Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Play Family Matters

Familiar by Danai Gurira, Directed by Taibi Magar, Seattle Rep through May 27.

Where is your home? Is it where you rest your head? Where your family is? Where your heritage is? Is it what makes you YOU?

Yeah, that's the sort of thing I'm thinking about in the wake of Familiar, by Danai Gurira. Ms. Gurira is a now-well-known actor from things like The Walking Dead (Michonne) and Black Panther (Okoye). But I'm going to concentrate here on her writing, despite the fact that the curtain call included the Wakandan salute. Because her writing is really, really good.

The central thrust of the play is similar to that of The Humans, from the start of this season. A family gets together and argues. In this case the family is from Zimbabwe (shortened to Zim throughout), and living in Minneapolis. Tendi (Sha Cage), the eldest daughter, a successful lawyer, is getting married. Her betrothed is Chris (Quinn Franzen), who is white, but that's a not big thing here. Or rather, there are bigger things going on. Chris and Tendi are both evangelicals, though she was raised Lutheran, though that's not the big thing here. Tendi's mother (Dr. Marvelous Chinyaramwira) is sort of cheesed off by this, since none of the family is in the wedding party. Father Donald Chinyaramwira (Harvy Blanks) bears up under his determined wife. Sister Nyasha (Aishe Keita), a struggling singer/songwriter and Aunt Margaret (Austene Van), who does direct sales and drinks (a lot of drinking in this play), descend on the household. 

And then someone invites Aunt Anne (Wandachristine) from Zimbabwe, Marvelous' defiant oldest sister who convinces the couple to undergo the roora, a Zimbabwe tradition where a bride price is set which the groom pays (sort of a reverse dowry in the western sense). Protip to all young couples considering marriage - when someone says you should engage in a family tradition, check out that tradition fully before saying yes.

So, we have a powderkeg here - Mother Marvelous wants nothing to do with old country tradition. Worse, Aunt Anne threatens Marvelous's own position as domineering matriarch. Nyasha wants to know more about her heritage, Tendi wants to know when Nyasha is going to get a real job. Both Donald and Margaret drink and try to stay out of the way. Chris is clueless but trying, and in performing the roora, is called upon to produce a negotiator, who ends up being his even more hapless brother Brad (a completely comic Michael Wieser).

And it all works, in a way that The Humans fails to. Each of these characters have their own agency, their own arcs, their own identity. Everybody gets a moment, every actor gets the chance to show that their character owns (or deserves to own) their own life. Families squabble and celebrate, schism are between generations and heritages, secrets are revealed, and the action ricochets from slapstick to pathos.The end result it to produce not an easy, simple picture but a collage of different experiences the builds to form a cohesive unit. The family bends but does not ultimately buckle.

The set is one of those mini-mansions common to successful professionals, and the Rep continues its run this season with double-stages, upper and lower, but has it make sense within the universe of the play itself. It looks like one of the upper-middle-class house beautiful abodes. Oddly, some of the sight lines are blocked from characters stacked in front of each other, which is s rarity for a Rep productions. Another challenge: the actors argue and walk on each others lines, and often dive fully into their ancestral Shona language, so sometimes you get a bit lost if you missed something important. 

But these are quibbles. The strength of the actors matches the strength of the text. It is worth seeing.

More later, 

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Car Theft

So, I just had a brief encounter with a car prowler in my front driveway.

This happened maybe an hour ago. I was sitting in the living room, and someone drove into our horseshoe driveway and parked. A guy got out and ran towards the side of the house, where we park the cars. People sometimes use our driveway as a turnaround, and the Lovely Bride sometimes has clients dropping off stuff, so I wasn't panicked. When he didn't come directly to the door, I walked out.

And found him sitting in the driver's seat of the Lovely B's car. When he saw me approach, he got out.

I said "Can I help you?" (sorry, not a tough guy).

He said something like "Don't worry about it," and ran back to his car, got in, and drove off, heading east. I got the license plate number, wrote it down, then went looking for my L Bride, who was in the side yard (away from the vehicles). She had seen nothing, but after a quick consult, we decided to call 911.

And I did and gave them the details. Very polite, asked all the right questions. They asked if I had taken a picture of the other vehicle, WHICH I HAD NOT EVEN CONSIDERED but was a good protip for the future. Took down all the data, and told me an officer would be in contact with me.

Which happened about, say, twenty minutes later. A Kent police officer called, confirmed the information I had given before, and asked for some personal information. Apparently a number of other calls came in on this guy, who was driving around, getting into cars and houses, and taking stuff.

Which makes a bit of sense, because if he was STEALING the car, he would be leaving HIS car behind, which was, frankly, a newer car. Unless he stole THAT car, but the officer didn't say anything about it.

In any event, they caught the guy, and that's where matters lay at the moment. At no time during the encounter did I feel threatened - the guy didn't have a weapon, or even address me other than a quick comment as he ran back to his vehicle. After the fact, realizing what went down and going through the list of what COULD have gone down, well, I'm a little rattled.

Glad they got the guy, though. Good job, Kent Police.

More later,

Friday, May 04, 2018

How I Came To Write Scourge

It has been, what, forever, since I've talking about Scourge, my Star Wars novel, right?

I mean, an entire universe has rebooted since then. But I'm still pretty happy with how things turned out.

So in honor of May the Fourth, here's the secret history of how Scourge came about:

In early 2008, some ten years ago, I was contacted by an editor at Del Rey, who said "I understand you can write quickly. Would you like to write a novel based on a Star-Wars licensed computer game?" I confirmed the first and asked to learn more about the second.

The game involved was Star Wars: Battlefield III, from a company in England. They sent me the overall plot, which involved force-using clonetroopers. It was interesting. But checking around, I couldn't find any reference to the game itself in the gaming press. Not even a "hey, we're working on this." So I was concerned that I would put a lot of effort into something that might not see the light of day.

Talking with my agent (who is brilliant, by the way), we hit upon putting a kill fee into the contract - if the whole project fell apart, I would be paid for the work done. The good people at Del Rey said sure thing, but there was no way this book would be cancelled. So I novelized the plot of the game, keeping all the main points, touching all the locations in the game, and adding a few grace notes here and there while justifying and deepening character behavior. And they liked it. We were good to go.

And then the game was cancelled. Others can go into the whys and wherefores, but Star Wars  Battlefront III game was never going to happen. And the book project was shelved as well.

Which was cool, because I got paid for the work I did. It was a win.

Then Del Rey came back and said, "You know, we've signed a contract with you. Would you be willing to roll that over into another book?" And I asked what book and they said "Something for the new Star Wars Old Republic MMO."

And I had to say no, because my day job was working on an MMO, and while the guys at ArenaNet were cool with me doing a Star Wars novel, even a Star Wars licensed computer game novel, they really drew the line at me doing work for a directly competitive product. That's cool, I had to agree with them, so I had to say no (but I kept the money already earned).

Then Del Rey came back AGAIN as said "You know, we've signed a contract with you. Would you like to roll that into another, original book set in the Star Wars universe? Oh, and we can pay a little more since we don't have to give a piece of the action to a game license." And I said yes, cleared it with my day job, and gave Del Rey about a dozen pitches.

And some were cool and some were interesting/silly - A Dexter Jettster mystery that started in his diner, a story involving that Giant Green Bunny named Jaxxon,  and The Autobiography of Jar Jar Binks (which I REALLY wanted to do, believe it or not, and do it straight.). They settled on a novelization of a game product I has written with Owen Stephens at WotC - the original was called Tempest Feud, and it dealt with Hutts and Corporate Space, which I had loved since the very early Han Solo books.

They sent me background information on Hutts, most of which is stuff that I myself wrote for the game product, making me my own source material. The name we settled on (after much batting about) was Scourge, and the cover was a surprise to me, showing up in my in-basket about the time it was released to the general populace (I would have given the cover Jedi rose-colored glasses as described in the book, but that's me).

Of course, over the entire course of events, with changes of both direction and editors and schedules (this was a done-in-one, so did not have to be part of a larger series), this quickly-written novel took longer to complete, finally being published in 2012. It took so long that I got my final payment on the contract before I turned in the manuscript (contractually, it had to be closed out with X months of signing, or upon delivery, and the contract timed out before I made official turnover.)

All this is not the worse example of how the sausage is made, and the folk at Del Rey were great to work it, and I'd jump at another chance, in this revised and rebooted universe (makes phone hand symbol and mouths "call me!"). But I am quite content to be one of the final entries in what would now be the "Legends" category, and Scourge can still be found some of your better used-bookstores (and some of the not-so-better ones as well).

Oh, and the original plot? I considered posting it, but the original plot the game was based on, after things fell apart for it, was moved over to ANOTHER game under development. So you can find the basics of the main character, X2, HERE. So I could have written that book after all. But it did finally see the light of day.

In the mean time, May the Fourth be with you. More later.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Political Desk: What, Another One?

A new ballot popped up a few weeks ago for the citizens/denizens of Kent, and is due this coming Tuesday. I've been putting it off because I needed to check my facts, and even after doing so, I'm a little confused and a bit tepid on recommendations.

It is a slender thing of a ballot, just two items, but has been getting the full-court press from the local powers. Mailers, robo-calls, yard signs, even recommended posts on the Facebooks. Add to this a relatively tight timeline, and I have to be honest, I'm giving the whole thing a real big side-eye right now.

And it should be easy - its about more funding for police and for fire departments. You value our police, right? And our fire department? Public safety and all that. So what's the prob?

Proposition A is a 2% Utility Tax Increase for Police and Criminal Justice, and the big thrust is to be able to hire and equip more officers and support staff. The reason that its on a ballot in the first place is that, according to state law, if you juice the utility taxes over 6%, you have to put it to a vote. This will put it to 8%, so that's why we're here.

And the mailers and robocalls have been stressing that local police have been over-extended, that we're spending a lot of money on overtime, crime is up, and the locality is losing upcoming funding from King County no longer paying for the Panther Lake annexation (which the local government knew was coming) and a change in how distribution of sales tax was made (which was also apparently in the works since 2008). Now, on the annexation, yep, its more territory to cover, but it is also more housing and development to tax, which should make for more tax income as a result. Plus, as the land itself becomes more valuable, that increases the property tax assessment. But apparently not enough to expand the services to the degree we need.

Part of my skeptical side-eye is that in the midst of this the city gave the developers who bought the old Par 3 golf course a 8-year property tax holiday so we would add MORE population to the city, which seems to put us even deeper in the revenue hole. So should we punish the police department for city hall giveaways to developers? I dunno.

Part of me is also resistant because this is one of the "Cute Puppy" funding issues - we get to vote on things we find to be useful functions on government, but don't get to confer on more mundane matters (like the Showare Center, now in its third year of not losing as much money as we expected). We like our parks, schools, and municipal services, and when asked, yeah, we want to make sure they are funded. Other stuff, like giving businesses or real estate developers breaks, not so much direct democracy.

Hence the full-court press across major media. I'll be honest, I'm going with Approved on this, but I am concerned and cannot firmly recommend anyone follow me. The Kent Reporter has been curiously uninterested in this (A search turned up a couple editorials pro and con), and the statement in opposition in the voter's guide is more hung up on the Regional Fire Authority than in the ultimate needs. Read the online voter's pamphlet - and your mileage may vary.

Speaking of the RFA, we also have Proposition No. 1, which provides more funding for Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority. A few years back, Kent folded its fire department into the RFA as a money-saving measure. The RFA is funded by property tax collection (which can only go up 1% per year) and a fire benefit charge (FBC), which is uncapped but arcane in its explanation (square footage plus estimated resources to deal with a blaze). FBC, not limited, has gone up as a percentage of the total contribution, and this is measure is supposed to bring balance back to the force by resetting ("restoring") the earlier property tax setting.

And I'm a little bollixed by the figures, to be frank, which opens the door to reacting with emotional responses. Like the fire department (and who doesn't?), vote approved. Worried about property taxes going up after earlier ballot measures? Reject it. The folks writing the statement in opposition have a web site, where they throw up a lot of concerns, while a member of the RFD responds in the Kent Reporter. As with previous proposal, I am going approved, but I need to know more about this as it is happening, and feel uncomfortable making any definite recommendations.

Sorry, folks, I'll try to be more resolute in the future.

More later,

[Update: And both measures got shellacked, to the tune of 58-41. Supporters blame the fact that we have to pay our schools. Or ... we could be a little more cautious on giving freebies to developers. Oh, and check out the FBC. That still doesn't sound right.]

[[Update Update: Part of what I'm talking about is this. After complaining about poverty and the need of the voters to kick in, the choice to renovate the Council Chambers is just announced.]]

[[[Update Update Update: And then we have this, followed quickly by THIS. Remember, part of the absolutely necessary tax increase was because we don't have the money to buy new police vehicles. Sigh.]]]

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Meanwhile, in 1923

What I did today:

That's a 1923 Buick four-door 23-35 touring car.

More later,

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Play: Pick and Roll

The Great Leap by Lauren Yee, Directed by Eric Ting, Seattle Rep through 22 April.

True confession time: I've never been a big fan of basketball. I think my father took me to a game of the Pittsburgh Condors, before that team folded, but I never caught the bug for the sport. And my apathy is despite going to college in the middle of Indiana, where the March Madness sets in around February, and living just north of great maelstrom of the Chicago Bulls' championship seasons, AND having a younger sister who played college ball at Grove City. Basketball was very much a take-it-or-leave-it sport for me, and I knew just enough to hold my own in office water-cooler conversations.

That said, I want to say The Great Leap is a great play about basketball. And politics. And relationships.

Here's the summary - the play bounces between 1971 and 1989. In 1971 a boorish Saul (Bob Ari) , an American coach, arrives in Beijing to teach American-style basketball to the communists as part of the sports exchange (see ping-pong diplomacy). Said exchange was supposed to cool some of the heated rhetoric between the US and China. His interpreter/assistant coach is Wen Chang (Joseph Steven Yang) who is by-the-book, introverted, and has spent most of the Cultural Revolution keeping his head down and not attracting attention. In 1989, Saul, now facing the end of his coaching career after several losing seasons, is invited back for a game between University of San Francisco and Wen Chang's national team. And Manford (Linden Tailor), an undersized Chinese-American high school point guard wants to go to China on that team.

And to be honest, early on, things look dire, as the characters feel a little bit like caricatures in your typical sports story. Past Saul is an ugly American, and his relationship with Wen Chang echoes Uncle Duke and Honey from Doonesbury. 1989 Saul is a washed-up jock looking for redemption. Manford is the hot young kid, impatient for the rest of his life, hot-headed and opinionated, who may give Present Saul's team a chance in Beijing. The opening is humorous, but feels fairly traditional - a typical sports story of the plucky underdogs.

And then something happens. The play pivots. Yee unfolds the characters and shows their depth and reasons for being there. She plays fair with the audience - the clues are there as to why Manford really wants to go to China, what redemption Saul is looking for, and what motivates Wen Chang, but she lets them bubble up, so when you realize the hows and whys of the characters, it makes sense. And the action rises through to the final final shot of the game, reported by the ensemble in rapid-fire delivery that brings the viewers into the tension of basketball.

And that's saying something, since there are fewer actors on the stage than on the court. Ari and Yang are pitch-prefect in their roles, and Tailor sells the loudmouth-with-talent perfectly, skirting the edge of his own boorishness. Keiko Green as Connie operates as a support character for Manford as opposed to having her own arc, but holds her own. Yee brings all the pieces together both logically and, more importantly,  emotionally, and literally takes your breath away in the final moments of the game, as outside forces are moving against protesters in Tienanmen Square.
Leaving this photo by Jeff Widener of
Associated Press here. No particular reason.

The set is, of course, a basketball court, both in San Francisco and the arena of the US/China "friendship game". And the Rep continues its romance with action taking place on a higher stage as well, this time depicting Wen Chang's apartment with a view of the square. It works better here than in either The Humans or Ibsen in Chicago as the upper stage does not loom over the audience.

I am incredibly impressed with The Great Leap. It took its characters, and did not subvert them so much as deepened them and brought out their underlying humanity. It showed me a couple tricks I might want to fold into my own writing. This play will surprise you, and I think you'd enjoy it, even if you're not a fan of basketball.

More later,

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Shelf of Abandoned Books Revisited

A long, long time ago, I wrote up a list of abandoned books on my bedside bookshelf. I had a growing pile of stuff "I was reading" and the Lovely Bride got me bookshelf to reduce the clutter. Now I have a bookshelf of stuff I've been meaning to get back to AND a pile of books by the bedside.

But over a dozen years later, what IS on the bookshelf? Why are they still there? Where did they come from? Why did I stop reading them?

Here's the current list (not counting RPG books, which drift in and out much faster).

The Riverside Shakespeare - This one is always on my shelf, though it did not get a mention last time on my write-up. Purchased for a college class back in the 70s, it is a heavy volume of onion-skin paper, and is my go-to for Shakespeare references. Last went to it for the origin of "Too Soon The Lightning".

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver -  This replaced The Poisonwood Bible as the Kingsolver I keep on the shelf (the PB went to the Lovely Bride's sister). Dealing with pre-war Mexican art and politics, it should be a book I'm reading. It isn't.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell-  A tough read, an underground classic in SF, ignored by a lot of fans despite its SFian tropes (rockets! cybernetics! first contact!). It contains two narratives - one of the preparation to get there, and one, where the sole surviving member of the team (a priest) comes back broken and in disgrace. Oddly, I set it aside right after the first crewman dies on planet, and never came back.

Prologue to War - 1805-1812 by Bradford Perkins - Mostly first person accounts of the War of 1812 (which is one more area of history I pay attention to). Has a complete signature of the book missing, and remains on the shelf as a reminder to me to find another copy.

Alpha Beta by John Man - A short book on the history of the alphabet. I love the subject, but never deeply engaged with it.

Littlest Shoggoth by STAN! - This is from the illustrious STAN! It is not abandoned, it merely found this place to rest of the moment. Check it out here.

Shakespeare of London by Machette Chute - A thick paperback that I tend to bring with me on long trips or going to Ashland Oregon, then ignoring for a while and bringing it back. When I'm reading it, I find it interesting, but then it slides down to be my third-choice book.

Brotherhood of the Road by Michael Chabon - Historic swashbuckling adventure novel from the author who did Wonder Boys and The Sitka Detective Agency. Two Jewish bandits from different backgrounds act as bodyguards for the outcast heir to the Khazar throne. Set it down over a discussion about elephants and left it there. Strong Fafhrd and Grey Mouser overtones.

This Side of Paradise/ The Beautiful and the Damned by F Scott Fitzgerald. Picked it up in the wake of The Great Gatsby. Found it to be a bit more of a challenge.

Anything Goes by Luc McGee
Only Yesterday by Fredereick Lewis Allen
Babbits & Bohemians by Elizabeth Stevenson
1920: the Year of Six Presidents by David Pietrusza
Time Capsule - 1923, 1925 from Time Magazine
American Shelter by Lester Walker
The Twenties - Fords, Flappers, & Fanatics edited by George E. Mowry
- This entire collection is part of my "Appendix N for the 1920s". Books I use when I'm thinking about Call of Cthulhu campaigns. Of the lot, Only Yesterday is by far the best, and highly recommended, while the Year of Six Presidents is a bit of a letdown, not the least of which because one of the presidents involved (Teddy Roosevelt) died in 1919. American Shelter is a collection of house plans, which includes the eras I'm looking at, and the Time Capsules are summaries of those years from Time Magazine.Most recent addition is the Fords, Flappers, and Fanatics, a collection of first-person reports presented to me by a friend who knows I collect this stuff (Thanks, Steve!)

MFA vs NYC, edited by Chad Harbach. This is an interesting one. Chad Harbach wrote an essay in which he separates American Literary Tradition into an academic (Masters of Fine Arts) and a commercial (based out of New York City publishing) camps. An interesting idea, and he collected a bunch of other essays discussing it. Purchased the book at a Writer's Conference here in Seattle, but have not finished it (stopped early at the essay describing the first Writer's Retreats as CIA conspiracies).

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad - The oldest book in my shelf of abandonables. I've been reading it for 20 years, yet I don't think I've gotten past the fourth chapter. Have taken it on numerous trips, including to Europe, with no success. Picked it up shortly after the BBC adaptation of the book in 1996, and now cannot remember how THAT ended either. Part of my challenge is that the book is filled with informative footnotes/end notes, which I am continually referring to, which breaks up any head of steam I've made.

The Water Knife by  Paolo Bacigalupi - The Windup Girl was an awesome book, and I recommend it. I am waiting to be in so good and hopeful a mood that I feel like I need a depressing environmental disaster (in this case the death of the Colorado River) to bring me back to earth.

American Visions by Robert Hughes - Another regular on my shelf - actually finished but remains as a reference (most often in connection with the art of the 20s (like the Appendix N books above)). By the guy that wrote The Farthest Shore about the founding of Australia. This one is a history of American art.

1493 by Charles C Mann - Picked it up at a Half-Price on a whim. Deals with the Columbian Exchange (all the species that jumped continents after the opening of the New World). Deals with Pacific Trade as well. Got two chapters in, questioned a statement presented as fact, and put it down.

Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies - By the author of Europe (Another comprehensive doorstop of a book that I have yet to finish, having bailed around the time of Carthage), this book I saw in a British edition when I was in Paris (at Shakespeare's), but did not purchase, thinking I could get it in the states. Discovered I was wrong. The LB ordered it from Amazon.UK. It talks about the plasticity of nations, and how they tend to ebb, flow, and disappear entirely. Stuff you don't think about like the Two Burgundies, now buried under a sediment of France, Germany, and the Low Countries. Interesting presentation with an anecdote, a meaty chunk of history, and a personal travelogue. Stopped around the disintegration of the former Soviet Union.

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume 1 by Fernand Braudel - This would be my desert island book (with its Volume 2, which I also have downstairs). A fan recommended it when I was on vacation in Ashland, and I found both copies at a used bookstore there. Braudel starts with the question "why did Spain, which owned half the world, go broke?" In the process, Braudel encompasses the entire Mediterranean as a series of small seas guided by the same overarching forces. Sort of like reading Harry Seldon's papers on his galactic empire in the Foundation series. Whenever I engage with it, I feel richer. And yet, it remains unfinished. I guess I need a desert island.

The Ghost Pirates and Other Stories by William Hope Hodgson. - A friend recommended the author, and I picked it up at Half-Price. Hodgson is a very, very slow burn. His Ghost Pirates is a tale of a sailing ship where people die in gruesome fashions, and after the initial shock, the crewmen return to (almost) normal. Still have to finish that one.

The Illiad by Homer - A friend was getting rid of his, and I picked it up. Read it in bits and pieces.

Songs of the Dying Earth edited by GRR Martin and Gardner Dozois - I came late to Jack Vance's Dying Earth series and enjoyed it, and Martin/Dozois's heavy collection of short stories is an apt paean to the earlier material. The fact that Vance's stories had three different types (more traditional-but -still weird Turjan stories), more humorous Cugel and all-powerful but generally useless Rhialto. The short stories, from a variety of talented authors, also run the gammut. Bogged down in the middle of a Tanith Lee story, to my surprise, and have yet to pick it back up.

The Chomsky Reader by Noam Chomsky - Like his counter-intuitive analysis and incendiary wordplay, but read it when I am over-anxious and need to sleep.

The Castle Explorer's Guide by Frank Bottomley - Inherited it from someone. It is just there from some point where I needed to reference a castle mentioned in another book, and never left.

In the Beginning by Allister McGrath - Book on the writing of the King James version of the Bible. Never begun.

Fevre Dream by George R R Martin - Picked up from a friend. Vampires and riverboats. About five chapters in, set it aside for other works, have not yet come back. Actually one of the more recent additions to the shelf. Mighty fine writing, just have not yet returned.

The Sea and Civilization by Lincoln Paine - An overview of history with the sea. Got it after a glowing recommendation in the Seattle Times. Should be like the Branaul but is not. Part of my trouble is that Paine briefly glances off a subject before plowing onto the next one (wait, this one-paragraph discussion of pre-Columbian West Coast sea peoples - please tell me more!). So I usually get two pages before pulling out the iPad to access the Wikipedia.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiel Hammet. - Recently watched both the 1931 and 1941 movie versions (which rate their own discussion). Tried to round out the trifecta by reading the original text again. Can't do it without hearing Bogart's voice.

Will any of these be finished? Will they still be her in 13 years? Come back 2031 and find out!

More later,

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Book: Men Between the Wars

Why yes, they do dig up a body.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers, 1987 Perennial Library edition, Harper & Row, originally published 1928

Provenance: A long plane flight is, even under the best circumstances, a trial. Having re-enjoyed Murder Must Advertise, I brought along Unpleasantness along with some Nero Wolfe short stories on a recent trip to London, but the Nero Wolfe did not hold my attention nearly as well on the long passage over the Canadian Shield. On the flight back, I cracked open the Sayers, and then finished it up after my return when I was too exhausted to do anything else but have a lie down.

The Review: I've mentioned the Raymond Chandler/Dorothy Sayers split before, but I I think the American detective writer in Simple Art of Murder has missed his mark. He goes after Sayers and the rest of her British ilk for plots that have to work like clockwork, as dependable as the old-time British Rail time-tables, and stretch the incredulous. American detective fiction, of the Hammet/Chandler ilk, are heavy on accidental discoveries, mooks with guns, professional detectives, and babes with shady histories.

But there's another thing as well. The Chandler/Hammett branch of the genre is extremely light on protagonist background and motivation. Their leads are vessels that one can pour oneself into to. Sam Spade works as a the Hammett-described blonde devil and equally well as moivi-version Humphrey Bogart. The Thin Man describes the victim, not the detective. The Continental Op stories don't even give the detective a name. This isn't a universal trait of American Mysteries (Rex Stout comes immediately to mind, and Chandler probably would not approve either of Wolfe and Goodwin's eternal bro-mance, either), but it is a component part.

Sayers, instead, is writing stories of which the murder is a central but supporting component. It follows the tropes, but it also provides a doorway into what Sayers wants to explore. Murder Must Advertise is very much about modern business, promotion and the professional class. Gawdy Night takes us into a woman's college. And with the Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, we are dealing with the plight of the postwar male - the effects of the Great War and the community of club life.

The Unpleasantness of the title is the death of old General Fentiman, found propped up in his favorite chair at the club on Remembrance Day (Veteran's day to us Yanks). Fentiman has two grandsons, the Colonel and the Major, both veterans of the Great War, who stand to get a piece of his inheritance. However, the same morning, the General's estranged sister pops off from pneumonia. She has a lot of money, which would go to the General if he was still alive (and therefore to the grandkids on HIS death) or to a distant relative if the General had predeceased her. So the initial mystery is - when did the General really die? Before or after his sister?

That is the (relatively bloodless) mystery that Lord Peter Wimsey is tasked with. And Sayers uses the case to wander through the wreckage of maleness in the wake of the war. There are those physically affected by the conflict  (mentions of "Tin-tummy" Challoner), those who seem unchanged (The bluff, hale Captain), and those who have been mentally and emotionally shattered (the Major, nerves wrecked). Sayers takes us into Major Fentemin's household, where his wife works and he feels worthless, and lashes out. Whimsey forgives Major Fentiman his faults, but I don't think Sayers does.

Wimsey himself served as an officer in the war, and it left him with a bellyfull of sadness and a strong sense of responsibility, both for the men who served and the cause of justice. He's not a hero of the hard-boiled type, balancing virtue with paycheck, but a dilettante pushing his way forward through a puzzle, trying to find the right response that fits both the facts and propriety.

The mystery unwinds with red herrings and secrets popping up, but it starts wrapping up with a good chunk of text still in the reader's right hand. So things don't wrap up as tightly as one would suspect at first blush. Instead an entirely new, related mystery evolves out of the first, with some of the same players, but some new characters that have been kept at the fringes for the initial part of the book. And again, male roles are examined in the expectations of the "modern" men and how they interact with their changed world.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club sits on one cliff of a great chasm between it and the Americanized detective story. Wimsey is has more personality that the hard-boiled cousins, and greater interaction as well, and Sayers digs in deeper as well, dealing with the challenges of men in society once the guns are silenced.

More later,

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Theatre: Putting on the Ritz

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, Book by Hershey Felder. Seattle Rep through 3/18.

One of the advantages of season tickets (I may have mentioned before) is that it will get you to things that you might otherwise pass on. I mean, you've already paid for the seat, and even if the concept seems like something you would not normally be interested in (One guy with a piano talking and singing Irving Berlin songs?), you might as well show up.

And in this case, you'd be glad you did.

This was an incredible performance, a real highlight of the season. Mr. Felder combines engaging storytelling with his brilliant work on the keys (I was fortunate to get a good view of his hands dancing at the the piano). He has the ability to play complex music and lock the audience into his words at the same time (a talent which he describes as "schizophrenic" is the after-show Q&A - if he offers that session, stay for it). And he embodies the character and brings it to life.

The set-up is basic - Irving Berlin, over a hundred years old and bitter about being passed by on the public stage, looks back at Christmas time on his life. Linear history. Family fleeing Russia for New York City. Job as singing waiter, translating into composer. No formal training, can't read music, just narrates his songs to assistants. Big success. Heartbreak in the loss of his first wife and his son. Becomes the songwriter of the middle of the American Century. Fading with the advent of Rock and Roll and Elvis (though I would pedantically add that the transistor freeing radio from the front parlor had a bit to do with the popularity of both).

But this is a memoir, not an autobiography, so I will park my fact-checker at the door. Berlin was incredibly prolific, so there are a lot of songs you recognize. The themes that swirl around Berlin are both a key eye towards the popular pulse of public, and that all his songs are written with someone in mind. They may go out there, and be attached to a particular singer or movie or play, but the are very personal to their creator. But the emotion that creates them is not always shared with the listener, as they are changed and re-purposed as they move through the population.

Should this be considered a play, or a performance? Doesn't matter. The music is brilliant. The stories are brilliant. Hershey Felder is brilliant. This is one worth seeing, even if you don't have season tickets.

More later,

Monday, March 05, 2018

Book: Existential Horror

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer  Farrar, Straus and Giroux (a division of McMillan) c 2014

Provenance (where I got that book): Elliot Bay Book Company, sometime last year. I really miss the old location near Pioneer Square, so I don't make the new place up on Cap Hill a destination trip, but if I am up there, I drop in, find something interesting, and then buy horribly expensive and bad-for-you ice cream at the nearby Molly Moon's. In this case, the something interesting was this book, in the SF section but presented in a more literary format. I mean, look at the cover. Dominated by the title, tan, heavier stock, embossing, big block letters, the strange alien GREEN plant thing is only really noticeable after you realize you've been looking at the big block letters for fifteen seconds already.

Despite its look (and its text-heavy, bright green back cover), the novel came home and sat on my shelf of abandoned books (more on that somtime later) for a while, until the Lovely B and I went to the movies, where a trailer for the film of the same name (and same concept, but different resolution, I understand). And I said, Yeah, I have that at home. So I took it down and read it.

Review: Annihilation is a very good book about the eradication of self and identity. It has that mounting horror of slowly being swallowed by python, and being conscious of it the entire time. Deep and descriptive, yet enigmatic and questioning, It is one of those book that you realize quite early on will not end well, but you are still drawn through it. From the first line you know that something is off, and as things progress, they will get worse.

Here's the precis: Our protagonist is a member of an all-female team assigned to investigate an anomaly. This anomaly is Area X, a shimmering curtain along a tidal zone, in which the life has ... mutated? transformed? been replaced by? integrated with? ...  alien life. Previous teams into the zone have not come back, save for the protagonist's husband's, and they were deeply altered.

And the send of self-destruction comes from before they even move into the Area X. The team members are not known by name, only by position  - psychologist, surveyor, anthropologist  (our protagonist is the biologist). None get capital letters to their titles. They have old weapons and strange devices on their belts. Only the surveyor gets an assault rifle. Their training was odd and off-base for the mission. Information has been withheld. Hypnotism was involved. Even before they saw the strange plants and creatures of Area X, the erosion of who they were had begun.

And it accelerates quickly. An underground complex that the protagonist cannot help but describe as a tower shows the their reality is quickly shedding its skin around them, leaving behind structures that may be flesh or only the memory of flesh. The sense of creeping dread, slowly swallowing them but not to the point of creating despair, is evident in the pages and masterfully pulled off. It is the calm analysis of the dying which underlies the otherworldly nature of Area X with its vibrant, unexplained alien life. Is what is there being eliminated, or transformed? Does that apply to the protagonist as well?

Annihilation is extremely well-written, evocative, and downright creepy. Not, there are not happy endings, or even much in the way of explanations. No one pops out and says "Well, you see, it is all because of this." And that's OK, but much of the trip of internal, as are the changes. There are two more books in the series, but I don't feel overwhelmed to get to them immediately. The book ends with enough for me to think about, and that's OK.

More later,

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Theatre: Yah Hey Dere

Ibsen in Chicago by David Grimm, Directed by Braden Abraham, 2 Feb -4 March, 2018, Seattle Rep.

Plays about plays. There are a lot of them. Actors like portraying actors, playwrights like writing about what they know, and audiences seem unbelievably tolerant of them. Noises Off, Inspecting Carol,  The Beard of Avon, The African Company Presents King Richard III. Heck, add the players in Hamlet and the amateurs in Midsummer's Night Dream. The players love to talk about the art. Everyone loves a actor.

And so here. Ibsen in Chicago deals with a tiny amateur group putting together a performance of Ghosts, a banned play by Norwegian playwright. Henrik Ibsen. I have never read a lot of, nor expressed a great interest in reading a lot of, Ibsen, and was surprised to learn that the Lovely Bride had a heavy Ibsen phase (before her Bertolt Brecht phase - who knew?). Ghosts itself was a rather dour creation of a syphilitic son returning to the family manse to uncover all sorts of family secrets. It helps if you know more about Ghosts at the outset, but the play fills in all the blanks for the Ibsen novice.

Banned in its native lands, the play was first performed in Chicago in 1882. That's where this  play comes in. An Ibsen-inspired bricklayer (Christopher McLinden, last seen in Charles III) puts together a rag-tag bunch of amateurs led by an aging grand dame of the Danish theatre (Kirsten Potter, Photograph 51). The team consists of an eager cobbler, a sphinx-like ingenue, a nefarious a-hole bitten by the acting bug, and a mousy prompter with a tendency to pull her own teeth out when under stress.

And the components are there - the romantic backstage triangle, the surprisingly good auditioner, the technical problems, the moral challenge of the script, and the problems with money. Add to that the change in theater itself, as the declamatory style gives way to Ibsen's more realistic approach. And the challenges of coming to a New World, while bringing along the challenges of the Old.

And they do it with gusto. This is not a farce (which some plays about plays tend towards). but rather has some depth to it. Kirsten Potter unleashes as an ACK-tor of the Carol Burnett vintage, but pivots nearly into vulnerability and personal insecurity. Allen Fitzpatrick as the nefarious Pekka is totally villainous, but wants to be part of the company. Hannah Rue as the self-contained, naturalistic Elsa feels the most real and grounded of the group, but she too carries her secrets (because what would an Ibsen play be without secrets?). In short, all are faking it until they make it, which may be the American Dream in a nutshell.

One gripe is the stage, which is a bit too large for the smaller Leo K theater. A two-level affair (which seems to be a thing this season), the upper gallery almost looms over the audience, and makes it difficult to track on actions happening on both levels at once. That aside, Ibsen purrs along neatly, the actors playing actors who are on an knife-edge between both New World and Old, and trapped mid-leap between traditional and modern theater.

More later,

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Political Desk Pop-Up Edition

Hey, wait a minute! It's not November! It's not even close! What's the deal?

Well, for some parts of the Seattle area, we're looking into the teeth of a small election next Tuesday (Feb 13). You may have gotten ballots. You may have already forgotten about them. The great bulk of them, such as the ones in Panther Lake neighborhood of Kent, are about paying for the schools.

Here's how things break down, currently. The bulk of school funding (about 68%) comes from the State Government, and yes, you're going to see property taxes go up this year as they come to terms with the fact that it is in our constitution that we educate our kids (who knew?). This is isn't about that. And 12% or so comes from the Feds, and the way things are going there, we'll get a nice note saying that the money was used instead to build ten feet of wall in Texas. The remaining 20% is funded locally, which is ALSO a property tax, to keep stuff going. And these taxes are to replace existing levies from 2014 which are expiring.

Why have the vote now? I suppose it is because the budgets were not in place last November (too soon) and by this coming November it would be too late. So we have a February ballot drop, when everyone would rather just kick back and watch Olympic Curling. Such are the nature of civic duties.

I've got a note here that says that if both measures are approved, we will see a reduction in local school tax rates, though not from the state school tax rates. I don't know - I don't have enough of a handle on the data, but I am a fan of educated kids, so here's my recommendation.  If you live in Kent, vote YES on Proposition 1, Replacement of Expiring Educations Programs and Operation Levy. Then TURN THE BALLOT OVER and also vote YES on Proposition No. 2, Levy for Capital Improvements for Safety, Security, Instruction, Classroom and Support Services and Technology.

If you're not in our little pocket of heaven, you're on your own, but I think that smart kids and adequately funded schools is a good goal.

More later,

Friday, February 09, 2018

DOW Breaks 24,000!

My, THAT was fast.

But not unexpected. The recent wild flight of the stocks, propelled by a tax cut aimed at the wealthy that would drive the deficit up for everyone else, sailed to new heights, the moved almost directly into a "correction" where it has been shedding all those gains almost as fast as it got them.

When it started, folks pointed at a report that unemployment was lower than expected as an instigator. In other words, more people had jobs, which one would think was a good thing. In financial circles, people with jobs mean that people can get more for their work, and that costs companies more. So good job news is bad news for the stock market. Similarly, paying your people more creates concern from the stockholders that too much money is being used on the stakeholders. Now, if people have more employment, there are already dire mutterings of "inflation", held in check these many decades through keeping wages contained, will suddenly spring forth, resulting in hire prices for consumers (because, the basic tenant of economic news is always "It is bad for you."

All this is true, but a bigger contributor is that sudden pulses in corporate financials are a large-scale version of "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie". A break for companies creates expectations, and those expectations pick up speed over time, and last shorter amounts of time. A financial windfall showed up last month, the market went crazy, and the current administration claimed credit. Now comes the accounting, the market is going crazy, and the current administration is talking about a military parade.

What happens next? I can honestly say I have no clue. If this is truly about the market getting back to normal it will settle after a few more big swings, then return to a slow growth, pretending nothing happened like an addict intent on "maintaining". OR, the serious weaknesses of the current boom, further undercut by recent decisions at a national level, start a slowdown and slump as other investments outstrip the traditional markets.

I have no clue. But then, I don't think anyone else has a clue, either.

More later,

Monday, February 05, 2018

The Return of No Quarter! Part IX from Outer Space!

I gotta tell you, folks, we're in the dregs, now. The idea that national parks/monuments/seashores/ street corners would make good coins was all very well and good  at the start, but when every state has to come up with one? Yeah, we're taking blind swings here. This year, it is pretty obvious that they're reaching, as every National Thingummy is far from the rest of its state.

To make matters worse, these are probably the collectively blandest versions of coins I have ever seen. It the worst collection of rocks, water, trees, and the occasional bird available, and will be forgotten in the time that it takes to put them into a soda machine pay slot. I will try to be brief this year, but man, it feels like the guys at the mint are just phoning it in.

As always, we go with a letter grade on these babies. None really rate the worst, but man, there is temptation.

Way Cool =A
Not Bad = B
Kinda Lame (also known as Meh) = C
Very Lame = D
So Fake, Sen, Nunes of California put out a memo supporting these = E

What's up first?

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore -  Michigan

Many, many years ago, the Lovely Bride and I went to Australia, and visited a site called the Remarkable Rocks on Kangaroo Island. And the name of both the rocks and the island where so on the nose that we have since decided that by the time we reached Australia, the Europeans had run out of interesting names. ("Those rocks are remarkable!" "Crikey! That's good name for them!").

Little did we realize that we had run out of useful names long before them, as the coin, which is a Pictured Rock from the Pictured Rock National Lakeshore, with a tree growing out of it. Actually I think this particular rock, located so far away from the rest of Michigan that it should be on the Wisconsin quarter, is called Chapel Rock because ... I dunno, they pulled the name out of a bag (or maybe the whole in the arch looks a stained glass window after the Blitz. 

Ratings: D (Lame)

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore - Wisconsin

I mentioned that the Pictured Rocks could be practically been part of the Wisconsin? With just a little bit of effort, the Apostle Islands could have been on a Canadian Loonie. No even on the continental part of the US, the Apostle Islands are, of course, islands off the northern coast of Wisconsin (no, you never though of Wisconsin having a northern coast. I know). This is at the very tip of the cowlick that is the top of Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Superior and I would say, is not a great tourist draw.

However, they did put a kayaker on the coin, which is nice, though in this case the paddler is actually from Green Bay, and trying to get to his seats at the Packer home opener before the freeze sets in.

Ratings: D (Lame)

Voyageurs National Park - Minnesota

Voyageurs! What a cool name! I'm not talking about the cheesy 80's time-travelling TV show, but rather about French-Canadian fur trappers who sailed the Great Lakes and actually had mostly good relationships with the people already living here. You'd think you might get a shot of the plunky traders, their canoes heavily laden with furs for the long trip back to Montreal.

Nope. Rocks, water, trees. Oh, a big shot of loon right in the front, set up like a duck decoy. Like they just WANT the Canadians to walk in. Look! We have the coinage already set up for you!

Like the other two quarters so far, we are looking at a park that is at the furthest northern fringes of its state, but oddly, has no snow. Voyageurs is located near International Falls, the self-described "icebox of the nation". But no, we insist on showing liquid water.

Ratings: D (Meh).

Cumberland Island National Seashore - Georgia.

Well, thank the Lord that we have escaped all the rocks and trees of the far north for this one. I mean, seriously putting the Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota quarters together? What did you expect? And despite the name confusion with the Cumberland Gap (Kentucky, two years back), we have a seashore that people in Georgia may have actually been to (though that's because it is practically in Florida).

We don't have rocks and trees, but we do have a lot of water, a lot of reeds, and a bird. Birds, I think, are easy for these coins, since there is a chance they may still be seen in those locals, and they work cheaper than mammals (who unionized back in '06). This particular bird is a snowy egret. 

A snowy egret. The coins previous were all in the furthest north, and this one gets the first off-hand mention of snow. Still, it is a nice portrayal of a snowy egret, and doesn't look as much like a duck decoy.

Ratings: B (And I'm rounding up here).

Block Island National Wildlife Refuge - Rhode Island

Following the pattern so far, Block Island is about as far away as you can be from Rhode Island while still BEING part of Rhode Island. It is about 12 miles off-shore in the Atlantic Ocean. The island islands itself has a pretty interesting and storied past, but for the coin we get a majestic night heron flying over the water and coast, with a tiny lighthouse in the background. 

Its not a bad design, though the side-view of the heron doesn't compare with the display of the egret down in Georgia, and there is an attempt to say that people once inhabited this area, but still, it just doesn't do a lot for me.

Ratings: C (Meh)

Next year? We leave the continent entirely for Guam and the Mariana Islands. Oh, and Texas, Massachusetts, and Idaho. With all that diversity, let's mix it up a bit, people!

More later,

Friday, February 02, 2018

Play: Trains of Thought

Two Trains Running by August Wilson, Directed by Juliette Carrillo, Seattle Rep through 11 Feb.

I think I have seen more plays by August Wilson than by any other playwright with the exception of Shakespeare. With Two Trains Running, I have now seen nine of his ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle. And my relationship with his work has always been complicated. There are works that I've found engaging, and others that lead me to question what he's really up to.

A good reason for my engagement with Wilson is simple happenstance - I was born in Pittsburgh (as was Mr. Wilson), I spent a lot of time in the Midwest (which was a stopover region for him) and ended up in Seattle (where he passed on a dozen years back). The bulk of his plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, a strong African-American community done in by change and urban renewal (much of the land was grabbed for the Civic Arena (now also gone)), and when I lived in Pgh there were a lot of decaying buildings surrounding empty lots of rubble, where the Urban rolled through but the Renewal had not arrived. I recognized the streets and the people in his work, and the vibe of the eras we covered.

And that all said, I found Two Trains Running to be one of Wilson's better works, with roles that get under the skin of the African American experience, not preaching but rather exposing a variety of black viewpoints to a greater world. While set in a Hill District soon to be overtaken by said Urban Renewal in 1969, and mentioning Malcolm X, it a non-political story about people and their wants and sense of worth.

The play is broad, with a bunch of things going on in once at the fading restaurant on Wylie Avenue.  Owner Memphis Lee (Eugene Lee) is looking to sell to the city, but only if he gets what he thinks is a fair price. Sterling (Carlton Byrd) is just out of prison and trying to find a job. The mentally challenged Hambone (Frank Riley III) just wants his payment (a ham) for a job done nine years ago for a firm across the street. Memphis Lee's friendly rival, West (a wondrously reptilian William Hall Jr.) is a funeral director handling a major celebrity death. Add to this number-runner Wolf (Reginald Andre Jackson) and corner-table wiseman Holloway (David Emerson Toney) and you have a rich collection of inhabitants, all with their own clear needs.

And yet there is a void at the center, in the presence of the recalcitrant Risa (Nicole Lewis), who is the waitress. Ordered about by a clueless Memphis Lee, patronized by  Wolf, romanced by an idealizing Sterling, she holds her secrets with the scars along her legs (no, you don't notice them until they are pointed out). All the characters get monologues and stories (indeed, there is an August Wilson monologue contest), but she does not. She never takes her place fully, though the others speak of equality and relationships.

Wilson tosses a half-dozen balls in the air, and wraps them in a wreath of nature voices. Lines are repeated, expanded, harked back to dozens of times, so by the end of the first act you get a feeling of who these people are. Wilson does a fantastic job slowly drawing everyone out, and the actors, all excellent in their roles, slowly delineate the dances as they advance.

There are a couple things that move through Wilson's cycle. One is the threat of violence - there are numerous guns and crimes that are presented, and at one point an army tin of gasoline as people talk about arson. It is a component of the Pittsburgh Cycle, sometimes seized upon, sometime left in the background, but always present.

Also, there is a mystic element to the plays, of belief and sometimes superstition. In Two Trains, this is in part shown by the funeral of Prophet, whose mobs of believers tax West's soul, and in the unseen presence of Aunt Ester, incredibly old at this point, who offers advice to those who seek her out and follow her orders. The reaction of the characters to both Ester and the Prophet- belief, disbelief, unbelief, and changing belief, creates their own line through the end.

In the end, it is a question of man's worth - measured by money, a woman's love, or even a ham, that the play ultimately centers on. And it is a bout opportunities - making them and taking them. This solid core that Wilson builds upon to create an involved, intriguing, engaging play. One of his best, and I can safely say that as someone who has seen almost them all.

More later,