Thursday, March 18, 2021

Life in the Time of Virus - The New Year

City Roofs by Hopper, 1932
 A year ago, my company sent everyone home. It was thought at the time it might be a few weeks, then a few months, then by Fall at the latest.

And now it may be by early Fall of this year, and even then it may be only for a few days a week just to keep touch in the flesh.

I've been back in the office a few times since then, and it still looked a bit like the Mary Celeste. Our department were in the process of reshuffling our desks around when the word came down, so some desks are empty, some have boxes, and some still have everything on them as if the occupant had just stepped away. Looking out the windows, I can see new skyscrapers that been erected while we've been gone, further blocking the view of Lake Union.

I haven't gotten my vaccine yet, though not through a lack of desire. Each state has its own schedule and rules, and, alas, I am neither old enough or nor sick enough or nor vital enough to get priority. And, to be honest, I don't want to jump the queue to get a shot when there are people who ARE old enough, sick enough, or vital enough still waiting for the situation.

However, every report I get from family and friends says that when it DOES become available, and one figures out how to get it, the entire process is well-run and fairly painless (painless compared to coming down with the coronavirus). So I have something to look forward to.

The numbers continue to climb, though a lower rate than the winter highs. But also climbing has been the number of doses administered. At the time of this writing, there have been 29 million cases in the US, and 538,000 deaths. But 113 million doses of vaccine have been administered and that number is climbing rapidly. 

In the meantime, the dawn has begun to claw its way back from utter darkness. Seattle is the northernmost major city on the continental US, further north than the bulk of the population of Canada. So the winter darkness hits us hard. Back in the beforetimes I was used to watching the dawn from an upper floor of a Seattle skyscraper. So working at home has had that advantage, but I follow the sun - the earlier it rises, the earlier I will be at work. 

There is the other social distancing going on right now up here - this one involving birds. Due to wildfires, we have an "irruption" of pine siskins. Now while "pine siskins" sounds like a snack food, it a small, mostly-Canadian bird that is now is hanging about in large numbers in the Puget Sound region. This sudden overpopulation is called an irruption, and would not be a big deal, except that they are currently carrying a deadly form of salmonellosis . So birds need to socially distance. Which means that we can't use the bird feeder in the back yard until the beginning of April. Maybe longer. Yeah, I know how the birds feel.

And we have housemates up here on Grubb Street. Some friends were having housing issues, a situation made more serious by one of them having to undergo chemotherapy up in Seattle. So they have joined us, and we have been doing a lot of cleaning and moving things about, as well as adjusting to other peoples' rhythms in the house. Part of this has been to encourage the Lovely Bride and I to do some projects we have been meaning to do for some time, like strip out the carpeting in the guest room or (slowly) dispense with a lot of my comic collection in the basement. (OK, it is no longer a collection, it is an mere accumulation - if you're looking for something in particular, I am sending it all to Page Turner Books down in Kent - good store, check it out).

But as a result of all this, my time usually spent screwing around has been diminished, and there are things that still need to be done all around me. Sort of a spring cleaning on overdrive.

It will still be a couple months before I can spend the evenings on the back deck with a good book and a strong drink, but I am working towards it. In the meantime, I remain confined to quarters, wearing a mask on the rare times when I do go out, and generally bearing up.

More later,

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Plague Book: In the Blood

Blood Royal, or, The Son of Milady by Alexandre Dumas, Edited and Translated by Lawrence Ellsworth, Pegasus Books, 2020

Provenance: Christmas book, 2020

Review: These books have quickly become mental comfort food. I had read an excellent translation of the Three Musketeers long ago and far away, but fell into the Ellsworth translations with the Red Sphinx and kept coming back. Ellsworth is better known in gaming circles as Lawrence Schick (D&D module S2 - White Plume Mountain, among other things), and his spirit of adventure carries through here in his translation.

This volume is the back half of the original publication of Twenty Years After, which originally appeared as a serialized novel. In it, Dumas deals with two different civil wars - one in France called the Fronde, and the English Civil War. In the first half, the four inseparables are separated through loyalties and responsibilities, Mordaunt, the son of Milady plots his revenge, and two of the group (Aramis and Athos) debark for England to help King Charles, on the ropes from Cromwell's revolution.

We pick up this volume with D'Artagnan and Porthos also heading for England, with instructions to help Cromwell and assigned to aid  Mordaunt, who plots all of their demises. They soon switch sides and work to save King Charles (noble but doomed), who had been betrayed to Cromwell's forces. 

And here's the thing: they have to fail (spoilers). Historically, Charles was beheaded (real spoilers), and while Dumas will be kinda fast and loose with the facts and timelines to suit his fiction, he cannot keep the King of England alive. So we have a long section where the crafty Gascon (D'Artagnan is given that sobriquet a number of time) comes up with a plan that just ALMOST works, before time or fate or the presence of the Son of Milady foils it at the last moment. Mordaunt pops in a number of times,and the crew also fails to dispatch him, and ultimately the group has to flee England in a boat rigged with explosives.

Back in France, the four split up, and D'Artagnan and Porthos are imprisoned by the current evil cardinal (Mazarin, not the ruthless but effective Richelieu) for trying to save the English King. Athos and Aramis witness the machinations to overturn the revolutionary Frondeurs by splitting off its various factions, but rescue D'Artagnan and Porthos, and get enough leverage to get what they themselves ultimately want (which is not what the revolutionaries were after). It all ends in a riot, much as it began in the previous volume.

D'Artagnan is no longer an innocent, but is crafty and the man with the plan throughout this book. Porthos lusts after his peerage and respect, and is the most broadly-fashioned of the group. Aramis is the Sexy Priest, only moreso. Athos has in my brain changed over the passing of 20 years - the fact that he has a son (who will be more important later) has made him more of a worrier and fretter, both on behalf of his son and in general. That son in turn sort of vanishes in this volume, after a good start in the previous volume.

The swashbuckling is hard and heavy, ranging from battlefield maneuvers to very D&Dish duels, and in one section, a dungeon exploration. Dumas reserves his sharpest tongue for the politicians of all shapes and factions. Queen Anne of France is sleeping with Cardinal Maturan, who is more comic and less capable than his predecessor Richleau. The upper class leaders of the Frondeur are easily bought off by the Monarchy. The former valets of the Musketeers have established themselves with the greater society, to a variety of effects. All have their moments, but the center of the action are on the four musketeers.

Yeah, I'm bought in on that. There are three more volumes to come, which make up the Vicomte of Braelonne series, which ends in The Man in the Iron Mask. Yeah, I'm going to be there for them.

More later,


Monday, March 08, 2021

Plague Book: Mansions of the Mind

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Bloombury, 2020

Provenance: A Christmas book. I listened to the audio version of Clarke's previous novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and knew I wanted to read this one. So when it turned up among the usual suspects (NPR, The Seattle Times book page, the New Yorker), I asked the Lovely Bride for it as a Christmas present.

Review:  Piranesi (not his real name, but what he is called), is a simple soul living in a mazework House, which is flooded by the sea. He lives on fish and seaweed. He maps the rooms and tends to the dead bodies he has found there. He does errands for the only other living person there, who he knows as the Other, who is acerbic and looking for the Secret Knowledge hidden in the maze. The House is made of white marble, its halls populated by titanic statues, and it floods on a semi-regular basis from swelling tides.

Is the House real? Or are we trapped inside Piranesi's brain? Are we looking at a demiplane, or at dementia? Mansion or madness? The story unfolds effortlessly and captures a completely likeable and totally unreliable narrator. This is one of those books where you figure things out long in advance of the protagonist, and you are still surprised. You like Piranesi so much that any possible resolution to his situation feels like it will be heartbreaking, but Clarke manages to navigate the shoals of emotion neatly and gives you a satisfying conclusion his tale.

Prisons of the Imagination
I wiki'd up Piranesi, since the name itself meant nothing to me and there was no obvious reason for it presented in the text (there is a reason in-text, but you have to think about it). Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an archeologist, architect and artist who is best remembered for his black and white etchings of ancient ruins and wild, phantasmal vaults and prisons. Knowing this gave me another, but exact view, of what was going on Piranesi's world. Ultimately exactly what is going on in this fantastic landsacpe is theorized but not entirely defined, and that leaves it magical in its own right.

But let me talk briefly about the book as artifact.. There seems to be a new trope in book packaging regarding "serious" fantasy books - matte black covers with metallic ink. We saw it over on Circe and here it is again - Embossed lettering, copper ink, singular image, and a lot of empty black space. And hey, there's a blurb on the back cover from Circe's author. Though it is from a different publisher, it does feel like it is same design house. And it sends its own messages about the contents (This is "serious" fantasy). Authors do not always select their covers (and often do not have a say it such matters), but yes, if I were to deliver some "serious" fantasy, I would go for black and copper as well. 

More later,

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Plague Book: Money for Nothing

 Money in the Bank by P. G.Wodehouse, Penguin Books, 1942

Provenance: This is from the collection of John Rateliff, purchased from Skoob Books (Secondhand Books for Students), 66 The Brunswick off Marchmont Street in London (near the Russel Square Tube), on the 9th of December, 2012. I know this because John used not only the receipt as a bookmark, but also a coupon from the store (20% off for students, expired 31 October) and a tag from a Twining's tea bag as well. About the most British set of bookmarks I could imagine, short of the Queen herself holding a finger in the page where you've left off.

For my part, I was reading SPQR in early November, and the stories of mobs throwing rocks down on the Senators sort of convinced me I should read something else for a while. I am a Wodehouse fan, though my participation has a lot of glaring gaps in it (Code of the Woosters remains the best). So, I pulled this one out for something, well, lighter.

The Review: I have seen the quote in several places, attributed to a number of individuals, that Wodehouse wrote just one story for 75 years. That is a bit unfair, in that it his plots are always convoluted pieces of machinery, and his prose is spritely and engaging. But even I will admit that his component parts are often the same - vapid young men, headstrong ingenues, dotty relatives, English manor houses, class discrepancies, hare-brained schemes, and ultimate comeuppances. 

Here's the scoop on this one: Jeff Miller is a very inept novice solicitor who is engaged to a headstrong young woman, and longs to escape both situations. Through a series of daffy and unlikely events, he is hired as a detective at an English manor house that is being rented by a famous female African Explorer, hired to investigate the manor's butler. Said butler is actually the owner of the manor house who has hid a treasure .... somewhere on the grounds - he forgets were, and his daughter (also headstrong, but one of the sane ones in the book) is currently working as the female African Explorer's personal secretary, and is the one who engaged Jeff Miller to follow her father around and find out what he is up to. Which she really doesn't want him to do. Add the real detective and two petty crooks and, yeah, it a Wodehouse romp with all the bells and whistles. 

Wodehouse has his troupe of types and character actors, like the old commedia del'arte. His male lead is hapless (Jeff Miller's superpower is to make small talk, which he uses to get himself out of numerous jams). His women are made of sterner stuff, ranging the dangerously overbearing (the female African Explorer) to the dynamically resourceful (the daughter whose family owns the manor). His male figures tend to be made of much milder stuff, ranging from the forgetful father/butler, to the original detective, (who has a tendency to hide in closets when threatened) to the female African Explorer's milquetoast and doting admirer. There is much in the way of confrontations and conversations in various rooms in the manor as the characters bump into each other and then pinball their way into other confrontations and conversations in other rooms. Wodehouse's style is perfect in this, much like his protagonist, his superpower is chat, bringing the reader along with involved, perfect sentences that you would hate to interrupt.

The interesting thing about this book is that it was written when Wodehouse was the guest of the Wehrmacht, as an internee during the war. Wodehouse and his wife had decamped for the South of France for tax reasons, and while they made a few half-hearted attempts to get out of town before the Germans arrived, they ultimately were interned as foreign nationals, and Wodehouse imprisoned is various locations. The idea that Wodehouse could write a book, and get it published in America in the middle of all this is a bit amazing. There is not a hint within the pages of the war, or of much of anything else outside the characters' immediate surroundings. His characters are self-absorbed to the point of immunity.

Wodehouse himself during this period did some radio broadcasts for the Germans. While they seem to have been very much the "Stiff Upper Lip British We Are All Making Do In These Difficult Times", appearing on behalf of the Germans was not the wisest course of action. It was labeled propaganda, he was pilloried as a traitor, and Wodehouse got, for lack of a better term, JaneFonda-ed, where any mention of his name in England for the next thirty years would cause Someone to trot out the charges. Finally, in 1974 all was forgiven and he was given the KBE, though Wodehouse passed on before the knighthood ceremony.

Wodehouse never returned to the England he left in 1930. His fantasy world remains timeless in part because of it - trapped like a fly in apsic between the wars. His manor houses have evaporated over the years, but his prose keeps them shining bright in memory.

More later, 

Monday, March 01, 2021

Plague Books: Rome on the Range

 SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, Livewright Publishing, A division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015

Provenance: This has been my doorstop book for several years now. Bought it at Half-Price up in Redmond on a whim because the author had been publicly quoted somewhere as expert on the subject (she is). I started it, stopped it, started it again, let it occupy my shelf of abandoned books, read it along with ANOTHER book on Rome, finished the other book, abandoned this book again, actually WENT to Italy, picked up this book again, and finished it a year after that. So it has been a long journey. So I have thoughts.

Review: Hey, let's summarize a thousand years of history in a single volume. Yeah, that will be easy! We're talking about the history of Rome from about 753 BC to 212 AD, a point where citizenship is extended to all free inhabitants of the Empire.

What is SPQR? It stands for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus - the Senate and People of Rome. Which is interesting because one of the things about Rome's expansion is that it continued to expand the definition of "People of Rome" throughout its history. As it conquered and absorbed its neighbors, it incorporated them within their political systems. Historically, this was not always the way. The Vikings in Ireland and Russia ruled but didn't have a significant cultural impact on the ruled. The European Powers in America or the ancient Greek colonies in the Med were very much about moving large amounts of their own population in. The Romans swallowed other nations and peoples whole, and eventually elevated them to powers within their own spheres. Not quite equality - the folk in charge were an oligarchy, but even that oligarchy expanded over time. And the people who were already citizens were often against further enfranchisement. But it is an interesting version of colonialism.

Rome's Republic in part fell apart, in part, because of their own success. The Roman plan of absorbing other peoples into their nation "Hey, you're now Roman! And your gods? They're just different versions of our gods! Expansion brought in huge groups, who then had to be mostly managed, both at home and abroad. The advancing legions had to be paid, often with retirement land in the new territories (which was not always appreciated by the original inhabitants). And keeping the mobs happy in Rome? Yeah, that put grain-producing Egypt as the equivalent of Middle-Eastern oil in the geopolitical consideration.  

The distance of time gives us difficulty with original sources when talking about the Roman Republic. Beard opens with Cicero, once a staple in "Western Education", about halfway through the Roman Millennium (63 BCE). Why is Cicero still important to us moderns? Because he was a first-person account (though obviously biased) of the life and times towards the end of the Republic. And we have a lot of his words because he published his speeches, so that copies of the copies of his words have survived down to this day. Other than writers like him, we are pretty much confined to stone as information source - carvings, inscriptions, and the occasional graffiti. Sort of like trying to sort out the American Civil War only through gravestones - doable, but you know it is not the full story.

Even by Cicero's time, Rome has a bunch of conflicting origin stories. The mythical approach stars Romulus and Remus, a Cain and Abel story with a wolf-mother. But there is also Aeneas,who tied the Roman people to the Trojans at a time when they loomed large over the Greeks. There is a semi-historical record of the "Twelve Kings", the bad-old-times before the Republic took hold. And there's the archaeological record, who indicates that the area was originally dominated by the Etruscans,a once-successful and now-mostly-forgotten predecessor nation.

The Romans had an empire before they had a emperor. They did most of their expansion before they hit Julius Caesar and his lot. What Beard makes clear is that while the Romans professed a hatred of monarchs, its Republic was a rough affair, with powerful individuals commanding mobs (and later armies) to influence governance. One particular incident in 133 BCE involved a mob led by a faction of the Roman Priests which attacked a group delivering the votes for the tribunes and killed reformer Tiberius Gracchus with a table leg (not that we moderns would do anything that barbaric). 

The fall of the Republic was a relatively slow, bumpy process. Powerful oligarchs sought more individual power. Power came to reside within different factions of the army, which were then turned against each other. Attempts to consolidate power in the hands of a few trinities collapsed, and out of the continual conflict, a single strong figure emerged who would bring stability. Julius never claimed to be emperor, but quietly sucked up positions of power such that his successor Augustus moved in easily.

But even during the emperors our history is slanted. "Good" emperors were often simply followed by those with personal connections that wanted to declare their predecessors good, while "Bad" emperors were followed by rulers wanting to put some distance between themselves and previous administrations. But when looking at the health of the Empire as a whole, things ran on fairly well regardless of who was in charge. Until it didn't.

Large, engaging, accessible, and readable, SPQR sent me down some passageways and thought processes that I had not considered previously, some obvious and some more refined. SPQR is a great overview of a Rome that neither was built or was destroyed in a day, but rather evolved from one state to another, often as a result of its own growing power, until at last the ability to hold that power crumbled.

More later,