Monday, January 30, 2017

The Moon grows dimmer and the tide's low ebb

So, a few months back, someone bought me tickets to see Kander & Ebb's Kiss of the Spider Woman at a local theater. I'd seen the movie several years ago, but I'd never read the book that inspired both.

And the book is a whole different beast than either adaption.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Kiss centers around two inmates in an Argentine prison. Molina, a rather feminine gay man, spends much of his time telling stories of movies he loves to his cellmate, Valentin, a political prisoner being held for Communist activities against the not Communist Argentine government of the 1970s.

Over time, they become friends and eventually lovers, although Valentin remains unaware that Molina has been promised parole if he can get names or contact information out of Valentin. Towards the end, Molina does indeed get paroled, but he never does give up Valentin. Mind you, when he does indeed contact Valentin's friends, he winds up getting killed by said friends while being arrested by government. Valentin obviously knows about this at the end, since as he's in the infirmary being treated for 3rd degree burns and being hooked on morphine to eventually make him talk, he stream of consciousness creates his own fantasy island with his beloved Marta, the bourgeois woman he loves, even if she doesn't particularly return that love due to the nature of their cause.

Did I mention this isn't exactly a happy story?

It took me a while to get into the novel. Most of it is written as dialogue between the two main characters, with only a dash to denote a change of speaker. Like

-Eat the rice paste, it will make you feel better
-No, not unless you finish the movie you started last night.

While that is not an actual quote, it does give you an idea, and accurately sums up much of the early conversation. The non dialog consists of reports from the Warden's office or a report of Molina's activities after parole, or some really long footnotes discussing psychological causes of homosexuality.

Speaking of, for me a reader in 2017, there is a bit of a question as to whether or not Molina is actually gay. While he is indeed male, he identifies as a woman at various points in his dialog. However, having known a few older gay men who do the same thing, it could be that this is again a function of gay culture in the era.

Another question I was left with was whether or not Valentin truly loved Molina. I think, maybe yes, but not as wholly as Molina might have wished. More than anything, I think Molina showed Valentin that maybe people can be more important than the cause.

Oh, and of note here, since none of the adaptions particularly keeps the movies in the book, two of them wind up being bad horror movies. One involving the woman dealing with her new husband's zombie wife, and the other (which starts off the book) involving a woman who believe that if she were to kiss a man, she'd turn into a panther and eat him. That's kind of important, since not long before Molina's parole, Valentin tells Molina that Molina isn't a panther woman, but rather a spider woman, her kisses drawing men into her web like flies. It's actually a rather touching moment, for all of its oddness.

Am I happy I read this? Yeah. It's heavy reading, and a reminder that even in hell, there remains hope of redemption and ways to escape, even if only mentally in the worst situations.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Every Man a King, but no one wears a crown

So, with recent events in the US, I thought it might be wise to finally read Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, since it, along with Orwell, seems to occasionally crop up in various conversations.

So, where do we start with this?

How about some background? Lewis wrote this in 1935, which would have been 2ish years into FDR's presidency, and not that far into the rising Nazi era in Europe. It was also the Great Depression in the US. (We're kind of skipping a heck of a lot of human history with that summation, but for the sake of setting the scene, this should work.)

We open in Vermont during the election cycle of 1936. Doremus Jessup edits the Fort Beulah paper, and is attending the monthly rotary meeting. The speakers that night are retired Brigadier General Edgeways and the anti-suffrage DAR woman Mrs. Gimmitch. (Note to some readers here, particularly mom, if she clicks the link. Lewis obviously didn't have a high opinion of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The character's description uses her DAR status as shorthand for a longer diatribe about a type of woman who campaigned against women's suffrage, tried to find ways in the great war to keep the Doughboys from frequenting French cafes and meeting women of international morals, and generally being a conservative gadfly.) Edgeways expresses his belief that the horrors of poverty could be remedied with a strong domestic military (echoing the isolationism of the era) that defends the US borders from invasion by foreign powers. Gimmitch spends most of her time attacking the Unitarian minister's wife, who tends to be a little more liberal than anyone else in the room.

The one things both speakers seem to agree on is that Buzz Windrip should be the next President of the USA. Windrip (who's home state is never mentioned, but is implied to be somewhere southern-midwestish) is running against FDR for the Democratic nomination of 1936 against the rather milquetoast Trowbridge in the Republican Party. Windrip is supported in this by his Legion of Forgotten Men, the workers feeling they aren't getting their fair share, the vets returned home with none of the benefits they were promised, the downtrodden, et cetera. Windrip gets a boost from a syndicated Father Prang (here analogous with Father Coughlin, another Depression era potstirrer), who believes Windrip will lead America back to Jesus and prosperity. Windrip himself is an analogue of The Kingfish himself, Huey Long. Windrip runs on a platform saying that men under him will get $5000 a year (I don't have the math handy to figure out how much that winds up being in 2016 money, so we'll just claim it's quite a bit) and he'll redistribute the wealth from the rich so that everyone can prosper. Of Windrip's supporters in the microcosm of Fort Beulah, Vermont, his biggest one is Shad Ledue, who works as the rather lazy handyman for the Jessup family. Not that Shad is alone in his support, several of the middle class citizens like his promises of sticking it the 5% who own most of the wealth in America. (What little bit there is in this period.)

Eventually, as the Conventions roll around, Windrip gets introduced last to the convention floor, arriving in a parade of military, poor, and disaffected youth worthy of P. T. Barnum. It takes several rounds of balloting before he eventually gets named the Democratic party nominee of 1936.

Windrip, unsurprisingly, gets elected. FDR, much like Teddy, formed his own Party, the Jeffersonians which unsurprisingly failed to get him reelected. Windrip's political rivals either get ambassadorships to out of the way places, or in his main opponent's case, exiled to his ranch in Wyoming. The Legion of Forgotten Men, in turn, become the Minute Men, who, in turn take over as the official military of the US. Windrip, with some rather large strong arming (like having the Minute Men arrest uncooperative congressmen and senators, dissolving the Supreme Court), passes a series of bills that help get his 15 points into being the law of the land. Most of it falls under Martial Law provisions, suspending most of the Constitution, but includes some rather special provisions like making sure Congress can't do anything without his approval, praising the Jewish population while robbing them blind, stripping women of any right beyond keeping house and having babies, and making sure African Americans are awarded only for being good little Negroes. (It's really ugly. However, it's presented much like a pill to a dog wrapped in flowery peanut butter.)

Windrip's Secretary of State, Sarason, takes on many hats in the administration, essentially running everything under Windrip's benevolent guidance. The US eventually gets redistributed as 8 states, new labor laws make sure quite a few people wind up in a labor camp, and eventually Concentration Camps spring up for dissenters who dare speak against the Corpo government.

Trowbridge, the Republican nominee, ends up in Canada running the resistance from there. Jessup winds up in trouble with the law for writing rather anti-Windrip editorials, thereby getting a new supervisor at the paper. The Underground Railroad starts up again, helping smuggle (or given that Prohibition was newly ended around the time of this being written) or bootlegging humans into Canada.

To skip over quite a bit, Jessup eventually ends up in a Concentration Camp for "Being a communist" (which he isn't), his one daughter winds up killing a member of the government by crashing her plane into his, his other daughter runs the local resistance chapter, his son becomes a true believer in the new government.

Jessup eventually does escape into Canada, then comes back the the US via Minnesota long after Windrip gets exiled to France, Sarason gets killed by the new dictator Haik, and the press and Corpos start trying to engineer a war with Mexico.

Many of the references are a bit dated for a modern reader; when's the last time William Randolph Hearst was a major topic of conversation? When's the last time we were particularly worried about communists undermining American values? *cough*

On a personal note, Lewis doesn't seem to particularly hate the homosexuals of the era, while none are major players in the main plot, a few do get shipped off to the camps, while another one gets killed after deposing Windrip. (To be fair, Sarason is analogous with Rohm, who met a similar fate on the Night of Long Knives.)  Also, the morality of Jessup is a bit different, he's having an affair with the local barkeep, and his one daughter even goes as far to encourage the affair.

There's quite a bit of philosophizing in here, from the contention that those most responsible for Fascism's arrival in the US is due to people not dissenting loud enough, pointedly discussing how dictators both reactionary (Mussolini, Hitler) and Radical (Lenin, Stalin) aren't better than their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, and pointing out one revolution that strips rights tends to lead to a counterrevolution where the rights remain stripped for similar reasons. 

Lewis also uses sarcasm the way friends of mine use Nutealla. Which is to say slathered libreally over almost everything, dripping juicily off of each morsel.

Ultimately, Lewis offers no real answers on how to dig out of the hole once one is buried, figuring it's up to us to be creative and find our own solutions, or, better yet, speak up, dissent, and avoid being buried in the first place.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Words come crashing in, into my little world

I was mildly unaware that Mercedes Lackey and a new coauthor Cody Martin had dusted off the SERRAted Edge novels, which share a world with her Bedlam's Bard and Diana Tregard mysteries.

Not that Silence is particularly connected to anything that has come previously in any of the series other than a loose thread of Elves who came through the Fairegrove Industries Gate from Fairieland. And even that doesn't come into play until about the last third of the book.

We start with Staci, a teenager who's been living in New York City prior to the start, suddenly thrust into the sleepy Maine hamlet of Silence after her father remarries and the wicked stepmother inspires the father to send Staci to live with her mother. Staci's mom really doesn't have it going on, being a waitress and alcoholic who's also kind of the town trollop. Silence is, as almost everyone describes it, stuck in the 50's. No internet, no cell phone towers, and no real entertainment options other than the bookstore cum coffee shop owned by kindly Tim.

Staci, who early on ends up meeting two couples in the bookstore, ends up getting a dial up connection to the internet and "blackmailing" her father after finding out that the stepmother had stolen a few outfits and jewelry during the packing. This allows her to at least order clothing via catalog, given the thrift store isn't a particularly good option.

On her initial exploration of Silence, she runs across Dylan, a biker guy who helps her get oriented in town. The waitress at the cafe helps spell out the setting, noting that almost every industry in town is owned by the Blackthornes up on the hill.

Along with Tim, we meet Jake, Seth, Riley, and Wanda at the bookstore. While the foursome are paired off, they welcome Staci with open arms and introduce her to the wonderful world of tabletop RPGs. They also drag Staci out to teen night at the local Methodist church, which is when Staci meets Sean Blackthorne, who invites her up to the estate.

To skip over a bunch of plot building, Sean and his family are unseelie elves. Dylan is seelie, but out on a mission to destroy the unseelie after they killed his cousin. The Blackthornes have some adverse plans for Silence, which it falls upon Staci and her friends to stop.

It's good to be back in the shared universe again. I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed the elvensteeds that appear as vehicles. I enjoyed the geek references sprinkled throughout the text. I really enjoyed goth girl Wanda sitting down with Staci and pointing out that Sean's courtship is a bit like Edward courting Bella, and that it's really not healthy.

The bad part is that the ending is very rushed. Very very rushed. There's an entire chapter that's essentially an 80's training montage before the confrontation with the unseelie. Staci never confronts Sean directly, essentially letting Dylan (the "good one") do it by proxy. And lord, the climax passes and we get a whole page of resolution.

Honestly, I'm hoping this is a prelude to more, since the characters deserve a better story to inhabit, as well as some exploration of the mysterious backstory of Tim, the kindly bookstore owner.