Boomtown by Sam Anderson: A Biography of the American Spirit

I had an idea for a long, self-involved post about me for New Year’s. I’m still going to write and post it, but I’m scheduling it for January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

So here’s a short rave – not quite a review—of a great book I read over the New Year’s weekend, Boomtown by Sam Anderson. This is not exactly a disclaimer; I met Sam Anderson when he was a teenager, several times, at holidays at his grandmother’s house. While I would love to say “I know him,” (as in, “Oh, yeah, Pulitzer-Prize-winning Sam Anderson, I know him), that is stretching things a bit. My original interest of the book did come from that fact that I recognized his name, and I’d read other shorter works of his.

Boomtown is nonfiction, and it’s about Oklahoma City.  If you’d told me a month ago I would love a book about Oklahoma City, I probably would have choked on my coffee laughing. The book is not about the worst act of domestic terrorism in the country’s history, although it’s in there; it’s not about a city routinely devastated by tornadoes, although they are in there, it’s not about the OKC Thunder’s 2012 basketball season, although that is the through-line Anderson uses; it’s about a city that shouldn’t even exist, a wild, inventive scam of a city, a perennial boomtown that regularly busts, and invents itself again.

Through the lens of a midwestern city in a state once called “the reddest in the nation” (politically); a state where teachers fled in droves to neighboring states because they couldn’t live on what they were paid, Anderson writes a biography of the colonial American spirit, in all its imagination and inventiveness and all its blood-soaked injustice. And, oh yeah, basketball, starting with a team once named the Seattle SuperSonics, which OKC basically stole and carried off to their “small market” city; a team that, in 2012, had three superstars; Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James “the Beard” Harden.

Anderson thoroughly and meticulously researched Oklahoma City, even while he was covering the 2012 roundball season and its attendant drama (the general manager traded Harden away with little warning when Harden wouldn’t re-sign). The writing is so smooth and approachable, the book so gracefully organized that the research never intruded. Anderson’s conversational, funny narrative voice never intruded either. He has the discipline of a journalist; he is in this book, but he is not the centerpiece. The city is. Anderson’s unflagging curiosity brought him to strange stories and strange corners of a place most of us on one of the coasts would dismiss as “flyover country.”

From its inception the city is based on cheating. First of all, having taken over the entire continent of the native tribal people, the Federal government then broke (another) treaty with them and took away the land that became Oklahoma City. The men who became the city’s Founding Fathers actually cheated at the Land Run. That’s the city’s history. They cheated at a race. If you wondered where the term “Sooner” came from, that’s it; they sneaked into the Land Run territory sooner than legally allowed, and when the bugle sounded to start the race, they came out of hiding and claimed the prime land.

While looking at the racism, corruption, and power-mongering of “city fathers” (and they are all male) for slightly more than a century, Anderson still respects the spirit of the place and the people who live there, and it shows. From a meteorologist who became a regional celebrity to a zany alt-rock recording star, several important civil rights figures as well as prominent writers, he finds people who represent the spirit of OKC beyond the short-sightedness and the inequality. There’s something slightly delusional about the spirit of OKC, and something kind of glorious. Boomtown captures both.

Anderson spent his childhood on the west coast and he now lives on the eastern one. It would be easy for someone with that background to approach a city like OKC with a sense of smugness, superiority and disrespect. Anderson does not.

If you enjoy Sarah Vowell’s books, you will love this one. It’s a testament to Anderson’s skill and hard work that the research, the diligent organization (I want to say “plotting”), and the fluent narrative voice weave together seamlessly. Underlying the talent and hard work, though, is a spark of what makes the difference between a good writer and a great writer. That spark is curiosity. Anderson has it and he fanned it into life here. Read Boomtown.

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The 2018 Annual Post-Christmas Art Stroll

RelaxMost of this year’s walking around Santa Rosa’s art-colony neighborhood South A Street was done by Lillian and me. Kathleen joined us for our usual brunch at the Spinster Sisters, but needed to leave after that. We missed her!

While many of the murals and artworks, like the Prince and Bowie mural, remain,there have been changes in Art Alley. Notably, the floating woman being drawn into a flying saucer by a tractor beam has been painted over. I wonder what will appear there next.

We both paused to take pictures of the lush vegetables and flowering plants growing in Avalow’s self-watering, contained metal plant beds. Lillian took the opportunity to talk to one of the co-owners and get some tips for the small greenhouse window in her apartment.

Flowering sweet pea from one of the beds at Avalow.

Flowering sweet pea from one of the beds at Avalow.

We stopped at Jeremy’s Photographer’s Corner, a studio and camera supply store. I bought some Blackwing pencils, a notepad and two enamel pins. None of those is particularly photography-related, but one of the pins is a camera. That counts, right? After that we checked in at one of our favorite spots on South A, the Jam Jar studio. This small storefront is filled with original art work, locally-made jewelry, cards, small vintage homeware, glassware and an eclectic mix of other objects. It’s been a tough year, said Kelly, one of the owners. Several businesses in Sofa District (“South of A,” get it? Not exactly accurate, but cute.) have moved out, including the Criminal Bakery, which has moved to the West End. Kelly says the fire continues to have a ripple effect on Santa Rosa’s economy… and, she says, many people come look but few buy.

Cubism Sliced

Cubism sliced

Then we walked through the alley. At one point an SRPD car pulled in, drove the length of  they alley, U-turned and drove back. That may have been because of us, or it may be part of their routine.

Golden Poppies

Golden Poppies

This manga mural tells a story in the length of one wall. (It the photo isn’t good enough, ask me in the comments and I’ll recap the plot.)

Ramen Manga

Ramen Manga

Above the head of the ramen-loving boy, birds on a wire discussed the pressing issues of being a bird.

Detail from the bird frieze.

Detail from the bird frieze.

Book covers of banned and challenged books comprisesthis mural. Lillian was startled that some of the covers showed movie actors, and we realized that in some spots  the artist had used the novel-tie-in book cover.

Fear No Books

Fear No Books

Some of the most attractive images occur naturally.

Shed and Shadow

Shed and Shadow

Once through the alley we stopped at Chroma Galley and Studios, an art collective. A couple of artists had open studios (although some were working but not open to the public). Simmon Factor was covering the front gallery. He uses mixed media in an interesting technique that incorporates decorative paper, paint and maybe even wallpaper, building up an intriguing texture.

Elaine Greenwood’s artist statement grabbed me with her opening sentence; “Art Heals.” Greenwood is a practicing psychotherapist as well as a painter.

"...Art heals."

“…Art heals.”

Of course Cat Kaufman’s found-object collages captivated me.

Found object piece by Cat Kaufman.

Found object piece by Cat Kaufman.

Chroma Gallery has regular open studio hours and lots of scheduled events, most free or donation-only. Check out their website for some details and more into about the artists.

Speaking of places that are gone; Atlas Coffee closed! their wonderful steampunk scultpure/mural now graces Chroma’s parking lot wall.

I love the way the colors on the bird and the circle recapitulate the tone of the two stubbed pipes in the lower left corner.

I love the way the colors on the bird and the circle recapitulate the tone of the two stubbed pipes in the lower left corner.

There were two small glitches in the day for me. The first was simply that Kathleen couldn’t join us for most of it. The other glitch occurred first thing. I had called Spinster Sisters to see if they were going to be open, and to make reservations. The woman I spoke to was definitive that they do not take reservations for groups of fewer than six. When Kathleen arrived first, she was told we’d need to wait, but there were several empty tables (for fewer than six). The host told her that those were reserved, and that of course they take reservations. No mention of a table minimum. They got us a table, but, seriously, people. Spinster Sisters has good food and cheerful wait-staff. They are building up a good reputation,but this kind of indifference borders on disdain for loyal customers. It’s not a good look for you guys. Maybe staff need some more training on your policies, whatever they are. Let me stress, though, that this was a glitch. We got a table and our friendly cheerful server added a bit of sparkle to the day. I came home relaxed and inspired.




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The Books We Got For Christmas; 2018

Except for a couple of restaurant gift cards, Spouse and I got each other books for Christmas. That works great for me and if it doesn’t work for him, he isn’t saying.

Here is the “master shot” of the books we took in. I’ll provide a couple other photos to provide more detail.

Back left to right: City of Broken Magic, Putting the Science in Fiction, The Wonderseekers of Fountaingrove, Front row: left to right, The Crusade tThrough Arab Eyes, The Worst Hard Time, The Last Templar, Squire Throwleigh's Heir

The card is an acknowledgment of a Heifer donation, and the squirrel drapery was a gift.

Spouse got:

The City of Broken Magic: A 2018 debut fantasy novel by Mirah Bolender. I don’t know much about it but it got good reviews. Of course my evil plan is to borrow it once he’s finished. By the way, the tagline for this book? “If it’s all magic, which wire do you cut?”

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, nonfiction about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era.

The Last Templar and Squire Throwleigh’s Heir. Two history-mysteries, both by Michael Jenks. The Last Templar has the virtue of being the first book in the series (for once!) introducing the former crusader who becomes a de facto detective in 14th century Britain. Squire Throwleigh’s Heir is a much later outing in the book.

That’s all he got! Don’t feel too bad for him, though; he’s got $50 worth of gift credit split between two stores, one of which is Second Chances Used Books. He’ll do all right.

Detail of two history-mysteries by Michael Jenks

What I got:

The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove, by Gaye Lebaron and Bart Casey. This book has more than one meaning for me. The idealistic commune of the late 1800s/early 1900s in Sonoma County, founded by Kanaye Nagasawa and Thomas Lake Harris has always fascinated me. More emotionally, the red Fountaingrove round barn was a visual landmark for my whole life, until October 2017 when it burned to the ground. LeBaron has written a lot about the ranch’s commune days and I’m looking forward to this work, which includes images and documents from Casey’s large collection.

Putting the Science in Fiction, edited by Dan Koboldt, was recommended on Fantasy Literature by Bill Capossere. It’s probably a bad idea to ask for reference books as gifts, since I should buy them and take them as a business expense… but I don’t care.

Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich. There’s a story behind this one. Well, it’s more of a scene:

Me: (Enters house, returning from Second Chances)

Me: (Hands spouse the book.)Here. You just bought me this book for Christmas. Give me nine dollars and eighty cents.

Spouse: (reaching for wallet) I suppose you want it wrapped, too?

Detail of The Cursades Through Arab Eyes

A closer look at some of the titles.

Heinrich wrote The Mind of a Raven, one of my favorite nature books, and Ravens in Winter was the book before that one. I am delighted to finally have it.

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, by Amin Malouf, is a “house book,” one we will both want to read, so I got it for both of us.

Those should be enough to keep us busy through the end of the year, right? And then, there are the gift cards.

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Light in Winter: The Gifts of the Kings

“Dark is the hour, long the night.” –Walter de la Mare, Christmas Eve

In the northern hemisphere, Winter solstice is the longest night of the year. In northern and middle Europe, it is a time of dark and cold. “Solstice” comes from two Latin words meaning “sun stays,” and describes the day when, from an earthly perspective, the sun seems to pause in its journey along the horizon and begins to retrace its steps. Winter nights grow steadily shorter, and days longer.

Solstice is a holiday that reminds us that even though we’re deep in darkness, and it seems endless, the days will get warmer, lighter. It’s the holiday that reminds us to have hope, even if we’re feeling despair.

December 25 is Christmas in the tradition of the Latin/western Christian sects (it’s celebrated on a different date in the Eastern Orthodox ones). Christmas is the story of a couple who are second-class citizens in their own land, occupied by an imperial nation, oppressed both by the might of the invaders and the powers of their own co-opted religious leaders. Poor, without rights or privilege, the woman delivers a child who is considered divine.

In the belief system of the nation that ruled them, Rome, December 25 was the birthday of the sun god, Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun.

Christmas is a holiday about the appearance of wonder; the spark of the miraculous.

On January 5, twelve days after the birth of wonder, the mythology tells us that three wise kings from the Far East came to where the mother and baby were. The offered the impoverished family gifts of incense and gold. This is Epiphany, or Theophany in the Eastern Orthodox calendar.

The common definition of epiphany is “revelation,” a discovery or a moment when something is acknowledged. “Theophany” means the manifestation or appearance of God (usually to a person).

Epiphany is the holiday of acknowledging the wonder that has been brought forth.

What spark of wonder will you allow to come forth this dark, cold month? And how will you honor it, or acknowledge it, on Epiphany? What gifts will you pledge to bring, to honor your own spark of the miraculous? Will you decide to speak of your own creative work, your connection to the divine, unapologetically, with pride? Will you set aside some time to honor it, each day? Will you share your creativity at open mikes, by submitting your work to publishers, by displaying your art?

The mythical kings brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. What will your three kings bring?

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Around Town; Shuttle 24

A sign designating the walking paths

One sign that designates the walking paths.

Sebastopol is a great town for walking and cycling. The Joe Rodota Trail comes in from the east, stopping just southeast of the post office, and picks up again north of town on High School Road. A dedicated walker/cyclist can go all the way to Forestville on that trail. Due east of town, just beyond the Barlow complex, the Laguna de Santa Rosa trailhead is a lovely walk with plenty of bird-watching opportunities. Within the town itself, the Plaza makes a nice landmark and staging area, and the two shopping districts, Main Street and the Barlow abut each other there.

When I write “shopping districts,” I don’t mean Rodeo Drive. Each one is two square blocks at the most.

Recently the city council made changes to the bike lanes on Main Street, which runs south through the center of town before going back to being a two-way state highway, and Petaluma Ave, which runs north before doing the same thing. This should improve conditions for cyclists.

The city is not friendly to cars. The one-way street configuration and a lack of adequate parking actively discourages driving in town. While I prefer walking in town anyway because it’s fun, I worried about what this meant for people with mobility issues. Certainly the city has the required number of spaces for handicapped people; it’s not clear whether their location is convenient for people and whether they truly provide access.

Shuttle 24 goes a long way to addressing this issue and providing transport for people who are frail, have mobility issues, or just don’t have a car. This great collaboration between Sonoma County Transit and the City of Sebastopol got a face-lift last week when they unveiled the latest bus for Shuttle 24; it’s 100% electric. And, for the riders, 100% free.

The shuttle’s route stops at major interest areas; three of the five grocery stores (Lucky’s, Safeway and Community Market) downtown Main Street which includes banks, clothing stores and bookstores. Rite Aid pharmacy is one parking lot over from Safeway. The shuttle swings through the Barlow, stopping at Community Market, and the hub which is a kiosk next to the Rialto Cinema. On the west side of town it stops at the Senior Center and Burbank Heights Senior Living Apartments. On the south side of town it stops at the post office and the Fairfield Inn south of town, where you can connect with a bus to take you to the Cotati SMART depot. That’s very cool, actually.

If this were better publicized, the SMART/shuttle connection might be a draw for shoppers. Frankly, while the idea is good, the number of pickups available right now doesn’t give a shopper much choice, but maybe, with the advertising and word of mouth, and a couple more runs to the train depot, a SMART ride up to Cotati from San Rafael or Novato, a short bus ride to Sebastopol and a fun day spent cruising the shops and eating good food (or wine/beer tasting!), heading home without the hassle of driving, can become a reality.

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The Way the Landscape Changes

A Finnish man used to come into the store, about once a week, usually Tuesdays. His English was so faintly accented that I didn’t know he’d been born in Finland until he told me. He was a burly giant, somewhere between 6 ft-4 inches and 6 ft-6 inches, and he wore a faded blue bandanna headband. Sometimes, not always, his partner Susan came in with him.

He would browse the store gleefully until he found a book to buy, and he bought a book every time.  And he would tell stories; stories about his various motorcycle jaunts back and forth and up and down across the American continent; stories about being a volunteer firefighter; stories about his relatives in Finland; stories about his mother, a soldier in WWII who was decorated for heroism. Sometimes he told stories about the ravens, the squirrels and the gray foxes on his property in west county. He brought Brandy shopping bags full of concord grapes when they were ripe, and jars of concord jam when the season had ended.

I always imaged him meeting Spouse, and the two of them trading firefighter stories. I told Spouse about him, prefacing those tales with, “The Finnish guy, I don’t know his name, came in today…”

Today a man named Tom came into the store. He bought a couple of books and said that his friend Kari had told him to come there. When we both looked blank, he said, “He’s Finnish.”

So we learned his name, and we learned that he passed away Thanksgiving night, in his sleep. He died peacefully with no previous symptoms, and the cause is unknown at this time.

The landscape of the store is different for me now– the landscape of the whole town has changed. He wasn’t a close friend; literally, I didn’t know the man’s name. But I would feel my face muscles shift into a smile when I saw him come in. He was vital and filled with a kind of light. He wasn’t a bleeding heart; many of his Finnish stories, while funny, dealt with the awkward Russian-Finnish relationships, and the realities of war. He made merciless fun of the Quebecois in Canada (and by extension the French). But I felt happier when I saw him. My day was brighter.

Today, it is just a little darker, and a generous landmark has disappeared from view.

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What Makes a Classic: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

For me, one test of a classic is whether  a reading of it through any lens will reward with insights. By that measure Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is a classic. You can view it as a study in socioeconomic class; in psychology; through the lens of fist-wave feminism (which is troubling but rewarding); as a critique of religion and morality and even through the lens of colonialism.

I just read Mansfield Park for the first time, and, surprisingly, what struck me two-thirds of the way through the book was some resonance with the #MeToo movement.

I want to say first that I didn’t particularly enjoy Mansfield Park the way I did Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey and Emma. It was a problematic book for me. A tiny part of the problem stems from the fact that is was published in 1814, and deals with the lives of the British upper class, a society of which I am completely ignorant and understand nothing. A larger problem is that a secondary character, Mary Crawford, was far more engaging than the protagonist, Fanny Price. The third issue is that this is a realistic novel in many ways, which means that happy endings are relative.

Fanny Price is a “poor relation”of the Bertram family. Mrs. Bertram’s sister Frances made a rebellious marriage and was ostracized by the family, while Mrs. Bertram made an advantageous marriage to the well-placed and wealthy Sir Thomas. Eleven years elapse, during which Frances Price has many children. She writes to her sister, asking that Sir Thomas think of taking in her oldest, her ten-year-old son, and bring him up in the family business in Antigua (which is obviously a slave plantation). During a family conference, the middle sister, Mrs. Norris, suggests an alternative; that it would be less work to take in Mrs. Price’s daughter Fanny. Although Mrs. Norris’s suggestion is couched in the language of Christian charity, family pride and so on, it’s pretty clear pretty fast that she sees some advantage to herself in this scheme, because Mrs. Norris’s suggestions always, eventually, benefit her. Within the first few pages we get the measure of Mrs. Norris; a tight-fisted, advantage-seeking busybody who basically controls her sister Mrs. Bertram. Mrs. Norris develops over the course of the book from a tried-and-true Austen character, a hypocritical figure of fun to someone whose behaviors are destructive and corrosive.

Several pages later, nine-year-old Fanny appears, removed from her family and brought to a home with four other children, all older, two boys and two girls. From that point on, Fanny is slighted and ignored, called on to help the family members in every way, constantly reminded that she is not their equal. She is Cinderella without a fairy godmother. While she does everything to provide for the comfort and convenience of her aunts and cousins, they constantly forget about her unless they need something. Two people in the house pay attention to her; Mrs. Norris, who continually reminds her of her place, and the second son Edmund, who shows her kindness.

At eighteen, Fanny is silently in love with Edmund, who plans to become a clergyman. His older brother Tom is a spoiled spendthrift who spends his time drinking with his friends and making bad choices; the two Bertram daughters, Maria and Julia, have been thoroughly spoiled by Mrs. Norris, although her partiality for Maria is evident. Sir Thomas is called away to Antigua to deal with some problems “of business” and takes Tom with him, hoping to help him mature. Except for Edmund, everyone in the house at Mansfield Park (even Fanny) breathes a sigh of relief that the authoritarian, emotionally distant Sir Thomas is gone.

Into the neighborhood come two younger siblings of the parson’s wife; Henry and Mary Crawford. Each is an heir to a fortune; each is witty and charming, and they become the toast of Mansfield Park. Maria and Julia are taken with the clever, attentive, rich and handsome Henry, even though Maria is already engaged to another man. Edmund is attracted to Mary, although he hesitates when he hears her making witty but disparaging remarks about clergy. To Edmund, a country clergyman is responsible for providing spiritual guidance and comfort year round, every day of the week, while to Mary, raised in London, a clergyman must give a rousing sermon on Sunday and he’s done. This raises a red flag for Edmund which he hastens to ignore.

The Crawfords and another friend of theirs, together with the meddling of Mrs. Norris, who needs to see herself as important, soon help the young generation slip into behavior that isn’t seemly. Fanny, always invisible, always in a corner, sees it plainly and we see it through her eyes. Maria’s wealthy fiance is a stupid man; the young people mock that behind his back. When he takes them on a walking tour of his estate, he forgets a key to one of the gates and goes back to the house to fetch it. Tired of waiting, Henry, Maria and Julia climb the fence and go off on their own, leaving the fiance (and Fanny) behind. By today’s standards this seems rude, and little more, but this entire passage shows us the danger of the Crawfords, both of them, and their ability to lead people astray (because Mary and Edmund have gone off, leaving Fanny alone on a bench at a strange house, and have been gone for nearly an hour).

This is what the Crawfords do. They lead other people into bad behavior without even admitting it to themselves. As the story goes on, the young folks at Mansfield Park decide to put on a play, which seems like a harmless pursuit but means pairing up couples in problematic ways. Sit Thomas arrives home in the nick of time; Maria is safely married off to the stupid man, and sister Julia goes to her house to visit. It seems like everything will be fine. Meanwhile, the reader observes a scene between Henry Crawford and Mary. The marriageable young ladies of Mansfield are all gone except one, he says, Fanny Price, and he has decided to make her fall in love with him. Why? Because he’s bored. Mary, who until now had seemed genuinely friendly to Fanny and even championed her once or twice, knows how shy and sensitive Fanny is, but without a thought, basically wishes her brother “happy hunting.”

Crawford, in the nature of rakes in novels, finds himself entangled in his own snare when he begins to develop feelings for Fanny — feelings she does not reciprocate. Before too much longer, he has proposed to her.

Fanny is in love with Edmund. Secondarily, though, Fanny thinks Henry is lacking in character. She politely and nearly inarticulately rejects his offer. Henry then goes over her head, so to speak, and approaches Sir Thomas, who is thrilled on Fanny’s behalf. When he talks to Fanny, she is even less articulate about her reasons for saying “No.” The first reason for the speechlessness is simply that Fanny has been taught since birth to place her feelings and needs last. The second is that Sir Thomas does not know how badly Maria and Julia behaved with Henry Crawford; loyalty to her girl cousins silences her. In the face of a stammering, clearly upset Fanny, Sit Thomas decides that Henry’s error is one of style; he proposed too quickly and he should slow things down.

From that point on both Sit Thomas and Edmund go out of their way to put Henry and Fanny together. Edmund views Henry as a friend (even though he knows first hand just how his sisters acted around him). He also genuinely thinks he’s doing a good thing for Fanny; Fanny will definitely not get another offer as good materially as Henry Crawford. The only person who seems to agree with Fanny that she and Crawford shouldn’t marry is Mrs. Norris, and her reasons are very different:

“… Angry she was, bitterly angry; but she was more angry with Fanny for having received such an offer, than for having refused it. It was an injury and affront to Julia, who ought to have been Mr. Crawford’s choice, and independent of that, she disliked Fanny, because she had neglected her, and she would have grudged such an elevation to someone she had been always trying to depress.”

In spite of the family pressure and the connivance of her friend — or “friend” — Mary Crawford, Fanny holds firm in her denial. It’s a little surprising; where does this strength of will come from? Sir Thomas comes up with the bright idea of sending Fanny back home to her birth parents for a visit; this will be a “salubrious” visit that will remind Fanny what her life could be like, if she doesn’t toe the line. In fact, given the chaos of the house, this trip is a punishment… a punishment made worse by the fact that, once again, faced with their own problems, the Betrams forget about Fanny and leave her there longer than originally planned.

In a scene before that, though, we see a social evening, where Henry is courting Fanny aggressively. He is sitting next to her and forcing conversation. When the evening shifts to different recreational activities, Fanny is able to move, and feels “released in body and spirit.” Any woman who has experienced aggressive advances or workplace harassment knows that feeling perfectly.

As the story continues, we begin to see a seed of goodness in Henry, and so does Fanny. Austen makes it clear that if Henry were to marry Fanny, she would, in fact, influence him to be a better person. Austen is also clear that it is not Fanny’s responsibility to fix Henry. While he is visiting her at her parents’ Henry says that he plans to go to his estate to confront his farm manager who is giving a tenant a problem. Fanny encourages him to go, to be a good steward of his estate and a fair lord to his tenant. Once away from Fanny, though, Henry chooses instead to go visit the married Maria, where his ego will be stroked, and this decision leads to a disaster for both the Crawfords and the Bertrams, as Maria runs away with Henry.

Even now, certain people in the book, casting around for blame, choose to blame Fanny for this debacle; “If only she’d married him, he never would have done this.” Of course, since it’s an Austen novel, Edmund finally realizes that any partnership between Mary and him is impossible, not only because of her brother’s behavior (and his sister’s) but also because of what he sees as her moral lack. While Edmund indulges in shock, using words like “this crime” to describe the actions of Maria and Henry, Mary reacts strategically, seeing it as an unfortunate incident that needs to be covered up and papered over as quickly as possible.

Edmund and Fanny do end up together. In some sense, this is Cinderella Fanny getting her Prince, but they are not a sparkling couple, and while Fanny and Edmund will be a dutiful couple at the parsonage, it’s hard to see deep love between them.

Where’s the #MeToo? The ease and speed with which Sir Thomas and Edmund toss aside Fanny’s concerns, and keep throwing her together with Henry. Echoing and reverberating beyond #MeToo is the sense of powerlessness. For a modern reader, it’s hard to overlook the references to the slave trade and Sir Thomas’s “business,” an entire economy built upon the powerlessness of an enslaved workforce. It is nowhere near the same scale as Fanny’s life, where she has at least clothing and food (if no heat) and books to read, a shrubbery to walk in, but Fanny’s needs are never regarded. Fanny isn’t a slave. As a woman, she is a second-class citizen with virtually no rights; as a poor relation, she lacks even the social niceties most women of the Bertram class come to expect. For much of the book she barely has a voice. When Mansfield Park is at its most satisfying is when Fanny finds her voice, and when, after the disaster, people finally start to listen. Fanny is not as innocent as this synopsis makes her sound; she is in love with Edmund early in the book, and her “coming clean” with Edmund at the end about some inappropriate things Mary has said definitely has the tone of making sure a vanquished rival is completely routed, rather than simple goodness and virtue. Among the many things Mansfield Park is about, it’s also about a power differential. We’ve progressed; but the differential is still there. Fanny’s discomfort around Henry and the lack of support of her so-called protectors is as realistic now as it was 200 years ago.

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2018: 13 Things I’m Thankful For (Now with 2 bonus things!)

  1. I’m thankful for doctors. Much of this year has been devoted to improving my health. There wasn’t anything seriously wrong except my blood pressure. I was not taking care of it on my own. It is much better now and I’m doing things that will improve it further and maybe, the future, lead to a time where I won’t need medication any longer. The doctor helped, really helped, with that.

2. I’m thankful for health insurance. See #1 above. My health insurance is incredible expensive, and I’m one of those few people who is wealthy enough to afford it… and I’m grateful for it all the time. It doesn’t mean the system we have is good or right, and that prioritizing the profits of insurance corporations, pharma corporations and others over the health of our citizens is rights, but I’m thankful for what I have.

3. I’m thankful for my circle of writing friends which is robust ever-growing. Whether it’s Marta Randall’s group, the Benicia Crew, the group from Atlas Coffee, Brandy and our weekly writing dates, or online writing friends like the coven of Lauras, Garrett, Susan, Kate, or the growing circle of writers from the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, they are all bright, helpful and wonderful. I love their input and I love to read their work.

4. I’m thankful for the farmers market. Eating more vegetables goes with maintaining my health, and I love that I can talk to the very person who grew the tomatoes, the broccoli, the chard, the cheddar cauliflower or the carrots. I’m thankful that one of the best farmers markets in the county is walking distance from my house.

5. I’m thankful for Jodie Whittaker as she makes the role of the 13th Doctor on Doctor Who her own. She’s sincere, she’s weird, she’s funny, so completely the Doctor, and yet so uniquely herself. And I love the ensemble that supports her.

6. I’m thankful for PBS’s News Hour. The rest of the day, the other news outlets are engaged in a frantic dance of chaos with the demolition derby MC that is our current president. In contrast, the News Hour maintains professionalism and does research. As always, they limit the number of stories they cover, so they can do into more depth… and they take a global view. They are an hour of sanity in a news cycle of madness.

7. I’m thankful for Second Chances Used Books. I’m so glad to have a used bookstore in town again! I’m grateful that Brandy trusts me now and then to work in the store; to talk to people who like books, to browse the shelves and introduce myself to writers I need to re-read, or, like Willa Cather, had never read at all before.

8. I’m grateful for our county parks. Our parks took a hit during last year’s fires, but they are rebounding. Our regional parks are places of community, of beauty and tranquility (unless you’re right next to the sports fields — then not so much tranquility).

9. I’m thankful, so thankful, for California’s first responders.

10. I’m thankful for Spouse.

11.I’m thankful for the internet, which helps me stay connected to people far away, and learn about distant events. I also hate the internet. What? I’m complicated.

12.I’m thankful for our local library now open on Mondays!

13.I’m thankful for dogs, squirrels, ravens, crows, woodpeckers, sparrows, chickadees, hawks, for curious otters and curious cats, for all the life around us.

And two bonus things:

14.I’m thankful for KDFC, which provides classical music and a good education about classical music by smart, knowledgeable radio hosts whose voices are welcoming and pleasant.

15.I’m thankful for, for all the opportunities the sites gives me, for the great fellow reviewers, and the wonderful books.

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Rhys Bowen; The Her Royal Spyness series

Rhys Bowen has at least two series going; the Molly Murphy series, mysteries set at the turn of the 20th century in New York, and Her Royal Spyness, set in Britain in the 1930s. I’ve now read two from Her Royal Spyness. There is plenty I like and plenty I don’t like.

The first book is Her Royal Spyness, and I haven’t read it. The two I’ve read are  further into the series. Our first-person narrator, Georgiana Rannock, is the daughter of an aristocrat, and about thirty-eighth in line for the throne. Although this means her actual chances of ascending the throne are worse than John Goodman’s was in that 1990s movie King Ralph, Georgie is still frequently on-call for social and magisterial duties, and afforded much scrutiny. She has certain privileges as a royal, but she is also dirt poor, and her royal cousins feel perfectly comfortable assigning her less “regular” tasks… and often, while she’s doing these special favors, corpses turn up.

Georgie’s father was a rather staid duke, but her mother, an actress, is notorious; traipsing across the continent, entering into liaison after liaison (and sometimes marriage) with various wealthy and scandalous men. Georgie’s brother inherited the title, the castle and the London townhouse, and his wife hates Georgie, which means, realistically, Georgie has to beg a place to sleep from friends or other relatives.

Against this backdrop, she and her boyfriend Darcy, an equally penniless peer, solve murders.

Heirs and Graces finds Georgie in Kent, ready to babysit the newly discovered missing heir of an aristocratic family. The heir in question was raised on a sheep ranch in Australia and knows nothing about society ways or royal bloodlines — nor does he care to. His uncle, the current Duke, who has refused to marry and is petulant and spiteful, plans to thwart young Jack’s legacy at any cost. Also in the household is the Duke’s mother, a dreadnought of a woman; the current Duke’s sister and her three children, and two scandalous, elderly aunts. When the Duke is found dead with Jack’s Aussie dagger sticking out of his back, the household is thrown into disarray, and Georgie and Darcy must determine what really happened.

This book felt very much like an Agatha Christie book in all the best ways; a household of people, each with a secret; secret passages, false clues and misunderstandings. I enjoyed all of that. While I thought the conclusion was weak, I enjoyed the twist element. There are a couple of spots where, in retrospect, it’s clear how much Bowen was playing with us, and I enjoyed that.

I didn’t enjoy the depiction of the Duke, who is gay, as neurotic, petulant, catty and manipulative. In a strange way, I suppose his refusal to marry and provide an heir could be seen as courageous (even though no one in the story sees it that way). He could have been honestly gay without falling into a tiresome stereotype. About halfway through the book, the Duke announces that he will designate his French valet his heir; this, while being legally questionable, is also catty and malicious. And it could be that this is supposed to be one particular character, not a stereotype — except that the cluster of London theater-kids, the Duke’s hangers on, are also all gay, and in addition to all being snippy, witty and great dancers, they are also callous, selfish and uncaring.

My biggest problems with Heirs and Graces might simply be that I am from the USA, living in a different century now, and the fixation with changing Aussie Jack into a British noble was both boring and disrespectful. Unlike Georgie, I didn’t support the idea of the stodgy aristocracy holding onto their privilege and their rules about which fork to use and what kind of hat to wear. I know those people did care, and I know I’m supposed to, but there is an overall coldness to the book that made me not care. Really not care.

In Crowned and Dangerous, Darcy’s own father, a penniless Irish Peer, is accused of murdering the American who bought the ancestral home and racing stable. Darcy coldly pushes Georgie aside, to protect her from the notoriety (apparently he missed the memo about Georgie’s mother), but Georgie rushes to his side anyway and they work, along with a dashing, beautiful and seductive Russian princess who fled the Russian revolution and emigrated to England, to exonerate Darcy’s father.  Once again, as in Heirs and Graces, the distinctions are simply and rather shallowly drawn; Princess, good, revolutionaries, bad. Of course, this is from the point of view of a (distant) royal. I’m sure as the series progresses Georgie will have to grapple with some questions about good and bad, but that happens in neither of these books.

Crowned and Dangerous suffered from a fatal flaw; long stretches of it were boring. The story requires Darcy and Georgie to go to Dublin, talk to the American embassy and send of telegrams and letters… and then wait for the responses. And that is exactly as exciting as you imagined it.

This book in enlivened by two eccentric relatives of Darcy, and the aforementioned Princess, but they weren’t quite enough to pull the story through the let’s-wait-for-the-telegram doldrums.

So what did I like about them? Bowen can write. Descriptions are lovely, and mostly, Georgie’s little dilemmas are fun. I enjoy the glittering smart set in their  expensive clothes and expensive cars. We are told repeatedly that Britain was not as badly hit by the Depression as the USA was. I do like the complicated family relationships. Bowen has taken an interesting approach to the future King Edward and his relationship with Wallis Simpson, who Georgie, along with all her royal relatives, loathes. Apparently, Bowen is going to pretend that Edward David’s (King Edward’s) abdication in 1936 was out of love for Wallis Simpson, the same romantic story that we all grew up with, which has been pretty thoroughly debunked in recent decades. As it is, Wallis and Georgie meet at various social gatherings and Georgie never fails to describe her as “that poisonous woman.” There is no hint of Edward David’s admiration for Adolf Hitler or his actions as a Nazi sympathizer. To be fair, the books take place before Edward is crowed and before he created a constitutional crisis by proposing to a twice-divorced woman. I don’t particularly like  Bowen’s depiction of the royals at this time but, since these books take place in the early 1930s, I suspect they are an accurate picture of what the royals thought (as opposed to what the government knew).

The books are interesting. Either one of these would be good on a rainy afternoon or a night in a hotel room on the way to a destination. They’re enjoyable, but I won’t seek out more of them. Very British, and yet not quite my cup of tea.

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Talking Politics; Thoughts for a City Council Candidate

The four candidates. Image (c) SonomaWest 2018

The four candidates. Image (c) SonomaWest 2018

There were three open seats on my home town’s city council and four candidates. Three were incumbents and one was twenty-two years old. (Of the other three, two are in their sixties and one in their fifties, I believe.) The 22-year-old didn’t win.

I voted for him though, because he was young and I want to encourage young people to get into politics. I think the city council of a small town is a good place to start in order to learn how politics really work — and more importantly, how governance works, or at least how it should. At twenty-two, with no kids, Vaughn Higginbotham would not be a great candidate for a school board, although that’s another good place to learn about politics and governance.

If Vaughn wants to take advice from an “old,” I’ll be happy to share a few things.

I knew three things about Higginbotham; he had a lot of signs, especially in the Swain’s Woods community; he was twenty-two and he has an iPhone repair business (which sounds like something Apple would want to stop). I did vote for him but I wish I had known a little more.  I had definite opinions formed already about two of the candidates from watching them in action, but when I went to the traditional places to find info about Higginbotham, I didn’t find much.  He might have had a vibrant Instagram account and a lively Twitter discussion going, but his Facebook page had photos of the ballot with his name on it, some of his yard signs and a video of him going to town hall to turn in his candidate papers.  When I used his Facebook page to ask him questions, I never got a response.

Some advice would be:

–Campaign to the olds as well as your own generation and age group. You can find a lot of us on Facebook. Use older-fashioned venues like the local weekly paper. Give them an op-ed piece. Consider a “Coffee with the Candidate” event at local coffee houses.

–Knock on doors. He might have done this elsewhere in town, but no one in my neighborhood had seen him. I know several other candidates came by the house. Years ago, in a tight County Supervisor race, I saw both candidates on my doorstep at least twice. It actually works.

I would say, “Develop a platform and have some position statements,” but that would be holding this candidate to a different standard than the three others. They all have policy statements (and so did Higginbotham); “We need sustainable jobs,” and/ or “We need to protect the environment” and “We have to do something about traffic.” Those were Higginbotham’s policies too. He did add something about thinking that since young people were going to inherit the town, they should have a say in governing it.

The fact is, while I feel quite comfortable with the old, white, leftish-leaning incumbents, all of whom retained their seats, it’s because I am one of them. They are not necessarily in touch with the times. They do not necessarily understand the needs of the town, or have an appropriate vision of the town’s future, and it’s hard to know that because there really isn’t anyone on the council who questions, or checks, their reality.  That, however, is an idea for another post.

Another thing Higginbotham could do if he is serious about a career in politics is spend the next two years volunteering or taking an internship, so that he learns more about the process of governing a small town, and how involved it is. And so he makes some connections; he’s known.

And I hope he runs again.

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