Elena’s Westside Cafe; Happy Tenth Anniversary!

Elena's Westside Cafe

Elena’s Westside Cafe

I’ve written about the Westside Café before.

When Elena bought the café from the young couple who originally opened it, I was skeptical. Elena left the menu pretty much as it was; a Latina serving Asian fusion wraps and salads seemed, well, odd. Not to mention the huge smoothie menu. The Westside is next to a delicatessen that was thriving; it didn’t seem like people would stop in for more than coffee drinks. (Elena did offer pastries to go with the coffee drinks.)

When I was working I stopped there now and then, and walked up there on the weekends for a coffee. The last few years of my job, my commute route led away from Elena’s but there were always weekends. Then my schedule changed when I retired and she became less of a stop in my life.

This week, after a dentist’s appointment I stopped in to get wraps for lunch and a coffee. While I was waiting, I asked her how long she’d been there.

“Ten years on April 7,” she said.

(I made a mental note to put that on my calendar ,to take them some balloons or flowers.)

“My daughters were ten and seven,” she said. “And now… twenty and sixteen.”

Her older daughter is attending Mills College in Oakland CA, and getting a degree in public health. She starts an internship this summer that will take her to Maryland and Massachusetts, with housing provided. Elena’s older daughter got accepted to some great schools and was invited to an interview at Harvard, but she decided not to go because the family could not afford plane fare. I think she wanted to be a little closer to home, too.

Over the ten years, Elena built up a clientele of regulars, like me (only better); a group of retired people who, she says, come in three or four times a week, office workers in the neighborhood – there aren’t many – who come in and get lunch to go, and a handful of people who drive in to get their favorites. Over the ten years, the thriving deli changed hands and is no longer quite so thriving. People who have had disappointments with the deli may be stopping at Elena’s now, and the difference is obvious.

I said, “It’s hard to make money with a restaurant,” and she rolled her eyes.

“It makes a living,” she said.

I wish Elena and all her family all the success they’ve earned, and ten more years. And I think she’s going to move up on my personal schedule. She’ll be seeing more of me.

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FOGCon: Writing Between Genres or “You Got Chocolate on my Peanut Butter!”

Panelists:  Madeleine E. Robins; Robyn Bennis; Katharine Kerr; Delia Sherman; Sarah Stegall.

The FOGCon panel on Writing Between Genres talked about fictional works that fall between established categories. It’s like the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial: “You’ve got peanut butter on my chocolate; you’ve got chocolate on my peanut butter!” In our case it’s more, “You put magic in my historical novel!” “There’s too much history in my fantasy novel!”

The question of “Why do we need genre for, anyway?” was answered sarcastically with, “So bookstores know how to shelve your books,” and, generally, some idea that pulishers needed genre for marketing purposes. Delia Sherman had a more thoughtful answer. “We are categorizing creatures –we like to know what to expect, what parts of our brain to bring to bear.” Then she said, a bit more flippantly, that some people “want what’s in the box to look just like the box.”

(This might have been a reference to the “Nuggety Nuggets” metaphor offered by one of the Hugo slatist supporters in 2015. It goes like this: Nuggety Nuggets is your favorite breakfast cereal. You buy a box every week. One week you bring home the box and eagerly pour out a bowl. Only, it’s not Nuggety Nuggets! It’s Choco Puffs! This is what it felt like to the slatists when they bought a book with a space ship on the cover and, upon starting to read it, found out that the Imperial fleet is about, well, imperialism; that the characters are complex and complicated and some even have different skin color or grew up in a different culture than the reader did. The reader just wanted a book about space ships, not this other stuff! Not Choco Puffs!)

Sarah Stegall said that she thought you could bring a lot of science and hence science fiction into almost any kind of story, but that fantasy is harder because fantasy rules are different. For example, her YA novel Chimera has a werewolf but she creates a scientific reason for lycanthropy.

Stegall also look the panel off-course in a delightful way by bringing up squid, then Amish squid, then Amish vampires in space (which is a thing.) It didn’t exactly tie in with the topic, but it was entertaining.

Robyn Bennis’s book, due out in the summer of 2017, is called The Guns Above and it clearly has a steampunk cover. Bennis said that her publisher labeled it steampunk after a writer who blurbed it for them used that term. Whatever kind of book and series Bennis thought she was writing, it is definitely steampunk now, with a steampunk title (The Signal Airship) and everything.

I haven’t read this yet, but I think this book is a good example of the “Nuggety Nuggets” fear. This book is about a world with airships, and a nation’s first woman (I presume military) airship captain. In the Amazon blurb, it’s compared both to David Weber’s Honor Harrington series (military SF) and Naomi Novik’s The King’s Dragon, (military fantasy). Is there much reader overlap there? Maybe; I mean I overlap. Still, I can picture a marketing person grabbing the blurb with both hands and saying, “Oh, thank God! It’s steampunk! Yeah, that’s it! Steampunk!”

The rise of Amazon and social media may change the need for hard-and-fast genres, Madeleine Robbins thought. While it isn’t like browsing a brick-and-mortar store, the Amazon search feature and the “People who bought this also bought…” algorithm can bring a new book to a reader’s attention even if it is not in their usual “category.”  (Robins has a set of Regency-era mysteries in an alternate British Regency, with a woman consulting detective.) Thinking about Bennis’s book with a “steampunk” blurb, a clearly steampunk cover and a series title providing the finishing touches, I also think about emerging writers who are adept in social media using crowdsourcing to end-run the categories. How many readers in their twenties and thirties are bypassing the label and looking on Tumblr and Twitter to see what their associates, or writers they admire, are extolling? If Aliette de Bodard is talking up a book on Twitter, I will probably hunt it up regardless of the “type” of book it is.

I asked why it was that mysteries can have no trouble with ghosts or psychics – both fantastical elements – and plenty of thrillers have either scientific or paranormal tropes, and romance has a whole category called paranormal romance. Those readers don’t seem to have any problems accepting speculative elements. Why do SF readers get so caught up in it?

Sherman said she thought each of those categories are identifiable by a specific structure. Speculative fiction can use any structure to explore a science fictional or fantastical element. A book with a space ship on the cover may turn out to have the structure of a mystery, or even (gasp) a western. Speculative fiction is about the elements, not a specific structure. A person who is unconsciously expecting that structure may feel disappointed.

The audience enthusiastically supported fiction that surprised us; that brought together unusual elements. China Mieville’s The City and the City was cited as cross-genre classic – an SF police procedural. Bennis said that the sage of Gilgamesh and Inkidu is a fantasy action-adventure and also the first gay romance.

Later, I thought about City of Stairs and City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett; a pair of fantastical political-thriller-murder-mystery-spy-novels.

I wish I had thought to bring up the type of book being published as “fantasy;” second world stories with no magic whatsoever. Robins’s Regency period books fit here, so do Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent Chronicles, where Lady Trent is an aristocrat on her world who travels about studying dragons; the technological level of development is about mid-nineteenth century; the feeling is Victorian, the dragons are real and Lady Trent is more of a naturalist than a wizard. A new book that fits right into this kind of story is Lara Elena Donnolly’s Amberlough.

As for Amish Vampires in Space, even I don’t quite know how to categorize that. It may have created its own “Amish in Space” genre.

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Emerald City: Tip’s Tale

I bashed NBC’s Emerald City here once with my concerns about Toto’s air-time, and in general I had problems with this gorgeous, lush story that had no center. Still, one thing Emerald City did exceptionally well, and that was the story of Tip.

Tip of Oz. Jordan Loughran in male mode as Tip

Tip of Oz.

I’m going to amend that statement and say that strictly in terms of plot, they did well with Eamon’s story. Eamon is the Lion. He is the only character who managed to have a complete story arc in the first season of this expensive, high-fashion fantasy. That would not mean that if there were a second season he would be gone; he is the Lion, and he needs a redemption arc… and the final scenes of Emerald City seemed to establish that.

Tip, though, is the one place where trying to subvert Frank L Baum’s original characters paid off in a meaningful way, giving us a nuanced character who represents the experiences of an under-represented group, transgendered people.

In the source material, Ozma, the princess of Oz, is stolen from her family by a witch (what a surprise!) and hidden away. The witch magically changes Ozma into a boy to avoid detection. The boy goes by Tip. When he is found, he transforms or is transformed back into a girl and becomes the ruler of Oz. Ozma appears in almost all the Oz books except the first one.

Baum wasn’t addressing gender roles; he was trying to come up with a good plot twist. Even if later Oz books are somewhat feminist, with a female ruler (and slightly socialist? Ozma insists that every subject of Oz gets what they need to live), he wasn’t drawing on any deeper theme of gender identity. Still, it’s right there, and Tarsem Singh’s reimagining of the land of Oz runs with it, in the best way.

In this story, Ozma’s parents were killed when she was an infant, but the soldier ordered to kill her as well did not. Instead, he carried her to a witch. From the time Ozma was very, very small she has been male; not disguised as a boy, but a boy, male down to her cells.

Tip and Jack of Oz. Characters standing in misty woods.

Tip and Jack of Oz

Dorothy and Lucas seek the help of an old woman who has a boy locked up in her house. She gives him medicine every night. Dorothy and Lucas, together with the boy’s friend Jack, help the boy escape. Jack and Tip run into the countryside, but they only have one more dose of Tip’s “medicine.” When the medicine wears off, Tip undergoes a transformation that baffles and horrifies him, and shocks Jack too. He turns into a woman.

This was brilliantly done, but for a moment there the story goes off the road into the underbrush. Once Jack accepts that this woman is really his friend Tip, they go off to the city of El where there might be some help. Jack makes a sexual overture to buxom Tip, who shoves him away. Jack falls off a balcony, and Tip thinks he’s dead. (Mind you, he doesn’t go to check, or call for help…) Tip flees, and the engineer Jane brings Jack back to life as a clockwork boy. The speed with which loyal friend Jack morphed into leering-frat-boy Jack –as soon as he was confronted with breasts, basically – was a disappointing and cheap way to split this duo apart so that the story could continue. After that hiccup, though, Tip’s story deepens.

As a woman… more specifically, as a young, attractive woman whose clothing somehow morphed into something that shows a lot of cleavage, Tip encounters many behaviors that baffle him. No matter how garden-variety sexist and shallowly developed this world is (and it is), these are real issues, and Jordan Loughran reacts with convincing confusion.

Even though it was heavy-handed, I laughed out loud at the scene where Gilda of the North, with her gleaming white wardrobe and her hypocritical standard of chastity for her witchling students, and West, the drug-addled madam, each try to recruit Tip. Finally Tip says, “So, as a woman, I can either be a nun or a whore?” West immediately counters, “Yes, but we get to sleep in!” This old-fashioned look at the issues of gender roles shows up throughout the show, but since this was burlesque, (and funny) it was good.

The show gets more powerful when it steers away from the outer gender roles, and lets Tip talk about how he feels, being Tip/Ozma. “I feel like this skin is the only thing of mine,” he says to West when she tries to persuade him that only in female form can he win the loyalty of an army to challenge the wizard.

West eventually becomes something of an ally to Tip, agreeing that he should try to persuade the witch army to follow him while in male form. West, who has made a living off the sexual objectification of other women, presumably, for the past twenty years in Oz, accepts Tip as who he is, and in fact chooses to relate to Tip/Ozma as the heir to the throne and the child of King Pastorius. As a viewer my interest is piqued because I wonder if West can continue to support Tip, or how long it would be before she backslides into manipulation.

Ozma of Oz. Character standing, wearing ballgown and long earrings.

Ozma of Oz.

Tip was born female, but he is a boy. The long-haired, busty person Tip sees in a pool of water or a mirror is not him. At the same time, the very magic of Oz itself seems to want Ozma to be female. At the end of Season One, Emerald City has not resolved Tip’s dilemma. Ozma is crowned queen of Oz, and when Tip holds the crown and gazes at the gem in the centerpiece, he sees himself, male.

Jordan Loughran deserves a shout-out for how she embodies this character. There is no safe distance in her performance between her and Tip, in either mode. She commits one hundred percent. And the mode-shifting allows for another bit of social commentary, when one of the witches scoffs at Tip’s claim that he is Ozma, saying, “That’s just a boy in a dress.”

This is much more interesting than the romance-novel conflict of Lucas, his anger management issues, or Dorothy’s obstacle-of-the-moment. It’s even more interesting than West’s self-medicating her grief and loss throughout the show. Tip’s issues are more than skin-deep, and they aren’t going to be resolved directly by magic. (Although, honestly, they could be taken care of by royal decree.) And if there were ever a Season Two, I hope the story would circle back around to the shattered friendship between Jack and Tip.

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FOGCon 2017; Between the Lines

March 10th through 12th I attended FOGCon, held in Walnut Creek in the San Francisco east bay. This is my third FOGCon, and it’s one of my favorite conventions.

I also really like the Walnut Creek Marriott where the convention is held. I’ve stayed there three times and each time every single person, from the parking guys to the concierge and front desk people to random housekeepers I’ve seen in the corridors, has been friendly, cheerful and helpful. The housekeepers will smile at you first. They are quick to take care of any problem.

Having said that, I liked this year’s FOGCon, but I wouldn’t say I loved it.

FOGCon’s own programming has always embraced political and social issues. This is one of the things that makes the convention interesting. This year, though, I wasn’t going to FOGCon for political activism; I was looking for respite.

I avoided the following panels, “How Did You Survive the Election?” and “When Do You Pick Up the Blaster?” which looked at the revolution-as-war motif and asked if it was necessary. By the way, I steered clear of it, but the audience for this one was packed and may have reached standing room only, so clearly it’s a popular topic.  I also stayed away from “Writer as Resistor” although that panel seemed to take a more historical approach.

The theme was “Interstitial Spaces” so I looked for panels that discussed things that were in-between. One of my favorites was the Interstitial Biology panel, which explored the ways supposedly non-sapient species communicate and react to their environments.

FOGCon always has good panels for writers. I attended the editing panel which was very nuts-and-bolts and inspiring. I went to “Writing Cross-Genre” and “Between the Pixie and the Crone” which took a look at the role of the middle-aged woman as protagonist in SFF.

From this angle it doesn't really look like a bunker Hotel room with two beds visible.

From this angle it doesn’t really look like a bunker.

My first small disappointment was the hotel room. The Walnut Creek Marriott has remodeled its rooms. They have taken up all the carpeting. I see several reasons for this; 1) discouraging bedbugs, 2) reducing allergens and 3) saving on cleaning costs. They chose a dark vinyl composite flooring product that, well, looks like vinyl. Instead of drapes – see all the reasons for eliminating the carpet above – they installed a thick shade that really does cut the light and creates almost blackout conditions. The design points in the room are meant to convey the feeling of wood and trees, including a slightly baffling sliding door that is either the bathroom door or the closet door. Very interstitial!

Siding panel door with tree-riing motif

Interstitial Door

In theory this would have a calming, plantation-like look to it; to me, it looked like a bunker. The very plain utilitarian work/storage/TV space looked like shelves when I first opened the door, and with the dark fake-wood floor I wondered if my key had somehow opened the door to a storage room by mistake. The bedframes, rich, caramel colored wood, extend out past the curve of the blindingly white mattress, creating an excellent opportunity for a guest to walk into it and hurt herself. Ask me how I know that.

Go ahead. Ask me. low bed frame juts out past mattress.

Go ahead. Ask me.

And the new carpet in the corridor looks like the chalk outline for corpses – many corpses, some not quite human. The Walnut Creek Marriot should consider hosting a horror convention. They would love that carpet.

The corridor carpet.

The corridor carpet.

Everything else about the Marriott was excellent as always.

In keeping with the theme, I found that this year, my best moments came in between the panels and formal events, happening in conversations in the registration area, at the readings, or in the bar.

click to enlarge, because the text is funny. This is the "interstitial" programming between 2:00 am and 3:00 am on Daylight Saving Sunday.

Click to enlarge, because the text is funny. This is the “interstitial” programming between 2:00 am and 3:00 am on Daylight Saving Sunday.

Interstitial biology talked about the way plants communicate with each other by releasing hormones into the air. The acacia tree releases a substance that turns its leaves bitter when the leaves are “attacked” (giraffes are eating them). They also release a hormone that floats on the wind to the acacia trees downwind, and their leaves turn bitter too.

The panel discussed colonial organisms like coral and cloned organisms like the groves of aspen trees that are all grown from runners of one original tree. Forests share information via bacteria on their roots, and via certain fungi. My favorite tidbit was that cephalopods (octopus) have neuron bundles on their tentacles. Those bundles allow them to react more quickly to environmental changes, because information does not have to travel all the way to the main brain and back. In other words, a distributed brain, kind of.

*

In the bar, I told a group I’d always had a moment in the Firefly wrap-it-up movie Serenity where I wondered what would happen if River, instead of killing the final Reaver, joined him and went off to be the Reaver Queen. We all immediately started creating the story of River as the Reaver Queen.

*

The first reading I went to included YA writer Garrett Calceterra, Nancy Jane Moore, Madeleine Robins and Laura Blackwell. I went to hear Laura. She read first (they went alphabetically by last name), from her dark, disturbing and lovely horror story “Bitter Perfume.” You can find it in the Lovecraftian horror anthology She Walks in Shadows.

Garrett is working on a pulp-action adventure for adults, that has military folks, dinosaurs, steampunkish magic and a woman MC. It was lively, sweary and funny. He has only written three chapters so far, he said, but if it were out now I’d buy it.

(L to R) Delia Sherman, Laurel Amberdine (Lightspeed); Laura Blackwell, freelance, Sarah Stegall, freelance, Jed Hartman, Strange Horizons

(L to R) Delia Sherman, Laurel Amberdine (Lightspeed); Laura Blackwell, freelance, Sarah Stegall, freelance, Jed Hartman, Strange Horizons

From the Editing Panel, Laura Amberdine, who is an editor at Locus and an editorial assistant for Lightspeed; “A good editor finds out what the writer is trying to do and helps them do it.”

Overheard in the registration area: “Whatever you do, don’t call it Urban Fantasy. That’s dead.”

75% of the Medieval POC panel: (L to R) Remy Nakamura, Bradford Lyau, Kerry Ellis, Katharine Kerr

75% of the Medieval POC panel: (L to R) Remy Nakamura, Bradford Lyau, Kerry Ellis, Katharine Kerr

My second disappointment had to do with strange issues with the program. The convention’s big program was beautiful and comprehensive. The registration packet included a two-page summary of the program, and a one-page at-a-glance summary. And the programming was on the website. On each of those documents, the information about readings was different. This alone isn’t uncommon; guests often accidentally get double-booked or ask for last minute changes. I was interested in my reading though, and what showed on the website was that I would be reading with Laura Pearlman. Originally I had been told there were four of us and I had that old e-mail, but it looked like two of those people were reading at different times. Laura and I exchanges e-mails and we felt prepared.

Laura Pearlman and me.

Laura Pearlman and me.

On the one-page at-a-glance grid, four completely different names showed in that time slot, but the big program still showed me and three others. The three-pager showed Laura and me.

As it turned out, it was Laura Pearlman and me. Laura writes comedy horror in super-short stories, and it was hard for me to read afterward because I was breathless from laughing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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After the Parade by Lori Ostlund; I Loved it From Page Four.

When Lori Ostund’s After the Parade opens, Aaron is getting ready to leave a relationship of more than twenty years, and move from Albuquerque to San Francisco. Everything he owns is in a U-Haul truck in the driveway. On the fourth page, we have this passage:

“… he returned from his walk and circled the truck, double-checking the padlock because he knew there would come a moment during the night when he would lie awake thinking about it, and this way he would have an image that he could pull up in his mind: the padlock, secured.”

Aaron, is male, gay, twenty years younger than me and was raised in the Midwest, but by Page Four I understand him. I know that he is a person who developed stratagems to combat a general sense of anxiety. I feel close to him. I continue to feel close to him, to understand him, as the book shares both his first few months on his own in San Francisco, and his troubled childhood.

I feel close to Aaron because Ostlund does three things as a writer that reveal and embrace him. The first thing she does is pay attention to people. She is observant and she remembers what she observes, as when Aaron consciously takes a moment to see the locked padlock so that he can retrieve a visual memory. Ostlund remembers what she sees and what it reveals about people. And she uses that.

Secondly, she writes beautiful sentences. As whole as her characters are, some insights about them could seem clunky in the hands of a less talented or less hardworking writer.  Ostlund’s sentences are beautiful themselves and they flow seamlessly into each other as the story opens up. Some books are like onions, layers revealed by the reader’s metaphorical paring knife or fingernails. After the Parade is a flower bud in the spring sunlight, unfurling gracefully on its own to reveal its layers, guided by the meter and even musicality of the prose.

Acute human observation and good prose skills are in the toolkits of many, if not most, good writers. The third thing Ostlund brings is an approach rooted in compassion. I’ve read plenty of books with interesting, quirky or strange characters, where too often the story, intentionally or not, cultivated a certain between the reader and the characters. We were invited to take a clinical approach, or even mock the characters’ fearfulness, their obsessions, their fantasies.

Ostlund’s story embraces its characters, even the ones who do silly things, or crazy things, or terrible things. Without lecturing, she lets us fully see them. We may not approve of what they do, but we begin to understand, and we see that they are still humans. They are people.

Ostlund also has a dry Midwestern wit that seasons the pages of After the Parade. Aaron’s life changed completely after the annual small-town summer parade when he was six. His father, who was in law enforcement, fell off the back of a parade float, hit his head and died. Did you laugh just then? I would have. I would have given a horrified snort of laughter and then been appalled at myself. It is terrible and tragic that Aaron’s father died that way. It is also funny. As the story progresses we see that the death of Aaron’s father is many other things as well. Ostlund knows that something can be terrible and funny at the same time, and she is expert at delivering that, whether it’s a fatal fall off a parade float or Aaron’s walk down the hallway to the bathroom after his uncle has just used it.

The book covers four months in San Francisco in the “present tense” of the story, and Aaron’s childhood from the time he was five. Aaron is an only child, methodical, precise, vaguely worried all the time for reasons that become clear as we see him with his father and mother. Aaron’s sense of his place in his own childhood is described in his memory of an annual vacation to a park that had a statue of Paul Bunyan and the blue ox Babe.

“In the family photo album there were three different shots of him standing between Paul
and Babe, one to commemorate each visit, the changes in those young versions of himself obvious, despite the fact that whoever took the pictures (he assumed it was his father) had stood far back in order to capture the full height of Paul Bunyan, leaving Aaron an incidental presence at the statue’s feet.”

Aaron believed he was “rescued” from his life in a small Minnesota town by the love of Walter, his partner for more than twenty years. During that time Aaron comes to believe that gratitude is not the basis of a relationship, and this is why he strikes out on his own. We see him teaching English as a Second Language students in a rundown school in San Francisco, and we admire his dedication and commitment to his students. We also watch the changes in his life after his father’s death, including a short but terrifying stay with his paternal uncle when his mother, Dolores, has a breakdown. Later Dolores moves them to a nearby town where she ends up buying the local diner. When Aaron is in high school, she suddenly leaves town without telling him, an element that is developed in the second half of the book.

Throughout his early years, Aaron meets a number of strange people, some, like the dwarf Clarence, physically odd (Clarence has tusks) and some who are emotionally or mentally odd, but the story takes people as they come, the same way Aaron does. In the present, Aaron continues to meet odd ducks, like the retired private investigator who rents space at the school for a “P.I. School.” He is a definite type, but also a genuine person. The issues Aaron’s students face may be funny but they are real.

The book’s pacing is just right, and flows so smoothly that it was quite a while before I began to realize (about the time Aaron did, I think) that Aaron’s way of leaving Walter has echoes of the way his mother left him. The little tics and quirks that Aaron displayed early in the book take on larger significance when we realize this is a person who had never, before he met Walter, felt safe.

Because this is a book that reminded me how important it is to look at people with compassion, I’d love to award myself some virtue points and say, “Oh, I read this because I know how important it is to look at people without judgment, to try to start where they are.” That may be one of the things I took away from After the Parade, but this isn’t why I read it. I read it because I loved it from the fourth page. This is a book I will keep and read again, and it’s a book I will recommend to many of my friends. Now more than ever we do need to remember compassion and honestly. In After the Parade, Ostlund balances both.

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Toto, the Amazing Disappearing Dog

CONTAINS SPOILERS

I watched Emerald City, NBC’s lush epic fantasy series, all the way through to the finale of Season One. I doubt there is going to be a Season Two. The show was beautiful and ambitious, but fell short in many ways, and I don’t think the viewer share would justify the expense of a second season, unless they moved to Vancouver and filmed in a warehouse.

Emerald City was never a retelling of Frank L. Baum’s children’s books. It was always meant to be darker and stranger, a sort of deconstruction. Still, the director and producer were good about hauling in bits and scraps from the books and the 1930s movie; including the dog that accompanies Dorothy Gale into the land of Oz. In Emerald City, Toto is a dog transformed, and criminally under-utilized.

I read here that there were five dogs used to play Toto. I hope those dogs have good agents, because they got a bad deal in this show.

In the first episode of Emerald City, we meet a twenty-year-old Dorothy Gale who is a nurse’s aide. She steals a bottle of painkillers from a patient to give to her chronically ill uncle/foster father. This scene is meant to show us that “she’s not your grandmother’s Dorothy,” that this character’s limits are different from what we expect. That foreshadowing is important as the story continues.  Similarly, the character of Toto is meant to tell us that “it’s not your grandmother’s Oz.” Instead of being a cute, yappy Cairn terrier, Toto is a German Shepherd, actually a canine cop who bonds with Dorothy after she takes refuge, during a tornado, in his cop car.

EMERALD CITY — “The Beast Forever” Episode 101 — Pictured: (l-r) Oliver Jackson as Lucas, Toto, Adria Arjona as Dorothy — (Photo by: Rico Torres/NBC)

Once Toto and Dorothy get to Oz, Toto becomes unintentionally magical. He becomes the Amazing Disappearing Dog.

He disappears from scene after scene. Seriously, there were so many scenes without Toto that it started distracting me from the plot, because I’d be thinking, “Where’s Toto?” He is left outside during almost any interior scene, and in at least one this seems to imply that if Dorothy finds a magical way back to Kansas she will leave him behind without a thought. (Oh, spoiler alert…) He disappears from a lot of the exterior shots too though, vanishing for three of four scenes, only to show up when someone needs a hug or a lick from a big wet tongue. He appears when someone needs protection or comfort, and the rest of the time he’s gone.

I did decide that since nobody ever fed Toto, maybe he’d gone off to forage; to chase down a juicy rabbit or scarf down a few field mice. Except, you know what we never saw in Emerald City? A rabbit or a field mouse. Or a cow, a sheep, a goat, a cat, a chicken or another dog. We did see horses. We have evidence of lions. I wonder what the lions are eating.

Then I thought that maybe, since Oz is magical, nobody had to eat. It is true that for at least the first six or seven episodes I don’t remember seeing anyone eat. There is even the end-of-a-banquet scene that had no food, but later in the season, Sylvie eats some porridge while she is in Glinda’s Convent from Hell, so apparently people do eat, which makes failing to feed Toto even more mean.

Toto is a woefully underutilized and underfed character (although in the second or third episode when Dorothy, Toto and Lucas are walking on the yellow brick road, Toto’s upright ears and nose pointed straight at Adria Arjona’s hands –she has her back to the camera—are the characteristics of a dog who knows there’s a dog treat). I know five dogs played the role. I hope each dog had a good agent, and that their contracts specified unlimited tennis balls and a dedicated human assistant for each, just to throw those tennis balls. I hope the players of Toto got to take long walking tours and pee on light poles, adding their opinions and information to the canine community forums in the various locations where Emerald City filmed. And off screen, I hope they got lots of treats, scritches and belly-rubs, because onscreen, they were sadly relegated to the role of the amazing disappearing dog.

 

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A Few Photos

I plan to get a book review up sometime this week, but I have other obligations. I’m revising a story for an editor who wants to publish it; I’m expecting edits on another story due to come out in April; I have to do my taxes.  Here are a few photos to tide you over.

(For the record, “having” to do edits for a real-live editor is one of the best tasks I could ever have. I’m not complaining.)

A pair of osprey made their nest at the top of one of the large ship cranes at Mare Island.

Osprey Flies toward next atop ship crane boom.

Osprey Flies toward next atop ship crane boom.

 

Osprey in flight.

Osprey in flight.

I’ve never seen a ship actually at the docks at Mare Island before. On this day there were two, but this one was the more impressive.

Ship docked at Mare Island.

Ship docked at Mare Island.

A couple of random images:

1970s geometry. Building with staircase and curved landing.

1970s geometry.

Tree in front of the museum.

Tree in front of the museum.

These ship cranes will play an important role in the dazzling, suspenseful, explosive climax of my current fiction project… as soon as I figure out what that dazzling, suspenseful climax is.

Two ship cranes.

Two ship cranes.

Part of the reason I like steampunk is because, like most three-year-olds, I’m seduced by cool shapes.

Two cranes, booms crossed.

Two cranes, booms crossed.

Cool shapes. The circular pad the crane cab tuns on.

Cool shapes.

Shapes and shadows. Worker in boom lift alongside chimney.

Shapes and Shadows.

This building is for lease.

Exterior, building 106.

Exterior, building 106.

Interior, building 106

Interior, building 106

 

 

 

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How Many Pizza Places Does One Town Need?

In the building next to the Post Office, in front of the laundromat, in my home town, a pizza restaurant has gone in. It’s gone an unusual name: Hippizzazz. I think this is meant to be a mash-up of “Hippie,” “Pizza” and “Pizzazz.”Some ambitious naming there, guys.

Just how do you pronounce that? Hippizzazz Pizza

Just how do you pronounce that?

The converted storefront advertises pizza-stone cooked pizzas with locally sourced ingredients. Honestly, we are in a great region for locally sourced pizza ingredients for everything, just about, except the crust. You can get wonderful vegetables and herbs, good quality local meats, and excellent cheeses. And we grow some great tomatoes in the summer. Let’s please not get carried away, though. I don’t want to nosh on a kale-and-golden-beet pizza with a bone marrow reduction, or something.

My only question is — well, actually, I have a bunch of questions, starting with, “How do you pronounce that name?” But the important question is, “How many pizza places does a town of 7600* people need?”

Pizzerias. We got 'em. Pizzeria sign against industrial backdrop.

Pizzerias. We got ’em.

Mary's Pizza

Mary’s Pizza

Let’s take a quick tour of the pizza establishments available to a visitor to Sebastopol. Starting at the north end of town is the empress of pizza; Mary’s Pizza Shack. I’m biased, but Mary’s is still my favorite pizza. This full-service restaurant has transcended its pizza-shack roots (it started in Boyes Hot Springs in 1959) to offer a full Italian menu– I would say Italian-ish menu. It is also a chain with nineteen sites scattered over northern California. Mary’s serves beer and wine, and some locations have full bars. The Sebastopol restaurant has table seating, carry out and delivery.

Due south of Mary’s in the Fiesta Market center, we have Mombo’s Pizza. The original Mombo’s was in Santa Rosa. This is a second location for them. They offer tasty east-coast-style thin-crust pizza. There are some picnic tables outside the storefront, and they do carry-out by the pie or by the slice.

Mombo's Pizza, in the Fiesta Market Center

Mombo’s Pizza, in the Fiesta Market Center

You can order online. I don’t think they deliver. Mombo’s is one tasty slice of pizza and I pick up a few slices on the weekend, once in a while, for a quick lunch. The interior has seating. Mombo’s ambience is utilitarian; tables offer a gorgeous view of the side of the reach-in refrigerator and a pinnacle of flattened pizza boxes. You can watch pies being made and baked from the counter. The menu also offers soup, meatballs and a couple of choices of sandwich. No frills, good food.

And they serve gelato.

They Serve Gelato!

They Serve Gelato!

As you head down Highway 116 toward the center of town you will pass Papa Murphy’s Take and Bake on your right. Papa Murphy’s is a franchise; they offer assembled pizzas that you bake at home, or, if you’re like me, that you take to a potluck event and bake at someone else’s home.

Papa Murphy's Take and Bake, a staple of potlucks.

Papa Murphy’s Take and Bake, a staple of potlucks.

In the center of town, in the strip mall, er, shopping complex now anchored by Whole

Slice of Life, the original hippie pizza place, still going strong.

Slice of Life, the original hippie pizza place, still going strong.

Foods, Slice of Life still survives. This vegetarian pizza joint/restaurant dates from 1974 and is still going strong with relatively new owners. The last time I had a slice of pizza there, I chose the whole wheat crust and it was delicious. This was not thin crust. The restaurant has expanded its menu but pizza is still a staple.

Vignette Pizza is in the Barlow, the town’s latest shopping and wine tasting complex. Oh, sorry, I have just been informed that the Barlow is a “food community.” I know nothing about Vignette beyond its name andthat

Vignette, in the Barlow

Vignette, in the Barlow

they advertise  wood-fired pizza.

For many years the southern end of the first block of South Main Street held a Round Table Pizza. It was Round Table. It was just what you’d expect; dark, with dark vinyl booths, a long salad bar with thick, relish-laden Thousand Island dressing in a little vat closest to the front, and a familiar menu of pizzas. If Round Table ever served anything beside pizza, I never tried it.

According to Spouse, Round Table was the first “pizza joint” in town, opening in the early 1970s. Its original location was on Hwy 116 north, where here is now a sushi restaurant. I remember going there a few times. Spouse comments that the town legend about Round Table is that the first six months or so that it was open, it didn’t serve beer because a neighboring church (not the Mt Olive Lutheran Church, he hastens to add) argued before the city council against it, and the liquor license was delayed.

Joey's Pizza Exterior

Joey’s Pizza

Several years ago, Round Table went away and a place called Terra Vino opened up in the Main Street location. It was dark, with dark vinyl booths, a long salad bar with a little vat of thick, relish-laden Thousand Island dressing closest to the front. In addition to pizza, Terra Vino also served “small plates,” like mac-and-cheese… and it also had a wine list.

Then Terra Vino went away and now Joey’s Pizza has opened in that location.

1 block south of Joey’s is Hippazzaz, which, I found out today, does not deliver but will do carry out.

Round Table. Generic photo of an interior

I cheated. This is a generic Round Table interior from the company’s website.

I assumed Round Table had closed, but it reopened in a tiny mall at the south end of town near the MacDonald’s, Ochoa’s and the Formosa Bistro.

If you are on Bodega Highway heading west out of town, and you turn on Pleasant Hill Road and pull into the 7-11 parking lot, you can pick up a carry-out pizza at Buddie’s Pizza, and they deliver. More than that I do not know.

My home town of 7600 people has nine primarily-pizza places. I didn’t count the fine-and-casual dining places that put mini-pizzas or flatbreads on their menus. This is roughly one pizza place for every 840 residents.  Of course pizza doesn’t work like that. I would say, though, that you can pretty much get any kind of pizza you want here. You can get an “artisanal” pizza, a thin-crust, fold-it-in-half-slice pizza, a 1980s-conventional pizza with four kinds of meat or a thick crust pizza. You can carry out a pizza, cook a pizza at home, or have a pizza come to your door.

Whatever else my little home town may lack, there is plenty of pizza.

Buddie's Pizza Exterior

Buddie’s Pizza

 

 

*According to 2013 census counts.

 

Posted in View from the Road | Leave a comment

Summerlong: My Personal Reaction to a Work of Great Beauty that Ultimately Failed

SPOILERS     SPOILERS    SPOILERS     SPOILERS     SPOILERS     SPOILERS

When I heard that Peter Beagle had written a fantasy novel about an older couple whose lives intersect with ancient gods, set in the Puget Sound area, my expectations were very high. I was the victim of those expectations, because while Summerlong was beautiful and poetic, it failed to satisfy on several levels. To be fair, I expected too much.

This is not a review. It will contain spoilers, and I won’t be adhering to my usual rules about commenting on books. I will bring in ad hominem remarks, because this is about my personal reaction to the story, based on a limited personal history with the author. For an in depth and thoughtful review of the book you can go here.

In the early 1980s (I think it was 1983), I attended a three-week residential writing workshop, presented by Portland State University and held in Cannon Beach, Oregon. It was Clarion-style; intensive writing and critiquing workshops in the morning, with a different published SFF writer teaching each week. I jumped through hoops to get three weeks off, but I was happy to, because the teacher the third week was Peter Beagle, who was to me a god of prose.

For the workshop participants, it was good for us (but maybe also bad) that the first two weeks we had teachers who were not only outstanding writers, but great teachers too; Marta Randall and Paul Preuss.  The quality of their teaching, and commitment, may have contributed to the sense of disillusionment we faced when Peter Beagle showed up because he suffered by comparison.

Beagle arrived with his new girlfriend, a rising star, poet and memoirist who taught at the college level. Looking back, I think it’s safe to say they were still in the infatuation stage of their relationship. During the workshops, Beagle let her do most of the talking. When I think back, I remember him watching her with open eyes, a little smile on his lips, as she talked, or stood up and paced back and forth in the center of the circle of desks as she acted something out from one of her works.

Each student had a one-on-one conference with each teacher. When Ed, who was a housemate of mine, reported back on his (because of course we all reported back) he said Peter sat on the couch with his woman friend, rubbing her feet the whole time they talked to Ed about his work.

This was the eighties. Public physical displays were not considered inappropriate. Maybe, though, disregarding a student to that degree was.

When a couple of us casually asked Beagle why he’d agreed to take the workshop, he answered without hesitation, “For a free week on the beach!”

This wasn’t about bringing a significant other to an all-expenses-paid week on the beach. Randall had brought the man in her life, and Preuss’s photographer spouse joined him. They weren’t in the workshops, though, and they weren’t teaching in place of the stated instructor.

What I remember best about Beagle are the stories he would tell us, occasionally in class, or at the pizza place after the sessions. He told charming, funny stories about his adventures, or about the adventures of friends. They often involved music. At the workshop’s public reading he shared a short story of his about people who began changing into “weres;” not only wolves, but were-anythings, and it was funny. Peter Beagle as a teacher was a disappointment. Peter Beagle as a performer, enacting his own life from the stage of his own life, was a delight.

Which brings me, the long way around, to Summerlong.

First of all, before I say anything else: at the sentence, paragraph and passage level, Summerlong is beautiful. It is beautifully written and beautifully visualized. Part of the pleasure (and the heightened expectation) for me was reading these descriptions of both Puget Sound and parts of Seattle. Read this book for the scene with the pod of orcas, for Abe’s birthday barbecue, and for various other set-pieces of lush, accurate and textured writing. Read it for the whimsy and the lovely dialogue.

Summerlong is ostensibly about Abe and Joanna, who live on Puget Sound. Abe is in his sixties, retired from teaching and writing a scholarly book on John Ball. Joanna is younger and is a flight attendant. They are a couple and they have been together for years, even though they don’t live together. Abe considers himself the father of Joanna’s daughter Lily in every way except biologically. Abe also brews beer, harbors a not-so-secret desire to play blues harmonica, and has an ongoing feud with the local raccoons. The lives of Abe, Joanna and Lily are turned upside down when they encounter an unusual young woman working in a diner on Abe’s island. As Abe, Joanna and Lily interact with Lioness (Ly-own-ess) they begin to realize that the ancient stories of gods are true and gods are real.

Abe is a sharp, witty, theatrical character, always on stage, always performing, even if it’s just while he’s helping Joanna make pasta sauce. Beer, musical performances, witty chatter… while I don’t often use the expression “author insert” it became impossible for me to read Abe as anything other than an insert for Peter Beagle. Abe, hamming it up on a beautiful isolated island, functioned as fantasy wish fulfillment for the author.

The clues show up early. Abe has interests; Joanna has quirks or character tics. She likes to play basketball and shoots hoops after her flights get in, before she heads home to her apartment. Even though she has had a life, a husband and an adult daughter, we know little about her. Beagle gives her one of the standard fictional wounded-woman tropes; a miscarriage in her past. Joanna protects the other flight attendants from sexual harassment; she is a union steward and she is also fast with the quips and the insights, but the story makes it clear that her purpose is to be the audience for Abe.

The story privileges Abe’s dream—to be a blues harmonica player – over Joanna’s secret wish to go sea-kayaking. Joanna’s wish is slightly more interesting to me because it carries a nugget of danger and Joanna is fearful to pursue it. That potentially makes her quest more involving. The story does get to it, and then undercuts the character of Joanna for the sake of the plot.

Summerlong’s backstory is about a goddess who has fled from her arranged marriage and is hiding on an island in the Sound, and how the lives of the humans she meets are affected. At least three genuine gods show up. While I found two of them plausible, the third is disguised as an eccentric man Joanna meets on the ferry riding to and from Abe’s island. He talks in an odd way and he wears spats. Of course, later in the story the masks come off and we see that he is something older and darker, but this never worked for me, because in his persona, he was always Abe-lite, another fast-talking, entertaining, slightly desperate old man who doesn’t quite fit in.

They are real gods, however, and there is real magic. Against that backdrop, the story gives Abe an apparently non-magical Fairy Godfather whose sole function is to facilitate Abe’s transformation into a bluesman. This takes up a good piece of this very short novel, with Abe’s mentor dispensing wisdom, and Abe’s gigs going splendidly (Beagle loves to write about music). This is in startling contrast to Joanna’s first sea-kayak voyage with her daughter. The plot requires Joanna and Lily to become helpless females so that divine intervention is needed to save them.

Near the end, we get back to the story of the gods. This is a story we know, or more accurately, it’s the sequel to the story we know. A goddess periodically flees her marriage to take refuge on the earth she loves. Her husband pines for her and eventually comes seeking her; her mother insists she honor her agreement and go back. I wasn’t sure whether the unpleasant resonances this story sets up were intentional. While they still think she is human, the mortals come to the conclusion that Lioness must be the victim of domestic violence, a valid hypothesis given what they know. By the end of the book Lioness is recast as a passionate, loving but immature woman who can’t keep her promises. She should give the man who originally raped her and held her against her will a chance because, after all, he loves her. This problem is not with Beagle’s story, it’s with the original material and plenty has been written about it. The fact that the story of Summerlong supports this view I found problematic.

I found it more problematic because the lengths Abe goes to, after he cheats on Joanna with Lioness (and Joanna cheats on him as payback), while charming, look a lot like stalking. Joanna has made it clear that she is not ready to talk to Abe, but what she wants doesn’t really matter. It’s what Abe needs that counts. So what he does, the story says, is okay… and it’s also okay because it’s so, you know, funny. It’s just so Abe.

What Summerlong does really well is create a sense of wreckage left in the wake of any human interaction with genuine gods. This is good. I think any series of Doctor Who makes that point just as well.

As much as I loved the beautiful language, and the conceits here, I had problems with how these themes played out, and underneath it all, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had stepped into Peter Beagle’s virtual reality world. This was a story about an aging man desperately reaching for relevance, for life, in the face of age, physical frailty and some failures… only that man wasn’t Abe. This was not a work of art created by a gifted artist; this was a refuge, a pretend world for that artist.

If I had never met Peter Beagle and never heard him tell a story about a friend who had a random guitar jam in some coffee house in Spain (not unlike Abe jamming with his harmonica-packin’ mentor), I would still have problems with the themes and tropes displayed here. Because of the personal aspect, I can’t not-see Abe as a stand-in for Beagle. That makes the problems look less like a failure of talent, and more like the pursuit of personal indulgence.

There is a theater term for the type of uncommitted approach Beagle took to our workshop; it’s called “phoning it in.” It feels like Beagle, to some degree, phoned it in when it came to Summerlong, too.

Since 1983, I have read and enjoyed a lot of Beagle’s work, mostly his short stories. I was a little shocked at how disappointed I was with Summerlong. As I said earlier, this is not a review or a critique; it’s a collection of personal reactions to this beautifully written work, which ultimately, for me, failed.

 

 

 

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The Battle for the Wand

“You have to write something for the blog. It’s been seven days. You were doing to post twice a week, remember? Can’t you honor any commitments?”

It hasn’t been a week, I thought. It’s been four days. I’m still within the timeframes… I went and looked at the last post, and it was seven days ago. I had to post something.

I skimmed hurriedly through my Fiction file. Maybe a short piece of fiction I’ve stopped sending out? Well, there are a couple, but they might be salvageable, so maybe I don’t want to post them first on the blog. And… oh, wait, this one’s kind of good, maybe I —

“No, no, no! Stop distracting yourself! Get to work!”

I could write a paragraph or two about my latest rejection. That would be fun.

I could write something else about The Project, about a plot point that appeared and…

“Nobody cares about your stupid, self-indulgent project.”

I could write a restaurant review, or post some photos, but I hadn’t taken any new photos in a few weeks.

“Stop dithering! You’re incapable of making a decision!”

Wait a minute. Just whose voice is that?

“Oh, like you don’t recognize me. Right.”

Oh, yes. The Inner Critic.

“Did you miss me, buttercup?”

I hadn’t missed The Inner Critic, not really. Was is possible I hadn’t heard from her in a couple of days?

“Yes, I was enjoying watching you on that two-day high you had, when you sent that story out and were imagining someone would actually buy it! It was hilarious. Picture me munching popcorn and waiting for the inevitable crash-and-burn.”

I did picture her. She was taller and skinnier than me, in a severe but stylish black suit and sling-back shoes with four-inch needle heels. Yes, my Inner Critic could walk in high heels. Further proof that I was a failure.

She flicked the long, gleaming, silvery wand she held in her right hand. “You should get back to work, not that it matters. You’re not smart enough and you don’t work hard enough. Your stories are derivative and nobody cares how pretty some individual sentences might be.”

My Inner Critic had a wand? How come I didn’t have a wand? I was the Creative.

“You don’t deserve a wand,” she said. Sneered, rather. She sneered.

As I thought back, it seemed like the Inner Critic sneered a lot.

“Well, you give me a lot to sneer at,” she said. Sneered. Yeah, that was becoming a thing. “You’re self-indulgent and lazy. You lack follow-through. You don’t work hard enough and your work just isn’t that good. And can we talk about the way you dress?”

“What’s wrong with the way I –“ I saw the trap in time and changed direction. “How can you say I lack follow through?”

“Well, you should have finished the Project by now. And you should have at least twelve short stories to send out, not five. And your stories should be getting better, shouldn’t they?”

“You’re supposed to help me,” I said. “You’re supposed to be part of the team.”

“I am part of the team. I want you to take a realistic look at yourself.” She fidgeted with the wand.

“You’re on some kind of a passive-aggressive power trip,” I said. “You wait until I have a setback and then you pile on with all kinds of negative messages. That’s not a realistic anything. You’re not helping.”

“Not helping? You use my help when you’re reading news articles, or writing reviews. You don’t hesitate to use my help then.”

“That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

She put the wand behind her back. “I’ll be the judge of what I’m supposed to do,” she said haughtily.

Oh, Good Lord, first sneering and now speaking haughtily. I couldn’t put up with this. “You need to go back to your office,” I said.

“No! I’ll go where I want. Who told you that haircut looked cute? Because they were lying.”

I stepped towards her in my elastic-waist pants and my dark green sweater with the pills on the elbows, and my not-cute hair. “I believe the wand is mine,” I said. “I’ll have it now.”

“No! No! It’s mine now. You have to listen to me, to whatever I say!”

“No I don’t. You are very good at your job usually, but I don’t have to tolerate your power-tripping.” I held out my hand. “Give me my wand.”

“It’s not yours anymore, you lost it, because, um, because you lack follow through! Look at you! Yesterday, you added, like two paragraphs to the Project, and went back and noodled around at the beginning. That’s not forward progress!”

“Ah, but I made notes.”

“Well,” she said. She twitched away from me and stumbled a bit on those heels. “Well, anybody can make notes.”

“No, not anybody. You don’t understand the creative process—“

“Oohhhh, creative process,” she sneered, but her sneer seemed a little desperate.

“Yes, creative process. You have a part in it, but it comes closer to the end. Now, give me back my wand and go back to your office.”

“But I don’t want to. I like having the wand,” she said, pouting.

“I know, and when it’s your turn you can hold the wand. In the meantime, I’ll send you some tweets from the Republican Administration to critique. Would you like that?”

She ducked her head. “You’re just trying to make me feel better,” she said, but, after a few seconds, she handed me the wand.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Don’t forget those tweets. You know you have a problem with follow—“

“I won’t forget,” I said.

She seemed a little shorter as she walked away, and I realized her shoes had morphed into pumps with square, low heels. Much more practical.

I gripped the wand and looked down. Hey! I had a blog post.

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