Sunday, January 23, 2022

Theatre: Sunday Sermon

Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer by Cheryl L. West, directed by Henry Godinez. Seattle REP through 13 February.

We are back in-person at the Seattle REP. Properly masked, cards checked, program book not handed out by the ushers but instead piled neatly by the door, snack bar serving water only. They've made some physical modifications in our absence - moved the audience doors at the Bagley-Wright, changed the angle of the aisles, and remodeled the men's room (European style doors, and where did the urinals go?). The house was about a third of normal, even on the main floor. And we start with a tough play - it is short but extremely heavy.

Fannie Lou Hamer was a sharecropper who rose to champion voter's rights during the civil rights marches of the 60s. Her voice was loud and clear, and she spoke at the 1964 Democratic Convention against the (all-white) Mississippi Delegation (her televised speech was interrupted 18 minutes in by an announcement from LBJ). The play is a one-woman show, and on this Sunday afternoon we got the understudy - Shaunyce Omar, who commanded the stage with the verve and directness of an old-style country preacher. 

The play carries the DNA of black heroine plays like Nina Simone: Four Women (which also featured Shaunyce Omar) or Shout Sister Shout (about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and by Cheryl L. West as well). But Fannie Lou Hamer was an activist, not a musician, so the musical portion is take up with other people's hymns, gospel, and protest songs of the era. In that way it resembles the "feel-good-old-timey" fair that sometimes pops up in the rep, often with depression-era songs. This confluence is ... odd. Hamer's speeches were full of hymnal references and church-speak, but transforming her fully into a creature of song didn't quite work for me.

Shaunyce Omar was in fine voice, though, and backed up by a trio behind her. She interacted with them and with the audience with a practiced hand, pulling them into her story. And the story gets bleak in places. We are talking about Civil Rights in the American South in the 60s. The play pulls no punches with the brutal violence of small frightened men who define any attempt at equality as a threat. It is tough to watch, but important, and vital to Hamer's story.

Jim Crow has transformed but is by no means gone. He goes by James these days and works more within the system to keep the system from getting TOO equal. But people are still burning churches (and mosques. And temples), and have traded in the hoods for polo shirts and tiki torches. And attackers get caught only when someone videos them. And when these arsonists and racists and attackers do get caught, the secretary disavows all knowledge of their actions. And folk are still trying to suppress the vote. It has been 50 years since Hamer lost the mike, and  we've still got a long way to go.

The play is solid, and does Ms. Hamer well, restoring her at the end to the podium she was denied at the start of the play. But this is not the happy ending you want for her, not the redemption and apology she deserves. But its a good view into the era for those who were not there and hope we have become better, much like the Depression-era plays are for me. And maybe Ms. Hamer will get a coin out of this.  

More later,

Monday, January 17, 2022

The Oval Puzzlebox

Part of the contents of the package.
 My brother in Pittsburgh sent me some of my parents' mementos which he discovered in the basement. The package included. among other things, a duck decoy, my father's pocket knife, some of Mom's silver jewelry, some coins, a 10 oz silver bar they purchased in 1989 (with invoice), and a wooden oval box. The box contained some of Dad's military pins, including his honorable service pin (also known as the "ruptured duck"), some masonic pins, and a plastic Heinz pickle pin. But it is the box that this story is about.

When I first opened the oval, wooden box up, I heard something rattling around inside the lid. I thought it might contain a false top, and, looking at it, there was a small hole at one end, with scotch tape covering it. I pulled off the tape, and started to try to figure out what the hole was for. After some man-handling, a small metal peg came part-way out of the hole.

At this point I realized that the puzzlebox did not have a false top, but rather a secret lock, and the pin was the locking mechanism. But now I had put it in the locked position, and that way I could not put the lid back on the box correctly. After about ten minutes of fiddling about to no avail, I turned to the Internet, and much to my relief, there was a video for how to unlock (and lock) the box, called an oval spin box. Mastering that craft, I got the metal peg back into the lid, and could close the box properly.

And that also explained the scotch tape. My parents had taped up the little hole in the box lid to keep the pin from sliding out and accidentally locking the box, which they would have to figure out how to open again (withOUT the benefit of the Internet). Needless to say, I put the scotch tape BACK, and now the box in on the shelf over my desk, with other mementos, like a zeppelin stamp, a Maltese Falcon, and a framed copy of our wedding invitation.

And I am putting this down in case some future generation comes across the box, and finds that either it cannot be opened or, worse yet, cannot be closed. And to them I will give the warning that all investigators are faced with when dealing with some eldritch chest - don't remove the scotch tape. 

More later, 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Life In the Times of the Virus: Omicron Update

Drug Store - Edward Hopper 1927
So, are we back to normal? No, no we are not.

Am I tired of this? Yes, I am. You're tired too. We are all tired. And yet we row on.

When last we spoke on the matter, some six months ago, Delta was just blooming. Viruses mutate over time, and on occasion, one shows up that is more adapted to its environment and overtakes the previously popular model. And it was the case with Delta, and now Omicron (which sounds particularly threatening - wait until we get to Omega in the alphabet). Now, Omicron is a more successful virus because not only is it more virulent (spread faster and more easily) but it has the added feature of not killing its host immediately (Dead host = dead virus, so actually Delta is not an very effective virus from a continuing existence standpoint, but speaking as the potential host, it is nasty enough).

Anyway, the end result is after declining numbers, we are seeing more cases and hospitalizations, and the resources are strained right now. In Washington State, we have seen fewer deaths over time, particularly among the vaccinated, but still have hit 1 million cases and 10,000 overall deaths (WA's population is 7.6 million). And people are saying it is going to get worse in the next couple weeks.

And why? Well, part of it is because Omicron is better adapted to its environment. But part of it is because we've gotten tired of it. We want to go out. We want to go back to work. We want the kids back in school. We want to put this whole thing behind us. We want to miss it, but we can't miss it if it doesn't go away. 

And yeah, most of the current casualties are from people who decided that the vaccinations are not for them. There is an entire sub-Reddit dedicated to people who have publicly come out against vaccinations, then catch the coronavirus and die. And that makes me more sad than angry. Yeah, it is the perfect sort of inverse Boy Cries Wolf tale, but I am still saddened by people who are deciding to take the risk that somehow they won't be victims, and then lose. Despite this, I don't think they should be turned away at the hospital, or charged more, or otherwise punished for decisions that overclog the hospitals. I'm just sad.

But there are breakthrough infections, and those who have gotten vacced and boostered are catching the coronacrud as well. It is not nearly as fatal, but still is no walk in the park. The vaccinations can reduce the severity of the disease, but not limit exposure to it. Sort of like seat belts - they can increase survivability in a crash, but not take that drunk driver running the redl ight off the road.

Here on Grubbstreet we got boostered, and the results were a lot more severe than last time. Last time was no biggie, but this round of boosters left both the Lovely Bride and I wiped out of the day. Which makes a little sense, since our immune systems were prepared for something coming in, and then responded heavily. So it was an expected day off.

Mask discipline has changed. Over time, I've lost the hand-made masks I started with, and the logo-ed masks from my company (discarded/lost masks have replaced cigarette butts as the urban refuse of choice). I've switched almost entirely to the black KN95s that are this year's fashion statement. And we are fortunate, because our neighborhood is pretty solid as well - I go to the grocery store and the overwhelming majority are masked, and the overwhelming majority of those are wearing them correctly. Good going, team.

No one wants to shut everything down, but we may not get a choice. Schools are closing for lack of teachers. Alaska is losing 10% of its flights because it doesn't have the manpower. We've called out the National Guard to support the hospitals. I hate the idea of returning to quarantine and to vaccine mandates, but I am just so tired of it all. And yeah, you probably are too.

And the most frustrating thing about it is that we have shifted in an attitude of "Let's do everything to stop the spread!" to one of "Yeah, you're probably going to get it, but it (hopefully) won't be too lethal". So this contributes to the feeling of frustration and exhaustion.

And here's a thing. In the before times, I remember how we talked about the Spanish Flu of a century ago. Not Spanish in origin, but that's where it first identified (sort of like people getting made at South Africa for announcing Omicron). There were a bunch of hygiene attempts and resistors and overburdened hospitals, and yeah, it sounds AWFULLY similar to the present. But then there was the Great Forgetting, as the news of the Influenza got swallowed by the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition and labor disruptions and rising Fascism and ...

Hey, the future doesn't repeat, but sometimes it rhymes. And the rhymes are pretty tight these days.

More later.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Book: A Sudden Case of Death

The Case of the Canterfell Codicil: The First Anty Boisjoly Mystery, by P.J.Fitzsimmons, 2020.

Provenance: A Christmas present I purchased, then entrusted to the Lovely Bride to deliver to me on the day itself (I in turn order clothes that she has specifically noted in catalogs, wrap them and return them to her - it is a system that works). The book was endlessly flogged on Facebook to me, as the Mighty Algorithm had determined my interest in mysteries of the interwar years (of course, if you read this blog, you might determine that as well), and I was curious.

And the book,  apparently self-published, cuts free of the stuff and nonsense of modern publishing process, allowing the tiller of the literary fields to deal direct with the consumer with a severe reduction of middlemen and gatekeepers. A farmer's market for literature! Huzzah the revolution!

The Review: And how was it? Not too bad, but not as strong as it was hyped. The book was oversold, promising a collision of Wodehouse, Sayers, and Christie. A high bar to be sure. The frothiness of Bertie and Jeeves, the eloquence of Peter Wimsey, and the clockwork plotting of a Miss Marples cozy, all compressed within its covers. Demanding such comparisons, however, reminds the reader the the originals, written in the era itself, are well-remembered classics for a reason. My expectations were high, and while the end result was a romp, it does not measure up, and left me a bit disappointed.

Anthony "Anty" Boisjoly (Boo-Juhlay) is residing at his club when a telegram from his old college pal summons him to Canterfell Hall, where the much-disliked Uncle Sebastian has just taken a header out of an upper-story window.  Anty arrives at  Canterfell to find a cross between Blandings Castle and a Poirot-inspired railway trip. Mysteries abound, small and large, starting with a locked room mystery and spiraling out from there.

Anty as a character falls between two chairs. He is neither the cloth-headed Bertie Wooster nor the supreme intellect Lord Peter, but exemplifies traits of both, depending on the situation. So it is hard to get a handle on him as he sometimes lumbers through some scenes, then has flashes of brilliance and glory. If you're going to ape Wodehouse (*cough* The Wyvernspur *cough*), you have to catch his ear for banter, and some of the chat falls more into the Realm of Monty Python and Blackadder than into the era itself.

Also, in presenting Wodehousian descriptions, there is a much of muchness, which makes you appreciate Plum's tact and reserve (there's a line I never expected to write). Every briar patch and weir, every doorknob and newel post, gets an achingly florid string of similes and comparisons. Sort of like being trapped in an esoteric comedy routine from the 80s.  Also, there seems to be a decided lack of synonyms for the word "thatch".  In a similar fashion the mysteries sort of pile up on each other, as EVERYONE has a secret or ten. The locked-room death of Uncle Sebastian, the nature and location of the titular codicil, the disappearing painting, the horrible dinner and excellent breakfast, they just tend to pile up over time. But yes, they all get answered, to some degree, by the end. 

Does Fitzsimmons play fair with the reader? Mostly. Some of the brain blasts that Anty gets are based on previous information that he, the character, does not share with us, the reader, until the time for the reveal (such as how an off-handed complaint from an Police Inspector tells him that a member of Parliament is lurking about). And the cause of the first death is less of a well-executed plan and more of a random roll of the dice. Yet it barrels along merrily to its resolution.

As a self-published work, the book's production values are high. The cover has that slightly tacky plasticized cover which continues to disappoint me, but I am afraid that, publishing-wise, that ship has sailed. The cover is a stylized art deco with a metro-retro font (also in the chapter headings). It coulda stood a map, to be honest, to position various rooms in the manor correctly (which Nine Tailors did), but that is a minor point.

So will it leave the major publishers quaking in their boots? Not really, but that's OK. It is a pleasant enough volume, and I would recommend it above the recent Westlake. If you approach it as a lark and paean to the previous masters, it is fine. But I would be very wary about the ad copy in the future.

More later,

Monday, January 03, 2022

Book: You Say You Want A Revelation?

Perhaps the Stars by Ada Palmer, Tor Books, 2021

Provenance: Purchased from Amazon.Com. The first three volumes were available as trade paperbacks, but I could only find the American edition in hardback. Receiving it, I can see why - it is a massive tome, longer than its predecessors.

The Review: This is the final book in Palmer's Terra Ignota series. Books one and two are reviewed here. Book three is here. Go read those reviews, because it gives the best summary I can come up with about how we got to a future world of rational actors who are going to kill each other over valid reasons. As noted previous, it is impossible to give a detailed review without spoilers, so consider yourself warned. 

So, here's where we are. The world's population is divided into non-national Hives, which are now pitted against each other. The cassus belli is the arrival of a god. Not the god of this universe, but a god from somewhere else, who seeks to flush out the god of our reality by remaking the world. Some of the Hives support this - they are the Remakers. Some do not. They are the Hiveguard. Now, not all the Remakers are fighting for a complete remaking, and not all Hiveguard are united either. And there are factions within each Hive that disagree with what their parent Hive is doing. AND there are smaller groups which are neutral, but not really neutral, as it is revealed. AND it turns out there is another subtextural war going on between those who want to go see Mankind spread throughout the solar system and those who want to psychohistory our way to a better existence on earth.

So, yeah, it is confusing. And as the war progresses just gets moreso. The allies from the previous chapter are revealed to be enemies, the enemies of the next chapter turn out to be allies, apparent victories are really defeats, and defeats turn out to be victories as far as ultimate goals are concerned.This is not "You can't tell the players without a scorecard" in that you are provided with a scorecard at the start of the book and by the time you're halfway through, it is untrue. That chapter there? Never really happened. Or maybe it did. Plus, the fact that everyone calls everyone else by different names deepens the confusion.

Which is OK, in that book moves through these twists and turns with the expertise of Odysseus moving between whirlpool and monster. Our unreliable narrators become even more unreliable. We have two - Mycroft and the 9th Anonymous. Well, kinda. Like everything else in this future, it's complicated. Lemme leave it at that. It is one of those books that have to be paid attention to, to be conquered, to be scaled, to pull away its understanding. 

Everyone here is a hero. Everyone is a villain. Everyone does bad things for supposedly good purposes. Each of the Hives is not a monolith, but riven with its own subfactions and rebellions. There is war on multiple levels, by multiple prime actors, and individuals change sides swiftly. Things that are presented as very good things when they occur are later reveled to be very bad things. 

This book challenged me. I am no student of philosophy, so if you tell me that a particular philosophy is X or Y, I will believe you. I've got the wiki-version of most philosophers, boiled down to a few choice points. But I can tell you that while the earlier books belonged to Voltaire and Hobbes, this one belongs, blatantly, to Homer, as Mycroft identifies all manner of roles from the Iliad to the various players. 

Once upon a time we referred to Dune and Lord of the Rings as being "unfilmable" - their scope and depth was too much for the screen. Now, portioned out over several movies and backed up with supercomputer animations, they have been filmed. Ignota has that challenge now, in part because of its nongendered/gendered nature of all the characters. Characters have swapped gender identifications throughout the story, from a non-gendered they to either he or she, depending on who is talking and what they are talking about.

One thing that is interesting is that over the course of the publication, out language has moved to the point that singular They is no longer as weird as it  once was. Palmer points out that this is flaw in her future, by assuming that the eradication of noticed gender differences stymies gender equality (sort of like, since we now use the term Ms, equality has been achieved).

In one of the earlier reviews, I pointed out how a lot of the presented Utopia of the book is progressive, liberal, and ultimately wrong. Now I feel there is a stronger religious element to the book as well lurking not-too deeply under the surface. JEDD, the Alien God, is taken at face value as a god without too much demand of credentials. Bridger, the young mutant (?) with the power to create anything, seems very much the much the miracle worker, who ultimately transforms himself to fit a more savage world. And Mycroft's super-ability, reworked by Bridger, involved imbuing and transforming others. So I wonder if JEDD, Bridger, and Mycroft can be interpreted as the Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. 

This is a tough series to scan properly, and Palmer's style harkens back to Gene Wolfe's ability to be completely clear and opaque at the same time, along with Herbert's tendency to delve deep into political discourse. (Indeed, the Alien God JEDD in many ways is an echo of the Kwisatz Haderach). It is a rewarding book, in that it encourages me to think more about what has happened, and even now, two weeks after finishing it, I am still considering what lessons it holds.

More later,