The Black Tower by P.D. James; is it Dated, or is it Me?

I just read The Black Tower by P.D. James. I thought it was a re-read for me and that I had read it at some point in the dark and distant past. I was less of sure of that after I finished it, and I decided that most likely I saw the television adaptation of it, from the 1980s, on PBS. This might explain why I was left so unsettled by the book.

The Black Tower was published in 1975. It was the fifth Adam Dalgliesh novel. The story is beautifully written, stunningly atmospheric, with the rugged cliffs and the dangerous, languorous, seductive ocean, the mist-shrouded moor, the old house, Toynton Grange, and the rustic cabins that flank it. It is also very slow, with practically no mystery until the last fifteen or twenty pages, and filled with characters who are more venomous, unpleasant and repellant than usual, even for a British mystery, even for James herself. I’m left with the metaphor of a grocery-store bakery’s chocolate icing; sweet, chocolate-like at first, but leaving the unpleasant aftertaste of chemicals.

In the opening pages, Dalgliesh is informed by his doctor that their original diagnosis of a fatal form of leukemia was incorrect. This removes a death sentence from the detective-poet’s head. Strangely, instead of energizing him, this good news has the opposite effect. Dalgliesh spent the weeks that he labored under the incorrect diagnosis “letting go” of things that no longer mattered, and he decided that his job as a homicide detective was one of those. Now he has to decide; retire, or return to work? He decides to take time to think and visit an old acquaintance, Father Badderly, his father’s curate, who has written Dalgliesh asking for his advice on a situation. Badderly is the chaplain at Toynton Grange, an old “stately home” that has been converted by Wilfred Anstey, the owner, into a facility for people with multiple sclerosis (called “DS” or disseminated sclerosis in Britain).

Sadly, when Dalgliesh arrives on the picturesquely windswept moor, he discovers that his childhood friend died of natural causes only two weeks before. Still, while is no mystery about the elderly cleric’s heart attack, there is an unpleasantness and a strangeness; Dalgliesh discovers a “poison pen” letter, and one of the residents either drove himself off the cliff in his wheelchair, or had the brakes fail and fell, only a few days before that. Neither death is questionable, and yet…

Many of the Dalgliesh books dealt with the ending of things; institutional deaths, in a way, as well as human death. Whether it’s a monastery or a publishing house, or, in this case, a home for disabled people, ends come and people are uprooted. Toynton Grange is down to six residents, and the director, Wilfred, is considering turning it over to a statewide private group. He has not completely made up his mind. Wilfred was diagnosed with MS himself, but a visit to Lourdes cured him. It was a miracle, and he takes his little band of residents to Lourdes twice a year. He is portrayed as a bit of a buffoon, with several able-bodied people who work at the Grange or live in the cottages, who, while being loyal to him, hold him in some contempt. All but one of the residents is an adult– Dalgliesh has to stop himself from calling them “inmates,” a term that is shockingly relevant, given the story’s treatment of people with disabilities. They all get about in wheelchairs. There is a doctor, two female nurses and one male attendant, a handyman and a philanthropist who rents the most picturesque cottage. The doctor’s booze-swilling, disloyal and dissatisfied wife also lives on the property and seems to mostly nag her husband to find a real job and get them out of the hinterlands. Because it’s James, all of the staff are socially or legally vulnerable; the doctor had his license removed years before and only recently reinstated; one of the nurses struck a patient in a previous assignment; the handyman has a jail-record. It’s not a secret, and Wilfred acts as if this is him giving people a second chance, but it means every one of them is vulnerable if the place is sold or assigned to a larger concern. Wilfred’s sister Millicent also lives on the property.

As I said, the story is atmospheric and interior, with everyone having something to hide, most people having many things to hide. I think in 1975 the inclusion of five fully developed characters, however unpleasant they were, in wheelchairs, dealing with a chronic illness, was probably innovative, and perhaps my discomfort with James’s depiction of disability shows how far we’ve come. Or maybe I’m reading it dead wrong, imposing my own biases and squeamishness on the residents, but Good Lord, that was hard to keep dealing with.

Before he even gets there Dalgliesh worries about having to interact with people whose limbs shake and whose heads might wobble. He hasn’t been exposed to the disease before, so I suppose this is actually is a fair and honest reaction for the time. The residents themselves, though, articulate self-loathing in excruciating detail. Without question, they absorb the negative judgments of the able-bodied around them. For example, Ursula married a closeted gay man (she never seems to understand that he is gay but we do) who loved to buy her hippie-style clothing and dress her up. She was life-sized doll to him, not a person, and he was physically repelled by the spread of the MS. So is Ursula, who came to Toynton Grange surprisingly early so that she wouldn’t “upset” hubby with the twitching muscles and so on. Victor Holroyd, who died in the fall from the cliffs, was a smart, bitter man who saw people’s weaknesses and only spoke to hurt. He comes back from a visit to London shortly before Father Badderly died nearly crowing with malicious triumph, and it’s clear he’s uncovered a secret he is going to use to hurt and humiliate someone. As vicious as he is, this is at least a “fight” response to the disease, badly directed though it may be.

Every one of the residents who act within the story are either bitter and vicious, or despairing. Bitterness seems like a natural reaction to a disease like MS, but people who live with this disease have other attributes as well. Midway through the book, as a counterpoint to another death, we follow Ursula’s thoughts as she painstakingly, morosely plans to take her own life. It’s probably not that long a passage but it seems to go on for days. A minor character, a young woman who was the “star” of a television documentary/expose about National Health’s treatment of people living with MS, is manipulative and cruelly backstabbing.

Two of the residents, Henry Carwardine and Grace Willson, exist in the story as more than self-pity and a collection of tics, and that’s all to the good. Henry, though, is revealed as callous, critiquing the testimony of the people at an inquest as if it were a television program for his entertainment.

Reading this post over, I realize that the residents, as a group, are not that much nastier, whinier or unpleasant than the able-bodied characters. The problem is that they are a distinguishable group with one thing in common, and they are all given similar traits. This leaves me feeling uncomfortable.

When Millicent, Wilfrid’s sister, coarsely opines to Dalgliesh that one of the residents is attracted to another character, then pronounces that they shouldn’t even think of sex once they’re in a wheelchair because to her that’s disgusting, Dalgliesh admits to himself that secretly he agrees with her. Dalgliesh is our window into the story; to see him condone that kind of comment, even internally – doesn’t that tell us that the story sees it this way too? Maybe not, but I was left floundering and confused. The problem isn’t that the disease isn’t portrayed honestly. It is, without any sentimentality or sanitizing. These people have been abandoned, though, and at times the book seems to say that this is the right thing.

I guess what it comes down to is that the book is dated; in 1975, the number of places a person in a wheelchair could even go was limited; mobility technology was nonexistent and The Black Tower captures this accurately. I’d be more comfortable if James hadn’t intentionally chosen two symbols, the Grange itself and the Grange’s folly, the Black Tower, to hammer home a sense of ugliness and distortion, as both buildings are as twisted and “deformed” as the bodies of the residents are sometimes presented. And Wilfrid’s kindly ineptitude just pours salt on the wound; he’s opened up his ugly stately home “by the sea” for people with a debilitating illness… but they cannot see the ocean from anywhere in the house. Build a glassed-in patio closer to the water, and pave a path to it? Wilfrid, beneficiary of a miracle, in his own mind a homespun saint, couldn’t quite work his way around to doing something like that. Certainly that failing is his, but the story still seems to ask, “Well, disabled people, what do you expect? Be grateful for the scraps you’ve been given.”

And yet, again… The prose. I’ll leave you with two little bits of it:

“… He came into Dalgliesh’s hospital room preceded by Sister, attended by his acolytes, already dressed for the fashionable wedding he was to grace as a guest later in the morning. He could have been the bridegroom except that he sported a red rose instead of a customary carnation. Both he and the flower looked as if they had been brought and burnished to the peak of artificial perfection, gift-wrapped in invisible foil, and immune to the chance winds, frosts and ungentle fingers which could mar more vulnerable perfections…”

This is a description of the consulting physician who gave Dalgliesh the original, wrong, death-sentence diagnosis.  The word “immune” in the middle of that passage is anything but random.

And here, Dalgliesh and the philanthropist return to the philanthropist’s cottage to find that a marble bust has been destroyed.

“Still not speaking, they moved together warily over the carpet. The head, hacked into anonymity, lay among a holocaust of marble fragments. The dark gray carpet was bejeweled with gleaming grits of stone. Broad ribbons of light from the windows and the open door lay across the room and in their rays, the jabbed slivers twinkled like a myriad of stars. It looked as if the destruction had at first been systematic… A miniature dagger of marble had lodged upright in the sofa, a microcosm of violence.”

Dalgliesh’s internal struggle with duty and doing the right thing (he arrived too late to help is childhood friend) is well-wrought, and the descriptions are beautiful. Did she get the book right? For 1975, she probably did… and we have made some progress after all. Still. The first bite is creamy, rich and sweet, but with the first swallow comes the aftertaste, chemical and unpleasant.

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Raising the Stakes; Orphan Black

“Raising the stakes.” It’s something genre writers think about (hear about, read about) a lot. With some genres, like thrillers, mysteries and romances, the common wisdom is that action has to start very soon on the page and, to paraphrase the immortal fictional character Ron Burgundy, “escalate quickly.”

Part of the appetite for instant action and rapid escalation comes from movies and television; part, I think, comes from the increasingly common habit of reading on a small screen, which makes each swipe “feel like” a page, and give the brain the sense that you are turning, turning and turning without much going on. While I’m not sure I accept “rapid escalation” as a given, it’s helpful to be able to do it when you want to.

If you want a model of rapid escalation plus deepening mystery, watch the first episode of BBC America’s brilliant science fiction thriller, Orphan Black. You can purchase it On Demand, or maybe find it for free with commercials.

Some background. This is science fiction, so you have to be willing to suspend disbelief. As part of the launch, BBC America did a great job of hinting that the show was SF without releasing any clues. Then, in the first episode, we meet Sarah Manning.

We see Sarah waking up on a train coming into the station in Toronto, Canada. Her heavy make-up, punked-up clothing and a bit of rough language slot her into a certain class within the first fifteen seconds of the show; Sarah is blue-collar and a punk. On the platform, she makes a phone call and asks to speak to someone named “Kira,” but the person on the other end of the call hangs up. It’s plain that Kira is important to Sarah. Sarah notices a woman at the other end of the platform, crying as she steps out of her shoes, takes off her jacket and drapes it over her purse. Sarah heads toward the woman, but it is plain she’s not acting out of compassion, she’s just going in that direction. She reaches the woman, who turns to face her. The crying woman looks exactly like Sarah. A moment later, she has stepped off the platform and into the path of the oncoming train.

That’s in Minute 01.

Minutes 02-05; Sarah is shocked, confused, but her survival instincts kick in, and she snatches the dead woman’s purse. We get a few quick shots of exposition: ID for the dead woman, Elizabeth Childs, and the fact that she has two smart phones and one is pink. We meet Felix, Sarah’s foster brother (from this point on if I mention Felix I will call her his brother, because in every way except DNA that’s what he is); we learn that Kira is Sarah’s daughter; Sarah has stolen cocaine from her violent criminal ex-boyfriend Vic, and that “Mrs. S,” Sarah and Felix’s foster mother, has care of Kira and will fight Sarah for custody. We learn that Sarah had a vague plan to sell the coke, grab Kira, and start over. Now she plans to go to Beth’s flat, and at Minute 06 we see a mysterious phone call from someone named Art.

In the next act we see Sarah searching Beth’s apartment; seeing a picture of Beth’s boyfriend; uncovering a smorgasbord of prescription meds, learning that Beth has $75,000 in a newly opened account, watching videos of Beth and practicing her more middle-class accent and vocal tone.

Meanwhile, Felix has gone to the morgue to identify the dead woman as Sarah Manning. Sarah’s new plan is to fake her death, take the money, get Kira and start over.


At Minute 13 Sarah pulls her first impersonation of Beth, at the bank. We see her get into Beth’s deposit box and be baffled by photocopies of IDs and birth certs of three women, all of whom look exactly like her. By now, the canny viewer sees where the plot is going. And, the pink phone rings. (She doesn’t answer.)

At Minute 16 we meet Art; a detective. Art is a cop and he knows Beth well. He is angry with her. Is Art a dirty cop? Is Beth an informant of his? An accomplice? We don’t know and neither does Sarah, but it’s clear from Art’s side of the conversation that he is close to Beth and he is angry – angry, and worried.


At Minute 20, Sarah as Beth finds herself in front of a group of cop administrators and lawyers. Beth is a detective who was involved in a civilian shooting; the hearing is to decide whether Beth will be reinstated or whether criminal charges will be filed. Sarah knows zero about the shooting and about Beth’s relationship with other cops; while she’s familiar with cops from being on the other side of the handcuffs, she knows nothing about police procedure. What will she do?

Note that slightly less than halfway through Episode One, the stakes have been raised to extraordinary heights for Sarah.

(I won’t tell you how she navigates the review board because you’ll want to see it.)


At Minute 27, Felix raises the emotional stakes, pointing out that Beth looks exactly like Sarah. “This is your story. Every foster kid dreams of their real family.” When, a moment later, he says something about being special, Sarah counters, “There’s nothing special about me.” This is character revelation; a statement about herself that informs many of Sarah’s incredibly bad choices as the show continues.

At Minute 30, Sarah is surprised by Beth’s handsome, dangerous and not-completely-stupid boyfriend Paul. She distracts him with sex. And I mean, distracts him.

At Minute 37 we see Art following Sarah to the bank, where she gets her $75,000 in cash.

The stakes for Sarah are pretty high now, but it’s still fairly easy to disapprove of her because, after all, she is a thief and a con artist. In the meantime, though, Vic has shown up. Once Felix convinces him Sarah is dead, he turns into a blubbering mess and demands a memorial service. Felix agrees, and it’s held out by the river. Sarah watches from across the water, and she’s actually a bit amused, until a car pulls and Mrs S gets out, with seven-year-old Kira. Sarah freaks out. On the phone to Felix, she begs him to stop Kira from seeing the funeral. “She can’t think I’m dead, Fee!” We see the depth of Sarah’s emotion and we believe her, and maybe for the first time we believe that she is doing this incredibly stupid daredevil thing for her daughter. At Minute 39, stakes raised again.

At Minute 41, another lookalike, this one with a German accent, confronts her, calling her Beth and saying she has brought the information. She also says, “Your partner has been following you.” This woman is coughing up blood and seems weak, and Sarah is desperate to get away from her. She gets into her (Beth’s) car, but the German follows. Seconds later she is shot though the head by someone with a sniper rifle. The next shot misses Sarah by millimeters as she ducks.


At minute 42 of a 44-minute show, Sarah is racing a stolen car down a country road, with a shot-out windshield, and a dead body that looks exactly like her in the back seat. And then the pink cell phone begins to ring.


A lot of stakes, and a lot of mysteries. Over the show’s five seasons, each mystery solved opens a door to a deeper one, until all is resolved at the end. For a show with such a tightly written opening, later in the season (and later seasons) it seemed to meander, especially with the character of Alison, and the storyline in which Felix discovers his biological sister. As we discover, though, those detours all tied back in to the main story at the end.

This is television, a visual medium, and so it can do a lot of this simply by relying on the talent of its incredible cast. It takes a few seconds to show us pictures of IDs with identical photos; it takes a glance between Art and another detective behind Sarah’s back to show us that there have been problems brewing for a while. It is harder to do this in prose.

Still, as model for how to up the ante, raise the stakes it’s a damned good one. Take a look. Tell me what you think.


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Television Tuesday; The 13th Doctor Makes Planetfall

Doctor Who is a very old British science fantasy show. It follows an alien character called The Doctor. The Doctor travels around in a time/space vehicle called the TARDIS, which stands for Time and Relative Dimension in Space but really doesn’t stand for anything, it just sounds cool. The TARDIS is a fun thing in the show because it lets the main character go anywhere and anywhen, but the game-changer about this fifty-plus-year-old show is that the Doctor doesn’t exactly age. Time Lords (the Doctor is one) regenerate when they get to the end of a “life cycle” (or just when they’re killed sometimes); completely changing form. One of the famous things about The Doctor is that thirteen actors have played the role.

Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor (c) BBC America

Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor (c) BBC America

Even though the Doctor is not human and not from earth, for baffling reasons, every single regeneration had been in to a white British man. Some were young and some were old, but “white British male” was the default… until now. With the Thirteenth, female British actor Jodie Whitakker  has taken on the role, and she debuted on Sunday, October 7.

And she was delightful.

If you’ve never watched the show, and you like fantasy (there’s scientific talk but this is not science fiction. They travel in time, that’s the first clue), this would be a good time to start watching it. Go back and watch the first episode of this season, and you’ll get an idea of what regeneration is and who the Doctor is.

For those of us who have watched it awhile, there were so many little bits of joy. The Doctor never carries weapons, but they do carry a tool, a sonic screwdriver. The 13th Doctor has lost hers in the regeneration — wait, the 12th Doctor lost his when he regenerated into her, I guess — anyway, she doesn’t have one, so she builds one. As a bonus, near the end of the show is a shout-out to the city of Sheffield, Britain’s working-class steel city where the story takes place. “With extra Sheffield steel,” she said, brandishing the screwdriver. The Doctor in any incarnation is a tinkerer, a builder, a fixer, but to see one develop her own magical tool was awesome! And there are dozens of one-liners that hark back through the previous shows and previous characterizations. It was heavenly.

The 13th Doctor's "Swiss Army Screwdriver." And yes, I do see that it looks like a little like a sex toy, and I'm okay with that.

The 13th Doctor’s “Swiss Army Screwdriver.” And yes, I do see that it looks like a little like a sex toy, and I’m okay with that.

The plot of the story was adequate, leaning heavily on the plot of the movie series Predator, but dedicated Who-watchers know that you never watch this show for the plot. You watch it to see how the Doctor and her (usually) human friends are going to get out of scrapes and save the world, without resorting to shooting or other violence.

I am really looking forward to this season. Along with a new Doctor and her new human companions, the show has a new show-runner. And whatever happens, good or bad, the passionate and loyal, not to say sometimes-rabid fans of the show will have opinions, and they won’t be reluctant to share them. Let the fun begin.

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The Not-the-Julia-Child-Kitchen; Japanese Eggplant

The Japanese eggplant caught my eye because they were beautiful, so I bought some. I thought they’d make a nice saute to go with the salmon that night, and I was right.

Japanese eggplant at the Sebastopol Farmers Market.

Japanese eggplant at the Sebastopol Farmers Market.

Eggplant is a chewy vegetable with a subtle flavor that functions best, in my opinion, as a sponge for the flavors around it. With that in mind I chose some strong ones. I cooked two eggplants with the following ingredients;

  • ½ a Walla Walla onion coarsely chopped
  • Fresh garlic to taste
  • 3 tsp capers
  • ½ tomato chopped
  • 8 large fresh basil leaves chiffonaded
  • 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • Pepper and salt

I sliced the eggplant into 1/8 inch slices a bit on the diagonal. (They looked a little bit like banana slices!)  I heated 2 Tbsp olive oil in a skillet over high heat until the oil began to shimmer and move in the pan. Then I put in the onions first, turned the heat to medium high and sautéed them until they were tender and translucent, about two minutes. Shortly after the onions went in I added the garlic. I used to put the garlic in first, but it tends to burn and get bitter.

Onions (I chopped them more finely than this but not much), eggplant and sliced garlic.

Onions (I chopped them more finely than this but not much), eggplant and sliced garlic.

Fresh basil, onions, capers and fresh tomato.

Fresh basil, onions, capers and fresh tomato.

Once the onion were gleaming and tender I added the eggplant. I stirred frequently so that all the eggplant slices soaked up the olive oil, the garlic and onion. After about three minutes I added the capers. I stirred for another three or four minutes. I added the tomato, then poured in the vinegar and covered the pan. I let it cook for about another three minutes, stirred in the basil and served it with the salmon, along with steamed chard and salads. It was tasty and held up to the strong flavor of the fish.

Layer the leaves, roll them lengthwise like a cigarette, then slice narrowly.

Layer the leaves, roll them lengthwise like a cigarette, then slice narrowly.

"Chiffonade" means "ribbonlike," or maybe just "ribbon."

“Chiffonade” means “ribbonlike,” or maybe just “ribbon.”

That wasn’t the best meal I got out of that recipe though. There was about half a cup left over. The next day I mounded it onto a slice of dense, crusty buckwheat bread from Revolution Bakery, added two slices of Matos Family St. Jorge cheese on top and slipped it under the broiler until the cheese melted. That was lunch. It was yummy.


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Television Tuesday; The Miniaturist.

The Miniaturist showed on PBS Masterpiece last month. You may be able to find it On Demand. The three-part adaptation of Jessie Burton’s novel and book-group favorite was beautiful, borrowing unabashedly from the visual style of the Dutch Old Masters; rich buttery light in contrast to velvety, sinister shadows. This is completely appropriate, because the story of The Miniaturist takes place in late seventeen-century Amsterdam. It’s filled with strangeness, danger and mystery; full of doubles, facades, veneers, and hidden interiors.

Petronella Oortman (Anna Taylor-Joy) comes alone to the house of Johannes Brandt in Amsterdam. She is his wife; they were married in a brief ceremony in her home town, to the relief of her mother because the marriage settlement covered the horrendous debt Petronella’s father left them with when he died. Johannes is a highly successful merchant and leader of merchant society. The marriage is not consummated on the wedding night, and when Petronella comes to the house, alone except for her pet parrot, he is not at home. Petronella is confronted with Johannes’s bitter, acerbic sister Marin (Romola Garai), who has run the household until now. Marin dresses in severe black and forbids sugar in the house because “sugar rots the soul.” (Sugar plays a multi-layered role in this story.) She is cruel to Petronella from the first, mocking the pet bird, forbidding Petronella to have it in her room, insulting Petronella and refusing to allow marzipan in the house when Petronella requests it, even though by custom Petronella is now the woman who should run this household.

The adaptation sticks closely to the book, with some of the usual changes one sees when a property jumps from one medium to another. Timeframes are compressed a bit. Some changes seem mysterious (like, one dog and not two?) and may have to do with  production costs. The basics of the story, a young woman coming of age and into her power; the study of the hypocrisy that passes for piety, the theme of masks, surfaces, and interiors are faithfully rendered.

When Johannes (Alex Hassell) does appear, he is off-handed, indifferent to Nella, and soon gone again, but not before having a cabinet delivered as her wedding present. The cabinet has compartments designed to look like rooms of a house. It’s an early dollhouse. When Nella asks what she is to do with this, Johannes tells her to furnish it. Against Marin’s unpleasantness and Johannes’s indifference, it is easy for Nella to read this statement as, “This is the only household you’ll ever manage.” This, however, is what introduces her to the miniaturist.

Nella reaches out to a miniaturist at “The Sign of the Sun,” requesting three objects. They arrive shortly, and after that more miniatures appear; ones she didn’t request, ones that perfectly replicate things and people inside the household of which she is how a part. Soon, the figures take on almost sinister quality, along with the cryptic notes that appear with them, such as “Woman is the architect of her own destiny.” Nella writes to the miniaturist insisting he stop, but the objects keep appearing. Meanwhile, she has encounters with a mysterious woman, near the miniaturist’s shop, but she never connects with the woman.

Johannes and Marin bicker constantly over a store of sugar Johannes has in his warehouse. It’s the property of Franz and Agnes Meermans. Johannes is refusing to sell it. To the Meermans, he makes excuses; to Nella he says that the money he would make for them would give them too much power and they would misuse it. Agnes is clearly a rival of Marin and soon the maid Cornelia (Hayley Squires) explains that Franz and Marin were in love but Johannes refused to accept Franz’s offer for her hand. Since Johannes and Nella have grown closer and she sees the kindness in him, this past cruelty is baffling.

The book had a lot of interior monologues; in the adaptation, many are given voice. The identity and the motivation of the miniaturist becomes more perplexing, but Nella is soon facing more immediate dilemmas, like unmarried Marin’s advanced pregnancy or the fact that Johannes loves men (a fact that would earn him the death penalty). Johannes’s story is compelling, but throughout the three-part series, the intensity of the relationships of the three women trapped in the Brandt home, Nella, Cornelia and Marin, was riveting. These three actresses played off each other perfectly. All the characters are interesting, but Marin is the most complex, the least likeable, but the easiest understood in some ways, at the end.

Everything about the show is beautiful, and the costumes add an important social commentary. Marin always wears stern, “pious” black and white, but Cornelia points out that her plain, modest garments are lined with sumptuous fur. My favorite use of clothing to show the hypocrisy of this class at this time is a scene in church. Agnes Meerman wears black and white. The white includes a lace collar with points that reach nearly to her waist. The black includes a hat with dyed black egret feathers that stand about a foot and a half tall. In contrast, Johannes dresses finely and parades Nella around in beautiful dresses the color of jewels. When his secret is uncovered, society’s desire to punish him is less because of his “unnatural sin” and more because he openly expressed contempt for their hypocrisy.

Like the book, the story is sad, and prominent characters die (as do beloved pets). At the end, Nella must decide what her place is in Amsterdam. Unlike the book, the television show lets us hear the miniaturist speak in her own voice about her strange gift. Nella discovers that many society women in Amsterdam get the cryptic notes and the strange objects from the miniaturist, and it is clear she has some kind of psychic or supernatural ability that would probably get her executed if it were discovered. Considering the name of the story, this character plays a slight role in this dark and ultimately hopeful story.

Like most Masterpiece projects, The Miniaturist was very well done. It is sad and dark, but there is hope at the end.










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The Professional Writer, One Model

I follow a lot of writers on Twitter and Facebook, and I read quite a few writers’ blogs. It’ll be no big surprise that lots of well-established writers, at least genre writers, still have day jobs. They sell their work regularly but the advances alone are not enough to live on. Contrary to wonderful wish-fulfillment fantasies like the TV show Castle (one of my favorites) it’s a rare genre writer who achieves true wealth solely by writing.  J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Dan Brown and John Grisham are exceptions, unicorns who fill the rest of us with envy.

Even professional writers who support themselves and their families with writing may not only write books. When I look around for a genre model of the professional writer, I don’t have to look too much farther than John Scalzi. Scalzi made the news a few years back with an unusual (good unusual) contract with Tor Books, a contract that means he probably won’t have to worry about how he is going to pay the bills for the next ten years (or nine now). Even Scalzi writes other stuff. He is a guest columnist for the L.A. Times, and his journalism and opinion pieces show up other places once in a while. And Scalzi keeps a blog. He puts up new content every single workday. Sometimes the content is just a photograph of a pretty sunset or one of his cats. Sometimes it’s a music video. Once or twice a month he posts a photo of all the Advanced Reader Copies that have come to his house for him to review/blurb, and asks his readers which ones have caught our eye. Often he writes about something related to the business of writing. Often he writes about politics; both national politics and the politics of the irascible, opinionated and vehement community of speculative fiction fans.

Scalzi has produced a blog for twenty years, along with numerous books. That takes discipline.

I can barely get two posts a week up.

I do write other stuff. I put up a weekly column at Fantasy Literature about 48 weeks out of the year, and about four reviews a month. Still, when it comes to my own blog I lack the discipline to create content for it, so this is an area where Scalzi impresses me.

I think there are lots of organizational tools, calendars and so on, that would help, but at the end of the day (or in my case the week) there still has to be a topic to discuss and words on the screen. And for Scalzi’s dedication to this, I admire him greatly.

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The Prohibition Tour, Better Photos!

I was sure I had better photos from the “Booze, Broads and Jazz” tour, and I did! In particular, I have a not-blurry photo of Jake. So I’m pretty darned happy about that.

These attractive balconies were not just an architectural feature; they were one place lookouts perched to sound the alarms when the dry agents showed up.

These attractive balconies also gave lookouts a good place to perch. (c) Marion Deeds 2018

These attractive balconies also gave lookouts a good place to perch. (c) Marion Deeds 2018

The Hotel Milwaukee was owned by Goon Dip. He was a successful Seattle businessman with a hotel that contained at least, a western-style casino, a Chinese-style casino, a bar, a lower priced brothel and an upstairs brothel with “high-end girls.” (I guess it’s like going to Target versus going to Nordstrom’s.)

He also recruited workers for canneries in Alaska.

The Hotel Milwaukee. (c) Marion Deeds 2018

The Hotel Milwaukee. (c) Marion Deeds 2018

And here is Jake in her non-blurry splendor.

Jake, our tour guide, in her costume. (c) Marion Deeds, 2018

Jake, our tour guide, in her costume. (c) Marion Deeds, 2018

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Visiting San Rafael

Earlier this week I took the SMART train to San Rafael to meet friends Donna and Margaret for lunch. Donna was driving up from San Francisco and Margaret lives just outside of the San Rafael city limits. Margaret recommended Sol Food, a Puerto Rican place with two locations, Mill Valley and San Rafael.

I hear that whistle blowing, it's comin' round the bend... SMART train appraoched RP Station

I hear that whistle blowing, it’s comin’ round the bend…

The Rohnert Park terminal is about fifteen minutes from my house. Since the only other time I’d ridden the train was when they were offering free rides, it didn’t occur to me that I’d have to pay for parking. Yes, of course it should have! Fortunately, ParkMobil has the contract, and if you have a cell phone they are easy to deal with. I have a ParkMobil account but I hadn’t brought my password with me, and I had a new license plate number anyway, so I called the number on the sign. It took about 3 minutes to have them update my info and charge me for parking; two dollars and change.

(Also, fortunately for me, there was plenty of parking available.)

Wetlands and blue sky on the way to San Rafael.

Wetlands and blue sky on the way to San Rafael.

One thing makes taking the train, the ferry, and other Bay Area mass transit easy is a Clipper Card. It works like a debit card and you can load money onto it at almost any transit location or at Walgreen’s. There is a discount Clipper Card for seniors, and the website gives the directions. It works on BART, CalTrain, the SF Muni and the Golden Gate Ferry system.

I took the last train of the morning, the 10:08 from Rohnert Park, because our lunch plans weren’t until 12:30. The trains are clean and in good repair, and my car was about half full. I sat on the side that meant I could see the wetlands in northern Marin County. I was also planning to write and brought a notebook. Since I chose a seat with the little pull-down tray, writing by hand was not a great choice. Others were using laptops and it looked much easier. Next time I may grab one of the four-seater bays with the table in the center.

Sol Food is a landmark, beacon and purveyor of yummy Puerto Rican food.

Sol Food is a landmark, beacon and purveyor of yummy Puerto Rican food.

The ride lasts about fifty minutes. By the time I reached San Rafael the fog had burned away and I was facing a beautiful, warm, fall day. I had wondered about locating the restaurant, but its bright green walls and the oxidized tin roof make it a landmark, and it’s two blocks from the SMART terminal. Once I located that, I walked up Lincoln Street to Fourth, to hit two of my favorite San Rafael places, Copperfields Books and RileyStreet Art Supplies.  Fourth Street is the shopping street of downtown, filled with specialty shops, bakeries and eateries. The Rafael Cinema looks like an art-house from the titles on the marquee.

The Rafael has an art-house feel to it.

The Rafael has an art-house feel to it.

The Original Riley Street art store was on Riley Street in Santa Rosa.

The Original Riley Street art store was on Riley Street in Santa Rosa.

Eventually I wandered back to 3rd Street and Lincoln to meet Donna and Margaret.

It's just trellis and some bricks but I liked the textures.

It’s just trellis and some bricks but I liked the textures.

An offering in one of the Fourth Street Galleries. Animal figure.

An offering in one of the Fourth Street Galleries.

About Sol Food itself… the bright color of the building gives you one clue about the place. They have a to-go counter next door, and at 12:15 I had to squeeze through the line that had formed there. The sit-down restaurant was packed and noisy. Inside, cheerful colors and barn wood predominate. There are several community tables and we ended up sitting at one. We ordered at the counter, and our food came out quickly. A short description of the food—delicious. I had pollo al horno. The chicken was juicy and tender, the rice perfectly cooked, and the plantains stole the show, both the garlicky “plantain tortilla” and the soft, sweet yellow plantain. Donna and Margaret each has shrimp dishes. The flavors were wonderful and the portions large.

Angelo's letter --quintessentially Marin County.

Angelo’s letter –quintessentially Marin County.

Outside the front door, the owners have posted a handwritten letter they got from a San Rafaelian named “Angelo.” Angelo disapproves of the green color. In his letter he states that it “…may be appropriate for Puerto Rico, but not Marin County.” He will never eat there again until they paint it a color he approves of, and he will tell his friends not to go there. Angelo, I hate to break this to you, but your boycott campaign is simply not working. It’s hard to compete with scrumptious food.

I raise my eyebrows at bright colors usually, but the green makes the Sol Food building look like it’s in the tropics, which is how it should look.

I recommend the food. Sol Food is noisy and not a good place for a quiet conversation, but they do have take-out.

An egret looks for food.

An egret looks for food.

The three of us wandered back up to Fourth Street, drooled over all the books in Copperfields and had coffee in the Copperfields café. (Oooh, that conjures up an unpleasant image!)  The San Rafael store is large, well-lit and reminds me of the old Berkeley bookstores in their heyday (it also reminded me of Elliott Bay Books in Seattle). They have a good selection although I could not locate the horror section. I didn’t ask because I was only mildly curious.

We parted company and I caught the train back. There were more people at each station, this time many young people with bikes, which seems like a good plan. I was home by four-thirty.

White pelicans.

White pelicans

I’ll definitely do this again. I haven’t taken the train north yet; a ride to Railroad Square and back might be fun some fine autumn day.

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My birthday was on Friday.

Any day is a great day to have a birthday but one bonus about Friday is that it’s the start of the weekend, so you can extend your birthday celebration if you want.

On Friday I drove out to Armstrong Woods and walked around in the redwoods. I love the redwoods. I don’t get the same flood of creativity and wonder that the ocean gives me… it’s more like old-fashioned awe.

I stopped at Mary’s Pizza on the way home for a salad and breadsticks. I didn’t eat a bigger meal because I was scheduling a self-indulgent dessert for the evening, before I went to Petaluma Copperfield’s to hear Greg Van Eekhout at his author event for Voyage of the Dogs.

I went to Zazzle’s and had their delicious chocolate mousse. Zazzle’s is directly across the street from Copperfield’s. They used Voyage of the Dogs as the theme for one of their large windows.

The crowd was small, mostly adults but about one-third kids. Van Eekhout had spent the afternoon at two elementary schools, one in Penngrove and one in Petaluma. Several of the children were from the schools, but not all of them. And — there were three dogs. Henry was a chocolate lab, one year old, who was just so very happy to be there! There were new humans! And new human kids! And other dogs! As the little girl behind me (a friend of the boy whose family Henry is part of) said, “He should have a name-tag. ‘Hi,my name is Henry and I want to give everybody kisses.'”

Henry in a quiet nanosecond.

Henry in a quiet nanosecond.

Trixie was a more sedate Dalmatian.

Trixie, who was playdate friends with Cinnamon.

Trixie, who was playdate friends with Cinnamon.

Cinnamon,a chiweenie, came in costume. She wore a space suit for the first few minutes of the reading and Q&A, but it came undone. Cinnamon stayed close to her kids at first, even growling once, but as soon as the costume came off she relaxed into a friendly, ebullient canine who wanted to meet all the humans and was overjoyed to see her playdate friend Trixie. (Some really poor images of Cinnamon, sorry.)

Partial image of Cinnamon, in her space suit costume.

Partial image of Cinnamon, in her space suit costume.

Greg Van Eekhout loves dogs. He said he wrote the book, Voyage of the Dogs, because when he thought about where he wanted to spend six months writing — “what head-space I wanted to be in” — he knew he wanted to spend time in a fun adventure “with good dogs.”

Greg vanEekhout

Greg vanEekhout

Lopside, Bug, Daisy and Champion are uplifted canines assigned to the first interstellar ship. However, the dogs wake up from cryo-suspension to discover the ship damaged and the life pods gone. The dogs who call themselves “the Barknauts,” decide to carry on with their mission, and that is the thrust of the story.

Van Eekhout is a warm, funny, engaging presenter. He explains things simply  without talking down to a kid audience (as when he explained Morse code). I could have listened to him for another hour, frankly.

All in all, a good birthday! And the fun continued Saturday, when I spent the day in Benicia with my friends from the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. After brunch, in addition to our usual visit to Bookshop Benicia, we checked out the First Street jewelry and crafts fair.


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Remember Me

Remember Me aired on PBS, an import from BBC filmed in 2014. The show comprised three one-hour episodes as a disillusioned detective and a young caregiver tried to solve the mystery of a missing old man and two suspicious deaths. The town of Scarborough, the traditional folk-tune Scarborough Fair and cowrie shells were repeated elements… as was water. Lots of water.

This is a spoiler: There is a supernatural element to Remember Me. It’s not much of a spoiler, because you would probably figure that out in the first fifteen minutes of the opening episode. The first character we meet is Tom Parfitt, an elderly man who lives alone, surrounded by memorabilia. His neighbors look in on him, and he counts on that, faking a fall down the stairs so that a social worker is called and he has to be taken to a care home. Tom already has a suitcase; he snaps at the social worker when she picks up one of the framed photos at random to take with him. “Nothing from the house!” he says. She slips the photo, of a little boy, into her pocket anyway.

At the care home we meet Hannah, a caregiver. Her mother is an alcoholic and Hannah has postponed going to university so she can care for her ten year old brother. Hannah is caring, emotionally open, and somewhat vulnerable. Tom arrives and he and the social worker to go the fourth floor, where his new room is. From below, people hear a loud, steady pounding, the lights flicker off and the social worker plunges through the glass window to her death. Tom is found out of his wheelchair, huddled in the corner, muttering, “Something is missing.”

The detective’s interview with staff and residents uncovers nothing, but Hannah knows something is wrong because she is plagued by frightening dreams. Tom, who was traumatized and taken to the hospital, walks away from it. He is in the wind; there is no reasonable cause of death for the social worker, and soon another carer at the facility is found drowned; drowned, sitting upright at her dining room table. The table is soaked in water but there is no water on the floor or anywhere else in her flat. And before she died, she told Hannah that she’d gone out to have a smoke the day of the death, and looked up to see a woman in the window with the social worker. Not behind her, pushing her, but literally in the fourth-floor window.

By now the viewers have had an experience at Tom’s old house and are well aware that there is a ghost. When Tom muttered “Something is missing,” he meant that something was missing from the house, a thing that let the ghost follow him. As with any good ghost story, the real question is, why? Hannah’s dreams and visions become more ominous, taking over parts of her waking life, while Detective Rob Fairholme uncovers more mysteries, not fewer, as he investigates Tom’s past. Where is Tom? Is he dead? Soon, the ghost has attached itself to Hannah’s younger brother Ryan. At first, the attention is benevolent, but we know this entity has killed two people already. Ryan is in ever-growing danger.

The first two episodes delivered an increasingly disturbing psychological creepiness. The images of water; dripping faucets, reflections in puddles and the constant pounding of the ocean waves, ratcheted up the tension, while Hannah’s connection to the entity through her dreams and the strange reveries seemed to put her danger. When it was clear the ghost had discovered Ryan, it became downright scary. The idea that this ghost could travel through objects made the hauntings plausible. The ghost’s motivation for the social worker’s death was clear, while the second murder seemed more like a classic criminal’s motive – the idea of leaving no witnesses.

Locations and cinematography, especially of the Scarborough seashore, were breath-takingly beautiful, and added to the sense of a haunted landscape.

The tone of the story changed in the third and final episode, focusing much more on the mechanics of solving the mystery, and the ghost’s motivation seemed to shift again, to a less plausible ending, one that didn’t work thematically for me even though it succeeded emotionally for the most part. Hannah’s dreams and her connection to the entity are not coincidental, it is revealed; there is a reason for the connection. Tom’s “final secret” wasn’t very secret, but his decades-long relationship with the ghost and the woman she was before her death rang true and was sad and frightening.

The biggest surprise for me in the series was the presence of Jodie Comer, who plays Hannah. It was great to see her in this role after having seen her as the gleeful psychopath in Killing Eve. It’s always great to see that an actor you admire really does have range, and Comer’s Hannah is a completely different woman from professional assassin Vianelle.

So, while the tale fell apart at the end, it is visually beautiful and filled with excellent performances. It’s available On Demand. If you’re at all susceptible to ghost stories, don’t watch the first two episodes at night, especially if you’re alone. Especially if any of your plumbing leaks!

(Here is the IMDB link to the show.)

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