sovay: (Sydney Carton)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2016-07-04 12:51 am

Here we are, here we are, here we are again

Things of the weekend, in no particular order—

1. After I posted on Friday about the silent war dead handing out their names, [ profile] lauradi7 linked me to a voice: Corporal Edward Dwyer VC of the 1st Battalion, East Surrey Regiment singing "We're Here Because We're Here." I had no idea there were any recordings of WWI soldiers' songs made during the war itself. Dwyer appears to be the only one. As far as I can tell from the internet, the YouTube clip is an excerpt from the double-sided record With Our Boys at the Front, released January 1916 by Regal Records as part of the nationwide recruiting drive—propaganda, but also documentary. I didn't know that British soldiers sometimes sang minstrel songs while marching. That's an unsettling piece of the past. Elsewhere on the record, Dwyer describes the retreat from Mons—no angels, thank you, Machen. Ghosts, though, if that's what you want to call a voice still hailing you from a hundred years ago. Here we are, here we are, here we are again. Hello! Hello! Hello, hello, hello, hello, hello . . . He died at the Somme in September 1916, two months shy of his twenty-first birthday. I wondered if he was part of the inspiration for the project "we're here because we're here," because he still is, still singing. I would like to think at least some of the volunteers learned the song from him.

2. You don't need to talk to the dead to touch time. This afternoon on the bus from Harvard Square to Arlington Center, the elderly woman sitting in front of me turned around suddenly and said, "I sent a birthday card to the Queen on her eightieth birthday." She found it astonishing that Elizabeth II was now ninety. She had seen her once in person, she said, driving by; she mimicked a little wave to the populace. Her two older sisters were around the Queen's age; her third sister was closer in age to herself. "All three of my sisters went to Radcliffe. I went to UC Berkeley." She said it as though she had gotten away with something. I was fruitlessly trying to calculate what range of years that would have been, a math problem with multiple variables missing. She wore a broad-brimmed woven hat with a string of agates or banded glass beads around the crown; I thought that she looked underneath its shadow like a very old turtle, but couldn't think of any way to make it sound like the compliment I meant—including the reminder of my grandmother—rather than an insult. She was East Asian, her speech slightly accented; her hands and her head were shaky, but not her voice. "You're an old Bostonian, too?" she said, smiling at me. I have no idea where any of this conversation came from, unless she was feeling friendly toward me because I had gestured her to get on the bus ahead of me. I thanked her for it before I rang for my stop.

3. The Brattle continues its massive noir retrospective with a series of femme fatales. Regardless of how I feel about the concept, quite a number of those movies are on my list to see if I can. Criss Cross (1949), that's got Dan Duryea in it, Gun Crazy (1950), Peggy Cummins is supposed to be amazing, Born to Kill (1947), it'll be nice to see Lawrence Tierney in something that isn't Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987), a theatrical showing of Too Late for Tears (1949), hell, yes, Detour (1945), [ profile] rushthatspeaks made that sound worth our time, Gilda (1946), on my list for years, Leave Her to Heaven (1945), the other very famous film with Gene Tierney, man, that's a lot of movie tickets, maybe I'll win a lottery I didn't know I'd entered. I want to curate a female-focused film noir series deliberately without emphasis on the archetype of the femme fatale. I keep tripping over them and they're great.

4. Yesterday was bracketed by two movies: Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) first thing in the morning and Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970) at midnight. In an ideal world, I would have double-reviewed them last night; in the realistic one, I didn't sleep at all the night before last and spent almost all of today away from the computer, helping my mother clean the house in preparation for the Fourth of July. I was not surprised to find the Chaplin funny, beautiful, poignant, and very difficult to watch right now. I would have been less surprised about the intensity of affection I felt for the Jodorowsky if anyone had ever mentioned to me that in addition to a surrealist Western, El Topo is also a myth-cycle full of gorgeous iconography reminding me of Pasolini, Parajanov, and Ulrike Ottinger. [ profile] nineweaving, I don't know what you'll make of the rest of the movie, but there are four masters of the gun who live in the desert and the second lives in a canyon of sand with a Tarot-reading mother-goddess in bright Slavic clothes. There is an owl nailed to the table at which she reads her cards and she cries like a bird when her son is shot; she speaks in a man's voice without opening her mouth and keeps a lion on a leash. A man is buried in a grave of rabbits, which catch fire out of a clear sky. The cairn of another becomes a hive, dripping with wax and honey, humming with bees. The plot is very clear. It just helps if you have a passing acquaintance with Buddhism and know that traveling with anyone named Mara—especially if you've named them Mara, what did you think would happen—is a terrible idea.

5. Everyone who recommended me Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January mysteries was quite right to do so; thank you. So far I've read A Free Man of Color (1997), Fever Season (1998), and Sold Down the River (2000), because that's what the library had on Thursday night, and I just picked up copies of Die Upon a Kiss (2001) and Wet Grave (2002) today. I am actively confused that these books were never adapted for any kind of television; they would be a magnificent showcase for a cast of primarily actors of color, most of them women. Benjamin himself is the rare and welcome case of a protagonist I really like: a free man of color in New Orleans of the early 1830's, a classically trained pianist and sometime surgeon, a middle-aged widower still in grief-shock when the series begins, and a semi-stranger in the city of his youth, having spent the last sixteen years in Paris where being assaulted with impunity by white men with nothing better to do was significantly less of an environmental hazard and he did not need to carry papers to prove that he's no longer a slave. He's canonically very dark-skinned, six foot three, built like a brick shithouse. He scares a lot of white people just by walking down the street and has for survival reasons therefore become very good, very fast at looking like Just Another N-Word, Nothing to See Here, Move Along, unless he's appearing in his capacity as a musician or a music teacher, in which case it's Very Polite Black Man, the Nice Kind, Please Patronize. It's no surprise that he's furiously angry about much of the world he lives in, but I think it's wonderful that the narrative so thoroughly supports him. For similar reasons, I enjoy how carefully the series draws its positive white characters (there's, like, two in the regular cast) so as to avoid even an accidental case of white savior. Abishag Shaw is a laconic police lieutenant from Kentucky who gets almost as much deceptive mileage out of looking like a backwoods hick without two brain cells to smack together as Benjamin does from the racial stereotypes mentioned above; he's honest, compassionate, and appears genuinely capable of seeing people of color as people, but he's still embedded within a deeply unjust system and many of the laws he's sworn to uphold are actively dangerous to the people he cares about. An even better example is Hannibal Sefton, who drunkenly coughed his way into the narrative more or less carrying a placard with my name on it—he's an utterly loyal friend to Benjamin and he plays the violin better than any star pupil of the Paris Conservatoire; he's also permanently skint broke, consumptive, and a hopeless drunk with a laudanum habit a mile wide. (I am waiting for his backstory to come off the wall because it is obviously dramatic—his accent is gentlemanly Anglo-Irish and his liberal use of both quoted and improvised Latin attests to a misspent classical education, but nothing he's ever said about his past hangs together and that's when he talks about it at all.) He has no social standing in society of any color. He couch-surfs in whorehouses when he can't make rent. His willingness to help is never in question, but it's even odds at any moment whether he'll be too sick to get out of bed, too drunk to get off the floor, or too stoned to do either, none of these states being mutually exclusive. There is no chance of him running heroically away with the narrative. (He runs antiheroically away with scenes, of course.) I find this both a clever and a novel technique and it works in that while I like both Shaw and Hannibal, I agree that it would throw the series off balance were they to take a more active part in the proceedings than Benjamin. Give me more time with the Greek-translating, bomb-building Rose Vitrac, however, or Benjamin's full sister Olympe, the voodooienne who learned from Marie Laveau, or his half-sister Dominique, a plaçée like their mother, or even the fascinating Livia Levesque herself, who is a stone cold dreadful parent, but whose ruthlessness is the reason she and her children are all free, and we're good to go. I have not fallen into a series for some time and this one is addictive. Also, kind of timely.

Crud. I ran out of day-before-holiday. Everybody go watch 1776 and set off fireworks if your state allows it. I wish mine did.
aedifica: Me looking down at laptop (off screen).  Short hair. (Default)

[personal profile] aedifica 2016-07-04 07:00 pm (UTC)(link)
The Benjamin January books have always sounded interesting, and I've just finished the Heyer re-read I was doing and am free to pick up something new, so this is timely. Thanks!
thistleingrey: (Default)

[personal profile] thistleingrey 2016-07-04 08:46 pm (UTC)(link)
Serendipitous transit conversations are a gift (I like when they happen to me, too, and I like this one). There were quite a lot of Asian Americans at UC Berkeley during the early and mid twentieth century, relatively speaking; they had something of an alumni network of their own.

I remember liking the early Benjamin January books, but not why I drifted away. Perhaps I should catch up. (I got farther than you have so far, pretty sure.)
thistleingrey: (Default)

[personal profile] thistleingrey 2016-07-05 04:10 pm (UTC)(link)

Indeed--and predicated upon the fact that they wanted to set up scholarships for young adults of Asian descent, which no one else was doing....

Does that match when you stopped reading them?

I thought that ten years ago sounded right, and then I checked: by 2004 I had stopped already (though I did read her unrelated Sisters of the Raven in 2003). Pretty sure my next to read ought to be Wet Grave. I remember Graveyard Dust (not mentioned in your post) as being of interest re: Olympe and bits of tension with Rose, though I could be making up the latter--it's been a very long time.

ETA Interesting that Goodreads lists up to fourteen when Hambly's site does not. (One may be easier to update than the other, I guess.)
Edited 2016-07-05 16:12 (UTC)
thistleingrey: (Default)

[personal profile] thistleingrey 2016-07-13 04:56 am (UTC)(link)
Glad you enjoyed it!
thawrecka: (Default)

[personal profile] thawrecka 2016-07-05 08:25 am (UTC)(link)
These Benjamin January mysteries sound fascinating. I'll have to seek them out.

[identity profile] 2016-07-04 05:48 am (UTC)(link)
I've kept a day from my "Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary" page-a-day calendar for several years, which I occasionally use as a bookmark. The word for the day was abishag, which means "the child of a woman and her married lover."

At a World Fantasy many years ago, a friend and I were having a drink with Joe and Gay Haldeman. Joe mentioned he'd taught one of the Benjamin January books, and I pointed out that Hannibal Sefton was very obviously George Alec Effinger. Joe agreed, and was annoyed he hadn't realized it before since he'd finished teaching the book. I miss George, but it's fun to see him in the books.

[identity profile] 2016-07-04 06:17 am (UTC)(link)
I thought Abishag was King David's comforter.


[identity profile] 2016-07-04 04:08 pm (UTC)(link)
That's the only Abishag I'm aware of historically. I don't know where Mrs. Byrne picked up that definition.

[identity profile] 2016-07-04 07:32 pm (UTC)(link)
I know Abishag mainly from the old taunt: "Abishag the Shunamite! Shabby Hag the Newnhamite!" Just checked the OED, and got no results on "abishag" at all.
Edited 2016-07-04 19:34 (UTC)

[identity profile] 2016-07-05 08:58 pm (UTC)(link)
I'm now imagining a tribe called the Amirites, known for their terrible standup comedy:
"Philistines! What is up with those guys?"

[identity profile] 2016-07-04 07:23 am (UTC)(link)
A fabulous quintet of things.

Thank you for journaling.


[identity profile] 2016-07-04 12:55 pm (UTC)(link)
Minstrel songs were the pop music of the day- so of course the soldiers sang them. G.H. Elliott- the man with the unfortunate stage name- was a much loved performer- and is buried at Rottingdean- within a hundred yards or so of Edward Burne-Jones.

[identity profile] 2016-07-04 02:14 pm (UTC)(link)
Thank you for the (as usual) perceptive review of Hambly's Benjamin January books. By coincidence, the mystery book club I belong to, The Usual Suspects, discussed A Free Man of Color several months ago, and everyone agreed with your assessment--and it was unanimously loved, something that doesn't happen too often. The others were fascinated by my revelations about Geo. Alec Effinger and Barbara Hambly's career in fantasy. We were less charmed by her current career situation, so familiar to us from other "older" authors of the fantastic.

And a word of unsolicited advice, as you may already have done this. You are now a professional movie reviewer, courtesy of Patreon. Have you written to the Brattle explaining this status, and asking for free or--failing that--reduced price tickets?

[identity profile] 2016-07-04 10:53 pm (UTC)(link)
You nailed it on the "Difficulty. . .with major publishers" and op status (even for the earlier Benjamin Januaries. And yes, Bantam dropped them, as they did many of their mystery series.

It's always worth a try! What can they say but "Yes" or "No"?

[identity profile] 2016-07-04 05:29 pm (UTC)(link)
But that's so not the case. Minstrelsy was hugely popular in Britain- and home-grown black-face entertainers like Elliott were big stars. I think British audiences- who had little idea of the reality of the deep South- saw the version of it presented in the minstrel shows as a kind of fairyland.

The BBC had a light entertainment programme called The Black and White Minstrel Show which ran from 1958 to 1978. It was exactly what the title implies- men in blackface and striped pants- accompanied by showgirls- singing about their Mammies in Alabamy. At the time hardly anyone objected.

I paid a visit to Elliott's grave. He died in 1962 and his headstone identifies him by his stage name.

[identity profile] 2016-07-04 07:43 pm (UTC)(link)
Minstrel singers on the sands turn up in the Father Brown stories, as I recall. There's also a character in Charlotte Yonge's Pillars of the House who used to sing "Jim Crow" and what not.

[identity profile] 2016-07-04 04:17 pm (UTC)(link)
My state does allow a limited number of kinds of fireworks to be set off by amateurs, and it's a mixed blessing. The first few years were quite magical, as many individual households created gorgeous shows at street level; but now it's mostly just an endless succession of bottle rockets and noisy spitting crackers, frightening pets and children, disrupting work and contemplation, and starting a ridiculous amount of time before the actual holiday. Sometimes I think it should be legal every five years, or something, but that's not really fair: people to whom it would mean a lot would just fall between the cracks.


[identity profile] 2016-07-04 07:09 pm (UTC)(link)
It might be different in your town, or even in other neighborhoods in mine -- though the chorus of complaint is certainly from more than my immediate vicinity.

ext_104661: (Default)

[identity profile] 2016-07-04 05:50 pm (UTC)(link)
They're not technically legal here, but no one seems to enforce the illegality in my neighborhood. I also observe "mostly just an endless succession of bottle rockets and noisy spitting crackers, frightening pets and children, disrupting work and contemplation, and starting a ridiculous amount of time before the actual holiday."
ext_104661: (Default)

[identity profile] 2016-07-05 05:36 pm (UTC)(link)
Corrections, after having gone out walking between 10:30 and midnight:
* Actually, many people around here set off truly beautiful and elaborate fireworks, sometimes hundreds of dollars worth.
* Police were trying to suppress this, but they were hugely outnumbered, so had little effect.

[identity profile] 2016-07-04 07:16 pm (UTC)(link)
I adore the January books so much. I am a few behind on purpose.

[identity profile] 2016-07-05 12:42 pm (UTC)(link)
YES. I ration them out. And eventually you do find out about Hannibal's past.
gwynnega: (lordpeter mswyrr)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2016-07-04 08:36 pm (UTC)(link)
I would love to see Gun Crazy and especially Leave Her to Heaven on a big screen.
gwynnega: (Default)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2016-07-05 12:58 am (UTC)(link)
Oh wow, I've barely seen any of his films.

[identity profile] 2016-07-06 06:05 am (UTC)(link)
Glad you're enjoying the Benjamin January books and delighted to discover that there are several new ones now (last I read was Dead Water). I might have to read them all again from the beginning and then pick up the new ones.

I've also quite enjoyed her Abigail Adams mysteries, written as Barbara Hamilton, primarily for the view of Boston in that era--so much has changed and yet so much is still recognizable in description.

[identity profile] 2016-07-06 11:23 am (UTC)(link)
I've enjoyed reading people's impressions of the Benjamin January series (which I haven't read myself yet), and yours especially--thank you!

And wow, El Topo!

there are four masters of the gun who live in the desert and the second lives in a canyon of sand with a Tarot-reading mother-goddess in bright Slavic clothes. There is an owl nailed to the table at which she reads her cards and she cries like a bird when her son is shot; she speaks in a man's voice without opening her mouth and keeps a lion on a leash. A man is buried in a grave of rabbits, which catch fire out of a clear sky. The cairn of another becomes a hive, dripping with wax and honey, humming with bees.

I repeat--Wow!

[identity profile] 2016-07-07 10:24 am (UTC)(link)
I think I would too! And I think I'm thinking mainly of what [ profile] rachelmanija said, but I have an impression that one of my other friends wrote about the books too, maybe [ profile] athenais.