Dance of Death at A Noise Within

Been a long time since I wrote about one of my adventures in the City of Beautiful Angels, though I’m not at all sure going to see a play should be labeled adventurous.
This was the second time I would be seeing theater at A Noise Within; I’d bought a season package simply because I could cross the street from my apartment, get on a bus, and a few minutes later debark and be right at the rear entrance of the theater. This was especially helpful as the last few times I’ve gone to see live acting it’s been over 100 degrees.
This Sunday was not nearly as hot, but there were other worries. The first time I’d taken an early bus and was consequently the first person there, trying not to flirt too obviously with the concessions girl while waiting for almost an hour for things to start. When I saw there was a bus that would leave me where I needed to be with ten minutes to spare till curtain, I chose that one instead. . . only for the bus to be late, and catch all the red lights. Yikes!
So I arrived, after a bit of a dash through the bus station, with two minutes to spare. . . only for them to start well late. Sigh, story of my life. . .
Okay, on to da show. For some reason I can’t figure out I prefer watching the previews, and in this case the very first one. This day’s performance would be Dance of Death, by Strindburg, who I certainly can’t say is among my favorites. I pictured something heavy, like Proof, but was ready to take a break from all the funny musicals I’ve seen recently.
Though there was plenty of psychological drama, I certainly didn’t expect a bickering couple to be so humorous! Perhaps this was included by the guy who’d adapted it–I need to check that–but some of this wit was classic!
It’s basically the story of a married couple who’ve been together almost 25 years, he a martinet of a non-commissioned Army officer–the reasons why he never rose very high in rank were spot-on–and a retired stage actress. And yes, they hate each other; he threatens to throw her out of the house or have her arrested, while she claims she’ll divorce him and leave him by himself, and then who will take care of him, especially now that he’s sick, though he’ll never admit it. . . and the local doctor hates him.
The set was fascinating; in act one we learn they actually live in the old jail! Seems appropriate, though I found it hard to watch, especially the humorous moments between all the psychological torture. At one point it occurred to me that he was an evil version of the The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper! The most memorable moment–can ya tell I love alliteration?–comes when she plays the piano, or rather harpsichord, and he goes into a hilarious dance, like a demented Russian or Bavarian folk dancer, before spinning–literally–out of control.
There’s one more character, a relative of the woman, who becomes the prize they fight for as they categorize their grievances against each other; his innocence is of course tainted by all this. There’s a great line where he tells his cousin that as a doctor he carries certain drugs, leading her to gasp, in a happily surprised tone, “You have morphine?”
But the most telling line is “It is too late for shame.”
As I said earlier, despite all the hilarious moments, this was simply too hard to bear! But as good as it was, I hated the happy ending!
So once it was done I checked the handout and found the main actor was Geoff Elliot, who founded the company with his wife and is a much younger man than the old coot he’s playing; makes me wonder if he ever played Mark Twain. In all the makeup and especially the broad acting style he reminds me of James Whitmore Jr. in Proof. It also made me ponder about the art of acting; playing subtle moments allows an actor to shine, but playing a character like Edgar must be all about fun!
From there I settled my long-gnawing hunger–can’t remember the last time I had lunch after four, if ever–across the street at Hook, now my second fave burger joint after In-N-Out. . . and they have bacon, which almost gives them an edge in this contest. They also have orange cream soda, and as I’m reading the painted label on the bottle, I see the second ingredient–after water–is cane sugar. No wonder it tastes so good. . .
And that’s the way to end a day at the theater. . .


Poetry Tuesday: Palace Poem

By Ts’ao Ching-chao (c.1620)

Bejeweled makeup, cloud-coiffure, training golden garments,

Small and dainty is the pose she strikes beside the door of jade.

A newcomer still unfamiliar with palace manners,

Head lowered, first she bows to the number one concubine.


Book Review: Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison!

{This book was gratefully accepted for the low close-out price of writing an honest review of it. Which follows.}

Why did I want to read and review this book?

It seemed like a good idea at the time. . .

And on to the explanation. . .

Harry Harrison might be well-known in science-fiction circles, but in general is an unsung hero of literature. Perhaps it’s his wicked sense of humor and startling imagination that led him to not be taken as seriously, but he was certainly deserving of much more praise than he ever received.

And now, to round out his career of more than half a century–he passed away in 2012–here’s his posthumous autobiography, written in the same style as some of his bigger hits like The Stainless Steel Rat, that is with plenty of self-deprecating humor with underlying social commentary; there are as many small humorous toss-off moments here as in any of his fiction.

As one would expect from an autobio, it’s told chronologically, with a little bit on his growing up; we find that it was most likely his grandmother who bequeathed him his wicked sense of humor, while at the same time being the kid in history class who “humiliated the young teacher by correcting her.”

From there it’s on to the military at the tail end of WW2. He writes about his induction, and it’s basically exactly as he wrote it in Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted, although it’s missing the part about his first sexual experience being with 17 other boys and giant rubber bands. The most memorable scene, both here and in the fiction, is when the elevator doors open on the wrong floor to let the female typists get a good gander at all the naked recruits. . .

But basically he spent the war years waiting to be sent to other places while refining the fine art of goldbricking, “now referred to as fucking off. That is, avoiding work and not getting caught doing it.” Or not doing it, I guess. As one might expect he spent all his free time in the library, until being shipped off to Mississippi in July before air conditioners were invented. There’s stories about the GI Cooking School, what happens when you tell your commanding officer what do to himself, and even what to do on a pass into town.

Next comes his time as an artist in Noo Yawk, doing just about anything for money, including drawings of big-boobed babes being eaten by monsters, as well as a fascinating and of course hilarious story about a photo shoot with a dumb model and a lion.

“Someone once bemoaned the end of the pulp magazines, because with their demise there was no place left to be bad in.”

Obviously he didn’t expect the internet. . .

Next comes the biggest segment of his life, living in many places around the world with his wife and eventually two children while writing anything he could be paid to write {except porn, apparently; he namechecks some famous writers who did}. Though I did meet him once, I never got to meet his wife, and I wish I had, for reasons like these: To this end she prepared one of our staple–and most filling–meals: hot dogs stuffed with cheese and wrapped with bacon. A single one of these cholesterol nightmares was a meal; two stretched the stomach’s capacity. I think Jim ate 12 before raising the white flag.

To my disbelief, something I certainly would have wanted to talk to him about, he lived in Cuautla; I knew he’d lived in Mexico, but I had no idea it would be in the same tiny town I spent 3 months in during college at an archaeological field school. There’s a hilarious description of a house with a combination garage/living room, as well as instructions on how to keep meat from spoiling. He even meets a popular local actor who insists on posing for the mural he’s drawing.

From there the family moved to the famous island of Capri, in the Bay of Naples; he even namechecks The Story of San Michele, which makes me glad we had that much in common. Another example of his wit: “During the winter months in the south of Italy you put on a lot of clothes and looked forward to spring.” And of course with cold comes heaters; to think a faulty piece of machinery almost ended such a magnificent literary career before it really started. And having blonde kids sure opened a lot of doors in child-mad blonde-mad Italy.

He makes an interesting comment about how he was only the second full-time science fiction writer (the first being Heinlein); every other one was either an editor, taught school, worked some other job. . . or lived off his wife. Makes me wonder whom that jab was meant for. So many little moments, like the way the ski instructor picked up the little kids, are more than just funny; often they’re adorable, but they always catch you by surprise because it’s the last thing you’d expect, like a humorous Twilight Zone-ending twist. There’s even a story about how his plot for Plague From Space was stolen by some hack to make The Andromeda Strain; he passed on suing, but surely wished his book had been made into that movie. As if to prove how human he really is, he mentions that his first meeting with Arthur C. Clarke, whom he greatly admired, was a disappointment because Clarke didn’t drink alcohol.

I did meet his son, though I find it hard to reconcile that man with the adorable little kid in the book. And his daughter was even more adorable: there’s a cute story about her mimicking an ambulance as she’s taken to a man pretending to be sick; a prescription of candy is given and all is okay. Back in the US the same little girl got into trouble with her new classmates for speaking with an British accent. . .

He wrote an article about Ireland and Anne McCaffrey moves there on the basis of it; now that’s influence. Not only that, both Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams stated that they were inspired by him. Fine advice for all writers: “I’ve learned one thing writing humor: don’t cut it–if you laughed in the first place, leave it in.”

There’s a bit on how MGM shafted him out his rights for Soylent Green, literally fucked him over with dirty tricks, leading him to sigh, “They say the first fifty years are the hardest.”

“I insert here a small word of advice to those who are thinking of undertaking a transcontinental drive: Don’t.”

He can be a kid himself, like the time he bought the famous horseshit cigarettes in Tijuana. “Real horseshit no donkey shit; delightful.” Even better, he sent some to his friends in Oxford without telling them what they’re about. He can also make the mundane hilarious, like when he’s living in San Diego, in a place where cars drove too fast and deposited their hubcaps in the front yard, “much to the delight of the children, who amassed a fine collection over time.”

Even better is his meeting with Gene Roddenberry. . .

And Heinlein: I did quietly ask if he’d read Bill, The Galactic Hero. He said, “No, I never read other authors’ novels.” But after that he never talked to me again, so maybe someone read it to him.

Best quote

Science fiction is not about rocket ships and robots and aliens–they may be present, but they are not essential. Science fiction is an attitude toward change, and explores the impact of change upon people.

For those who have read The Technicolor Time Machine, there’s a note about all the little details he made up for the time machine, only to get so bored of it himself he merely inserted the line, “You’re too stupid to understand.” He also explains how he came up with the plot for Stars and Stripes Forever, which sent me on one of my patented research crawls. Even better, he pontificates, “I like writing the ‘big idea’ alternate history because it allows you to exercise your imagination, and it is hard to do, which means lazy writers don’t do it, so there’s less competition.”

Quintessential Harrison:

Kingsley Amis told him over drinks that the aforementioned Rat was the first picaresque science fiction novel, to which Harry nodded sagely and said “Perhaps, perhaps. . .”

And then I rushed home to see what “picaresque” meant.

So yeah, that was a lot, but when I finished all the notes I’d intended to write about this, it came out to about a dozen pages, so there, you got the pruned version.

I imagine someone who’s never read Harry Harrison would find this tome as informative and funny. As a huge fan of his–probably my second-favorite author of all time, in all genres–this told me so much about the man and the writer that I was frankly left in awe.     6/5

{BTW: He says “It seemed like a good idea at the time” a LOT!}


Book Review: Inca’s Death Cave

By Bradford G. Wheler or Wheeler–differing reports

Being an armchair–and at-site–archaeologist, and loving any few weeks I get to spend in Peru, I was really looking forward to this one. Unfortunately there wasn’t much archaeology to it, though there was quite a bit of historical investigation. It ended up being more of a thriller with plenty of action sequences and technology. It’s obvious the guy knows his stuff, especially the technology, and has spent a considerable time in Peru.
And that’s all the good news. . .
Never have I been more conflicted about a book. There’s a lot that’s excellent here, with one plot linking together what are many smaller plots, filled with excellent characters. The history and technology are first rate, and all of this should have been very enjoyable.
The reading style started very flippant, which is saying a lot, considering I’m the one saying it. This could not last throughout an entire book, I thought, and I was right. . . too right. It turned bland in a hurry, but that’s just the tip of this amateurish iceberg.
This is the first real book written by Bradford Wheeler; the others are collections of quotes, which is obviously far different. Perhaps that’s where he got the idea for the incredibly numerous and tiny chapters, which was amazingly annoying.
The style, though I think I flatter it by using that word, is far too matter of fact. There’s tons of info dumps, just facts told in boring style as though by rote, and he doesn’t even have it in the run of things, but as dialogue! No one speaks like that. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s many empty unadorned “said” and “replied” and so on; completely useless without adverbs. Many useless “began” and “started” as well. This taking place in Peru, there’s a bit of Spanish, but he got the wrong gender more than once. And to strike in another of my pet peeves, he perpetuated the myth that no one knew about Machu Picchu until Bingham “found” it; not true.
It feels like a fan fiction. . . or rather, written by someone who’s only read amateur fan fiction and thought that was what writing is supposed to be: stilted and boring. The great part about the internet is that anyone can upload their art, but the downside is, of course, that anyone can upload their “art.” It’s obvious no editor was used; no publisher would have spent a dime on this. The author seems to be retired and apparently well off, so I’m wondering if he ever considered using a ghost writer to polish this thing up.
Yeah, probably not. . .
I suppose if you use this as a reference book, especially about emerging technologies, this might be worth looking up. Any other reason. . . avoid.

(BTW, this is by far the harshest review I’ve ever had to give; I’m gonna go take a long bath now. . .)


Poetry Tuesday: Traveller’s Song

By Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Water pours down in order to swallow us.
Rocks are rolling to smash us.
Shortly on their powerful wings
Birds will come to carry us off.

However beneath us there is a country;
Fruit is always reflected
In its ageless waters.

Marble foreheads and lips of springs
Rise from the flowery acres,
And the easy winds blow.


Book Review: Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past

I don’t want to get spanked, so again I have to inform you I received an advanced copy with the quid pro quo of writing an honest review.

It’s logical to make the assumption that something written by Sharyn McCrumb would be a mystery. As someone who was a huge fan of her Elizabeth McPhearson series, but not so much her more serious work, I was willing to give it a shot simply because when a writer has been so entertaining in the past, you give them the benefit of the doubt.

So I won’t try to deny that it was very disappointing to find there was no mystery to be solved in this novella. I was about halfway through when I realized that, and though I enjoyed the story once I reset my expectations, I am forced to admit the assumption does color my experience with this tome.

My favorite feature about Ms. McCrumb’s writing is the humor, particularly that inherent in the Appalachian region (and make sure you pronounce that right!). I don’t know if these are old sayings or she comes up with them herself, but stuff like “I swear that part of the county is only on the map two days a week” just make my day. Another example is when Nora is daydreaming, but since only kids do that, she calls it “woolgathering.” Another one that made me giggle was “Colder than a penguin’s butt.”

So the novella consists of two stories, and never the twain shall meet. The title refers to Nora being asked by her non-native neighbors to do a sorta exorcism–on a pink metal Christmas tree–in their new home, while the other has the Sheriff and his top deputy heading out on a cold and soon-to-be-snowy night to arrest a hit-and-run driver, having to do so NOW for political reasons. As always Sheriff Arrowwood is sunshine personified and LeDonne his usual dour self; this passage encapsulates the characters perfectly: His cheery attitude did nothing to ease LaDonne’s vigilance; as he was fond of saying, “Crocodiles smile.” There’s also a very humorous description of how to get cows to do what you want them to, even when they don’t want to, and LaDonne definitely does not like being thought of as an angel. Unfortunately, I figured out where this was going about halfway through.

As for the other story–I hesitate to call either plots–the newly-neighbors couple of Shirley and Bill are too cool to believe in ghosts and such, but figure it can’t hurt to have someone of Miss Bonesteel’s rep come in and give advice as to why the Christmas tree is behaving so ornery. As Shirley pondered, “Nothing and nobody in these mountains took well to following rules. She was willing to believe that around here scientific logic might get outvoted.” In addition to seeing ghosts, Nora is also precognitive, which any oracle from ancient literature can tell you is a curse; bad enough that people refuse to believe, but then they like to blame the messenger when it comes true, calling her a witch or worse. We see that when we get a flashback to World War Two, which has a direct bearing on what’s going on now.

So again, no mystery to solve here. Perhaps if you go in knowing that, without expectation, you’ll enjoy it more, as I’m sure I would have. Possibly it would serve as a good introduction for those who’ve never read this fine author.


This did not play a part in the review or the rating, but feel like I have to mention it. As far as the ebook proof I was given to read, this is the second book that has trouble with ff, fl, and fi, and the way it seemed to be resolved was to ignore it completely, which turns sheriff into sheri; I have no doubt he would love that. . . except “th” is also missing. Slows down the reading while you figure out what was meant.



Poetry Tuesday: Lovelight

by Gysbert Japicx (b. 1603)

Dear Lyltsen, when I’m with thee
(My light, my flame, my sun, my eye)
As dark as may be the deep of night
When stars steer their course through the sky,
No matter how much dark may be,
It’s light as daytime sun for me.

But when your flares flare not toward me,
I have no star to steer my turning;
I move then blind as a stick, a stone,
Even though midday sun is burning.
What use if the sun in my eyes is bright?
Lylts is all my dark and light.