The Witch World and Beanworld, plus the world’s most famous Kurd: books read

In her Witch World books Norton has always been keen on female characters charting their own paths, which makes the sexism of HORN CROWN an unpleasant surprise. The book opens with humans arriving in the empty land (the Dales, the setting of her past few books) after fleeing their own world for unknown reasons (there’s been some mindwiping). Despite being The Early Years it’s really just like the Waste or Estcore in earlier Witch World books, a seemingly empty land stuffed full of evil places and wouldn’t you know, the dumb new arrivals start stirring the dark powers back to life. When a chieftain’s daughter, Iwynne, unwittingly taps into the power of an ancient shrine and vanishes, the warrior Elron sets out to find her. So does Gathea, a witch frustrated that Iwynne has stolen the power Gathea thought would be hers.

While the book is well-done and some of the magical scenes have real power, Gathea is a flaw. Like witches in past books she’s dead set on her course to the point of being a complete jerk about it. Instead of respecting her quest or having Gathea develop a connection with Elron and try to balance love and magic, the ending has Gathea having to put her own goals on hold so that she can be Elron’s wife and mother to his child. It comes across more coercive than romantic (as Judith Tarr says, we get the Maiden/Mother/Crone triad but  the Mother is the only acceptable role model). I enjoyed the book even so, but YMMV.

After the material in the first Beanworld Omnibus, Larry Marder’s series went on a long hiatus due to publisher Eclipse Comics closing, then taking other jobs for a couple of decades. The three graphic novels he eventually wrote to follow up are collected in BEANWORLD OMNIBUS Vol. 2. The baby beans introduced in the first volume are growing up and figuring out their destiny; Beamish continues his pursuit of Dreamish; and the other denizens of Beanworld engage in their own adventures. As quirky and unique as the first collection (and just as hard to synopsize), which makes me regret we haven’t seen anything from Marder since 2017. I hope there’s more soon.

THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF THE SULTAN SALADIN by Jonathan Phillips is an excellent book on one of those figures I knew of but not about. As Phillips details, Yusuf Salah al-Din rose to leadership as an ally of Nur-al-Din, leader of the powerful Zengi clan but after replacing his relative as vizier of Egypt decided to assert his independence (and that of his own clan), eventually building enough power that he could take on the Frankish occupiers of Jerusalem; part of Saladin’s fame is that he managed to unite the many factions of the Middle East (divided by sect, ethnicity, clan and personal ambition) and make fighting the crusaders a holy war rather than a war for territory.

Phillips shows how Saladin’s history mixed great successes (retaking Jerusalem) with dismal failures (the siege of Acre) and great mercy with occasional acts of brutality, but maintaining power throughout by diplomacy and financial largesse. This helped build his legend in the West, where the image of him as the Satan Spawn Who Took Jerusalem From Us was gradually overwhelmed by his obvious qualifications as a chivalric knight. This made him a fit subject for fiction, where he could be the mighty adversary Crusader heroes such as Richard the Lionheart required for their adventures (to say nothing of stories about Saladin’s secret and entirely fictitious love affair with Eleanor of Aquitaine)! In the Middle East, Saladin has been invoked as a symbol by everyone from Bin Laden to Gamel Abdel Nasser, being usable as a model of Kurdish independence, opposition to Western imperialism or pan-Arabism. A very good book.

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From Gotham City to Dunsinane and points in-between: this week’s viewing

BATWOMAN‘s second half-season kept up the level of the first half, which makes me sad Ruby Rose has decided one season is enough in the role of Kate Kane (there’s no official statement, but I’ve heard this credited to injuries in action scenes, the time suck of being a star in a weekly series, or her and the producers not getting along). She’s done an amazing job and plays great with her deranged sister Alice (Rachel Skarsten) and her step-sister Mary (Nicole Kang), who’s easily the best character in the show (I blogged this week about her and the show at Atomic Junkshop). In addition to the running battles with Alice and Mouse, Kate has to deal with her relationship with her closeted ex, Sophie and the discovery that Lucius Fox’s convicted killer may have been innocent, which doesn’t sit well with Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson).  Due to the pandemic the season ends, like Flash, without the final episodes, but I will say the one they did have works well as a cliffhanger. “Kate knowing what she’s doing can be worse than most people not knowing what they’re doing.”

SUPERGIRL‘s unplanned finish was much less successful, mostly because the season’s been a mess. The big challenges carrying over from the first half were Leviathan, a ruthless alien cabal plotting mass destruction and new boss Andrea’s Obsidian system bringing billions of people into a virtual fantasy world; and Lena’s (Katie McGraw) plan to cure humanity of evil with an experimental mind-control system. Adding to this, the post-Crisis reality-altering turned Lex Luthor (Jon Cryer) into a respected businessman and the head of the DEO without changing his evil agenda any; while Cryer’s good in the role this repeated last season’s twist of revealing he’s been manipulating and playing all the various villains for his own ends. It’s too repetitive (he mocks Eve Tessmacher for her foolishness much as he sneered at Red Daughter a year ago) and it doesn’t help when the villains are so unsatisfying. Leviathan’s members are powerful but not notably different from any other conqueror; the buildup with Obsidian felt pointless (despite one great episode with Alex as a VR version of Supergirl) as Andrea doesn’t have an evil agenda. Lena’s arc, finally coming back to the side of good, was the only one that really worked. So the season just fizzled out — it didn’t help that winning (though with Lex still a threat) relied on Supergirl making a very unconvincing inspirational speech. “You arranged a battle with Earth, Wind and Fire and didn’t invite us?”

I don’t think I’d heard of Hitchcock’s YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937) before watching it, or if I did I confused it with Rich and Strange. It turns out to be a good version of one of Hitch’s favorite themes, the Innocent Accused (it’s very much in the mode of The 39 Steps). When an actress turns up strangled on the shore (shortly after a private argument with her estranged husband), beachgoers spot Tisdale (Derrick de Marnay) running away from the body. He claims he was going for help but nobody believes him, including his incompetent attorney (there’s a lot of comedy in this film). Tisdale escapes and goes on the run with the help of Erica (Nova Pilbeam), a police officer’s daughter. Can they find proof that Tisdale didn’t do the deed? The leads’ love at first sight works much better than the romance in Secret Agent and the film is a good one with some clever suspense sequences, like the leads being stuck in a kid’s birthday party when they have a desperate need to be elsewhere. That said, I’m not sure the plot holds together (there’s no indication the police even tried to contact the husband) and the climax involves a nightclub band in blackface, so be warned. “You forget, it’s my petrol.”

MACBETH was a Folger Theater production streaming through the end of July. A well-executed, energetic production of the “Scottish play” but despite a striking opening (a staffer discussing trigger warnings for violence gets stabbed) it doesn’t stand out from other productions despite Penn of Penn and Teller co-directing (while some of the magic scenes are striking the play doesn’t make a huge thing of them, which is good). “Methought I heard a voice cry out ‘Sleep no more — Macbeth doth murder sleep!”

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Lo, there shall come furniture

I didn’t get anywhere as much done this week as I’d expected, probably about 3.5 days of actual work. Part of that was that the dilation drops from my opthalmologist Tuesday seemed to hit me harder than usual: I’d expected my eyes would be normal by afternoon but I wasn’t comfortable looking at the computer the rest of the day.

Then on Wednesday we got furniture. A few months ago, TYG had talked about replacing some of the old shelving she’s had since college with something new and pretty. I assumed she’d just given up with all the pandemic distraction but no, she hadn’t. Last weekend, a pantry arrived and we spent much of Saturday putting it together and rearranging the dining room around it.It was a lot of work, but I can’t deny it was worth it. The storage frees up a lot more space and our food stores are no longer taking up the table.

Wednesday, the second piece arrived. The good news was that it was only two pieces so we didn’t have much assembly; the bad news was that the upper half weighed more than 150 lbs so we sure as heck couldn’t put it up there ourselves. Fortunately our neighbor Eric, who’s bigger and stronger than either of us, came by (we all wore masks) and both directed us and did most of the heaving. With most of our pet treats, meds and food in the hutch (along with our small supply of booze) I was able to take some of the shelves that held that stuff and use them for my cookbooks and food-history books.I moved the plants that took up some of the shelving but I’m not satisfied with the arrangement below. I looked at ordering some shelving, but the creeping charlie is in a big, heavy pot and none of them are stable according to the reviews. As it’s hard to judge based on Internet reviews, I may just put them on a table until such time as I’m comfortable going to Home Depot or Target and checking them out physically (my ophthalmologist visit left me quite panicked so I don’t think I’m ready yet).So anyway, getting the boxes for the hutch in and putting it together consumed a lot of time, so I only had a half day of work Wednesday.

I got some more done on Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Apparently my mind has decided I should think this draft through carefully rather than just dashing it off as I usually do. I’ll trust I know what I’m doing. I also finished the redraft of Glory That Was so I’ll look for a market next week.

I went over more of Undead Sexist Cliches, prepping it before I print a hard copy for final proofing; finished a couple of Leaf articles as that source of income is back (yay!); wrote an article on Silver Age comics covers for Atomic Junkshop; and ordered the first of several reference books I’ll be buying as research for the Alien Visitors film-reference book.

Overall, pretty good. Plus I “sold” two more of the free copies of Philosophy and Fairytales (free until the end of the month, unless Smashwords extends the sale). Whoever you are out there, thanks for reading me.

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Trixie health report: thumbs up

Trixie had her eight-week checkup at the vet and despite her recent leg problems, they say she’s doing great.

Over the next week we can start taking her for longer and longer walks and hopefully a week from now she’ll be completely normal again. Needless to say we are very happy about that projection. However … last night she definitely seemed a little uncomfortable. We think it’s probably that she’s off the pain meds and not used to that feeling (it’s been a couple of months now). The vet says we can give them to her as needed so we’ll see if that’s necessary to keep her happy as we give her longer and longer walks. Figuring out how much she can do will be a challenge, but it’s a welcome one.

Our next pet project will be figuring out what to do with Wisp for the long term. Would she be willing to become an inside cat? If not, we could install a cat door, but TYG’s concerned that even with the best doors, a raccoon or something equally unwanted could force its way in. I can’t think of any other option other than leaving things as they are. I think I’d prefer making her an indoor cat, which keeps her safer, but it’s Wisp’s call too. Above you can see her walking with Plushie early this week. If our dogs could adopt her, I think she’d love being an indoors dog — she likes us, but she loves them.

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Owning the liberals in a time of plague (and other links)

Casting oneself as Anne Frank for having to wear a two-dollar cloth mask at Walmart during the worst pandemic in a century would be a stretch for most people in the world, but not American movement conservatives.” — a look at how conservatives are treating a life-or-death crisis as just another culture war issue. Which means “owning the libs” and supporting Trump by not being sensible. Case in point, a guy whining to Costco employees that he shouldn’t have to wear a mask in their store because freedom! Or the man who allegedly shot a Waffle House cook in a dispute over mask-wearing.

As a former tourist-town resident, I can identify with Amsterdam’s relief that the Trump Virus has shut down tourism. And it’s also shutting down money laundering in Los Angeles.

Richard Burr has gotten a lot of flak, deservedly, for selling stock after he learned how bad COVID-19 would get. Insider trading is nothing new for Burr.

Our other senator, Thom Tillis, is ready to punish China for its role in creating a pandemic. Somehow I don’t think he’ll punish Trump.

Rich people are happy to discuss how we may have to sacrifice some lives to keep the economy going. I notice none of those interviewed discuss sacrificing some of their money to keep human life going. Sort-of related: the trolley problem test of our willingness to sacrifice for the greater good doesn’t work very well.

How will COVID-19 alter us? In crisis situations elsewhere, “Planning tends to be tentative and short-term. People cultivate moments of joy when danger recedes, knowing it might not last. Violence and disruption remain painful, but at least there is no expectation of normalcy or control to shatter. Pain runs deep, but so does resilience.”

Georgia found a simple way to lower Trump Virus infection rates — oh, wait, it didn’t, the state simply reported day-by-day infection dates out of order to make it look like they were going down.

Oh, joy, a new COVID-19 symptom.

“If you’re a thief, accuse your enemies of thievery.”

What we should be doing to fight the pandemic. But it’s unlikely we will because, Trump. By contrast the Indian state of Kerala has its shit together on this.

In non-Trump Virus news:

Tired of robocalls? Business groups are arguing that one part of the government’s robocall restriction law is invalid so the Supreme Court should throw out the whole thing.

Milk companies told a dairy farmer he needed to dump his milk. Instead he sold it directly to customers.

Scientists are working on ways to save Minnesota’s forests from global warming.

Now that’s courage: armed black citizens are patrolling the white neighborhood where Ahmaud Arbery got shot.

Theocrat Rick Santorum’s claim that separation of church and state is un-American. And a woman in Nebraska is suing all the gay people for being gay.

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Why do we return to the Twilight Zone?

So after blogging about Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone revival, I got to thinking about the enduring popularity of Rod Serling’s original. Why is it remembered so well? Why does it keep getting revivals?Well, it’s become a brand name so it’s no surprise CBS wants to keep reviving it. That’s a much safer bet than encouraging people to catch an all-new series — as witness I tuned in to the Peele and I’ve never made any effort to catch Black Mirror (not a reflection on that show, just on the amount of stuff that’s out there to watch). And part of the reason it’s become a brand name is that when it came out there wasn’t anything like it. TV SF was treated as kids’ stuff; TV fantasy was limited to sitcoms such as Topper or Bewitched. Twilight Zone took specfic seriously, as something adults could enjoy and that could be done well. It didn’t hurt that along with Serling, we had Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, both established and excellent writers of contemporary fantasy (among other things). Serling also cast a lot of first-rate actors including Burgess Meredith, Ross Martin, Jack Klugman, Wilfred Hyde-White and others. Running from 1959 to 1964, Serling’s work had an impact I don’t think it could possibly have today.

But not every show that made a big splash back in ye ancient times of a mere three networks has such a devoted following today. The original series holds up well.

Part of that is Serling’s interest in people and human nature, particularly his fondness for the down-and-out and the unlucky losers. The insecure cheap crook in Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room. The anguished bookie in In Praise of Pip, getting one last night with his dead son. Art Carney delivering Christmas cheer on The Night of the Meek. But while people often have crappy lives and don’t get happy endings (case in point, Burgess Meredith’s myopic bank clerk in  All The Time in the World) Serling’s not looking to to shrug and say “life isn’t fair.” He gets that unfairness is something that should be fixed. And in many stories he does, delivering a eucatastrophe, a miraculous (but plausible) happy ending.

Another factor, and I think this is a big one, is the nature of the stories. Twilight Zone had a big range: stories with no specfic element (The Silence), post-apocalypse (Two), space adventure (The Parallel) and time travel (No Time Like the Past), but the “generic” TZ story is intrusion fantasy: a contemporary setting with the supernatural or super-scientific intruding on it. And doing so, in many cases, randomly.

In a few of the episodes, there’s a clear reason for what’s happening, such as Jess-Belle where the protagonist apprentices herself to a witch, or The Trouble With Templeton in which the protagonist’s long-dead wife has arranged events for his benefit. In many more, there’s none: fate or God or Satan has decided to upend someone’s life for no reason at all. The businessman in A World of Difference suddenly finds he’s an actor and his life is the script. He doesn’t do anything to bring it about, it just happens. Ditto the woman haunted by her double in Mirror Image or the rejuvenated seniors in Kick the Can. They don’t cross any lines, tamper with anything forbidden, piss off the dark gods — they’re just shit out of luck. Sure, some of them deserve their doom or their miraculous redemption, such as Dan Duryea’s drunken gunfighter in Mr. Denton on Doomsday. Even so, there’s no reason why Fate should (literally) stop in his town and turn his life around, it just happens.

That, I think, makes it more compelling. Because if things like this can happen at random, then they can happen to us. We don’t have to be chosen ones, or profane an Egyptian tomb to be affected. Any one of us, at any time, could stumble into the impossible.

Into the Twilight Zone.

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Sherlock Holmes: “Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

The Holmes quote on my mug says that it’s a mistake to theorize in advance of the facts (though Holmes did that quite a bit), but I think his reason why is much more applicable to writers. In fiction it’s perfectly fine to theorize about your story (plot, character, twists) before you write it. The trouble comes when what we have in mind doesn’t work for the story on the page, but we don’t admit it.

Case in point, my original concept for No One Can Slay Her was set in the 1930s. Jenny was harboiled instead of aristocratic; her wife was a Nisei instead of a beatnik; the opening of the story involved a foreign agent putting her under a sleeping beauty-type spell.

Trouble was, as I fleshed out the main concept it didn’t hold up. The rationale for the spy enchanting Kate didn’t make sense, neither did Jenny’s response. Even after I changed the characters to their current, 1950s versions, the villain’s scheme still seemed pointlessly convoluted. So I rewrote pretty much the entire plot until it worked.

The alternative is to twist your story or your characters to suit your concept. One of the things I hated about Lost was that maintaining the mystery required massive amounts of idiot plot: Locke makes a cryptic comment about what the island wants, everyone looks thoughtful but nobody ever grills him about what, exactly he knows or intuits. In the mystery novel Have His Carcass the murderer’s plot is absurdly complicated because that’s the only way Sayers’ can justify her opening, in which Harriet Vane finds a fresh-bleeding corpse on a beach at low tide with nary a footprint around it.

Avoiding twisting can require changing the original concept, but it may be your characters or your story has to change. Every cozy mystery is built around the concept of an amateur detective investigating a mystery; as mystery novelist Barbara Ross says, that requires giving your protagonist a very good reason for investigating instead of leaving it to the cops. If you don’t have a good reason (and some novels don’t) you can’t drop the murder investigation so you have to change your character or your plot to provide one.

I had the same problem, as I’ve mentioned before, with Southern Discomfort. My protagonist Maria really didn’t have a good reason to help Olwen McAlister avenge her husband’s death, and I kept trying to find one that would make her stick around Pharisee and fight. Turns out there wasn’t, so I had her do what most normal people would do when threatened by a supernatural killer: run. Only it turns out this isn’t an option … This makes Maria considerably less heroic than I wanted, but there’s no way around it.

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The Great Reopening (and other Trump Virus links)

“Unlike wealthier, more advanced countries like, say, South Korea, Vietnam, or Senegal, the United States just doesn’t have the capability or the leadership to produce the kind of testing and contact-tracing system that would allow us to “re-open” safely.” — Slacktivist delivers what I believe qualifies as a sick burn.

While calling for his state to reopen, Alaska Republican state Rep. Ben Carpenter says a)quarantine is very Nazi, and b)Hitler wasn’t a white supremacist, he was just scared of Jews. Apparently he doesn’t think Republicans advocating for thousands to die for the good of the state is at all Nazi.

Public-health experts on where they will, and won’t go after reopening.

As we reopen, some people are fixated on the real threat: 5G cellular! A look at conspiracy thinking and pandemic.

A reliable vaccine would make reopening easier but the anti-vaxxers are organized to stop people taking it.

Here’s a look at the real issues and challenges for developing a vaccine.

An ice cream parlor reopens … and then closes due to customer behavior.

Governors who’ve already opened are proclaiming victory over the Trump Virus — but they’re fooling themselves.

So why reopen when it’s likely to lead to more deaths and not a recovered economy? No More Mr. Nice Blog suggests it’s not about money but about control: “They just don’t want to be told that they can’t have their wishes immediately gratified.”

Like the Tea Party protests of a decade ago, the reopen protests are a mix of genuine anger and a lot of astroturfing. And some people believe in “plandemic.” More on that here.

A Texas company offered to mass-produce some N95 masks. The government said no.

A New York restaurateur looks at her shuttered restaurant and wonders what the point was.

How COVID-19 starves us of oxygen.

Federal employees’ retirement plans are invested in China. Trump wants to stop that.

Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos is funneling a disproportionate amount of Trump Virus relief for education to private schools.

A farmer uses Facebook to keep their farm going in pandemic times.

Four reasons reopening may be worse than staying closed.

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Comics covers for Sunday

Normally I’d have written a book review post for today, but Trixie’s leg problems have thrown me off schedule. So covers it is.

I love this Joe Sinott cover.The classic actor’s nightmare is being on stage with no idea what your lines or even what the play is. Here’s a somewhat less common nightmare, captured by Jack Kirby.

Russ Heath does a great cover for a Sgt. Rock spotlight.Here’s another war comics cover by Joe Kubert.Mort Meskin gives new meaning to the phrase “bargaining chip.”Bob Brown’s monster on this cover looks more like a kiddie amusement park ride than a threat.Dick Dillin’s monster here clearly disapproves of the men violating social distancing.Dillin also provides the cover for this story in the “Screw your superstitions I’m going to do exactly what you said would doom me!” genre. I like the title too, it has a great rhythm and the right level of alliteration.

And here Carmine Infantino gives us a guy whose quarantine is more extreme than planned.

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A speedster and a cephalopod: TV and movies

Like the CW’s Nancy Drew, FLASH wrapped up short of its planned run due to COVID-19’s effect on shooting. Instead of ending the season’s arc, we wrapped up with a cliffhanger to be resolved whenever next season can finally launch. But hey, it did make a good stopping point, even if it wasn’t planned as such.

While I was disappointed with Bloodwork, the first half-season’s villain, the second half made up for it. We actually have two villains: Carver (Eric Nenninger) is a Luthor-esque corrupt CEO running the dark science crime network Black Hole. His wife, Eva McCulloch (Efrat Dor) — close to the name of DC’s second Mirror Master — is a scientist trapped in a mirror-universe years early. Unstable due to her isolation and from Carver’s lack of interest in rescuing her, she’s determined to break out. Part of her scheme involves replacing Iris and a couple of other characters with mirror doubles obedient only to her. Iris, meanwhile, is trapped inside the mirror and slowly going mad.

Eva makes a much more effective villain than Bloodwork, and by the looks of the final episode she’ll have not only her super-science but the CEO of Doom role. Meanwhile something is happening to Iris in the mirror-verse and it isn’t good …

A B-plot for this season involves Sue Dearborn (Natalie Dreyfuss), a professional thief and adventurer working against Carver who winds up joining forces with Ralph (Dearborn was the maiden name of the Elongated Man’s wife in comics). Like most Flash watchers, I think they’re great together. Another element is that the Speed Force is dying; by the end of the season Barry can’t even whip up enough wind to douse a fire.

There were some elements that didn’t work so well, such as Caitlin and Frost trying to get Frost a life of her own, and “Nash” Welles convoluted relationship with a new metahuman, but overall, even with the short run, this half was a win.

IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955) was the first of many pictures Ray Harryhausen made with producer Charles Schneer, who supposedly provided the seed idea for this one — a giant octopus pulling down the Golden Gate Bridge.Kenneth Tobey plays the submarine commander whose nuclear sub, in the opening scenes, is attacked by something strong enough to hold it in place. Faith Domergue is one of the scientists assigned to investigate a piece of tissue left on the sub, coming to the conclusion it was some sort of giant octopus. Rather than being a mutant, it’s a natural giant rendered radioactive by nuclear testing; now fish, with their innate sensitivity to radiation, can avoid it so it’s desperately dragging down boats and attacking the coast for food. This isn’t an improvement on the “grew big because, radiation” origin but it does make it a little distinctive.

While the giant octopus is impressive (YMMV if you’re not a stop-motion fan), the story itself is flat. The film spends too much time trying to gather evidence to convince the military the threat is real, which we already know. And while Domergue’s colleague (Donald Curtis) is apparently involved with her, he doesn’t object at all when she goes for Tobey, so that makes it rather pointless. Watchable, but not Harryhausen’s best. “That haystack just became a lot smaller than we imagined.”

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