Public Readings.

In early March I attended FOGCon in Walnut Creek California. One thing I always attend at FOGCon are author readings.

In one session, I heard a writer named Matt Maxwell read from his independently published novel Queen of No Tomorrows. I hadn’t seen the book in the dealers room (because it wasn’t there). I was intrigued by the section he read. I bought a signed book from him after the reading.

Matt Maxwell made a sale he would not otherwise have made, because he participated in a public reading.

I’m a big fan of public readings.

You’re probably not, because if you love writing and reading, you are probably an introvert. You probably love to attend other folks’ readings, but the thought of reading out loud to a group of strangers gets your mouth dry, your heart racketing around in your chest like a bird trapped in a closet, and your neck muscles tight. And that’s perfectly normal.

And you can get over it.

I recommend reading your work in public when you can.

See Paragraph Three above. Maxwell sold me a book. He would not otherwise have sold me a book, because I hadn’t seen it, and I would not necessarily have found it on Amazon because I wouldn’t have gone looking.

We may be introverts, but these days any creative act contains a growing element of performance. The public expects more than a wonderful story from you; they expect to see a bit of your process, to know what you think about things. They may not have the right to those things, but it’s what they expect. A public reading gives them a bit of that.

You get a perspective on your work that you don’t normally have. (Frankly, reading parts of your work out loud to yourself is a great idea, just to hear how it flows. Or doesn’t flow.)

Readers and potentials buyers of your work can now put a face with the name, and they have probably decided that they like you. This means they are predisposed to buy your work.

You’ll meet other writers and make friends.

Where to read?

Any writers workshop, conference or convention that offers “open mike” readings for emerging writers is a good place to start. You want a place with an audience who wants to hear you. Writers conferences have the benefit of being filled with other writers who are as nervous as you are. Unless you already like performance and are competitive, things like poetry slams are probably not a good starting place, although they are fun events in themselves.

Some conventions, like FOGCon, have three people read during one session. This gives you benefit of reading with other writers. That way you’re not up there all alone.

Some NaNoWriMo local groups host readings, in December, to celebrate people’s November achievements. Clubs like the California Writers Club host readings, usually limited to members for obvious reasons. NaNoWriMo readings are usually not limited.

If your local independent bookstore has a writing group, they may also offer reading events. It’s worth a call or a visit to their website.

Preparing:

Find out if the place has a time-limit (most do). If they do, honor it. First of all, that’s just respectful. Secondly, some places are strict to the point of meanness in enforcing the time limit, and you don’t want to get gonged off the stage. Lastly, and probably most important, you won’t like it when another participant hogs the mic and cuts into your time, so don’t do that to someone else.

Practice your work at home. I practice in front of a mirror and with a timer. This allows me to look up from the work now and then to make eye contact with audience members. It lets me decide where the pauses and inflections go, and it drains away some of the nervousness.

You can also practice on your writers group, which should be about the safest place to practice after your bathroom mirror.

Decide on your media in advance. If you’re reading from your phone, let your text-happy friends know the date and time, so they don’t text you in the midst of your performance. True story: N.K. Jemisin was reading her acceptance speech for her second Best Novel Hugo from her phone and finally she looked up and said, “Stop texting me!” If you are reading from paper, and you are at all near-sighted, print it out in a larger font. Give yourself a break, in other words.

Know your equipment. (Easier said than done, sometimes.) If you are expected to use a microphone, make sure you can turn it on/off and hold it easily while holding reading media in the other hand. Juggling a microphone and a tablet, swiping down when you need to, isn’t that easy. Does the venue have a table or a podium?  Do a mini sound-check if you can. The others reading with you will probably appreciate this too.

If you know who you will be reading with, reach out to them and introduce yourself in advance. You’ll all feel more comfortable. If you are all inclined, you can even do some planning and decide who’s reading first and other nuts-and-bolts details.

Some Stray Thoughts:

Here’s a weird one; you don’t have to read every word on the page. I don’t recommend wholesale editing while reading, but for example, I write a lot of dialogue. On the page, I’m very comfortable with “said” because the human eye slips over it. Read aloud, it’s brutally monotonous. Reading aloud, I can skip those, and you can too.

Do you need to create different voices and accents for your characters if there is dialogue? I don’t think so. If the writer is good at that, it can be fun. If the writer is not as good at that as they think they are, it is terribly distracting. Ask your friends who’ve heard you tell stories what they think. Here’s a tip. Do not say, “Do you think I’m good at accents?” Instead ask, “What do you think about me doing a French accent for Gigi in my reading?” This allows them to be honest without possibly hurting your feelings.

I have a friend who grew up in North Carolina. She’s been in California for decades and in regular speech her accent is a mere wisp. When she shifts into storytelling mode, it glides back into her words. It is great. I would love to hear her read from her fiction with that honeyed accent.

If you know the people you’re reading with, avoid (if you can) those rare souls who are cutthroat competitive. Do not choose to read with the person who makes jokes at the expense of their co-readers, or who takes it upon themselves to offer a critique after another person has read. That’s not the purpose of a public reading.

You probably can’t do anything about that person in the audience who feels compelled to give unsolicited feedback, but that’s the way it goes.

What if no one shows up? That happens to big-name, established writers at bookstore events sometimes. Things happen. Weather, outside events, or location confusion all have an impact. It’s not personal.

If you have one person in the room, you have a chance to make a new friend and a new fan. If there are three of you reading and three audience members, you’ve achieved parity. Congratulations!

On the other hand, pack the reading with friends and supporters if you can, just as you will go to their readings to support them. My first time reading at FOGCon, one writer asked to go first. After she finished about six people politely, quietly stood up and left. We, the readers, all knew why. They had come to hear her, but there was a panel they wanted to attend at the same time. That’s completely fair.

Don’t worry about being nervous. These audiences understand that.

Have a good time.




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About the Barlow

Tuesday, February 26, 2019, the Barlow, a relatively new shopping district in Sebastopol, flooded badly, closing businesses for several days, some maybe permanently. Many other parts of the west county flooded too, like Guerneville and Rio Nido. It was a reminder that, in a wet cycle, many of us live in the lowlands, close to sources of water, and those are areas that flood.

The Barlow is largely reopened, with merchants springing back, showing the kind of resiliency we’re getting used to seeing in Sonoma County. But what happened there was pretty dramatic. How did it happen? I’m not an expert, but I have some thoughts about the contributing factors.

Slow moving storm.  The storm that caused the flooding hovered over Sonoma and Mendocino counties for several hours, dropping tons of water. With a faster-moving storm, possibly some of the volume would have run off or been absorbed. With it parked, the water could not sink in faster than it was falling from the sky.

A silted-up laguna. The Laguna de Santa Rosa is a meandering waterway and wetlands system that provides drainage for a large area. Over the past several years, natural silting has taken place. The fires of 2017 meant more runoff in the winter of 2017/2018, accelerating the silting process. And it’s possible that the proliferation of vineyards dumped more dirt into the waterway.

The fires. Fires took trees whose roots usually hold only soil and water during the wet season. Those trees are gone; nothing holds the water or the dirt in place.

The Barlow was built in a flood plain. The Barlow was built in a lowland area bordering the laguna. Many years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers built up the west bank of the laguna along Morris Street to Bodega Highway, and, a bit farther north, they built up the other side of the street. The area where the Community Center is, and the eastern approach to the Barlow, was left at the original low level. Basically, this creates a broad channel for the water to follow. That low spot, that channel, leads right into the Barlow.

Several original buildings in the Barlow district did not flood. This is because they are built up higher than the newer buildings. Back when these were cannery and warehouse spaces, the locals all knew the flood risk and took steps to mitigate it. The developer who created the Barlow either could not afford or did not care to build up the foundations for the new buildings and the City Council did not require it.

The flood doors weren’t accessible. The City Council approved a plan that involved merchants attaching waterproof “flood doors” to their own doors if flooding was likely. According to the Press Democrat, the Council approved a plan that took 50 people 12 hours to fully “flood-proof” the complex. This is a completely non-scientific calculation; I think that means it would take two people 12 hours to correctly install the doors on one storefront.

During last month’s flood, by the time some merchants realized they needed to be installing flood doors, the area where their doors were stored was already inaccessible because of flooding. You will notice I said “their doors.” With these flood doors, one size does not fit all. Merchants had to be able to identify, retrieve and install their specific doors, and this was not possible. In a couple of cases, the particular merchant could get into the storage room, but their doors were blocked behind several other sets of doors.

We’ve forgotten about floods. I think this is an actual factor. We had six years of drought. Many folks just forgot how frequently certain areas in Sonoma County flood. When the Barlow was being built, I had a man in a local store tell me that area “had never flooded,” so clearly he wasn’t here in, for example, 1986, when the water rose all the way onto Main Street. But, to be fair, 1986 was a long time ago.

I never liked the Barlow project. I thought it was ill-conceived and badly located, and while it was being pushed through, the city council was fighting tooth and nail to stop another project across the street because it was owned by a Bad Corporation Nobody Likes. Watching the “You Shall Not Pass” struggle in contrast to the red carpet, champagne and flowers approach to the project being built in a flood plain was a chance to watch the very worst of small-town politics, all the hypocrisy and favoritism we hope our hometowns can rise above. All that said, I have nothing against the merchants in the Barlow, and I like many of the shops. And good project or bad project, those merchants are part of the community now.

And many of them are back. If you live in the west county, check them out. Check out some of the really good restaurants if they’re open. There are a couple of micro-breweries, a cheese-monger and some ice cream places. There’s a toy store. Spend your money there. And let’s watch closely to see what the absentee landlords and the city council decide to do to improve the safety of that area before the next rainy season.

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Whiskey Cavalier

ABC has a new show, a spy-thriller wannabe called Whiskey Cavalier. I watched the first two episodes On Demand while waiting for a contractor to show up. I watched it with no expectations but it managed to disappoint me anyway.

The show follows Bill, an FBI agent, who is noted for emotional intelligence, intuition and sensitivity, and Frankie, a rough-and-tumble, come-in-hot-and-shoot-up-the-place CIA agent. Only — plot twist! –the cowboy CIA agent is a woman! Bet you didn’t see that coming. See, even the woman’s nickname –Frankie — is male. How clever!

We first meet Bill Chase (Scott Foley)while he sits brooding in his darkened Paris apartment, listening to bad 1990s break-up pop songs and wallowing in self-pity in the wake of his young French fiance Gigi breaking up with him. Soon he snaps out of it, though, and, using his emotional openness, sharpshooting abilities and general good looks he stops a villain. On his next assignment, he is supposed to bring back an NSA agent who has stolen an important list. Frankie Trowbridge (Laura Cohan) beats him to the target; Bill one-ups Frankie and recovers Standish (Tyler James Williams) the NSA agent who is more than he seems and the rest of the episode is an escalation, with each move clearly predictable.

At the end, Bill and Frankie are put in charge of a team of, um, agents? I guess? The make-up of the team is predictable, too.

The show was cliche-filled. It never tipped over into offensive, although it got pretty close with a predictably homophobic humor bit; two men trapped in close contact and one has to reach into the other’s front pants pocket, a we-have-to-do-this-but-we-don’t-like-it-because-that’d-be-gay bit. Sigh. The team are all types, damned close to stereotypes. The banter is predictable. And so is every plot beat. For instance, Bill has a doofus best friend when he’s on assignment in Paris. Guess who Gigi was cheating on him with? Just guess. You will guess who the ultimate villain is very early, possibly as soon as you see them on the screen.

Two things stand out; the location, which I think is Prague or somewhere in the Czech Republic, and good use of 1990s pop music.

The show lacks the wit and intentional silliness of Castle, the cleverness of Leverage which it seems to be copying the most closely, or the snarkiness of Scorpion. I think I could reasonably predict the arc of Season One (Frankie will go rogue to kill the terrorists who murdered her parents, Bill will break protocol to follow her, the season will end on a cliffhanger.) There is no way to test this, because I doubt the show will last one full season. It’s not terrible, it’s not insulting, it’s just blah.




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And Your Pronouns?

The weekend of March 8-10 I attended FOGCon in Walnut Creek, CA. I caught up with friends, met new people, helped out setting up the ConSuite and worked the registration desk, and observed some interesting panels. I participated on two of them. I sat in on several readings and I enjoyed every one of them. In short, I had a good time. I’m leading with that because I’m going to write about the one small — well, medium-sized — thing that got under my skin and itched, and is still itching, and it had to do with the behavior of a particular moderator, who, unfortunately for me — or for them, depending on how you look at it — I saw twice, moderating two separate panels, on the same day.

This is about language. It is mostly about pronouns, and it’s also about behavior, especially the behavior one uses when moderating a panel.

FOGCon, like many speculative fiction conventions,values inclusion and respect. One way they demonstrate that value is by putting a place on each participant’s name badge for “Your pronouns.” If you are what’s called cis-het (self-identifying as your current biological sex, and drawn to the opposite sex), you might be saying, “What’s the deal with pronouns?” The deal is for people who are transgendered or gender non-binary. Some people don’t want to be boxed in by a pronoun that denotes sex. Those people might prefer “they/their.” Some people may currently present as one gender and be in transition. They might prefer the pronoun of the gender to which they are transiting. And some cis-het people might want to help push the habit of using “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

I think honoring people’s choices is polite and respectful, and putting a pronoun choice on a name badge makes it easier for me to know what to call someone. This way, I won’t accidentally offend them. I’m good with this idea.

Now. That moderator.

This moderator is well-known and highly respected in the convention community, not just in California. They are politically active. I had met them before at FOGCon and been impressed. I’d even say I liked them. I’ll call the moderator L. L. presents as female. They prefer “they.”

The first panel L. moderated, they spent the first three minutes or so directing us, the audience, in how we would behave. We would not ask questions during the panel because there was time left at the end. There was an exception; clarifying questions would be allowed, “for those of you who do not have the internet in your pocket.” When L. was calling upon audience members, L would describe them by what they were wearing, “Because we can’t tell gender by appearance.” Okay. School-marmish, but fair enough, or at least, on the continuum of reasonable.

After L introduced themselves and gave their pronouns, they said, “And now I’d like the panelists to introduce themselves and give their pronouns.”

Really?

(Two of the panelists did not give their pronouns. I don’t think this was rebellion. I think they forgot.)

The panel went on and pronouns became less interesting. When one of the panelists, who I’ll call M, started to speak, L leaned forward immediately, cutting her off. “M, please speak more loudly.” A note about M.; she is short, and the microphone was on a stand. Even with it tipped down, it was hard for her to reach it. Secondly, M is soft spoken. M. uses “she/her” and so will I.

M. started again and spoke more loudly. The panel continued.

This was a panel on short fiction, and later in the discussion it emerged that no one on the panel could remember offhand, what the word lengths were for short stories, novelettes (an SF designation I think), novella and novels. In the context of the panel, these categories mattered. While the panelist to the left of L. was speaking, the panelist to the left of her pulled out her phone and murmured “Siri, what is short story length?” Sadly, the microphone picked it up.

“Can we please not do that? It’s disruptive,” said L, publicly embarrassing the panelist who probably thought that a) she had the internet in her pocket and b) she was gathering helpful information.

Moments later, when M. started to voice an opinion, L. cut her off again, directing her to speak more slowly.

Here’s what I think was going on. I believe the panelist to L’s left has a hearing loss. I think the Siri request was a distraction for her, and I think M was genuinely hard for her to hear. L. probably thought she was advocating for her. I think it could have been done better.

That’s Panel One. I looked at my notes and saw I’d written two things, “Yes, Ma’am,” and “pronoun police.” Plainly, I had an attitude.

That afternoon, L. moderated a panel on villains and their friends. They began with the same mini-lecture about how we would behave and about how they would call on us. Then they directed the panelists to introduce themselves and their pronouns. Two panelists didn’t. Again, it didn’t look like rebellion.

The microphone returned to L. They turned to the two panelists, held out the microphone and said, “And your pronouns?”

Still later, one panelist brought up Draco Malfoy. His point (his pronouns are he/him) was that if Draco is a villain at all, he is a cut-rate knockoff villain who would really need to step up his game. “And those two kids who hang around with him, Goyle and Crabbe, they think they’re his friends but they’re just…”

The panelist next to him said a word that the mic didn’t pick up.

“Yeah, henchmen. Just henchmen.”

L. extended their hand immediately for the microphone. When it was surrendered to them, they said, “Because I like to model the kind of behavior I want to see, I request that we not use words like ‘henchmen.’ Because not all henchmen are, well, men. Can’t we say minions?”

“Sorry, sorry. Minions,” said the panelist.

And, I was done.

My main take-away from these observations is that I never want to be on a panel that L. moderates. One of the pleasures of a panel is that you get to explore ideas and toss out arguments, and for me any chance of doing that would be ruined by the nagging fear that L. would publicly shame me if I mis-spoke. And the odds are good, even though I’m working hard on making this habit change, that I would mis-speak. Twice, while writing this, I’ve used the wrong pronoun for L. and had to go back and change it. This isn’t me being subtly hostile; it’s me making a mistake because I’m applying new behavior.

Every one of L’s points, or the probable philosophy underlying her actions, is good but it could be handled in a way that doesn’t shame people. I’m always startled when those who speak openly about what a venomous, debilitating effect shame has had on them in their lives resort to public shaming without a second thought.

And I blame the internet. Okay, not really, or not completely, but this confrontational, in-your-face, don’t allow for the benefit of the doubt behavior describes Twitter and Tumblr pretty thoroughly. I wonder if L, trying to make and model changes in their own daily life, has carried that model forward.

And certainly, some of this is generational. I’m old; I’ve had sixty years of thinking of gender and language in a certain way. I try to make the change, but changing a habit is not easy.

Apart from the “and your pronouns” moments, interrupting a speaker twice to tell them to speak differently just seems rude. If L was concerned that her follow panelist couldn’t hear M after the first time, why didn’t they say, as the microphone moved to M, “M, you’re soft-spoken, I just want to remind you to speak up?” It’s still calling her out, but it does not interrupt her or disrupt the panel. It does not make it seem as though M’s comments are less important and therefore okay to interrupt.

And, in a case where two subordinate characters are both male, and therefore “henchmen” is accurate, could you, maybe, just once, live with “henchmen?” Honestly. I want to know.

This seems like a lot of complaining for three hours out of a three-day convention. And really, it’s pretty minor. L. did not engage in ethnic, racial, gendered or homophobic slurs; they were not inebriated, they did not interrupt many people on their panels. As an audience member, it made for two uncomfortable sessions, and, as I said, it crystalized for me the fact that I don’t want to have to interact with someone this directive and doctrinaire in a panel setting. That means the ball’s in my court for next year. I’ve been warned.
















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The Crimes of Grindelwald; I Have Questions

I watched Fantastic Beasts; the Crimes of Grindelwald with spouse the other night. That made the second time I’ve seen it. It left me with more questions, not fewer and, risking spoilers, I’m putting some of those here. If you have answers, or at least an opinion, please comment.

Warning: Spoilers

  • What did Newt Scamander do that drove the plot of this movie? Did his actions direct the plot in any way?
  • What did Jacob do that drove the plot? What did Jacob do in the first movie that drove its plot? Anything?
  • If Corvus LeStrange V drowned, who the hell is Bellatrix LeStrange married to? Oh, wait, I know the answer to this one, courtesy of this guy on DeviantArt who created a family tree. Rodolfus LeStrange, Bellatrix’s husband is, I guess, the son of an illegitimate LeStrange male who would have been Corvus IV’s cousin at a couple of removes. Apparently in this patriarchal society keeping your dad’s name when you’re illegitimate is no big deal.
  • How can Minerva McGonagall be a teacher at Hogwarts in 1927, when according to Potttermore, she was born in 1935?
  • Why can’t Queenie, who is a legilmen and understands thoughts, comprehend when a receptionist asks, “How can I help you?” Even if Q can’t read minds, hasn’t she ever stepped up to a counter before? I neither speak French nor read minds, and I could have hazarded a guess as to what I was being asked.
  • Why is there no record of Tina working at the French Ministry of Magic? Is she working off-book? It seems likely.
  • Why don’t house elves have a union? I think that becomes Hermione’s question in the 1990s, but really, why don’t they?
  • Why does every high-CGI action sequence go on just a little bit too long?
  • Where is Nicholas Flamel’s wife? I’m pretty sure he had one.
  • Where are the baby nifflers?
  • What is the purpose for Nagini’s presence in the movie? Is it just to wear that stunning glittery blue dress thing? I’ll accept that.
  • How come the filing cabinets in the French Ministry of Magic are so weird?
  • How come Grindalwald looks so much older than Dumbledore, when they’re about two years apart according to canon? Does doing dark magic age you? Valdemort never looked all that good either. I think the Ministries of Magic have missed a prime propaganda tool here. “Dark Magic ages you, and your skin will never recover!” is a powerful message.
  • Is Queenie really this stupid? I keep hoping that it’s Queenie’s healing nature – her Ilvorney house is Pukwudgie after all – drawing her to Creedence… but that’s a hard sell even to me.
  • Why didn’t the Americans either extradite Grindelwald or try him six months earlier?
  • How come Grindelwald got to have a pet in solitary?
  • How did Creedence come back to life? Oh, excuse me, I mean, how did Creedence survive when he was, I don’t know, so obviously dead at the end of the first film?
  • How come the London Ministry of Magic does such poor background checks?
  • How did Grindelwald get a permit for his rally when he is an internationally wanted criminal?
  • Why didn’t Newt try to save Leta?
  • Did they recycle Young Newt’s raven chick as a stand-in for Grindalwald’s bird in the final scene?
  • How can Creedence, much younger than Albus Dumbledore, be a secret Dumbledore brother, when Albus’s dad was in prison in Azkaban during Albus’s teen years, when this boy would have been conceived/born? Did Azkaban allow inmates to have sex with each other? I have to say, that sounds like a much different prison experience than the ones Hagrid and Sirius described.
  • And the question that haunts me, and has since the first film; why do sisters Tina and Queenie have completely different accents?

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Ninety-nine and Forty-four One Hundredths Percent Pure

Mr. Gordon was my sophomore chemistry teacher. I thought he was old. I think I mostly thought that because he had gray hair that he’d let grow out a little long so a lock fell over his forehead. He must have been at least in his late fifties because he had retired from a commercial chemical venture, not a big corporation like Dupont but something smaller, in the Midwest. I pictured him in a bungalow house, sipping a Manhattan every night while reading a chemistry tome, but he probably had an actual life.

One day we were talking about the chemical composition of soap. The context must have been the nature of surfactants.

“All soaps on the market are made from the same basic ingredients,” he said.

Suzanne who sat at the end of my row of lab stations, raised her hand and pointed out that Ivory soap was different from other soaps. It had to be, because it floated.

“No, it’s not different,” Mr. Gordon said. “It floats because they whip it, which lets air bubbles into it.”

I was sure he was wrong. Air? Surely that wasn’t the reason.

Ivory was my soap, had been since I was a tot. I knew it floated. I knew the orange cake of Dial soap in the shower soap-dish didn’t float because I’d tried it. Didn’t Ivory float for a, well, spiritual reason? Wasn’t it purer than other soaps?

And, if my white bar of Ivory had air in it, did that mean that we actually got less soap than that stinky orange bar of Dial?

Suzanne was on the purity tack. “There has to be another reason,” she said.

“Other soaps have additives, like perfumes,” Mr. Gordon said. “Ivory is whipped. It’s a gimmick.”

Maureen, from closer to the front, spoke up now. “But Ivory’s pure. It’s ninety-nine and forty-four one-hundredths percent pure.”

Mr. Gordon nodded. “Sure it is. And pure what?”

We all stared, stumped. It was, you know, pure.

He ran his gaze across the classroom. “Pure soap,” he said.

I don’t remember much about whatever chemistry knowledge I should have absorbed in Mr. Gordon’s class, but in that moment, I had my first insight about the nature of advertising.


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Dispatch from the Village

That’s the Barlow on Wednesday, February 27, 2019. Those metal spans you see in the water and at the edge of the water on the left are flood doors, meant to act like sandbags and hold the water out of shops. You may see a problem with the flood doors in this photo.

Highway 12 at Petaluma Avenue was closed all day due to the flooding. The water was over the bridge. Sebastopol was cut off from the south and east. You could get to Santa Rosa by driving north for a while and then turning east.

It wasn’t the slowest day I’ve ever had at the store, but we were not busy. I cleaned, labeled and shelved some books. One, a book on the teachings of Immanuel Kant, had a date written on the flyleaf; 1965. Above that was written the name of someone I used to work with in child welfare. Small County!


Brandy has a volunteer who comes in every Thursday. He called about eleven. “Do you have power? Do you have water on the floor? Are the books okay?” Yes to power, no to water, yes to everything being okay.

PG&E had cut the power on the bloc due east of us. Literally, the WestAmerica parking lot was the border. I had lights and computer function; sometimes I had internet. I had to write up a couple of sales by hand, cash only, because the Point of Sale connection wouldn’t hold, but it all worked out.

I made a cup of tea for the first customer of the day (and myself). She was a long-time customer of Brandy’s since her days managing Copperfield’s Used Books. She had made it in from southwest of town — which was a surprise — and came in a bit flustered by how erratically people were driving. We discussed the flooding, Jane Goodall, and the Mormon practice of stockpiling three months worth of non-perishable food… which we decided was a pretty good idea.

Main Street had power, and I’m pretty sure the Sebastopol Cookie Company and Retrograde Coffee reaped the benefits of Taylor Lane’s closure. As I walked down Main Street to get to the store, I stopped to talk to a gray-haired man in a tan trench coat, with a furled umbrella, who stared forlornly through the locked door of East West Cafe at the chairs still stacked upended on the tables.

I had the chance to browse our stock again, and picked up a birthday gift for a friend.

This kid’s book makes me laugh. “Zittens” are Zombie Kittens. Zombie Kittens, people!

There was a bit of a festival atmosphere. People who had a surprise day off because they couldn’t get to work walked down to the Highway 12 blockade (or into the Barlow) to take pictures of the water. Many stopped for ice cream at Screamin Mimi’s, which was operating as cash only. Some folks brought their dogs and were letting them frolic in the flood water, which doesn’t seem like a good idea to me, but whatever, you do you.

Sonoma County (California generally) doesn’t need another economic setback. For the small business owners in the Barlow, this is one. Still, one thing west county handles pretty well — or used to — is floods. We will pull together. We will get through.

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Bad Times at the El Royale

Contains Spoilers!

I watched Bad Times at the El Royale last weekend. It was a strange viewing experience: stagey, typey, talky and violent. I’m putting it in the “Liked It” Category.

The El Royale is a gimmicky hotel set right on the state line of Nevada and California, somewhere close to Reno. The parking lot has a painted line separating the states, which continues in tile inside the hotel lobby. The conceit is that you can choose to spend the night in California or in Nevada. The movie opens with a stagey scene in which a man painstakingly pulls up the floorboards of his room and hides something. A few minutes later he is murdered. Then we jump a decade to 1969, when it is clear the hotel has lost its cachet. Seven characters, including the youthful hotel manager, meet and interact, and nothing is quite what it looked like on the surface.

In short order we meet a bigoted vacuum cleaner salesman, an aging priest, a Motown singer (Cynthia Erivo, who sings a lot and could have sung more as far as I was concerned), an uncertain hotel manager, a hippie chick with an attitude, a kidnap victim and… that guy played by Chris Hemsworth. More on him in a sec. The characters are only slightly more fleshed out than types, but strangely enough, that works here.

There are many witty moments in this film, and many more that are weird, violent, gory and suspenseful. I kept wondering why the brutal, funny, surreal scenes were vaguely familiar. After the film ended I looked up Drew Goddard and discovered he directed The Cabin in the Woods, a film Bad Times resembles in some ways. (I know, some of you are saying, “Resembled… what, now?”)

How does this shiny period piece resemble a horror movie designed to give critique of the horror genre? Well, all the characters who go to the cabin in the woods are being observed on camera. And the El Royale has been set up for surveillance for a very long time. Each room has a large mirror on the wall, and it is a two-way mirror. Behind the rooms is a corridor with room and wiring for a film cameras and audio. In fact, one of the people there is using an assumed identity and has come to retrieve bugging equipment for the FBI. It often feels like we are watching a movie within a movie as the camera angles and the use of cards (“Room 5”) to mark scenes reminds us that we are seeing staged events.

Naturally, at least one of the people is there because they want the thing in the room where the floorboards were pulled up. And then there’s a spool of film, and references to the man and woman on it having sex – well, the man specifically, who is never named but obvious to us; someone dead; someone who was powerful.

Scenes are played and replayed; once from the audience’s point of view and once from the viewpoint of the hidden watcher(s) in the corridor.

The suspense builds and shifts in ways that were unexpected for me until Billy Lee, Chris Hemsworth’s character, appeared and changed the direction of the film yet again. Billy Lee is a charismatic, Manson-type cult leader. He and his group committed a savage multiple murder in southern California the day before, and now he’s come to recover one of his followers who is at the hotel. We know he is ruthless and likes to play power games. When he takes control, flanked by minions with shotguns, the whole story changes.

Hemsworth does a good job with Billy Lee as he is written, and he is evil, which puts the lesser evils of the other characters into some perspective. He didn’t convince me as a 60s-era cult leader though. Billy Lee is too twenty-teens savvy and too twenty-teens self-aware to be a convincing Manson clone. Manson believed he was a god. Billy Lee knows he’s not a god because he doesn’t believe in gods. He’s more like a twenty-first century psychopath who hopped in a time machine and went back to 1969 to mess with the locals. Still, he’s scary.

The film’s ending is violent, satisfying and powerful. There is one moment where I thought the whole passion-play existed to give one of the characters – the closest to a secondary character that the story had – redemption. And if it does exist for that reason, that’s not a bad thing.

And there’s music. A gorgeous Wurlitzer jukebox has pride of place in the retro-futuristic lobby, and Erivo sings. And it is wonderful. In a strange way, it elevates this film.

The writing was good. Some of the passages of dialogue went on too long and were a little too self-aware, but it didn’t spoil my engagement. Certainly I rolled my eyes and suspended my disbelief about how long it might take somebody to drive from Malibu to the El Royale, for instance (Billy conveniently arrives very quickly after his acolyte makes their not-so-surprising secret phone call to him). Overall though, I’d sum it up as flawed but interesting, weird but good.








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Little White Lies

A couple of years ago, in the wake of thrillers with names like The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins) and The Woman in Cabin Ten (Ruth Ware), a new thriller appeared on the market and became an automatic best seller. It was The Woman in the Window by A.J. Flynn, a pseudonym for a man named Dan Mallory. Mallory was well known in the New York publishing circles, having worked as an editor in several of the large publishing houses and representing writers whose names those of us who read mysteries and thrillers would instantly recognize. This book soared up the best-seller lists. It’s been optioned as a movie.

The New York Times has written a profile of Dan Mallory. Mallory, who is described by several people in the article as handsome and charming, presents himself as someone who has overcome great hardships in his life. His mother, who raised him by herself, died of cancer and Dan nursed her during her illness; his brother John also died; Mallory himself had a brain tumor and/or a spinal tumor that required surgery; recovering from the surgery, he had an allergic reaction to some meds and experienced cardiac arrest. He currently lives with a mental illness. Overcoming these trials, Mallory went on to get two doctorates from Oxford, and worked on many famous books and even some successful screenplays. That’s what he says, anyway, or at least has said to various people at various times.

The New York Times reporter managed to interview both of Dan’s parents; his father was not absent and his mother didn’t seem to be very dead as she climbed out of her SUV in the family driveway, cradling a bag of groceries and refusing to be interviewed. The brother, who didn’t seem to be very dead either, refused to be interviewed too. Co-workers of Mallory in New York remember getting emails from Dan’s brother “Jake” while Dan was undergoing his surgery, and theoretically, according to friends and co-workers back in Britain, Jake would have already been dead by then.

There is no record that Mallory, who did attend Oxford, received any degree.

The tone of Ian Parker’s article is slightly admiring; like, “Wow, can this guy lie, or what?” And, to be fair, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen someone scam the publishing business, or academia, for their own financial advantage. Here’s what struck me; the article takes the tone of a Reader’s Digest “My Most Unforgettable Character” profile, rather than an exploration of what might be wrong with both academia and publishing, that these guys get jobs. In Mallory’s case, Mallory professed a love and admiration of Tom Ripley, the character created by Patricia Highsmith. It’s hard to resist the “talented Mr. Mallory” theme.

A couple of interesting points; not everyone was taken in by Mallory. Several co-workers told tales about how they doubted his stories. They even joked about it. No one confronted him, and it’s obvious why. First of all, he was vicious when he didn’t get his way, so people were wisely afraid of him. Secondly, the higher-ups who brought him in probably would not take kindly to being embarrassed by being confronted with the truth. There is some hint of this with the publisher he left, where there is a non-disclosure agreement, and the number of employers who declined to be interviewed.

But one point seems to be, if you’re male, white and good-looking enough, no one will ever do a real background check on you. No one will ever email Oxford and ask if you completed a degree there. They will take you at your word.

(There is an infamous case of a white woman pretending to be a woman of color and scamming the Spokane, Washington branch of the NAACP. She didn’t get a million dollar book/movie deal, though.)

I can’t help imagining the raft of follow-up questions (read: grilling) a black man with cornrows would get at a publishing house when he said he had a degree from Oxford, or, for that matter, a woman would. I don’t think it’s an accident that most of these frauds are white and male. It could be true (I kind of hope it is,) that there are dozens of brilliant women scam artists making tidy fortunes in the publishing business and they just aren’t as high-profile and rococo as Mallory. Honestly, however, I don’t think that’s the case.

Secondly, from the small sample of these cases I’ve read, these oh-so-clever hucksters are never clawing their way up from the working classes. Mallory was raised upper-middle-class, with two parents who did split up for a time when he was an adolescent (so the single-parent story is partially true). These lying men are invariably raised comfortably. I know we over-use the words “entitled” and “privileged” these days, but it really does seem that men like Mallory think they should just be able to have a degree from Oxford without having to do demeaning things like work for it. For them, the step from, “I wish I had an Oxford PhD,” becomes, “I got my PhD at Oxford” in about the length of time it takes to draw a breath.

But, all of Mallory’s engaging weirdness, and he is engaging, aside, don’t these high-profile businesses and schools do any background check? Years ago when I still worked at the county, we had an applicant we wanted to hire, and he had to jump through extra hoops because the out-of-state college where he had completed his BA had changed its name. It was similar to the change in California, from “[NAME] State” to “California State University at [NAME].” We cleared it up to HR’s satisfaction, but the position we were hiring him for didn’t even require a degree in the first place, and they still made us (and really, him) provide proof that it existed and he had that degree.

I guess, seriously, publishing is not as important as the public trust, so who cares if someone’s lying to you… but why don’t you care? Why wouldn’t you question the motives of someone who is lying to you from your very first meeting? And why, when these guys get uncovered, do they get even more attention lavished on them?

Patricia Highsmth’s Ripley, at the end of the day, is fiction. Mallory, who will probably go on to sell at least one more book based on his notoriety, created a fictional persona which he passed off as real. Highsmith entered into an agreement with readers; we knew we were getting fiction. Mallory lied and tricked people. Somehow, if you’re white and male, that’s becoming more and more acceptable. Why?






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Lethal White; Lethally Boring

Lethal White is the fourth Cormoran Strike mystery novel by Robert Galbraith, a pseudonym for a fairly well-known fantasy writer, J.K. Rowling. Rowling left behind the YA world of Harry Potter (you may have heard of him) and started writing mysteries, with a slightly non-conformist detective and his smart, beautiful and terminally insecure female partner Robin Ellacott.

I’ve read my way through the others and, mostly, liked them, although I do have to admit I’ve liked each one a little less. The mystery is always the weakest part of the book. Usually it’s a convoluted plot that is wildly implausible. Usually the topic surrounding the mystery is interesting. And up until now, the will-they/won’t-they Unresolved Sexual Tension dynamic between Corm and Robin was at least interesting.

Then there’s Lethal White.

I’m writing these words before I’ve finished the book because there is a good chance I won’t finish it. It’s long, 630+ pages, which too long for a mystery. It is mostly boring, with brief showers of behavior that is maddening and makes me lose respect for the characters even more, especially Robin, who I want to like and admire. This book makes that impossible.

Warning, spoilers:

At the end of the book before this one, A Career of Evil, Robin married her longtime fiance Matthew. She was conflicted and unsure but did it anyway, presumably because she felt pressured since her parents spent a lot of money on the wedding. Lethal White picks up at the wedding reception itself. Matthew is a jerk; staying with him weakens Robin, and marrying him even more so. To try to keep the flagging tension going, Galbraith invents a series of tiny emergencies that make Robin feel like she has to stay; for instance, on their honeymoon, just as she’s decided to tell him she wants an annulment, Matthew falls sick from a coral scratch, and begs her not to leave him (he’s delirious). These events that make Robin feel sorry for him give the book the dated flavor of a 1940s melodrama. Like it or not, the reality of marriage in the 21st century is that a marriage isn’t hard to get out of. Robin, get a divorce and put together a payment plan to reimburse your folks for at least part of the wedding costs, okay?

I’m sure she is going to leave him because this book is dropping heavy hints about what might be going on between Matthew and a female co-worker, but I probably won’t hang around to find out.

And then there’s the mystery… well, maybe there is. There’s a story from the past, ten years previously, told to Strike by an unreliable person; there’s a dirty-tricks job in the House of Commons which conveniently involves the same family as the ten-year-old story, and in a 630+ page mystery a corpse appears right around page 250. There is a decadent aristocratic family with horses and cutesy nicknames, and we are beaten about the head and shoulders with those names; Izzy, Fizzy, Torks, Pog… Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. I get that we’re making fun of the aristos and indirectly the class system… it’s just overdone.

It’s overdone, and I’m probably done. I’m nearly to page 300, and see no compelling reason to continue.

I hope Rowling– oh, sorry, Galbriath — just had a bad patch, and that Lethal White is an anomaly, not an indication of where this series is going. As it stands, I’m counting myself out. Unlike Robin, I do know when to leave.


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