Shadow of the Crow.

When I say that I’m superstitious, some friends snort or roll their eyes. This is because in large swathes of my life I am practical and try to take a rational approach to problem solving. I will look for a natural explanation before a supernatural one (even if I don’t rule out the supernatural one), and I believe that coincidence is a thing. I maintain that none of this precludes me being superstitious too.

In some areas, I think my superstitions are so mundane and common that they barely count. In fact, my first example, even though it sounds like a superstition, is actually a rational response based on facts. This is the scenario when I say, after hearing a name or a word I don’t quite grasp, “How do you spell that?” and the person I’m asking says in a lofty, superior tone, “Just like it sounds.” This guarantees that I will spell it wrong.

The mere fact that I had to ask how to spell it means that hearing the word/name did not immediately suggest the proper spelling. Thus, for me, it isn’t going to be “just like it sounds,” and I know if I get that kind of snarky answer, unless I persist in asking, I will spell it wrong.

Two others that I share with many people: when someone says, “It’s really easy,” whether it’s yoga, a recipe or a model kit, I know I’m going to screw it up.  And the third one; the person who is giving me directions and ends with, “You can’t miss it,” has just doomed me to being lost for at least 20 minutes.

Superstition has come out of the closet in recent decades, mostly around sporting events, so it’s become a little more acceptable. The rhetorical tempting of fate is something many people steer clear of (“What could possibly go wrong?”); I’m one of them. I think black cats are beautiful; ladders hold no terrors for me. Thirteens and trios of sixes don’t bother me at all, but I do choose to take certain things as “signs.”

I will almost always see a rainbow as some symbol of optimism or hope. It might just be that a rainbow is pretty, or that it usually signifies a break in rain, but I live in California where until this winter we were in a six-year dry spell. I didn’t want the rain to stop, but I still felt a little uplift when I saw a rainbow.

Last week I went up to the town of Mendocino to read through the Project, something I hadn’t done and was somewhat dreading. The morning I was preparing to leave, I saw that a story I had sold several months ago had appeared in the online magazine that day. I couldn’t help it; I saw that as a positive omen. It was nothing of the kind; the editor had told me the story would come out in April or May; it came out in April; it wasn’t even random. I didn’t care, it felt like an omen.

Recently, I went to the downtown area of a large town near my home. I parked in a different place than usual; a few blocks from the historic city center in a residential neighborhood. It was a gorgeous spring day, sunny, the middle of the afternoon as I walked back from my errands towards my car. As I turned the corner onto the street where my car was parked, I saw a man walking toward me. He was about five foot ten; he had an SF Giants baseball cap and brown hair. He looked… ordinary. As he drew even with me, he suddenly patted all his pockets in the time-honored pantomime of “where are my keys (or wallet/phone/whatever)?” and turned around so that he was walking the same direction I was, right next to me, between me and the street.

I was uncomfortable. He didn’t say another or look directly at me, and I didn’t look directly at him, but my anxiety ticked up. I picked up my pace a bit and so did he, so he was still right alongside. I wear my purse messenger-bag-style, but the bag itself was on my left hip, facing him.

All I had to do was cross the street, but I started to slip into old passive behaviors, worry that I would hurt his feelings or be embarrassed because he really was just someone who thought he’d left something in his car. While I was dithering, a crow flew overhead, its shadow sliding over me. I hear it caw, and I stopped, turned and walked across the street in the middle of the block (there were no cars coming). The crow—it was a young crow – landed on the corner of the roof of a building on the side I crossed to. It cawed five times, then took wing and flew up that side of the street, toward my car, landing on the roof of the next building. It cawed again.

I side-eyed the guy across the street. He had stopped next to a car and chirped his remote, then turned again and headed back the way he had been walking when I first saw him. Maybe he really was afraid he hadn’t locked it, or maybe he wanted to put on a good show. Maybe he was completely innocent. If so, I doubt he gave more than a second thought, if that, to the eccentric older woman who jaywalked for no apparent reason.

My point is that the shadow of the crow spurred me to trust my instincts.

About that crow; it was just being a crow. It wasn’t consciously guiding me to safety, even if I want to see the events that way. Still, I chose to take that shadow gliding over me as a sign. I’m not sure I would have turned away and crossed at just that moment otherwise. Probably, if I hadn’t, nothing would have happened. But it took a “sign” to get me to opt for self-preservation, and if that’s superstition, I think I can live with that.

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A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem

Usually when I read a book I have some idea what’s going on. I can see at least the outlines or a faint shadow of the author’s intent. With A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem, I cannot say that. Oh, I understood the words and the sentences, mostly. I can recite events that happened, in the order in which they occurred. Do I understand what the book’s about? Nope.

Lethem is, or has been, a brilliant writer. Motherless Brooklyn is probably his masterpiece, but his earlier works back when he was flirting with—or, more than flirting with, actually dating – speculative fiction still sparkle with inventiveness and eccentric genius. In individual lines and scenes, some observations by the main character and certain passages of dialogue, that brilliance and eccentricity still shows in A Gambler’s Anatomy, but after I read the last page I still wasn’t sure what the book was about. This is just not his best work.

Alexander Bruno is a professional gambler, a backgammon player traveling around the world relieving rich people (or let’s be blunt, rich men) of their money. He is described glancingly as handsome, looking like Roger Moore when he played James Bond. The book opens with a tense backgammon game in Berlin at the home of wealthy German. There is a sense that Bruno has had a losing streak recently and needs this game to stake him. That’s too bad, because the results are disastrous for him. After he has a seizure, he is taken off to a German hospital and given a fateful diagnosis.

That diagnosis sends him back to the one place he never wanted to go, the San Francisco Bay Area in northern California. Bruno’s childhood in San Rafael and later Berkeley was terrible, the terribleness heightened by Bruno’s occasional ability to read minds, a skill he has attempted to hide or ignore – or so he says. Back in Berkeley, Bruno is under the thumb of Keith, an unpleasant, wealthy man who is reviled by the protest-culture-mavens of Berkeley. Keith owns a tech-themed electronics store and a nasty burger place; he is filthy rich and he apparently resented Bruno when they were in school together, even though Bruno doesn’t remember him all that well. Keith offers to pay for the high-risk operation that will probably save Bruno’s life; he gives him an apartment and lets him have some clothes from his tech-themed store. He even doles out cash like a parent offering a kid an allowance.

The book leaps from its starting place as a caper book into a long section devoted to the strangeness of Bruno’s surgery and the daring of the brilliant, arrogant, exploitative surgeon who is willing to do it. Bruno has a non-malignant growth behind his face but it is impinging on his brain and it will ultimately be fatal unless the Jimi-Hendrix-playing-cowboy-neurosurgeon, who “blows off steam” at the end of a fourteen-hour procedure by demanding that his team share a humiliating sexual encounter with the group, can save him. Save him he does, but now, absent the growth, Bruno fears that his defense between himself and his telepathy is gone. Bruno wants it back.

Meanwhile, he has struck up a friendship with a socialist burger-flipper at a rival burger place, only it isn’t a rival place at all. He takes to wearing a medical mask, like the kind burn victims wear, and later, Keith demands he wear a mask that sounds like it’s the one Scarecrow, from Batman, would wear. There is Keith’s hot girlfriend and a German prostitute Bruno met twice, who, through a series of machinations, ends up flying over to Berkeley and getting stranded with Bruno under the control of the unpleasant Keith. When astute observations about the increasing commercialization of Berkeley, thoughts about Chez Panisse, thoughts about what a loser Bruno’s mother was, reminiscences about Bruno’s stay in the hospital when he was a kid and other items aren’t happening, there are ruminations on the nature of backgammon. It’s Berkeley, so eventually there is a riot. And there’s soup.

So, it is about masks? Trading one mask for another? Loser Bruno is no different, intrinsically, from tuxedoed James Bond Bruno? Is it about slowly erasing oneself? Who is really wearing the mask? Oh, wait! I know that one! It’s Bruno. Oh… but wait, maybe he’s not the only one because maybe Keith and the hot girlfriend are really just masks for someone else, someone Bruno knew in Singapore.

And then there are the women characters. Sigh. There is June, mentioned often, never seen, Bruno’s invisible mother who apparently wasn’t a good one. There is Keith’s hot girlfriend, Tira, who is playing a game of her own (or is she?) and Madchen, the German prostitute. Basically, the women in this book appear in pieces, in body parts. Tira says Keith likes her for her big breasts and she talks about them a lot. Bruno first sees Madchen on a ferry in Germany. Later he sees half of her; she is naked from the waist down, from the waist up everything but her eyes covered, serving sandwiches at the backgammon game. Bruno can’t figure out who she is but we readers certainly did from the second she stepped through the door. When she comes to Berkeley to care for Bruno, he mentally compares her to a St. Bernard. Does Madchen have a dream, a desire, a motivation? Who knows? Did someone pay her to drop everything (if she had anything to drop) and fly to Berkeley? Who knows? I certainly don’t.

Is it about telepathy? Is it that having telepathy means nothing? Other reviewers disagree about this one, but I read it that Bruno truly has, or had, some ability to read minds. Except for gambling, it just doesn’t do him any good. I am unclear whether removing the growth damaged his telepathic ability or enhanced it, and that he didn’t want enhancement.

At the beginning of the book we learn about Bruno’s handler, who, it develops, knows about the telepathy and may have it himself. At the very end of the book, after Keith has gotten tired of torturing Bruno, we suddenly see the hand of the handler (heh) again. And the book ends with Bruno in Singapore, playing poker and winning, and planning to choose a new name and erase himself further.

Ultimately, Bruno is not a character I could find myself caring much about. Keith is just unpleasant. I think this is an attempt to subvert the Evil-Rich-Man trope by making him the opposite of glamorous. Keith in school was a bully and now he’s a rich bully, maybe that’s it. If so, it’s not enough. Women who function solely as the puppets of men or of the plot, (or both) aren’t enough either.

Along the way the writing shows Lethem’s observational skills, and the long, detailed surgery scene is a tribute to both his prose skills and his research. Line by line, like anything by Lethem, it’s intriguing. At the end, I don’t know. I simply don’t know.

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Snippets from Mendocino

“What’s extraordinarily beautiful in the garden right now?” I asked the volunteer at the counter of the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden.

“Everything,” she said.

Front lawn of the Garden

Front lawn of the Garden

 

Pink Flowers Against Green

Pink Flowers Against Green

 

A moment later she relented and said the rhododendrons were looking stunning right now. She was right.

White Rhododendrons

White Rhododendrons

Pink Rhododendrons with Raindrops

Pink Rhododendrons with Raindrops

Pink and Blue flowers

 


The town of Mendocino was filled with adolescent ravens, noisy, energetic and slightly awkward. They clustered in the minor grove of eucalyptus at the intersection of Lansing and Main Street. They perched on the roof of the Mendocino Café and Moody’s Coffee. As fast and eager as they were to pounce on the peanuts I threw, they would squawk and hop away when an elder appeared to claim the treat.

"Leapin' Ravens!" One of ground, one in flight

“Leapin’ Ravens!”

Leapfrog

Leapfrog

Raven on Mendocino Cafe waiting for a peanut.

Raven on Mendocino Cafe waiting for a peanut.

 

These two seemed to be waiting for someone to come feed them. No such luck.

These two seemed to be waiting for someone to come feed them. No such luck.

Mature raven

Mature raven

On the point at the western end of the town, sticking out into the Pacific Ocean, warblers gather to give birdcalls in the morning. I heard one every five or six feet, claiming its territory.

Warbler

Good morning.

 

 

 

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Into the Badlands

I’ve been seduced by AMCs Into the Badlands. AMC is developing a rep for creating well-produced, interesting original programming, like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Into the Badlands is closer to the latter in category, being post-apocalyptic fantasy. Instead of the gritty hyper-realism of Walking Dead, Into the Badlands gives us highly stylized scenes with an Asian flavor. Its creators wanted to make a martial arts show, and they’ve succeeded. It focuses on beautiful sets and costumes and exquisite martial arts battles. It has a video-game premise for world-building.

After watching the first three episodes On Demand, I thought the show must be literally based on a video game, but that’s not the case. Producer Daniel Wu (who also plays the lead) has said that the story is inspired by a sixteenth century Chinese novel called Journey to the West.

It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine -- Sonny and motorbike.

It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine — Sonny and motorbike.

In an after-the-collapse feudal world, Wu plays Sonny, the “regent” or second-in-command to one of the seven barons in the Badlands. Regents are like heads of security. In this world, where people got rid of guns for no reason whatsoever but still have fossil fuels, cars and really cool motorcycles, Sonny fights with swords, knives, throwing stars and his own body, tattooing a hashmark on his body for every person he kills. Sonny’s got a lot of tattoos. In his travels protecting the barony of his baron, Quinn, he finds a teenaged boy named MK being hauled off by nomads. Sonny frees him and soon discovers that MK has a sizable bounty on his head and a killing power that he can’t control. He also has a medallion with an image of a city skyline on it. Sonny has an artifact with the same image, and later we see it on a book.

(Back to world-building, or the lack of it, for a moment. All of the characters seem to know that the spires on the image depict the skyline of a city, even though none of them have ever seen a city. Into the Badlands is certainly not concerned with that kind of detail.)

Quinn raises opium and the walls in front of his fort glow with crimson poppies. Why opium? Why not? Where does he sell it? I don’t know. What’s the currency? Who knows? World-building is not deep here. Our first clue is the voice over narrative in the first three minutes of the show, where Sonny tells us that the world gave up guns. Yeah. Right.

What’s so great about Into the Badlands, then? Well, a few things:

Demure in not in my nature-- The Widow

Demure in not in my nature– The Widow

The Visuals:

I over-use the phrase “visual feast” but this show is one. The artistic sensibility is vivid and lush, whether it’s the livery of the various barons; crimson for Quinn, royal blue for the rebel baron The Widow. Quinn’s colors are mirrored in sweeping aerial shots of those red Asiatic poppies, and now we know why he grows them. There are scenes of lush green meadows and moody forests (the first season was filmed in Louisiana). Somebody had a good time deciding what items from “our” world would survive; the cars all look like they’re from 1947, lovingly restored; there is a gramophone and a pocket watch. Even the sigils of the barons, like Quinn’s nautilus-shell-inspired armadillo, are beautiful. The costumes of the “court” women gleam because they are satin or velvet. Style is a big, big deal and to some extent is used to define character; Tilda the regent of the Widow, sports a high-fashion outfit with a nipped in waist, all in royal blue, while Sonny wears a “utilitarian” crimson vest that not coincidentally shows off his upper arms. The use of restored antebellum houses in Louisiana add a second layer of not-quite-realist beauty.

The fight scenes:

I’m not a martial arts person, but the choreography of these scenes captures my attention every episode. Every episode has at least two battles. At least one is a melee, often many-against-one;  at least one is a duel. There are frequently lesser scenes which purport to be training and are really used to provide expositional dialogue; but the set pieces are stunning. It would be a drawback that the story is written around two fight scenes per episode if this weren’t a martial arts show. This is an unfair comparison, but Daredevil had at least one fight scene per episode; usually Matt getting beaten, and they were usually harsh and slow. Fight scenes in Into the Badlands are poetic, elegant and fast (and violent).

The characters:

I have a very bad feeling about this--Veil

I have a very bad feeling about this–Veil

Really? Yes. Before Sonny got sold into slavery by the River King –long story – he had reached a moral crossroads and was preparing to leave the Baron’s service, which is impossible to do. He was driven by concern for his lover, Veil, and their unborn child.

Quinn worked his way up to the role of Baron; he is strategic and ruthless. Now he fears he is dying and that fear is driving his decisions. He is not a sadist but he cares nothing for the lives of others, and he is conscious tornado.

The Widow also fought her way to where she is. The other six Barons distrust her and try to delegitimize her title – by calling her “The Widow.” She espouses egalitarian views that are not popular with the ruling body, and wants more freedom for women. For the Widow, you only find freedom with a sword. The Widow has an interesting past that gives her insight into MK’s situation and his killing power; and she knows something about the image of the city. I like her and I want her to prevail even if I don’t completely believe all the stuff she tells her “daughters.”

Veil is a “cog” (the lower caste in this system, basically everyone except the barons and their trained killers who are called “clippers”) and a doctor. She is Sonny’s lover. She is a healer. She is smart. She also makes metal prosthetics for the soldiers who have lost limbs – and there are a lot of those. She is tough, and she figured out a while ago that she cannot count on Sonny for protection. Veil is by far my favorite character, and the stakes are raised for her in Season Two, when she is the “guest” of the deposed Quinn, dependent upon him for her son’s life while she takes slow-motion revenge against him because he killed her parents. You go, Veil. But please, be careful.

Some characters do fail, and badly. In Season Two, MK and his story have become unintentional tranquilizers. At the end of Season One, he was abducted by monks in a pickup truck and taken to a secret monastery. Sadly, the most interesting thing about that part was the monks with a pickup truck. Now MK does sword poses in front a waterfall and battles himself on the astral plane. (Yawn.) The monastery reminds us, again, that this show cares nothing for world-building, substituting flowing robes, lots of candles and tea services for a belief system. We do know that the pickup-truck monks find and scoop up the kids who have MK’s deadly power. We know they have a room with a lot of mirrors to reflect the candles. We don’t know what they believe. The sooner MK puts the monastery in his rearview and reconnects with Sonny the better.

Ryder, Quinn’s son and self-styled new baron, has great potential. Both his mother, Lydia, and his wife, Jade are strong, strategic, manipulative women; Jade is in the ascendancy and Lydia is in a downward spiral that has the potential to make her desperate and dangerous. I have high hopes for Lydia.

We must stop meeting like this -- Tilda and MK

We must stop meeting like this — Tilda and MK

I’ve discussed one of the show’s weaknesses for me, and that’s world-building. I don’t know if it’s a weakness if the creators don’t care. I mean, I don’t fault Say Yes to the Dress because there aren’t enough gymnastics in it. When Into the Badlands has an adversary of Sonny’s walk out of the shadows and pose before a backlit tunnel, thus throwing him, with his long duster, his knee-high boots, his swords and his big old hood into silhouette, then flips back the hood so the backlighting can skate off his shaved scalp, you know you are watching a show that cares about image. And, honestly, it delivers those images.

For me, another drawback to the show –again, probably not a weakness – is how gory it is. Really, those vivid colors? One of them is red, flung in loops, whorls and spatters from the fight scenes, or, well, just because. In an episode in Season Two, we watch blood drip from the severed neck of a dead stag Quinn rattles on giving some speech for, like, forever.

Season Two has pulled back the fictional camera to show us scraps of our world, but I think (I hope) their instinct is not to provide some long explanation for How We Got Here – but to stay grounded in the here-and-how of the post-apocalyptic feudal world. If the showrunners are drawing from Journey to the West, then a character they added at the end of Season One might represent the Monkey King. And if the Monkey King shows up, then things are going to get even more interesting.

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These Are the Tools

Revision Tools; Manuscript, sticky notes, ink penThese are the tools. They look really old-fashioned. No Track Comments, interactive spreadsheets, no Google Doc file, just a paper manuscript, a bunch of stickies and an ink pen. Missing from the photo is a new spiral notebook that I will have to get, to write in when I run out of room down the margins/on the back of the pages as I’m revising.

That’s just how I roll.

That flurry of pink pennants along the side? Those are chapter markers. Chapters are a bane in the first draft, and even when I list them in a separate document and go back and check, I somehow always manage to mis-number the chapters. This book was no exception. I also worry that the chapters aren’t terribly even, although I try to let the flow of the story dictate that. Basically, they run 10-15 pages; one or two run to nearly 20. I won’t know ‘til I read the whole thing whether that works, which is one reason for the cute little pink flags.

(Until I read the whole thing…. Arrrrgh.)

There are three flags at the top, which mark the parts of the book. These are wildly uneven in terms of page count and I don’t really care. The break by “part” or “section” is thematically linked. Each part has a title. They are:

–Shelter in Place
–Count to a Hundred
–Try Your Luck

I knew I had a reason for picking those when I did it, but back then it seemed to be because they sounded cool. Now, in retrospect, I hope what they reflect is my main character’s emotional journey through the book.

Also not pictured of course is the document where I’ve listed many, many notes about things that have to be in there or have to be moved, or have to be explained. Did I mention there were many?

So, the rest of April and early May is given to a complete read. I can’t say re-read, because I’ve never actually read it. I’ve certainly read parts of it. I have no idea what it’s like. Anyway, the plan is: Do a complete read and a “patch” revision where I try to fix the bigger, obvious, more gaping plots holes, character vacuums, world-building questions and pacing problems. Then my writers group gets it.

And then this whole process starts all over.

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Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them; A Long DOCTOR WHO Episode Without the Charm

The other night I rented Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It’s about two-and-a-quarter-hours long. This is a prequel to the Harry Potter series and takes place in North America (New York City) with a young Hogwarts-dropout wizard named Newt Scamander. Scamander comes to New York with a suitcase that contains a pocket universe filled with rascally fantastical creatures. One escapes, and our story begins.

I was bored.

For at least the first hour I was only bored. Then I was bored and confused, but the primary tone of the experience was boredom.

Boredom. This is a huge CGI extravaganza, set in the Harry Potter universe! How could I be bored? No, seriously, I want to know.

Hello, I'm the Doctor... oh, wait, no. No, I'm not.

Hello, I’m the Doctor… oh, wait, no. No, I’m not.

First of all, the computer-generated beasts were wonderful (all but one of them). Several of them were just cute as the dickens.They didn’t help enough. Throughout the movie, I had to say to myself, “This is not Doctor Who, and that is not Matt Smith” because Eddie Redmayne gave off a definite Doctor Who vibe (complete with bowtie) and the film was like a long Doctor Who episode with really nice production values. In case it wasn’t enough like Doctor Who, Eddie Redmayne’s – I mean Scamander’s –suitcase is bigger on the inside. I can’t be the only person who noticed that.

But, basically, there’s no story for a long time, and when there is a story, it has no real heart, and tries to distract us from that with great 3D special effects, beautiful costumes and… cute critters.

Scamander’s suitcase gets swapped with the sample case of  Jacob, a “nomaj” (a mundane, the USA version of “muggle”). Jacob’s case is filled with tasty pastries because he is trying to get a loan to start a bakery. He’s a really nice guy. Scamander is lectured by a stern young magical woman named Tina who was an auror, but has now been demoted for reasons not explained (perhaps hinted at), and dragged into the bureaucratic offices of MACUSA, MAgical Congress of the USA. They have to let him go when his case only contains pastries, while back at Nomaj Jacob’s humble flat, critters are boiling out of suitcase and running amok. There’s another creature, though, that’s already been in New York knocking over walls and tearing up the streets, and it’s bad. Very bad. And a auror named Graves is looking for it.

Then there’s a bigoted anti-magic woman who believes witches and magic are evil. She has a bunch of adopted kids and she is a brutal abuser. Scamander diagnoses the destructive creature as a Big Swoopy Evil that happens when magically gifted children suppress their gift. (Guess where the host of the evil thing might be! Just guess!) Also, Grindlewald, the dark wizard, is hiding somewhere in New York, in disguise. (Guess where he is! Just

I'm Frank the Thunderbird. Why don't I have my own movie?

I’m Frank the Thunderbird. Why don’t I have my own movie?

guess!) Scamander doesn’t care about any of this, he just wants his pets back, and he’s a pretty unlikeable guy, even when he is channeling Doctor Who, until we meet the thunderbird he is keeping. He has come to America to return it to Arizona, where it lived until it was captured and sold in Cairo, where he stole—rescued—it. I liked Newt for five or six minutes there. And I really liked Frank the Thunderbird. If they gave Frank his own movie, I’d go see it in a theater.

When I wasn’t telling myself, “This is not Doctor Who,” I had time to notice that Eddie Redmayne has great cheekbones and nice eyes and I could see why they cast him in The Danish Girl. I also had time to notice when they changed Tina’s hair so she went from looking mousy to pretty, and to wonder why Queenie, Tina’s mind-reading sister, has a Bronx accent when Tina does not. I also noticed what beautiful costumes they had, and to wonder why the magical community needed a speakeasy, since illusions are their big thing and hiding booze during Prohibition would be, like, nothing for them. I was having some trouble staying on track.

I like shiny things, and I'm here to distract your from the fact that this movie has no story.

I like shiny things, and I’m here to distract you from the fact that this movie has no story.

You can’t blame me completely. It would be hard to imagine a performance that was more flat-affect than Redmayne’s. The character seems to have no emotional center. He doesn’t seem to really care about the hapless mundane he’s dragged into the middle of his mess. He does seems to care about the creatures, at first, but, when he needs information vitally to track down one final animal, he hesitates for about a second before trading one of the other creatures, Picket, into slavery. This might be the right moral decision actually; but there is no pause, no emotional beat behind it. Then the guy he sold Picket to double-crosses him, and in the confusion Newt snatches back Picket. When he and Picket are arguing later, I am sure I heard Newt say, “I never would have sold you,” so either he’s a liar, or he’s not a liar and he would sell a friend to save hundreds of lives. I think a real story would have made me care about which of those he was.

Sometime later, a whole bunch of magical and mundane people converge on the subway to face the Big Swoopy Evil and the child who houses it. Newt is successfully talking to the child, while Tina is trading wand-shots with the bad wizard who is really Grindlewald, when a bunch of magicals show up and kill the Big Swoopy Evil and by extension the child. There is a pause, while everyone stops to think about what this means and – haha! Just kidding! No pause. Moving on.

Then there’s a raft of plot-housekeeping scenes and some time several minutes after that the story ends on a note that makes it seem like Newt Scamander will be coming back to New York to hang out with Tina. Four more films in this “series” are projected.

The movie didn’t seem to know its audience in the most basic of ways, even age-range. The first hour is filled with sight-gag after sight-gag as Scamander chases his mischievous critters; a predictable, Doctor-Whoish scene in Central Park that is funny, a couple of fat jokes at the expense of Jacob. Then we have child abuse, emotional torture, enslavement, an attempted execution with no due process, and then a bunch of wizards blow up a child. It felt like that age demo should have taken a huge leap there.

So, I don’t know. The movie won an Academy Award for best costuming, so… that’s good. And I did stay awake all the way through, so there must have been something. Maybe I was just waiting for the familiar sound of the TARDIS to carry me away.

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Pick-Churs!

Here are a few pictures I took during the month of March, 2017. I hope you enjoy them.

Apple Blossoms, Sebastopol, CA

Apple Blossoms, Sebastopol, CA

While I was on the walk where I took that photo I met an elderly man coming up from Apple Blossom Lane (play on words intended.) He was walking a little fluffy white dog and a bigger, shepherd mix who seemed a bit older. The fluffy one was effusive, but both dogs were friendly. He said the bigger, more reserved one was his dog and he had gotten her from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. “She doesn’t like water or loud noises,” he said. I said I thought that made sense.

“We have a pool,” he said. “She never went near it. Then my daughter and granddaughter came to visit. My granddaughter jumped in the pool. My dog, she started barking, she ran forward, she grabbed my granddaughter by the arm and tried to drag her out. She wasn’t being mean,” he said. “She was rescuing her.”

Marriage of Shadows

Marriage of Shadows

Several weeks after Dave and I got married, six years ago, we went to visit our friend Sharon in Murphys. Sharon and friend Denise prepared a, well, let’s call it a reception. They decorated the house, and Sharon made a huge batch of her famous cinnamon rolls, which she stacked like a cake. Then she and Denise went searching for the tackiest cake-topper they could find for the top. Seriously, that was the criterion. You can’t fully appreciate it here; the couple looks circa 1983. I have faithfully kept the cake topper. One morning, walking down the hall, I saw how they looked through the curtain, so I went and got my camera.

It's the SMART Train!

It’s the SMART Train!

Here is the SMART train, being tested in Novato. I think they are rehabbing the old depot to become the new depot. People in Marin County don’t like the SMART train. People in Sonoma County do. It’s a thing.

California Troll, Petaluma, CA

California Troll, Petaluma, CA

I think this oak tree and rock could be a troll face, or a portal to the underworld, or maybe just another world generally speaking. You can find this on D Street, outside of town, heading west toward San Antonio Road.

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The Ospreys Themselves: Or, I Finished a Zero Draft!

Osprey in flight.

Osprey in flight.

On Wednesday, March 22, I got to the final words of my fiction Work in Progress. I thought it was 108,569 words (and that’s what I tweeted). Later I remembered that I had dumped a bunch of story notes into the end of the document along with about three scenes that I pulled out of the manuscript but wanted to keep in case there was something useful in them. I have dumped all of that into a separate document and now my reliable word count is 107,711.

I was excited on Wednesday. I still am.

I have put it aside. I even wrote a note on the calendar for April 6; “Begin Revising,” and I’m not going to look at it before then. Already, though, I want to tinker.

It’s funny how that works. For more than three weeks I dodged the ending like it was a collection agency. I dinked around in the middle of the manuscript and wondered about whether “might” was correct, or “may.” (Okay, no, not really.) Was Tucker’s steampunk car burgundy or teal? It was teal; should it be burgundy? I wrote a bad breathtakingly-climactic ending, and trashed it. I wrote one paragraph toward a better breathtakingly-climatic ending. I backed away. I circled around. I gave myself another field trip to Mare Island, because, “I had to get that mapped out in my head so I could visualize the ending.” (Right.) Instead I took pictures of ospreys.*

And then I started writing something. I figured out a way to get what I needed even though it is not realistic (I hope it is plausible) by grounding the action in the main character’s physical experience. In other words, since it’s fantasy, and we are (I hope) experiencing the opening moments of the finale in her body and mind, readers will be willing to accept what’s going on around her, even though it’s half magical and half mundane and 100% wildly unlikely.

I have no idea how it all works out, really, because I haven’t reread it yet, and it’s a “discovery” draft. But I’m jazzed that it’s done.

*

After avoiding the thing for weeks, after dodging its calls and ignoring its texts (insert simile of your choice here) now that I’ve given myself a cooling-off period, my fingers itch to go in there and tinker. Not fix, mind you. Not revise. Not analyze whether the structure works, whether the plot pieces hinge together smoothly enough, whether the backstory and worldbuilding of the visitors is complete enough (it’s not). No. I just want to tinker. In the final chapter, I have a scene where my MC, Miranda, is sitting at a table with a group of the visitors. There is a visitor missing from the table. Miranda is sitting in that person’s chair. I didn’t make that clear. I really want to go in there and make that clear, even though, at this point in the process, it does not matter! (By the time I am closer to a final draft, that will, I hope, convey something important to readers, but not right now.)

Osprey Flies toward next atop ship crane boom.

Osprey Flies toward next atop ship crane boom.

I want to change the beginning to turn one-and-a-half pages in transcript format into eight lines of transcript format. I want to do that right now. It’s like deciding to organize your sock drawer the night before the midterm that you haven’t studied for.

But I’m being strong. I’m writing this instead. Hey, I got to the ending, and it’s a real ending.

*And the osprey nest made it into the book. I should just go in right now an add the ospreys themselves…

 

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Elena’s Westside Cafe; Happy Tenth Anniversary!

Elena's Westside Cafe

Elena’s Westside Cafe

I’ve written about the Westside Café before.

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

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

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

“Ten years on April 7,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“It makes a living,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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