Darkness is a wonderful way of filtering out distractions, of bringing into focus what’s really important. And since the topic
for this cycle of OGaG is night music, I decided to share a little excerpt from a work in progress called Concerto, which is written to showcase both darkness and the music hidden there. I hope you enjoy it.
I started awake from disturbing dreams that I couldn’t quite remember. In the tight-fitting darkness, it took me a minute to remember where I was. I was on Isle of Skye, a small tatty cottage so remote that the landlady had to deliver me there in a battered Land Rover. To say I was off the grid was an understatement. No phone, no Wi-fi, no transportation until the woman came back for me on Monday morning. There was only me, the hills and the sea with storms predicted – a typical bank holiday weekend in the UK. In my whole life I’d never been so isolated. The thought of being alone was a writer’s dream of solitude and inspiration come true, wasn’t it? I’d had neither solitude nor inspiration for a while now, and I was doing it up right. I didn’t care about the rain. I had no plans but to sleep and possibly read. I was exhausted and as empty as the landscape beyond my cottage. Upon arrival, I’d made myself a sandwich, drank half a bottle of Malbec and went to bed.
Sometime while I slept, the storm had passed. Even the sound of the sea seemed muted in the muffled dark of the room. I assumed it was the sea I could hear. It was dark and the storm was already raging when we arrived. The landlady seemed unperturbed by the return journey she faced, as though the storm were nothing. She showed me around the place that had been well stocked for my arrival, since I would be going nowhere for the next three days. She wished me well at the door and left me alone.
And now here I was wide awake with three days of nothing but my own company stretching before me. I was considering watching a movie and grazing through the package of shortbread left on the counter near the tea service. The landlady assured me the ancient DVD player in the lounge worked, and there was a fair sized library of movies. That was when I heard what I couldn’t possibly have heard. There was piano music coming from somewhere close by. I slid from my bed holding my breath as the melody built to a pounding crescendo that reminded me of the storm. My hostess had told me I was the only guest in the converted stone stables that now housed three cottages. There was room for three more, but the money had run out. The stables were all that was left of a summer home owned by some wealthy lord now long dead. The house was in its prime when the Victorians found the Highlands and anything Scottish all the rage. But the place was just too remote and its maintenance too expensive, or so the landlady said. Now what remained other than the stables and a collapsed stone barn was just a rubble heap. Though I could see none of that in the dark and driving rain.
But it wasn’t raining now, and I definitely heard piano music. Holding my breath not wanting to miss a single note, I slipped from the bed and switched on the lamp to find no electricity. I had been warned that it sometimes went out during the storms. There were torches stashed strategically in each room, but my eyes were accustom to the dark, so I moved through the cottage on tiptoes listening to the music that had become more plaintive, full of longing that made me ache in places that hadn’t felt much of anything in a long while.
A peek out the kitchen window left me gaping at the thick blanket of stars where the Milky Way spilled across the clear sky. The sky, the music, the feel of the night so close around me made the emptiness inside suddenly more companionable. Without thinking, I threw open the kitchen door and stepped, barefoot, out into the soft chill, barely feeling the wet cobbles beneath my feet. There was no breeze, a calm that I knew wouldn’t last. A glance around revealed the hulk of the collapsed barn and, beyond that, less pronounced heaps of stone and rubble, the remains of what had once been an impressive estate. Once again the music crescendoed and I turned to find the source. Candlelight flickered from the cottage at the end of the stable yard and something in the music that drifted from an open window filled the night with the very ache I felt.
I don’t remember moving to the patio of the place, nor to the French doors, the only nod to elegance any of these cottages had, but I will never forget my first sight of the music’s source. The doors were flung open to the night, curtains barely stirring. A baby grand piano filled the space beyond and as the music softened and then crescendoed again, my gaze came to rest on the creator of such exquisite sounds, a man tall and straight. His eyes were closed, his hands moved over the keyboard as though the instrument were a lover, and the sounds he coaxed from it were very much the sounds of love and all the pain and lust and joy and sorrow that comes with.
I couldn’t help myself. I moved forward as though I were in a trance, lost in the music, lost in the intimate weave of sound and silence and human connection. And then, full attention focused on the man and the music, I didn’t see the empty stone planter in front of me until I was doing an inelegant swan dive over the top to belly flop on the paving stones with a breathless yelp.
The music stopped with a brutal glissando, and the only sound that broke the breathless silence following was a cold baritone voice. “You’re trespassing.”
I would have answered but the fall had stunned me and knocked the air out of my lungs, which was more distressing than the wet cold stone of the patio, but less so than the chill in the pianist’s voice.
“What in hell do you mean coming outside in this weather half naked?” He was up from the piano and kneeling to throw a blanket around me before I could catch enough breath to respond. What I did manage was another undignified yelp as he lifted me into his arms as though I weighed nothing, turned on bare feet and carried me in to the lounge where he plopped me unceremoniously onto a sofa covered in richly woven tartan throws. “You’ll catch your death, and it would serve you right spying on me. Who sent you?”
“Are you serious? No one sent me. I woke up and heard your music. It was a bit of a surprise since the landlady said there was no one here but me.”
“So, my playing disturbed your sleep, did it?”
“No. It’s just I woke up, and the storm had passed. I heard music and ...”
“And?” He studied me with a raised brow. His dark hair was mussed and slightly damp, as though he too might have just come in from the out of doors.
“I wondered where it was coming from, that’s all.”
“Well now you know.” He nodded me toward the open French doors.
But in the few minutes we’d been talking, the rain had started again, and a gusting wind flung the lace curtains about as though they were nothing more than wisps of fog.
“Fine, you don’t have to be so rude.” I shoved off the couch with as much dignity as I could manage and stomped toward the patio. “You might have considered that flinging your doors open in the wee hours of the morning and playing music like that, someone would want to listen.” I braced myself for the slog back to my cottage as another gust of wind flung a cold spray in my face.
“Wait.” He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back, then with some effort against the growing gale, slammed the doors. “You can’t go out in that.”
For a long moment, he studied me where I now stood shivering, freshly chilled and wet. At last he gave a hard put upon sigh and, before I knew what was happening, he stripped out of his shirt and handed it to me. “You’re … not decent.” The muscles along his high cheekbones tensed at his words. “And you’re wet and cold.” He gave a quick nod to the front of my nightshirt. I hadn’t noticed until now that the fall and the rain had rendered it transparent. “Besides, you’re a distraction. I can’t play with you … like that.” He turned his back, and I found myself blushing furiously as I stripped and slid into his white shirt, still warm with the heat of his body. He was not a small man, and the shirt fell to my knees. It smelled of the night chill and the lightning heat of the storm, though I suspected the disturbingly arousing scent was more his own than that of the storm.
When I finished fumbling with the buttons, he once again stood facing me, holding one of the throws. He wrapped the tartan around me, moving close enough that I could feel the heat radiating off his stripped torso, and I was struck again by his size. I don’t know why I had thought a pianist must be a tall, thin wraith of a man, who lived on the music and cigarettes and little else. He was robust and well muscled, with a peppering of scars low across his belly.
I couldn’t help myself. Maybe it was the fact that the whole incident seemed like a dream that I half expected to wake up
from at any minute -- one of those that I would long to go back to once it vanished in the daylight. “And you don’t think this will distract me from the music?” I rested my palm against his chest, and he drew a tight breath between his teeth, trapped my hand with his own, then lifted it away, with more of an effort than the act should have demanded.
“Trust me,” he said holding my gaze with milk chocolate eyes, “when I play, you won’t be distracted by anything.” He curled a finger under my chin and lifted my face until my heart accelerated and my mouth watered at full lips slightly parted, so close to mine. Those lips curled in a smile and he pulled away. “That is what you came for, isn’t it? To listen.”
And just like that he turned like a man with a purpose and seated himself once again at the piano, nodding me to back to the sofa.
I’ve been a music lover since I was a kid, and was
brought up to appreciate the classic American songbook. I majored in music
education in college and taught for a few years upon graduation. Some years
ago, I got back into singing and I can still do a mean lounge lizard act on
karaoke nights. My specialty is the stuff Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tony
I’ve always admired the way a talented lyricist like
Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn or Oscar Hammerstein could tell a beautiful story set
to music. I’m especially fond of Cole Porter, and the way he expressed emotions
with words. Since Night Music is the theme here, I want to highlight one of my
favorite Frank Sinatra albums, “Moonlight Sinatra.” Each song is about the moon
and the romantic effects it seems to have on us. Check out these lyrics for
“Moonlight Becomes You”:
“You’re all dressed up to go dreaming; don’t tell me
I’m wrong. What a night to go dreaming. Mind if I tag along?”
If that isn’t an invitation for seduction, I don’t
know what is. The same can be found on another track, “Oh, You Crazy Moon.”
“When they met, the way they smiled, I saw that I was
through. Oh, you crazy moon! What did you do?”
And there’s this lyric that reveals a starry-eyed
infatuation gone awry:
“I guess I should have seen right through you, but the
moon got in my eyes.”
The ability to tell a love story with lyrics is a rare
gift. One only has to look at the output from the prolific pen of Irving Berlin
for proof. Of all the songs he composed, my personal favorite is “Be Careful,
It’s My Heart” from the film “Holiday Inn.”
“Be careful, it’s my heart. It’s not my watch you’re
holding, it’s my heart. It’s not the note I sent you that you quickly burned;
it’s not the book I leant you that you never returned.”
Sheer poetry set to music.
Over the summer, I had the opportunity to once again
hear the great Tony Bennett in concert. At 91 years young, he can still put
across a song with an energy most people half his age would envy. One of my
favorites from his repertoire is the you’ll-be-sorry-you-left-me blues ballad,
“I Wanna Be Around.”
“I wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody
breaks your heart, a somebody twice as smart as I. A somebody who will swear to
be true, as you used to do with me, who’ll leave you to learn that misery loves
In addition to these classics, I’ll admit to having a
fondness for more recent love songs. I always get melancholy when I hear Bryan
Adams sing “Have You Ever Loved a Woman?” and Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow
Brick Road” brings back memories of long-ago dances with someone special. One that
still gets to me after all these years, by the late Jim Croce, is “I’ll Have to
Say I Love You in A Song.”
“Every time I tried to tell you, the words just came
out wrong, so I’ll have to say I love you in a song.”
It doesn’t get much more romantic than that.
Sinatra was blessed to have the talented Nelson Riddle
as his primary arranger. Besides being a great orchestrator with a knack for
setting the proper mood, Riddle had a philosophy which lends itself to this
topic cycle. He always equated music with sex, and he had a wonderful quote
about it— “After all, what else is there?”
Think about that the next time you’re programming the
soundtrack for a romantic evening by the fire.
I hope you'll excuse a self-promoting post, but it happens to be my day of the fortnight to post on this blog, and it also happens to be the release date of my new novel New York Heat, and the novel takes place in a gay night club -- so it fits the "night music" theme!
If you've read my blog posts over the past year, you would have seen me mention more than once that I was working on a very long and very draining project -- but one that was also very rewarding and pushing me to new levels of skill in my writing.
Club 21 is New York City’s hottest gay nightclub. The drinks are cheap, the music is infectious, and the go-go boys are the stuff of dreams.
For Dan, it’s where his life will forever change. With his signature on the dotted line, he goes from bartender to owner. And with that change, he realizes that both his responsibilities and his stress have skyrocketed.
Club 21 is home. The staff are family. Like a mama bear, Dan is fiercely protective of his clients and his staff, especially his go-go boys, whose carefree dancing inspires Dan to make Club 21 the best it can be.
Especially Ken, once a fling, now the love of his life. There’s so much that needs to get done at Club 21, but Dan is terrified that all the long evenings will drive his young go-go boy lover away. Dan doesn’t want to lose him, but if anything ever happened to his staff—his family—Dan would never forgive himself...
Content warning: New York Heat contains a scene of mass violence and the death of a main character.
The theme of “Night Music” sets off a train of thought in my weary mind. A night train, of course, with its lonely, lingering wail. There are other sounds of night, too, that are music to a listener in the right mood. A skein of wild geese honking as their flight crosses between us and a full moon in early evening; coyotes (or wolves) howling at the blood red moon during an eclipse, or any time at all for their own reasons; even the rhythmic counterpoint of katydids calling back and forth in the late summer, or owls calling to their mates.
Music framed by night has a special beauty, an intensity diluted by daylight. At night sound rules over sight; even when manufactured light tries to dispel the darkness we are still aware of the night on a deep level shared with our ancestors around a fire pit in a cave.
The true lights of night, the stars and moon, owe their bright display to the contrast of their setting. The presence of moon and stars in the night sky strikes a chord in the human heart, inspiring poetry and song. The moon is frequent theme in music, and not simply because it rhymes with June. The poet Sappho, as far as scholars can tell, was the first to refer to a silver moon in her verses; the term may seem clichéd, and of course it is now, but no less effective for that. Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is probably familiar to thousands who don’t know its name or composer but have heard it, especially if they’re fans of figure skating competitions.
The thought of night music stirs memories of other personal connections with music. My family was musical in the church choir/community theatrical sense, and while church choirs did usually sing in the morning, special concerts at night seemed more significant, and local productions of, say, The Music Man or Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were definitely in the night-out category. What occurred to me first, though, was the unusual pleasure and sense of sophistication when, in my late teens, we would go to professional productions under a vast tent in Framingham, MA, at a time when those things were in vogue. Are summer musical theaters in tents still a thing? I don’t even know. But we saw John Raitt in Carousel (long before his daughter Bonnie became even more famous,) and Gordon McCrae in, I think, Kiss Me Kate and West Side Story where Russ Tamblyn as Riff (which he played in the movie as well) impressed me so much that I don’t at all recall who played the main male lead. Being in a tent felt almost like being outside, under the night sky. Music and night. I loved it.
One more memory, to suit the season. Christmas caroling with the church youth group after dark, singing to the elderly or disabled, sometimes invited inside for cookies or candy, but at our best out in the cold night air. I know when my folks had become the elderly the carolers came to sing to them, too, and I had a rush of envy for the singers and the fun of caroling at night. Maybe this Christmas I can at least persuade my family to sing a few carols after dinner; we do sing a bit from time to time, but, as always, my brothers will launch into the harmonies and I’ll have to carry the main tune to help out the not-so-musical members of the gathering. And we won’t be outside under the night sky; too cold for my almost centenarian father, who would sing harmony too if he could hear much at all. Ah well, memories must do.
Oh, I forgot something, and remembered by the cold light of day, which does have its advantages. I'd meant to add an excerpt to pay tribute to the night music of sex in all, or at least some, of its many-splendored glories. So I'm editing here to add some. Yes, I've written the occasional straight story, and even, this time, a shifter one.
The Wildest Spirit
Coyotes howled at the cold white eye of the moon, igniting a deeper howl low in the man's throat. He fought it down, resisted the damp autumn earth tugging at his feet, the maze of scents coiling from the shadows.
"I promised you they'd sing.” She stood silhouetted in the doorway, her blanket spread wide so that its shadow reached out across him like great wings while her warm, demanding scent enfolded him.
Impossible to guess how much she understood. If she knew... He had killed for that. But not this time.
The thought of flesh on flesh, of smooth arms and slim, strong legs, drew him toward her. Even now, with the moon and the cool, dark forest calling to him like a home he’d never known, her human body kept him still in man-form.
Then, at another point in the story:
He kicked the door shut and fumbled at his boots. By the time he got to the bedroom door she was kneeling naked on the bed, loosened hair streaming down around her face.
He knelt behind her and she pressed back, guiding him, drawing him into her own hunger, her own rhythm. The only sound was her quickening breathing, and his, and the brush of hair across her shoulders as her head twisted from side to side until at last a cry burst from her so keen and piercing that he never knew whether his own cries came in the man's voice or the wolf's.
They slept, and woke, and she leaned above him with a wildness beyond beauty, rousing him to new dimensions of the human body’s joys, then to pleasures a dream-like step beyond. There came a timeless moment when, her body riding his, her head thrown back in that shrill, triumphant cry, the solid earth dropped away and they plummeted together through space. Falling, falling, cold air ripping past, battering them, forcing the ecstasy deeper and deeper, holding it there, unending... Until at last a great sweep of wings brought darkness, and oblivion.
He did not go into the forest that night.
So there you go. Now I must get back to baking Christmas cookies, and maybe humming a carol or two.
“A fire is burning. The long night draws near. All who need comfort are welcome by here. We’ll dance ‘neath the stars and toast the past year, for the spirit of Solstice is still living here.
"We’ll count all our blessings as the Mother lies down, with snow as her blanket, covering the ground. Praise to the Mother and the life that she brings. She’ll waken to warm us again in the spring.
"The poor and the hungry, the sick and the lost, these are our children, no matter the cost. Come by the fire, the harvest to share, for the spirit of Solstice is still living here.”
- “The Solstice Song” by the Wyrd Sisters, who live in Canada.*
This is the song I thought about singing – but didn’t – at the wiccan Yule event that Mirtha and I attended yesterday evening. The priestess explained the significance of Yule as we sat in a circle with candles in our hands, then we shared a delicious potluck meal, including seasonal cookies and cakes.
Two women read a story about fairies learning for the first time that the Sun King dies at Solstice, but then he is reborn as a baby. The fairies look forward to playing with him as he grows.
A man wearing chain mail under a red cloak, with an impressive crown of antlers over a wreath of evergreen leaves and berries, sang a song to the tune of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." It was about Odin’s Wild Hunt, how he "sees you when you're sleeping, [and] he knows when you're awake," and how you can’t escape, but it’s fun if you try. (This was a refreshing contrast to the sound of the original heard endlessly in every shopping mall.)
A boy played “The Holly and the Ivy” on his violin, while walking around the makeshift altar. He looked quite young, but played with skill. After I recognized the melody and we discussed the symbolism of holly and ivy (male and female plants), the boy was persuaded to sing the first verse.
The priestess asked several times if anyone had any other song or poem to share. I whispered to Mirtha that I would sing “The Solstice Song” if she would join me, but she said she didn’t know it, and couldn’t follow my voice because it is higher than hers. So I didn’t sing.
Later, at home, I sang it to her, and I was glad I didn’t try singing it for a larger audience without having practiced beforehand. As Mirtha noticed, I sounded a bit flat. I sounded much better in my own head. The song actually sounds best in three-part harmony, as the Wyrd Sisters sing it. I'll think about practicing it for next year -- or better yet, coaxing two other women to sing it with me.
*Several years ago, when the first Harry Potter movie was being produced by the Time-Warner company, the three-member band, The Wyrd Sisters (from Manitoba, the closest Canadian province to the east of me) approached the film company about the name of the Wyrd Sisters in the movie. They wanted a written sign to appear somewhere, saying, “The real Wyrd Sisters live in Canada.” The company refused, and the group of Canadian women had no chance against the army of lawyers that Time-Warner could afford. If you look them up and hear them on Youtube, you can see why they are a legend on the Canadian prairies.
The wiccan event was held in the cozy basement of the Unitarian Centre, within walking distance of the house I share with Mirtha. (But we didn’t walk because it was dark and we were bringing meatballs, chicken wings, and a beet dish.) The place was very familiar to me because my late parents were Unitarians. I felt at home.
Outdoors, the temperature was perfect. It hovered about 0 Celsius (or 32 Fahrenheit, the point at which water freezes). It wasn’t uncomfortably cold, and the prairie air felt the way champagne tastes: crisp and sparkling. The full moon blazed in the dark sky.
I sometimes wish I could honour the longest night of the year by hibernating like the local prairie dogs and coyotes. Silly squirrels can be seen running up and down trees and even across streets, but they haven’t always lived here. When I first moved to the prairies with my parents in the 1960s, there were no squirrels here. Like them, I have to stay awake all winter, and I sometimes feel as if my job forces me to run in circles for the amusement of students who can’t understand what I squeak at them. Luckily, I get a break from the classroom until January 8.
I used to tell people writing meant nothing to me. Family, friends, writers, readers... I told everyone that writing was something I only did to make money. Writing wasn't like breathing, for me. I didn't feel like I had to do it or I'd die.
I'd heard from a lot of other authors that they'd write even if nobody paid them for it. Even if nobody bought their books.
Not me. I was only in it for the cold hard cash.
That was then.
It took me quite a number of years before I started to realize the place of meaning and resolution writing held in my life. When I first started writing, I was selling erotica shorts to anthologies and periodicals. I was signing contracts with niche publishers.
I think it was the market for periodicals that dried up first. Anthologies followed a few years later. Around that time, the small publishers I was signing with started toppling like dominoes.
So I started self-publishing. Why not? The stigma was lifting. It was suddenly easy to publish independently. And I had quite a number of works at my disposal, including those that had come back to me from publishers that had folded.
Things went pretty okay. I was hardly a Kindle Millionaire, but I understood the process. Publishing seemed pretty straightforward. I uploaded my books to various retailers through various distributors and in various formats. They sold copies. Again, not a million copies, but enough that I could pay my rent and put food on the table (and in my cats' bowls).
Looking at my life holistically, I'd have to say, at the moment, it's a mess. My career is a huge part of that mess. I've experienced an enormous amount of grief and loss this year--in terms of loved ones dying and so forth--but also in terms of loss of income, dwindling sales.
The last book I wrote that was meaningful to me sold two copies.
Although my career is writing, writing is not merely a career. Not anymore.
Writing has become much more than a career.
Much, much more.
After my cousin's death this summer, I started writing about grief. About my grief. Non-fiction. I started out telling myself it was publishable, that I was writing for monetary gain. But I realized very quickly that allowing anyone on the planet to read the most intimate details of my family's pain would be a betrayal to those who were hurting the most. There could be a time in the future when that changes, but that's kind of not the point.
The point is that, even after I realized I was writing stuff I couldn't possibly publish... I kept doing it.
I kept writing because the act of writing helped me. That's when I realized I was actually journaling. Didn't feel like it, because I'd never typed a journal before. I'd run out of people to talk to (or, I convinced myself I had, convinced myself nobody wanted to hear me repeat the same thoughts over and over again), but I could always write.
It helped me so much. I could never have imagined how much, honestly. If you're going through some shit and it's never occurred to you to write it all down, I highly recommend it. Most people have probably figured this out by the age of eight. Guess it took me a little longer than that.
There's something freeing about getting to a low point in your career. You can stop thinking about what others want from you, because clearly they don't want anything--if they did, they'd be buying your books. It's a time when you can turn to yourself and ask, "All things being equal, what would you really like to work on?"
And then you can write a book like this:
Or a book like this:
Or a book nobody's ever going to see, because it isn't a book at all.
I can’t sing if my life depended on it. I’d be the first to
admit that I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Apart from learning the play
the recorder on wet lunchtimes at school and reaching the stage where I could
squeak out a more or less recognisable version of the British National Anthem,
I would say my musical accomplishments are negligible.
It has never beena problem.
As I’m fond of telling myself, I have other gifts. I’m good with figures, can
take a decent photograph, and tell a good story. These days I even manage to
make what I like to think of as a living by doing just that.
But I love to listen to music, good music, and I am in awe
of those who produce it. Not so much the stylised, intricately staged and
electronically enhanced forms of music usually belted out at concerts (though I
do confess to having bought tickets for Bon Jovi next summer), but the more
spontaneous and unadorned variety. Acoustic guitar, choral singing, opera. I
don’t even start to pretend to understand the technical merits, but it will
invariably stop me in my tracks and I just listen.
That’s what music is for? Yes? For listening to, enjoying,
relaxing. And those who are able to provide the rest of us with such richness enjoy
my undying admiration.
I want to share with you a surreal experience I had perhaps fifteen years ago.
In a past life I was a regeneration manager charged with investing
huge dollops of tax payers’ cash to restore old buildings and breathe new life into
disadvantaged neighbourhoods. I worked in an area of inner East Leeds in the
north of England, and my patch was dominated by a huge, derelict church.
Mount St. Mary’s was – still is – a grade 2* listed building.
The Pugin architecture earned it that honour, and it was, in its day, the
largest religious structure apart from cathedrals in the Roman Catholic Church
in the UK. No small claim to fame.
But with such accolades come massive restoration problems. The
architectural listing severely limited what could be done with the disused
building, the costs of repairs would be astronomical, and the place was no longer
required for the purpose it had been built. It was, quite literally, rotting away.
But despite the holes in the roof and the piles of pigeon
droppings which covered just about every interior square inch, the acoustics in
the old church were, we were reliably informed, nothing short of miraculous.
They were perfect, quite, quite stunning. Places of worship are, in part, built
to house performances of theatrical magnificence so I suppose it stands to reason.
Even so, Mount St. Mary’s was alleged to be a cut above the rest.
And to prove it, enter one Maggie McDonald, mezzo-soprano,
international singer and renowned voice coach. For reasons I cannot now recall,
Maggie very kindly agreed to come to the derelict church and test out the
acoustics, with a view to helping make the case for converting the place into a
rehearsal venue for choral singing. Shebrought her own Scottish Widows cloak and accompanied by only myself,
our PR agent and a photographer, she picked her delicate way through the rubble
and guano to reach the space where the magnificent altar once dominated the
congregation of Roman Catholic faithful. I stood, transfixed, among the
dereliction and decay, and marveled as Maggie belted out a perfect rendition
of Amazing Grace to an audience of three,
and an indeterminate number of pigeons.
No doubt about it, the roof might have been shot to pieces
and the stained glass windows long since gone, but there was not a thing wrong
with those acoustics.Shit, I can still here her now...
word made flesh. electric
the wires speed
of light the
dream takes shape.
I am now, on
my knees, bound
and breathless, open
and still, awaiting
ivory parchment; mystic
flickering phosphor glow
and fade; tangled
velvet shadow, ruby
real as the
lust in your eyes; you
naked branches, nightwind
my hair, westbound
through the dark. I
speak your name and
you are there. fragile
the worlds melt
to mist: I
step beyond the
me. drink me. all
the signs, recite
the charms, weave
the web of
words. We practice ancient
called me, claimed me, named
me with my
secret name, clasped
me in this
we reinvent each other, mage,
apprentice, captive, lover, fashion
the stuff of Story, words
as lens to
focus longing, coalesce vision
molds breast, lips
taste thigh, kisses
silver fire: forms
I’m comfort reading at the moment. I do that when I’m stressed or when things are rough. I won’t pull any punches, nor will I pretend this is a normal post. It’s anything but. My beautiful sister died on the 1st of December. It was sudden and unexpected and I will take all the comfort I can get.
Reading is something she and I both delighted in, and we often talked about what we were reading and excitedly made lists of books to add to our own TBR pile from those discussions. Barnes and Nobles was a regular pilgrimage for us when I visited her in Oregon. We would gather a stack of books each and bring them to our table in the adjoining Starbucks with its central fireplace and huge windows. Then we’d order coffee and sit and pour over our treasures for hours. We did it every time. She did it with many of the children and young people at her church to celebrate their birthdays. Everyone wanted to go with Nancy for a Barnes and Noble fix.
The last ‘what are you reading’ post I did for OGaG was about how much fun my sister and I had reading out loud to each other when I visited her in August. This was a new discovery for us, one we relished, and because of the heat, one we did often during those two weeks when it was too hot to do anything else.
Comfort reading is different for everyone. My sister was a Christian, and her comfort reading was always the Bible. She knew it well and took delight in the passages that gave her hope and courage for the future. But I’m a writer, and when I take refuge in the pages of a book, I seek out my favorite authors. I often return to my favorite reads. You know, the ones I mean, the ones I’ve read over and over again and never get tired of. I don’t want to have to struggle and concentrate on what I’m reading. I don’t want surprises in hard times when it’s all I can do just to get out of bed in the morning. I don’t want cliffhangers or gut wrenching endings. I want what is familiar. I want what leaves me feeling satisfied. I want what leaves me with hope. I need a Happy Ending.
There have been a plethora of comforting quote this past two weeks - some from the Bible, some not, some cliché, some thought provoking. But quotes don’t get me there no matter how pithy they are, no matter how timeless or tried and true. I need way more words than a quote. I need to get lost in a forest of words. I need to immerse myself in the ocean of story. There is something in the iambic heartbeat of the written word, even when not read out loud, something in the ebbing and flowing, in the cadence of a story unfolding that comforts me, that gives me a sense of continuity, of the order that still exists in the midst of chaos, of the meaning and the purpose we all have to seek out in our celebrations and in our losses. I need the familiar. I need a safe place in which to lose myself and forget the real world for a little while. In some ways, I guess it is like returning to that place below my mother’s heartbeat, that place where I feel protected and safe from all the pain and stress of the world outside.
My sister and I laughed and joked about spending time with the dragon as we read Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels to each other, changing our voices to accommodate the characters, repeating passages we liked, stopping to discuss and speculate. That series is a comfort read for me, but a bit too close at the moment because my last memories of it were of sharing it with her. I am, instead, seeking refuge in the re-reading of the Throne of Glass novels by Sarah J Maas. The world Maas has created is high fantasy, a place of magic and struggle, of heroines and heroes overcoming great odds
and great loss. While everything is alien, those experiences that bind us all together in our humanity are not. They are as uncomfortable as they are in the real world, but once removed and tempered with the promise of a happy ending. In spite of my own TBR pile, constantly threatening to avalanche, I return to what is tried and true because the landscape of my world no longer feels safe or familiar. My life is forever altered and I feel as though I’m navigating without a map or a compass. I need the familiar. I need words, lots of words as my hideaway, my refuge. I need a place in which to lose myself for a while just until things are a little less raw, just until I can find my way again. So yes, I’m comfort reading, and I may well be for quite some time.
When last we tackled the subject of “What are you
reading,” I listed several books that were in my to-be-read pile. I thought I’d
provide an update, along with some comments in case anyone wants to read these books.
I recently finished “Dead Last” by James W. Hall.
While this Florida-based thriller generally measured up to Hall’s previous work,
I must admit that I was slightly disappointed. A couple of intriguing plot
twists were dropped in about halfway through, but they weren’t fully resolved.
Also, there was no real satisfactory motive given for why the serial killer did
what they did. Still an overall good read, though.
In progress now is another of his books that I’d never
gotten around to reading, “Red Sky at Night.” It’s off to a good start, and I’m
already hooked. The same with a book by another fave author, Carl Hiaasen. I’m
reading “Nature Girl,” and so far, so good.
I previously listed a new novel called “Ohio,” by
Stephen Markley. I had high hopes for this one but sadly, they weren’t
realized. I lost interest several chapters in, mainly because I found the
author’s narrative hard to follow. I may go back to it someday.
The same problem arose with “His Guilt,” by Shelley
Shepherd Gray. This Amish romance sounded promising, but again, I found it
tough to maintain interest.
I did finally finish “Dirty Money,” by Richard Stark
(aka Donald E. Westlake). No disappointments here. Westlake delivered another
home run with this story about the professional thief named Parker, who only
wanted his cut of the money after his cronies ripped him off and left him for
dead. Time to root for the bad guy again.
What I’ve mostly been reading lately, though, is my
own next novel, “The Neon Jungle” (Nick Seven Number 6). I plan on releasing it
this next year, and I’ve been busy doing rewrites and revisions. I’ve found
that this is the fun part of the job, adding little bits of atmosphere, making
the characters more lifelike, and fine-tuning the dialogue and plot points.
While I have the floor, allow me to plug my newest
holiday-themed romance, “Cupid Says Happy New Year.” It was recently released by
Extasy Books. This is a sequel to last year’s “Santa Slept Here,” but like all
of my series books, they don’t need to be read in order. Both of these stories
are lightweight rom-com stuff like you see on Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel
this time of year, but with more heat. Actually, let’s be honest—they are both
classified as erotic romances. You’ve been warned.
I did something recently that I haven't done in a long time.
I read a book from start to finish. Like, a real book. It had a plot and everything.
Lately, like for the last year or so, I've been reading next to nothing. When I pick up a book, I get halfway through and then it becomes a slog or there's something else wrong with it.
(I've recently decided I've had it with my favourite thriller writer, James Rollins, because of his habit of "burying the gays". When I hit the mid-point of the book I was reading and saw that one of the villains is gay and his boyfriend is also a villain, I knew they would end up dead by the end of the novel, as do all gay characters in Rollins's book. I may have been wrong, but I stopped reading.)
So I've been, like, disillusioned with books. I've had one disappointment after another.
And then Chase Connor, a gay young adult / new adult author I'm connected with on Twitter asked me to read his book. I admit that I very reluctantly took it. Though I self-publish and I run a small publisher, I've found that whenever someone asks me to read their self-published or small-publisher-published book, it's always a disappointment.
Mike is told to stay away from Ian, the boy in school who is a badass, a danger, a psycho. But there's something about Ian that makes it so Mike can't look away. It might be the way he protects the smaller and weaker kids. It might be the art that he draws. It might be the quiet contemplative mood that seems to settle around Ian all the time.
Mike isn't sure of what his feelings for Ian are, but he knows he wants to get closer. And in time he understands that he is deeply attracted to Ian.
Ian, though, wants Mike to keep his distance. Ian is into Mike, that much is clear, but he won't let down his walls and Mike doesn't know why.
To make the matter more complicated, Ian will only let them meet and hangout in the woods by the stream in the long, hot days of summer. Once school rolls around, they have to pretend that they don't know each other. Ian swears it's for Mike's safety.
What follows is a series of summers -- long, hot, bright days and the cool evenings in the stream that runs through the woods. Mike and Ian explore both themselves and each other. They challenge each other.
And when it matters most, they push each other to be strong. Ian, who Mike considers to be the strongest person he knows, still has to be pushed by Mike to be stronger, to stand up when it matters most.
This book is rather light on plot, but it's deep on theme and mood and emotion. I couldn't put this book down. Not only did I discover a fantastic new author that I love and not only did I make a new Twitter friend, but with this single book, Chase has renewed my faith in reading and my faith in self-published and small-publisher-published books.
And if I can do a little bit of extra promo for the fantastic Mr. Connor, he has a new book that comes out today -- The Gravity of Nothing.
I might have said Am-Reading rather than Must Read, since I’m on the very last story in an anthology edited by a friend for her own small, fairly new press, but it’s a prime example of a Must Read situation. There are certain complications to having close friends who are writers and editors. In this case we never pressure each other for reviews, or even ask, but we do read each other’s work and, when appropriate, post reviews. I couldn’t review her last book, a novel, because I’d already written a blurb for the back cover. In fact I had beta-read it, with genuine enjoyment and admiration: Medusa’s Touch, by Emily L. Byrne. (Lisabet will know of whom I speak.)
This time, as I said, I’m reading an anthology she edited and published, with stories by fifteen writers, with a wide variety of styles, perspectives, and themes. This is Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) edited by Catherine Lundoff. Yes, Catherine has recently shifted to using a different name for her erotic works, and this book is not erotica.
I’ve almost finished it, and know already that I can heartily recommend it, but as anyone who’s done much editing knows, it’s hard to look at a story with a reader’s eyes and suppress your inner editor. Silly things occur to me. Should all three stories with one-eyed characters have been presented next to each other? But other than that, they’re as diverse as can be, so I shouldn’t be picky. Two or three typos—but after those either there weren’t any or I was too involved with the stories that I didn’t notice, which is as it should be. An immense diversity of themes and setting and mood and bursts of wild creativity, but I found that a simpler, more straightforward piece, set in the Louisiana bayous rather than more distant and fictional realms, was one of my favorites. That means, of course, that by then I was in full reader mode, no longer editorial, which is a very fine tribute to the book as a whole.
The other book is A Few More Winter Tales, edited by Matt Bright mostly with reprints to give the writers more exposure. Catherine Lundoff has a story in this one, too. My story comes first and is entirely included in the “Look Inside!” feature of Amazon. Not erotica—my point of view character is the wooden bird in a Swiss cuckoo clock, who gets confused as to what he sees some humans doing should be reported to Santa as naughty, or nice. Okay, maybe very subtly erotica. amazon.com/dp/B07L2CX1GF
And the Might Read category, which should probably be Must Read: Old letters. A few more than a hundred years old, the others spanning the century up to maybe the turn of our century. Letters (some of them even from me when I lived in California) saved by my parents and bundled up in various places around the house I just sold for my father, now near me in an extended care facility. I should read those letters I really should. There’s a lot of history there even beyond family matters. I should read them, I really should. But will I?
Please excuse my silence here for the past two days.
I’ve been hard at work marking late essays before my first exam on Monday morning (December 10). I haven’t had time to read anything else.
Here is a randomly-chosen passage by one of my international students (i.e. English is not their first language) on a short story by Margaret Atwood, “My Last Duchess.” (The story refers to “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, a monologue put in the mouth of the Duke of Ferrara, rumoured to have had his teenage bride murdered in the 1500s.)
The point of view in “My Last Duchess” is very important. The reader sees the point of view through the author’s eyes. The reader gets to see inside her head and understand how she feels. The reader, however, does not get to see inside Bill’s head so the reader does not understand why he is trying to defend the Duchess. The author, however, has a reason why she doesn’t defend the Duchess and why the Duke should be defended. The reader also sees why the author sees her teacher as important to her and how her teacher is her role model.
Students were supposed to explain how the viewpoint from which a particular story is told (first-person, third-person limited, third-person omniscient, third-person objective, etc.) affects all the other elements: plot, tone, characterization. I’ve used this as an essay topic for a few semesters because it tends to prevent plagiarism. For some reason, the standard on-line student-help sites (Schmoop, Sparknotes, enotes, Grade Saver) don’t feature sections on viewpoint which could easily be copied-and-pasted into an essay. So first-year university students who rush to their favourite site as soon as they get the topic for their next essay are left to flounder on their own.
There is a lot of plot summary in the essays I’ve read so far.
In addition to the essay on a particular short story, students had to write about a novel.
Every semester, I must assign a book-length work (novel, collection of short stories, volume of poetry, play in several acts) that students must read on their own without much guidance, and then write about in an essay. This assignment was set in place by the English Department as a whole, even though I think it’s too much for first-year students in addition to everything they are guided through in class.
Last year, I bought twelve copies of the very recent novel Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis, put them on reserve in the university library (they could only be taken out overnight), and assigned an essay on it. I found the animal-fable format of the novel intriguing, and it is set in a particular part of Canada: the city of Toronto, with a map. The following semester, I found passages from on-line book reviews leaking into my students’ essays.
This semester, I decided to change the book. In line with the university policy of “indigenization,” I bought ten copies of a dystopian YA novel, The Marrow-Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, and placed them in the library. Serendipitously, I learned later that the Metis author will be coming here to Regina, Saskatchewan, to give the keynote address in a conference on dystopian fiction in February 2019.
The novel is movingly and poetically written, and it combines a coming-of-age story with the endless journey of a makeshift “family” of survivors, including a wise old “nokomis” (here she would be called a “kokum”), a grandmother with useful knowledge to pass down, and a kind of family leader who turns out to be a man who was married to another man, the love of his life, whom he lost and quietly mourns.
There is much to like about this novel. The central plot premise, however, works much better as a metaphor than as a biological possibility. Indigenous people are being ruthlessly hunted by a Canadian government agency for their precious bone-marrow, which contains their dreams, and all other people are losing their sanity because they can no longer dream. The extraction of the marrow kills the subjects, and it is saved as a kind of fluid in test tubes that are then transported away from the “schools” where the captive human subjects are destroyed.
In a one-class discussion, several students asked how this marrow transfusion is supposed to work, exactly. All I could say is that the novel is not intended to be sci-fi, and the author clearly had other priorities when writing it than to work out the biological details.
The exploitation of indigenous people as a natural resource seems all too believable, and the “mainstream” (government) assumption that the bodies of those defined as sub-human should be available for use by the privileged has resonance in a time when sexual abuse is regularly in the news.
It bothers me, though, that a process that is clearly conceived of as symbolic is central in an otherwise realistic novel about survival in a damaged physical environment, relationships, group dynamics, and the preservation of endangered cultures, including languages. True enough, the makeshift family creates a tradition of storytime because stories (both individual and collective) are an important means of maintaining life and hope, but even the stories-within-the-story are meant to be truer, in some sense, than official denials and rationalizations.
I chose this novel because -- at the time I chose it -- there wasn’t much about it on-line for students to find, but The Marrow-Thieves has won several awards and is getting a lot of buzz. I can see that I’ll have to change the book again in the near future.
Meanwhile, I have to read essay after essay which summarizes the plot instead of defending an argument about the concepts in it.
Then I’ll have to grade a pile of exams a.s.a.p. I’m sure there will be times when I’ll feel as if my marrow is being drained.
My best friend wrote to me the other day. She asked, "What's your favourite Christmas food?"
She was eavesdropping on some people who were discussing the topic, both of whom agreed their favourite Christmas food was... mashed potatoes.
My friend thought this was very odd. She eats mashed potatoes all the time and doesn't consider it a festive food in the least.
I consider stuffing to be the Christmassy-est food. Out of curiosity... what would YOU consider to be the most festive food for this time of year?
My friend told me about this very specific square her aunt used to make for their dessert tray. It doesn't have a name, as far as she knows. But she hasn't had one of those squares in years, because her family hasn't had a big Christmas gathering in ages.
Her grandmother died this year, too. Hers was even older than mine, well into her nineties. So I guess this will be the first Christmas without a matriarch for both our families.
It's funny how you start feeling close to the top of the food chain, when the older generations die off. Except, in this food chain, death is at the top of the food pyramid. It'll get you, in the end. Every time.
I wish my friend lived closer to me, or I lived closer to her. She was telling me she's feeling very festive. She's not usually a Christmas person, but this year she feels like making a gingerbread house and baking cookies. And December's only just begun!
But I guess I can relate to the need for festiveness, considering I just started reading an honest-to-god Christian Romance because it's got "Christmas" in the title. Listen, I am not a romance reader. I am not a Christian. That's how desperate I am for... for...
Last night, I watched about 5 minutes of a British TV show about people who celebrate Christmas all year long. I'm pretty sure it was supposed to be funny. To me, it was more "yikes" than amusing, because all these Christmas people struck me as the saddest of sad clowns. "Following his divorce, this man started celebrating Christmas every day of the year..."
What is it we're yearning for when we get in the holiday spirit?
Peace? Kindness? Compassion? Generosity?
On my mother's side, we've always celebrated Christmas a week ahead of time. We'd do Christmas Day individually, in our own homes, but for my grandmother, that big family gathering was her real Christmas. My grandfather was an atheist, but he was raised Jehovah's Witness, so he didn't celebrate at all. I don't know what the two of them did on Christmas Day. Pretty sure it was just another day, for them.
That's why I was so surprised when some of my aunts and uncles suggested that we NOT continue our traditional family party. I understand where they're coming from, because they stated it outright:
It'll be too difficult. It'll be too sad.
But that party was my grandmother's favourite day of the year. She loved her family, and there were very few occasions when she got to see us all (or, at least, the vast majority of us). We'd do something for Mother's Day, have a party on her birthday, but Christmas was the big celebration.
The party is going ahead, but a few of my aunts and uncles have dropped out. I don't hold that against them. As I've mentioned many times before, we don't show emotions in my family. Instead of running to each other for support, we run to our corners to be sad in secret.
If we don't hold the party this year, a year that saw the deaths of my grandmother and my cousin, we never will again. I watched my father's family fall apart. My friend has seen the same with hers. I have so little left in my life--people, especially. I can't lose my family. They mean too much to me.
I’m going to give you a look inside my head.See what you think about what’s in there.
It took me a while to warm up to eBooks, especially in the
beginning when copyright DRM devices were still being figured out and you would
pay full price for a book in PDF form and find you couldn’t open it.You certainly couldn’t pass it around.And even now, there is still nothing quite
like being able to hold a physical book in your hand and turn the pages.In one case a close friend of mine loaned me a humor book that had been on her kitchen
table for a long time.I never read the
book – but I smelled it.The book
smelled like her skin, like her kitchen table. It was
evocative of intimate conversations and a drink late at night.It was evocative of her.I never read the book through but I loved to
hold the paper pages to my nose and inhale her essence, conjuring her presence
like a magician whenever I desired it.
When I visit a person’s home, one of the first things I do
is look around to see what books they’re reading.I always think that, as in my case, it helps
you to know the person, what they think about all the time.There was a time this might have been true,
but more and more people seem not to read.It is rare to find a house that has a full library or even a sloppy
stack of library books piled by the easy chair.My impression is that people don’t read anymore.One of the reasons I’ve gotten away for so
long with writing sex stories is that no one in my family, none of my friends –
except one – reads books the way I do.No
one is impressed.No one
cares.I’ve even shown my son anthologies,
some quite respectable, that had my stories.Zero.So I’ve gotten away with a
lot, which is probably for the best.
I love ebooks now.I
have four huge libraries of ebooks, mostly on six subjects – Sex, Writing
Craft, Poetry, Spirituality, cook books and information technology.One of my friends, the one that actually reads books, calls me a Renaissance Man.I’ll take it.
These images here are a peek, and not even a complete one, a
partial one, of my Google Books library, which is only one library of four.I am a fiend.My relationship with books is not a normal one.I hoard them like King Solomon hoarded wives
and concubines.Like Solomon, these hundreds
of books are my only lovers.But what a
vast harem of wise, passionate and interesting lovers they are.They are my courtesans.
My mind seems to revolve around three fundamental themes at
all times.Spiritual journey, the craft
of prose and poetry, and the art of evoking sexual pleasure.I appear to be an unambitious man.An interesting but so so paying job, a small
entry level house, an aging car.A
crappy tiny lawn.But the fact is I’m a
very ambitious and driven man.
ambitions are all interior, they are all hidden.Sex, the mysteries of the spiritual path, the
hunger to write better and tell better stories.These are all on the inside where nothing shows.But these ambitions have served me well,
because whatever all, I have achieved one of life’s most coveted prizes – I like
Not in a vain way.Not
in a narcissistic way.I find, that at
my advanced and advancing age, I have become a genuinely interesting
person.I like myself.I enjoy talking to myself.I enjoy scolding myself.I enjoy being in my own skin even as entropy
advances it’s decomposition.All I have
really asked of life is to not be bored.I am never bored with myself, and I am never bored as long as I have a
book to read.And as long as I have my
smart phone in my pocket – I have hundreds of books to read wherever I am, as
well as the ones I write.