Sunday, December 4, 2022

NaNoWriMo Recap

Well, I didn't quite make my 50,000 words, but I did pretty well. This was my first time doing NaNoWriMo (say that fast five times!). I've never quite understood the hype. You write 50,000 in the month of November. This would have been impossible had I still been working (oh, retirement, how I love thee), but in order to write that much every day, you have to speed through your chapters, and I don't really write like that. I tend to go back and try to grab inspiration or a potential plot point from what I've written before. But I decided to give it a whirl. My thoughts:

  • I think it's possible to do IF you have a good idea of what you want to write. I'm a seat-of-my-pants writer and this worked against me. I think that NaNoWriMo works best if you use the month of October to craft a brief outline for each chapter. By brief I mean, Maggie and Tommy have a boxing match. Nothing more than that. I started to do that by the middle of the month (of November, sigh), and my output increased.
  • Words of wisdom to live by: If you are committed to hitting that 50,000 words/month goal, don't go back and massage previous chapters. I did this and I lost words. Having said that, I also feel that the tweaking I did helped me figure out what in the hell I was doing with the middle of the current book I'm writing.
  • If you're writing a historical novel like I am, think about what you might like to include beforehand. The month of October is your friend. I didn't do this (partly because I didn't know what in the hell I was going to need in that stupid middle part of the book), and I lost time. But I also learned some cool stuff (like the Cow Hollow neighborhood in San Francisco is named that because the majority of the city's dairies were located there).
  • For me, the most important aspect of NaNoWriMo is that writing every day and trying to reach a goal makes you feel like a writer. I mean this seriously. You are committed. You have goals, You're not fooling around. You are sitting your butt in that chair and the laundry can wait. You are focused on your writing and it's no excuses time. Even if you aren't working on a novel or a short story or anything, it's about working with words. I don't think you even need an end goal like I did, which was to finish the novel I was working on. I did finish it. YAY! But more importantly, I felt absurdly writerly as I was writing it. 

And this might be the most important lesson of NaNoWriMo that you take away from this exercise. Not that these words are brilliant or wonderful or a potential contender for the Nobel Prize in literature, but it says to your psyche, you are a writer. Now write.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

We Return

After successfully avoiding COVID for over two years, I got COVID. It wasn't horrible. There were some complications that weren't life-threatening but very annoying, like fainting on the toilet and messing up my elbow and hip, but hey. I wasn't in the ICU fighting for breath or on a ventilator for weeks. It was like the flu.

In an effort to STOP with the computer so much, I have returned to reading up a storm. Like three hours a day. Hello, retirement, I do love thee. I usually go into a deep dive once I start something, and my current obsession is with the Durrells. I just finished a biographer of Nancy Myers, Lawrence Durrell's first wife, and another woman who suffered at the hands of a narcissistic writer who was lauded and feted. I'm on more of a non-fiction kick these days, but I did read one novel that knocked my reading socks off. My readings for the past month, note, it's top-heavy on biographies.

Five Decembers by James Kestrel (which won the Edgar this year). This was a little (okay, a lot) more violent than I usually read, but the writing was excellent. Don't be put off by the cheesy cover. The first few chapters are grim but the history and the storytelling outweigh the gore factor. Skip over the murder scene. What I find so fascinating about this book is that (SPOILER ALERT) the murder plot arc disappears halfway through the book and then doesn't pick up again until the end, and yet the entire book works beautifully. Kudos, Mr. Kestrel.

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography by Selina Hasting. One interesting fact that I gleaned from this book is that Maugham was considered a brilliant playwright, and I would venture to say that he was more lauded as a playwright than a novelist. I'd never known that about him. Self-exiled to Capri for most of his life because he was homosexual and was terrified that he'd be arrested if he set foot in Britain, he led a life of letters and lust. 

Charles Dickens: A Life
by Claire Tomalin. Well, that biography ruined for me one of my favorite novels, A Christmas Carol. Yet ANOTHER genius male writer who stomped through life with his bros (how Hemingway of him) and abused his wife. After siring ten children, he decided to abandon his wife (his twenty-year younger mistress probably had a lot to do with it), demanded that their children cut off all contact with her (only one son defied his father's dictate), and tried to have her committed so that he wouldn't have to pay for her maintenance. So now I think of ALL THOSE CHRISTMASES that Mrs. Dickens spent alone without her family while he frolicked with his mistress. 

In Pieces by Sally Field. Interesting biography. Very personal, little insight into the movie industry. Decently written. Family dysfunction up the wazoo. Worth a read, not a re-read.

Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage: Nancy and Lawrence Durrell
by Joanna Hodgkin. Yet ANOTHER genius male writer who stomped through life with his bros (how Hemingway of him) and abused his wife(ves). What is so bizarre about Lawrence Durrell is his fascination/devotion/obsession with Henry Miller of Tropic of Cancer fame. I mean, really?

The Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Greene by Richard Greene. Okay, I love Greene's novels. Of all the post-WWII English writers, he is miles above anyone else as far as I am concerned. He is one of those English people of letters who converted to Catholicism (like Waugh and Muriel Spark). This biography makes a point of not harping on Greene's sex life, with the argument that the man was a phenomenal writer, can we please stop talking about all the women he bedded? Well, no, we can't, because so much of his writing was about faith and the loss of it, and it seems to me that Greene converted to Catholicism precisely because he could repent his sins and then move on to the next woman. Anyway, decent biography. He's still one of my favorite writers, although his championing of the traitors in the MI trade is, IMO, inexcusable.

Evelyn Waugh: A Biography
by Selina Hastings. Oh, what a nasty man.  Well-written biography of possibly the most bitter men on this planet. A convert to Catholicism, he basically lost his "faith," if you could call it that, because of Vatican II. It seemed to me that he only latched onto Catholicism because it was probably the one institution that he could count on NOT to change in his lifetime. Joke is on you, pal. I've only read Brideshead Revisited, which I loved and which seems basically autobiographical. I haven't read any of his other novels, and now I won't. Like Lawrence Durrell, he was a man of much brilliant nasty wit.

As they say, that's it, folks. Now on to reading Gerald Durrell's book, My Family and Other Animals.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Elizabeth the Movie and a Cold

 I am recovering from the most hellish cold I have had in years. It’s not Covid, but aside from the not-insignificant infection factor, it might as well be. I am well stocked with *quils of every sort, and I still feel lousy. Despite this, I continue to ruminate on the movie I saw on the plane coming back from the Edgars. Yes, I went to the Edgars and had a fabulous time, with the exception that I couldn’t get my shoes to fit properly and teetered on unstable feet for four hours. It was nice to see that younger people were getting awards and that the nominations and awards were handed out to a diverse group of writers. I thank Laurie R. King for inviting me to sit at her table, and only after the event did I realize that I was sitting with a host of publishing giants. Anyway, my stay in New York was brief, my four days with my daughter and her husband was less brief, and I connected with one of my dearest friends. How do these people have the nerve to live on an opposite coast from me?

What is the point here? The flight from NYC to San Francisco is always long. I watched three movies, the most irritating of which was Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett. Really, you say. Yes, the acting was great. The production values wonderful. So why the large frown? Let me count the ways! They SO bastardized the history that I wanted to leap out of my seat and scream, NO, THAT IS NOT WHAT HAPPENED! But as I had my seat belt tightened to the point of it almost being a tourniquet—I am a very nervous flyer—I stayed put and merely screamed in silence. Not sure one can do that but bear with me.

First of all, you don’t need to mess with this history. It is filled with drama enough. The strongest aspect of this film is that you see Elizabeth move from a girl to a woman. Of course, in the real history, she is tested again and again over time. She is a seasoned political warrior  by the time she ascends the throne, but, regardless, I think that it was a compelling aspect of the film.

What wasn’t compelling was the jettisoning of William Cecil as a doddering old man put out to pasture by the far more conniving Francis Walsingham. Nonsense. Cecil was KEY to Elizabeth’s success. He and Walsingham were a formidable duo—not to mention fervent Protestants, which Elizabeth never was. Walsingham was, yes, her spymaster, but Cecile was her right hand for decades, and bears all the responsibility in the subsequent trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Second, Mary of Guise wasn’t fighting with the English. She had enough on her hands with the Scottish lords who were trying to usurp her authority and stamp out Catholicism, which is the reason why French troops were garrisoned in Scotland. Far more of a threat was her daughter’s, Mary, Queen of Scots, claim to the English throne. This was a big deal. A few scenes with the Walsingham and the Guise brothers would have had as much an impact politically as did the scenes with Mary of Guise, although it would be hard to combat Fanny Ardent’s beauty. By the way, Mary of Guise died of congestive heart failure, not by poison. If one wanted to hype the beauty factor, why not include a few scenes with Mary, Queen of Scots, who was a reputed stunner, and who’d been brought up to be purely ornamental as opposed to Elizabeth, whose sense of queenship and rule were evident by even the age of 25. By having a few scenes in France, it would have signaled that this was a global conflict. We have a smidgen of that with the scenes with the pope and Elizabeth’s eventual excommunication, but Mary, Queen of Scots’ claim to the throne was legitimate in the eyes of many (like everyone) except the English.

Last but not least and perhaps the most egregious was the trashing of Robert Dudley. I hated how they tagged on storyboard at the end, masquerading as “fact” that she was never alone with him again. Total nonsense. In FACT, Robert Dudley was another mainstay in Elizabeth’s life until his death. He was her general at Tilbury when she made her famous speech. He died like four days after the rout of the Spanish Armanda. She was devastated by his death. What destroyed their relationship was the death of his wife, Amy Robsart. He was never able to climb out from under the suspicion that he had her murdered so he could marry Elizabeth. I think that’s dramatic enough, isn’t it?

So perhaps I know too much about English Tudor history. Fair enough. But it took me out of the story and the rationale for the jettisoning of the real history didn’t make sense to me. Like I said. You don’t need to make up stuff about this period of history. It’s overflowing with intrigue enough. Also, no one goes about murdering ambassadors. Even in this bloodthirsty age, you kicked them out of the country. 


Friday, January 28, 2022

Mary Queen of Scots' Downfall: The Life and Murder of Henry, Lord Darnley by Robert Stedall

I am giving this book five stars because it very much clarified for me that many of the choices that Mary made that weren't so much out of passion but naiveite. Her Guise uncles never envisioned her as a real political force, merely a pawn in their machinations, and her upbringing and fawning by her father-in-law left her with an arrogance and innocence that rendered her incapable of ruling in the shark tank comprising the Scottish government. The Scottish lords, especially Moray, envisioned her as a similar puppet, but then her marriage to Darnley and his, frankly, sociopathic personality tipped the scales, and she was forced to work against Moray's best interests, which sealed her downfall.

I've read numerous books on this subject including Fraser's masterpiece, John Guy's excellent book, and Wormald's commentary on her governance (or lack thereof), and Stedall's book sealed all these differing opinions together in a satisfying conclusion. Part of the problem with trying to get a hold on this period is the sheer number of players in this saga and their shifting loyalties. This book also made clear what exactly was motivating the people around her regarding the Bothwell marriage, and how this was a long game on the part of Moray that certainly ended up turning trumps in the end. It is difficult to see Mary continuing as a monarch under ANY circumstances. England needed to break the back of the French hold on Scotland to keep its borders secure in light of potential invasion by Catholic powers, and, as long as Mary was queen, the auld alliance was still intact to a certain degree. England also needed a strong Protestant government, which, again, as a determined Catholic, made Mary a huge liability despite her many attempts to placate the Protestant lords. Plus, she was just so clueless and Cecil was just so ruthless, as was Moray. She was outgunned on every level. I very much enjoyed this book.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Retirement Begins

 I've now officially retired. My husband isn't quite sure, because even though I formally retired last month, I was still going into the office a couple of times a week to clean it out. We're looking at over thirty years of paper, a dead mouse that had actually mummified, and a collection of old computer equipment that could populate a small planet. It was daunting, not to mention terrifying, because my thoughts immediately went to contracting hanta virus when I saw that critter, stiff behind a server that had been sitting in the same spot for twenty years. Fortunately, I always wear a mask these days.

As I worked my way through ALL THAT PAPER, checks I'd written for conferences I'd put on, government contracts, and bank statements for the last twenty years, my initial thought was, goddamn, why did I do this for all these years? It felt trivial, not to mention very grimy, and, oh, I don't know, sad that I could have, should have, been doing something else. But I had kids to raise and parents to eventually take care of, and I had unparalleled freedom to come and go when I needed to. Like when my son smacked his head against pipe in middle school and cut his forehead open, or when my mother couldn't turn off her bathtub tap and the water was filling her tub, and she couldn't bail fast enough and the water was threatening to flood her bathroom. Those sorts of things happen, and when they did, I could shut my door and walk out. The convenience and ability to come and go as I pleased (and benefits!) outweighed any other considerations. I wrote in my spare time so that my brain wouldn't atrophy, and I worked with some cool people. Not cool in the sense, wow, they should have a podcast type of cool, but people who make the difference in our general lives without people noticing the difference.

I worked as a technical editor and general dogs body for a number of professors at U.C. Berkeley. I worked with a guy who you can blame or applaud for not being able to smoke on airline seats, and others who probably will, due to their research, make it very likely that when the Hayward fault erupts, you will walk out of the building you work in, shaken but not crushed to death. And I worked for another guy who's working on creating green concrete. Did you know that concrete production is a major factor in global warming?  Think about that the next time you walk down the sidewalk.

One day I was grumbling about my job and my upcoming retirement to a friend, and how I felt I'd skated through most of my life, while others racked up the applause, and that I thought my window for success as a writer had passed because I was filing and typing in between the kid duties and parental obligations. And, although I do think my window for success as a writer HAS passed, she pointed out to me that the achievements of these guys (yes, they were all men) hadn't been done in a vacuum. She was right. I was an important cog in that general wheel. And while all of these achievements would have happened more or less, maybe one research project wouldn't have become funded because I didn't edit it before it went to contracts, and that research spawned other research that spawned... Science and research builds on its self. It's a series of stepping stones, moving forward for the greater good.

As I was sweeping up the debris from hours and hours of shredding (those little squares get everywhere), I wondered about all those admin people like myself, who aided those researchers in coming up with vaccines to save people's lives in the time of COVID. People like myself, behind the scenes, probably not paid very well, and whose name will never appear in newspapers.

I closed the door to my office for the last time and put my keys in an envelope for a fellow admin, who I think is invaluable to the organization. Someone who is/was like me, not newspaper worthy, but who can also claim some secret glory for making this planet a better place to live.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

John Madden: 1936-2021

 I am not a football fan. At all, as in I pretty much loathe professional sports (with the exception of tennis—yes, I am a total sports snob). And yet I listened to John Madden every day on my drive to work when he had his morning show on the local radio channel. Why, you ask? Because this was a man who loved what he did. He was honest, blunt, funny as hell, and had a turn of phrase that was impossible to mimic or even mock. He LOVED football. That came through on every single show. He was that unbelievable combination of being the everyday guy and being unique. His analysis wasn’t fussy or hyperbolic, it was said in plain language that you might hear in someone’s living room on a Sunday afternoon, except you wouldn’t because your brother-in-law isn’t John Madden. I so enjoyed listening to someone who’s take on a game and life was completely bereft of any cynicism. It was about the game. Pure and simple. I can’t say I understand football any better, but I can also say that to start the day with John Madden’s humor and all around bad ass-ish-ness is nothing to sneeze at. John, God’s put together your team. Now get out on that field.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Movie Review: Spencer

 I haven’t been here in a while. Life. People dying. Enough said.

I went to the movies last week and saw Spencer, which isn’t quite a dramatization or a biography or whatever you may call it. If you know even the smallest tidbit about Diana, Princess of Wales, then you will find yourself stretched between trying to match her history and this “fable,” which is what I believe the director called it.  Unfortunately, he choose to include enough about Diana’s history that fit in with his narrative and jettison huge hunks of that which don’t, and we have a jumble of fact and fantasy, and therefore it doesn’t hold together as either fact OR fantasy.

The acting is superb, which makes it even more maddening. Stewart pulls it off, regardless of the disconnect. She does exactly what the director intends, which means that she has down pat many of Diana’s mannerisms, which also means that we are, again, leaping back and forth between the “real” Diana and the Diana of the fable. 

Aside from the acting (the entire ensemble is great, no gripes there), there is the issue of HOW this victim of both fantasy and/or fact is betrayed. I didn’t come away feeling sorry for her at all. I thought, wow, you are petulant, petty, whiny, and a royal pain in the ass. We are meant to feel pity for this character. We are meant to believe she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and all these meanie royals just don’t care. Pout pout pout. As my sister said, Gee, she’s in tears 75% of the movie. We are meant to believe that a history of Anne Boleyn is going to push her into some sort of psychosis, and it’s not even a subtle hint that the royal family will, five years later, orchestrate her demise, akin to Henry murdering Anne because he wanted a son to carry on his line. Historically speaking, had Anne Boleyn had sons, Henry never would have had her executed. 

It takes the ghostly specter of Anne Boleyn to prompt Diana to have her “Come to Jesus” moment where she tugs on the pearls (a symbol of her husband’s affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles) and lets them cascade onto the floor. Of course, she could have told Charles when she opened the pearls that she had no intention of wearing them. And this is what is missing. Diana has no anger. 

Why didn’t she tell that factotum that she refuses to be weighed because it’s silly and demeaning, and then just walk away? She’s a goddamn princess and he’s a secretary! And the fact is that most of us have traditions around the holidays. I do. How hard would it be to show up on time for dinner? The director makes this seems like the most unholy of demands when you have to show up for dinner on time at my house. 

It’s difficult to believe that this character is a woman of thirty-one. She acts like she’s sixteen. She is cowed by everyone. She gets advice from the head chef (oh, please, why did you go there? AS IF) and her maid confesses her love for Diana (AS IF SQUARED), and these two actions plus the ghost (can’t forget the frigging ghost), prompt her to finally find her spine. 

I truly hate this word, hate, hate, hate it, but this woman has NO agency. Instead of appearing late for dinner in some outfit selected for her, what if she appeared on time in jeans and a tee-shirt. And let’s make it even more interesting: no bra. Instead of mooning around the grounds in the dead of winter trying to gain entrance to her old house, why not start talking through dinner about land mines and AIDS patients. THESE were the causes that made Diana so brave. It wasn’t that she turned her back on royalty that made her such an interesting woman; it’s that she humanized it. This movie gets it all wrong. WRONG! Driving away in a Porsche, singing to a CD at the top of her lungs, and thinking this is freedom, only confirms in the British Royal Family’s eyes and mine, that she’s a superficial airhead.

Finally, near the end of this movie, there is a dance montage with her in a series of her iconic outfits, which not only emphasizes that she was nothing more than a mannequin for the British Royal Family, but also for the director.