Sunday, August 29, 2021

Weekending in Seattle

View from the Balcony
I tend to celebrate my birthday by not being around. Often the Lovely Bride and I decamp for some hotel, like the Salish Lodge or Alderbrook, where we get massages and I can sit in a comfortable chair and read. I've spent previous birthdays kayaking on the Bellevue Slough and riding in a zeppelin over Everett. This year, the usual haunts were already sewn up before we could make reservations, and I did not want to travel far. 

And so we chose the Edgewater in downtown Seattle. The Edgewater is a luxury shoreline hotel built over the water before they stopped letting people do that, and the Beatles once stayed there once, which they don't let anyone forget. The interior has been redone a couple times, the most recent in 1990 or so, and has a PNW/Frank Lloyd Wright/Rock and Roll vibe to it. The rooms were large, comfortable, and most importantly for our case, had balconies overlooking the Sound which were perfect for reading books, drinking wine, and watching the sun go down.

The first night out we walked to Ohana, a favorite sushi spot in Belltown (an area north of downtown Seattle, which they are trying to rebrand as "Uptown"). Walking was the exercise of the weekend, even though it meant challenging a particularly steep hill on Wall Street. The food was great, the drinks were strong, and we ended up getting back to the hotel in time to watch the sun drop down in a cloudy sky.

Sudden neighbor
Then, in the early hours of next morning, the cruise ship arrived. The Edgewater is right next to the Port of Seattle pier, where the cruise ships dock, and in the morning our window had a nice view of the Celebrity Millenium, registered in Valletta, Malta, which had snuck in around 5 AM. Despite its sudden arrival, we breakfasted and headed for the aquarium, a short walk south.

The Seattle Aquarium is very nice, but always had a vibe of "work in progress" to me, set up within a renovated warehouse on the docks. It keeps that vibe, since it is currently working on a "ocean pavilion" across the street in the shadow of the Pike Place Market's parking structure. High points were moon jellies, a particularly cranky-looking octopus, harbor seals, and sea otters (the latter in the midst of second breakfast, dining on crabs). Everyone was masked, but there was an onslaught of children, which made me feel a little uncomfortable.

For lunch walked over to Place Pigalle, in the aforementioned Pike Place market. Place Pigelle is a small restaurant down a hallway right next to where they throw the fish. Light meal of mussels and soup (French onion in my case). Good view of the Sound, and we were serenaded by an accordion and violinist in the courtyard below. I went down to tip them and found that the musicians were wearing full cat-headed masks.So, yeah, Seattle.

View of the city, without cruise ship

Afternoon was the SAM - Seattle Art Museum, which was hosting an Monet exhibit of his work at Etretat.  Etretat is a fishing village on the English Channel that in Monet's time was becoming a tourist destination. Monet (pre-Lillies) was seeking to rekindle his vision, and went to the village to paint the landmark cliffs in ways different than all the other artists of the times were painting them.

As an exhibit I really liked this a lot, primarily because it got really down into the details with the process of painting of the "open air" school. This involved such things as where Monet got his canvases, and the importance of the recent invention of tubes of pigment from America that gave the Impressionists the ability to take their work on the road. The works themselves were small for the space they provided - usually such shows are jam-packed, but this one had a lot of bare walls and creative use of empty space. That's OK, because it gave them the chance to really get into the bits and pieces of the creation of art, how it fit into Monet's life at that moment, what other artists were doing, and his technique and technology. I enjoyed it tremendously.

The Lovely Bride
The SAM was also masked and generally less crowded. Many of the galleries were closed and empty at this stage, and the Monet was the major draw. Still, after surveying the area, the Lovely B and made the long trudge back to the hotel, and sat on the back porch as the huge cruise ship undocked and was gone before 5 PM. We had a very pricey, very good dinner at the hotel's restaraunt, repaired to our dockside porch to the finish the wine and watched the sun go down.

And the next morning there was a NEW cruise ship parked outside our window, but we breakfasted, stopped for the groceries at Pike Place (also seriously masked up, but crowded) for smoked salmon, crab, and bread.

And so we return. It was a good weekend, and I got a bit of reading done. And that's how I spent my 64th birthday.

More later,

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Book: Body of Evidence

Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers, Avon Books, 1923

Provenance: The volume has an embossed stamp "Library of Janice Kae Coulter" on the first two pages. Ms. Coulter is the spouse of fellow blogger Sacnoth. I do not know whether I plucked this volume from their collection before it went to the Page Turner, or purchased it there for two bucks and change (I suspect the latter). 

Review: This was one of the Books on a Plane, but I found I had too much to say about it to just stack it up against all the Rex Stouts, so it gets its own blog post. This post deals with meta fiction, introducing characters, why Raymond Chandler may have really hated Sayers' work, and anti-Semitism. Buckle up.

Here's the precis: London after the Great War. A wealthy Jewish financier goes missing. A dead body is found naked in a bathtub.The body is not the financier's, but there is a surface similarity between the two.The police assume initially assume the bathtub body IS the financier. Lord Peter, brought in by his mother because she knows the person whose tub the body was found in, knows better. 

This is the first appearance of Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, and he springs onto the stage (mostly) fully formed. He had solved a previous (unrecorded) case of missing emeralds, and so already had contacts with the police as a helpful meddler whose societal privilege gives him access denied to the hoi palloi. He also has a "kit" that Batman would approve of - his cane is a measuring stick and has a concealed blade and his monocle is really a magnifying lens/ He has a dutiful manservant who is a camera buff. Lord Peter saunters in fully prepared to get involved. 

While he does so, Lord Peter also talks about detective stories in a very meta way. "Were this a detective story..." the line starts, and then mentions and discards some trope from the fictions. Sayers denies some of them and plays with others - for example, witnesses never remember what really happened on a date two months ago, and the proceeds, with almost casual conversation, to show Lord Peer wheedling the information he needs out of a witness without the witness realizing it. Yet Sayers herself embraces a lot of other detective tropes - the incompetent police inspector, the blind alleys, and the dutiful details of inquest and exhumation.

But when Lord Peter solves the case, something happens. He finds the solution, but in the process suffers a nervous breakdown because the solution challenges a lot of his privilege. His recognition shakes him to the core and unleashes his PTSD from the Great War. In game terms, he blows his San check and has to go have a lie-down for a couple days. This is VERY not in keeping with traditional mysteries, in that the protagonist can get angry, vengeance, shot up, physically damaged, but never suffers a mental collapse (Stout has Wolfe occasionally go into a "Fugue state" when stymied, which feels like little more than writer's block).  This is so different from the muscular American detective stories, that I can see why Chandler didn't like Sayer's work much, though he chalks it up to being "boring".. We know beans about the personal history of his Continental Op - Lord Peter has wounds deeper than most of the other characters cans see. 

In doing the research for this review, I came across accusations of the author's antisemitism, and this book is used as evidence both for and against. On the "for" side we have the missing financier being Jewish, and one of the positive figures, Peter's mother, going into a "Very good people" sort of speech which hauls out a lot of differences between the Jewish community and God's Own Anglicans. On the other hand, the missing financier is practically lionized for his kindness and modest living (no Shylock, he), and one of Peter's archtypical upper class friends, practically fresh from the Drones club, talks about wanting to marry the victim's daughter and convert to the faith. And there a servant who is pretty deplorable in his statements, but he is held up as being a low character who is drinking Lord Peter's best brandy. The challenge is, does, in talking about an "othered" portion of the population, does that make you vulnerable to engaging in the same forms of prejudice? Is reporting prejudice the same as perpetuating it?

The meta research here on Sayers does me no good as well. Sayers' long-time companion was Jewish, she notes that the financier was one of the few good characters in the book, and in an early draft Lord Peter recognizes immediately that the body in the tub cannot be the financier because it was circumcised (which would be kinda obvious and make the police look EVEN dumber). On the other hand, Sayers developed into a Christian apologist of CS Lewis stripe, and the work she is proud of is a translation of Dante (which features heavily in the opening chapter of this volume).

Ultimately, I am going to render a Scottish verdict of "Not Proven" on this one, but there may be some reference of her endorsing the Elders of Zion out there without me realizing. it. I do remain committed to the idea that Sayers does not write detective novels so much as novels which feature a detective. And I will stand behind that one.

More later,

Monday, August 16, 2021

Books on a Plane

Three Witnesses by Rex Stout, Bantam, 1955

Not Quite Dead Enough by Rex Stout, Bantam,  1944

Plot It Yourself by Rex Stout, Bantam, 1959

And Be A Villain by Rex Stout Bantam, 1948

Provenance: Various. I pick up books from used bookstores - The Page Turner in Kent. The Tacoma Book Center near the Dome. Twice Sold Tales up on Capitol Hill. And I am always hunting down more of Rex Stout's stories of Nero Wolfe. The books were popular on first release, and there have been several waves of re-release since then (including reprints from the 80's marked "As Seen On TV").  Eventually I will run out of them. But not yet.

Reviews: When I travel, I tend to bring paperback mysteries to read. There are a couple reasons for this. They don't wear down batteries. They don't have to be turned off or stowed when taking off or landing. And if dropped or lost, they represent a lost investment of a couple dollars. About a month ago, I made two trips to Pittsburgh, and as a result took a fist-full of books with me.

So, warning, there are spoilers for books that have been in print for decades. 

Three Witnesses - Rex Stout mysteries come in two main formats - book length, and magazine length. When published in book form, the publisher tends to put three of short stories together, and, unfortunately, they use the word "three" and its synonyms in the titles repeatedly (Three at Wolfe's Door, Three Doors to Death, Death Times Three), so I'm never quite sure if I have read this before. Usually I can get ahead of the game with the short stories and figure out "whodunnit", while the novels tend to lose me sometimes. This is in part because in the shortened format, both memory and awareness of what sticks out as wrong is more obvious in the short versions.

And, one of the things that makes Nero Wolfe mysteries work is the background. Archie will crack wise, Nero will be pompous. Inspector Kramer will bluster. The household will eat well. It is comfortable.

The mysteries in Three Witnesses are pretty good, but "To Die Like a Dog" is probably the best. A dog follows Archie home from a murder scene. While Wolfe is usually a bundle of hostility, it turns out he likes dogs. The dog's presence makes perfect. sense, and at the end, the dog has settled into the household. But as far I can tell, the dog is never seen again in another story, which is a pity.

Not Quite Dead Enough consists of two war year stories. In the first, Archie cobbles together a mystery to help recruit Wolfe into the War Effort. In the second, linked with that, an experimental grenade goes off in an military office downtown. The first is actually something I would call "lesser Wolfe", since Archie gets foxed and his oftimes girlfriend, Lilly Rowan, gets unusually possessive. The second sees Wolfe returning to a form not seen since Fer-De-Lance, the first Wolfe novel, where he metes out his own justice outside the system. Interesting for a completest like me.

To Be A Villain and Plot It Yourself are interesting in that I got to the whodunnit, but not by normal course of events. Rather, the murderers act in a way that makes little sense if they are merely a suspect or potential victim, but makes sense if they are the murderer. 

Plot It Yourself involves the book industry, and the relationships between authors and publishers. Wolfe is hired by a group of publishers and authors who are being hit with a plagiarism scam. Not that other authors are stealing their work, but rather these other authors are coming forward claiming that the published authors stole their stuff. And they offer proof in the form of manuscripts and letters that show up in the published authors files from before publication. Its a good book in that it covers a variety of author types, and the perils of working for a committee.

And Be A Villain has a nice initial curve-ball - Nero Wolfe goes looking for a gig, in order to cover his tax bill (Wolfe has a long list of things he does not want to do, which the stories inevitably make him do). He  offers his services to a radio personality who has a guest poisoned on the air. Sudden death, relatively small number of suspects. Again, I got to my lead suspect not through evidence, but through character reactions to the crime. Further, the crime itself (and its followup) calls for a relatively thin window of opportunity, and can go horribly awry. I still like the writing in both cases, and the characters, but the mystery at the core feels a little weak.

This series has become my popcorn, my easy reading. The stuff I will take on a plane and not have any other greater purpose. There's one more, which I am still thinking about writing up. More later,

Friday, August 06, 2021

Political Desk Pop-Up: Results

 Short version? Meh. Extremely low turnout, even for an off-year election (under 24% for King County). Incumbents did well, generally. A veritable lack of pitchforks from any quarter on my ballot. There is still one local election that I don't vote for, and therefore normally don't cover (Seattle Prosecuting Attorney) which is still too close to call between three candidates, but things have shaken out without a lot of fuss. Boring, boring democracy.

As a rule of thumb, if you're an incumbent and have more than 50% of the vote you're doing OK. If you're a challenger (or there is no incumbent) and you get more than 30%, you're in a good place. Not everybody who votes in the General will vote in the Primary, so that's just a rule of thumb.

Oh, and for out-of-towners, it takes a few days (sometimes more) for Washington State to finalize ballots. We vote by mail out here, which is a pretty good system, and ballots that are postmarked by election day have to be counted. Older and more conservative voters (Venn diagrams show some overlap) tend to vote regularly, so they carry more weight in small elections. Younger and more liberal voters (again, not always the same group), tend to vote late and swing the numbers as the counting goes on. So final figures may tweak a few points. Just so you know what takes them so long and why the candidate you favor who was leading on election night suddenly changes position.

Here's how things turned out:

King County Proposition No. 1 Regular Property Tax Levy for Children, Youth, Families, and Communities.  Approved at 60%

King County Executive - Dow Constantine (53%) vs, Joe Nguyen (31%).

City of Kent Council Position No. 6 - Brenda Fincher (78%) vs Larry Hussey (13%)

Kent School District No. 415 Director District No. 4 Awale Farah (43%) vs.Bradley Kenning (31%)

Kent School District No. 415 Director District No. 5 Tim Clark (54%) vs Sarah Franklin (29%)

Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority Proposition No. 1 Continuation of Benefit Charge - Yes. (73%)

Soos Creek Water and Sewer District Position No. 5Logan K. Wallace (53%) vs Alice R Marshall (31%)

Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner District No. 2 -  Jim Griggs (47%) vs.  Dustin Lambro (44%)

Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner District No. 4 - Monique Taylor-Swan (36%) vs Katie Banchard (35%

And with that we dissemble the pop-up and move on to the general election. See you there. More later,

Monday, August 02, 2021

Life in the Time of the Virus: Resurgence

Sailing, Edward Hopper, 1911, CMOA
 I thought it was over. I admit it. I was wrong.

We had the vaccines. We wore the masks. We washed our hands and did not congregate. We ordered out. We acted like grown-ups. We drove the numbers down. 

And now COVID is on the rise once more.

Part of it is biology - there's a new variant (Delta) which is swamping the original virus. And part of it is sociology as well - not enough of us took the damned thing serious. There are enough holes in the safety net that once hospitals are once more approaching overload, and all the work of the past year and a half is slipping down the drain.

My Facebook has been filled with stories in three acts: Act One is someone saying that they won't get vaccinated for some (usually stupid, often ephemeral) reason. Act Two reveals that they have been hospitalized for Covid. Act Three is a GoFundMe for their funeral. Skeptical me,  I've run more than a few of these stories to ground (because not everyone is THAT stupid, right?), and sadly they have panned out as true. Yet still people resist, or, just as bad, fail to act.

Some of it is political. There are a lot of folk that support the previous guy in the White House who also don't trust vaccines, but the Venn Diagram of the two groups is not a perfect circle. There are conservatives who have vacced up (including a lot of people who disparage vaccines publicly) and their are lefties who have passed on it. Sometimes it is distrust. Sometimes it is lack of opportunity. Sometimes it is a believe that they and theirs will somehow be spared.

And there is a problem even for the vaccinated. We speak now of breakthrough cases, where those who have been vaccinated get a does of the disease anyway. So far, the cases have been mild, and not requiring hospitalization in most cases, but they are still there, and virulent. The vaccines are damage resistance, not damage immunity.

And there is one study (not professionally reviewed as yet) which puts my brand of vaccine as being suitably less effective against Delta. No one else has moved forward on this, so I am a bit concerned. I have immunocompromised friend in the house, so I am staying masked up when outside the home and (still nearly empty) office. And yeah, if they say we need a booster, I'm doing it. I'll take a couple days of feeling "meh" to a trip to the hospital.

I've made two trips to Pittsburgh in the past month, and, outside the airport (where TSA rules still apply) and health care facilities, the masks are gone. It feels like we are just taunting the virus to pick us off (The Virus does not respond to taunts - it is not listening, but such is our need for narrative that we anthropomorphize it into a supervillain). The only masks I saw were with service personnel.

And we are as a people horribly resistant to returning to quarantine procedures, even as the hospitals fill up. Already propagandists have campaigned hard against existing limitations, and the slightest hint of reinstatement sends them to their microphones for another broadside. 

It feels like we declared victory too soon, and threw ourselves a parade while the enemy was still on the battlefield. And now we're paying the price.

Sorry to be a downer, but there will be more, later.