Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

WARNING! SPOILERS!

Book One of the saga of Malazan, Book of the Fallen is Gardens of the Moon. Erikson’s epic fantasy currently spans 11 volumes, and I don’t think a single one of them is fewer than 650 pages. I’m only one third of the way through Gardens of the Moon, which is a mosaic novel introducing an empire and its attempt at continental conquest. Along the way I’ve met some gods, some demi-gods, sorcerers, wizards, thieves, assassins, soldiers and a few others.

The book’s pacing is ponderous, and the first several chapters seemed to be little more than soldiers talking, or soldiers riding through the aftermath of a slaughter talking, or soldiers thinking about talking.  Along about page 150, though, Tattersail showed up. She is a sorcerer and an engaging character. A little while after that, Paran, who had been as stiff as a dressmaker’s form and absolutely yawn-inducing, got killed and then he got really interesting.

I like what I think I understand of the magic system. Yes, that is what I wanted that sentence to say.

Every once in a while I come across a tasty tidbit, like a dried cranberry in a salad, and so far here are two I’ve really enjoyed; the animated magical puppet, who may not be an evil puppet but is certainly an ill-tempered one, and Crone, the giant, magical talking raven. How could I not love a giant magical talking raven?

I’m on page 275. I don’t love it, but there is plenty to admire and I have it from a respected source that this book is not the best of the series. Certainly it’s worth reading to get the background and understand how the gods and the Ascendants fit together, who is warring with whom (short answer, everybody), and so on. We met the Empress of Malazan briefly at the beginning. She is not a good person, but I kind of liked her, and I think that’s the author’s intent.

So, while there was a point where I nearly put the book down, I think I will go on. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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The Role of the Broker

Over at Fanlit, we frequently do giveaways. Most review sites do this. Often we work with publishers to give away new books, which the publishers like because it juices up the buzz about the book.

This means working with publicists and winners.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, the Giveaways of books from publishers go very smoothly. Basically, I send an email with the winner’s contact info or address to the publicist, and we’re done.

Right now I am dealing with someone who didn’t get a book from the publisher. In this situation, the publisher approached us, and we did a 20-book giveaway. Two winners have contacted me to say they haven’t gotten theirs, and the books were supposedly mailed the first week of April, 2016.

It isn’t going very well. The first person contacted me three weeks ago. I let the publicist know, and confirmed the address I’ve given him was correct. I asked him to check. Four work days later I got a response that “those books have all gone out.”

I followed up. Have any come back? Can I get the tracking number? No response.

Fortunately, I had a second copy of the book in question at home, and I ended up sending that to the winner.

Now, this week, I have a second person contacting me and I am going through the same drill. UPDATE: Now I have a third and still no response from the publicist.

I’m frustrated, and part of the reason I’m frustrated is because I’m not sure what I can do to fix this.

I know what I shouldn’t do; I should not buy the winner a book with my own money. That’s what I want to do. This problem is not of my making, nor is it my responsibility. Also, this isn’t about Marion, this is about FanLit, and while I can probably afford to buy a copy (or copies, as it’s turning out) of this particular book, it wouldn’t be fair to set that kind of a precedent for the site.

And the publisher offered a book and they damn well should provide the winner his book.

As a “broker,” I don’t really have any leverage over the publisher. That’s the other problem.

Anyway, it’s an interesting dilemma.

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The Night Manager on AMC

AMC adapted John LeCarre’s novel The Night Manager into a six-hour miniseries. It airs on Tuesday nights at 10:00.  I am commenting on it now having seen four of the six hours, but unlike shows I’ve seen on other networks (and I’m looking at you, Syfy) I have no trepidation or anxiety that they are going to completely screw up the ending. I am in the hands of master storytellers here, and I am completely confident.

I had not read the book, but the quality of the performances and the storytelling made me go buy it. Of course the book is more complex and may very well have a different ending, but Le Carre has a writer’s credit on the show, and I can already see that some familiar LeCarre themes (corruption, accountability, the danger of cynicism) are addressed.

A lot of the show involves Tom Hiddleston, the hotel night manager of the title, interacting with Hugh Laurie, a conscienceless billionaire arms dealer. These scenes hum with intensity. Olivia Coleman, who plays intelligence operative Angela Burr, does not get anywhere near enough scenes with Hiddleston, but she matches the two men stroke for stroke when it comes to acting chops. After an uneven opening hour devoted mostly to backstory (and beautifully done) the series hit its stride, if that’s the right term, with a feeling of a spring-loaded apparatus getting, slowly, wound tighter, tighter, and still tighter, until the metal quivers and begins to creak. And then, still tighter.

Jonathan Pine, an ex-soldier, is the night manager of a five-star hotel in Cairo during the Arab Spring uprising. Pine is approached by a woman guest, the mistress of a prominent Cairo family, with evidence of an arms deal, with British mogul Richard Roper as the broker of the deal. The “arms deal” includes hardware and things like Sarin gas. Pine approaches a friend from his military days who works for the home office. They pass on the information to Angela Burr, lead analyst in a criminally underfunded enforcement agency in London. Jonathan Pine promises the woman, Sophia, that Britain will protect her, but it turns out he can’t keep that promise. Sophia is not protected, and Pine can’t save her.

Four years later Pine has an opportunity, with Angela’s help, to take revenge on Roper. This is where the cat-and-mouse game begins. When Burr first meets with Pine and asks him why he passed on the original information, he gives a Queen-and-country answer. He says when he saw someone British selling those weapons, “Something stirred, I suppose.” It seems like he means outrage or moral indignation, and that his desire for revenge is also, at least slightly, also about justice. Once Angela plants him inside Roper’s tight, secretive and complex group, though, a different aspect of Pine emerges.

Hugh Laurie plays Richard Roper (“I’m Dickie Roper”) with a hooded-eyed distance; a calculation, humor and coolness that only emphasizes his dangerousness. He is ruthless; he is witty and genial. He is loving in an absent-minded, career-driven-dad way to his young son Danny. He is a master criminal who is, as another character puts it, “completely faithful” to his girlfriend. He is a monster and knows it, and isn’t particularly bothered by it.

Hiddleston and Laurie are awesome whenever they are on the screen together. Hiddleston can deliver intensity and vulnerability, sometimes in the same moment; Laurie can deliver menace, and also, strangely, vulnerability, and when then two of them are interacting… I should have some great descriptor there, but the term that comes to mind is, “Whoa.”

Pine is a risk-taker, a man in control who seeks intensity. In the fourth episode, Roper grills him, humorously, about what he wants; hashish? Alcohol? Girls, boys, young, old? Pine politely declines each and Roper says, only half-joking, “I don’t know if I can trust a man with no appetites.” He overlooks Pine’s appetite for danger, and that will bring problems to both of them. That earlier line, “Something stirred, I suppose,” takes on a different meaning. So does the very opening scene of the show, which starts with Pine walking through the crowds of demonstrators in Cairo. That scene was baffling when we first saw it; watching Pine up through Episode Four, that scene suddenly plays differently too. Pine does lust for something. It isn’t revenge. It’s danger; a chance to test himself with no safety net.

Meanwhile, with her shabby old coat, her half-brushed hair and a wardrobe that brings new dimension to the word “frumpy,” Angela Burr is an even bigger badass than Pine. She’s a risk-taker too, gambling her career while several months pregnant, horse-trading with her CIA counterpart,  playing Mother Confessor to a former partner of Roper’s, out-maneuvering corrupt and arrogant adversaries at MI6, facing down tainted colleagues. Coleman is a treasure in this role.

The series is directed by Suzanne Bier, a Danish film-maker who has a great eye, and uses a lot of hand-held camera work here. It creates the tense, frightening intimacy; it’s also overdone just enough that it becomes noticeable at times, intruding on the story. (In a different way, Hiddleston’s good looks intrude on the story at certain moments, too.) This is a flaw, and it’s a tiny one that does no lasting damage to the series. Bier is brilliant.

The entire cast is pitch perfect, but these three are the main characters, and this show is a work of art. I can’t wait to find out how it ends… and then read the book. And then, probably, watch it again.

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Whitewash

White hand painting white paint on a tree.

Just a little whitewash

There’s been a lot of internet talk lately about whitewashing. In this context, it means taking a character, story, trope or hero from a culture and recasting it as a white character or a white story. Here is a definition from the blog sociological cinema. Like cultural appropriation, which I admit I still don’t completely understand, whitewashing makes people of color disappear from history and from stories. (Not just people of color, but this column will deal mostly with people of color as an example.)

A big, and shocking, example in the SFF world is  Walt Disney Studios, which decided to remake the classic Japanese anime film Ghost in the Shell as a live action film. ( Whaaaat? Nooooo! Why?) That’s the first problem right there, but in case they hadn’t already gone wrong, they decided to cast well-known American-Japanese actor Scarlett Johannson as the lead character of Motoko Kusinagi. What? You didn’t know that Johansson is of Japanese origin? Neither did anybody else. It’s because she’s not.

I didn’t know enough about Dr Strange to be upset by the casting of the awesome Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in the upcoming movie, because I didn’t know the Ancient One was Asian. Frankly, I didn’t know the Ancient One was terrestrial. I love Tilda Swinton, but again, there are plenty of American-Asian and Asian actors who would have melded to the role perfectly.

Studios can make money-based arguments for both of these cases. These are name actors who bring an audience, or that’s what the studios probably think. And after all, Scarlett Johannson deserves a vehicle as an action-hero, doesn’t she? And it isn’t like she’s associated in anyone’s mind with an existing action-hero character, perhaps from an American comic book. Wouldn’t it be great if she were?

Anyway, in both these high-profile missteps, studios can mount an economic argument, and when Ghost in the Shell fails they can blame Johannson –women superhero movies don’t work– and the perfectly balanced closed system will chug merrily along. Sometimes, though, whitewashing isn’t done in gallons, with an economic rationalization. It’s done for no reason whatsoever, and it’s just baffling… or worse, it’s not baffling at all, it’s proof of unconscious bias, and a system that makes sure we never see too many people of color (for an in-determinant value of “too many”) in any piece of entertainment media.

An example of this is Syfy’s series The Expanse.

I loved The Expanse, and I watched it before I had read any of the books. It made me want to read the books, which makes it a success by my reckoning. The casting is excellent mostly and these actors own their characters. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it; I reviewed it at FanLit and you can read the review.

About that casting. The major roles are perfect. There is a minor role that is confusing though. She’s only in two episodes, and in one of them she is having low-gravity sex, which required the actor to do wire-work, so, you know, “Good Work!”. The character’s name is Ade, and she is the girlfriend of James Holden, one of the two main characters. Spoiler alert; a bad thing happens and that’s why she is only in two episodes.

Ade had blond hair, white skin and looked rather Scandinavian (the actor who plays her is named Kristen Hager). I didn’t think much about it, because I wasn’t familiar with the name Ade, which did sound like it could be Scandinavian or at least futurist-Scandinavian. Then I read Leviathan Wakes. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Ade is Nigerian. Nigerian. Ade is a name of African origin. And I don’t think that the Ade of the book was part of that tiny enclave of Swedes, or Finns, or Danes who settled in Nigeria in 1362, and which I’ve just made up. No, I think James S.A. Corey imagined Holden’s onboard squeeze as a gorgeous dark-skinned woman.

Why in the world would you bleach Nigerian Ade into white Ade, even giving her a Scandinavian last name (Nygaard, according to the credits)? Who thought this was necessary? I’m pushed into a position of actually hoping it was patronage and corruption, and that Hager got the job because she is someone’s girlfriend. Because there is no other reason. None.

Or, there might be. There is another stunning dark-skinned woman in the series, Naomi, and she and James will become a couple at some point. Did casting people think we’d be confused if James had two dark-skinned girlfriends? (It’s easy to tell them apart in the show. Ade’s gone. The one who’s left, that’s Naomi. See? Easy.)

Did they just reach a point, without reflection, without decision, without thought and without discussion, that somehow some threshold had been met; there were “enough” dark-skinned people in the series, so they’d bleach one? Did that unspoken gauge of “too many” tick over into the red zone?

Or, Hager tested really well in an audition for some other role and they liked her, so they bleached Ade and gave it to her. Okay, that might be fair. I could be persuaded it was fair if I believed they would do the same thing for a dark-skinned actor who they really liked, without talking about whether it was right to “change” a white character. And I don’t believe, for a minute, they would do that.

Idris Elba

Dude, it’s Idris Elba

(I know, I know, Heimdahl in Marvel’s Thor movies. You think casting Idris Elba makes an argument that they would do that. I can refute that argument in three words; it’s Idris Elba.)

I’m choosing the example of Ade because it is tiny and insidious. Ade is part of a background; part of a futuristic world where, still, there aren’t many dark faces. And there’s no story-based reason why not; in fact, the books have all kinds of people, with all kinds of skin color, hair color, cultures, habits and lives. Blond Ade doesn’t reflect the future world of The Expanse; she reflects the white inner world of studio executives.

Ade is less than a cup of whitewash, but that’s too much. Studios and casting directors, you try hard to rationalize away the big plum roles when you bleach them to whiteness. What excuse do you have for the Ades? Stop whitewashing the small roles first, to give yourselves some practice. Maybe, eventually, you will build up the courage to cast the bigger roles right as well.

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The Blind Tattooist

(This is original fiction. You are welcome to link to it. If you quote it or cite it, give me credit. Marion)

Science fiction and fantasy writer Chuck Wendig hosts the occasional flash fiction festival on his blog Terrible Minds. Wendig gave us a week to throw out titles. The limit was one title per commenter. I contributed one.  He chose the ones he liked best and gave us another week to provide links to our story.  Here’s mine. It’s just under 1,000 words.

The Blind Tattoist

The needles do not release their secrets easily.

*

When Bianca first saw the art of ink in flesh it astonished her.  Images appeared on skin like new continents on a horizon. Drawing on the letter of credit meant for her stay at the Ecole de Beaux Art in Paris, she journeyed instead to Japan.

The tattoo masters of that nation did not welcome her, an outsider and a woman. It took her two years to find someone who would teach her. “The needles do not release their secrets easily,” he told her. “Are you prepared to sacrifice?”

Bianca looked at the paired koi that swept up his arms, each scale glinting as if sunlit. “I am,” she said.

She soon realized that her teacher was no true horishi –he had agreed to teach her, after all — but he showed her the magic of the needles, the narrow chisel, the ink. “You are not prepared,” he would say, drunk and taunting her. Soon all she had left of him was a battered case of worn instruments he swore he had never used, and a bottle of Nara black ink, whose color turned blue under the skin. She returned to Seattle. While she was gone, Black Tuesday had eaten half her family’s fortune in one gulp. The neighbors no longer collected art; they watched the stock market and trembled.

When Bianca’s mother saw the herons that ringed her rebellious daughter’s wrists, she collapsed onto a nearby loveseat and wept. Bianca refused to cover the tattoos. She declined card parties and tea invitations, and soon she left the big house on Millionaire Row.

She found a storefront on the docks, between a speakeasy and an herb shop, the smell of thyme leaking through the walls. The art of the needle nourished her; fixing paint into flesh; giving herself over to the moment when the ink-laden needle-point punctured skin, a moment of communion with the artist, the art, and the art’s vehicle. Bianca was no horishi but she could close her eyes while she worked and still know where the ink would go. The worn needles quivered, guiding her hand, as if they and not she created the art.

She made enough money to pay the rent, buy one good meal a day and visit the speakeasy now and then. She gave the bartender there a leopard-spot tattoo. Her old friends from Millionaire Row stopped by, mostly out of curiosity, but soon several of them sported birds, lions-heads and flowers on their backs or shoulder blades.

When the men first came to tell her that the docks were dangerous and she needed protection, she thanked them for their concern and sent them away. Two nights later, at the speak, she saw the same men. The bartender gave them money from the till. As the men left, one winked at her.

“Why are you giving them money?” she said.

“Aren’t you?” the bartender said. The spots showed like shadows on his coffee-dark cheeks.

“Why would I?”

“Might want to think about it,” he said.

She thought about it. When the men came back, she said she couldn’t afford to pay them. The man who had winked at her looked around at the studio. “It’s your choice, sister,” he said. He touched his hat brim as they left.

That night she dreamed that her Japanese teacher smashed bottles of ink with a staff. “You aren’t prepared,” he said. She tried to speak, but she could not draw a breath. She woke to a studio in flames, bottles of ink exploding in the heat. Her way to the door was barricaded by mocking, dancing flames. Coughing, she searched for the case that held her instruments. It sat at the edge of the table. She grabbed it as a white sheet of fire leapt up in front of her, a finger’s-width from her face, searing her eyes. She smelled burning hair, but closed her fingers around the case.

She ran to the back. The window that overlooked an alley was painted shut. She pounded on the glass until it broke, scoring her arm, and climbed out. She lay on the ground coughing, her eyes aching, her instruments clutched to her chest.  In the street, people shouted, and cars pulled up. Smoke wreathed her, covering her. She squeezed her eyes shut. In their case, the needle quivered, and she saw on her eyelids a scene painted in greenish strokes. Colors faded in, bold and rich; women’s faces, all different, all with eyes golden and blank.

Rescuers found her an hour later, unconscious.

She returned to her family’s home at first. In the darkened room with the curtains drawn, the doctor told her that her sight would not return. She would do no more art. In her mother’s sigh Bianca heard both relief and triumph.  That night Bianca called for a taxi to take her to the waterfront. She sat on the ground in the doorway of her ruined shop, opened the scorched case that held her instruments, and waited. I am prepared, she thought.

A cool hand touched her shoulder. She looked up and deciphered the shadow of the bartender against the white glare of the flickering streetlamp. He placed a pair of smoked glass spectacles on her nose. She touched his hand. They both smiled.

Word spread. Rum-runners, sailors, carnies and adventurers came to see the blind tattooist. Although she could not see faces or colors in daylight, her needles could paint any picture on skin. If a customer handed her a photograph, she would stroke it with her fingertips, then limn it onto their skin, perfectly.

*

Bianca was my great-great aunt. My grandmother grew blind as she worked, but never lost her touch with the ink, nor did my Aunt Cecile. Nor me. Yes, I am blind, too. The needles don’t release their secrets easily. They demand sacrifice. Did you say you wanted a rose?

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I’m Not Angry, I’m Just Disappointed… Actually, I’m Angry Too

Early in 2015, a random comment one of us at Fantasy Literature made in an e-mail conversation sparked a serious discussion about awards, and specifically the Hugos.

Did we want to win awards? Generally, yes. Awards usually mean that people in the community see value in what you do. Did we specifically want a Hugo? Well, despite all the limp propaganda attempts to declare the Hugos dead, they are still the highest-profile award in the field. Why wouldn’t we want one?

Were we willing to do more things, or different things, to try to win one? Basically, our approach had been, “write excellent columns, provide excellent content and be seen as an amazing resource for the community.” Somehow we thought, “If we write it, they will come (and vote us a Hugo).” It turned out the reality was more complicated than that. It turned out that we were seen by some people as a little aloof. They weren’t sure we even wanted a Hugo nomination.

Were we willing to do some marketing and social media outreach? Well, the answer to that seemed to be, “kinda.”

Our Fearless Leader Kat looked as some ways we could expand our reach with Twitter and other Social Media. Not completely coincidentally, we added some formats to our reviews; specifically, films and TV series. Kate Lechler’s Expanded Universe column brought new voices, and exciting new concepts, to the mix. On our Google Docs work page, Kat added a red banner, “Let’s Win a Hugo this Year!”

Okay. To be honest, I didn’t think we’d win. I think in the category of “fanzine,” winning a Hugo is a multi-year process, maybe a bit like building your pro sports team up to take the championship. Throughout the year, though, I did occasionally allow myself to fantasize that we might make the finalist list. That seemed feasible. It was my personal goal, and I did a lot this year to help raise our profile. I pushed beyond my own personal comfort level to utilize Twitter in a positive way and to land interesting interviews, to review some of the categories of fiction that might otherwise get overlooked.

In doing that, I forgot something.

I forgot the splinter-group-of-the-splinter-group that calls itself the Rapid  Rabid Puppies, whose leader is That Guy Who Hates John Scalzi, and who for the duration of this post will be called That Guy Who Hates the Hugos, (TGWHTH).

Remember back in 2015, when, while no one was looking, this group of hoodlums sneaked in and trashed the Hugo nominations? They counted on the fact that far fewer people nominate than vote (think primary election versus a general one). This act of trashery drew lots of outrage, anger, discussion and attention. Since TGWHTH craves attention and is adept at using the internet to feed his need, he felt successful last year and so he tried the same routine this year.

This year he was far less successful, managing to slag only a few categories; Short Story, Novelette, Related Works and Fanzine.

Unfortunately, Fantasy Literature in in the Fanzine category.

TGWHTH’s slate of fanzines was nominated 100%, choice for choice.

That Guy trumpets the fact that he has waves of followers who vote exactly as he directs them. There is a dispute over numbers – his debunkers state he probably has about 250 of these folks, and he claims at least 500. When you look at the information provided with the Hugo short list, you notice immediately (of course) that where the pool of nominations is large, TGWHTH was less successful. Novel, for instance, had 3000+ nominators.

Fanzine had about 1400. With a pool that size, where most people are nominating their favorite review sites (because that’s what you are supposed to do) a bloc of 250 would definitely make a difference, especially because every site they nominated would also have some people who I will call real nominators; those who actually read and love those sites; rather than people who were voting a list that someone gave them. For instance, File 770 was on That Guy’s list as a malice-nom, and I also nominated it, because it’s so helpful.

I also remind myself that there is an aspect of good-natured – or not so good-natured—mischief in this whole process. I mean, citizens of Britain voted recently to name a scientific research ship Boaty McBoatface. That was funny; people who nominated and voted for names that had meaning were probably annoyed.

And there is good news in the future. WorldCon is voting to make changes to the nomination process, effective 2017, that will make it harder for a minority to force a slate onto the short list. Also, in general, people did wise-up to these shenanigans, and more people purchased memberships and nominated this year than any previous year.

Also in the still-looking-for-the-silver-lining category is a bit of personal development. My sympathy for people who wrote truly epic short fiction this year and got locked out of a Short Story of Novelette nomination is no longer an abstraction. It’s no longer sympathy, it’s empathy. It’s to a different degree, but I now know exactly what it feels like to work really hard on something for months, only to be shut out of a chance for recognition as a result of someone’s spiteful trick.

But I’m disappointed. And angry.

I wanted to know if we made a good showing. And — I know this sounds stupid—if I was going to fail, I wanted to fail on my own merits.

After the Hugos are awarded, MidAmeriCon will put out some analytical data that will show us how many nominations we got. (I nominated us, and a reader contacted us to say she nominated us. So that’s two, for sure.) We’ll be able to recalibrate. Did we miss the mark completely? Are we out of touch? Were we somewhere in the pack; in the top fifteen? The top ten? Right now, we cannot know if our whole campaign, to the extent it was one, missed the mark, or if we just got trashed by slate-minions.

I’ll get over it. And I won’t feed TGWHTH by getting all indignant on Twitter or anyplace other than here, because that’s what he likes.

Here is my goal; I will go one reading thoughtfully and carefully, and writing reviews and columns that provide value and entertainment. I will reach out to writers and ask them thoughtful interview questions, so that readers get to know them better.

And when I can I will raise the profile of short fiction I find, so that at least the categories of Short Story and Novelette can strengthen their immune systems.

That’s what I can do. And I’ll stay quietly angry just little bit longer.

Posted in Hugos, Thoughts about Writing | 4 Comments

The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty won the Pulitzer prize in 1972 for The Optimist’s Daughter. This slim novel follows Laurel McKelva Hand in the days leading up to her father’s death and the week immediately following. The story starts in New Orleans but soon moves to the small Mississippi town that Laurel grew up in.

Welty’s prose is always a thing of beauty. She was probably born with piercing powers of observation but she honed them, paying attention to the moments in life that most of us rush over. She burnished those powers with a sense of the exact right word, and those show up again and again in The Optimist’s Daughter. I can almost say the whole book is made of small moments and detailed observations.

The book opens with Laurel and her stepmother Fay, who is younger than she is, at a doctor’s visit with her father. He has been experiencing some problems with his vision. The doctor is an old family friend who cared for Laurel’s mother when she was dying. In the context of a simple visit, the complicated relationships quiver beneath the surface.

“The excruciatingly small, brilliant eye of the instrument hung still between Judge McKelva’s set face and the doctor’s hidden one.”

The use of “eye” in that sentence is perfect; zeroing us in on what can, and can’t, be seen.

The surgery to re-attach the judge’s retina is successful, but there are complications. Laurel and Fay spend several days at the hospital in New Orleans (in the run-up to Carnival), and the fact that the two women dislike each other is underlined. Again, Welty captures perfectly the sense of both boredom and helplessness you feel at the bedside of a hospitalized family member, the complete sense of dislocation, going home each night to a strange bed. Laurel can hear Fay crying through the thin partition that separates them at their rooming house. Instead of telling us that Laurel can’t sleep, Welty writes this:

“The city took longer than Fay did to go to sleep; the city longer than the house.”

The story moves, with the judge’s body, back to Laurel’s home town and the house she grew up in. We see pre-funeral customs, the sort of mini-wake the townspeople hold around the coffin before it is taken to the cemetery. We hear the stories about the Judge, who was both beloved and a figure nearly of myth in this small town. Laurel reconnects with the group of women who were her friends since childhood; they were the bridesmaids at her fairytale wedding, and they are called “The Bridesmaids.” Through them we begin to see some of the changes that are overtaking the town; Laurel is the first widow (her husband was killed in World War II), one of her friends is the first divorced woman.

Mostly, however, this part of the book exists to develop the chasm between Fay and Laurel. Every woman Laurel meets in her home town tells her they don’t know what the Judge saw in Fay and imply that they if they’d seen “what was happening” they would, somehow, have put a stop to it. This is actually a witty and very believable part of the book. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Fay, who is from Texas, was not “worthy” of the Judge in the eyes of the town or Laurel, and the story itself disapproves of Fay.

Laurel has already survived the loss of her mother and her beloved husband; she has moved to Chicago and is successful in her own right as a textile designer, a fact that is not spoke of by her hometown friends, and acknowledged with resentment by Fay. Fay is outspoken about the fact that the childhood house is now hers and she will do what she wants with it; she clearly still resents the memory of Laurel’s mother, with whom she is constantly compared, unfavorably.

After the funeral, Fay abruptly decides to go with her family for a few days. Laurel assures her that she will be gone by the time Fay gets back. While Fay is gone, Laurel looks through the house for the bits and pieces of her past, and become acquainted with her own grief.

This part is lovely, but once again Fay is painted as a villain who has already gotten rid of things that were sacred to Laurel. Once Fay is gone, the house seems peaceful, but Laurel has a panic attack when she discovers that a bird, a chimney swift, has gotten into the house. In the midst of a huge storm, Laurel is chased through the house by the panicked bird. Once she runs into a room and slams the door, she can hear the bird beating its wings against the door. I didn’t know if I was supposed to understand that this was Laurel’s imagination, or if the story really wants us to believe the swift would do this. Later we discover that Laurel has a phobia about birds, but the whole passage with the swift was unsuccessful for me, unless, again, the frantic bird somehow represents the shallow, uneducated, “bad” woman that the judge brought into his house. It seems important that the bird in the house leaves soot marks on the wall and the curtains.

It comes as no surprise that the competent black housekeeper finally deals with the chimney swift. Once again, the depiction of a small southern town, good and bad, is thoroughly and economically drawn. Laurel herself is not depicted as perfect; she gets techy and nitpicky at the wake, trying to correct people who are talking story about her father. She is every bit as snippy to Fay as Fay is to her, and makes no attempt to see the younger woman’s side of things.

My problem is that the story doesn’t either. While Fay is vividly drawn, there is no attempt to elicit sympathy for her, or see her side of things. No pity is spared for the young woman who was taken up by a seventy-year-old solely because she had youth and energy; no pity for the woman stuck in a house in a strange town where everyone looks down on her. In case the reader might develop a sneaking sense of empathy, the story makes it clear that Fay may have done something to the Judge (inadvertently) that hastened his death. At the end Laurel discovers that Fay has ruined a wooden breadboard that Laurel’s husband had made. Fay ruined it through ignorance, using it as a base to crack black walnut. Like the chimney swift, Fay besmirched a sacred thing and left black marks on it. This is the point of Fay; she can’t have nice things because she isn’t worthy. And she isn’t worthy, it seems, because she is of a lower class than Laurel, or she is from Texas. I’m not quite sure which.

This treatment of the adversarial character affected my enjoyment of this book; not because Fay is the adversary; of course she would be. That dynamic is well established; but because the book condescends to her so badly. If this weren’t Eudora Welty, I would consider it fantasy-wish-fulfillment; a new author exacting revenge on a personal enemy by writing them into the book and then treating them badly. I think the town’s treatment of Fay, and even Laurel’s treatment of Fay, is accurate… and I even believe the character of Fay as she is written; I just wish the story would have treated her more thoughtfully.

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The New Copperfield’s

Copperfield’s Books has a new branch in the Marin County town of Novato. It opened on April 13. I was going to wait until next week to go visit it, but it’s a bookstore! Of course I couldn’t wait, so I drove down on Friday.

The store is located at 999 Grant Avenue, which has the benefit of being easy to remember. Grant Avenue is a nice shopping district. Take the De Long exit off 101 and head west. Turn right on Redwood, and right again on Grant. The new store is on your right in the first block. The store is easy to find. Parking may not be. I drove to the end of Grant Avenue, just past Scott Court, and parked in a small public lot next to a boarded up depot. That’s about four blocks from the store. You can also turn right on Riechert from De Long, and turn left into the public lot across from Whole Foods.

The store is a big square with a crescent bitten out of it, covered with a porte cochere. The place is big, as big as the flagship Petaluma store, or maybe a little bigger. It is very light and airy, having three walls of windows. The staff were hustling to ring up the lines of customers.

999 Grant Avenue

This particular day the shelves were spacious, one might even say a bit sparse. Orders came in late, and staff were busy learning a new inventory and point of sale system (this store is piloting a newer system). As one of the counter workers said that over the next week the shelves would become more “snug.”

This is facing the children’s section.

As it was, I managed to find $50 worth of books to buy, including one for Spouse.

I was especially impressed with the Non-fiction Current Events section; a lot of good selections there.

This store has a nice location. Along Grant Avenue I found several restaurants, including a Thai restaurant, several bars, a toy store, some cute boutiques, a few gift shops, and two places to get coffee drinks. A destination, in other words, and Copperfield’s fits right in.

 

The town is happy to see them there; I think I read that the deputy mayor is going to come read at Story Time. It’s the headline of the weekly paper, and the cinema across the street has a Welcome Copperfield’s on its marquee.

On the way home, I wanted to get off Highway 101 with its glut of traffic. I took San Antonio Road, south of Petaluma. It’s been four years since we’ve had a spring this green, and surrounded by the lush hills I felt like my eyes were thirsting for green, drinking it up.

 

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The Magicians: You Don’t All Get A’s, But You Passed the Final

I wasn’t sure about The Magicians, the Syfy fantasy series based on Lev Grossman’s trilogy. As you know, I am dubious of Syfy’s quality, even when they don’t actually produce the show (which they usually do not). The quality of Syfy movies has tainted their episodic productions in my eyes – even though they are now, brilliantly, using the absolute terribleness of their movies as a marketing tool! I applaud their insight.

I also wasn’t a huge fan of the first book. Entitled, magical twenty-somethings in New York City aren’t my demo, and I didn’t know what the show was going to make of that.

I watched the first episode and I liked it. I thought they were onto something. By Episode Three or so, however, it had fallen into a slump, and much like the middle of the first book, I was stuck with characters I disliked while they did boring things. I checked out for a while.

Fortunately for me, the show picked up again around Episode Six, when apparently it woke up and decided that while it owed its life to Grossman’s books, hey, wait a minute, it was episodic television! It could go off in some different directions! Once that happened, for the most part, the story settled in and got good. Then it got riveting.

Television shows employ a different style of story-telling than novels do; like anything, it means they can do some things better, and some things not as well. The Magicians series has not done justice to Alice’s story. On the plus side, it managed to make the character of Penny accessible in a way he never was in the book. The book was written in close third person from Quentin’s POV, and Quentin hated Penny. Therefore, we only saw Penny as someone who was hated. The TV show frees us from that. The writing is good, but I have to say 90% of what makes Penny engaging is the performance of Arjun Gupta.

Choosing to run the story of Julia, who did not get into the prestigious magic school Brakebills, in parallel with the story of sad sack Quentin, who did, was a stroke of brilliance, but unfortunately it was Julia’s story that dragged for a while. Her sparring with “hedge witch” Marina got old… but Julia’s anger at Quentin and the spell she flings at him led to one of my favorite scenes in the entire season; the Taylor Swift musical number in the asylum. That was simply awesome.

One thing Grossman wanted to do, in his trilogy, was question and explore the concept of the lone hero, the “chosen one,” and the dangers inherent in that motif. The show does that pretty well, although the need for a suspenseful, dramatic story arc squashes that discussion a bit until we get to the finale. In the show, the character of Julia rather than Quentin seems like the toxic hero whose questing, heroic acts rebound in terrible ways. Julia had that experience in the books too, but it played out differently than it did here.

The performers go a long way to making this show; Olivia Taylor Dudley captures brittle, brilliant lone-wolf Alice perfectly. Jason Ralph makes the unlikable Quentin plausible and almost bearable. I think Hale Appleton, as Eliot, steals the show for me, though. He takes a very standardized if not stereotypical character, the Languid Witty Gay Guy, and infuses him with real humor, loyalty and loss. And in the last quarter of the season, when Eliot begins to melt down, Appleton makes me believe every second of it.

(It’s a measure of the quality of both the writing and the performance that I actually shouted at the TV, “Why aren’t you helping Eliot? Can’t you see what’s happening?” while I was watching. That’s engagement.)

Stella Maeve, who plays Julia, has a harder time of it in many ways, but her occasional “you have got to be kidding me” facial expression often saves the day.

Secondary characters don’t fare quite as well, and this is a fault of storytelling, not the performers. When I can tell whether Marina is going to be vengeful bitch or a helpful ally simply by the thickness of her eyeliner, Houston, we have a problem.

I’m not sure they completely pulled off the one-hour-and-six-minute season finale, for a couple of reasons (the fixation with sperm is one), but they created real suspense that came directly from the motivations and actions of the characters. I’m still not all in – the stumbles along the way make me worry that this show could still turn into a slavering, demonic hybrid of Friends and Supernatural – but I am cautiously awaiting Season Two to see how it turns out. And I’m hopeful.

Congratulations! You all passed.

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US Soccer and the Women’s Team: Treat Them Like the Champions They Are

I don’t want to use the word ‘deserve’ in any of this.”–Sunil Gulati, President of the US Soccer Federation

Yeah, dude, and I can see why.”–Marion Deeds

Sunil Gulati, President of the US Soccer League, also told Sports Illustrated that US Soccer was “disappointed” in the EEOC complaint filed by five women’s soccer players. I guess the League’s feelings were hurt, perhaps in the way the players’ feeling might have been hurt when the League filed a suit against them, the first week of February.

The US Soccer Federation sued the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) first, trying to forestall any possible strike or boycott of the Olympics.

In its own fiscal documents, the US Soccer Federation projects $17.6 million in profits from women’s soccer in FY 2016/17. They project that the men’s team will bring in $9 million. The USWNT  is subsidizing the men’s team.

Gulati points out that the World Cup was in 2015 and the Olympics are in 2016. The women’s team qualified for the Olympics while the men’s team did not. After 2016, the women don’t have a big marquee event coming up for a while. US Soccer also thinks that any projection of income beyond FY 2016/17 have to consider the possibility of a men’s World Cup win.

Okay, let’s consider that for a moment. In 1930, the men’s US soccer team placed third in the World Cup finals. In 2002, they reached the quarter finals. In the most recent World Cup, they placed sixth.

The US Women’s soccer team has won the World Cup three times in a row, most recently in 2015.

Okay, I think we’re done with considering the possibility of the men’s team winning a World Cup.

Gulati argues that in the past four years, the men’s program out-earned the women’s, without providing figures. (The Federation’s budgets are available.) Television revenues, conveniently, aren’t broken out by program but are lumped together. It’s possible that over the past four-year period, men’s soccer earned more (because US Soccer charges more for advertising time on men’s televised matches), but it is well known that last year the women’s World Cup match was the most highly watched soccer match ever in the US, and also on Telemundo.

The US Soccer Federation states that more people go to stadium games to watch men than women; on average, 29,000 go to watch men’s games live versus 16,000 for women’s games. They glide over the fact that professional sports in the US don’t make their money from buttocks in seats, but from television viewers.

Gulati also really wants to avoid the use of words like “deserve” when discussing compensation, as he said outright in his interview with Sports Illustrated. He has a bit of a problem, then, because both the men’s contracts and women’s contracts use the word “bonus.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “bonus” as an additional payment of money “for good work,” similar in some ways to a reward… something you get because you deserve it.

The US Women’s Soccer Team, who won three straight World Cups, and who were the most highly watched soccer event in 2015, get some bonus payments (on average, $1350 per player per game) for games they win.

The US Men’s Soccer Team, who haven’t placed better than the quarter-finals since 1930, get additional payments for certain games just for playing them.

You show up, you play, you lose, you get a bonus. This is not a good way to “incentivize” winning. Apparently, using the OED definition, for men’s soccer, losing a game is considered good work.

The best site I’ve found for comparing apples-to-apples, not surprisingly, is fivethirtyeight.comThe New York Times has a nice open graphic connected to its story, but these figures were provided by the women players’ lawyer, so people might be a tad suspicious of them. You can also look at the US Soccer Federation’s own budget documents if you want.

Fivethirtyeight does a good job of explaining why the pay structures between the two program look different (women negotiated a salary and a severance package, men are paid by game) and also showing that even with that taken into account, men are paid more.

Sure, each program has its own contract and each was negotiated at different times, and probably that is part of the problem. The issue of revenues and bonuses is thorny, playing out against an inconvenient truth; Americans still don’t watch a lot of soccer, men’s or women’s. We usually watch the finals, if there is an American team in it. Certainly the whole “bonus” thing is complicated by an international organization, FIFA, that has become to the new poster-child for graft and corruption – and seems quite comfortable with its own sexism.

I’ve never understood the whole labyrinth of professional sports; how they claim to lose money while raking in billions, and soccer is nowhere in the same league as professional basketball, baseball or football. I’m coming at this as a lay person who does have some experience both with the negotiation process and with discrimination. And this looks exactly like sexism.

Are there a few simple things that the Federation could do, though? I think yes. Here are two, right off the bat:

Travel and Per Diem:

On airline flights, the men’s team usually (not always) flies business class, per Fivethirtyeight. The women’s team flies economy class.

For domestic venues, women get $50/day. Men get $62.50. For international venues, women get $60/day; men get $75. This shouldn’t even need to be negotiated; the Federation should side-letter both unions and bring these into alignment. And raise them all to the higher rate rather than trying to lower the men’s? Damn straight.

Bonuses:

Why do you pay a team a bonus for losing? I just don’t get it. Review the whole bonus structure for the women’s team and come up with a scheme that acknowledges their achievements.

*

Those two things would help, but what is really happening here is sexism.

Sunil Gulati is, to put it politely, tone-deaf when he struggles to diminish everything the women’s team has accomplished and when he blatantly fantasizes about that glorious future when the men’s team will win the World Cup. (Why should they bother? They get bonuses for losing.) When he neglects to mention that the Federation filed a lawsuit against the women’s players’ association first, in a pre-emptive move to keep them from possibly striking, he looks a lot – a lot – like a negotiator who  is trying to screw over his players. It’s not an accident that he looks that way. This is not a municipality or other jurisdiction trying to cover essential emergency services. This is soccer.

The message here, from FIFA on down, is that women’s soccer doesn’t matter; it only exists to bankroll men’s soccer. Instead of negotiating honestly, US Soccer dismisses the consistent achievements of the women’s team and indulges in what-ifs about the men’s team – because the men’s team is inherently more important, because they’re men.

Basically, US Soccer’s message is, “A losing men’s team is more important than a world champion women’s team.” If you think we can’t see that, Mr. Gulati, think again.

The US Women’s National Team has won three World Cups. That isn’t a fluke. They, not the men’s team, are champions. They personify what the Federation claims to revere; the best of the sport; the world’s best.

Treat them like the champions they are. And Mr. Gulati, please look up the meaning of the word “bonus,” and “deserve.” I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

 

 

 

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