Thursday, December 7, 2017

De-Whitewashing the Past, Illuminating the Present: Girls of the Golden West

Davóne Tines as Ned Peters and Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley

I went on a big Nixon in China bender awhile back. Actually, I'm still kind of on it. For a long time, Bluebeard's Castle was the recording always in my car's CD player, but currently it's Nixon in China, the 1987 opera by John Adams and Alice Goodman. So I was eagerly awaiting the world premiere of Adams's latest opera, this time with Peter Sellars as the librettist and director, at San Francisco Opera.

I originally had a ticket for last week (pro tip: if you're in the Bay Area, an opera fan, and under 40, BRAVO! CLUB is the way to go for cheaper tickets), but then my cat Eponine, the best cat in the world even though she is sometimes naughty, got sick with a flare-up of pancreatitis. With an intermission, the show's run time is over three hours. Since I'd be going directly after work, I knew there was no way I'd be able to give the opera my full attention while worrying about how my special girl was doing. Fortunately, I managed to change my ticket date, Eponine got better, and I was able to at last see Girls of the Golden West on Tuesday, 12/5.

Reviews have been mixed, and I will admit there are some glaring weaknesses. However, when I left the War Memorial Opera House, I was dazed and shaking. Despite flaws, I felt I had seen something truly important and of the zeitgeist.

The special girl in question

Those familiar with opera might be asking, "Wait. Isn't there an opera already with that same name?" Sort of, and that's part of the story. Some years ago, Peter Sellars was asked by La Scala to direct a production of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, often translated as The Girl of the Golden West. But Sellars disliked the whitewashed, corny opera about the Gold Rush. Instead, he decided to produce, with longtime creative partner John Adams, a Gold Rush opera that told the reality: that the Northern California of the Gold Rush was beautiful and diverse, but rife with racism and sexism. Girls of the Golden West, particularly the second act, focuses on the spates of white supremacist violence that broke out and the lynching of Josefa Segovia on July 5, 1851.

The cast of Girls of the Golden West is young, diverse, and mostly American. Julia Bullock stars as recent East Coast transplant Dame Shirley, and Davóne Tines is Ned Peters, a former slave she befriends and possibly has an affair with. Paul Appleby is Joe Cannon, a 49er in a violent downward spiral. Ryan McKinny is his friend, Clarence. Hye Jung Lee (who played Madame Mao in SF Opera's production of Nixon in China) is Ah Sing, an ambitious Chinese victim of human trafficking who latches onto Joe in an attempt to better her life. J'Nai Bridges is the doomed Josefa Segovia, and Elliot Madore is her lover, Ramon.

Paul Appleby as Joe Cannon and J'Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia

Like other Sellars/Adams operas, Girls of the Golden West uses various texts to tell its based-on-a-true story. The main material is the collection of letters Louise Clappe, better known as Dame Shirley, wrote while living near the mines with her doctor husband. Passages from Mark Twain, Shakespeare, journals, contemporary reporting, and folk songs are also worked in. Tines's aria based on a speech by Frederick Douglass is a high point, but this collage of sources is uneven (obviously a composition by Douglass, one of our nation's greatest speechwriters, is going to sound better than some random dude writing in his diary). Sellars isn't Goodman, who brought her own poetry to librettos.

That Sellars is working from this patchwork means that characterizations and relationships are limited by what he happened to find, relying on the performers and audience to fill in the rest. Bullock and Tines probably do the best with this. Their charisma and chemistry make you believe they are kindred spirits. They even pull off a scene where their characters start to fall for each other while pantomiming a rocky stagecoach ride - no easy feat.

The relationship between Ah Sing and Joe, on the other hand, is much harder to "get." Lee and Appleby also have chemistry, and the reason for their coupling is straightforward: Joe needs a rebound, and Ah Sing needs a meal ticket. Obviously that is going to turn into a hot mess. But when it does, something about the train wreck becomes inscrutable. Of the titular "Girls," Lee's Ah Sing is the least knowable, and we don't get a resolution for her. Joe's fixation on Josefa comes out of nowhere.

Hye Jung Lee as Ah Sing and Paul Appleby as Joe Cannon

But the faults here could be overlooked, at least for me, due to the sheer power of the second act. With a set, tight time frame (July 4th and 5th); a built-in structure (the July 4th holiday pageant and then a hasty trial); and rapidly rising racial resentment, the hour-and-a-half second act had me on the edge of my dress circle seat. It felt like an encapsulation of 2017.

Two scenes especially stand out in this regard. At one point, the angry mob of white miners come marching out with torches. At this point, I felt my stomach drop, and heard from the audience a noise mirroring that emotion - part gasp, part moan. The image, of course, immediately brought to mind the white supremacists bearing (tiki) torches as they marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in August this year. And those marchers, of course, were purposefully bringing to mind the many marches of white men bearing torches that came before them.

While media outlets have been criticized for focusing so intently on white supremacists rather than those they aim to terrify, Girls of the Golden West never lets the audience lose sight of the victims. As the white mob rants and riles each other up and commits off-stage atrocities, Josefa and Ramon remain onstage, huddled in their home, cycling through terror, anger, hope, and despair.

Another moment that feels especially relevant in 2017 happens after Josefa has fatally stabbed Joe, her attempted rapist. In the mock trial she is put through as a prelude to lynching, the men of the town rally around the idea that the sexual predator was actually a great guy and surround his victim, intimidating and threatening her, drowning out anything she might say with their chorus of platitudes.

Josefa's "trial"

Adams was well aware of the growing real-life parallels, as revealed in this New York Times profile with Michael Cooper:

It was particularly jarring, he said, to write the opera’s climax — in which a Mexican woman is lynched — against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential race. “I kept hearing ‘Lock her up!’ at those horrible rallies,” Mr. Adams said, recalling news footage of Trump supporters chanting for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment being shown as he wrote choruses for his opera’s angry mob.

Girls of the Golden West is not a perfect opera, but it is a powerful one, and a stark reminder that there is nothing new about a diverse America and strong women, nothing new about white supremacy as a reaction to "economic anxiety," nothing new about sexism, and nothing new about imagining an America that wasn't there.

Girls of the Golden West runs through 12/10 at San Francisco Opera, and then moves to the Dallas Opera and Dutch National Opera.

Image info:
All Girls of the Golden West photos: San Francisco Opera & Cory Weaver
Special Girl Eponine: my own photo

Sunday, September 24, 2017

An Enigma in Chrome: Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson

"You'll do well in the First Order, Phasma."

"Is that a whole book about that one character?" a guy in line behind me at the bookstore asked as I handed Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson to the cashier.

One could argue whether his surprise was warranted or not. Despite the fact that Phasma was a visual standout in Star Wars: the Force Awakens - decked out in a chrome version of the iconic stormtrooper armor, played by 6'3" Gwendoline Christie - the character was a bit player. On the other hand, the choice to have an entire novel written about such a character feels like a throwback to the stories of the Star Wars Expanded Universe (now called Legends), where no character's appearance was too fleeting to merit a detailed backstory.

Still, Phasma has become a somewhat controversial character. Many fans compared her popularity with that of Boba Fett's - another character with a badass design, but with few badass feats actually accomplished on screen. Furthermore, Phasma came off as a bit of a coward - when Finn and Han order her at gunpoint to lower Starkiller Base's shields, she acquiesces rather than risk her life, leading to Starkiller's destruction. Especially considering the lack of a villainess in the Star Wars films, the character seemed like a missed opportunity.

But having read Dawson's novel, Phasma acting differently on Starkiller now seems inconceivable. Instead of ignoring that future action (Phasma is a prequel), Dawson plunges into the heart of it. While lots of stories deal with the aftermath of a moment of cowardice (the 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure, the 2011 German film The Loneliest Planet, Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series of novels, etc), Dawson looks at what lead to it. By the time the novel is finished, Phasma lowering Starkiller's shields with a blaster pointed to her head is no longer evidence of weakness, but evidence of terrifying ruthlessness.

Her life, or the glory of the First Order? No question for Phasma.

Phasma opens with peppy, adorkable-ish (if you like that sort of thing) Resistance spy Vi Moradi's capture by the First Order. Once on the Resurgent-class Star Destroyer Absolution, she's taken to an off-the-record interrogation by Cardinal: a captain with solid red stormtrooper armor. Cardinal has one goal: to learn enough about Phasma to take her down. Vi has just left Phasma's home planet, Parnassos, on a mission to learn the same thing. Vi's narration of this information to Cardinal makes up most of the novel.

Before becoming Captain Phasma of the First Order, Phasma was part of a tribe called the Scyre in a blighted, toxic area of Parnassos, a planet that has suffered an apocalyptic event. The Scyre don't know the specifics of the disaster that happened generations earlier, but they doggedly eke out a living in their harsh coastal territory. Phasma and her brother Keldo rule the clan jointly, but there are cracks in their partnership: Phasma wants to expand their territory, while Keldo is satisfied with what they have.

Phasma's brother Keldo

That simmering conflict reaches a boiling point when First Order General Brendol Hux (father of future General Armitage Hux) and a few stormtroopers crash land on Parnassos. Imperious but diplomatic Brendol wows the clan with his stories of the First Order and how its medicine and technology can benefit them...if they help him back to his crashed ship. When Keldo refuses, Phasma rounds up some of her most trusted warriors and undertakes the task herself, abandoning the Scyre.

I've seen several readers compare Phasma to Mad Max: Fury Road, and Phasma, Brendol, and co.'s mad dash across the Parnassos wasteland warrants that. That isn't to say Dawson copies - her barren dystopia is its own place with a well thought-out history. As the group contends with the unforgiving environment and unpredictable encounters, Brendol and Phasma become closer and more conspiratorial. Soon, Phasma's followers wonder if they ever knew her at all.


Back on the Absolution, Cardinal must decide what to do with the information Vi has given him. He is loyal to the First Order, and he has good reasons: he was an orphan starving on Jakku (yes, Jakku!) before being taken in by the late Brendol Hux. He trains the children the First Order, um, "finds," and truly loves his young charges. With Cardinal, Dawson has given us an empathetic, moving look at "the other side" that might not be so "other" (I thought of David Schwarz's recent great essay, Burden of Empire: The Complex Relationship Between Star Wars and Fascism a lot while reading Cardinal's parts).

This novel is a must-read for those wanting to learn more about the mysterious First Order. The parts with Brendol and Armitage Hux build upon what we learned of them in Chuck Wendig's Aftermath: Empire's End (we even get insight into their different interior decorating aesthetics!). I feel particularly vindicated in my long-held assumption that the First Order is a lot like the school car in Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer, and Dawson throws in some Brave New World as well. There's still so much more to learn, however, that I hope will be revealed in The Last Jedi.

And thanks to Dawson, Phasma is now another reason I'm excited for The Last Jedi. I can't wait to see if Phasma's co-commanders, Armitage Hux and Kylo Ren, will learn the truth of what happened on Starkiller. If so, what will this cold-blooded killer do to continue her sole mission: keeping herself alive?

They've had better days. Sort of. A lot of their days have sucked.

Image info:

Header image and Finn & Phasma:
Keldo and Cardinal: promotional posters by James Zapata
Beleaguered First Order leadership: Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Leaving San Francisco, Keeping the Poems

China Beach

I knew it was going to happen eventually: getting priced out of San Francisco. For the past few years, the SF housing crisis and its astronomical rents have been international news, and I don't live in a rent-controlled unit. Friends and co-workers, especially those starting families, have left the city in droves to find slightly more affordable housing. Others have been subject to suspect "owner move-in" evictions. In 2015, quintessential San Franciscan cartoonist Paul Madonna was evicted from his Mission apartment and studio. When my roommate and I got notice that our rent (which has gone up annually for years) would be increasing by $600 a month, it was time to leave.

I'm not a lifelong SF resident. I moved to the city in January 2009 with my copy of Broke-Ass Stuart's Guide to Living Cheaply in San Francisco (I can't imagine what the most current edition recommends). However, I am a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, and I wonder if eventually I won't be able to afford to live within a three-hour radius of San Jose, the city where I was born.

I spent a lot of time on the 38 Geary

In the meantime, however, I've signed the lease for a tiny but lovely Oakland studio (where I'll be able to have a cat!), and look forward to exploring a new city. And I'm not completely leaving San Francisco - like scores of other East Bay residents, I'll be crossing the bay every weekday morning to the Financial District, where I work as an administrative assistant. But I will miss the Richmond District, the "uncool" but formerly affordable neighborhood I've inhabited in three different apartments since first arriving in the city.

This weekend I hauled two large bags of books to sell to Green Apple Books, the Inner Richmond landmark and my favorite bookstore in the world. Afterwards, I stopped by 6th Ave. Aquarium, the crowded, sketchy store where a shark for sale inspired my poem "Wobbygong Shark $299.99." While saying a mental goodbye to the area, I thought of how San Francisco, and especially the Richmond District, has shaped my writing. Perhaps because of "write what you know" and the city's own varieties of beauty and ugliness, San Francisco is the setting for two of my (unpublished) novels and various poems.

Sharks and stingrays for sale at 6th Ave. Aquarium

When I first moved to the city, the places I explored on the weekends were mostly tourist hotspots. One favorite place to go was North Beach. There, I would eat cannoli at Stella's and browse at City Lights Books. A disturbing incident there became my poem "City Lights, Dirty Window." Looking back, I think of how differently I would have handled the situation as an early-thirty-something instead of an early-twenty-something (of course, the creep probably knew better than to target someone who would break his nose). I can now see the statues mentioned from my office building, where they stand as a reminder that art and darkness exist side-by-side in this city.

Corona Heights Park

Long before I moved to the city, the Richmond District was important to me. It was a family tradition to meet my late maternal grandparents for lunch at Louis', the little clifftop diner overlooking Seal Rocks and the ruins of Sutro Baths. My mom shares memories of outings to the long-gone Playland-at-the-Beach, where now stands the Safeway I go to for seaside grocery shopping.

One thing I love about the Richmond District is this proximity to the ocean. I live close to China and Baker Beaches, but sometimes I also visit Ocean Beach, which is the western border of the Richmond and Sunset Districts (and San Francisco itself).  In February, I joined thousands at Ocean Beach for a protest of the Trump administration. I tried to capture the feeling of this popular - but still wild and dangerous - beach in my poem "Ocean Beach, Late November."

Ocean Beach (in July)

The Richmond District is also known for its fog. While a bane to some, the fog, known as Karl to many, is generally beloved. I love and will miss the way light halos through it. The often repeated experience of going to a movie at the 100+ years old 4 Star Theatre and then walking home through the fog led me to write "The 4 Star Theatre." When the poem was published, I was touched to get an email from someone who had used to live in the neighborhood and had recognized the little theater.

With the fog comes the foghorn. The plaintive, demanding sound can be difficult for new residents to sleep with, but you soon get used to it. My most distinct memory of the foghorn comes from September 2009. A few weeks earlier I had undergone a thyroidectomy at UCSF due to papillary thyroid carcinoma (a type of thyroid cancer). I was back at my then-apartment at Clement and 16th Avenue, and was looking in the mirror, getting ready to peel off the final bandage from my neck. The foghorn made for a spooky soundtrack as I slowly revealed my scar.

The 4 Star Theatre

I'll miss my neighborhood. I'll miss the fog, the foghorn, the cold beaches, the views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Sutro Tower. I'll miss walking to the Legion of Honor, one of my favorite museums. I'll miss my apartment's bay windows. I'll wonder about the future of the city, which at the moment only seems interested in welcoming those making six figures. But I'll always have my San Francisco writings, and for that, I am thankful.

Sutro Tower

All photos mine.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Time Binge and Purge: A Gluttony of Fun

It's hard to think up images to illustrate book review posts, so here's my hand
holding the most recent book on the balcony of my hotel room in Amsterdam's
beautiful Museum Quarter. Sorry, did this caption turn into a humblebrag? I
really just took this as a fun pic to show the author. It wasn't mean to be a dick
move. Sorry. (But I was totally just in Amsterdam.)

Disclaimer first: I "know" Martina Fetzer, the author of the books I'm about to write about. I put "know" in quotation marks because our only contact has been through Twitter, and she could actually be a loosely organized group of serial killers pretending to be a single author. It happens.

But assuming she is Martina, I "met" her when she wrote, via tweets, an extremely stomach-churning and yet hilarious pornographic story involving a mutual friend (Starfall webcomic creator Adam Blackhat) and Donald Trump. I was in a long line at the post office while she was tweeting this opus, and it was the only time (thus far) I almost wet myself trying to hold back laughter while waiting for a certified mail postmark. So I bought her book Time Binge.

The book in question

Time Binge is a time-traveling comedy starring supernatural-investigating secret agents (and lovers) Eddie Smith and Arturo Brooks; Patience Cloyce, a Puritan teenage girl executed for witchcraft in the 17th Century; Lemon Jones, a teenage girl from a 23rd Century hipster colony on the moon; and Hudson Marrow, an eccentric and immortal renaissance man.

Hudson invented the time machine, and, as tends to happen, things got out of control. Now Agents Smith and Brooks need to save the world - or at least Manhattan - while also dealing with the past and future traumas that complicate their relationship. Meanwhile, Patience dutifully tries to adjust to her new surroundings and early-21st-Century-history buff Lemon delights in vintage Brooklyn.

Slight spoilers ahead as the sequel is discussed after the next "damn it, what am I going to use to illustrate this book review post?" image.

I told Martina I kept picturing Agent Smith as Agent Smith from The Matrix,
but she told me he looks more like Wash from Firefly. (My car is also named
Agent Smith, but I don't picture Agent Smith as my car.)

Fetzer's skill in balancing a Rube Goldberg machine of a plot, compelling characters, Airplane!-style zany humor, and sincere human drama returns in Time Purge. This sequel, released March 21, finds the make-shift family of Smith, Brooks, Lemon, and Patience alive in contemporary Manhattan. Smith, however, is not adjusting well to happily-ever-after. He and Brooks spent their entire relationship knowing Brooks would die, and now that they have a reprieve as a cyborg and an immortal with also-immortal teen daughters, he flounders.

After Smith's emotional instability results in an international, televised incident, the couple finds a maybe-enemy, maybe-ally in Godwin Zane, an obnoxious actor/would-be Elon Musk-ish CEO/actionless superhero (his powers are lava and being gray). Also there's a vampire problem, the return of the universe-threatening rift, and (at last!) Fetzer's specialty: a scene of off-putting, disappointing sex.

For Lemon and Patience I'm picturing something along the lines of Amandla
Stenberg and, despite the too-modern 1872 clothing, Victorine Meurent in
Manet's The Railway. (Obviously not Victorine Meurent in Manet's Olympia.
Patience would be mortified.)  

Fetzer's books are a fun, moving delight - and there are at least three more planned! I'm impressed by her bravery in self-publishing (and by her doing it so well), and I hope her cast of characters find the audience they deserve. You can buy the books (in various formats) here, and her author website is here.

Image info:
Time Binge and Time Purge covers: J. Caleb Design
Amandla Stenberg: Ben Toms for Teen Vogue

Monday, March 13, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Although I love George Saunders's short story collection Tenth of December and his pre-election essay on Trump's followers, I wasn't sure I was going to read his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The book is about the death of Abraham Lincoln's eleven-year-old son Willie, who died of typhoid in the early days of the Civil War, and reading historical fiction about actual people always feels weird to me. But when I saw the rave reviews (Caitlin PenzeyMoog of the A.V. Club called it "a postmodern masterpiece"), I knew I had to get it.

Lincoln in the Bardo is no ordinary piece of historical fiction, and its unusual format can take some getting used to. The story, which spans the night after Willie Lincoln's funeral, is mainly told through statements from the ghosts/spirits that are Willie's new neighbors. ("Bardo" is a Tibetan word referring to the concept of a transitional state after death.) The spirits are numerous, but there are three main characters who immediately take stranded soul Willie under their wing: Hans Vollman, a middle-aged printer who died in a freak accident; Roger Bevins III, a young gay man who committed suicide; and Reverend Everly Thomas, who died of old age. They finish each other's sentences, cut each other off, and elaborate on each other's points, as if all three were sitting in front of you, telling you what happened. This example should give you a feel for the style:

"Then it happened.
roger bevins iii

An extraordinary occurrence.
hans vollman

Unprecedented, really.
the reverend everly thomas"

As with the rest of the ghosts in the Oak Hill Cemetery, these three are staying behind on Earth voluntarily for their own reasons. Vollman's death happened just before he finally consummated his marriage to his beloved young wife, and he can't accept that he isn't simply sick and won't recover. As a manifestation of his sexual frustration, his ghost appears as naked and cartoonishly erect. Moments before dying, Bevins regretted leaving the world, with all its beauty, behind, and his ghost has many eyes and arms, trying to see and touch all nature has to offer. (The bond between kind Vollman and aesthete Bevins is now one of my favorite literary friendships.) Reverend Thomas's reasons are more elusive, but eventually revealed.

Despite their own desire to not move on, they are united in their determination to get Willie to leave Earth. In the book's universe, children's souls who don't move on are sentenced to eternal torment near their graves. The ghosts have already witnessed this happening to one young teenager, Elise Traynor, who is welded to the cemetery fence and writhes, full of rage, from one horrible form to the next. But Willie is delayed by his father, the President himself, who returns to the dead boy's side multiple times throughout the night (which Lincoln, an involved and loving father who had already lost his three-year-old son Eddie over a decade earlier, apparently did in real life).

Saunders frequently cites Keckley's Behind the Scenes
or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House

There are also narratives told through quotations from various cited sources. "Are the nonfiction excerpts - from presidential historians, Lincoln biographers, Civil War chroniclers - real or fake? Who cares? Keep going, read the novel, Google later," wisely advises author Colson Whitehead in his New York Times review. I mostly read on the bus anyway, which makes pausing to look up references cumbersome, so I indeed Googled later. As Saunders has confirmed, the citations are for a mix of actual and invented sources. Those quoted include Elizabeth Keckley (a former slave who was later Mary Todd Lincoln's stylist), bereaved parents who lost their own sons to the ongoing Civil War, contemporary op-ed writers, and later historians. As with the ghosts, these various narrators' voices come together as in an oral history. Here the sources "talk" about Lincoln's face:

"In repose, it was the saddest face I ever knew. There were days when I could scarcely look at it without crying.
In 'Six Months in the White House: The Story of a Picture,' by F.B. Carpenter.

But when he smiled or laughed...
In 'Lincoln's Photographs: A Complete Album,' by Lloyd Ostendorf, account of James Miner.

It brightened, like a lit lantern, when animated.
In 'Lincoln the Man,' by Donn Piatt, account of a journalist."

Willie Lincoln, age 5

I would be remiss in not pointing out what I felt was the book's weakness, which is its portrayal of black characters. While many of the white ghosts are quirky, different characters we haven't seen before, the black ghosts of the segregated cemetery are mostly archetypes, and we learn comparatively little about them besides their plights. I was also ambivalent about the ending, which I'm sure will be controversial among readers. In his review in the Guardian, author Hari Kunzru describes this ending as, "a move that seems glib and reductive, a blemish on a book that otherwise largely manages to avoid sentiment and cliche." Like Kunzru I found it cloying, but I can see how others might see it as transcendent.

Lincoln and his son Tad, who would die at 18

Ultimately, through many voices both created and curated by Saunders we get a story about the griefs and joys of life and a man and a country in turmoil. We get a story about familial love, deep friendship, and second chances. This is a novel I'll treasure for years and one that has already been a comfort.

Elizabeth Keckley: Documenting the American South
Willie Lincoln: Wikimedia
Lincoln and Tad: Wikimedia

Friday, March 3, 2017

Scavenging for Scraps: Star Wars Aftermath Empire's End

Grand Admiral Rae Sloane on a poster for the book

Chuck Wendig's Aftermath series is set immediately after Return of the Jedi, and comprises three novels, two with multiple colons: Star Wars: Aftermath, Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt, and Star Wars: Aftermath: Empire's End. I have to admit I did not read the first one, instead jumping in at Life Debt last year. Empire's End, the final book in this trilogy, came out on February 21, and I finished it recently.

Empire's End is not high art, and it's not supposed to be. I bought George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo at the same time, knowing I was buying apples and oranges. Or maybe champagne and popcorn. And as popcorn, Empire's End is fine. It's good popcorn, but not the best popcorn. The point is, like Life Debt (and I assume Aftermath before it, which was not well reviewed), Empire's End is a bit chaotic and messy. The writing can be slapdash. It's overstuffed with original characters in a way that made me feel like I was constantly being presented with David S. Pumpkins - but David S. Pumpkins within the context of his skit's world, not in our world where he has become an ironic but beloved and newly vital part of Halloween.

Also, Wendig uses the word "tailbone" a weird amount of times. I didn't count how many, but it is a lot.

However, Wendig had an assignment that was as much nightmare as dream, and he used that opportunity to give us a fuller, more diverse Star Wars universe that peers into corners across the galaxy. We have new characters to root for and new perspectives on established characters*. And ultimately, the last two books gave those ravenous for the next Star Wars movie some hints at what might be coming. To be completely honest, that's why I read Empire's End and Life Debt (and also Claudia Gray's Bloodline): a desire to mine the novels for any clues to to the mysteries that The Force Awakens left us with, and to stave off the hunger pains for The Last Jedi.

I'm not doing a full review for Empire's End, but I have some thoughts below, because what Star Wars fan doesn't have thoughts on something related to Star Wars? This post is fairly spoiler-lite, in my opinion, except for the fates of two characters (if you want a proper review with no spoilers, check out FANgirl).

Norra Wexley on the reverse of the poster

-Rae Sloane: The Empire's principled but ruthless Grand Admiral, first seen in A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller, has become a fan favorite through these books and the comics. This is the biggest spoiler I will give here, and it's that Sloane does not die. Yay! However, her fate is uncertain, since she is last seen going off to what we know will become the First Order, and it seems unlikely she would be on board with what the First Order does in The Force Awakens. I am really, really hoping that Thandie Newton's mystery role in the Han Solo film is a young Rae Sloane.

-Sinjir Rath Velus: Sinjir, a former Imperial loyalty officer (a.k.a. internal torturer) turned New Republic ally, is my favorite character from the Aftermath books. He's a cocky, erudite, humorous guy who loves alcohol and hot men and is trying to redeem himself (just not too much). He had better not have fucking been on Hosnian Prime when Armitage Hux blew it up, because I hope this character makes an appearance in Episodes VIII or IX. Sinjir would be a great role for some suave silver fox of a Middle Eastern or South Asian actor.

-Greg Grunberg: In the Aftermath books, Temmin "Snap" Wexley, son of Norra Wexley, is in his late teens. "Wait a second," I thought while reading Life Debt. "That timeline doesn't work. Leia's pregnant with Ben. Adam Driver, who plays Ben in The Force Awakens, is 33, and his character is 29. Greg Grunberg, who plays Snap, is what? Late 30s, maybe 40?" HE IS FIFTY YEARS OLD. Congrats on your genetic luck, you youthful-looking middle-aged geek-specialty actor.

Snap, not looking like he could have babysat infant Kylo Ren

-Kylo Ren/Ben Solo: Ben spends most of the books in Leia's uterus, where, it's hinted, he is already being tormented by the Dark Side and/or Snoke. Fun! When he's a newborn, he apparently likes his parents ok enough and smells like fresh towels. Seriously, there is a lot about how good "star baby" Ben smells.

-Armitage Hux: Kylo's future co-commander is four years old and also having a shit time. In Life Debt, we not only finally learned Hux's first name, but also that he's the illegitimate child his father (Brendol Hux, who ran the Empire's military academy) had with a household servant. Rax, the Empire's shadow leader, has Brendol and Armitage extracted from Arkanis because they need Brendol's troop-training abilities and, ominously, "children." Armitage is abused by Brendol, who is described as pretty much looking like Brendan Gleeson, because how the hell else would he look? (Armitage Hux is played by Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan's son.) Things start getting better, but also weirder, for Armitage when he's given, at four, a battalion of brainwashed feral children and then forms an alliance with Sloane. That's a lot to deal with pre-kindergarten, but you probably don't end up giving this speech if you had a normal childhood.

"Does he know I'm thinking about that time I almost wet myself?"

-Luke: Luke is not present. He's away doing Jedi things by himself. It's not even clear if he visits Han and Leia once Ben is born (it's reported as a "rumor" that he might have made a quick appearance). In Bloodline, he was away, for years, doing Jedi things with Ben. In The Force Awakens, he was away, for years, presumably doing Jedi things, again by himself. For all his time spent doing Jedi things, it sure doesn't seem like he's discovered anything useful, given the state of his family's lives, his own life, and the galaxy at large. What if he's just crazy and has been wandering around aimlessly for decades? What if when The Last Jedi starts, Luke is like, "Let me show you the ancient Jedi's most powerful artifact" to Rey and then hands her a fucking empty blue milk carton he found in the trash somewhere?

-Rey: As in Bloodline, we don't explicitly learn anything about Rey, but given what happens on Jakku and the hints of what's going on in the Unknown Regions, I think Rey's background is going to be bonkers. I think it is going to be batshit-bananas-bonkers, and I am waiting on tenterhooks.

*Edited to add: Wendig also does a great job handling two toxic properties of the Star Wars universe. One is a fitting coda to its most hated character. The other deals with a character originally from the dreaded Holiday Special. Can you guess who? If not not, you get a lump of coal in your stocking. Ho, ho, ho!

Rae Sloane and Norra Wexley posters: Star Wars Underworld
Snap: Star Wars official site
Hux and Kylo: Wookieepedia

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Shelley Gets Her Due in Dance: Frankenstein the Ballet

A new version of Frankenstein's Creature

As someone who's been a little obsessive about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I was ecstatic when San Francisco Ballet announced last year that they would be staging Liam Scarlett's new ballet Frankenstein, which promo pics indicated would be close to the novel, in 2017. On Halloween, I scored a $45 orchestra ticket in a special sale and guarded it as if it held the secret to life. But in the final weeks before the North American premiere, I wasn't the only one shivering with antici...pation. I've never seen this much excitement about a ballet. Co-workers, my roommate's classmates, acquaintances on twitter: everyone wanted to see Frankenstein. I finally got to see the ballet on 2/18/17, and it did not disappoint.

The biggest draw for me was that unlike the many movie versions, Scarlett's ballet is deeply rooted in its source novel. The lack of an adaptation loyal to Shelley's work is why I ended up planning my dream cast, and this ballet is probably the closest fulfillment I'll get. There are no Igors; castle laboratories; or green, bolt-necked behemoths here. Instead, even with the changes needed for three acts of dance, we get Shelley's novel. We get the stories of Victor Frankenstein, a university student who messes up big time; of his loving family and friends, whom he loses; and of the tortured life he recklessly brings into the world.

Although its world premiere was less than a year ago, Frankenstein feels like an established classic. It's worth noting that Liam Scarlett is only 30. With young choreographers like him and Justin Peck, ballet's future looks bright.

Frances Chung as Elizabeth and Joseph Walsh as Victor

I looked at casting as soon as it was available, but I accidentally looked at the matinee, the casting for which were principals Aaron Robison as Victor, Dores Andre as Elizabeth, and Luke Ingham as the Creature. When I checked again before leaving on Saturday night, I realized my mistake, and saw the cast would be Max Cauthorn, Lauren Strongin, and Taras Domitro. "Who is Max Cauthorn?" I wondered. He's a corps member - and a young one at that, being just a few years out of San Francisco Ballet School. He's also the only non-principal in the role. Likewise, Lauren Strongin, a soloist, is the only non-principal Elizabeth. (Both are also Bay Area natives. High-five!)

While disappointed that I wouldn't get to see Dores Andre again after she was such a standout in Program 1, I looked forward to seeing Strongin and Cauthorn, who are possibly under consideration for promotion [update: Max Cauthorn was promoted to soloist on 3/13/17]. It's great to see home-grown former SF Ballet School students, like soloist Wei Wang, who was an apprentice the year before Cauthorn was, rise in the ranks. And (this is where I clarify that while a ballet fan, I am not a ballet expert) I really enjoyed Cauthorn's and Strongin's performances. They were lovely and youthful together, and their early effortlessness together made the emotional impact of Victor's later distraction and avoidance all the stronger.

Meanwhile Taras Domitro, in a scarred, nude bodysuit as the Creature, brought maturity and depth to his coltish, heartbreaking, menacing character. His pas de deux with Strongin, as his terrified would-be stepmother, and then with Cauthorn, as the immature father who regrets him, are both standouts. (Domitro isn't tall, but he's like 80% muscle, and Cauthorn seemed to have zero problems tossing him around like he was a willowy ballerina.)

From the original Royal Ballet production

Other things I loved:

-Henry Clerval! Although there was one huge Henry-related problem (see below), I was thrilled that happy, doomed puppy-dog Henry made the cut in this adaptation. Soloist Angelo Greco played Henry Saturday night, and brought lots of sweetness to the role.

-Justine Moritz! One element of Shelley's novel that Scarlett kept but altered was that Frankenstein family maid Justine Moritz's mother hates her. In the novel, Justine's mother is just part of her backstory, but in the ballet she's present as the housekeeper. Even though Victor and Elizabeth see Justine (soloist Julia Rowe) as a friend, Madame Moritz (soloist Jennifer Stahl) coldly and relentlessly keeps her daughter in her place as a servant.

Scarlett's reason for this subplot becomes clear at the end of Act II, when Madame Moritz's desperation, regret, and seconds-too-late arrival to Justine's execution add an absolute gut-punch. Characters danced by Stahl, who was promoted to soloist after her starring role in 2013's Rite of Spring, just have bad luck with executions.

-Music: composer Lowell Liebermann's music is sumptuous and intense.

-Anatomy Theatre scene: the anatomy lab dance, with a dizzying array of students, medical assistants, beakers, and body parts, is a visual delight with lots of great little details (the lechery of soloist James Sofranko's professor, an assistant's curiosity, Henry's queasiness).

-Talented kids: there are a few SF Ballet School students in this production, but the child dancer with the most time on stage last night was Jonathan Yee as Victor's little brother William. It's a demanding role for a kid, with lots of acting, a duet with the Creature, and a fair amount of time playing dead, and little Jonathan did great. Good job, Jonathan!

I've got some things to say about this

Things I didn't love:

-Here is the biggest problem the ballet had: Henry Clerval's costuming. The opening scenes establish Victor as wearing a red coat. He wears a red coat in childhood. He wears a red coat as a teenager. So when Act I, scene 3 starts at the university, and we see a guy with Victor's same wig wearing a red coat, it's obviously Victor, right? Wrong! It's Henry. When Victor arrives with his red notebook, everything becomes clear, but I was confused at first, and from what I overheard at intermission, a lot of people were.

Then in Act II, Henry is wearing a green coat. I will admit to owning more than one color of coat, but I'm not in a ballet where people in the balcony need to quickly recognize me. Since other characters' clothes stay similar throughout, why not just have him wear a green coat in Act I so we can easily distinguish him from Victor and the other neutral-wearing students? But the worst is yet to come. In Act III, he's wearing another, different red coat. You're killing me, costume designer John Macfarlane!

-Henry and Victor: also, I wish Victor and Henry's friendship had been better established in Act I. I feel that would have been a better use of scene 4, rather than the "college students gonna college student" episode in the tavern. Scarlett has Victor and Henry meet as freshmen rather than as children, but they barely interact before Victor's breakdown lands him back at home, at which point Henry is living with them and practically part of the family.

Liam Scarlett featurette with the Royal Ballet
SF Ballet's Vitor Luiz on dancing the Creature

Frankenstein continues at San Francisco Ballet through 2/26/17.

Image info:
Header: Erik Tomasson and AKA
Chung and Walsh: Erik Tomasson
Royal Ballet: Bill Cooper
Corps member Esteban Hernandez in that damn Act III coat: Erik Tomasson
Programs and tickets: my own crappy photo

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Manuscripts Don't Burn: Books for This

Ellen Manning's poster for The Master and Margarita

This is by no means what I consider a comprehensive list. I have no doubt there are a multitude of works from a multitude of people and places covering these issues, from tomes written by those who have lived in any of the world's dictatorships to the popular genre of dystopian science fiction novels. But these are the ones I know and suggest.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Perhaps ironically, the book that's buoyed me the most since November is a Russian novel. 1930s Stalinist Moscow is already such a surreal place that demonic visitation is hardly the weirdest aspect. There are mysterious disappearances, labyrinthine but unassailable rules about everything, and overbearing but unspeakable truths, so what's a talking cat or a dance for hell's denizens? Muscovite Margarita has lost her lover, a writer who was whisked away by the authorities due to the subject of his novel. Will a mysterious stranger and his mischievous coterie be able to help her get him back?

Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita knowing that it could never be published in his lifetime. He even burned an early draft, wary and despairing, but later soldiered on with his secret writing. The book's very existence is a testament to the survival of art in impossible situations and support for one of its claims: manuscripts don't burn.

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

By Night in Chile is a feverish novella told in (mostly) one paragraph: the deathbed ramblings of fictional Father Urrutia, a priest and intellectual who was recruited to teach the "enemy tactics" of the left to the top brass of the new (and covertly USA-assisted) Pinochet regime. The defensive, opaque narrator is unsympathetic, but one wonders what he or she would have done differently, and what difference it would have made. While maddening in parts (it includes a Bolaño trademark: a lengthy, esoteric list - in this case a survey of churches using trained falcons to protect historic buildings from pigeon poop), the work reaches a heart-pounding climax when what lies beneath a literati dinner party is revealed.

By Night in Chile is a stark reminder that dictatorships come and go, but for their survivors, actions taken or not taken can last a lifetime in one's conscience.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I admit I haven't been able to re-read this one recently; much like George Orwell's 1984, it's too close to home now. However, I plan to steel myself and dive in, since it has an eerily well timed miniseries coming in the spring. The Handmaid's Tale, a novel of women's oppression under a far-right group that has seized power in America, is an important reminder of how quickly the unthinkable can turn into something you're being told to get used to.

The Rougon-Macquart series by Émile Zola

During this election season, I've been thinking of the French disaster (or La Debacle, as Zola put it) that was the Franco-Prussian War, where seemingly every bad decision that could be made was made. Zola's series of novels covering the years leading up to this war and the fall of the Second Empire - a time Zola lived through - has some intriguing parallels to today's society, especially the extreme social stratification. As a conduit of mid-to-late-19th Century French history, with its many protests and rebellions, the novels are also a reminder that progress is a struggle, and it's not always clear where or when a decisive victory will arrive.

In L'assommoir, blacksmith Goujet decides not to join in the protests of Napoleon III's 1851 coup d'etat, feeling burned out and discouraged by the protests of 1848. However, he does hesitate and wonders if, "one day the people might regret having stood by with folded arms." 

Suite Française by Irène Némirovksy

Successful writer Irène Némirovksy was living in France with her husband and children when Germany invaded. She immediately began work on a planned series of novels which were to chronicle the invasion, the resistance, and then whatever the outcome of the war would be. After finishing drafts of the first two novellas, however, Némirovksy, who was Jewish by birth (she and her husband were converts to Catholicism), was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, where she died. Her husband's arrest and death at Auschwitz soon followed, but the nanny managed to get the children to safety. Némirovksy's eldest daughter, Denise Epstein, found the drafts and an outline for a third book many decades later, when she was going through her mother's papers before donating them.

The surviving writings were published as Suite Française, a captivating and near-contemporaneous account of the chaos of the initial siege of Paris and then the strange new reality of life under German rule. Knowing Némirovksy's fate, the glimmers of hope are all the more bittersweet. 

Courbet's Le Pont Ambroix

And to finish, here is the poem "Good Bones" by Maggie Smith. "Good Bones," both comforting and clear-eyed, went viral in the wake of the Orlando massacre - a rare feat for a poem. A broadside is available here.

"Manuscripts Don't Burn" poster by Ellen Manning: Master & Margarita website
Le Point Ambroix: wikimedia