m not sure.” She could see her face on the screen, weirdly reversed as it always was on a Zoom call, but now covered with plaster dust. She wasn’t ready to throw the coffee table off her back yet.
“Kate, who are you talking to on the other screen?”
Kate looked at the pink screen, now pulsating with burgundy and returning to a warm, comforting color. She could barely hear the strains of the three notes. “Love you, Kate.” It was a low whisper, and another long pause, as if gathering the energy to say a few more words. “I’ll take care of him.”
And just like that, Zoom chimed and informed her that LindaT&J had left the call.
“Kate, are you OK? Dammit, I will come over.”
“No, it’s OK, Pete. I think it’s done. Stay on the Zoom with me for a little longer? It’s almost midnight?”
“Sure, Kate-my-dear. I’ll stay on all night.” Tabby picked her delicate way through the wreckage of the ceiling fan, and unerringly pointed her butt at the screen. Pete laughed and Kate giggled and pulled the cat under the coffee table. It was going to be all right. Somehow, everything was going to be all right.
Good news for me this month! Lois McMaster Bujold’s newest Penric and Desdemona novella came out on Oct. 14, 2020 for Kindle and iBooks (as of this writing, there were still problems with the Barnes and Noble upload).
And of course, there’s nothing like a masquerade for October!
Although, I stretch the point a bit – Lodi looks a lot like our Earth Venice on the edge of the Print Era. The masquerade is a five-gods holiday called Bastard’s Eve, and is set during midsummer. It’s celebrated with revels and fools and drinking and masks of all sorts. And food onna stick! It’s not a harvest festival like Halloween or a pre-fast festival like Mardi Gras.
The book will stand by itself just fine, I think, but for readers who have read other Penric and Desdemona novellas, it falls between “Penric’s Fox” and “Penric’s Mission” – just after Penric’s unwritten nervous breakdown as a doctor who can’t save everyone, and before he becomes a spy and political operative.
In many ways, Penric is in limbo. He’s recovering from his breakdown. He’s quietly engaged in translation (what Desdemona scornfully calls “busywork”), and he looks forward to Bastard’s Eve because everybody will be out of the temple, leaving him alone to his thoughts and mild rehabilitation.
But of course, his boss and his god (the Bastard) have other plans for him. A mad sailor has Continue reading →
Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (via her blog)
Last week, I was in the mood for something dark and spooky for Halloween month, and Mexican Gothicby Silvia Moreno-Garcia was everything I wanted and more!
The book, which came out June 30, 2020, reminded me of so many different kinds of Gothic romance. It’s a bit weird, but the first thing that came to mind was Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm, written way back in 1932. CCF was apparently a parody of dark and gloomy “rural life” gothic romances that were popular at the time; a sophisticated young society woman gets involved with distant family who live on a dilapidated farm and have quite a few issues. In CCF, the heroine is no-nonsense, and whips everyone right into shape with Modern Ideas, and most (if not all) get a suitable happy ending.
Noemí Taboada is a dazzling, giddy yet intelligent socialite in 1950s Mexico City who is sent by her father to check up on an orphaned cousin who is having some problems in her marriage. Noemí reluctantly agrees, and while she brings modern ideas and solutions with her, she doesn’t (and can’t) implement them in the bossy, brusque way Flora Poste does to Cold Comfort farm. Her antagonists are stronger, more stubborn and weirder, and quite frankly, it makes for a better conflict.
Oh, wave your magic wand, and let flights of fancy give you wing! (Agnes Guppy-Volckman flies over London with a pen in hand.) (Image Via Wikimedia)
When I was a pre-teen, I haunted the libraries of my school and town for books about the unknown and supernatural – Salem witch trials, Atlantis, pyramids . . . I loved them all, and it seemed somewhat surprising that they’d actually be publicly available in my small town. But they were – I guess stories of the odd and eldritch are popular everywhere.
I can’t remember which book talked about automatic writing – the idea that a spirit or your subconscious could work through your body to write meaningful sentence without conscious control of your hand.
Messages could be spelled out with a Ouija board, but some spiritualists used just a loosely-held pencil on a piece of paper. Wikipedia cites William Fletcher Barrett (1844-1925) as a source for this method. In the case of dowsing (searching for an object or resource with a hand-held rod), Barrett thought that the individual’s muscle twitches were responsible for the movement, but that the individual’s unconscious would pick up information through clairvoyance and guide the ideomotor responses. That’s pretty much the theory my half-remembered book put forth.
Some spirits writing messages to the living are often frivolous and write nothing to purpose; others write mysteries hidden in half-riddles. But, there are others who wrote whole books, or at least, so the writers claimed.
Pearl Curran, a housewife in St. Louis in the 1910s, channeled a spirit called Patience Worth, who wrote poetry and two novels through Pearl. This fascinating article from The Smithsonian online details Pearl’s short life and acquaintance with Patience, but as a minor celebrity, there are plenty of contemporary sources that describe her method.
Pearl used a Ouija board, and at first, spelled out each word with the planchette. Eventually, though, the tool proved unnecessary, and just touching the planchette would provoke contact and a recitation. Her husband often took down the words spoken.
There was quite a bit of controversy about Patience’s reality. She didn’t share details of her “life” readily, and she avoided predicting the future. (Ruth Montgomery was a journalist, and popular automatic writer, in the 1960s and 70s who predicted that Atlantis would rise in 1999 due to a polar shift . . . and had to write another book in 1999 pushing back the timeline. So, either her spirit guide was imaginary, or completely unreliable.) In this way, Pearl was able to avoid having Patience being definitively proven false. Many mundane reasons were produced to explain the Pearl/Patience connection, including a split personality.
The Smithsonian article posits that the real truth was in a short story written by Pearl Curran (not her spirit guide) about a young lady who pretends to have a spirit guide in order to get more fun out of life. Perhaps that’s all Pearl wanted, too. At any rate, the flights of fancy attracted the attention of the nation during a world war and an influenza epidemic, which is more than a lot of would-be authors can boast.
I am not proposing that anyone try automatic writing – do your research if you are interested and decide for yourself. I think 2020 is a year full of anxiety and mental instability, anyway, and playing around with it could lead to unhappy confrontations with one’s psyche. I mean, a fly lands on a debater’s head, and the internet went crazy for it. OMG, omen! What would happen if your automatic writing was eerily on point? Never mind there’s at least a 20 percent chance of ANYTHING happening this year. I would be surprised but not shocked if Atlantis made a late appearance and apologized for keeping us waiting.
However, if you are writing ghost stories this month, automatic writing can be a fun driver of the plot, and a way to provide information your characters don’t consciously realize. Fiction is a safe way to play with weird stuff. Enjoy your writing time!
Holy moly, have you seen the news cycle? I was offline for a few hours, and everything is different. James Hamblin, a doctor who writes for The Atlantic magazine, tweeted this:
Text: Just to recap, in the past 24 hours we’ve learned: the president had a high-risk exposure; the president has tested positive; the president is symptomatic; the president has received an experimental treatment; the president will spend “several days” at Walter Reed hospital. – Oct 3, 7:01 a.m. (according to my Twitter feed, so I’m not sure if that’s Japan time or Hamblin time). Continue reading →
Small town Southern comedy drama really hit my spot for sick-day viewing. (Image via Amazon.com)
Despite my best efforts (well, my tired, six-months-of-this-shit efforts), I caught a stomach bug. If a stomach bug can sneak past the defenses we’ve got against infectious disease, I’m a bit worried about COVID-19 sneaking past. But maybe it was just a bad batch of homemade kimchi.
Anyway, I was feeling very under the weather this week, and I decided to travel back to my childhood, when a sick day was about toast and applesauce and watching all the bad daytime TV until I drifted off to sleep. Although, with modern streaming services, I had a better choice for TV; after some thought (but not too much – one side effect of this stomach bug was not wanting to think too much), I decided to watch Tig Notaro in One Mississippi, an Amazon Prime Original.
I’d seen Tig give interviews, and thought she was kind and funny; what I didn’t expect to find was a comedy-drama overflowing with love and heart.
The comedy was laced with a deep, deep love of people and place; it felt a bit like the Lake Woebegone stories in that sense. The characters weren’t perfect, but there was a deep love for them, and their Louisiana small town setting.
The drama? Well, the drama is certainly there. Southern Gothic? A white family full of secrets, and the story during the six episodes of season one slowly reveal them, and brings about a certain kind of healing by the end of the season two. I would give trigger warnings for mother’s death and child molestation by a family member . . . but the triggers are not played for tears and tragedy alone. They are important drivers to the plot, and I found their treatment to be very wise and healing.
Based on events in Tig Notaro’s life, Tig is brought back to Louisiana in time to witness her mother’s death in a hospital after a head injury. She stays with her stepfather, Bill, a man who seems to deal with his grief by sticking to his strict schedule, and her brother, Remy, a high school athletic star who is now an overweight history teacher with no lovelife.
However, everyone finds love in 12 episodes, and they are satisfying romances, with trouble and stakes and everything.
Now, let me get into SPOILER territory (but not too far – look for the SPOILERS OVER in bold to resume reading if you are sensitive). My favorite romance was between Bill and Felicia. They lived parallel lives in their office building for years, when Bill collapsed in the elevator, and Felicia stayed to get him help. From the first exchange, we knew they were a nerd match made in heaven.
Bill’s actor, John Rothman, said in a 2017 interview with Awards Daily TV, “Bill is very compulsive and orderly. He wants all of his ducks in a row, and he’s up against a world that won’t cooperate.” We see a few characters like that on TV – Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon comes to mind, although Bill is even more rigid in his ways . . . however, unlike Sheldon, he’s able to express love to an extent from the beginning (and we know he can feel love deeply – the episode where his cat got out of the house was heartbreaking).
Felicia shares that love of orderliness, but as a Black woman who has made it up the corporate ladder, she can give Bill new perspectives and things to think about. Both of them come with disorderly families that they love dearly (although they find it easier to express annoyance with them). It is so charming to see these very, very reserved “nerds” who don’t like change make very big changes in order to be with each other.
If you need a sweet September binge or rewatch, let me recommend One Mississippi. Great story telling with multiple happy endings, and at 12 episodes of about 25 minutes each, you can binge it in a long Saturday afternoon and still have time to read a book on Sunday.