Saturday, May 28, 2022

No Quarter: The Next Gen I

So, I don't know if I really want to go on with this blog's ongoing practice of talking about collectible quarters, but old habits die hard. After the States Series and the National Parks series, the US Mint has launched a new collection of collectible/commemorative quarters. And it was pretty easy to mock pictures of birds and mountains and the mudflap that Wyoming used for its quarter. But this new series is on famous American Women, some of whom have passed on in recent memory. So I think I will walk a tad more respectful this time out.

Originally, this was supposed to be similar to the previous currency series, in that each state would get one woman to brag on, but that was revised because they want to do a sesquicentennial (250 years) set in 2026. So we get four years of famous women for 20 total as opposed to 50 national parks/monuments/seashores/parking lots. The idea that women get about 40% of the attention given to other subjects is such an American Thing.

But as I said, I'm going to walk a little more carefully, in part because a lot of these women are unknown/forgotten/ignored in the standard narratives. Also, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the majority will be from the twentieth century, as opposed to something from the Civil War era, in part because women have been unknown/forgotten/ignored in a lot of traditional texts.  I'd like to to concentrate (and mock) the design a lot more than the subject matter, and to encourage readers to follow the links to learn more in detail of these remarkable women.

But first off, let's talk about the other side of the coin, literally. The side with Washington on it.The face/heads/obverse of the coin has made some major changes, and some minor ones. Big one you'll probably notice - Washington is facing the other direction. Also, the sculpture is from a 1931 dollar, and you can see differences in the artistic approach (George has an even thicker neck, and the rat-tail at the back of his head is more pronounced). Also some of the text has switched sides - The denomination and United States of America are now on the other side, and the year moves back to being on the same side as George. As a result the reverse side does have more text to deal with as it previously had

Anyway, I am not expecting a lot of coins to get a review below C (They have gotten much better at it over the past 20 years), but here are the review levels. 

Way Cool =A
Not Bad = B
Just Average (also known as Meh) = C
Kinda Lame = D
So bad you don't want to show your mother = E

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

This is a strong lead-in, both from subject and presentation. Maya Angelou is known for her autobiographic works and her poetry, but also for her work in Civil Rights. Now I Know Why The Caged Birds Sing is pretty much a standard text for a generation of English classes, and she was the second poet to read one of her poems at a presidential nomination (the first was Robert Frost, the most recent was Amanda Gorman). 

Her pose is dynamic and evokes Caged Birds in its presentation. I really like it because, right off the bat, it gives us more than the standard portrait and creates an active presentation for the coin. She is also the first African-American woman on a coin. Buckle up, there are going to be a lot of firsts in this series.

Rating: A

Dr. Sally Ride (1951-2012)

It is no longer big news to have women in space, but Sally Ride was a big thing back in the 80s - the first (American) woman in space. I know - it took us THAT long to put a woman in space, but hey, equality has always been a process. She is also the first known LGBT person on a US coin (get back to the closet, Buchanan - your family burned all your correspondence, so we're still not sure about your status, shy of a seance). 

The coin itself is, well, OK. Sitting portrait along one side, big globe in the background, bit of a swirl that evokes orbit and window on the shuttle. Its a pretty nice quarter, but nothing that makes me really engage with it. 

 Rating: B

Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010)

No jokes on the name, please.While there's a good chance you know about Maya Angelou and Sally Ride, now we get into more esoteric heroes. And its a pity, because Wilma Mankiller's background is impressive, including both Native American activism in California and Oklahoma, and as a chief of the Cherokee people. 

The coins are already settling into a comfortable type - figure on the left-hand side, shown torso up, symbology in the background on the right-hand side (A symbol of the Cherokee nation,  all contained by a circle with all the required data. I think we are going to lose her note as Principal Chief and the Cherokee words beneath in the folds of her shawl. It is a very busy coin.

 Rating: C

Nina Otero-Warren (1881-1965)

We are probably going to see a lot of suffragettes, particular for those famous women born before 1900.  Maria Adelina Isabel Emilia "Nina" Otero-Warren is the oldest representative of this crop of coins, and her achievements span politics and education. She argued for bilingual education and was the first Latina to run for the US House of Representatives (as a Republican. She lost). She is the first Hispanic-American portrayed on US Coinage.

Like Mankiller and Ride, we see the sitting portrait on the left side of the coin. In addition, there is a LOT of text - in addition to the stuff shoved onto this side from the obverse side, we have Votes for Women on this side, which to some folk is STILL a controversial subject.  Plus a collection of Yucca flowers to represent her native New Mexico. I think it is going to be a cluttered quarter, much like Mankiller's. One good bit - her head does break the plane of the surrounding circle, making it a bit more dynamic.

Rating: C

Anna May Wong (1905-1961)

Wong Lui-tsong is the first actress on the group, and a pioneering Asian-American in the film and TV industries. That's good. However, a lot of her roles were very much in the stereotypical vamp/dragon lady that smacks of Orientalism and exoticism, so that's a little less good. Plus the fact that a lot of early work are "lost films" that have not survived into the present day, and her ground-breaking TV show was on the now-extinct Dumont network, and few records exist of it as well. Yet she has been recognized for her work in recent years, as well as her work for the Chinese-American community.

The quarter itself is exceptional in that it gets away from the already-trope of the previous three with a closer headshot that plays off the natural beauty of Ms. Wong. This is a very stylish coin that feels like a silent movie poster of the era. I like it.

Rating: A

That's it for the first batch - tune in next year for five more, and keep checking your change!

More later,

Sunday, May 22, 2022

This Just In: Latest Arrivals

So, more Kickstarters have shown up at Grubb Street, along with the occasional purchase from local brick and mortars and one author copy. As always, I want to note that these are not reviews so much as "first looks", and in most cases I have not read them cover to cover nor tested out their mechanics. But I still want folk to know what's out and what's happening, as opposed to doing a thorough deep dive and getting back to around, let's say ... Christmas.So this is a better approach for me.

And what do we have in this collection, Johnny?

Grimstone Roleplaying Game (Angelos Krypianos, Writer/Creator Spiral Lane Productions, 126 page Hardback). Greek writers, Greek publisher, this is part of what I was talking about last time in the global nature of RPG design. This is actually the crunchiest of this collection of games, with a great backstory - all of the races are human, but made up of different parts of the Sun and Moon. A nice setting, low-magic, with a unique RPG system.

Ships of the Expanse (Keith Garret, Lem Lemke, Mari Murdock, Nicole Winchester, Writers/Designers, Green Ronin Games, 144 page Hardback). I have not played the Expanse RPG, but I really like the design of the games in this line, and the spaceships in general. It scratches that Traveller itch of my game design history. The Ronins have done a fantastic job with this production, not only on presenting the ships but also talking about hard-science intra-solar system space travel. And I want to unleash these deck plans on others, now. Picked this copy up at Olympic Cards and Comics down in Lacey, which has a LOT of non-traditional RPGs that I don't find elsewhere..

Coyote & Crow (Conor Alexander, Creator/Writer/Developer), Coyote & Crow LLC, 474 Page hardback) There has been a strong movement for authenticity in game design, in particular for games which find their origins in other cultures and heritages. Coyote & Crow, rooted in Native American heritageis created by mostly Native American talents. The game deals with an alternate cyberpunk North America on a world where the European colonizers were wiped out by a space anomaly before they could get up to any mischief, and the survivors on this side of the planet gained low-level magical abilities. The book is a massive full-size, full-color hardcover. The system itself looks like Shadowrun with d12s, and the worldbuilding itself is interesting. It has also was nominated for a Nebula, which is a rare thing for RPGs (Alas it lost out to Thirsty Sword Lesbians, which was covered in an earlier writeup).

Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game Playtest Rulebook (Matt Forbeck, Writer, Marvel Worldwide, Inc, 120 page softbound). Got this at Fantasium, my local comic store as an inexpensive addition to my weekly comics pull, and read through it over the weekend of its release. It is the "playtest copy", but it compares favorably with the now-ancient Yellow Box Marvel. Amused that the ability scores spell out MARVEL instead of FASERIP, and there are diceworks that echo the old D6 system from West End (it has botch dice, which can be negated by .... Karma!). It is what it says on the tin - a playtest copy, so it is not a complete overview of all of Marvel and its powers, and I don't think it has anything for experience and character advancement. Inexpensive and definitely worth checking out (And I welcome Matt into the "Brotherhood of Marvel RPG Game Designers" - next week we fight the Great Lakes Avengers!).

Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding Volume 2 (John Joseph Adams, Editor, Kobold Press, 108 page softbound digest). The Kobold Guides are just fantastic reads - essays by some of the best and brightest in the field on a variety of subjects. The books are veritable wonderland of insights and commentary on various components of campaign, fiction, and world design. An excellent product. Oh, did I mention that I have an essay in this edition? I talk about Space Hamsters.

Corsairs of Cthulhu, Fighting Mythos in the Golden Age of Piracy (Ben Burns, Writer, New Comet Games, 297 page hardback) Pirates Vs. Cthulhu! Who could argue with that? The book consists of a set of modifications to the core Cthulhu rules (the Investigators are now Corsairs, and have skills like Alchemy and Artillery), and a huge world-sweeping adventure. I like some of New Comet's Games (Devil's Swamp was quite good), and don't care for others (A Time for Sacrifice  left me cold). Leafing through Corsairs, the adventure itself looks like they have everything and the kitchen sink involved here. Looks very interesting, and may yet get to my gaming table..

Remarkable Cults & Their Followers (JVC Perry, Jeff Lee, RP Davis, Writers, LoreSmyth, 180 page softbound). This is a 21st century version of the Book of Vile Darkness, though its definition of cults extends to factions and secret societies, but has enough that are just Evil Evil Evil. This is a really beautiful book that deals with a great subject for players - Setting up and running cults both as opponents and as player organizations. They have about a dozen cults/secret societies/factions that can be dropped in (including maps of their secret headquarters), along with rules for setting up your own. Plus evil artifacts! It is "system-neutral", which means it plays well with 5E. Of this group, I particularly like the layout and art.

And that's about it for this haul. Did I mention that I have an essay in The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding, Volume 2? As luck would have it, I talk about Space Hamsters.

More later,

Sunday, May 08, 2022

Theatre: Mother's Rave

Alma, by Benjamin Benne, Directed by Sophie Franco, Arts West, through May 22.

The Lovely Bride and I took another journey to that mystical land beyond the Duwamish River called West Seattle. I am almost at a point where I can get there without getting lost (the West Seattle Bridge is still shut down). Our goal (in addition to great sushi, is the Arts West Theatre, a small but great theater group ensconced in the shell of a renovated former furniture store. The LB and I have been hitting opening nights, and to a great degree, have be rewarded for the effort.

Case in point, Alma. Yolanda Suarez is Alma, Leah Sainz-Jones is her daughter, Angel. Angel is supposed to be taking her SATs tomorrow. Alma has been preparing for this day, the next step of her daughter's success, to have the life she was denied. Angel does not plan to take the test. The resulting discussion/argument is the core of the play itself. Two actors, one problem, ninety minutes.

And the playwright pulls it off. The analyst in me can tweak to the ratcheting up and unwinding of dialboue as their relationship plays out over the course of the argument. Alma and Angel are friends and also mother and daughter, with all the baggage and hidden traps that that involves. They curse, bluster, accuse, mock, make up, cuddle, cry, tease, and love each other, and the script itself dances from one point to another.

Also a sizable chunk of the dialogue is in Spanish, in that halfway domain in families where the parent has come from another country and the child groks the new language. Yet they slip in and out of it gracefully, and there are only a few points where I felt I missed something - that would be the universal nature of parent/child relationships. Also the PTSD that comes from High School testing.

There's a third player on-stage, unseen but not unheard- America and the American Dream. The ghosts of an old country. The play takes place in that weird temporal borderland between Trump's election and inauguration, in that weird quantum state when everyone was wondering how bad could it be. The newly-elected voice, over a malfunctioning TV, blasts into their lives about building a wall and making Mexico pay for it (yeah, how did THAT work out). Alma is an illegal, and Angel is aware that the rules have changed, and what they have both hoped for is now much, much more difficult. 

The set design is excellent, open-spaced and beneath (at times) the stars, setting the eternal nature of the parent/child discussion. The program book also carries a bit of weight in the proceedings. There is interview with the director, which is par for the course, but also a page of translations and explanation of what the Prologue (storms, horses, soldiers, Military music) means within the larger whole. Even th art in the hallway underscores the players on the state. It was very much a total package.

Alma is a small play (Two people and the ghost of the American Dream) and a greater play as well, set within its time and within the long timeline of mothers and daughter. I liked it, and think you would too.

More later, 

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Book: Pulp Fiction

The Dictionary of Snow Hill by Jess Nevins, 2022

Provenance: Another book recommended by Facebook ads. I get a lot of ads for books on Facebook, so the Algorithm has me pegged.  Yeah, I'm getting worried about that as well. This one caught my attention because of the Author - Jess Nevins. Nevins has written one of my favorite reference books (You have a favorite reference book, right?): The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, as well as doing annotations on things like Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics. So, yeah, he comes from a good background, so I'm in.

Review: This is a love-letter to Pulps of the 20's and 30's, with parts spilling over to before and after that era. Set in the Maryland city of Snow Hill, the largest and shiniest city in the US, it is a collection of tales involving Science Heroes and Villains. This is tropes gone wild, and features a host of familiarish players - Micheal Ferrum, the two-fisted "Doc Bronze" and his Sensational Six, World-famous Consulting Detective Havelock Blake, the Shadow-esque Laughing Monk, along with talking ape detectives and luchadors. Roman a clef with the predecessors of the super hero universes.

Yes, it is a madhouse, literally so in places. There are invasions from other planets, inner worlds, and undersea menaces. Lovecraftian horrors abound (and we have the Doctor Strangish/Inner Sanctum magician named Anton Weird in the mix as well). It is a world where all the heroes of the pulps are all active at the same time, sharing the same universe and the some of the same enemies. Physics itself tends to bend around such challenges.

The format is in encyclopedia format with rough alphabetization. Entries are narrated by different in-world inhabitants, so we have unreliable narrators throughout. Radio scripts, media articles, and personal memories all mix and twist. Being an overview of the various characters' careers, many of them end badly. Particularly there is a lot of reference to the events of June 21st, 1937, a solstice where many things go badly for many, many people. This is the ongoing narrative that stretches throughout the book, the approaching cliff that the characters are hurtling towards.

So, does Nevins gather together the collected strands and resolve them? He has been an annotator of a lot of Alan Moore's work, and Moore has had challenges with stories not so much resolving as running out of pages, and of playing nastily with his creations. Does Nevins "stick the landing"? Yes, in part because of the unreliable nature of his narrators and the who is giving information when in the book. There are a couple tweaks and twists, but the book delivers.

The Dictionary of Snow Hill entertains and delights. It would make a solid sourcebook for a era-specific superhero gaming campaign. It feels very much like Kurt Busiek's Astro City comics - Set firmly within its genre, with characters whose archetypes are easily identified. It's a great read if you remember the pulps, and worth checking out even you don't.

More later,

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Theatre: Tuned to a Dead Channel

Selling Kabul by Sylvia Khoury, Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, Seattle Rep through 22 May

This one is rough. It is a challenge. It was also the best production of the year so far. 

Part of the challenge is subject matter - a play about Afghanistan so soon after the recent departure of US military support, the collapse of its government, and return of the Taliban. And part of it because of the characters themselves, all of whom are confronted with the ever-increasing danger resulting from the lies they tell to protect each other. You empathise with them and and internalize their peril.

Taroon (Yousof Sultani) has been hiding in the apartment of his sister Afiya (Susaan Jamshidi) and her husband Jawid (Barzin Akhavan) for four months now. Taroon worked for the Americans and is hiding from the rising Taliban. Jawid is making uniforms for the Taliban in exchange for their protection. Afiya is trying to hold everything together, including keeping Taroon's presence hidden from the outside world, which is embodied by friendly/nosy neighbor Leyla (Fatima Wardak). At the start of the play, Taroon's wife has given birth to their son in the hospital, and Taroon is willing to risk everything to see them. However, the Taliban has people at the hospital looking for him. Afiya want to keep her brother alive.

And from there is just gets worse for everyone involved. It is a slow burn as the truth regarding the devastation from the authoritarians is revealed, and as the knowledge of the danger to the major characters is slowly leaked out. The risks ratchet up, the potential dangers increase, and the collateral damage is high. 

The actors are excellent. Most of them are "making their Seattle Rep debut" with the exception of Wardak, who had been in A Thousand Splendid Suns from the Rep a few years ago (and which is being apparently being turned into an opera). They embody their characters and their secrets with grace and humanity. Jamshidi as Afiya is the heart of the play, as she struggles to work out the most survivable results in an ever-darkening landscape. The set is no-nonsense, will none of the flying props or multiple levels we've seen in other Rep productions. And the directing is subtle, direct and well-placed. As I said, it is a slow burn.

This is a bleak play. Much bleaker than Ghosts, and much, much more immediate. There are fewer laughs at these characters, less distance between us and them. The performance is gifted with excellent actors, a tight script, and spot-on direction. I really, really don't want to take it apart and analyze why it works right now because it really connected and affected me. So yeah, with all the caveats that this is not a musical, not a blast from the past, not a retelling of another better known play, but is really solid, good theater. Just don't expect to feel good about it afterwards.

More later,