Little White Lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lethal White; Lethally Boring

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

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

Then there’s Lethal White.

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

Warning, spoilers:

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

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

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

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

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

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The Newest One

My faithful Lenovo Yoga, which served as my main computer for more years than I really remember, finally went to meet its silicon ancestors. Before that, my baby laptop had started giving me problems, so I had bought a Dell to replace it. Through some error in my thinking — it was not pressure from the Best Buy sales rep, I want to be clear, this was all me — I came home with a regular sized Dell laptop instead of something tablet sized. It turned out that was a good mistake because the Lenovo went into a coma about a week later.

That left me with one computer and a fully functional smart phone for the one person in the house who uses automation (me). You’d think that would be a enough. You would be wrong. I didn’t want to carry the Dell around and potentially expose my only device to theft or loss, so last week I bought a Microsoft Surface Go.

I hadn’t made up my mind completely about the Go until I saw one at my friend Greg Varley’s house. It was exactly the size and slimness I wanted, so I got one at Best Buy. It is not a heavy-duty production machine, but it will do what I need. The Go comes with Windows 10 S installed — the S means you can only download apps for it from the Microsoft store. It’s possible to disable that and set it up to enable downloads from other sources, which I asked them to do. I had them install Mircosoft Office 365, which I don’t love but which is convenient, as well, and they did.

Here’s a head-shot of the newest device. Because I’m a dinosaur and track pads bug me, I sprang for two accessories; a bluetooth mouse and a keyboard. (I sprang for a third; a USB port adapter since the go doesn’t have a USB port).

This second photo exists for comparison. The book is a trade-paperback about one inch thick.

I’m not good at specs, but here are some: a Pentium Gold 4415 Processor; 8 GB RAM, and 128GB hard drive. It does have a USB-C port, and I’d probably be really happy if I knew what that was. It’s got bluetooth (so the sleek little bluetooth mouse will work).

It will do just enough with photos to let me resize them and upload them various places, so, yaay. I suspect what’s going to come from this is an increasing, incremental reliance on the Cloud for storage (because of convenience), which is something I’ve been resisting.

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Notes from Downtown

I met Brandy at Taylor Lane for our Monday writing session. Taylor Lane Coffee offered unpaid government workers a free cup of coffee during President Trump’s shutdown of services. It’s just another way this local business shows itself as part of a community.

We walked over to the store after that. A flock of crows, probably twelve or fifteen, lifted off from the courtyard of the invisible hotel and flew toward the Rialto Cinemas across the street.

I cleaned and shelved 15 books by Alexander McCall Smith. Most of them went into the Mystery section, but I put four on the New Arrivals shelf.

I am the most familiar with the fiction alcove of the store. The Art section is a virtual wilderness to me, so my plan for 2019 is to get more familiar with it and with some of the smaller nonfiction sections. I’m pretty good in the Psychology, Philosophy and Western Religion sections, but Biography is nearly unknown. I’m slightly better than adequate in California and the West because I finished up the inventory for that one, which means I looked at each book and checked it off a list.  None of the deficits are that serious, because every book is in the database, but it should help me make recommendations for similar types of books and help track down ones that are mis-shelved.

Some mis-shelvings can be figured out, using a reverse-engineering Sherlock-Holmes-style method. A common one is a book whose author’s name starts with a K, for instance, in the middle of the shelf of Graham Green books. How did that happen? Probably, the book came originally from the shelf one bookcase over, where the Ks are shelved.

Once in a while, though, a book migrates clear across the store! The other day I found a Clive Cussler adventure novel in the Children’s section. This means someone carried it all the way over there, perhaps planning to buy it, maybe just reading it as they meandered, changed their mind and put the book down wherever.

If you don’t want to walk all the way back to the section you took a book from, you can just bring it to the counter. Someone will re-shelve it.

I don’t know if I would read Penny Vincenzi’s family saga, because it isn’t the kind of book I reach for, but I sure do love that cover.

This arrangement covered a table in the lobby of the Main Street Theater. Is it a setting, or a set of props, from their current play? Or the next one? Inquiring minds want to know.

Rennie Bird’s is a nice consignment shop with cute things, and they also do alterations. Someone in the shop has an eye for arrangements. I really like this one, even though, or maybe because, it makes me think a group of folks are going to leap out from somewhere and start singing, “Gary, Indiana, Gary IN-diana, Gary Indiana…”

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Circe by Madeline Miller

Spoiler Alert: May contain mild spoilers.

If you enjoy retelling of Greek and Roman myths, then Madeline Miller’s luminous novel Circe may be for you. Miller’s story spans thousands of years, a tale told from the point of view of the witch Circe, daughter of the Titan sungod Helios and a sea nymph named Perse. Miller probes the layers of Greek myths and strings stories together like luminous pearls on a strand of gossamer, as Circe experiences the events as both an observer and a participant.

Helios, a Titan, is still around because he and his siblings betrayed Chronos and threw in with the Olympians, turning the tide of a pivotal battle. To be fair, Chronos was eating his children at the time. The Titans do not love their offspring. Progeny are threats, weapons, tools or bargaining chips. The Olympians are not much better, although it does seem like they can love. Circe, the fourth child of Perse and Helios, adores her father, but is mocked and belittled by her siblings and relatives for her ungodlike voice and her looks. Over time, Circe discovers that she is not exactly a goddess, but a witch. Along with the spark of magic that gives her witch power, there is a spark of defiance that grows as she gets older, and soon Circe has defied both her father and an order from Zeus, and she is exiled to the island of Aiaia.

Miller’s prose, line by line, is beautiful and economical. The images are gorgeous, and they delineate character. For instance, Circe describes the obsidian hallways of her father’s home; Helios loves the way the volcanic glass reflects his glory. “Of course, he did not consider how black it might be when he was gone. My father was never able to imagine the world without himself in it.”

That’s pretty much all you really need to know about Helios.

Circe’s story begins long before the journey (or even the birth) of Odysseus, and continues after he has left her island. Throughout the story, the Titans, the Olympians and even humans underestimate and dismiss Circe, but she spends her life learning, gathering her power, and in the end she triumphs. Near the very end of the book, she confronts her narcissistic father once and for all, and prevails.

Another female character who grows and develops in this book is Odysseus’s wife Penelope. We’re used to seeing Penelope as the wise, crafty and loyal wife of Odysseus, basically acting as a placeholder while her war-loving, philandering husband has his adventures. Miller approaches the queen of Ithaca from another angle as well, providing a character who is deep and refreshingly different.

In two places (one near the end) Miller dips into old-fashioned tropes, and that was a bit of a disappointment. Circe is (of course) raped by a human man, because of course. Circe has already become wary of the behavior of the man and his crew, and has already dosed them with a potion that will make them sleep (or make them change, which you’ll understand if you remember the story of Circe). Because This is What Happens to Women, the captain of the bad men manages to rape her before she can activate the spell. It might be that Miller believes strongly that Circe needs to be actually violated to make the sleep/transformation spell justified… or, simply that she believes This is What Happens to Women.

The second dependence on an often-toxic trope is at the very end, and it works much better. In the final pages of the book, Circe has won her freedom form Aiaia and has a choice to make. She has fallen in love with a human man. The choice she makes is the most common one; a powerful woman gives up her power for love. This could have been really annoying, except that what Circe chooses to give up is her divinity, and her reasons (given her sense of the nature of gods) are excellent ones. In fact, much of the witchcraft Circe practices, as she explains to Penelope, is craft. She has not forsaken all her power at the end.

Whether it is for the characterization, the slant on old, old stories that we think we know, or simply beautiful, liquid prose, Circe is excellent and you should read it.

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The Magicians, Season 4!

Season Four of Syfy’s adaptation of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians starts tomorrow. I am excited to see where this season goes, given how things were left at the end of the marvelous Season Three.

I was skeptical of The Magicians when it first came on. I really wanted to like it, because I loved the idea so much, although I didn’t exactly love the books. I thought it was a concept that would lend itself to an image-based-medium, and I was right about that. I worried that the showrunners would pick out the weaknesses of the books to focus on.

When I learned that Sera Gamble was attached to the show, my uneasiness grew. I knew nothing about her background except that she worked a lot on a long-running fantasy show called Supernatural. Supernatural started off as a kind of blue-collar X-Files (with lots of staff from that very show) and started sliding into a kind of twisted, rich-white-male fantasy of working class people, filled with misogyny and protagonist-centered morality –“Well, we want it so it must be okay.” I mean, if I found out it was a show Donald Trump watched faithfully I wouldn’t be surprised. I didn’t want The Magicians ruined by a misogynist, even a female one, especially given the character arc of the character of Julia.

And as good as the first episode was, they didn’t reassure me. Julia’s magical initiation is a sexual assault in a bar bathroom. Couldn’t you do any better? A couple of things kept me watching; Jason Ralph as Quentin; Jade Taylor and her also faux “blue collar” battle-mage Kady, and Arjun Gupta as Penny. Penny was a character I could never connect with in the first book. He is supposed to be some kind of nemesis for Quentin but he seemed barely there for me. No one would describe Gupta’s interpretation as “barely there.”

And I kept watching and even with the early stereotyping (Alice as Sexy Bookworm with Issues; Margo, at least at first, as the Giggly Sidekick of the Gay Guy), because the acting and the dialogue were so good. And the show got better and better.

It turns out I had — I was going to say “nothing to fear,” but that’s not exactly true. I had little to fear on the misogyny front. Certainly the writers can’t get over the idea that Every Sperm is Great, but otherwise, by Season Three the show’s plot is powered by strong and surprising women.

Julia’s arc was well-done, and entrusted to the capable hands of Stella Maeve. If the resolution was rushed in the final three episodes, it isn’t the first time that’s happened. Margo had been growing steadily as a character, but as a deposed Queen of Filory and a duelist in a war of wills with the Fairy Queen, she grew and found her own power. She is no longer Eliot’s sidekick. The Fairy Queen is an adversary and a villain for most of the season’s storyline, but we respect her. She is a true leader, even if a ruthless one.

I can even forgive them the Peach Girl, Quentin’s Disposable Wife in Episode Eight. Peach Girl, who isn’t even given a name, is simply a vessel for Quentin’s son (Every Sperm is Great, remember). She’s a too-familiar prop-wife. I forgive this because of the character of Fen, who is Eliot’s prop-wife, introduced as a plot complication, not a character, and who grows in Season Three into a powerful, smart, funny, flawed woman who knows her own strength. I don’t know how this happened, but I’m glad it did.

Season Four sets us up to expect terrible and wonderful things from Hale Appleman, the actor who plays the multi-layered Eliot. Eliot also had a life-changing character arc in Season Three, and when Season Four opens tomorrow, it will be like he’s a different person. Appleman had unfolded the character of Eliot with discipline and sensitivity, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

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The Invisible Hotel

The highlight, the hidden gem as it were, of downtown Sebastopol these days surely must be our Invisible Hotel. In 1994, Alex Baldwin starred in a movie called The Shadow, based on the radio play series of the same name. The movie featured an invisible hotel. If I remember rightly, a grand hotel had been demolished and the lot now stood empty, only it really didn’t. The place had never been taken down, it was merely hidden from the eyes and minds of most people by the mind control of the devious villain, who used it as his supervillain lair.

I don’t know why the city of Sebastopol chose to emulate this feature, but it, and Piazza Hospitality Corporation, surely have.

I mean, look at that photo. You wouldn’t think a hotel was there, would you?

The crows are not fooled by the invisibility. They routinely fly down into the hotel’s invisible courtyard, waiting for the invisible guests who are sipping their invisible gourmet coffee to toss them scraps of invisible brioche and invisible croissants. They come back at lunch to get bits of the invisible specialty sandwiches or invisible avocado toast. (Crows aren’t big on invisible organic-greens salads, at which I hear the hotel kitchen excels.)

I’ve heard that the invisible rooms are beautifully appointed in a craftsman style, with invisible flatscreen TVs that cover one complete wall. The invisible parquet hallways smell faintly of nutmeg. The invisible fitness room has the latest equipment, a spa and an invisible lap pool that embraces you in warm invisible water scented not with chlorine but with roses. The invisible bar/tasting room prides itself on serving the finest Sonoma County wines during its “wine and bites” tasting from 4:30 to 7:00 each evening. While all of the rooms have wifi, because you can’t not offer wifi these days, the hotel offers a well-appointed invisible business center as well.

I’m told that there is no sight more lovely than an early spring sunset viewed from the invisible rooftop garden, surrounded by the bouquet of the invisible kitchen herbs and the invisible early-blooming flowers.

The Invisible Hotel’s concierge service and valet parking are impeccable; the concierge can get you anything from a two-hundred-year-old bottle of port to reservations for glamping on the Sonoma Coast.

One complaint has been registered; the artists who rented invisible Maker Space/studios within the Invisible Hotel have been disappointed by the amount of customer traffic they’ve experienced… none. Some are talking about banding together to break their leases.

Nothing is perfect, after all.

I’d recommend you come stay at our beautiful downtown Invisible Hotel. You won’t find it on the internet. You won’t find a phone number for it. The Chamber of Commerce can point you to its address. Good luck finding the lobby and the registration desk. When I say it’s a hidden gem, I’m not joking.

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Television Tuesday: Counterpart, Season Two

The second season of the STARZ original show Counterpart is off to a solid start. This portal fantasy (because that’s basically what it is) works best when it’s drawing on its spy story roots, or raising philosophical questions about identity and existence. With five new episodes under its belt, the story is getting deeper into the existential, and more suspenseful with each hour. Good work!

Before I discuss what I’m liking this season and what concerns me this season, I’ll lightly recap. Counterpart takes takes place in (supposedly) present day Berlin, at a UN office with a super-secret purpose. Back in 1986 a physics experiment in what was then East Berlin created a split — a separate, identical universe. Since 1986, the two worlds have grown farther and farther apart. Nobody except a handful of people on either side know about each others’ mirror-world. There is one passage between these worlds, under the UN’s building.

(One of the best parts of Counterpart is this passage, which does not rely on special FX, CGI, flashing lights or anything. It’s just a mundane basement tunnel. You may have walked through one from your hotel to a convention center, for instance. Yes, this is borrowing heavily if not stealing from China Mieville’s The City and the City, but it’s well done.)

For purposes of clarity, “our” world is called Alpha and the mirror world is called Prime. Season One focused on a conspiracy against Alpha world by highly placed operatives from Prime. They call themselves Indigo. Their scheme included sleeper cells and a Body-Snatchers-style plot that involved replacing Alpha world people with their Prime doubles, who were agents.

The second season has focused more on the aspects of Emily, the complicated wife of Howard Silk. Alpha Howard is a Decent Guy. Prime Howard is a Shriveled-Souled Badass. In Season one, the Howards changed places, presumably temporarily, and now Decent Guy Howard is not only trapped in Prime world, he’s been imprisoned.

In Alpha world, Emily was a battle-hardened field operative who hid that fact from her husband. She was in a coma through 80% of Season One, the result of an assassination attempt on her. Prime Emily is a battle-hardened field operative whose husband was well aware of her work, with an adult daughter and a pill habit, which may or may not be behind her. In Season Two, Alpha Emily, out of her coma, struggles with an injured brain and attempts to make sense of her life, most specifically why she doesn’t quite trust the man who seems to be her husband. In Prime world, field operative Emily follows the trail of breadcrumbs of Alpha Emily, who secretly came to Prime world more than once. The plot is deeply convoluted and morally ambiguous.

The Indigo conspiracy was inspired largely by a belief among the residents of Prime world that an influenza virus which killed 7% of their world’s population came from the Alpha side, and was perhaps planted deliberately. In Season One, a few highly placed people on the Alpha side indignantly denied this. Now, in Season Two, it seems as if Alpha Emily found some evidence that the virus did come from the Alpha side.

Much of Season Two’s time, though, is spent wondering what it would be like to meet yourself, a different self. The show has done a gorgeous job of giving us two Howards and letting us see the “other” in each of them. The same with the Emilys — and there is far less distance between the Emilys. A new Prime character, Yakov, insists that it is “natural” to hate your other; that it should be “war” between two people who are the same person, but whose life took different turns. The show then comes up with ways to refute this. There are the Alices, who live quite happily in a menage a trois with the man they both love. While he is an awful character, Lambert – or rather, the Lamberts — are another example; a shallow, hedonistic, self-centered man who finds, with another him, that “the more’s the merrier” when it comes to sex, drugs and booze, which after himself are his favorite things in either world.

Alpha Peter Quayle, Howard Silk’s boss, is a mess. Prime Peter Quayle is a mess, too.

These are the things I’m liking about the show, along with the lovely, moody cinematography and the full use of Berlin, the perfect city for this story. There are a few things that worry me.

Because the show has resorted to cliche plot points time after time in subplots, I was seriously worried that the “twin worlds” were going to be revealed at the end to be some kind of virtual reality; probably not as hokey as “we’re trapped in a video game,” but something similar. The intentional weird creepiness of Management, never seen or heard directly, fed this fear. Now I don’t think it’s going to be that, exactly, but I fear that we will discover that there is only one group called Management, not two as we’ve been encouraged to believe, and that, even if the worlds are “real,” Management is conducting experiments (for example, releasing the influenza virus). If that’s what transpires, I will be disappointed.

When I think of a show or book that Counterpart is like, I’m split between The City and the City (although those cities are nothing alike) and a TV show called Fringe. I’d go so far as to say that if you liked Fringe, you should check out Counterpart.

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The Samurai of Fountaingrove

The most noble character in the history of Sonoma County’s Fountaingrove commune is Kanaye Nagasawa, the samurai who came to the USA from Japan as a youth and stayed to run the Fountaingrove vineyards and winery. While not as flamboyant or weird as either commune founder Thomas Lake Harris or his spiritual-heir-turned-adversary Laurence Oliphant, Nagasawa quietly shepherded the winery for decades, kept it alive throughout Prohibition and basically god-fathered the county’s wine culture.

The book by Gaye LeBaron and Bert Casey, The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove, gives Nagasawa his fair share of attention, even though the behaviors of Thomas Lake Harris and the hedonistic adventurer, Oliphant, are more dramatic and crazy. Nagasawa was thirteen when he left the Satsuma Prefecture of Japan in 1865, along with fourteen other youth from samurai families, to come to the west. In doing so, he was obeying the orders of his daimyo, and committing treason, because the shogun of Japan had forbidden any contact with the west after a number of serious misunderstandings and at least one naval attack on a Japanese city.

That attack had taken place in Satsuma, and the daimyo there realized that Japan’s survival depended on understanding the mentality, and the war technology, of those in the west. The “young students” sent on a visit to Britain would be given tours of factories and plants, and would send home detailed letters. Because they were committing treason, each of the boys changed his name, to protect his family from dishonor and execution. Hikosuke Isonaga, the youngest of the fifteen, changed his name to Kanaye Nagasawa.

The story of Nagasawa’s journey from Japan to England, and then Scotland where he met Laurence Oliphant, to the USA and upstate New York and finally Sonoma County, California, is a fascinating one, but ultimately Nagasawa is a supporting player, although a vital one, in the book on Harris’s utopian commune. Partly this is because Nagasawa hews to the code of the samurai throughout his life. He demonstrates loyalty, mastery and adherence to duty. Nagasawa never forsook his Shinto beliefs and he never participated in the eccentric antics of Harris’s belief system. In his journal, while he always referred to Harris as “Father” (all the commune participants did) he is always a spectator, never personally involved in the growing disputes and emotional tangles of the place.

Harris believed that once humanity became enlightened enough, humans would become immortal – kind of a hard sell since he himself apparently struggled with tuberculosis and a couple other health conditions that were never explained. He also believed that every person had a celestial counterpart. To remain true to that celestial partner, on the earthly plane, people should practice celibacy. For example, he was very quick to separate Laurence Oliphant from his wife Alice, putting a continent between them by keeping Alice at Fountaingrove and sending Laurence back to the original commune in New York. A deeper examination of Harris’ practices, particularly celibacy, though (which LeBaron provides) led me to a reaction more like that of Inigo Montoya in the movie The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Harris’s personal celestial counterpart was called the Lily Queen. He communed with her during long stretches in a trance state. (Harris also used these trance states, entered by a series of peculiar breathing exercises, to fight off the demons that tried to attack people on the earthly plane.) Frequently, the Lily Queen would take over Harris’s body in order to offer physical comfort to various women in the commune. Hmmm. Harris also designated certain women, like Laurence’s wife Alice, to join him in the breathing exercises and travel to the etheric realms. Um, okay.

Was Harris a complete con man, delusional, or truly some kind of spiritual visionary? LeBaron, historian and journalist, stops short of expressing her personal opinion directly, but the book leans towards “opportunistic but delusional.” To be fair, the answer is not a slam-dunk. Both in New York and California, Harris ran economically successful communes that stayed in the black financially. Part of that success came from the fact that while many people petitioned to join the commune, only people who were wealthy were somehow worthy to join the “inner circle,” and members of the group turned over their wealth to Harris’s control. Still, the several businesses that ran out of Fountaingrove were successful.

One of these was the winery.

Nagasawa kept the vineyard thriving and the winery alive throughout Prohibition, when other Sonoma County wineries either faltered of turned to some form of bootlegging. The winery remained active and was ready to start selling wine as soon as Repeal was enacted. After the death of Harris, Nagasawa successfully fended off several legal attempts to wrest the property away from him (Harris had left it to him.) Unfortunately, the harsh anti-Japanese laws of the 1940s robbed Nagasawa’s USA-born nephew of his inheritance. Still, beyond the circumference of the rich eccentrics who inhabited Fountaingrove, Nagasawa achieved acknowledgment within the county and the wine culture for all he contributed.

Sadly, the firestorms that destroyed so many homes in Santa Rosa in 2017, and also destroyed the historic Fountaingrove round barn, burned Paradise Ridge Winery to the ground and with it the in-house museum they had on Nagasawa. His legacy is ash but it isn’t blown on the wind. When the owners of the winery were cleaning up after the fires, they pulled from the cinders one artifact; Nagasawa’s samurai sword.

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It’s 2019 and I Have a Mission

My mission for 2019 is to bring excellent stories into the world.

Some might be wondering, “Why is that a mission? Why not a resolution or a goal for the year, like everybody else does?” This is a “mission” in the sense of a “mission statement;” not the quantifiable action-goal or measurable result we all got suckered into tailoring our dreams to in the 2000’s. My mission is not to “send out (X) stories each week,” etc. I may choose to write some action steps that read like that, but that’s not the mission.

A mission statement is a short statement of purpose, usually an organization’s purpose. It should be aspirational and inspirational. Honest Tea’s mission, for example, is “to create and promote great-tasting, healthy, organic beverages.” Ikea’s is, “To create a better everyday life for the many people,” which is kind of stripped-down, like Ikea itself. I am disappointed to note that the Ikea mission statement does not include a mention of meatballs. Would it have been so difficult to write, “To create a better everyday life for the many people, with meatballs?”

The preceding paragraph might make it sound like I meditated, contemplated, read up on mission statements, reflected on my life, my talents, my passions and carefully crafted a statement that sums all that up. Um, yeah. Right. That’s just what I did, except for that part where I wrote a bantering tweet to someone which said, “Well, my mission is to help bring excellent stories into the world.” And I thought, “Oh, wait. That is my mission.”

Excellent stories do not have to be mine. I might help bring excellent stories into the world through critique and acting as a “first reader.” I might also “bring them into the world” by review, or by a signal boost on Twitter and other social media; or by dragging friends by the hand to the book’s spot on the bookstore shelf and pointing to the book. In light of the Feast of Epiphany, which is something in the nature of a presentation, bringing something into the world can mean more than birthing it or even midwifing it. It can mean introducing it to the world.

Of course a large part of the mission means producing excellent stories myself. And, since I just committed to it in the paragraph above, it means more than getting a close-to-finished draft done and then saying, “Well, there. It exists in the world.” It means bringing stories forward to be introduced and presented. And that means sending them out or seeing them available to readers in some fashion.

The mission will have goals and an action plan, more like the conventional New Year’s “I’ll get more exercise, cut back on refined sugar and eat healthily in 2019,” except that I hope mine will last longer than those do. And it will start tomorrow, except I could fudge and say that I already started because I sent out a story right at the first of the year. I’m counting that.

So that’s my mission.

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