Urban Legends: Upcoming Publication

The canonization process in The Serpentine History of the Saint involves my investigators in urban legends. 

In a sense, all fairy tales and folktales are urban legends, not due to their setting but in their production. Rather than strumming gondoliers and courtly poets and even lecturing ministers, folktales originate in "have you heard about?! can you believe it?!" gossip.

Actually, they originate in both high and low cultures. But gossip is the fuel for these tales. 

And comeuppance is so often the pay-off. The urban legend my investigators encounter falls under Stolen Debris: a family puts a body or stool sample or dead pet or, at the most extreme, dead granny in a bag or suitcase or box. It gets left on a seat or strapped to the roof of a car. And it gets stolen. Ha ha! Joke is on the thieves! 

In fact, the tale often ends with the climax: "And it was gone." The comeuppance/joke is implied as listeners can imagine unwrapping...that. Oh, gross!

In fact, many urban legends rely on the "Tell-Tale Heart" final line--the confession (rather than the arrest). Take the urban legend popular when I was growing up: Man sleeps with a beautiful woman. Next day he wakes up and scrawled on the bathroom mirror in lipstick is, "Welcome to AIDS."

Tales like this are often attributed to the need to warn, the same purpose often attributed to Little Red Riding Hood. But the truth is, hardly anyone ever dwells on the lesson. They never did with the AIDs story when I was a teen. 

I suggest that the tales are closer to Stephen King's hypothesis about horror movies: the tale may come from the same place as the "warning" part of the psyche, but the telling is more about catharsis, releasing a worry, than alerting others to danger. 

Urban legends aren't about logic. They are hardly about social understanding. They are, I would argue, almost entirely atavistic and self-serving. 

As one of my investigators says about the Stolen Debris tale (the "debris" in this case is a bone):

Phillipe said, "Part ghost story, part I can tell you exactly what happened with my excessive detail baloney. A worn-out trope. People wrapping up dead pets and grandmothers and stool samples in pretty paper and what do you know, the item gets stolen by thieves.”

“Thieves would surely go for the unwrapped items in the car,” Victor agreed solemnly. 

“Carjacks. Air compressors. Leather seat covers,” Justin murmured. 

He and Victor grinned. Phillipe grimaced and bobbed his head. But he added, “The family is trying to excuse their jerk ancestor for not returning the bone.”

Another Tale about Dragons: Colfer & Lynch

Three Tasks for a Dragon by Eoin Colfer, illustrated by P.J. Lynch is a beautiful book.

It is rather like Margaret Hodges' Merlin and the Making of the King, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, a novel with illustrations that enhance the work (as opposed to a novel with set illustrations)--even more so since on several occasions, Lynch's illustrations cover a full page. 

It isn't a case where the illustrations take okay text to another level, however. Colfer's text is beautifully rendered. The classic tropes--3 tasks--may at first seem simplistic, and there is nothing wrong with that!--but in fact, a sense of fleeting joy, pathos without dread, suffuses the narrative. It did not go exactly where I expected yet was satisfying nonetheless.

A dragon, as mentioned earlier, is a meta figure. The dragon, Lasvarg, has a definite rough and someone sardonic personality (one could see him being played by Timothy Omundson). Within the story, he operates as a full character. Yet at the end, he gains a memory that puts him beyond the tale. The memory isn't delivered in a heavy-handed manner. Colfer is too good a storyteller. Still, the sense of dragon as judge (and storyteller) remains.

Highly recommended!

Y is for Yawny Yancy and Young at Heart Youngson

What I read: The Highly Effective Detective by Richard Yancey.

As stated in an earlier post, the books on this list are not (always) books I have finished. This is one I didn't finish even though I got it out of the library twice plus it is reasonably well-written with clever dialog, clearly established characters, and humorous situations. I would probably try to keep going if it wasn't due Monday [in 2010].

I'm just as happy to send it back; it bores me. After some thought, I've decided that this is because it is detective rather than mystery fiction.

I enjoy mysteries, and I enjoy cop/lawyer shows, but I have never cared for American P.I. fiction. One reason is that I am partial to the "cozy" (though I am a fan of Law & Order, specifically Seasons 1-4 when it still felt gritty and focused on the evidence).

In addition, despite my high opinion of both Humphrey Bogart and Patrick Stewart, I've never cared much for Bogart's Raymond Chandler-type movies or for Star Trek TNG's Dixon Hill episodes. P.I. plots are almost always gangster-oriented, and gang stories (with the exception of The Freshmen with Matthew Boderick and Marlon Brando) don't grab me. The moment I see the word "gang" or "Mafia" in a book or film summary, my brain goes to sleep. I've never seen The Godfather and can't imagine a circumstance where I would--voluntarily at least. (I even skip Law & Order gang-related episodes.)

As for why gangs fail to interest me, I think it is because the collective doesn't interest me. Gang stuff always seems to be about the P.I. or gang member versus THE GROUP or SOCIETY: environmental determinism to the max. Even with Star Trek, my interest in the Borg has always been in the ex-Borg, not the Borg itself [and the Borg, by its very existence, bring up the question of the individual]. Collective history doesn't interest me either. I need an individual to latch onto. Even if we are all products of collective DNA or collective social pressures...who cares? [In any case, as I get older, I buy into collectiveness as an explanation less and less. Every person is born into the world as an individual and dies as an individual, even conjoined twins. Collective narratives are just that: narratives.]

Which isn't to say that The Highly Effective Detective is about gangs. It doesn't appear to be. But there is that "P.I. investigating the world" aspect. I need an individual body and an individual setting--and if the latter is a manor house or library, all the better!

2023: I randomly selected Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson. I will say--before I get into thoughts on epistolary literature--that it is very much the story of two individuals!  

Meet Me at the Museum is letters between an English farmwife and a Danish museum curator who begin corresponding about the Tollund Man and develop a close and sustaining relationship. I chose it mostly because I wasn't interested in any of the other books on the shelves (rather sadly, Yancy wasn't available for me to try again: there is a lesson here about the rise and fall of author popularity). 

I was hesitant because I generally don't read epistolary fiction, and I'm not entirely sure why. When I do, I am always engaged. I find the reading fairly effortless. And if it is well-done (which it is here), I come away with a satisfied feeling. 

I think, however, that I harbor the suspicion that letters as fiction is cheating. Not really story. Not complete. Taking the easy way out. Too off-the-cuff. I can't describe my reaction, only I'm wary of the form.

I recommend this epistolary book too!
Such literature can be poorly done: ordinary people who just happen to bring up profound ideas at the drop of a hat. Way too much explanation in cases when people would not explain. Letters that say things like, "I'll tell you the rest of the story in my next letter" (people never do this--not truly), just so the author can create a new chapter. Sudden fulsome descriptions of the protagonists, which again they would never do ("I guess I should describe myself to you"). 

But the truth is, good versions of this form don't do the above. Meet Me at the Museum is written by two fairly well-spoken people who enjoy the act of writing, yet the letters don't feel belabored. They sound like two people talking about whatever comes into their heads without delivering a plethora of names and details that wouldn't matter to anyone. (My mother used to write letters containing completely mysterious details in utterly undecipherable handwriting: Yesterday, I went to the store on Western Ave and bought two screws for the pictures I bought from Leslie for $3.99 each, and I stopped to talk to Mr. Hansen and then dropped by Mrs. Ferguson's. Who? Who, Mom? Who are these people? Why are you telling me about them?). 

It helps that the characters in Meet Me at the Museum are primarily interested in talking about things and ideas. When their families enter the picture, the details are entirely within context. The world behind the letters is a full one, so much so, I imagined some fan fiction in my head for one of the sons.

Most importantly, relying almost entirely on show-don't-tell, the  characterizations of the principle characters in Meet Me at the Museum are impressively clear even though the female writer, Tina, doesn't describe herself  until several letters in (in reference to her daughter and then to another woman). The tone is consistent. And the letters are surprisingly poignant and human. And they bring up history and archaeology, which I always appreciate. 

Despite my lack of warmth towards the form in general, I do recommend the book! 

Great Feminist Film: Woman's World

A Woman's World (1954) may seem sexist on the surface. After all, no women are competing for the general manager's position at the Gifford car company. The women are invited to New York City ostensibly to help their husbands compete: which wife is the most supportive? Additionally, as Lauren Bacall's character sharply points out to Mrs. Talbot, a woman's world in the script is defined by her family. She'll support her husband for the sake of the children because the husband is working for them, not her. 

However, in truth, the movie is intensely pro-women. 

For one, the three women are quite individual as are their husbands and their marriages. Katie Baxter and her husband, Bill, are from Kansas. They are wholesome, family-oriented people. (Katie spends money on a barbecue at one point rather than a dress.) He works hard and has definite ideas, being honest and not afraid to speak up. He also believes, to his core, that if a man can't give dues to both his work and his family--if he has to sacrifice one for the other--then "something is wrong somewhere." When Clifton Webb's character, Gifford, needles him by saying, "Or it is the wife's fault," he doesn't agree. 

He and his wife are true partners. They have similar goals and values and are grateful, in the end, that Bill doesn't get the job though one is left with the impression that Jerry Talbot, played by Van Heflin, trusts Bill and his opinions and may end up relying on the man in the future. 

Elizabeth Burns, played by Lauren Bacall, and Sidney Burns, played by Fred MacMurray, are the Horatio Alger couple. They married when they were quite young and poor and Sid had started out on the factory floor of the Gifford plant. He clawed his way up the ladder. He has hit the glass ceiling, and he honestly has nothing more to offer, though he doesn't appear to realize this fact. (All three men are strong leaders in their current positions.)

Unfortunately, the need to keep going, to never stop, is a kind of addiction for Sid. Horatio Alger with heart problems and an ulcer. His wife wants him to quit. If he gets the general manager job, it will kill him. 

Interestingly, Lauren Bacall as Liz is the only wife of the three who truly qualifies as the kind of company wife that Gifford is supposedly looking for. She is svelte and well-dressed without vamping people. She is tactful. She is honestly kind. She is very intelligent. She remembers people's names, including men who have worked with her husband. She can easily carry a conversation. She is confident. Later, Gifford and his sister Evelyn (Margolo Gillmore) acknowledge that Liz would be the best fit for the type of company wife that Evelyn herself was. (Bacall gives Liz sophistication with a NYC rough edge--like Fred, she has moved up the ladder; unlike Fred, she doesn't covet the rungs above her.)

Liz sticks with her husband when she realizes that he can't help himself. Like Charles Dickens working hard all his life to avoid his father's stint in jail for debt, Sid can't stop himself pushing for the next position. They are both relieved when he doesn't get the post. 

The third wife, Carol Talbot (Arlene Dahl), is the problem wife. On the surface, she appears to be what Gifford is looking for but actually she is quite the opposite. She is a woman who has convinced herself that every deal her husband got was because she slept with one of his superiors. The climax of the movie occurs when her husband, Jerry, informs her that a top position she thought she got for him was already signed, sealed, and delivered two weeks before the superior showed up in Texas to settle the final details. (The superior still took advantage of Carol's offer.)

In fact, it is clear that she is entirely deceiving herself. She didn't sleep her husband's way to the top. Executives had their eye on Jerry for awhile. The wife wasn't a help. She was a hindrance. And she was a hindrance because, in fact, the job has nothing to do with a woman sacrificing herself on an altar to gain her husband--or herself--special treatment. She is neither wise enough nor canny enough to play that game in any case. Just as Lauren Bacall's Liz could wipe the floor with her, she would be entirely outmaneuvered by the sharkish CEOs of the industry. 

Jerry gets the job of general manager when he dumps his wife. (I've always wondered about this ending, not because I disagree with Gifford's choice, but because a guy like Jerry only overlooks his wife's behavior for as long as he has because he is besotted, and she might try to worm her way back into his life. I think Gifford should wait to offer the position until she has swanned off to attach herself to someone else.)

Ultimately, the message is clear: these are women, individual women, not props to a husband's career or decorative pieces to be showcased. The one wife who treats herself like a prop is, in fact, the non-role-model. 

Fantastic film, helped, of course, by great dialog and great acting!  

History is Written by the Winners...No, It Isn't

I recently posted about Xenophon. The time period fascinates me in part because it is such a short period, 546 B.C.E. to 404 B.C.E. (Dr. Hale extends the time period beyond the end of the Peloponnesian War). This is the time in which Greek democracy developed and then fell apart. 

In fact, the democracy part lasted only about 50 years--but consider what came out of that time period! Greek "freedom" (free by the standards of the ancient world) faces off against Persian imperialism and kicks its butt;  Herodotus shows up (before everything falls apart) and sets the standard for researching history; a whole bunch of playwrights do their stuff and they are remembered (even when their texts vanish); a number of philosophers propound on the purpose and material of life before Socrates (Socrates is part of the failing system). 
During this time, names and ideas and hypotheses rose to prominence--names and ideas and hypotheses that made such an impression, people recorded their thoughts about those names and ideas and hypotheses, which records lasted (in part)...till now.
Here's the reality, though. The most amazing experiment of the ancient world failed. It wasn't the Persians who wiped it out but the Macedonians, specifically Alexander the Great. And then the Romans came along. 
Actually, one could argue that Athenian democracy failed due to its own overreaching. In any case, it didn't last.
And yet: Pericles. Xenophon. Herodotus. Euripides. Sophocles. Thucydides. Hydna. Aspasia. Socrates. 
Pieces of writing did survive, but NOT because the system their authors thrived in won. They survived because people saved the tomes and manuscripts and bits and pieces. 
The same is true of Paul's letters. At the time he wrote them, he wasn't a winner, and Christians were a barely acknowledged group. For that matter, Christianity was still twinned with Judaism, and the Romans were about to inflict a devastating blow on Judea. Circa 70 C.E., many Christians and Jews could be excused for believing that their world was at its end.
And yet, the letters survived. Jewish writings from the time survived. People saved those writings
I think the point here is the important one: what survives is what people save. I suspect that the missing letter of Paul's to the Corinthians didn't survive because it was just Paul being pissed off and lecturing people. But the letters where he suddenly went off-topic and talked about God and Christ and human purpose: 
THOSE letters people saved.  
The nobler efforts of Athenian democracy were also saved.

X is for Xenophon and What Makes History

What I read: The Expedition of Cyrus by Xenophon

I'm never going to be a classicist because I like more dialog in my exposition. Book 1 of The Expedition is straight exposition. It's kind of like reading Numbers in the Bible: lists of generals and numbers of troops. It's like watching a Risk game. Shoot, it's like playing Risk. (Most boring board game ever invented.)

However, about half-way through Book 1, Cyrus dies, and Xenophon (who was there, but refers to himself in the third person) goes into this long panegyric about what a great guy Cyrus was and how he would have been a WAY better king than his brother, thank you very much, and this is actually pretty interesting stuff as well as being great argument/persuasion. Here's a guy who knows how to argue his point (and is totally direct about it).

And there are some interesting nuggets. One is the description of the battle. You know those fantasy/ancient legend types of movies where the two sides line up in a really, really, really long line and rush each other? Turns out, the ancient Mediterranean people actually did that, and it sounds pretty exciting!

Another is Xenophon's historical persona. It isn't as if he footnotes his "data." But he doesn't jump to conclusions. At one point, Cyrus is "betrayed" by one of his Persian backers, Orontas. Orontas goes to trial and then "was taken into the tent of Artapatas, the most loyal of Cyrus' staff-bearers, and no one ever again saw Orontas alive or dead, nor could anyone say with certainty how he died, although people came up with various conjectures. No one ever saw his grave either." It isn't clear whether Xenophon is trying a little too hard to NOT make Cyrus seem like a butchering murderer or whether Xenophon is actually doubtful whether the whole thing wasn't just an elaborate show, and Cyrus really let the guy live. In any case, it's fun historical writing!

Another interesting tid-bit is how xenophobic (another "X"!) those Greeks were. Cyrus hired a bunch of Greeks to go fight with him against the Persian army controlled by his brother. The Greeks were mercenaries, yet Xenophon, a Greek, continually refers to the Persian army as "barbarians." He's completely unapologetic about it. That's what barbarians do. Yep, the barbarians are at it again.

The lowliest Greek is better than the Persian king: there's something awe-inspiring about this attitude. 

2023: I learned about Xenophon. I read the introduction to another of his books, Hellenica. I also watched Great Course's The Greek and Persian Wars with Professor John R. Hale. 

Xenophon is apparently not all that reliable. He was "there," at least part of the time, But even when he was there, he seems to have heavily edited events. G.L. Cawkwell in the introduction to Hellenica states, "[Xenophon] is principally what we have to rely on [for Cyrus's war against his brother and the end of the Greek Empire] and again and again puzzles present themselves. For the Hellenica is not history. It is essentially Memoirs." 

Another of Xenophon's problems is "[h]e wrote for men who knew, and felt no need to explain to those who did not know." 
He was no Herodotus, who by all accounts was a truly magnanimous man who felt the need to honestly depict and relate what he heard, even if he personally disbelieved it. In comparison, Xenophon edited by his silence stuff that he didn't want to remember or relate or think about.
Both Xenophon and Herodotus were interested in the moral lessons of history, however. I personally find this approach to history troubling since it can take on the same role as slathering academic theories. The moral lesson gets in the way. However, here again, a difference rears its head. Herodotus, like Adam Smith, observed, then deduced while Xenophon appears to wade into recent history with a story already in place. As Cawkwell states, "The hand of God is an explanation that dulls the quest for truth." 
Contemporary historians still love Xenophon (they love Herodotus more) because without both men, we would know even less about the ancient world than we do. And, too, Herodotus at least was promoting a somewhat new approach to the past. Ancient civilizations had "origin" stories as well as plenty of law documents as proof that a society had been around for awhile  (in fact, most conquerors in the Sumerian time period simply adopted everything that was left and kept it going).  But digging all that up (quite literally on occasion) became increasingly popular at the time of Herodotus and Xenophon. 
How did we get to here?
What was it like back then? was slightly less common but still part of the equation.

Historical Insights: Most People Weren't Elites

 From The Great Courses' History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective:

 Professor Gregory S. Aldrete states...

 He goes on to describe that farming life: 

"You were born on a small family farm. There was a pretty good chance that you would die in childhood of a disease; [if you survived] you would spend a couple decades scratching out just enough food from the soil to maybe avoid starvation. Then, you die. You would never travel more than 20 miles from the village where you were born. You would never see a king, never take part in a battle, or read a book...in addition, you would never witness or participate in any famous event that makes it into the history books [and is the admitted focus of the course]. It was the universal experience of 80% who lived on the earth prior to the Industrial Revolution."

I think Aldrete's view--as even he admits--is a bit grim. Human beings have a remarkable ability to inject gossip, rituals, scandal, games, and tale-telling into their everyday life. Good grief, cave people created hand prints for no other reason, it appears, than fun! 

However, Aldrete's point is well-taken and yet another reason to be grateful for the Industrial Revolution.

Fairy Tales: W is for Winsome Wilde

Oscar Wilde is like the off-the-cuff version of Hans Christian Andersen.
He produced new fairy tales that have as many sad endings as Andersen's tales: the Nightingale sacrifices herself to produce a red rose for the indifferent Student; the Happy Prince gives up all parts of himself; and in a rather nasty little story about "little Hans," the Miller manipulates Hans out of so-called friendship...until little Hans drowns.

Unlike Andersen, however, the tales lack the dark pathos that make Andersen's tales truly memorable. Nothing in Wilde seems entire serious and several of the tales contain quite deliberately sardonic moments, such as when the King raises the Page's salary but "as he receive no salary at all, this was not of much use to him." Also, the King plays the flute very badly but everyone praises him anyway. (Hints of Emperor Nero.) 
The stories are not entirely comfortable, the mocking tone is so strong. In some tales, Wilde seems to be experimenting with early child horror, the type of tongue-in-cheek writing Joan Aiken and Lemony Snicket did so well. But they wrote entirely from within the story. Wilde seems to be deploying language to keep himself at a remove: See how clever I am. That he would do this even with children seems inexpressibly sad.
"The Selfish Giant" comes closest to producing a gentle ending with no self-mockery--though perhaps some self-identification.

Slimy Characters: Dante's Whining Lovers

More villains!

Dante's Inferno is a masterpiece. Part of what makes it so impressive is the insight into human character. 

Dante confines adulterers to the second circle of hell. One of the adulterers, Francesca, argues that she and her husband's brother fell into an affair while reading about Launcelot and Guinevere. It sounds all very sermony and plausible--until one realizes that Dante isn't excusing the lovers. He has punished them.

And the fact is, Francesca is whinging. 

If one is looking for a non-slimy role model, Launcelot would not be it. As I write in Modred versus Launcelot:

Launcelot is such a great guy to hate. Launcelot is the quintessential spoiled kid who goes off to college or prep school or wherever and gets into trouble with some other spoiled kids. He may even be the ringleader, but it will never be clear; he will never own responsibility. And then they all get into trouble, and the other kids may even get expelled, but Launcelot goes and cries and says how SORRY he is and how he never meant it to get out of hand and isn't it too awful and it wouldn't have gone so badly if it hadn't been for that other guy (who told on them).

Dante was not blind to fundamental human nature. Passion and affection are not evil. As C.S. Lewis stated: Joy and affection and pleasure are the aspects that God adds to an affair. By the time the act occurs, the sin is long past. 

It is the self-justifications and blame-the-poetry arguments that keep Francesca's character in the second circle's rats-on-a-wheel windstorm. And yet Dante finds her actions less hopelessly damning than later sins since they at least look outward. 

Dante was a student of human nature par excellence. 

W is for Wishy-Washy Wow with Wroblewski

What I read: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Basically, it is Hamlet.

With dogs.

I'm not giving anything away (although I may later) since a blurb on the dust jacket refers to the book as an "American Hamlet." In many ways, it makes a good deal more sense than Hamlet since a troubled fourteen-years-old boy who can't make up his mind is a good deal more understandable than a sulky thirty-three-years-old who can't make up his mind.

And Wroblewski provides magnificent insights into the original characters.

My two problems with the book are that it took forever to hook me, and the book changed from a story that echoed Hamlet to a story that retold Hamlet.

First, the beginning of the book, for me, was very, very slow. It is extremely readable and not dull. But I never would have kept reading if it wasn't my "W" book, and a lady from my book club hadn't recommended it.

I think the style is a matter of personal taste, not good or poor writing. I like to start stories in the middle--bang! This preference can't be blamed on the Sesame Street generation complex, by the way. I grew up without television. Let's face it: preference is just preference. Some people prefer books that introduce them to a person's life and then tell them every single itty-bitty detail about that life: a lot of non-plot romance books fall into this category. Some people prefer books that slowly unwind, inviting them into a world which they can inhabit breathe by breathe, moment by moment. I will confess that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of the few books of this type that I have read and loved. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle falls into this category. I didn't love it, but it is an excellent example of this type of writing.

In any case, as I mentioned before, the reading is painless, so I kept going (slowly). And about 2/3rds of the way through, the plot picked up tremendously, and I finished the book in about two sittings.

So my first problem with the book isn't really a complaint.

The second is. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

It is fairly easy to parse out which humans and dogs in the novel correspond to what in Hamlet, but the book doesn't read (at first) like an allegory or direct analogy. That is, Almondine doesn't HAVE to represent Ophelia. She can just remind us of Ophelia. Forte doesn't HAVE to be Fortinbras (although his purpose, otherwise, is unclear); he just needs to bring Fortinbras to mind.

Unfortunately, by the time the book hits the 1/2-way mark, it has begun to follow the play pretty closely. It is no longer a matter of the story reminding us of Hamlet. It IS Hamlet, and everything pays off as it does in the play.

This isn't done unintelligently; in fact, Claude's manipulation of Glen really brings home the oily smoothness of Claudius' manipulation of Laertes. But it does make the book feel a tad unorganic. Up to the 1/2-way mark, the book feels entirely organic. What happens happens as a result of a people coming together at a certain point in time. But the end, while not descending into the macabre or the totally contrived, feels like it might just. Soon.

Of course, Hamlet sort of feels this way too (witness audience laughter provoked by the end of Kenneth Branagh's otherwise fascinating Hamlet). Shakespeare didn't have to apologize because he wasn't trying to create American realism. Wrobelewski is. I won't say the effort fails because I don't think it does.

But. Still.

Granted, I think death is a cop-out (again, except in Shakespeare), so I have a problem with a book that pulls you along, bringing together multiple threads and teasing you with occasional variations...and then gives you what you knew happened the first time anyway. Eh? So, it's a little different (I have my own opinion about Essay's choice at the end), but 562 pages! I read 562 pages for a little different?

However, it says a great deal for Wroblewski's ability that I don't considered the time spent a complete loss.

In fact, I can honestly recommend it!

2023: I decided to stick with medieval history reimagined and read Courting Dragons by Jeri Westerson, the first book in a series that presents Will Somers as the detective in the Tudor court. [I recently picked up the second book.]

I enjoyed it! 

Westerson sold me on the court, including the aspect of the Tudor court where people were constantly changing bed partners. She easily presents the setting and time period, as if it is any relatable setting (no mean feat in historical re-imaginings!). 

Her Henry VIII is also quite good, being the young, charismatic Henry VIII of the time of the Great Matter (divorce from Queen Catherine to marry Anne Boleyn). This is the Henry VIII from A Man from All Seasons and The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970). He is big, intelligent, gifted, attractive, and commands great loyalty (and fear). He is also capable of great self-deception as well as realistic tenderness. 

Robert Shaw's Henry VIII

And she sold me on Will Somers. The fool of the Tudor court, he was a real person and survived Henry and ALL of Henry's children. That is...thoroughly astonishing. 

Westerson presents him as clever, absolutely loyal to Henry (even though he loves Queen Catherine and Princess Mary), moral (making him absolutely trustworthy in his loyalty) and capable of knowing exactly where to draw the line. 

I look forward to the next book! 

Great Television Villain: Livia

Sian Phillips from I, Claudius is a great villain!

Phillips was reportedly told--when she tried to concoct a motivation for Livia's evil deeds--"Just be evil." And some have read this starting point as, once again, misogynistic.
I think such critics do Phillips an injustice.
The remarkable aspect of Phillips' performance is three-fold:
1. She is honestly hilarious. The actress has perfect comedic timing. One of my favorite speeches comes when she attends the games. Beforehand, she visits the gladiators and delivers a level-headed criticism of their "professional tricks [that degrade the games] in order to stay alive!" She is utterly sincere and gives the scene--and many others--a hilarious dark comedic edge.
2. She portrays Livia as entirely consistent. Livia is a full personality. Granted, everything she does is to make Tiberius emperor. But she is exact and exacting in her targets. She doesn't kill Augustus until she absolutely has to--and she honestly mourns his loss in her life. She also has entirely human arguments with Augustus, played by Brian Blessed, and with Tiberius, played by George Baker. And while calculating and shrewd, she is part of her culture. Her desire to be made a goddess is based on true beliefs. 
3. She is acting opposite stellar peers, including Derek Jacobi.
One of my favorite scenes occurs when Livia and Claudius have dinner together near the end of Livia's life. She challenges him as not being a fool. In one flicked, upwards glance, Claudius demonstrates that he recognizes her as his match in a contest of wills. He is more morally sensitive than she but equally intelligent. He then speaks to her with the cool understanding that few people hear from Claudius other than Herod (played by James Faulkner).
"Ah," she says, "lost your stutter, too, I see."
She then begins to make excuses for all the murders she committed. She maintains that she did it for the Empire, but she comes across as a woman who is building up justifications (to save herself in the afterlife). The truth: she did what she did because she could, because she is like Claudius--without the gentleness but with an equally ruthless desire to survive. Except, now, she wants her soul to be preserved from hell.
In the end, as emperor, he makes his grandmother a goddess. She deserves the respect.

Fairy Tales: V is for Villains

Fairy tales are not fairy tales without villains!

Fairy tales do not require complex villains but often, they get them. The stepmother's villainy in Cinderella, as acted by Cate Blanchett in Branagh's version, is rooted in historical reality. In a world of scarce resources (or even perceived scarce resources), the second family's needs will take priority.
Such villainy also lends itself to complexity--as in Angelina Jolie's version of Sleeping Beauty's witch. Granted, she comes across as every "woman scorned" hoping to get even, but her motivations are also grounded and plausible for the context. The king's guilt is additionally well-coneyed.
The father in this tale is evil.
Both are interesting variations on the evil stepmother and witch who populate fairy tales.
Evil fathers do make an appearance, from incestuous to manipulative and politically stupid. Historically speaking, medieval kings shared a terrible penchant with ancient Roman emperors: a tendency to favor crazy sons when designating heirs.
It may seem, however, that women are villains more than men, and some analysts will argue that female villains are the result of misogynism. The problem with that argument is that such tales also tend to favor female heroines. Across the board, female heroines are the ones that set off on quests and rescue people. Granted, young sons sometimes join the party, but the young sons are often helped by animals, princesses, and female fairies. Puss in Boots' peasant-to-prince is amazingly helpless, embracing a kind of passive "I can't resist or stop or plan or be responsible for whatever happens next" attitude.
The emphasis on female heroines and helpers supports the idea that mostly women told the tales--to each other and to children and to family members. And analysts can't claim both: the tales were told by women in support of women; the tales are misogynistic. (Actually, one can claim both--many tough women from the 1950s could exhibit great independence alongside odd, cloying deference to men--but with fairy tales, such claims descend into a not-always convincing game of parsing exactly which parts are supportive and which parts are non-supportive rather than looking at narratives in their entirety.) 
I always considered that the plethora of female villains was precisely because women were telling the tales, and domestic tales are going to involve domestic villains.
If one wanted to get Freudian, one would also point out that the female villains exercise an impressive degree of autonomy. From a purely narrative point of view, is a victim of social injustice really somebody that listeners want to relate to? I can see female readers debating the merits of Lucy versus the White Witch--I can't imagine any fantasy reader wanting to emulate Updike's Gertrude.

More on Amateur Aristocratic Detectives: Harley Quin

Although a great many Golden Age detectives created amateur aristocratic detectives, Agatha Christie didn't much. Her primary detectives--Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple--are thoroughly middle-class gentry. Her lesser known detectives tend to be the police or, like Colin Lamb, people connected to the police. 

The one somewhat aristocratic character that Christie created was Harley Quin. He appears in the short story collection bearing his name, The Mysterious Mr. Quin. He is a dark, saturnine young man who shows up when problems/mysteries arise involving lovers. He often solves them by prompting an elderly man Mr. Satterthwaite to take certain actions. 

Harley Quin is not entirely aristocratic, but he bears markers in common with Wimsey and Vance--namely, his secrecy and vaguely humorous air. However, he has a far darker side than the other characters. Christie was drawing on Harlequin from the Harlequinade, and Harley Quin has the unorthodox and faintly chaotic nature of Eros. Not the cutesy Cupid but the god who might just challenge all expectations. 

Christie's novels show a continual willingness to allow for passion and terror in the face of domestic love. She would, of course, come down on the side of Miss Marple regarding civility and decent behavior. But she allows that people are often helpless before their emotions. Characters who plan and carry out deaths are far more venial in her books than characters who wish and hope in secret, full of painful desires. On more than one occasion, Poirot consoles a character by pointing out that "wishing" for a death, however desperately, is not the same as carrying one out. 

Christie also, continually, comes down on the side of young women leaving home to "chance" their lives with rogues and other such lovers rather than remaining safely at home. One gets the impression that she wouldn't be all that big on trigger warnings. Stepping outside the door matters more than throwing up blockades to experience.

Harley Quin protects lovers but not always in the way we or Mr. Satterthwaite expect. The stories are, oddly enough, more Hans Christian Andersen's mermaid walking about on legs that give her continual pain than anything from Hallmark. 

Love is dangerous. Harley Quin will help but he will not pause or excise the emotion.

Two Short Jokes

I'm short. I don't mind. And I think short jokes can be very funny.

Example One

The podium in Spin City. It is raised to give the tall mayor the illusion of being less tall--and therefore, supposedly less intimidating. When Michael J. Fox's character, Mike Flaherty (Alex Keaton, all grown up) walks behind it, he disappears. Flaherty, of course, takes the event in stride. (Click on the image to see the clip.)

Example Two

Doris Sherman (Katherine Helmond) comes to persuade Hayden to become her coach. She walks into a room where everyone, including Shelley Fabares, is taller than her. Katherine Helmond is 5'2", my height. 

She comments that she had to drive so far into the woods to find Hayden's cabin, she thought she would encounter Big Foot. 

She turns and sees Dauber. 

"Hello," she says in an oh-there-you-are tone. 

Bill Faberbakke is 6'6"--the perfect height for a football coach!

V is for Van Dine and Deja VU: The Amateur Aristocratic Detective of the 1920s

What I read: The Scarab Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine

S.S. Van Dine's hero, Philo Vance, is remarkably--and I mean, remarkably--like Peter Wimsey (in the early Wimsey novels). Both are of the upper class (Peter Wimsey is of the British aristocracy; Vance is a New York socialite). Both have a deliberately nonchalant way of speaking and say things like, "We're dealin' with a most unusual situation. Somebody translated [the victim] from this world in to the hereafter in a very distressin' fashion." Both have the ability to become serious, when necessary. Both have a friend who plays "straight man" to their overblown personalities (Charles Parker, a police inspector, and Markham, a D.A.). Both have "deceptive upper body strength" (as Colby says to Charlie in Numbers). Both wear a monocle!

In fact, the similarities are so striking that I compared dates. Sayer's first Wimsey novel appeared in 1923; Van Dine's first Vance novel in 1926.

If one were to argue origins, I would have to come down on the side of Sayers. Wimsey is not only more authentic to the Wodehouse/Hugh Laurie/Lord Percy (Tim McInnerny) tradition of over-educated, amusing fops, Wimsey himself is both funnier and more complex than Vance. (Vance, however, made Van Dine a lot more money during his lifetime than Wimsey made Sayers. On the other hand, the Wimsey novels have lasted in a way that the Vance novels haven't. Which is the preferable career?)

I actually think it is possible that both Sayers and Van Dine brought their characters to life at the same time without ever reading each other's works though both were part of the "Golden Age of Mysteries.: They likely at least knew about each other's works.

William Powell played Vance before
and after Thin Man

But it is also entirely likely that there was a zeitgeist--something in the air--that led to the creation of the gentleman detective, Wimsey and Vance.  It's kind of like when every movie studio in Hollywood suddenly decides to do a movie about bugs. Or aliens. It's in the air!

Why amusing fops who investigate crimes would be in the air in the 1920s is something I can't explain off hand. It was the season of the flapper: a sort of jump-start era to the later rock-n-roll era of Elvis and the Beatles. Both horror and murder mysteries were big news. Hitchcock was on his way to making a killing (ha ha ha) as the premier mystery/suspense director in Hollywood.

But Hitchcock relied on Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant for his heroes: the all-American boy and the all-sexy Britisher. 

Another explanation is that the amusing, witty, aristocratic detective was an attempt to meld Holmes (wholly cerebral) with Bertie Wooster (wholly extroverted and quirky). 

To return to The Scarab Murder Case, it is a bit slow, being more focused on "railway tables" (so to speak) than on human motives.  The mystery is more about whowentwherewhen than relationships. The subject matter is interesting: ancient Egyptian history. The solution is fairly unimpressive. (Agatha Christie did this particular mystery problem better.)

2023: I read the first Philo Vance, The Benson Murder Case. I was confirmed in my reaction that Van Dine is a "mechanics" murder mystery writer. Every chapter is headed with a date and time. Each chapter reveals more about the mystery's forensics or timing. 

Van Dine also focuses on the "surprise" or whodunit. Sayers spent more time on "how" a murder was committed though interestingly enough both Van Dine and Sayers make the same point: without overwhelming evidence, one can make an argument against anyone for just about any reason. The most interesting part of The Benson Murder Case focuses on breaking the primary suspect's alibi. Both the alibi and the solution are interesting, and the climax is quite exciting. The other chapters, which focus on "then we go here and question this person"  aren't so much.

As mentioned above, Sayers not only focuses more on people and "how," she is also funnier and less prone to "telling" than Van Dine. Van Dine (the writer and the narrator) tells readers exactly what they are supposed to think about Vance and everyone else, in exhaustive detail. In comparison, Sayers' first book starts with Wimsey already in motion. We readers learn about him from his behavior and conversation. Although he is lightly rendered in the first book, he yet reveals a more substantive character, as when he confesses to Charles Parker that he likes the beginning of a case when it is just a puzzle but finds it more difficult to proceed when he begins to actually know people. Charles robustly tells him that he is focusing more on his attitude--his pose--than on the truth, and he needs to grow up and cut it out. 

Van Dine portrait by his brother.
Vance in Van Dine's first book will become stern and occasionally, when necessary, kind. But it's hard to spot anything else beyond the surface behavior. Interestingly enough, although Hollywood presents Vance as...well, William Powell, Vance of the book is presented as someone that people will perceive as possibly homosexual. Since Vance is also entirely heroic, such as a choice for a mainstream series is rather impressive for the time period.

Another notable difference between Sayers and Van Dine is that Van Dine is as interested in the police officer characters as in Vance. That is, I got the impression that Van Dine actually wanted to write Blue Bloods! (Nearly all of Van Dine's books were made into films when he was alive.) 

But the zeitgeist referenced above was all about the so-called amateur detective, so the amateur detective is what Van Dine supplied.