Saturday, March 11, 2023

Book: Planet of Women

 Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers HarperPaperbacks,  Original copyright 1927

Provenance: The Crazy Book Lady, a used bookstore in Acworth, Georgia. I wanted to pick up a back-up book when I was down there (you readers know what I mean - a book for just in case I finished the book I was reading). The shop is in a small mall off the main road, noted only by a simple sign declaring "Books", and also handles U-Haul rentals. Could not find the next Mick Herron book, and did not feel like another LaCarre, but did stumble across a Sayers that I had not yet read.

Review: Let me digress immediately. I always found the Bogart version of the Big Sleep (1947) interesting for many reasons, and one of them is the power of women in the film. Bogart is Phil Marlowe is at the center, sure, and we also have the old General's two daughters (Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers, who throw themselves at Marlowe) but also the chief villainess (Agnes Lowzier, who does not), and Dorothy Malone as the bookstore owner who looks beautiful without her glasses. And a female cabbie (Joy Barlowe) for a short bit. And what struck me at the time was that Bogart/Marlowe just pops into the cab without giving the fact it was driven by a woman a second thought. It is a movie, though with a male lead spends most of his time interacting with women.

And that is the same vibe I got from Unnatural Death. Yes, Sayers did a great women-centric book in Gaudy Night, and some day I may even talk about it. But the plot of Unnatural Death is controlled by its women, and Lord Peter Wimsey and his buddy Inspector Parker are often secondary and reactive to their actions. I fact, most of the men come off as second-best - they are there where their positions of power, banned to women, are needed (doctors, lawyers, law enforcement), but are come off the worse for wear (haughty, pedantic, and/or fools).

Let me lay out the plot in brief. This is the most murder-mystery-like of the Lord Peter books in that it obeys a lot of traditional tropes. By this point in his career Lord Peter has established himself as an effective consulting detective, making mysteries and murder his habit. A discussion of "perfect murders" that no one even considers a crime occurs, boosted by a chance encounter at a restaurant, which puts him on the case. An old woman dies. She has cancer, but her demise is still sudden. She has stated that her Grand-Niece inherits all, but refuses to make a will. And there is enough little weirdnesses around the situation that Lord Peter, with Parker in tow, investigates. 

And part of that investigation is assigning a female operative to the deceased's home town. Miss Climpson is a proper, dedicated, older, single woman with a High Anglican background and a rational mind. Peter puts her in town so she can ask questions that a man would not get proper answers about. And she falls in with the gossipy small-town lift of the community and shows herself to be every proper bit an investigator (by the way, she apparently predates Miss Marples by a couple years, though she is late to the field of Lady Detectives in general). The end of the book  is a cascade of her convincing herself to put herself in harms' way while Wimsey and Parker are still sorting out threads.

And there is a lot of queer-coding going on here. Many of the women have no declared use for men and are pretty happy with that - they are fish without bicycles. And a number of them have better relationships with other women. The elderly deceased had a healthy and active relationship with a suspect's grandmother (who was (coding) an expert horsewoman). Peter's chief suspect leaves town with a younger woman, intent on purchasing a egg farm far away from any of the people they know. The phrase "equal of any man" is invoked a couple times, and always making the male speaker look like a fool. For a book almost a hundred years old, there are lot of signposts out there, and the question arises if there it was as obvious back then as it is now.

The murder itself (and yes, there was an initial murder - if fact, several over the course of the book) ages less well. The method of dispatch is obvious to our modern eyes, since we have seen it played through so many times in popular media since (along with questions of how effective it would actually be in the real world). Wimsey pieces together the clues with glacial slowness, complete with a moment of "Ah! I had forgotten about this one piece of then-public information" that provides a motivation as to why the old woman had to die RIGHT NOW as opposed to letter nature (and cancer) take its course.

All in all, it is Sayers, and as such has a richness and depth of Interwar Britain. In this case, the sudden downturn of the male population in the years after the war, and the challenges and opportunities that presented to women. As always, worthwhile.

More later, 

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Life in the Time of the Virus: Becoming a Statistic

Soir Bleu (Blue Evening) by Hopper, 1914
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. I have COVID.

Worse yet, I had COVID and traveled out of state to a wedding this past weekend. 

So, here's the story. TWO weekends back I attended, unmasked, a "Nerd Party"/book signing down in Kent, and I think that's where I picked things up - the time frame matches up. The Wednesday following I had a scratchy throat and a stuffy head. To be honest, nothing out of the ordinary for after I do a convention where I talk with people a lot. It was bad in the morning, but pretty much evaporated by the afternoon. No fever. No diarrhea. No effect on sense of taste. No problems breathing.  By Friday it was just merely irritating, so I flew 5 hours to Atlanta (masked on the plane) and attended the wedding of my youngest niece (not masked). Hugged people, celebrated, schmoozed. I warned some people early on I was "getting over a cold." Because that's what it felt like. How little I knew. 

And while waiting in line at the airport to LEAVE Atlanta, I saw a Facebook post from a friend who says he has tested positive. So I texted Kate to that effect, and came back to Seattle, totally masked up. She had told me she had "caught my cold". She tested positive with an old test. I went out and got some new tests, shoved the probes up my nostrils and.... yeah, I'm positive. I'm positive I'm positive. 

So how is it? It feels like a cold. I've had nasty ones. It did not lay me out (though I used it as an excuse to a nap). I've been vaccced and boostered, and while it ultimately did not give me Plate +3 level protection, it does feel like it has pretty much limited the effects. I mean one of the points of the vaccination is to prep the body to beat back the real thing. And I honestly felt more tired and brain-foggy from the vacc than from the virus when it showed up.

But I sent out the emails to others that were at the book event, and those at the weddings. Fortunately I didn't hug a lot of people at the wedding, but I did hug people that I was close to. Brother, sister, sister-in-law. And the bride. I should of opted for the mask, but no one was masking up. And I felt that if COVID responded poorly to an alcohol-based environment, I had that more than covered.

And I feel phenomenally stupid. I mean, I've spent a couple years observing proper protocols, and had this entire Protestant-Work-Ethic approach to health - I was going to get through this through sheer strength of moral fiber and applaudable caution. I was kinda proud I had not succumbed.  Paladin-level virtuous, even. Yeah, we declared the crisis over and many/most have tucked the masks away, but it is still out there. Even if the present form feels less virulent and deadly, and it is not putting as many people in the hospital (or the grave), it is still sending a healthy number into unhealthy crises. But knowing ALL THE RISKS I still thought it was "just a headcold" and went off to a wedding. 

So what now? Isolation and masking for the moment. Monitoring to see if it gets worse (that can still happen). On-line conference with a health professional (we're far enough away from initial onset that anti-virals will not help). Mucinex for the stuffiness. Taking care of the Lovely Bride. Staying the heck away from people, which has become second-nature to me. I work from home and the work hasn't suffered (much) from the amounts of phlegm in my system. I'm feeling a little more snarly than usual, but that is likely more on me than on the virus itself.

And I have "All-Star" by Smashmouth running continually in my brain. Oh, the horror.

So yeah, folks, keep the masks on, keep your head down, keep yourselves safe.

And it's NEVER just a headcold.

More later,

Thursday, March 02, 2023

No Quarter: Next Gen II

We've been talking about the design of recent collectable quarters from the US Mint for some time. We've done States. and we've done National Parks. And most recently I've started in on the American Women series, which commemorates famous woman over the course of US History.

Now in the many years of these programs, I have to admit that the carving qualities and depth of design has improved dramatically, so there's less to mock here than I would prefer. And while that's a good thing from the design aspect, it is less so from the entertainment element. Let that be so. I will persevere. So you get a little more history lesson these times out

Oh, and by the way, the Anna May Wong quarter from last year really improved this old movie star's visibility, which says in part why these quarters are a good this. Anyway, here's the ratings: 

Way Cool =A
Not Bad = B
Just Average (also known as Meh) = C
Kinda Lame = D
So Bad the Designer Should Go Home and Think About What They Did + E

Bessie Coleman(1892-1926)

Bessie Coleman was the first female African American pilot, as well as the first female Native American pilot. Her male predecessors are apparently up for debate, but include Emory Malick and Eugene J. Bullard. Coleman herself had to go to France to learn how to fly (America being non-too-receptive to minorities OR women in the air), and returned to do demonstrations in America and to speak. She died (as a passenger) in an air crash in 1926

The coin itself is … OK. It shows Ms. Coleman reaching up to adjust her flight goggles, which is a good pose, but due to the limitations on the coin itself, her right arm and hand do not look clear, and I had to expand the image to figure out what was going on over there. Still, it is good take on the three-quarters view we've seen on other quarters. The plane in the background is, I believe, a Curtiss Jenny (Curtiss JN) which was used to train most of the US WWI pilots and was used in the post-war years by barnstormers and mail flyers, among others. Where the coin works best is in the "right stuff" style for the name (and when she got her pilot's license). OK, but a bit muddled and lumpy in her flight suit.

Rating: C

Edith Kanaka'ole (1913-1979)

Edith Keona Kanaka'ole was a teacher, chanter, and dancer, and was responsible for the preservation and blossoming of Hawai'ian culture over the middle decades of the past century. She assisted in the development of Hawaiian language programs, and taught ethnobiology, language, and Polynesian history. She helped stem to the tide of extinction of Hawaiian culture and language.

The coin itself is pretty good, melding Ms. Manaka'ole with the land itself. She looks a little grim and stoic, though other photos I've found seems to be warmer. The inscription at the bottom translates as "Granting the Wisdom", which is a pretty fair estimation of her legacy. I think her name is going to get lost in her hair/landscape, but moving the various text around the coin is a good call. I don't remember the "cents" sign showing up since coins a hundred years ago, but it works here. 

 Rating: B

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

If you're going to do a series on important American women, of COURSE you're going to do Anna Eleanor Roosevelt. She is the most notable and effective activist First Lady since Dolley Madison evacuated the White House, and she set the bar for all presidential spouses since then. Her work during the war is commendable and is exceeded only by her later work with UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She ALREADY has a coin, though it is one of the Presidential Spouses $10 series that never saw circulation, and she, apart from all the other first ladies, has her own statue in her husband's memorial in Washington DC.

All that said, which justifies her in "Wikipedia Notability" terms and merits her being on more than one coin, this is not a great coin. It captures the main elements of Ms. Roosevelt's political career (The globe, justice), but it is cluttered as a result, with a lot of text on it, and some of it will be lost in the folds of her blouse, much as for the previous Edith Kanaka'ole coin. Breaking the border of the globe with her head and hat does a lot to elevate it beyond the traditional portature, but I think it's a bit cluttered. 

 Rating: B

Jovita Idar (1885-1946)

Jovita Idar Vivero is one of the entries here I had to dig down to get to. A journalist and campaigner for Mexican-American rights, Ms. Idar ran newspapers in Texas and fought for less fortunate Chicanos and women. I am always in favor of currency that features writers, reporters, and editors, and Ms. Idar was all three.

I like this coin. A lot. One of the challenges of these quarters is that there is so much boilerplate text that HAS to go on them (United States of America, E Pluribus Unum, Denomination), plus necessary text of identification and often achievements, that the results can be cluttered. This design moves all of that text, and more, onto Ms. Idar's blouse, in effect wrapping her with her own achievements. It also leaves some impressive white space on both sides. And the portraiture itself is very impressive - portraits on these coins are a challenge to avoid the dead-eye stare that plagues, say, the Presidential Dollars, but here it pulls it off. Impressive and a welcome change from the traditional presentation.

Rating: A

Maria Tallchief (1915-2013)

Maria Tallchief was the first American prima ballerina. Not the first Native American prima ballerina nor the first prima ballerina of color. The first American prima ballerina. Now, ballet is one of those subjects that I am particularly and enthusiastically weak on, but I recognize the importance of the achievement, and doing the digging on the wiki, am deeply impressed with her accomplishments. 

The coin, though, does not do her justice. The pose is supposed to represent a grand jete (a mid-air leg splitting leap for us muggles) but comes off as static. Her headpiece (I am guessing here) comes from Stravinsky's The Firebird, but looks incidental and does not contribute to the sense of motion at all. Good points for framing her in the spotlight, and for including her Osage name ("Two Standards", or "Two Worlds") on the coin as well. It is perfectly serviceable, but I think it is missing the sense of motion that a ballerina demands. 

Rating: C

That's it for the second round - tune in next year for five more. Last year's Anna May Wong coin has made it into circulation and looks great, so keep checking your change.

More later,