The Battle for the Wand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait a minute. Just whose voice is that?

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

Oh, yes. The Inner Critic.

“Did you miss me, buttercup?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, but I made notes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” I said.

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

“I won’t forget,” I said.

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

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

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Daredevil; Nelson V Murdock

I’ve been watching the Netflix version of Daredevil, Season One, On Demand, and I have to admit I haven’t been liking it much. I’m still watching, though, and one reason is because of Episode 10, Nelson V Murdock.

I don’t understand or like Daredevil as a character, and while Charlie Cox is doing a fine

Elden Henson who plays Foggy Nelson

Dude, I thought you were my friend, and I thought you were the good guy.

job in the title role, those feelings have not changed. If anything were going to change my feelings toward Matthew Murdock, (AKA the Black Mask, AKA The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, AKA just about anything except Daredevil), it would have been Nelson v. Murdock, in which Murdock’s best friend and legal partner, Foggy Nelson, finds out the truth about the Black Mask (that’s Murdock), and confronts him.

Nelson, played brilliantly by Elden Henson, has been one of the two rays of sunshine in this dark series. Nelson and Murdock have been friends since college. They both grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, with very different experiences. Foggy thought he knew Matt, and with this discovery and betrayal, he realizes he knew almost nothing about his friend. Or, to put it more accurately, he did know a lot about his friend. It’s just that the things he didn’t know change everything.

Because nothing says "Justice" like beating up some random guy in an alley. Daredevil fighting

Because nothing says “Justice” like beating up some random guy in an alley.

I never read the Daredevil comics, and my introduction to this character was via the Ben Affleck movie, which didn’t really do much to sell the character. Matt Murdock was a brave boy who saved a pedestrian from a runaway truck, and got splashed with toxic chemicals from the truck for his trouble. He lost his sight as a result of that incident (his eyes look great, by the way, not a hint of scarring), but his other senses developed to compensate… and continued developing until Matt reads vibrations and scents change in the air and can virtually see. His boxer dad (there’s no mom, surprise!) made a living by throwing fights, but double-crossed the fixers in his last fight. They killed him in revenge. Matt went to college to become a lawyer, and “Foggy” Nelson was his room-mate. While they were both offered associate positions at a fancy-schmancy Wall Street law firm, Matt persuaded Foggy that they should go out on their own and be community lawyers, finding justice for the people of Hell’s Kitchen.

In the Affleck movie, Foggy Nelson is a dim-witted materialist, a foil for Matt Murdock’s oppressive cleverness, the butt of every joke. In the Netflix series, Nelson is the real deal. He’s genuine, he’s funny and he’s plenty smart. He’s realistic about wanting to make money but he is on-board about working within the system to help people. He thinks that’s what Matt wants too, and when he finds out it’s not, his hurt and dismay snap this series into complete emotional focus.

In the two or three episodes leading up to “Nelson V. Murdock,” it is Foggy and their receptionist Karen who are behaving heroically, helping an elderly woman in a tenement keep her rent-controlled apartment while she is being harassed and threatened. Foggy, who is not a physical guy, nevertheless takes on two professional thugs who are trying to beat up Karen. He is doing the paper chase and the paper search. While we viewers all know that this won’t work because of the depth of the villain’s corruption, Nelson is fighting the good fight for real. Meanwhile, Murdock is a) punching people out, or b) getting punched out, or c) getting sliced up or d) getting caught in a firefight with corrupt cops or d) getting thrown in a dumpster… It’s hard to see how he’s helping. It really seems more like Matt Murdock is an extreme masochist who enjoys having other men hurt him. No, seriously.

Nelson V Murdock shows us flashbacks of the two men meeting as students, becoming

"Yes! It hurts so good!" Matt Murdock, beaten up

“Yes! It hurts so good!”

friends, and making their choices. There’s a feeling that, while Matt seems like a nice guy, Foggy may be his first friend. There is a tentativeness to his interactions that is heartbreaking. Foggy seems like a simple guy, but when he is confronting Matt, that simplicity is devastating. Matt lied to him. Matt kept secrets. Matt is not doing the thing he said he believed in. Foggy confronts him, but after he calls Matt’s emergency-room nurse friend Claire to patch up his bleeding friend. He is angry, but he still cares for Matt and he acts on that caring.

We’re at the point in the story where this friendship should be foundering, and the villain, a psychotic land developer, should be in the ascendency, and the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen should be reviled and on the run. This is the part of the plot where the hero’s plan fails and things are the worst they can be. The show gets kudos for making the revelation of Matt’s secret identity so layered, so emotional and so believable. At the end of this episode, two heroes are wounded. I’m going to watch a little bit longer, but it’s because of the decent guy who’s trying to do the right thing. And that’s not Matt.

 

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The Name’s Barnes. James Barnes.

Last week at my writing appointment with Brandy I slipped and called The Project “the book.” I hastened to correct myself, but Brandy, who is observant and has fast reflexes, was onto me before I should slither out of it.

“Book. You said book,” she said. “And the universe is honoring that agreement. You have to call it a book now.”

Curses.

Really, though, it’s almost 90,000 words so there isn’t much else I can call it, except a project.

I thought I’d share a short passage and then discuss how it came about. First, a bit of set-up. Madrigal, one of the main characters, is a magical being, trapped in our world with his ward, a young woman named Mirth. They are on the run from powerful enemies who want them both dead. They just fled Seattle and have come to Los Angeles. Because he has to be underground, Madrigal makes a living by hiring his magical abilities out to criminals. He has just undergone a grueling “audition” with a crime lord. His magical ability nearly drained, he is “hired” and about to get a new identity.

*

“Not from around here, though, are you?” Giorgio snapped his fingers and a man brought over Madrigal’s wallet. He pulled out the Washington State driver’s license and the credit cards. Another minion torched them, filling the warehouse with the smell of burning plastic. “You got a name you like?”

He flailed mentally. “Barnes,” he said, remembering the large out-buildings he and Mirth had seen when they’d gone to Skagit Valley for the Tulip Festival. “James Barnes.”

Giorgio, and six of his men, laughed.

“License to kill?” Giorgio said, raising his eyebrows. “We’ll need your fingerprints.”

*

Wow, look at that! It’s like a clever little Ian Fleming homage in the middle of my urban fantasy. I’m just so clever. (There are more than six of Giorgio’s men in the room; apparently some of them are not 007 fans.)

Yes, it reads that way now.

Let me tell you what really happened.

The name is Barnes. James Barnes. Red tulips in foreground, large barn in background

The name is Barnes. James Barnes.

This scene is flashback buried deep in the book, and it’s backstory. Throughout the story Madrigal has gone by another name, Ian Early. (See? I can’t get away from those Fleming references.) Originally, Barnes was going to be the name he had used in Seattle, and he was going to choose the alias of “Early” in this scene. Except, after working many years for Giorgio, he and his employer are going to have a parting of the ways that is not friendly, and Madrigal well need another alias, the one he’s going to use when the main human character of the book meets him and the main story unfolds.

Originally, I had a complicated idea of why he chose Early, and that was in here when I first wrote it. And when I say wrote, I mean, “Inscribed onto paper with a pen” because that is how I’ve written most of this draft. Here’s what a typical page looks like.

A page of text written in an obscure code (my handwriting).

A page of text written in an obscure code (my handwriting).

Then I realized that he couldn’t be Early, yet.

I had envisioned a heart-tugging scene where Madrigal and Mirth had gone to the Tulip Festival in Skagit Valley before they left Seattle, and were overjoyed by the carpets of bright colors against a cool blue sky and blah-blah-blah. Nobody, not even me, cared about the tulip festival and a possible bonding moment — at least, not in this book. And I wanted the idea that Madrigal chooses his names more-or-less randomly, often inspired by something he sees or hears, so that there is no unconscious pattern for a dedicated pursuer to pick up. Thus, “barns” into Barnes.

I still didn’t see any influences. I knew he wouldn’t be Ian, yet, even though there is a bit of dialogue where Giorgio asks him if he’s British. Early has always played in my imagination as British Professor, even though that is a mask, a persona he has developed to keep himself and Mirth alive. Beneath that is a much different person. So “Ian Barnes” sounded okay, except he couldn’t be Ian yet. While I was transcribing my handwritten sections onto the screen I saw (and heard) for the first time, “Barnes. James Barnes.”

And then I had to add a reaction.

I love how it looks as if I planned it.

 

 

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The Expanse Season Two; A Stellar Preimiere–or is it Extra-Stellar?

The Expanse opened Season Two last Wednesday night with a double episode that ran for one hour, forty- five minutes with limited commercial breaks. I confess that I was fretting, the same way I fretted over the opening of The Magicians; that having offered up a brilliant first season, The Expanse would stumble.

No stumbles here.

Season Two gets off to a faster start because the world/universe building is already done. We returning viewers know who Belters are, why Miller would say something like, “Leave off the agua,” and why Mars and Earth are rattling sabers, rifles and really big space ships with lots of weapons. In the opener, “Safe,” we are off the a blistering start, as there is an attempt on Avasarala’s life on Earth, Amos plays with fire – or worse—when he opens a sealed container, and we meet –finally!—Martian Marine Bobbie Draper.

Here’s what to love:

Bobbie Draper.

Bobbie Draper arm wrestles a robot

Bobbie Draper

The first fear many of us had was that they would cast some petite blond woman to play Martian-Samoan Bobbie W. Draper. That fear was laid to rest last year when they announced that Frankie Adams would play the part, and she is perfect. She is tall and strong but vulnerability shows through the mask of her atmosphere suit.  Bobbie is a Marine and a patriot. Bobbie dreams of a terraformed Mars with an atmosphere, water and green plants; with Martian resources

Here's what she looks like out of make up. Frankie Adams

Here’s what she looks like out of make up.

diverted to an escalating arms race and the two planets balancing on the war/no war tightrope, that interplanetary Cold War holds Bobbie’s dream hostage. She resents that, and we’re going to see the results of that resentment.

Miller and Holden are Haunted.

Holden, the idealistic can’t-we-all-just-get-along captain of Rocinante, and Miller, the disgraced Ceres detective, are both facing psychological as well as physical after effects of their experiences on Eros. Holden can’t stop thinking about the hundreds of people there, who the cynical corporate scientists turned into mounds of crystalline blue resin, “for scientific purposes.”

Detective Miller with his hat, on Ceres

Detective Miller

Miller is haunted by Julie Mao. He explains to Naomi; “She was dead before I found her, but sometimes I see her. Standing right there.” Miller, a venial, cynical man, found a cause in Julie Mao, and he is the most likely to be the character who will charge a windmill armed with only a lance. I don’t know how closely the series is going to follow the books (it seems pretty close right now), but Julie is calling Miller to join her. And he’s about ready to accept her invitation.

Avasarala plays 10-dimensional Wizard’s Chess:

Crisjen Avasarala, the UN Secretary, has seen the faces of the men behind the curtain, those orchestrating a shooting war between Mars and Earth. She has no proof though, and she doesn’t know what they are hiding. Avasarala launches her own covert investigation, but even now she doesn’t know quite how close the enemy is.

Crisjen Avasarala looking elegant as always.

Crisjen Avasarala looking elegant as always.

I am pleased to see Avasarala being given a bit more of a potty-mouth this season (even if it is mostly bleeped). The character in the book is described as a kindly, grandmotherly looking woman who munches pistachio nuts and uses incredibly foul language. Aghdashloo, who owns this role, has made the as character regal and sleek as a great white shark. Nice to hear her cursing a bit more, it adds a bit of salt to the dish.

The Proto Molecule is as Scary as We Remembered:

Everything's going to be fine! Just fine. Holden and Miller on Eros

Everything’s going to be fine! Just fine.

When Fred Johnson and Rocinante take over the shadow station, one of the scientists they capture babbles out something about the proto-molecule. It is extra-solar; it is a weapon; it was aimed at Earth. That’s right, someone from another system pointed this possibly-intelligent transmuting weapon right at us. We don’t know who and we don’t know when. The proto molecule brings a new, scary meaning to the word “colonize.”

Let the games begin!

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Super Librarians Strike Again! LumaCon 2017

Two librairans with capes and Super Librarian caption

Super Librarians

LumaCon 2017 was held on Saturday, and once again, the Super Librarians of the Sonoma County Library, the Petaluma Library, the Petaluma High School and Casa Grade High School Libraries came together and made this free-admission, family-friendly comic book themed convention a delightful success.

Man in Penguin costume

Look out! It’s the Penguin!

Just like last year, LumaCon was held at Lucceshi Park and Community Center (it outgrew the fairgrounds property the first year). The lobby was devoted to Friends of the Library and various local comic book shops showing their wares, while authors and artists had tables in the large auditorium. Across the lobby, closer to the duck pond, rooms were devoted to Fandoms, family fun, and Magic: the Gathering.

There were cosplayers galore. There was a medieval melee on the lawn (once you signed your decidedly-not-medieval Waiver of Liability). There was a cosplay parade and a contest; there was a bake sale, and lots of great art and great books.

I saw my friends from Brian’s Comics in Petaluma. Then I talked to award-winning writer Brian Fies and his two daughters, who held down his booth while he made a sandwich run. Maia Kobabe was there and I was delighted to discover that she is starting work on a comic based on the life of Harvey Milk. I don’t remember seeing Svetlana Chmakova’s work before, but I was seduced by her “The Writing Process (as Described by a Kitten in a Box)” comic panel and I bought two, one for myself and one for a writing friend.

Sign reading "My big Break" and "Cancelled

The saddest sign ever

Cardstock Robot by Brian Fies

Brian’s Robot

To my surprise, I bought more art than books. To my disappointment, both panels had been cancelled. This meant that I saw “Suiswede Squad; the Trailer” courtesy of Studio A2 (a high school production), and that was pretty silly and pretty fun. Check out their Youtube channel.

Young man in chain mail

Chain Mail — He is finishing it himself.

 

Maia working on face studies of murdered San Francisco County Supervisor Harvey Milk

Maia working on face studies of murdered San Francisco County Supervisor Harvey Milk

I needed to stretch my legs so I walked around the duck pond before I headed home.

Person is anime costume of unknown monster

I know I should know what creature this is… but I don’t.

Seagulls in flight.

Seagulls at the duckpond.

This event is always held the fourth Saturday in January, and it’s free. I highly recommend it. It’s inspiring, fun and well laid out, and I love how it encourages artists, writers, costumers and storytellers of all stripes. Or spots, or tentacles.

Strong school librarians build strong students.

Strong school librarians build strong students.

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Knight of Crowns: The Crowning of the Rich White Kids

After the shock and horror of the Season One finale of The Magicians (Syfy), the Season Two premiere rebounds straight into snarky millennial humor.

We thought everyone but Quentin (and Julia) were dead, but after Quentin frantically searches for help, he returns to the wellspring to find that, thanks to a god-juiced Alice, everyone’s okay – nearly. Penny’s hands are still severed.

Eliot, Margo, Alice and Quentin, crowned

Do these crowns make us look white?

That’s pretty terrible, but after a detour, and, with a tiny problem that will no doubt plague him the rest of the season (okay, it’s a curse) Penny’s hands are soon reattached and the quintet traipse off to find the Knight of Crowns and be crowned Kings and Queens of Fillory. Four of them will, anyway.

After passing a grueling ordeal – pop culture questions from the 1990s, which proved that I could be a Queen of Fillory – the four entitled white kids crown themselves, while Penny, lounging against a rock, observes.

Yes, the privileged kids take the crowns.

You noticed that. You couldn’t help but notice it. The show knows you noticed it. It’s counting on that.

ARjun Gupta, Penny in The Magicians

Some of us don’t need crowns

It knows that you noticed that Penny is the equivalent of a scholarship kid; that Penny’s skin is darker than any of the others; that Penny is angry and often rude, and that Penny is not in the running for a crown. I’d say that he is not even considered, but that isn’t true; Eliot evokes the image of Penny as a king to mock-threaten Quentin. The threat is real. Quentin is an outsider himself, even more of an outsider than loner Alice, who is a magical legacy at the school. The threat that Quentin can be displaced from the inner circle by the angry dark-skinned guy is real and that tells us a lot.

Even though Penny is arguably the strongest male magician of this group, he is not part of that inner circle; there is no place for him on a throne.

In each of the “coronations” (the four crown each other), Penny is in the shot, watching.

In Lev Grossman’s first book of The Magicians trilogy (called The Magicians) he used the metaphor of magic to explore the lives of entitled, bored twentysomethings. Magic did not give them a purpose. Destiny was bullshit. A degree in magic from Brakebills University was no different than a Yale MBA, the only difference being that with the Yale degree you could get a job. Works of imagination like Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia were not meant to provide a model for ways to live, or, well, they were, but they were the cynical manipulations designed to cultivate obedience and conformity in children and blind them to the “real” system of the world. When our ennui-draped group did go to Fillory, they made disastrous mistakes because they tried to take the world of Fillory as they remembered it in the books. It wasn’t until they “wised up” that they began to succeed.

Grossman began to put his own somewhat cynical ideas under the microscope in the second and third books, where Quentin at least had a nodding acquaintanceship with the concepts of heroism and sacrifice.

Queen Margo the Destroyer and King Eliot the Spectacular

Queen Margo the Destroyer and King Eliot the Spectacular

The television show, a visual medium, is approaching the issues of racism and classism while taking a similar path to the books. The lily-whiteness of the four “chosen” is part of that path.  Early in the episode, Penny gets into an argument with a Fillorian who rendered him a service and demanded payment after the fact. Quentin, swaddled in privilege and fairy tales since birth, would probably have remembered something about the consequences of being mean to someone you meet on the road. Penny, growing up differently, does not. He is sincerely outraged that the guy is trying to take advantage of him. He stands up for himself. Later, when Eliot, Margo, Quentin and Alice all crown each other, he watches quietly, almost neutrally. He doesn’t seem to feel cheated this time; a cheat would imply that something was taken from you that had a right to or possession of. Plainly, Penny does not see a crown as something fitting that definition.

Unlike our four coddled twenty-somethings, Penny does not have the same emotional connection to Fillory, and we’ll see if that has anything to do with his upcoming storyline.

The two most powerful and most damaged magicians in the show are Penny and Julia. (Alice is so powerful that I put her in a different category.) Both of them have been diminished by others; both have things taken from them and have no recourse. Julia reacts with anger. She fights. In choosing to fight, she makes dark and terrible choices. Still, Julia is a competitive child of privilege and her anger comes from her sense of entitlement – from the expectation that she should have what she wants.

Penny’s journey is different.

The man Penny raged at, who cursed him, tells him that he has “important part to play.” This isn’t the consolation prize. He isn’t denied a crown because he is “meant for a greater service to the land of Fillory.” Penny’s journey will be different. Something else is going on here. The show has something else to say. And I’m going to stick around for a little while longer, at least, and listen.

(Images from EW.com and The Magicians Blog.)

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Littoral Zone

This is original fiction. You may link to it if you want. If you cite it or quote it, give me credit.

Weeds with dew drops

Nina was right on Tim’s heels, striding effortlessly through the horsetail reeds. When they parked in the turnout the sky had been blue, the air warm, and a big drop of sweat had rolled down his temple as he led the way. Now it was cold and the air was gray. He wished he hadn’t left his wind-breaker draped over her camera on the front seat.

The trail dropped for the third time, a random stair-step of big gray rocks. Tim’s calves ached. He climbed down slowly, using his hands. Nina slipped down the boulders after him, lithe as a fox. He lost his balance and, stepping left to catch himself, ended up with his foot in the clear rivulet of water that carved calligraphy through the sand.

“We’re here,” he said. He stepped over the stream and looked around. The beach was shrouded in fog.

Tim knew it had been some streak of competition with her that had made him turn off the marked trail onto the deer path, even though he wasn’t a physical guy, and their innkeeper had warned him that the way was steep. Nina got up at four-thirty every morning to spend an hour on her treadmill and another hour doing yoga. She worked out at the gym four nights a week. She wasn’t even breathing hard.

She looked around now, her gaze taking in the gray-shrouded outlines of trees and rocks. “Lovely,” she said.

“Well, sorry. I don’t control the weather.”

She looked over at him. “No, really. I like how the fog covers up things. It’s very… Japanese.” She pulled her phone out of her pocket and took a picture of the rocks and the stunted willows that lined the tiny stream.

Tim stepped across it. The beach was covered with small smooth stones, curving around a mottled half-pyramid of cliff-face, its base planted in the gravel like the roots of an ancient tree. Nina stopped to take a picture. The cliffs held the beach as if in cupped hands, and the fog thinned. Wet silvery sand gleamed for a long way out, past two pinnacles of rock, spun and shaped by centuries of water. They looked like guardians.

“Is that a cave?” Nina said.

He craned his neck, but had to turn around to see where she was pointing. The mist shifted, soughing out toward the ocean, and he could see a rounded portal in the cliff, a deep shadow. “Looks like it,” he said.

She lifted the phone again. He felt the pinch of irritation in his gut, pushed it aside.

“It doesn’t look very deep,” she said. “It’s probably not a real cave, just an indentation.”

“Nina,” he said. “The soul of a book-keeper.”

She walked away without laughing, leaving him stranded, one foot on wet sand, the other on gravel. She headed toward the cave. He let himself have a moment to watch her, the pendulum arc of her hips, the long tail of her black hair, pulled through the notch in her baseball cap, swinging in counterpoint. He spent hours, too many, trying to describe her hair to himself in a way that wasn’t clichéd. He eased his notebook out of his shirt pocket, clicked the pen and wrote pendulum hips, counterpoint.

Arched rock in ocean

The moist briny air felt good on her skin, nourishing. Nina stepped over shining piles of kelp, wrinkling her nose at the rank odor. Colonies of gnats hummed in the twists of the slick vegetation. The cave probably wasn’t very deep but the curve and the shadows looked mysterious. The soul of a book-keeper. It was the fourth thing like that he’d said to her since they had left Stockton two days ago.

She wondered how he had found out about this place. It wasn’t an official beach. They had climbed over a rusted, sagging barbed wire fence to get here. She followed him down the trail, him panting and trying not to stop when he obviously needed to rest, her trying to figure out how to suggest they go back to the graded trail without hurting his feelings. Without damaging his manhood. Without slighting him. Soul of a book-keeper.

At first, she had been excited by his abrupt detour. It reminded her of hikes with her father when she was a little girl. “We’re having an adventure, Princess!” He would lead the way, wide-shouldered and confident, his shirtsleeves pushed up on his strong arms, and she would stride behind, working to keep up. She had never trod on her father’s heels, the way she had with Tim this morning.

The circular stones clinked under her feet and she slipped a little. She stopped near a mound of dry kelp and empty clam shells to snap another picture of the cave mouth. Tim had been sitting at the window counter of Black Dog Coffee, writing in a notebook, the first time she saw him. The artsy spot-lighting called out the chestnut glints of his tousled blanket of dark brown curls, and his work shirt, sleeves casually rolled back from nicely-shaped forearms, made him look outdoorsy. She sat next to him and asked what he was doing. He told her he was a writer.

Only he really was. He had a novel published. She bought it, a slim book, less than two hundred pages. It had been reviewed in magazines. One of her photography classmates had heard of it. “Oh, Tim Horn. He’s a master of compression,” she said. Nina had no idea what that meant. “He just needs to write another couple books and he’ll be big.”

Nina made it to page thirty in the book, twice. And he wasn’t outdoorsy. He just liked blue work shirts.

Tim wrote all the time, filling notebook after notebook with words. His bedside table was stacked with notebooks the size of regular hardbacks, left open, pocket journals nested on top of them. When she would make the bed she would turn her head sideways to try to read the words. Sometimes an entire page would be blank except for, Fish tacos purple toenails, or Curtain river of black starless. When he wasn’t scribbling in his notebooks he was on the computer, with headphones. He wouldn’t talk about his work. It was too tender, he said.

They could sit at the same table and he might as well have been on another continent.

The fog glided back in from the ocean. It came in slow and even, as if the cave was inhaling, an invalid breathing against pain. Grayness massed around the curved mouth of the cave. She walked around to face it. The indentation ran back a short way, forming a V, its south side stacked with driftwood, kelp and rounded rocks. She stepped inside. The ceiling, at first, was high above her head, and a memory emerged; her, reaching up to touch the ceiling from her father’s shoulders. It was so vivid she had to stop for a moment, blinking. She tilted her head back and reached up, but the curve of rock was far above her fingers.

If her father had been here, he would have explained what kind of rocks these were, and why some wore away and some stayed, creating tunnels and caves. She would have said something like, “Is there pirate treasure, Daddy?” and he would have said, “Probably not, Princess. The only treasure here is you.”

She walked further in. Even in the near darkness she could make out lines of various colors, striations in the rocks. Red, brown and tan, they slanted down from the top of the cave, beckoning her in. She took a pair of pictures. The striations created an illusion that the cave ran back farther than it did. She thought of calling Tim, showing him that, but the image of him scribbling in his little book, looking away from the rocks, away from her, stopped her. She walked in. The cupped shape of the indentation changed the acoustics and the ocean sighed around her, filling the space with its measured invalid’s breath.

Ocean and incoming fog

The black rocks cupped pools of clear water, lined with anemones, green-tendrilled, gold and red. He knelt on the rough stone and put his face down close to the surface, studying them. They were welcoming mandalas, their velvety tendrils drawing in unsuspecting sea creatures to be eaten. Sea stars, dark red and brown, crusted one wall of a large pool. As he stood a pair of tiny crabs skittered away from his feet.  A gull landed a few yards away, studying him from one eye.

He looked out. The horizon vanished just beyond the guardian rocks, white surf melding with the silver mist. He could hear the sighing of the waves. The night before, they sat on the balcony of their hotel room and listened to the breakers roll in, thunderous, commanding. He wanted to feel the heat of her against his side, smell her hair, but she had her fancy camera out and kept jumping up to take pictures of the waves.

Stepping off the rocks he felt the sand smush under his shoe. The gull gave a plaintive call and flapped away. He walked over to where it had stood. The sand gleamed, littered with tiny shells like fluted hats. He stood between the two twisted steles of rock, the guardian rocks, their bases covered with seaweed and ocean life.

Nina was beautiful. It wasn’t just her hair. She had a narrow, wolfish face dominated by her blue eyes. Usually she wore her hair pulled back and up in some version of a ponytail but when they would go out she would leave it down and sweep it over one shoulder, stroking it like a pet. Sometimes he would look up and see her giving him a look. It had taken him awhile to identify the look. It was like the one his grandmother, his father’s mother, used to give. Every Thanksgiving and Fourth of July, at some time during the family get-together, Grandmother Horn would look around the table and announce, “Men are useless. Only good for one thing.”  His mother would usually say, “They’re good for more than one thing, Evelyn.” Grandmother Horn would say, “If you can get them to take out the garbage, that’s two things. Hah!” and she’d slug down the rest of her Seagrams and Seven, her gaze darting around the table, daring any man there to disagree.

Nina didn’t drink Seagrams. She drank six-part cocktails concocted from ingredients like basil-flavored vodka, herbal infusions and elder flower, but after a couple of those, he’d find her giving him that look, Grandmother Horn’s look. Somehow, instinctively, she knew that Tim was just one more in a long line of useless men.

The curio cabinet in his parents’ house held five silver-toned trophy cups, Salesman of Year, Grass Valley, but the dealership had closed Tim’s high-school freshman year. His father got a job at a big box store in Rancho Cordova, wearing his red apron like a garment of shame.

He stood with his eyes closed, feeling small drops of moisture on his face, trying to find the words for the smell of the ocean, the whisper of the surf.

He wrote, delicate deadly emerald tendrils.

Mendocino Coastline

It wasn’t completely an illusion after all. The cave extended farther than she expected. At the back, the cave turned, a passage running at right angles to the opening. The ceiling cantilevered down and she had to stoop. It was narrow, but once she ducked in, she could straighten up. She stood coffined in darkness, her chest tight, her pulse laboring. The passage was nearly silent, the only sound a steady dripping of water. Her eyes adjusted to the light that glimmered on the floor and the wall to her left. She activated the flashlight app and held out her phone, below waist level. The tunnel smelled fetid, and she shivered. She edged forward, flat-footed.

The passage opened up in a few feet, water trickling musically onto the sand. She squeezed her way out and stood blinking in the dim light. The ocean continued its steady soothing rush. She walked onto the talus. She could see the shadow of one of the spires, and the tidal pool rocks, like black puddles themselves. She thought about taking a picture, but with the mist, she didn’t think she would get anything worthwhile. If she had brought her SLR camera she might have been able to capture something, but she had read irritation in the set of Tim’s shoulders, and chosen to leave it in the car instead.

“Tim?” He was nowhere in sight. She wondered if he had gone back up to the trail. “Tim?”

View of beach from cliff

Foam frothed around his feet. He took a step back. The tide must be coming back in. The beach disappeared when the tide came in. He stepped back, then back again. Another tongue of water lapped at his feet, swirling, then rolled away.

He walked back to the rocks. “Nina?”

She didn’t answer.

Some fluke of the breeze had blown the fog away from the indentation. He followed his footprints back to the gravel and went into the cave. Nina had been right. It wasn’t much of one. The hollow was about as large as their hotel room, ending in a curved wall at the back, marked by slanting lines, layers of stone a memorial to the battlefield of two tectonic plates. He stepped inside and walked around the space. Nina must have been disappointed. It wasn’t up to her standards.

Distantly, a gull called. For a moment, it sounded like his name.

Chickadee flies from milkweed

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Warp by Lev Grossman

Cover of Warp by Lev Grossman

Warp by Lev Grossman

In his foreword to Warp, Lev Grossman says that it took him four years to write it, from 1992 through 1996. That seems a little surprising at first, since it is about 180 pages long, but he clearly did not work on it every day during that time. I can imagine him writing and deleting scenes and vignettes, agonizing over just the right word, and walking away from it for weeks while he turned the words over in his head.

He also says that this book (reissued by St Martin’s Griffin) is a period-piece, and it is that, a polished slice-of-life of an entitled, bored Gen-Xer named Hollis who must face the fact that life has not dropped to one knee and offered him all his fantasies come true on a silver platter.

Hollis lives in Boston. He is dodging his landlord because he’s behind in the rent. He isn’t working, not even temp jobs. He hangs out with some male friends who apparently are slightly more checked-in than he is – it seems like one of them might have a job, and the story revolves around a plan to go stay at a house in Dover for the weekend. At first it sounds like they’ve been invited to the house. Then it sounds like one of his group is house-sitting. Then it gets murkier than that, and the adventures of the house become the activity-framework (I can’t call it a plot) that much of the book hangs on.

Hollis is also pining after the woman he broke up with, Eileen, and as the story continues he meets another woman, Xanthe. Xanthe is as far from Eileen as it is possible to imagine; a woman whose very name in is question, whose work is interesting, and who he meets while she is hacking the service phone next to an ATM to make long distance calls to Scandinavia. Hollis, is, to the extent he can be, infatuated, and Xanthe continues to make random appearances in his life throughout the book, which covers two days.

I didn’t like Warp, if “liking” a book means I enjoyed reading it. I didn’t “like” Hollis and I felt very little sympathy for him. I think Grossman delivered what he intended, a portrait of a certain type of man (pretty close to himself at the time, I suppose). It’s well written. Each precise word gleams with painstaking, hand-burnished angst. Hollis is a withdrawn observer, reporting on the specific actions of his friends and their words; he is also fantasizing and the work is interspersed with his imaginings of himself as a superhero, as a Count of Monte Cristo style hero, or as various characters in Star Trek; Next Generation (Hollis has a crush on Counselor Troi). Grossman does a great job of juxtaposing the fantasies with the actual boring sequences at the bar, in the car on the drive to Dover, on the sidewalk, at the train depot. Grossman captured the living-in-your-head escapism perfectly, even to the droning repetitions of some phrases or words. I said “droning;” it’s clear that Grossman is doing this intentionally, and it works.

Hollis does scrape up the nerve to go see his old girlfriend. It’s probably not accidental in this book that the ones who are “corporate sellouts,” in the sense of getting jobs, paying their bills, and generally being responsible are usually the women characters. Hollis’s meeting with Eileen is not successful. Grossman writes a scene where Eileen, who still has affection for Hollis, tries, by her lights, to throw him a lifeline. when it is obvious that these two people have no common ground anymore. It is tragic, and it is perfectly done.

Generally, though, Grossman’s observational powers shine in the tiny sequences in this story, like when Hollis finds a single glove on the street, or Peter steers the car to avoid a two-by-four in the road, rather than the long passages, such as the ones in the Dover house, or at the ATM, which read more like self-conscious set-pieces. They’re good; the tiny moments suited me better.

Grossman would go on to have a breakout hit with The Magicians, where similar characters interrupt their drinking and boredom with magic. I didn’t like his Quentin Coldwater character very much, either, until the second book where, instead of being coddled, Quentin faced some consequences. I guess that while this writer depicts this particular character with great accuracy, it isn’t a type of character I’m interested in. I may be remembering wrong, but while, over in Boston, Hollis is mooning around watching his landlord’s girlfriend walk her pet ferret, out here in the uncivilized provincial west Gen-Xers were doing fundraisers for non-profits, staging protests and experimenting with art and music. As I said, maybe I’m remembering it wrong.

All that said, Grossman delivers what he intended, and this short novel is a clear window into a certain time, a certain social class and a certain mindset. It is worth reading, and it won’t take you too long.

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Rogue One: Cassian Andor is Really Lando Calrissian (No, not really.)

Long ago (the 1970s/80s) in a place far, far away (Hollywood, CA) a space opera fairy tale named Star Wars was created. The character names clued you in right away that even though they had blasters and space ships and stuff, this was mythology. Many character names held a key to that character’s destiny. Luke Skywalker wanted to be a pilot. Darth Vader was death, and an invader. There was grumpy loner smuggler named Solo. And there was a princess with a pretty fantasy name.

In the sequels we got characters whose names evolved only slightly. You could probably tell before you knew anything else about him that someone named Jabba the Hutt was going to be a) big, and b) a criminal. Lando Calrissian was probably going to be a little flashy, a little smooth, and a little less than trustworthy.

Decades went by and the stories went on, and new people came in, and no one ever went out of their way to consider the names. Because, really, in some ways, names don’t matter here. Sometimes, though, the names are just bad enough that they can’t be ignored, and as much as I enjoyed Rogue One, those names… really? The franchise needs to do better.

Cassian Andor. I do appreciate the franchise’s commitment to recycling though, as we’ll see with one of the leads in Rogue One, a hardened Alliance captain named Cassian Andor. The Star Wars script developers can always repurpose a group of letters, even if that group is nearly forty years old. I don’t need to say much. The letter in bold are the letters “Cassian Andor” and “Lando Calrissian” share:

Lando Calrissian
Cassian Andor

I’m being needlessly picky, you say. There are only 24 letters; certain phonemes get reused. Yes, I agree. I mean, look at how many letters the names “Luke Skywalker” and “Admiral Ahkbar” share. Right? And “Leia Organa” and “Padme Amidala.” Well, not quite so many, really, and in the case of the women, mostly vowels.

Face it. Lando Calrissian/Cassian Andor? It’s almost the same name.

Unless his name is meant to evoke the Ewok moon of Endor. That would be very different, and highly unlikely. Or a prince of Naria, which is equally unlikely. (Prince Caspian of Endor?)

Saw Gerrera.  What an interesting last name for a grizzled, bad-tempered old warrior, since is very close to guerrero, the Spanish world for warrior. And Gerrera gets called by his first name only once, I think, when Jyn’s mother contacts him and calls him “Saw.” Everyone else rattles off his entire name. I spent a good part of the movie thinking his first name was Saul –or Sol – actually, which I would have liked, because Sol Gerrera would nearly translate as Warrior Sun. And that would be cool.

Bodhi Rook is the Imperial pilot. Okay, I think this name is ridiculous in terms of the world-building of the Star Wars universe, but I’m going to go with it, because Bodhi means “awakened” in the Buddhist tradition. Yes, this story takes place long, long ago and far away where there are no Buddhists, but to the extent that this story has always been a fairy tale, or mythology, I’ll let them get away with it. Why won’t I let them get away with it for Gerrera? Because “Saul Gerrera” sounds like a contemporary person who would sell you a timeshare and that irritated me. As for Rook… well, you’re barely coming in under the wire of “trickster-bird, kinda like Crow or Raven,” and it sounds good with Bodhi. So, I’ll let you go with a warning. This time.

Jyn Erso. Our main character is named Jyn Erso, which sounds cool when you say it out loud; as in, “My name… is Jyn Erso,” or, “You know who I am. I… am Jyn Erso.” Jyn is short for Jynessa, which is a pretty, and pretty vanilla, fantasy name. I can’t help wondering, though, if she ended up getting this name because they didn’t have a name for her at first and conjured up “gyn” as a shortcut for “female.

K-2SO, the battle droid. There is nothing wrong with that name. It works just fine (even for mountain climbing fans who probably snickered over “K2”). Just fine. Carry on.

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Rogue One; It’s a War Movie and it Satisfies

I saw Rogue One with my friends Greg and Mary. We were pretty late to the party but finally we are current (Greg has been enforcing a spoiler-embargo on family and friends which is now lifted).

Bearing in mind that I haven’t seen all of the so-called “second” chapter and only five minutes of the “third” (and that was by accident), but I have seen The Force Awakens, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to follow all of Rogue One, but it was no problem. This  film bridged the prequels and transits nicely to “A New Hope” (the movie that used to be Star Wars).

(Yes, I do have an attitude.)

Jyn Erso

Jyn Erso

"Jyn, you never call, you never text, you never write..." Forest Whitaker as bad-attitude rebel Gerrera.

“Jyn, you never call, you never text, you never write…” Forest Whitaker as bad-attitude rebel Gerrera.

Rogue One takes place shortly before the events in A New Hope… in fact, the final scene happens moments before the opening sequence in that film. First though, we get the back-story of our main character, Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, who is the daughter of a disillusioned Imperial scientist and his warrior wife. When the Empire comes calling, intent on bringing Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) back to work for them, Jyn hides and is raised by a rebel named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Later, out on her own, she is rescued/abducted from an Imperial work detail by the Alliance, who want her to contact Gerrera and validate a secret message allegedly from her father. Escorting her to the rebel base on Jedha is Captain Cassian Andor, (Diego Luna) a ruthless fighter, and along the way they pick up a blind martial-arts monk, Chirrut (who is not a Jedi but who believes in the Force) and his partner Baze. Pretty soon, Jyn knows the whereabouts to the plans for the Death Star planet-killer weapon, complete with the deliberate flaw her father built into it, only the Alliance is too fearful to go after the plans.

"I really am ruggedly handsome!" Oh, wait, different series. Diego Luna as Captain Cassian Andor.

“I really am ruggedly handsome!” Oh, wait, different series. Diego Luna as Captain Cassian Andor.

The story is tense, action-packed and beautiful, with lots of grace-notes and nods to beloved Star Wars characters (and in the final space battle sequence, some cameos). There is plenty of mutual suspicion as the film opens; Jyn, left on her own, is not a rebel at first and is bargaining for her freedom; Andor has been given secret assignment that will not make Jyn happy if she uncovers it; and the reprogrammed battle droid that helps Andor is suspicious of her from the start. When they pick up the imperial cargo pilot who has changed sides to help Erso, everyone suspects him too. This makes for nice dynamics in between huge CGI-fueled battle scenes and creates rich, intimate scenes when they are needed.

One of the best of the not-action sequences is when Jyn listens to her father’s secret message, the one smuggled out by the pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed). The camera stays on Felicity Jones’s face as she hears the first words from her father in over ten years. There is another small, tense scene between Andor and Jyn when she realizes what Andor’s original assignment was.

I need action figures of these two, stat! Baze, left and Chirrut, right (Wen Chiang and Donnie Yen.)

I need action figures of these two, stat! Baze, left and Chirrut, right (Wen Chiang and Donnie Yen.)

Everything the Star Wars franchise does well, it does well here; blending CGI with live action; sets; costumes; action; banter; humor, suspense and timing. This series has, in the past, faltered badly when it came to story, and with Rogue One, like The Force Awakens, they seem to have cleared that hurdle with little difficulty. SPOILER ALERT: The story here is a specific type of war story, and it goes exactly the way that type of war story goes. That said, it’s a good take on the story, with charismatic actors who create just enough character to make us care. (While Jyn has a backstory, Diego Luna is solely responsible for making Captain Andor engaging since we know nothing about what he’s lost, given up, etc in the rebellion.) Felicity Jones made Jyn work when I had my doubts.

I liked it, I’m glad I finally saw it and I can recommend it to any Star Wars fan.

(Fair warning: in a later post I am going to make fun of this franchises’s terrible character name choices.)

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