What Makes a Classic: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

For me, one test of a classic is whether  a reading of it through any lens will reward with insights. By that measure Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is a classic. You can view it as a study in socioeconomic class; in psychology; through the lens of fist-wave feminism (which is troubling but rewarding); as a critique of religion and morality and even through the lens of colonialism.

I just read Mansfield Park for the first time, and, surprisingly, what struck me two-thirds of the way through the book was some resonance with the #MeToo movement.

I want to say first that I didn’t particularly enjoy Mansfield Park the way I did Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey and Emma. It was a problematic book for me. A tiny part of the problem stems from the fact that is was published in 1814, and deals with the lives of the British upper class, a society of which I am completely ignorant and understand nothing. A larger problem is that a secondary character, Mary Crawford, was far more engaging than the protagonist, Fanny Price. The third issue is that this is a realistic novel in many ways, which means that happy endings are relative.

Fanny Price is a “poor relation”of the Bertram family. Mrs. Bertram’s sister Frances made a rebellious marriage and was ostracized by the family, while Mrs. Bertram made an advantageous marriage to the well-placed and wealthy Sir Thomas. Eleven years elapse, during which Frances Price has many children. She writes to her sister, asking that Sir Thomas think of taking in her oldest, her ten-year-old son, and bring him up in the family business in Antigua (which is obviously a slave plantation). During a family conference, the middle sister, Mrs. Norris, suggests an alternative; that it would be less work to take in Mrs. Price’s daughter Fanny. Although Mrs. Norris’s suggestion is couched in the language of Christian charity, family pride and so on, it’s pretty clear pretty fast that she sees some advantage to herself in this scheme, because Mrs. Norris’s suggestions always, eventually, benefit her. Within the first few pages we get the measure of Mrs. Norris; a tight-fisted, advantage-seeking busybody who basically controls her sister Mrs. Bertram. Mrs. Norris develops over the course of the book from a tried-and-true Austen character, a hypocritical figure of fun to someone whose behaviors are destructive and corrosive.

Several pages later, nine-year-old Fanny appears, removed from her family and brought to a home with four other children, all older, two boys and two girls. From that point on, Fanny is slighted and ignored, called on to help the family members in every way, constantly reminded that she is not their equal. She is Cinderella without a fairy godmother. While she does everything to provide for the comfort and convenience of her aunts and cousins, they constantly forget about her unless they need something. Two people in the house pay attention to her; Mrs. Norris, who continually reminds her of her place, and the second son Edmund, who shows her kindness.

At eighteen, Fanny is silently in love with Edmund, who plans to become a clergyman. His older brother Tom is a spoiled spendthrift who spends his time drinking with his friends and making bad choices; the two Bertram daughters, Maria and Julia, have been thoroughly spoiled by Mrs. Norris, although her partiality for Maria is evident. Sir Thomas is called away to Antigua to deal with some problems “of business” and takes Tom with him, hoping to help him mature. Except for Edmund, everyone in the house at Mansfield Park (even Fanny) breathes a sigh of relief that the authoritarian, emotionally distant Sir Thomas is gone.

Into the neighborhood come two younger siblings of the parson’s wife; Henry and Mary Crawford. Each is an heir to a fortune; each is witty and charming, and they become the toast of Mansfield Park. Maria and Julia are taken with the clever, attentive, rich and handsome Henry, even though Maria is already engaged to another man. Edmund is attracted to Mary, although he hesitates when he hears her making witty but disparaging remarks about clergy. To Edmund, a country clergyman is responsible for providing spiritual guidance and comfort year round, every day of the week, while to Mary, raised in London, a clergyman must give a rousing sermon on Sunday and he’s done. This raises a red flag for Edmund which he hastens to ignore.

The Crawfords and another friend of theirs, together with the meddling of Mrs. Norris, who needs to see herself as important, soon help the young generation slip into behavior that isn’t seemly. Fanny, always invisible, always in a corner, sees it plainly and we see it through her eyes. Maria’s wealthy fiance is a stupid man; the young people mock that behind his back. When he takes them on a walking tour of his estate, he forgets a key to one of the gates and goes back to the house to fetch it. Tired of waiting, Henry, Maria and Julia climb the fence and go off on their own, leaving the fiance (and Fanny) behind. By today’s standards this seems rude, and little more, but this entire passage shows us the danger of the Crawfords, both of them, and their ability to lead people astray (because Mary and Edmund have gone off, leaving Fanny alone on a bench at a strange house, and have been gone for nearly an hour).

This is what the Crawfords do. They lead other people into bad behavior without even admitting it to themselves. As the story goes on, the young folks at Mansfield Park decide to put on a play, which seems like a harmless pursuit but means pairing up couples in problematic ways. Sit Thomas arrives home in the nick of time; Maria is safely married off to the stupid man, and sister Julia goes to her house to visit. It seems like everything will be fine. Meanwhile, the reader observes a scene between Henry Crawford and Mary. The marriageable young ladies of Mansfield are all gone except one, he says, Fanny Price, and he has decided to make her fall in love with him. Why? Because he’s bored. Mary, who until now had seemed genuinely friendly to Fanny and even championed her once or twice, knows how shy and sensitive Fanny is, but without a thought, basically wishes her brother “happy hunting.”

Crawford, in the nature of rakes in novels, finds himself entangled in his own snare when he begins to develop feelings for Fanny — feelings she does not reciprocate. Before too much longer, he has proposed to her.

Fanny is in love with Edmund. Secondarily, though, Fanny thinks Henry is lacking in character. She politely and nearly inarticulately rejects his offer. Henry then goes over her head, so to speak, and approaches Sir Thomas, who is thrilled on Fanny’s behalf. When he talks to Fanny, she is even less articulate about her reasons for saying “No.” The first reason for the speechlessness is simply that Fanny has been taught since birth to place her feelings and needs last. The second is that Sir Thomas does not know how badly Maria and Julia behaved with Henry Crawford; loyalty to her girl cousins silences her. In the face of a stammering, clearly upset Fanny, Sit Thomas decides that Henry’s error is one of style; he proposed too quickly and he should slow things down.

From that point on both Sit Thomas and Edmund go out of their way to put Henry and Fanny together. Edmund views Henry as a friend (even though he knows first hand just how his sisters acted around him). He also genuinely thinks he’s doing a good thing for Fanny; Fanny will definitely not get another offer as good materially as Henry Crawford. The only person who seems to agree with Fanny that she and Crawford shouldn’t marry is Mrs. Norris, and her reasons are very different:

“… Angry she was, bitterly angry; but she was more angry with Fanny for having received such an offer, than for having refused it. It was an injury and affront to Julia, who ought to have been Mr. Crawford’s choice, and independent of that, she disliked Fanny, because she had neglected her, and she would have grudged such an elevation to someone she had been always trying to depress.”

In spite of the family pressure and the connivance of her friend — or “friend” — Mary Crawford, Fanny holds firm in her denial. It’s a little surprising; where does this strength of will come from? Sir Thomas comes up with the bright idea of sending Fanny back home to her birth parents for a visit; this will be a “salubrious” visit that will remind Fanny what her life could be like, if she doesn’t toe the line. In fact, given the chaos of the house, this trip is a punishment… a punishment made worse by the fact that, once again, faced with their own problems, the Betrams forget about Fanny and leave her there longer than originally planned.

In a scene before that, though, we see a social evening, where Henry is courting Fanny aggressively. He is sitting next to her and forcing conversation. When the evening shifts to different recreational activities, Fanny is able to move, and feels “released in body and spirit.” Any woman who has experienced aggressive advances or workplace harassment knows that feeling perfectly.

As the story continues, we begin to see a seed of goodness in Henry, and so does Fanny. Austen makes it clear that if Henry were to marry Fanny, she would, in fact, influence him to be a better person. Austen is also clear that it is not Fanny’s responsibility to fix Henry. While he is visiting her at her parents’ Henry says that he plans to go to his estate to confront his farm manager who is giving a tenant a problem. Fanny encourages him to go, to be a good steward of his estate and a fair lord to his tenant. Once away from Fanny, though, Henry chooses instead to go visit the married Maria, where his ego will be stroked, and this decision leads to a disaster for both the Crawfords and the Bertrams, as Maria runs away with Henry.

Even now, certain people in the book, casting around for blame, choose to blame Fanny for this debacle; “If only she’d married him, he never would have done this.” Of course, since it’s an Austen novel, Edmund finally realizes that any partnership between Mary and him is impossible, not only because of her brother’s behavior (and his sister’s) but also because of what he sees as her moral lack. While Edmund indulges in shock, using words like “this crime” to describe the actions of Maria and Henry, Mary reacts strategically, seeing it as an unfortunate incident that needs to be covered up and papered over as quickly as possible.

Edmund and Fanny do end up together. In some sense, this is Cinderella Fanny getting her Prince, but they are not a sparkling couple, and while Fanny and Edmund will be a dutiful couple at the parsonage, it’s hard to see deep love between them.

Where’s the #MeToo? The ease and speed with which Sir Thomas and Edmund toss aside Fanny’s concerns, and keep throwing her together with Henry. Echoing and reverberating beyond #MeToo is the sense of powerlessness. For a modern reader, it’s hard to overlook the references to the slave trade and Sir Thomas’s “business,” an entire economy built upon the powerlessness of an enslaved workforce. It is nowhere near the same scale as Fanny’s life, where she has at least clothing and food (if no heat) and books to read, a shrubbery to walk in, but Fanny’s needs are never regarded. Fanny isn’t a slave. As a woman, she is a second-class citizen with virtually no rights; as a poor relation, she lacks even the social niceties most women of the Bertram class come to expect. For much of the book she barely has a voice. When Mansfield Park is at its most satisfying is when Fanny finds her voice, and when, after the disaster, people finally start to listen. Fanny is not as innocent as this synopsis makes her sound; she is in love with Edmund early in the book, and her “coming clean” with Edmund at the end about some inappropriate things Mary has said definitely has the tone of making sure a vanquished rival is completely routed, rather than simple goodness and virtue. Among the many things Mansfield Park is about, it’s also about a power differential. We’ve progressed; but the differential is still there. Fanny’s discomfort around Henry and the lack of support of her so-called protectors is as realistic now as it was 200 years ago.

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2018: 13 Things I’m Thankful For (Now with 2 bonus things!)

  1. I’m thankful for doctors. Much of this year has been devoted to improving my health. There wasn’t anything seriously wrong except my blood pressure. I was not taking care of it on my own. It is much better now and I’m doing things that will improve it further and maybe, the future, lead to a time where I won’t need medication any longer. The doctor helped, really helped, with that.

2. I’m thankful for health insurance. See #1 above. My health insurance is incredible expensive, and I’m one of those few people who is wealthy enough to afford it… and I’m grateful for it all the time. It doesn’t mean the system we have is good or right, and that prioritizing the profits of insurance corporations, pharma corporations and others over the health of our citizens is rights, but I’m thankful for what I have.

3. I’m thankful for my circle of writing friends which is robust ever-growing. Whether it’s Marta Randall’s group, the Benicia Crew, the group from Atlas Coffee, Brandy and our weekly writing dates, or online writing friends like the coven of Lauras, Garrett, Susan, Kate, or the growing circle of writers from the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, they are all bright, helpful and wonderful. I love their input and I love to read their work.

4. I’m thankful for the farmers market. Eating more vegetables goes with maintaining my health, and I love that I can talk to the very person who grew the tomatoes, the broccoli, the chard, the cheddar cauliflower or the carrots. I’m thankful that one of the best farmers markets in the county is walking distance from my house.

5. I’m thankful for Jodie Whittaker as she makes the role of the 13th Doctor on Doctor Who her own. She’s sincere, she’s weird, she’s funny, so completely the Doctor, and yet so uniquely herself. And I love the ensemble that supports her.

6. I’m thankful for PBS’s News Hour. The rest of the day, the other news outlets are engaged in a frantic dance of chaos with the demolition derby MC that is our current president. In contrast, the News Hour maintains professionalism and does research. As always, they limit the number of stories they cover, so they can do into more depth… and they take a global view. They are an hour of sanity in a news cycle of madness.

7. I’m thankful for Second Chances Used Books. I’m so glad to have a used bookstore in town again! I’m grateful that Brandy trusts me now and then to work in the store; to talk to people who like books, to browse the shelves and introduce myself to writers I need to re-read, or, like Willa Cather, had never read at all before.

8. I’m grateful for our county parks. Our parks took a hit during last year’s fires, but they are rebounding. Our regional parks are places of community, of beauty and tranquility (unless you’re right next to the sports fields — then not so much tranquility).

9. I’m thankful, so thankful, for California’s first responders.

10. I’m thankful for Spouse.

11.I’m thankful for the internet, which helps me stay connected to people far away, and learn about distant events. I also hate the internet. What? I’m complicated.

12.I’m thankful for our local library now open on Mondays!

13.I’m thankful for dogs, squirrels, ravens, crows, woodpeckers, sparrows, chickadees, hawks, for curious otters and curious cats, for all the life around us.

And two bonus things:

14.I’m thankful for KDFC, which provides classical music and a good education about classical music by smart, knowledgeable radio hosts whose voices are welcoming and pleasant.

15.I’m thankful for Fantasyliterature.com, for all the opportunities the sites gives me, for the great fellow reviewers, and the wonderful books.

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Rhys Bowen; The Her Royal Spyness series

Rhys Bowen has at least two series going; the Molly Murphy series, mysteries set at the turn of the 20th century in New York, and Her Royal Spyness, set in Britain in the 1930s. I’ve now read two from Her Royal Spyness. There is plenty I like and plenty I don’t like.

The first book is Her Royal Spyness, and I haven’t read it. The two I’ve read are  further into the series. Our first-person narrator, Georgiana Rannock, is the daughter of an aristocrat, and about thirty-eighth in line for the throne. Although this means her actual chances of ascending the throne are worse than John Goodman’s was in that 1990s movie King Ralph, Georgie is still frequently on-call for social and magisterial duties, and afforded much scrutiny. She has certain privileges as a royal, but she is also dirt poor, and her royal cousins feel perfectly comfortable assigning her less “regular” tasks… and often, while she’s doing these special favors, corpses turn up.

Georgie’s father was a rather staid duke, but her mother, an actress, is notorious; traipsing across the continent, entering into liaison after liaison (and sometimes marriage) with various wealthy and scandalous men. Georgie’s brother inherited the title, the castle and the London townhouse, and his wife hates Georgie, which means, realistically, Georgie has to beg a place to sleep from friends or other relatives.

Against this backdrop, she and her boyfriend Darcy, an equally penniless peer, solve murders.

Heirs and Graces finds Georgie in Kent, ready to babysit the newly discovered missing heir of an aristocratic family. The heir in question was raised on a sheep ranch in Australia and knows nothing about society ways or royal bloodlines — nor does he care to. His uncle, the current Duke, who has refused to marry and is petulant and spiteful, plans to thwart young Jack’s legacy at any cost. Also in the household is the Duke’s mother, a dreadnought of a woman; the current Duke’s sister and her three children, and two scandalous, elderly aunts. When the Duke is found dead with Jack’s Aussie dagger sticking out of his back, the household is thrown into disarray, and Georgie and Darcy must determine what really happened.

This book felt very much like an Agatha Christie book in all the best ways; a household of people, each with a secret; secret passages, false clues and misunderstandings. I enjoyed all of that. While I thought the conclusion was weak, I enjoyed the twist element. There are a couple of spots where, in retrospect, it’s clear how much Bowen was playing with us, and I enjoyed that.

I didn’t enjoy the depiction of the Duke, who is gay, as neurotic, petulant, catty and manipulative. In a strange way, I suppose his refusal to marry and provide an heir could be seen as courageous (even though no one in the story sees it that way). He could have been honestly gay without falling into a tiresome stereotype. About halfway through the book, the Duke announces that he will designate his French valet his heir; this, while being legally questionable, is also catty and malicious. And it could be that this is supposed to be one particular character, not a stereotype — except that the cluster of London theater-kids, the Duke’s hangers on, are also all gay, and in addition to all being snippy, witty and great dancers, they are also callous, selfish and uncaring.

My biggest problems with Heirs and Graces might simply be that I am from the USA, living in a different century now, and the fixation with changing Aussie Jack into a British noble was both boring and disrespectful. Unlike Georgie, I didn’t support the idea of the stodgy aristocracy holding onto their privilege and their rules about which fork to use and what kind of hat to wear. I know those people did care, and I know I’m supposed to, but there is an overall coldness to the book that made me not care. Really not care.

In Crowned and Dangerous, Darcy’s own father, a penniless Irish Peer, is accused of murdering the American who bought the ancestral home and racing stable. Darcy coldly pushes Georgie aside, to protect her from the notoriety (apparently he missed the memo about Georgie’s mother), but Georgie rushes to his side anyway and they work, along with a dashing, beautiful and seductive Russian princess who fled the Russian revolution and emigrated to England, to exonerate Darcy’s father.  Once again, as in Heirs and Graces, the distinctions are simply and rather shallowly drawn; Princess, good, revolutionaries, bad. Of course, this is from the point of view of a (distant) royal. I’m sure as the series progresses Georgie will have to grapple with some questions about good and bad, but that happens in neither of these books.

Crowned and Dangerous suffered from a fatal flaw; long stretches of it were boring. The story requires Darcy and Georgie to go to Dublin, talk to the American embassy and send of telegrams and letters… and then wait for the responses. And that is exactly as exciting as you imagined it.

This book in enlivened by two eccentric relatives of Darcy, and the aforementioned Princess, but they weren’t quite enough to pull the story through the let’s-wait-for-the-telegram doldrums.

So what did I like about them? Bowen can write. Descriptions are lovely, and mostly, Georgie’s little dilemmas are fun. I enjoy the glittering smart set in their  expensive clothes and expensive cars. We are told repeatedly that Britain was not as badly hit by the Depression as the USA was. I do like the complicated family relationships. Bowen has taken an interesting approach to the future King Edward and his relationship with Wallis Simpson, who Georgie, along with all her royal relatives, loathes. Apparently, Bowen is going to pretend that Edward David’s (King Edward’s) abdication in 1936 was out of love for Wallis Simpson, the same romantic story that we all grew up with, which has been pretty thoroughly debunked in recent decades. As it is, Wallis and Georgie meet at various social gatherings and Georgie never fails to describe her as “that poisonous woman.” There is no hint of Edward David’s admiration for Adolf Hitler or his actions as a Nazi sympathizer. To be fair, the books take place before Edward is crowed and before he created a constitutional crisis by proposing to a twice-divorced woman. I don’t particularly like  Bowen’s depiction of the royals at this time but, since these books take place in the early 1930s, I suspect they are an accurate picture of what the royals thought (as opposed to what the government knew).

The books are interesting. Either one of these would be good on a rainy afternoon or a night in a hotel room on the way to a destination. They’re enjoyable, but I won’t seek out more of them. Very British, and yet not quite my cup of tea.

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Talking Politics; Thoughts for a City Council Candidate

The four candidates. Image (c) SonomaWest 2018

The four candidates. Image (c) SonomaWest 2018

There were three open seats on my home town’s city council and four candidates. Three were incumbents and one was twenty-two years old. (Of the other three, two are in their sixties and one in their fifties, I believe.) The 22-year-old didn’t win.

I voted for him though, because he was young and I want to encourage young people to get into politics. I think the city council of a small town is a good place to start in order to learn how politics really work — and more importantly, how governance works, or at least how it should. At twenty-two, with no kids, Vaughn Higginbotham would not be a great candidate for a school board, although that’s another good place to learn about politics and governance.

If Vaughn wants to take advice from an “old,” I’ll be happy to share a few things.

I knew three things about Higginbotham; he had a lot of signs, especially in the Swain’s Woods community; he was twenty-two and he has an iPhone repair business (which sounds like something Apple would want to stop). I did vote for him but I wish I had known a little more.  I had definite opinions formed already about two of the candidates from watching them in action, but when I went to the traditional places to find info about Higginbotham, I didn’t find much.  He might have had a vibrant Instagram account and a lively Twitter discussion going, but his Facebook page had photos of the ballot with his name on it, some of his yard signs and a video of him going to town hall to turn in his candidate papers.  When I used his Facebook page to ask him questions, I never got a response.

Some advice would be:

–Campaign to the olds as well as your own generation and age group. You can find a lot of us on Facebook. Use older-fashioned venues like the local weekly paper. Give them an op-ed piece. Consider a “Coffee with the Candidate” event at local coffee houses.

–Knock on doors. He might have done this elsewhere in town, but no one in my neighborhood had seen him. I know several other candidates came by the house. Years ago, in a tight County Supervisor race, I saw both candidates on my doorstep at least twice. It actually works.

I would say, “Develop a platform and have some position statements,” but that would be holding this candidate to a different standard than the three others. They all have policy statements (and so did Higginbotham); “We need sustainable jobs,” and/ or “We need to protect the environment” and “We have to do something about traffic.” Those were Higginbotham’s policies too. He did add something about thinking that since young people were going to inherit the town, they should have a say in governing it.

The fact is, while I feel quite comfortable with the old, white, leftish-leaning incumbents, all of whom retained their seats, it’s because I am one of them. They are not necessarily in touch with the times. They do not necessarily understand the needs of the town, or have an appropriate vision of the town’s future, and it’s hard to know that because there really isn’t anyone on the council who questions, or checks, their reality.  That, however, is an idea for another post.

Another thing Higginbotham could do if he is serious about a career in politics is spend the next two years volunteering or taking an internship, so that he learns more about the process of governing a small town, and how involved it is. And so he makes some connections; he’s known.

And I hope he runs again.

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Medusa Dismantled

It started with a mistake; mine. I was looking for Day of the Dead things to do this weekend and I thought I found an event and a procession from the Petaluma Art Center to the fairgrounds. I invited Linda, who had made a quick trip over from Hawaii. It turned out I’d read the date wrong. The procession had been on October 27, not November 3. Still, we decided a trip to Petaluma to check out the art center and a community Day of the Dead altar would be fun.

The winged lion, one of a pair that guards the corp yard.

The winged lion, one of a pair that guards the corp yard. (c) Marion Deeds 2018

It meant I turned off of Petaluma Blvd North and headed east on Washington, something I rarely do when it’s light. Usually I’m driving at zero-dark-thirty to catch the airport shuttle.

“Look,” Linda said. “Train cars.”

“Um-hmm.” But I wasn’t glancing at the train cars; I was staring at the winged lion. And then, as I rolled past, I glanced back at the giant chromed steel mask.

We had to go back, we decided instantly.

The Petaluma Art Center was less than a block from the giant figures, across Washington. The exhibit at the Art Center was Fire and Renewal, as artists provided work depicting the firestorms of last years, and their recovery. This is a powerful, emotional show, and I recommend it.

Many artists in the county lost their entire studios and all their original work. While this is no different from the people who lost all their tools, all their records, all their children’s drawings and handmade greeting cards, the good china, the family silverware, all the heirlooms, it’s a reminder of how severe those losses were — and how resilient the human spirit is.

Panels from Brian Fies's upcoming book A FIRE STORY. Fies won a regional Emmy for this work already.

Panels from Brian Fies’s upcoming book A FIRE STORY. Fies won a regional Emmy for this work already.

I told Linda a story that Brian Fies had shared about the fire, and then we walked down past an assemblage, and there was a wall with several panels from Brian’s book A Fire Story.

Sascha Cory's found-object phoenix

Sascha Cory’s found-object phoenix.

Not for Sale

Sascha Cory’s phoenix rises out of a nest of shadow that look like flames. This found object sculpture is made from objects found in the remains of her home. Many of the artists used found objects or transformed objects.

Medusa Mask at sunset

Medusa Mask at sunset, (c) Marion Deeds 2018

The docent at the museum said she thought the large metal sculpture work was by David Best, who has some work at the DiRosa Preserve. This made Linda even more interested — but it’s not David Best. The group is called Reared in Steel. And there wasn’t one winged lion; there were two. And a giant crow. And an elephant on stilts. And a flower tower. And a chromed mask that’s about eight feet tall with water-conduit pipe as the snake tendrils, because she’s Medusa. But wait. There’s more about that in a bit.

A giant crow! Can you image how happy I was to photograph this?

A giant crow! Can you image how happy I was to photograph this? (c) Marion Deeds 2018

While I was photographing the crow and grinning from ear to ear, a man came out of the yard and started to get into a white pickup. His name was Ryan and he is one of “the guys” at Reared in Steel. As you might have surmised already, they go to events like Burning Man. His t-shirt said “Team Medusa” on the back and had a poorly silkscreened image of the full Medusa head on the front. The water-conduit pipes form her snake tendrils, which are mounted on the faceted holes. But that’s not all.

The large greenish pipes fit into the faceted holes and attach to the back of the head.

The large greenish pipes fit into the faceted holes and attach to the back of the head. (c) Marion Deeds 2018

These attach and become Medusa's snake-head locks.

These attach and become Medusa’s snake-head locks.

They had just, that day, dismantled Medusa and brought her home from an event in San Bernardino.

Medusa looked pretty cool dismantled, but when I looked on their Facebook page, I discovered that at the height of her powers, Medusa spits fire.

Ryan wasn’t able to say when or if they would open their yard to the public. He said he thought it was usually for specific events (like the flower tower installation), but that it was worth a phone call to find out.

Flower Tower

Flower Tower (c) Marion Deeds 2018

Amazing work.

Winged guardian at sunset.

Winged guardian. (c) Marion Deeds 2018

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What I Did This Weekend

What did I do this weekend?

Our Cottage, Sequoia, with Spouse.

Our Cottage, Sequoia, with Spouse.

Drank basil martinis.

Basil Martini

Basil Martini

Ate good food.

Sang “Happy Birthday” to Spouse.

Cabin in the Woods!

Cabin in the Woods!

Read books.

Took a nap.

Ivy and Tree Trunk

Ivy and Tree Trunk

Walked between trees.

Apples. Why were there none on the ground? Because of the deer.

Apples. Why were there none on the ground? Because of the deer.

Took pictures.

Raven of St, Orre's

Raven of St. Orre’s

Listened to ravens.

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Suicide Squad; Who Needs the Joker?

(SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. The film came out in 2016, but if somehow you haven’t seen it and you’re planning to watch it now, skip this column unless you don’t mind spoilers.)

I have one question about the movie Suicide Squad; only one that I really want answered, and that is: “Why was the Joker even in that movie?”

Don’t get me wrong. When I say I only have one question, it doesn’t mean I understood the movie, or the characters, or the costumes, or the motivations of the two Big Bads, what the Vortex-of-Junk weapon was, or why the movie even got made in the first place. I just figure those questions aren’t even worth bothering with.

This was obviously a “by the numbers” (and by that I mean studio spreadsheet numbers) film, Casting by Box Office, with extensive (and sadly delusional) plans for multiple sequels, a film completely lacking in passion or original thought. That’s why, for instance, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker (Jared Leto) have less than zero chemistry. (They have negative chemistry.)

That’s why the film can’t decide if Deadshot (Will Smith) is the lead or not. That’s why the story has sibling entities/gods/villains, one of whom is named Enchantress and one of whom is named Incubus even though those names come out of completely distinct traditions. It’s why “June Moone,” an archaeologist, promptly breaks the head off an ancient artifact when she finds it, absorbing the swirling back vapor that pours out of it… because that’s what she learned at Archaeology School. It’s probably even why Jared Leto approaches the role of the Joker as if he is playing the lead in a community theater version of Hamlet.

That’s why, even though this is a film solidly shaped by models like The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen and The Devil’s Brigade, not enough of the “suicide squad” die. This is even probably why homicidal Harley Quinn wears a pinup/calendar girl costume, is entirely an object of the male gaze, and sashays around in stiletto heels while bashing people with her special baseball bat.

I will be the first to admit that bashing people with a bat while wearing stilettos is a superpower. And I will be the first to admit that Margot Robbie, who is a fine actor, does her level best to work with the tissue-thin characterization she’s given here. It’s a decent performance of poorly written material. She works it. She’s completely committed. She’s just overwhelmed by everything else that is so bad.

I have this personal problem with movies that end up on television. The problem is that I’m tempted to watch them. I had no interest in Suicide Squad when it hit the theaters. I’m not a big fan of the DC universe, and less of a fan of their films, with the exception of Wonder Woman. I didn’t want to see it On Demand, but when it showed up on TNT last week, pocked with commercials and running three hours, I was like, “Well, why not? Maybe it will be good.” And, I mean, I had a book, so the time was not wasted. But, geez. It was so much the opposite of good.

And then, there’s the Joker.

About the story; Superman is believed to be dead. In his absence, and in fear that another superpowered alien might appear who isn’t as nice as Superman, the US government (CIA, presumably) seeks out a bunch of near-super villains, most of whom were captured by Batman or Superman. They are going to blackmail them into running black ops. It’s a fine, evil idea spearheaded by Amanda Waller, played perfectly by Viola Davis, who can’t save the movie either. The thing is, it’s even plausible that the USA would unleash serial killers like this on other countries. Of course, things go horribly wrong and the team is extorted into taking down two supernatural entities, Incubus and Enchantress, in the USA, in a CGI city called Midway City because once they got past Metropolis and Gotham, DC gave up on thinking of names for municipalities.

One of the people Waller recruited/ dragooned into the Squad is the giggly, gum-popping serial murderer Harley Quinn. Quinn (formerly Harleen Quinzell) thinks she’s the Joker’s girlfriend, and she might be – it’s hard to tell. Far from being a good female super-villain in the mode of Catwoman, Poison Ivy or even Waller herself, Quinn is a minion. She was a psychiatrist who the Joker tortured and brainwashed into thinking she loved him. Unlike Catwoman et al, who were victimized and fought back, chosing identities and roles that were outside the law – true Outlaws by choice, acting with agency — Quinn is still victimized; a victim of intimate partner violence and gaslighting. She is the opposite of a powerful woman.

But she’s only one of a bunch of middle-weight badguys:

Deadshot; a sharpshooter with any kind of projectile weapon. He used to be a hitman. His goal in life is to earn back the respect of his young daughter. This is the Will Smith character. I’m a sucker for competence porn, so after the scene where Deadshot jumped on a car and shot a whole block full of bubbly lava monsters in about seventeen seconds, he had endeared himself to me.

Croc Man or Croc; a guy made up as a crocodile. Or, wait, no, that’s not it. Some weird genetic quirk makes him an atavistic crocodile human. Yeah, that’s what it was.

Boomerang; an unlikeable Australian bank robber; white colonialist who uses a boomerang (get it? ‘cause he’s Aussie) and secretly carries a pink plushie unicorn which doesn’t make us like him any better.

El Diablo: A DC-knockoff of Ghost Rider, who catches fire and sets things on fire and has Things to Atone For, which is the closest this movie comes to getting the plot right.

Slipknot: who could have been really interesting except he’s a redshirt, dying before the action even starts to prove that This is Serious. I hope Adam Beach got a whole bunch of money for this role.

Flagg: A regular human Special Forces guy who is having an illicit affair with June Moone and is the designated hard-ass. His specialty is Staring with Intensity at the Camera.

The plot is “dirty-dozen” style (which means you’ll notice right away there aren’t enough team members to play the movie right) in which the Big Bad guys have to be stopped even though it’s likely most or all of the team will be killed. Note the name of the film. Hold on, though, there’s a problem. The studio really hopes to make multiple Suicide Squad films. Will Smith can’t die. Probably, Margot Robbie can’t die. And you already wasted one team member simply to make a point.

Around the edges of the “this is a one-way trip” plot, though, is Jared Leto, er, I mean the Joker, with an alternate plan to snatch Quinn out of the midst of the group. I guess he thinks it will be easier than rescuing her from the ultra-uber-super-duper-maximum-security-boarding-school-prison thing she was being held in. He routinely texts her as the mission progresses (because they gave her back her cell phone? And they aren’t monitoring it?), with the next step in his plan. It almost works, but the Joker’s helicopter gets shot down, and Quinn thinks he’s dead. The movie gets back on what resembles a track, until the very end when the Joker puts in another appearance.

Why’s he even there? The film didn’t work, but it wouldn’t have worked any less if, at the end, after Quinn gets moved to a slightly-less-secure facility as her reward for helping, the Joker appears (or another minion, who needs the Joker?) and busts her out. Instead, this barely-coherent film slips sideways into Leto’s self-involved navel-gazing performance to no story benefit. And, as I said, he and Robbie have zero chemistry. Even with Smith’s ridiculous line, “Stay evil, dollface,” Smith and Robbie have more chemistry than Robbie and Leto.

Vulture, a pop-culture site, sat three pundits down to discuss the Joker problem when the film came out. They are in agreement that the original plan was probably to have the Joker be more prominent in the film. The movie was apparently in trouble early on; the release date kept getting pushed back, and people kept bailing out of the property, both of which are warning signs. They are in agreement, however, that there will no doubt be a stand-alone Joker movie here pretty soon. And eventually it will be on TV. I should make a note to self now not to watch it.

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Art Trails Westcounty; 2018

On Saturday Kathleen and I headed out to visit some of our favorite west county artists’ studios as part of Art Trails. I haven’t gone in a few years. It was nice to get back to it.

Cart wheel in John Chambers's Yard.

Cart wheel in John Chambers’s Yard.

Once the fog dissipated it was a typical beautiful fall day. We added a couple of new-to-me stops this year, including a ceramics artists on Lone Pine Road.

In fact, Suki Diamond was our first stop. She makes anthropomorphic animal sculptures; rhinos, elephants, hogs, cats and chickens. In addition to figurines she has plates, saucers and large mugs (the mugs are in the shapes of faces, very humorous).  Diamond lives on a good-sized lot with a beautiful garden and spent last summer constructing a rose tunnel, which by next summer will have filled in and be glorious. It is a great showcase for her larger garden sculptures. Her dignified elderly corgie Lola greeted us.

Suki Diamond's Cocktail Party

Suki Diamond’s Cocktail Party

I took a picture of her tableau. When I asked what inspired it, she said her parents used to throw wonderful cocktail parties. “Of course people didn’t show up in tuxedos.”

We stopped at Teri Sloat’s next. I’ve seen Sloat’s illustrations in children’s books and on cards. She and her husband lived in Alaska for several years, and many of her works play with the themes of the native people and the Russian immigrants. She uses pastels and is now doing bird and animals themes and luminous local landscapes. I did not photograph her art but I did take a picture of this great old stove in her studio.

This old stove heats Teri Sloat's studio.

This old stove heats Teri Sloat’s studio.

We stopped at John Chambers’s place because we always do. We love his pottery. There we learned some bad news; John’s wonderful wife Sunai died only a couple of weeks ago. She had wanted John to go on with Art Trails, but it put him in the position of having to break the bad news to all the “regulars” as they showed up. The good part of the visit was that it became an impromptu wake for Sunai as people talked about what she had meant to us. Her tea ceremony we attended is a memory that will always be with me.

John Chambers, salt-glazed vessels.

John Chambers, salt-glazed vessels.

John said he was doing all right, and he was doing as all right as someone can when they’ve lost a beloved life partner so recently.

We doubled back at that point to visit the decorative glass studio of Salatino and Gandolfo.

View from the glass carver's studio.

View from the glass carver’s studio.

The glass carver explaining why a piece is not for sale (it's a mockup for a bigger piece she is planning.)

The glass carver explaining why a piece is not for sale (it’s a mockup for a bigger piece she is planning.)

After lunch at the Union Hotel in Occidental we headed east on Occidental Road to visit Barbara Hoffman’s studio and Dee Andreini‘s. Hoffman is another potter and ceramics worker and Andreini is a painter.  Our final stop on Occidental Road was at Rik Olson’s. Olson is a printmaker with great skills, a tenacious nature and a quirky sense of humor and it’s always fun to see what he’s up to. One of his latest prints is King Kong with a light saber, atop the Empire State Building, fighting off X-wing fighters. He also has a fox riding a motorcycle with a clutch of chickens in the sidecar.  His cats were pretty aloof with the humans, but they like each other just fine.

Fish, on the path to Barbara Hoffman's studio.

Fish, on the path to Barbara Hoffman’s studio.

Bust by Barbara Hoffman

Bust by Barbara Hoffman

Rik Olson suggests we Think Backwards.

Rik Olson suggests we Think Backwards.

 

Affectionate cats.

Affectionate cats.

Cats

On a whim we stopped at textile artist Abby Bard’s place on Florence Avenue in Sebastopol. Bard works in wool, cotton, rayon, chenille and blends, and her colors and textures are exquisite.

Abby Bard at her loom

Abby said that what got her into weaving was her love of color.

Abby said that what got her into weaving was her love of color.

Abby at her loom.

Our final stop was a fine artist in the Swain’s Woods area of Sebastopol, but by then it was after five and most studios were shutting down, so we called it a day.

Persimmons on the tree

Persimmons

In spite of the bad news and a lackluster lunch, it was great to have a day to catch up with Kathleen, and, as always, the artwork inspired.

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Aluminum Leaves; Update #1

I got an email from my editor that she reviewed my revisions to “Aluminum Leaves,” the novella Falstaff Books accepted, and the story was being sent on for copy-editing. This is exciting! My revisions satisfied her questions and there are no extensive structural, character or world-building rewrites needed.

I’m thrilled and curious to participate in this next step, since I’ve never worked with an actual copy-editor before.

I still don’t have an ETA on the book, but I’m guessing early 2019. There are other novellas in the series, and I don’t know where mine is “in the queue.” I’m hoping mine will be available before March, 2019, so I can hype it at FogCON.

Despite the title, “Aluminum Leaves” are not things you add to extend the length of dining table, or something that gets attached to the side of your house. The story is a “portal” story. Erin Dosmanos, who lives in this world, is one of a group of families that guard magical artifacts from other worlds. When a villain comes from one of those other worlds and starts picking off the families, collecting the artifacts, she flees through a known portal near her house. The world she enters has disorienting similarities to ours but it is a world where elemental magic is ascendant.  Certain metals are magical. Two of these are copper and aluminum. I picked them because they are both highly conductive; but also, I wanted a bit of a “steampunk” flavor to the story.

Erin meets a man who is magical himself. The two must overcome not only a language barrier but issues of trust in order to save both their realities from the villain.

I’ll keep you updated!

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The Black Tower by P.D. James; is it Dated, or is it Me?

I just read The Black Tower by P.D. James. I thought it was a re-read for me and that I had read it at some point in the dark and distant past. I was less of sure of that after I finished it, and I decided that most likely I saw the television adaptation of it, from the 1980s, on PBS. This might explain why I was left so unsettled by the book.

The Black Tower was published in 1975. It was the fifth Adam Dalgliesh novel. The story is beautifully written, stunningly atmospheric, with the rugged cliffs and the dangerous, languorous, seductive ocean, the mist-shrouded moor, the old house, Toynton Grange, and the rustic cabins that flank it. It is also very slow, with practically no mystery until the last fifteen or twenty pages, and filled with characters who are more venomous, unpleasant and repellant than usual, even for a British mystery, even for James herself. I’m left with the metaphor of a grocery-store bakery’s chocolate icing; sweet, chocolate-like at first, but leaving the unpleasant aftertaste of chemicals.

In the opening pages, Dalgliesh is informed by his doctor that their original diagnosis of a fatal form of leukemia was incorrect. This removes a death sentence from the detective-poet’s head. Strangely, instead of energizing him, this good news has the opposite effect. Dalgliesh spent the weeks that he labored under the incorrect diagnosis “letting go” of things that no longer mattered, and he decided that his job as a homicide detective was one of those. Now he has to decide; retire, or return to work? He decides to take time to think and visit an old acquaintance, Father Badderly, his father’s curate, who has written Dalgliesh asking for his advice on a situation. Badderly is the chaplain at Toynton Grange, an old “stately home” that has been converted by Wilfred Anstey, the owner, into a facility for people with multiple sclerosis (called “DS” or disseminated sclerosis in Britain).

Sadly, when Dalgliesh arrives on the picturesquely windswept moor, he discovers that his childhood friend died of natural causes only two weeks before. Still, while is no mystery about the elderly cleric’s heart attack, there is an unpleasantness and a strangeness; Dalgliesh discovers a “poison pen” letter, and one of the residents either drove himself off the cliff in his wheelchair, or had the brakes fail and fell, only a few days before that. Neither death is questionable, and yet…

Many of the Dalgliesh books dealt with the ending of things; institutional deaths, in a way, as well as human death. Whether it’s a monastery or a publishing house, or, in this case, a home for disabled people, ends come and people are uprooted. Toynton Grange is down to six residents, and the director, Wilfred, is considering turning it over to a statewide private group. He has not completely made up his mind. Wilfred was diagnosed with MS himself, but a visit to Lourdes cured him. It was a miracle, and he takes his little band of residents to Lourdes twice a year. He is portrayed as a bit of a buffoon, with several able-bodied people who work at the Grange or live in the cottages, who, while being loyal to him, hold him in some contempt. All but one of the residents is an adult– Dalgliesh has to stop himself from calling them “inmates,” a term that is shockingly relevant, given the story’s treatment of people with disabilities. They all get about in wheelchairs. There is a doctor, two female nurses and one male attendant, a handyman and a philanthropist who rents the most picturesque cottage. The doctor’s booze-swilling, disloyal and dissatisfied wife also lives on the property and seems to mostly nag her husband to find a real job and get them out of the hinterlands. Because it’s James, all of the staff are socially or legally vulnerable; the doctor had his license removed years before and only recently reinstated; one of the nurses struck a patient in a previous assignment; the handyman has a jail-record. It’s not a secret, and Wilfred acts as if this is him giving people a second chance, but it means every one of them is vulnerable if the place is sold or assigned to a larger concern. Wilfred’s sister Millicent also lives on the property.

As I said, the story is atmospheric and interior, with everyone having something to hide, most people having many things to hide. I think in 1975 the inclusion of five fully developed characters, however unpleasant they were, in wheelchairs, dealing with a chronic illness, was probably innovative, and perhaps my discomfort with James’s depiction of disability shows how far we’ve come. Or maybe I’m reading it dead wrong, imposing my own biases and squeamishness on the residents, but Good Lord, that was hard to keep dealing with.

Before he even gets there Dalgliesh worries about having to interact with people whose limbs shake and whose heads might wobble. He hasn’t been exposed to the disease before, so I suppose this is actually is a fair and honest reaction for the time. The residents themselves, though, articulate self-loathing in excruciating detail. Without question, they absorb the negative judgments of the able-bodied around them. For example, Ursula married a closeted gay man (she never seems to understand that he is gay but we do) who loved to buy her hippie-style clothing and dress her up. She was life-sized doll to him, not a person, and he was physically repelled by the spread of the MS. So is Ursula, who came to Toynton Grange surprisingly early so that she wouldn’t “upset” hubby with the twitching muscles and so on. Victor Holroyd, who died in the fall from the cliffs, was a smart, bitter man who saw people’s weaknesses and only spoke to hurt. He comes back from a visit to London shortly before Father Badderly died nearly crowing with malicious triumph, and it’s clear he’s uncovered a secret he is going to use to hurt and humiliate someone. As vicious as he is, this is at least a “fight” response to the disease, badly directed though it may be.

Every one of the residents who act within the story are either bitter and vicious, or despairing. Bitterness seems like a natural reaction to a disease like MS, but people who live with this disease have other attributes as well. Midway through the book, as a counterpoint to another death, we follow Ursula’s thoughts as she painstakingly, morosely plans to take her own life. It’s probably not that long a passage but it seems to go on for days. A minor character, a young woman who was the “star” of a television documentary/expose about National Health’s treatment of people living with MS, is manipulative and cruelly backstabbing.

Two of the residents, Henry Carwardine and Grace Willson, exist in the story as more than self-pity and a collection of tics, and that’s all to the good. Henry, though, is revealed as callous, critiquing the testimony of the people at an inquest as if it were a television program for his entertainment.

Reading this post over, I realize that the residents, as a group, are not that much nastier, whinier or unpleasant than the able-bodied characters. The problem is that they are a distinguishable group with one thing in common, and they are all given similar traits. This leaves me feeling uncomfortable.

When Millicent, Wilfrid’s sister, coarsely opines to Dalgliesh that one of the residents is attracted to another character, then pronounces that they shouldn’t even think of sex once they’re in a wheelchair because to her that’s disgusting, Dalgliesh admits to himself that secretly he agrees with her. Dalgliesh is our window into the story; to see him condone that kind of comment, even internally – doesn’t that tell us that the story sees it this way too? Maybe not, but I was left floundering and confused. The problem isn’t that the disease isn’t portrayed honestly. It is, without any sentimentality or sanitizing. These people have been abandoned, though, and at times the book seems to say that this is the right thing.

I guess what it comes down to is that the book is dated; in 1975, the number of places a person in a wheelchair could even go was limited; mobility technology was nonexistent and The Black Tower captures this accurately. I’d be more comfortable if James hadn’t intentionally chosen two symbols, the Grange itself and the Grange’s folly, the Black Tower, to hammer home a sense of ugliness and distortion, as both buildings are as twisted and “deformed” as the bodies of the residents are sometimes presented. And Wilfrid’s kindly ineptitude just pours salt on the wound; he’s opened up his ugly stately home “by the sea” for people with a debilitating illness… but they cannot see the ocean from anywhere in the house. Build a glassed-in patio closer to the water, and pave a path to it? Wilfrid, beneficiary of a miracle, in his own mind a homespun saint, couldn’t quite work his way around to doing something like that. Certainly that failing is his, but the story still seems to ask, “Well, disabled people, what do you expect? Be grateful for the scraps you’ve been given.”

And yet, again… The prose. I’ll leave you with two little bits of it:

“… He came into Dalgliesh’s hospital room preceded by Sister, attended by his acolytes, already dressed for the fashionable wedding he was to grace as a guest later in the morning. He could have been the bridegroom except that he sported a red rose instead of a customary carnation. Both he and the flower looked as if they had been brought and burnished to the peak of artificial perfection, gift-wrapped in invisible foil, and immune to the chance winds, frosts and ungentle fingers which could mar more vulnerable perfections…”

This is a description of the consulting physician who gave Dalgliesh the original, wrong, death-sentence diagnosis.  The word “immune” in the middle of that passage is anything but random.

And here, Dalgliesh and the philanthropist return to the philanthropist’s cottage to find that a marble bust has been destroyed.

“Still not speaking, they moved together warily over the carpet. The head, hacked into anonymity, lay among a holocaust of marble fragments. The dark gray carpet was bejeweled with gleaming grits of stone. Broad ribbons of light from the windows and the open door lay across the room and in their rays, the jabbed slivers twinkled like a myriad of stars. It looked as if the destruction had at first been systematic… A miniature dagger of marble had lodged upright in the sofa, a microcosm of violence.”

Dalgliesh’s internal struggle with duty and doing the right thing (he arrived too late to help is childhood friend) is well-wrought, and the descriptions are beautiful. Did she get the book right? For 1975, she probably did… and we have made some progress after all. Still. The first bite is creamy, rich and sweet, but with the first swallow comes the aftertaste, chemical and unpleasant.

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