CW’s Riverdale: A Pleasure, and Not a Guilty One

CW’s TV show Riverdale creates a creepy but pleasant sense of cognitive dissonance. I am not the demographic for this show by any stretch, but Riverdale was a pleasure, and not a guilty one.

"It's quiet out there tonight... too quiet." (c) CW All Rights Reserved

“It’s quiet out there tonight… too quiet.” (c) CW All Rights Reserved

I jokingly told a friend that Riverdale was a cross between Archie Comics and Twin Peaks. It actually is that, with showrunners wanting to use the characters and Americana of Archie Comics to explore the dark secrets of the mythical American small town. Twin Peaks was pretentious, while Riverdale is a teen drama more interested in romantic entanglements and existential questions of identity, and it doesn’t have the nasty undertones the David Lynch show did. It’s a little pretentious too, but I forgave it because it was so appealing in other ways.

I didn’t love Archie Comics when I was a kid,( although lately a couple of writers have mentioned that they have started reading it) so I wasn’t thrilled about the source material. Like any teen drama, Riverdale relies heavily on dead, absent or incompetent parents, a trope that makes me roll my eyes. The show is shameless in its hand-waving to get around inconvenient plot obstacles like, oh, you know, law. In spite of that, I enjoyed it.

First of all, I love the Vancouver location, (even if the setting is somewhere in the Northeast USA). It chimes with the Twin Peaks vibe and contributes to the surrealism that gives this show some unintended depth, or at least interest. In the same way, I love that the wealthy, evil family in the House on the Hill are part of a powerful maple syrup cartel… because there really is a maple syrup cartel (only I think it was founded in Canada). Again, this creates that weird sense of dislocation; the Blossoms harvest maple sap from… what? Fir trees? It’s perfect.

The next thing I liked about Riverdale was that it minimized the character of Reggie in favor of developing Jughead, who is also the show’s narrator. Judhead is the outsider, the weirdo, wrong-side-of-the-tracks kid, the observer, the secret writer, narrating the story of the current of darkness that flows beneath the bright shiny surface of Riverdale. By the end of Season One, observer-Jughead merged with participant-Jughead, which dimmed my pleasure a bit, but only a bit.

The Twin Peaks elements showed up early and stayed for the entire season. In the first episode we learn of the death of Jason Blossom; scion of the maple syrup Blossoms; fraternal twin of high school Queen Bee Cheryl Blossom; football team quarterback, Golden Boy. Weeks earlier, Jason had disappeared, but now his body has been found in the river.

Episode One introduces Veronica Lodge and her mother Hermione, who have fled New York City in disgrace. Hiram, Veronica’s father, is in jail for embezzlement. Hermione grew up in Riverdale, on the wrong side of the tracks, a fact that will play out through the first season. Veronica is a glamorous party-girl who knows all the pop culture references.

Although Jason Blossom’s corpse is not the sexual fetish object as Laura Palmer’s was, the death is a big deal. In spite of the “there are secrets in this town – dark secrets” tone, the first one or two episodes nearly lost me with its tedious storyline of Archie Andrews, who is having an affair with his 30-something music teacher, Miss Grundy. Thankfully this snooze-fest of a plotline ended pretty quickly.

Archie is the Boy Next Door—actually the Boy Across the Street from Pretty in Pink Betty Cooper. Betty is academic, intellectual and driven. She wears blouses with Peter Pan collars and little floral prints. Until Veronica shows up, it seems that Betty has no female friends, but she has the gay best friend Kevin. Kevin fills a bigger role as the story progresses because he is also the sheriff’s son, which means he can provide useful information once the quartet of teens decides to investigate the murder.

I was lukewarm about Riverdale until the Dark Betty episode, when Betty and Veronica team up to bring justice, or vengeance, to the football team. Some players have made a practice of sexually harassing and humiliating girls and keeping notes in a logbook. It’s possible, or likely, that Betty’s mysteriously missing sister, Polly, was one of their victims. Veronica and Betty cook up a plot to entrap one of the ringleaders, and Betty cosplays Dark Betty with over-the-top enthusiasm. We clearly see that there is something broken and angry behind the ponytail and the pink sweater.

Betty and Betty’s family were dark points of interest in the early episodes. Judhead primarily narrates at first although his story takes center stage near the end. Cheryl Blossom is the indulged, manipulative and crazed survivor. Veronica is glam and formerly rich, but while Betty fights darkness in crusader mode (“The truth shall set us free!”) a more abstract view of life, party-girl V shows personal compassion and empathy. It’s nice that her own disillusionment (her father’s problems) seemed to have opened her up to recognize suffering. Empathy, by the way, is something Archie Andrews lacks, to the detriment of the show.

"No one can take our angst from us. No one."

“No one can take our angst from us. No one.”

As I said, with any teen drama, parents have to take a back seat to the agency of the teen protagonists. Riverdale has no dead parents so far; when it comes to absent and incompetent, the show outdoes itself. We get the most blatant Twin Peaks homage with the Blossoms; the creepy house, the icy enforcer mom and the dad who has a different red wig for every day of the week. Hermione Lodge wants to make a home for her daughter out of the range of her criminal husband, without really sacrificing any part of their lifestyle – although she does get a job. Hermione’s character arc is both interesting and disappointing. She started as a woman with some strength, trying to make changes; with the possible return of Hiram, Hermione’s agency and moral sense waned until, in the finale, she is reduced to a woman who is safely asleep, her daughter says, “in the arms of Prince Valium.”

Archie’s mom has moved to Chicago for reasons that are incomprehensible, and his dad, played by Luke Perry, is a well-meaning, bumbling blue-collar guy who is diligently running his construction company into the ground.

F.P. Jones, Jughead’s dad, is the head of the Southside Serpents, a motorcycle club who run black-market maple syrup over the border—ha, no, they don’t. They’re your basic full-service criminal gang who mostly deliver drugs. Played by Skeets Ulrich, Jones is the most melodramatic of the incompetent parents. He’s a criminal, he’s an alcoholic and he has no idea how to take care of his family, but he loves them and he wants to protect them.

By several lightyears, the best train wreck of a parent is Betty’s control freak mom Alice. Alice is played by Madchen Amick (wave to Twin Peaks, everyone!). At first she just seems like a perfectionist control freak, but as the story progresses we see Alice as a highly lacquered decoupage of secrets, lies and fear. She has infected both her daughters one way or another. With Betty, honor student, high school journalist and crusader, the venomous need for control is closer to the surface than she wants to admit.

These complete disasters at parenting are riveting to watch. Amick and Ulrich are standouts and they risk overshadowing the teen stars when they share screen time.

Other adults are basically types; a corrupt mayor, a semi-useless principal, a sexist football coach. The use of a west coast location for an east coast setting, the gleaming neon of the Chok’Lit Shoppe, and the cheery 1940s bungalows all contrive to hide the corruption and wrongness of this pretty little town, and makes the ineffectiveness of the adults in any role seem almost like a message.

Secondary characters are uneven. Josie and the Pussycats tend to be bland. Josie has a parental conflict; her mother is the corrupt mayor and her father a well-known jazz musician who sniffs at her pop music. Archie’s mediocre musical career is a yawn and that meant that his brief fling with Valerie, lyricist for the Pussycats, was bland too, although Valerie knows her own worth and kicked Archie to the curb for all the right reasons. I’d like to see her character have her own storyline.

The mystery of the murder was predictable but had a lot of nice noir-ish moments. The show has none of David Lynch’s toxic classism; it may be giving a critique of classism, but right now it contents itself with upending the status quo; it’s startling how many “respectable” Riverdale folks are closely entwined with the Serpents. I liked the fact that Kevin and his handsome boyfriend Joaquin (a mole for the motorcycle gang) actually advanced the plot, and their conflict mattered to the story.

As Season One wound down, the murder is solved, the quartet is broken apart by circumstances, and Archie and Veronica’s romance is shifting into Montague and Capulet land. Evil Hiram will make an entrance in Season Two; Betty has still more secrets to unfold, and Jughead will made some life-defining decisions. I’m hopeful for Season Two.

Cast:

Archie Andrews –KJ Apa

Betty Cooper –Lili Reinhart

Jughead Jones – Cole Sprouse

Veronica Lodge –Camilla Mendes

Kevin Keller – Casey Cott

Cheryl Blossom – Madelaine Petsch

Hermione Lodge – Marisol Nichols (Her heading in imdb.com read, “Actress, Felon” which gave me a start. Felon was a movie.)

Josie McCoy – Ashleigh Murray

Valerie Brown – Hayley Law

Joaquin (Joaquin is so poor he can’t afford a last name) – Rob Raco

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Where You Can Find my Stuff

A writer’s blog is supposed to promote that writer’s work. I kind of forgot about that part. I talk a lot about my writing, and I include links on Facebook and Twitter, but maybe this is a good place for some pratical, shameless self-promotion.

Here is where you can find my recently published work:

“Location, Location, Location” in Daily Science Fiction. By the way, you can sign up to have Daily Science Fiction come to your e-mail in-box daily, and it’s pretty fun

“Strays,” is in Flash Fiction Online.

“Never Truly Yours” can be heard and read at Podcastle.

Thanks for your support.

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2

The cinema worker came out of the empty theater. Three gray-haired men were waiting ahead of me. “You guys Guardians?” the worker said.

“Yes,” they said.

“Go on in.”

*

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2, is as entertaining as the first movie. This series is the best of the Marvel films for me. It doesn’t set up profound, complex philosophical questions and then fail to answer them the way the Avengers series does. It doesn’t try to explain superheroes or supertech in a real-world context like Spiderman or Antman. And it looks, in the best sense, like a comic book.

I watched it in 2D, because I get a headache watching 3D movies. I have to say, this one is probably worth a headache, and the first in-space scene, a melee in the background and Baby Groot in the foreground, seemed a little blurry and was definitely designed for 3D. That didn’t make it any less exciting or funny. And overall, even with the long fireworks show at the end, these visuals were Dr. Strange-level trippy, and beautiful.

*

Spouse watches business news all the time when he’s home. Friday morning I sat and watched a little bit of a CNBC show. At the end they were talking about the Doritos tie-tin the movie, a bag of chips with a music player and earbuds attached to it. The female anchor Kelly didn’t get it (she hadn’t seen the first film). One of the arrogant, business-suited Friday guests explained to her that the earbuds and the player (“It’s looks like it plays cassettes!” she had said) mattered in the first movie. “It was important in the first film,” he said. “It was cute. If it’s in the second movie it’s going to be annoying.”

Well, excuse me, Mr. Guest Stock-Analyst Guy, you may predict the markets like a boss, but you don’t know anything about movies, (and spoiler alert, yes, it is in there).

*

When Rocket pilfers something from the supercilious, high-fashion Sovereigns, who hired the Guardians to protect a thing, the metallic-colored people come after them in full video-game mode. While attempting to escape, human Peter Quill and his friends are “rescued” by a being who says he is Peter’s father, the aptly-named Ego. Ego is a celestial, basically a god, and he tells Peter that he is one, too. He takes Peter, Gamora and Drax with him to his home planet, while Baby Groot and Rocket stay behind to try to fix their broken ship which crash-landed on a forest world.

Yondu, the Ravager who raised Peter, has accepted a bounty from Ayesha, the high-priestess of the Sovereigns, to bring the Guardians in. They capture Groot and Rocket, but from there things do not go as expected.

Two characters we met in the first movie, Yondu and Gamora’s adopted sister Nebula, have larger roles here and we see more of their personalities.

Along the way, we get banter, a little more exploration of Rocket’s background, Yondu’s and Peter’s; space battles, hand-to-hand battles, and gorgeous, beautiful special effects, especially on the world of Ego where they are over the top.

*

“Shall we sit here?” the teenaged girl caroled as she had her two friends entered the theater behind me and tried to choose a seat. There were plenty. “Here? Shall we sit here? Or here?”

“Stop being loud!” her friend said.

*

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is long, about two hours and twenty minutes (if you stay to watch the four or five mid-credit scenes. You really should stay for the credits. They are fun.). There were two places where I glanced at my watch to see how far in we were, and the first was when we land on Ego’s planet. I thought the exposition of the beautiful, Peter-Maxish, 1970s’ pipe-dream set went on a bit too long, although I loved that the vessel they travel on, which extrudes from Ego’s lovely egg-shaped ship, look like a denture plate.

The story is not that complex, but it does need time to allow all those great visual effects to blossom. And it takes the time to let us see Rocket’s struggle to figure out his place in the group, and learn from Nebula what life was like for her under the control of her adopted father Thanos. It also gives Gamora and Peter a few private moments.

The place where the film stretches the best, though, is with the additions of Mantis (and her confused conversations with Drax), and the storyline of Yondu and his new second-in-command. The scene where Baby Groot tries to rescue Rocket and another person from a cell might seem to go on too long, but it was just right, because it was funny, and also because of the climax of that scene. Mantis is empathic, but has been completely sheltered by Ego, and Drax has taken it upon himself to educate her. That is just about as crazy at it sounds. There is a scene near the end where Drax is trying to rescue her. He is sinking into the ground, and with his last breath he raises his arms, holding her up above his head.

If the first movie was about deciding who you are, this one is about who your family is, both literally with Peter’s father and Gamora and Nebula; and figuratively with Yondu, Groot and Rocket. I laughed 80% of the way through this movie, and in the last five minutes I was brushing tears off my face, in a good way.

By the way, the Sovereigns are villainous and clearly set up to be adversaries, but their costumes rocked it, and cry out for cosplay. Honestly, just gorgeous.

The other thing is the musical score. Like Vol 1, this movie is about the tunes, and the score is wonderful. Even the sappy, sentimental Cat Stevens song “Fathers and Sons” works here.

And stay for the credits; you deserve it.

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The Adventure of the Crawling Horror; In Which I Get Snarky

I bought a fiction anthology called Dark Detectives last week. It was an impulse buy. It’s edited by Stephen Jones and published by Titan Books, who also publish the Mammoth series as well as a bunch of Lovecraftian anthologies.

Dark Detectives, as you might have guessed from the name, is a roundup of fictional detectives who investigate occult and paranormal mysteries. To my disappointment, the actual purpose of the book seems to be to reprint seven linked pieces by Kim Newman. The rest of the book is padded with various other reprints, some of them historical.

Jones provides a long foreword in which is gives one version of the history of the occult detective. I liked that. And the book contains a story by William Hope Hodgson which I also enjoyed for historical reasons.

The book reaches its nadir with a story by Basil Copper, who updated a character invented by writer, editor and publisher August Derleth. Derleth is an interesting person best remembered for publishing Lovecraft. The background of the Derleth character in Dark Detectives is mildly interesting because it foretells the days of fan-fiction before we gave it that name. And Copper’s attempt to create a pastiche shows all the weaknesses inherent in that particular form.

(Let me be fair. Derleth was a good writer and wrote well beyond creepy horror and detective fiction.)

Basil Copper was a journalist and writer, and apparently some of his original work is good, but the story in Dark Detective is a disappointment nearly from the first paragraph.

Derleth was a Sherlock Holmes fan. When Arthur Conan Doyle announced that he would write no more Holmes stories, Derleth wrote to him asking if it were true. Doyle answered the letter; it was true. Then Derleth asked if Doyle would allow him to write some Holmes stories. The reply; a resounding No.

Derleth then did what all good writers (and many fifteen-year-olds) do when confronted with this kind of obstacle. He invented a consulting detective of his own. Solar Pons, whose name means Bridge to the Sun (such humility) is, like Holmes, a consulting detective. His associate, close friend and chronicler is a medical doctor, Dr. Parker. He has a motherly housekeeper named Mrs. Johnson. He rents rooms in London, and he has a reclusive brother named Bancroft. He smokes a pipe. As you can see, he is nothing at all like Sherlock Holmes.

Basil Copper wrote the story in this anthology, “The Adventure of the Crawling Horror,” in 1979, which might explain some of my issues with it, but the problems go deeper than the sheer dated-ness that haunts some of the stories in this book.

In “The Adventure of Crawling Horror” Holmes is visited by—oh, excuse me, Pons!—Pons is visited by a mean-spirited, miserly man who is terrified by a thing that haunts him whenever he goes walking out on the marshland that surrounds his isolated, creepy old house. The thing that frightens him is not, thank goodness, an enormous hound, but a human figure, glowing with a bluish light, that disappears and reappears. Despite the name of the story, the thing does not crawl anywhere. If anything, it seems to hop, disappearing from view and reappearing in another location moments later. I guess “The Adventure of the Hopping Horror” just wasn’t as scary.

The old man lives with his fiftyish niece, and is a skinflint, but he seems genuinely terrified by the apparition, which, he says, has been seen by his niece as well. Soon Pons and Parker are on the train to the marshes.

Let’s review the elements:  creepy, isolated old house? Check. Atmospheric setting? Check. Gossipy village? Check. Mysterious village doctor who loves to tramp on the moors? Check. Voluble drunk who drops clues? Check. A polite young Colonial visitor to the village? Check. If the reader doesn’t figure out what the apparition is as soon as the cast of characters is introduced, they’re just not trying. It’s elementary. Trust me, elementary, and we know that because Copper makes Pons say “Elementary” seven or eight times.

This is not a straight-up copy of a Holmes story or novel. It’s more like a salad of various Holmesian elements, plot, characters, etc, tossed together in a big old bowl. I got tired of “elementary,” true, but my favorite line of the story came from Parker when he said the plan was “… brilliant in its very elementariness.” A brief list of other words and phrases I got tired of: “tenting his fingers,”  “bleak,” and “he laughed (or smiled) deep in his beard.”

What does that even mean? A beard can obscure the mouth, but beards generally only cover part of the face, so a laugher or smiler cannot hide himself deep in the thicket of his beard*. I might have accepted “he smiled deep in his beard,” but we got both of them, and they’re bad.

“The Adventure of the Crawling Horror” is pulp. “Pulp” as a signifier, goes back to the early 1900s, and certain people, including me, gulped down these knock-offs like crazy in the 1970s because they didn’t know any better. From the distance of years, I read Copper’s “revising” of the Pons oeuvre as a cynical updating of Derleth’s own fantasy wish fulfillment, the closest he could come to writing stories featuring his fictional idol, Holmes.

It is my least favorite story in the book so far, and the book is generally a disappointment. If there’s one that’s worse, I’ll get back to you.

*Although now I want to write something where a character “turned and bolted into thicket of his beard.”

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The Timid Traveler Part One; I Got my Tickets

On Friday, April 28, I got my airline tickets for my August trip to Finland and Iceland. I hope to fit in a day trip to Estonia along the way.

I’m going to Finland for the 75th World Science Fiction Convention, casually known as WorldCon. During the 4 days of WorldCon I plan to skip the events one day and take the ferry across the Gulf of Finland and visit Tallinn in Estonia. When I leave Finland I will fly to Reykjavik, Iceland, and spend several days with my friends Linda and Daniel.

Tallin, Estonia (Old Town.)

Tallin, Estonia (Old Town.)

It’s my first international flight and my while not technically my first extra-continental flight, since I’ve been to Hawaii, it might as well be. I’m excited and anxious. I was anxious enough that I used a travel agent, something I haven’t done in nearly 40 years, to book the flights.

Helsinki has a reputation as a friendly, thriving, modern city that loves tech and is filled with wifi hotspots and good public transport. According to Wikipedia it got off to a bumpy start. It was formed as a city in 1550, then called Helsingfors, named by King Gustav I of Sweden. (Swedes still call it this.) The town was designed to be a market and trade city in direct competition with a city across the gulf, Reval, which is now Tallinn. Reval is a good three hundred years older than Helsinki.

Helskini didn’t do well at first. Wars, economic troubles and several bouts of the plague kept the city from growing until 1809, when Czar Alexander I made it the capital of an autonomous part of Russia called The Grand Duchy of Finland. Alexander apparently moved the region’s capital from Turku in order to quash any pernicious Swedish influence. In 1827, the Royal Academy of Turku moved to Helsinki after a disastrous fire, and from there the city took off.

That peninsula sounds like a hotly contested bit of land. Actually, all of Finland does.

The city occupies the peninsula and 315 islands (!).

 

Helsinki on a Summer Night

Helsinki on a Summer Night

WorldCon was first held in 1939, in New York City. That is no surprise. The second one, in 1940, was held in Chicago and then, with great audacity, the group leapt west and held the 1941 WorldCon in Denver, Colorado. Wow. From 1942-1945 they skipped because there was a war on, but they have met continuously since 1946.

Despite how it reads there, the World Science Fiction Society, who oversee the WorldCon process, have tried to make it truly a world convention. Cons have been held in other counties (they first made it outside of the US to the UK in 1957). I don’t see a lot of diversity though. In 1970 it was held in Germany. It’s been in England several times, and Australia. It’s been in Scotland, the Netherlands, Canada and Japan, so there is some branching out occurring. The WorldCon process is that volunteer groups in various cities put together a bid that voting members of the WSFS bid on at a Con. The bids are two years out; for example, as a voting member in 2016 I voted for the site in 2018. (San Jose, CA won.) A city and a country has to have enough infrastructure and a dedicated fan group who can commit to putting on a huge four-day event. But Windhoek? Lagos? While I’m still healthy enough to travel and enjoy it? Oh, please let that happen.

WorldCon also announces the year’s Hugo winners, which I am looking forward to hearing. Without as much noise from the splinter groups, this year’s ballot looks more, I think, like what a Hugo ballot should be and I am curious to see who the winners are. And I think, honestly, the group will be smaller than last year’s in Kansas City, Missouri, because it costs more to get there. (A lot more.)

WorldCon 75 with the polar bear mascot.

WorldCon 75 with the polar bear mascot.

And then it’s on to Iceland; volcanos, waterfalls, glaciers and good friends.

Icelandic Lake

Icelandic Lake

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Shadow of the Crow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Snippets from Mendocino

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

“Everything,” she said.

Front lawn of the Garden

Front lawn of the Garden

 

Pink Flowers Against Green

Pink Flowers Against Green

 

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

White Rhododendrons

White Rhododendrons

Pink Rhododendrons with Raindrops

Pink Rhododendrons with Raindrops

Pink and Blue flowers

 


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

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

“Leapin’ Ravens!”

Leapfrog

Leapfrog

Raven on Mendocino Cafe waiting for a peanut.

Raven on Mendocino Cafe waiting for a peanut.

 

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

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

Mature raven

Mature raven

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

Warbler

Good morning.

 

 

 

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Into the Badlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demure in not in my nature-- The Widow

Demure in not in my nature– The Widow

The Visuals:

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

The fight scenes:

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

The characters:

I have a very bad feeling about this--Veil

I have a very bad feeling about this–Veil

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must stop meeting like this -- Tilda and MK

We must stop meeting like this — Tilda and MK

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

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

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

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These Are the Tools

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

That’s just how I roll.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then this whole process starts all over.

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