Monday, August 31, 2020

Cow pun-ching during CD&D on Twitch

I have been really busy at work since I came back from my latest furlough, which was the first week of August. I never even took the time to blog about WorldCon, where I was on 3 panels! Then I volunteered with NASFiC! I'll try to write those up soon, but meanwhile, this is time-sensitive (scroll on to see why), so it gets priority.

I've played two more Community D&D sessions on Arvan Eleron's Twitch channel since my July 21 post. Yes, these games take time and energy, but they are also very refreshing breaks from the daily grind.

Here's Day 11, which happened a few weeks ago (I started with this group on "Day 9"). This is all about our party fighting a group of orcs that had raided a farm, and trying to rescue the farmer. We performed some cool maneuvers! It's off Twitch by now but posted to YouTube:

"Day 12" this past Wednesday, Aug. 26, was probably the most fun combination of humor, character development and combat yet. I had an absolute blast! But a big part of the excitement was how very engaged the Twitch-stream watchers were with what was happening. That's why this is time-sensitive: If you're at all interested, I highly recommend watching on Twitch, where you can easily see the comments in chat, rather than waiting for it to show up on YouTube. Remember, you don't have to register with Twitch to watch, only if you want to comment during a session.

What happened was, after we had saved the farmer last time, he begged us to go save his favorite cow, Petunia. Our characters are mid-level but none of us are experienced cattle wranglers, so this turned into a comic misadventure. We players started some weird and funny conversations about 45 minutes into the session, and Isil had his usual problems with his horse, but the cow pun-ching really started to moooooove at an hour in, when Arvan Eleron started ramping up the wordplay, and many people played along, adding their own. Chat was on fire for a while! I was laughing a lot.

Eventually, around 1:14:45, we got the cow headed homeward, and the tonnage of chat punnage started dwindling a little. Then my character, Grace of the Refreshing Breeze, a Tabaxi (felinoid) bard, unveiled a song I had written last month about Isil, the warlock who keeps trying to read while he's riding. There wasn't any opportunity for this humorous ditty during our combat-heavy Day 11 session, so I had to wait for the right time.

Here's the clip:

And here are the lyrics:

Silly Isil on a horse, his nose is in a book;

Drakes and dangers line the course, but he won't even look.

Up and down and all around, he's riding for a fall;

Reading every chance he gets, no time to read them all.

Why does Isil read so much?

Learns a lot, but out of touch!

Isil's useful in a fight, once his attention wakes,

but he's easy to surprise, eyes up for goodness' sake.

Save your scrolls for camp and town; be ready for some strife;

Join us Isil, if you please, and learn by living life!

My fellow players really appreciated the song, and chat liked it too. Then the puns resumed as things progressed.

Finally, at the end of the episode, there was an adrenaline rush of combat! I was really afraid for a while that we were in for a Total Party Kill!

Here's "Day 12" on YouTube, if you really don't want to deal with Twitch. The comments are tiny and on the right.


For the record, I also played on Arvan's D&D with Viewers night on Saturday, Aug. 30, but it was basically puzzle-exploring and some fighting, with some people I hadn't played with before, and no character development. If you're interested, it's here, not yet on YouTube:

UPDATE 9/1: I did finally write up my CoNZealand (WorldCon 2020) experience, but rather than a new post that would have had to explain a lot of backstory, I added that as an update to my previous "I'm on panels at CoNZealand (WorldCon)" post! The update is almost as long as the original post, so if you're interested in fan activities, I think it's worth checking out.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Resurrected post: Titanic vs. Ben-Hur

 By popular acclaim (well, my sister mentioned this and someone else liked her Tweet), I am resurrecting a 1997 post from a defunct blog of mine. I'm in a hurry and I haven't taught myself how to do tables in HTML, and tabs would probably look odd in mobile, so I'll just put the comparisons on top of each other instead of side by side. I did add the quotes  and run-times today, since IMDB makes that easy.

Major spoilers for movies from 1997 and 1959!

Why Titanic pales in comparison to Ben-Hur, despite 11-Oscar tie

Titanic has: Doomed romance

Ben-Hur has: Seemingly doomed romance with a happy ending!

Titanic: Costume drama (early 20th century)

Ben-Hur: Costume drama (Imperial Rome/Jerusalem)

Titanic: Class hatred (first vs. steerage)

Ben-Hur: Race/empire hatred (Romans vs. Jews and Arabs)

False imprisonment for political/career motives! Ex-friend's betrayal!

Revenge plots! Civil war plots!

Titanic: Leonardo DiCaprio handcuffed to a railing

Ben-Hur: Charlton Heston chained shirtless to an oar

Titanic: "Jack, I want you to draw me like one of your French girls." - Rose

Ben-Hur: "Look... look for them... in the Valley... of the Lepers! If you can recognize them!" - Messala

Titanic: "I'm the king of the world!" - Jack

Ben-Hur: "Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That's good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength." - Quintus Arrius, to Judah Ben-Hur

"You seem to be now the very thing you set out to destroy. Giving evil for evil. Hatred is turning you to stone. It's as though you had become Messala." - Esther, to Ben-Hur

Titanic: Ship sinks

Ben-Hur: Naval battle with lots of ships burning and sinking!


Miracle cures of lepers! Crucifixion!

Titanic: 3 hours, 14 minutes

Ben-Hur: 3 hours, 32 minutes

Titanic: Hero dies; villain survives; heroine escapes fate only by erasing own identity

Ben-Hur: Hero lives, redeemed by love/God; villain trampled to death by his own horses; heroine, hero's mother and hero's sister all get a happy ending.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

More D&D on Twitch

As I mentioned before, I've become a fairly active member of ArvanEleron's community on Twitch. About a month ago, one of the moderators, ShadowedMage, invited me to join the game he runs on Arvan's Twitch channel, Community D&D, and I was happy to accept.

He's running the Dragon of IceSpire Peak, a module, with his own variations thrown in. There are three other players, whose personas are Isil, an Aasimar Warlock; Malak, a Wood Elf Hunter Ranger; and Shakunas, a Drow Elf Assassin Rogue, all aligned Neutral or Chaotic Good. There used to be a fourth player in the campaign, but sadly, he died in real life, of complications of diabetes.

The character I created is Grace of the Refreshing Breeze (please roll the R's if possible), a Tabaxi Bard, CG. I've played in two sessions and am looking forward to more. The sessions are held every two Wednesdays. The next one will be Wednesday, July 29, starting a little after 9 p.m. Eastern. 

They appear first on Twitch, where viewers who are logged in can comment as the game goes on. The interactivity of the chat room, in particular Arvan's friendly and witty community, is what I really enjoy about this venue. Join us, won't you?

But if you want to check it out on a more familiar medium, just watching, without interaction, the episodes eventually migrate to YouTube. Here are the first two sessions where I appear:

UPDATE: The next CD&D session has been postponed, probably to Wednesday, Aug. 5.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

I'm on panels at CoNZealand (WorldCon)!

I'm excited that The Skiffy and Fanty Show is nominated again this year for the Hugo Award for Best Fancast! Unlike last year, I'm not named on the ballot, but as a regular podcast crew member through 2019, I certainly still feel invested in the result.

I had never seriously considered going to WorldCon in New Zealand, since the Dublin WorldCon last year put a large hole in my budget. I had simply bought a supporting membership this year. But since CoNZealand went online-only, due to the coronavirus pandemic, and I need to start using up vacation time (no one in my group at work has taken vacation yet this year, due to furloughs, and vacations don't roll over to next year), I decided to pony up the fee to attend virtually.

I also summoned the courage to apply to be a panelist this time around. CoNZealand told me a couple of weeks ago that I would be on a panel, The Art of the Review! I was thrilled, because that looks right up my alley; however, I was forbidden to announce it until the schedule was finalized.

This week I found out that I am on not just one panel but three! Whee! And I am moderating two of them! Uh-oh. Not only have I never moderated a panel, I've never even been on a live panel, although I've been on plenty of podcast discussions. So I'm facing a steep learning curve. However, I have attended hundreds of panels at WorldCons and other conventions, and I have seen many examples of both good and bad moderation. Also, my sister sent me a list of articles about moderating panels, and I'll read them all when my vacation starts. It'll be a little different moderating on Zoom as well, probably harder in some ways, but easier in others. For example, I can ignore this-is-more-of-a-comment-than-a-question queries instead of making everyone sit through them or trying to cut them off.

Unlike Balticon and some others, CoNZealand is still charging full admission for virtual attendance. My understanding is that they had made financial commitments they couldn't cancel, and then had to spend a lot on tech for the virtual programming. However, my instructor during a CoNZealand online panel training session said panels would be recorded and archived somewhere, the University of Toronto if I recall correctly. I'll post links whenever that happens.

For people who ARE attending, or just curious, here's my schedule. Times are New Zealand, with US Eastern time below them:

The Art of the Review
29 Jul 2020, Wednesday 13:00 - 13:50, Programme Room 2 (Webinar) (Programming)
That's Wellington, New Zealand time.
In the Eastern U.S., this panel will be on Tuesday, July 28 at 9 p.m.

Reviewing a book is dead simple -- right? Uhmm, nope. We find what goes into reviews (of anything: Book, articles, songs, films) and what to look for.

James Davis Nicoll (James Nicoll Reviews / University of Waterloo Theatre Centre), Trish Matson (Moderator), Claire Rousseau, Anne-Louise Fortune (Independent Scholar), Kyla Lee Ward (Prea Press)

The Death of Genre? 
29 Jul 2020, Wednesday 15:00 - 15:55, Programme Room 5 (Zoom Meeting) (Programming)
That's NZ time.
In the Eastern U.S., this panel will be Tuesday, July 28 at 11 p.m.

Is it epic fantasy, or heist novel? Science fiction, or romance? Writers and readers are rebelling against the traditional "types" of fiction. They're reading and writing what they like, not what makes the book easy to shelve. Do genres even exist any more?

Amanda Pillar, Trish Matson, Caren Gussoff Sumption, Joshua Bilmes, Soon Lee (M)

In Space No One Can See You Hide the Evidence: Crimes in Space
2 Aug 2020, Sunday 12:00 - 12:50, Programme Room 4 (Webinar) (Programming)
That's Wellington time. In the Eastern U.S., this panel is on Saturday, Aug. 1, at 8 p.m.

The panel discusses SF mysteries set in space.

Trish Matson (Moderator), Carl Fink, Becky Chambers, Kat Clay

Wish me luck! I've got a lot of research to do in not a lot of time! By all means, if you have any points you'd like any of these panels to address, suggest away!

UPDATE 7/19: Today I became aware that some people I really respect have petitioned CoNZealand to include more diverse people on their panels and to put more Hugo finalists onto panels they feel are relevant to their expertise. I emailed the Programming committee to offer to step back from two of my three panels. I want to stay on The Art of the Review, because I've already put a lot of thought into it. However, I offered to step back from the other two panels, in the interests of diversity and harmony, if needed. CoNZealand already responded to thank me for my offer and said they'd get back to me if there are any programme changes.

UPDATE 7/20:  CoNZealand Programme staff responded, thanked me, and said they'd get back to me.

UPDATE 7/27: CoNZealand Programme staff emailed me yesterday confirming my schedule as above.

UPDATE 9/1: My panels went off pretty well! 

CoNZealand did panels via Zoom, with chats and Q&A. Each panel had a behind-the-scenes Zoom host and a moderator. The moderator guided the panel's discussion and also monitored the Q&A, where questions were supposed to be submitted. If extra ambitious, the moderator could also look at the Zoom chat where general reactions, comments and side discussions were being typed by the audience.

It was really intense being on the panel and trying to watch the Q&A and chat at the same time, but there were comments from the audience saying that the panels I moderated were great, and I didn't hear any complaints from my fellow panelists. "The Death of Genre?" had three panelists show up instead of the listed five, but the chat was quite active, so that helped. "Crimes in Space" had a Mrs. Jacqui Smith show up as a panelist that I, the moderator, hadn't been notified would be coming, so she hadn't been included in the rest of the panel's preliminary emails, but we managed OK.

I've followed several of the panelists on social media, and they've followed me back. Nice to make some congenial connections!

I watched a number of really interesting panels by other people, too. The panel recordings will eventually be available at the University of Toronto's Merrill collection, but will apparently only be available to researchers there, not online to the public.

I also played a really entertaining game called "The Claws of the Crab People" run by Ken Finlayson. The game was in the style of a 1950s B movie, and the players were investigating the problem, which turned out to be an alien invasion. My character was a fisherwoman whose poker buddy, a scientist, had gone missing. Players all had a set of lines that they were supposed to work into their dialogue, and I was ridiculously proud of how I completed the line "And to think people laughed when I named my fists..." You see, I had just been in a fight with some alien robots, and when it was over, I said,
"And to think people laughed when I named my fists HOOK (demonstrated with a hook punch) and SINKER (overhand fist straight down)!" The players and GM all laughed, so that was a win.

Unfortunately, following (or concurrent with) the panelist assignment/inclusivity problems, CoNZealand organizers made some more egregious mistakes regarding the convention. 

1. Instead of honoring New Zealand writers and other creators during the Hugo ceremonies, they buried the Sir Julius Vogel awards in the last half of the Retro Hugo awards panel, held at the same time as a Guests of Honor panel. 
2. Most con members only found out about their eligibility to vote on the SJV awards far after that vote had been held. A packet of nominees' work, similar to the Hugos finalists voting packet, had been assembled, but it was never released to the membership. A footnote at the end of a newsletter that didn't say where or how to track the packet down does not count in any effective way.  CoNZealand did make that packet available to members after the con, but that is small consolation.
3. The Souvenir Book listed a number of creators' names (sometimes misspelled) with no descriptions. Most of these would have been easy to grab off social media, or even taken from their packet submissions. I don't know all the difficulties the people making the Souvenir Book had to struggle with, but it was a very bad look.
4. The Hugo awards ceremony was more than twice as long as it needed to be, because the host, George R.R. Martin, told many, many anecdotes about previous WorldCons he'd been to, and praised John Campbell to the skies in an obvious slap in the face to all the fans and finalists (including at least one soon-to-be award winner) who've moved fandom beyond that racist fascist. He also told some anecdotes that were inappropriate in other ways. He took the time to organize about 20 funny hat changes, but not to find out how to pronounce a bunch of the nominees' names, and also mispronounced the name of FIYAH magazine, in a way that sounded deliberate. The whole thing was arrogant and insulting. Moreover, his segments were mostly if not all prerecorded, so CoNZealand could have edited him down.
Many more details here, from Natalie Luhrs: 
I will concede that I am a bit biased against GRRM, because of his so-called Hugo Losers party at the Dublin WorldCon that snubbed the Hugo Losers (including me, incidentally), and his subsequent defensiveness and victim-blaming, lost him all benefit of the doubt from me. 

In summary, the parts of CoNZealand that I participated in were extremely enjoyable, but a lot of the organizers' decisions were extremely disappointing.

One more thing related to CoNZealand, although not actually affiliated with it: Following the programming fiasco, a number of people whom I respect arranged an unofficial supplementary program at

Note, this was not counter-programming, but rather complementary programming. All 15 Fringe panels were held during European-friendly hours, when CoNZealand had gone dark for their night. The people who organized it made strong efforts to include panelists diverse along several axes.

All those panels are available to watch free on YouTube. Enjoy!

Monday, June 22, 2020

My first solo Librivox project: Omnilingual by H. Beam Piper

Two months ago, I participated in an SFFAudio podcast discussion of Omnilingual, a novelette by H. Beam Piper that appeared in "Astounding Science Fiction" in February 1957. I greatly enjoyed reading and listening to the story, and talking about it with other science fiction fans. (The episode hasn't been released yet.)

There were two fine audio versions of it in the free Librivox catalogue, ably narrated by Phil Chenevert and by Mark Nelson. However, the story is unusual for its time in that the protagonist is a female scientist, and there is no romantic subplot. I thought it would be nice to offer the option of hearing a woman voicing this story.

The story has academic politics but no overt sexual politics. There are several references to "girl lieutenants" and the like, but honestly, I found the constant smoking references even more jarring:
As soon as she had disposed of her oxygen equipment, she lit a cigarette, her first since noon...
The important thing is that the story focuses on Dr. Martha Dane as a scientist. I love the archaeological/linguistic puzzle Martha sets herself against, and how things work out. As I put it in my own Librivox summary:

Helped by some of her teammates on the Mars exploration crew, and hindered by others, she struggles to decipher the meanings of the artifacts left by an extinct alien species. What possible frame of reference can humans and the long-gone Martians have in common? The answer is very satisfying ...

I've narrated a few chapters of a couple of books for group projects at Librivox, but this is my first solo project. I had been looking for something appropriate for a while, and this one seemed perfect.

After that choice, and learning how to set up a solo project (with help from Mr. Chenevert himself), the first thing I had to decide was how many sections to break it up into. I first set up the projects for four parts, but during the editing process, I decided to put it into five parts instead. I think they are nice, logical breaks in the story.

The second thing I had to decide was how to voice it, i.e. how much inflection to give the narration, and what voice acting to do for the dialogue. Some Librivox readers narrate with a rather flat affect, but I prefer the more expressive readings, and my natural style is to read with inflections. So that's how I narrated most of it, and I used my own voice for Martha.

Sachiko Koremitsu, the other female character with dialogue in the story (yes, Omnilingual meets the Bechdel Test), is constantly referred to as petite, delicate, with tiny hands. I gave her a higher-pitched intonation, and tried to speak smoothly and rather musically for her.

Selim von Ohlmhorst has the most dialogue of any male character. I've studied German and would have been willing to try that accent, but he's actually of Turco-Germanic descent, so I just gave the grand old man a deep, round-toned delivery.

Tony Lattimer, Martha's main detractor, also has a lot of dialogue. I tried to make him sound a little too smooth and charming, a bit self-important, with occasional snideness.

I made Col. Hubert Penrose rather brisk, not quite barking-impatient but a man who obviously values efficiency. The other men with scraps of dialogue basically blended together.

Finally, I skimmed the text again looking for words that might make me stumble, and deciding how to approach them. For instance, the word loess has several variant pronunciations (low-ess, less, luss), but it's originally from German (Löss) so I aimed for the o-umlaut sound. 

It took time to narrate it (my version totals about an hour and 48 minutes), and significantly more time to edit the audio files. Since it was my first solo project, I was a bit obsessive about editing, so it took roughly five times as long to polish it as it did to record it. Then I had to tweak it some more to fix some problems that the project's proof-listener, cadastra, caught. 

The recording didn't turn out perfectly -- there are a few points where I found problems and inserted words instead of re-narrating whole sections -- but I am pretty well satisfied with the final result. Anyway, cadastra said she really enjoyed listening.

If you want to hear it, it's here:

Please enjoy! And if you want to suggest other public-domain works for me to narrate, especially with female protagonists and in the speculative fiction genres, feel free!

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Hippolyta, The Terror of Tilkha

On Sunday, June 7, I played D&D in a homebrew campaign with author Joseph Cadotte and some other friends. We had saved some children from a terrible fate, and returned them to their village, but their parents had been charmed into believing that the smoke-construct simulacra were their children, and rejected their actual flesh and blood. Fia the centaur decided the direct approach was best, and started knocking out parents in the belief that the illusions/charms would be dispelled when they woke up. The fake "children" tried to stop her, and she fought them then.

The villagers gravely misinterpreted what was happening. I thought it was hilarious, and I wrote a seven-stanza ballad to commemorate it. I put it up on YouTube. The lyrics are all mine. The tune came to me, but it's a pretty basic ballad form and it's possible I'm using something I heard elsewhere and forgot.

YouTube link:

Hippolyta, the Terror of Tilkha

Eighty-four parents lay prone on the ground;
the rest of the village in shock stood around.
Some children were wailing and others were flailing
at Hippolyta
The Terror of Tilkha

She and her minions had come here as heroes
But then they revealed they were villains and zeroes
Sowing confusion and and fear in profusion
The Terror of Tilkha

This Centaur of Chaos claimed our children weren't right,
brought in some imposters and started a fight.
Attacked by surprise "just to open our eyes,"
Said Hippolyta
The Terror of Tilkha

Even her allies cried out in protest, but
Her whirlwind of violence kept on with great zest.
One even tried to stop her, but nothing could top her
The Terror of Tilkha

Mothers and fathers, they fell down in rows
Then even our children, she treated as foes,
One hit from her hoof and they'd simply go poof!
The Butcher of Tilkha

Dozens of children just vanished in smoke,
And parents thought the new ones were theirs when they woke.
What else could they do? But the rest know what's true -
The Terror of Tilkha

Now she and hers have gone, and our lives just go on.
May she never return, but we've set her deed in song.
Oh she was ill met, and we'll never forget
The Terror of Tilkha
The Terror of Tilkha!

Monday, April 27, 2020

Some Surprisingly Strong Women in ERB's Oeuvre

I made my debut a few weeks ago on the SFFAudio podcast, talking with the host Jesse Willis, plus regular contributor there (and my Skiffy and Fanty Show crewmate) Paul Weimer and fellow guest Evan Lampe about an obscure Edgar Rice Burroughs novel called The Efficiency Expert (1919). You can hear the podcast here, listen to the audiobook here or here, or read the book here. I highly recommend it, although a content warning is necessary for two objectionable words* used a few times, a little onscreen violence, and an offscreen murder.

Picture of Jimmy Torrance Jr. being menaced by some thugs.
artist: not listed in book
Set in 1919 Chicago, the book is a very good read, full of interesting incidents but also sparkling with sardonic humor and social commentary. (I'll say more about this later.) Although the protagonist starts out very full of himself, the epitome of an overconfident mediocre white male, he suffers trials and tribulations, sometimes of his own making, due to his principles or ego, and sometimes from bad luck or villains. Along the way, he meets three women, all with speaking roles, all of whose actions affect his life in significant ways.

This is fairly unusual contrasted with the majority of ERB's oeuvre, where many books have just one significant female character, most women exist to scream and be saved, even the occasional wandering princess generally doesn't have much agency except to reject a few suitors, and the hidden-city queens basically exist merely to lust after and lose Burroughs' heroes.

Picture of Tarzan in loincloth, carrying spear, with an elephant, ape and black panther at his side.
artist: Frank Frazetta
I am familiar with a lot of ERB's work, thanks to growing up with my daddy's extensive paperback library of  Science Fiction&Fantasy, Westerns, and adventure yarns. (Mom collected mysteries, Georgette Heyer and Literature.) In fact, the first adult-level speculative fiction book that I remember reading, beyond the level of, say, Alexander Key's The Forgotten Door, was The Beasts of Tarzan (1916), left carelessly on a coffee table. I suppose the animal-centric cover misled me a little, and I struggled with some of the concepts, but I had absorbed enough of the legend of Tarzan to keep going.

So I've read more than 20 Tarzan books, about a half-dozen of the Mars/Barsoom books, one of the Venus books, a half-dozen Pellucidars, The Land That Time Forgot and a couple of sequels, and a half-dozen more of his stand-alone books. I reread only a few specifically for this essay, but there are several more that I've revisited over the years because something about them stuck out in my mind. I've been thinking about them a lot since recording the SFF Audio podcast. Following are my impressions of the strongest female characters that I've encountered in Edgar Rice Burroughs books.

Jane Foster in Tarzan of the Apes and The Return of Tarzan, The Beasts of Tarzan and The Son of Tarzan, primarily (read here or listen here). (Content warning for nearly all Tarzan books: racism and fights to the death.) She is mentioned in many later books in the series (he's a one-woman man, but often separated from her, so she doesn't have scenes in all of them) but past the first four books or so, often just needs rescuing (she often needs that in the first three too). But beyond being beautiful and brave like all Burroughs heroines, Jane is remarkable through changing the way of life of the hero who loves her, at least changing it for a while, as opposed to many Burroughs women who want nothing better than to join with the hero and follow his path.
MILD SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST FOUR TARZAN BOOKS: At the beginning of The Beasts of Tarzan, she and John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, are married and living in London with baby Jack. At the beginning of The Son of Tarzan, they've returned to "civilization" and she forbids adolescent Jack to read books about animals or explorers, or even to go to the zoo, for fear that it should rouse his apparently inherited "savage" instincts -- which is pretty insulting to Tarzan, really, if you think about it. John/Tarzan protests mildly, in private, but in front of Jack, he concedes and backs up his wife in imposing these restrictions, which Jack objects to as mollycoddling. After Jack goes to Africa and grows up there in the jungle, and they eventually reunite joyfully, they all go back to England again! Jane is clearly wrong-headed about this, but I have to admit she is strong-willed.

Meriem in The Son of Tarzan (read here or listen here). (CW: A villain uses the N-word, and "Bwana" calls his African employees boys. A rich man acts on classist attitudes. Violence.) Jack/Korak is the protagonist, but Meriem is the second most important character, with six full-page illustrations plus several smaller ones in my family's tattered 1917 first edition.
Meriem, attacked by a lion, jumps from her horse into a tree.
artist: J. Allen St. John
We encounter Meriem as a child in an Arab compound in Africa, being beaten by the Sheik. Jack/Korak feels sorry for her and leads her into the jungle. He teaches her the great apes' language and to swing through the trees as lithely as himself.
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS HERE: After she grows up, they're separated by circumstances; she thinks he's dead, and the Europeans whom she encounters think that her jungle tales are delirious ravings, and her memories fade. But when peril threatens, she's able to leap into action again. She's self-confident in her jungle lore, but she is very naive and easily manipulated.
Also notable: All the Claytons think Meriem is an Arab, but not even Jane minds her marrying Jack. But, perhaps to appease the early 20th century readers, it turns out she's French nobility after all.
Meriem also appears briefly in Tarzan and the Ant Men, with Korak and their toddler son Jackie, but doesn't play any significant part there.

Bertha Kircher in Tarzan the Untamed (read here or listen here). (CW: This book is written during and set near the beginning of World War I, and all Germans in it are treated as irredeemably evil.)
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THIS BOOK! Skip this paragraph if you haven't read it and might sometime! After his estate in Africa is attacked by Germans and Jane is apparently slain, along with many Waziri warriors, Tarzan goes on a rampage of revenge. However, he can't quite bring himself to overcome his gentlemanly instincts and kill the German spy, Bertha Kircher. Near the end, it turns out that Bertha was a double agent for the Allies all along, thus proving her courage, intelligence, resourcefulness and goodness.

Dejah Thoris in Under the Moons of Mars/A Princess of Mars and sequels (read here or listen here). (CW: Debatable stand-in racism: These are alien species, but later books advocate separate rulers for each race of Barsoom, united under one white-savior Warlord; also, protagonist Captain John Carter is a Confederate veteran, although that's merely mentioned, not discussed. Additionally, of course, there are many fights that end in death.)
Picture of Thuvia, scantily clad in jewels and silks, running down stairs in an abandoned city, pursued by a thark.
artist: Roy Krenkel, Jr.
Dejah Thoris is the princess of the red race of Helium. She's not a typical Burroughs damsel in that she can wield a sword in her own defense, although of course she doesn't measure up to the fighting skills of the comparatively heavy-gravity superman from Earth. Sometimes she needs rescuing, and during The Gods of Mars, it is discovered that she has given way to despair. (Things get better later.) But I actually love her character in the horribly marketed, unfairly maligned 2012 "John Carter" movie, where she is also a scientist trying to save her world, and eventually figures out some important plot points.
Sola, a female thark, also stands out as a character in the book by being different from most of her green-skinned, six-limbed race in that she demonstrates compassion instead of just ferocity, and argues in defense of that despite social scorn.
Thuvia in The Gods of Mars is the princess of another Red Martian city, who also falls in love with John Carter; however, she risks her life to help Dejah Thoris. It's also significant that Thuvia has charms to soothe the savage banths. Other female characters include Phaidor, a third and spiteful rival for JC's affections, and Issus, the evil "goddess" of Barsoom. Thuvia and Phaidor also appear in The Warlord of Mars.
Sadly, when Thuvia gets her own book in Thuvia, Maid of Mars, one of only two ERB books titled after a woman's name, she basically just plays the captured/rescued princess role, although she does get to stab somebody. Carthoris is the real protagonist of the book.

And now, finally, back to The Efficiency Expert. Aside from just the plot points, it's very well written regarding both language and structure, with some surprising twists, humor, and insights. Burroughs constantly writes in a way that invites the reader to laugh at the protagonist's foibles yet eventually root for him, while giving sidelights on poverty, class prejudice, bad cops, labor movements, and other issues.
I'm about to give some MAJOR SPOILERS TO THE PLOT OF THE BOOK, so I encourage readers of this essay to view or listen to it before continuing. Jimmy Torrance Jr. is the aforementioned protagonist, who graduates last in his college class but still thinks he just has to advertise his availability to land a job as a manager. He doesn't, gets desperate, takes a series of low-level jobs, and sinks so low as to briefly consider a life of crime as an accomplice to The Lizard, a safe-cracker. Then he cons his way into a job as an Efficiency Expert, and then there's a murder.
Elizabeth Compton, her friend Harriet Holden, and Little Eva/Edith Hudson are the three women who affect his life. Elizabeth is the daughter of a factory owner, snobbish and judgmental, and Harriet is her friend, classy and thoughtful. After they encounter Jimmy several times and he helps them, Elizabeth figures there must be some flaw in this guy's character that has made him sink so low, but tells him to give the chauffeur his address and they'll send him some money. Harriet gives him her address and invites him to come by so she can help him find a better job through her connections. He is too proud to accept help from either. Meanwhile, working as a waiter, Jimmy meets Little Eva, who likes him because he treats her "like a decent girl" despite her bad-girl profession. The Lizard tells Little Eva that Jimmy's too good for her, but she stands up for herself and says, "I'm as good as you are and a damn sight straighter. What I get I earn, and I don't steal it."  
Little Eva encourages him to apply for an advertised Efficiency Expert job, loans him money for good clothes and helps him forge some references.
     "What do you have to know to be an efficiency expert?" asked the girl.
     "From what I saw of the bird I just mentioned the less one knows about anything the more successful he should be as an efficiency expert, for he certainly didn't know anything. And yet the results from kicking everybody in the plant out of his own particular rut eventually worked wonders for the organization. If the man had any sense, tact or diplomacy nothing would have been accomplished."
     "Why don't you try it?" asked the girl. Jimmy looked at her with a quizzical smile. "Thank you," he said.
     "Oh, I didn't mean it that way," cried the girl. "But from what you tell me I imagine that all a man needs is a front and plenty of punch. ..."
Jimmy buys a book on industrial efficiency, which focuses on streamlining and common sense, and is hired. Harriet recognizes Jimmy, now the Efficiency Expert working at her father's plant, as the hosiery clerk/waiter/boxer/milkman she has kept running into; she seeks to denounce him, but he threatens to tell her dad all the places where she's been slumming, so she backs down. Little Eva  gets a job working as secretary Edith Hudson.
Then the murder happens, and Jimmy is the prime suspect. Harriet and Eva help him in different ways. Alas, despite how much I like Eva/Edith, her self-reformation isn't enough to overcome the Bad Girl tropes, so Burroughs clears her out of the plot to make way for Jimmy to choose Harriet.
One of my main delights in this book is how different all the women are from each other, with distinct personalities and ways of interacting with others. Burroughs doesn't do deep character studies on any of them, but they all are pretty vivid on the pages.

Hispanic-looking girl on the ground, threatened by a man with a pistol, as a man rides up on a horse, in a Western-looking setting.
artist: Boris Vallejo
Shannon Burke/Gaza de Lure in The Girl from Hollywood (1922). Read here or listen here. (CW for a character using an objectionable epithet for Hispanics, casting-couch scenarios, an obscurely described miscarriage, and deaths.) This Prohibition-era novel portrays the corruptions of Hollywood as the lives of decent (although flawed) people are ruined.
Shannon Burke goes to Hollywood and takes the stage name of Gaza de Lure, but all the directors she meets just want to sleep with her, not give her roles in movies. One of them tricks her and gets her addicted to cocaine; she still refuses to become his mistress, but becomes a sub-dealer for him. Eventually, she reforms herself and helps some other people.
The Girl From Hollywood is not full of humor like The Efficiency Expert, but it does contain a few smiles like these:
     During the deer season, if they did not have it [the banned liquor] all removed by that time, they would be almost certain of discovery, since every courageous ribbon-counter clerk in Los Angeles hied valiantly to the mountains with a high-powered rifle, to track the ferocious deer to its lair.
NEAR-TOTAL PLOT SPOILERS FROM HERE: When her mother dies, Shannon stays at the ranch of some neighbors for the funeral and gets involved in their lives, and the neighbor family's lives. She conceals her sordid past and kicks her habit, but makes an error in judgment that gets the ranch heir, Custer Pennington, arrested. He suspects her of betraying him to a gang of bootleggers, but actually she was trying to protect him. Custer convinces Shannon not to tell the authorities that it was actually the neighbor Guy Evans who was in league with the gang, because Custer's sister Eva is engaged to Guy, as Custer is engaged to Guy's sister Grace, who has gone to Hollywood to try to make her mark there as an actress. Custer gets six months in jail.
After Custer serves his time, Guy finds Grace dying after domestic violence, having succumbed to drugs and sex in the wicked city, and he collapses mentally and emotionally. Later, after Eva cajoles her father into allowing a movie company to film on the ranch, there's a sexual assault, an attempted suicide, and a murder. Both Custer and Shannon are charged with the murder, but she is acquitted and finds evidence to clear Custer.
Shannon is by far the strongest character in this book. Custer has moral standards but also has a weakness for alcohol, getting blackout drunk during a crucial moment; Eva is volatile and silly, and their parents are wishful thinkers; Grace is a victim, and Guy allows his best friend to serve his prison term. In contrast, Shannon reforms her way of life, keeps her commitments and acts generously to protect others.
Incidentally, the 1950 cover portrays Shannon/Gaza as Hispanic, but I didn't find any evidence in the text to confirm that; she might have just given herself the Gaza de Lure stage name to make herself seem more exotic. Neither her mother nor her eventually discovered long-lost father have Hispanic names (although we only learn the nickname, not the first name, of the father).

Corrie van der Meer and Sarina in Tarzan and the Foreign Legion (1947, not public domain). I'm describing these characters later than the other Tarzan-book women I mentioned because Foreign Legion is pretty different in tone, more of an ensemble piece and told from more perspectives than any other ERB I can think of, and written decades later. (CW: Set during World War II, this book is viciously racist toward the Japanese soldiers, condescendingly colonialist toward indigenous Sumatrans and a Chinese worker, and also stereotypes the Dutch. However, if you are willing to look past all that, there are some strong and active female characters to enjoy.)
Incidentally, Foreign Legion refers to the mixture of Allied characters in the book, not the French military force. Here, ERB inserts Tarzan into the Pacific Theater of Operations by having RAF Col. John Clayton be an observer on an American flight over Sumatra that gets shot down, so he can fight tigers and encounter orangutans. Just go with it.
BIG SPOILERS AHEAD: Corrie is 16 years old at the start, when the Japanese invade Sumatra. They murder her stubborn Dutch planter father, and she and her family's faithful Chinese servant hide out for two years, wandering the mountains until the end of Chapter 1, when she's captured and he's left for dead. Tarzan and the American flight crew rescue her in Chapter 5, and she quickly learns how to make bows and arrows and becomes a good shot at guns too. Capt. Jerry Lucas is initially disturbed that this sweet little blond girl has not only learned to hate but exults in it, while she argues that her hatred is pure and good.
     Jerry looked up to see Corrie disentangling the slung rifle from the body of the other J**. He saw her standing above her victim like an avenging goddess. Three times she drove the bayonet into the breast of the soldier. The American watched the girl's face. It was not distorted by rage or hate or vengeance. It was illuminated by a divine light of exaltation.
      She turned to Jerry. "This is what I saw them do to my father. I feel happier now. I only wish that he had been alive."
      "You are magnificent," said Jerry.
Some other Burroughs women have killed in self-defense, but she's the only one I know who gets to go to the full length of glorying in her frequent revenge killing, and is rewarded by Lucas' love and the adoration of the rest of the flight crew.
Sarina (no last name) doesn't get quite as much page space as Corrie, but she is the most badass Burroughs woman of all, who is allowed to succeed. We encounter her as a member of a group of bandits, sleeping with their chief. She is a 35-year-old Eurasian, daughter of a Dutch pirate and on the other side, granddaughter of a headhunter and of a cannibal, and has served time in prison for murder. She sees Corrie, whose parents she knew, and decides to join Corrie's band instead.
    "When I got in trouble, your father hired a fine attorney to defend me. But it did no good. Justice is not for Eurasians, or perhaps I should say mercy is not for Eurasians. I was guilty, but there were circumstances that would have been in my favor had I been white. That is all past. Because your father and mother were kind to me and helped me, I shall help you."
Sgt. "Shrimp" Rosetti, who grew up in gangland Chicago but is good-hearted despite his lack of schooling and initial mistrust of women, falls like a ton of bricks for Sarina. She thinks he's cute, and learns that he is brave, so she gets a happy ending too. It is entertaining to imagine her back in Chicago after the war, correcting Rosetti's English (she was well taught by Catholic missionaries) and terrorizing his neighborhood.

So there you have it. By the 1940s, Edgar Rice Burroughs' books are still full of racism, but he admits through character backstories that colonialism may contain elements of systemic oppression, and he allows women to be out-and-out killers without suffering social consequences. Instead of letting only virginal white women prosper, he writes a murderous, mixed-race, middle-aged Bad Girl who is Winning at Life.

I'm not at all saying that it is necessary for a modern SFF reader to read ERB. There are numerous very objectionable elements in his books, and there are many entertaining modern writers whose works are not full of cringeworthy moments. However, for someone who is digging into the history of the genre, Edgar Rice Burroughs offers many points of interest, including several surprisingly strong female characters.

*Objectionable elements in The Efficiency Expert
1. The Lizard refers to Jimmy as "a white guy" as a compliment, meaning he's a good guy. Google says "white" originally meant radiant or clear, but by the 1870s it was used as slang for fair and honorable. I doubt Burroughs meant to use this word in a racial way here, but a modern reader may find it jarring. Growing up in the South, I only ever heard that expression used sarcastically, e.g. "That's mighty white of you." YMMV.
2. Burroughs describes the inferior boxer Young Brophy as "a pu*** fighter" -- and doesn't use asterisks. The Language Log blog says the word originally meant sweet and amiable, but applied to men came to stand for weak and effeminate. Language Log says this is parallel evolution for the slang for female private parts, but definitely then and now is a pejorative applied to men. I doubt ERB meant Jimmy thought of Brophy as homosexual, just kind of feeble or cowardly, but it's an ugly term.
3. Perhaps more objectionable than those words is the fact that apparently in ERB's version of 1919 Chicago, no people of color live there, or move in any circles that the protagonist encounters, despite his activities throughout various levels of society. One might suppose that POC live in ERB's Chicago but he simply doesn't mention them, except that he does state (neutrally) that a married pair of landlords are Jews.
4. Not really objectionable, but it's definitely weird that the book, published in 1919, does not mention The Great War or its veterans AT ALL, although it does mention the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. I guess Jimmy missed the war by staying in college.

Monday, April 20, 2020

My debut on Twitch

I've started watching a couple of Twitch streams with nice, friendly chat groups during the month that I've been working from home. It's easy, non-demanding background stuff to keep me company while I'm working, or after work, and occasionally I think of something clever or kind to say in the chat texts. It feels much more socially connected than just watching TV and maybe talking to someone about it later.

One of those Twitch streams is ArvanEleron, devoted to games of various types, usually either watching the host playing video games solo or watching groups play RPGs, although sometimes the host just talks about various game-related topics. Also, sometimes he digresses and talks about politics from a liberal/progressive slant, and he throws in jokes and literary references (he's a literature professor), and the chat shares jokes and cheers him on, and members cheer each other too.

Once every two months, Arvan holds "Arv Streams Dungeons & Dragons with Viewers" -- i.e, he plays with some of his viewers instead of solo or with pro guests. That happened Saturday night, and he asked for volunteer viewers to play D&D with him online. He forgave my lack of webcam since I have a good microphone, courtesy of my sister, so I got to play!

Here is a link to the Twitch stream. 
I'm not sure how long it will be up - probably a week at most -- and then there will be a gap, and it will go to YouTube eventually.
The recording totals 4:42:50, but fear not, there is quite a lot of chatting and setup before the game begins. You can first hear my voice starting at about 1:27:10, although you will occasionally see text comments from me (trishemats) in the chat text prior to that. We continue setup, and I make some jokes.
The characters and players are introduced starting at about 1:41:00.
The actual game starts around 1:49:15. The game ends around 4:21:50 although the talking continues for another 20 minutes or so.

I play Thistle, a halfling rogue (very traditional character). The character sheet Arvan sent me had quite a lot of backstory on it, which explains some of the mysterious actions I take during the adventure.

The other Twitch stream I've been watching lately is the Rusty Quill, associated with the Rusty Quill Gaming podcast and creators of the Magnus Archive horror podcast. The games I've seen played there range from simple tanks-ships-planes shooters to tech horror like Soma to a hilarious stick-figure Weird West thing, but the chat room is super sweet and supportive, of the hosts and of each other. But watch out for puns in the chat!

Update: The D&D with Viewers: Lost Mine of Phandalver show is no longer available on Twitch, but it's up on YouTube now at

Monday, April 6, 2020

Roundup of my podcasts in 2019-20

2019 was a very busy year for me, so this is a very belated roundup of my podcast activities released that year. I am also including my podcasts from 2020 so far.

First of all, I appeared on Storium Arc, the podcast that discusses various aspects of, the online storytelling game. It's sort of like a role-playing game without dice, or like a round-robin writing game. Usually a host/narrator sets up a world/conflicts, and players/writers take turns saying what their characters do and feel. I've been a member since 2016 and have written more than 49,000 words in various vignettes.
One game that I completed in November 2018, originally titled Vampires Vs. Marines but later retitled The Twilight War, was picked as the original Arc-eology podcast, a subcast of Storium Arc that focuses on specific games/stories. The podcast hosts Chris, Mickey and Zachary interviewed host Tacronicus (Jim Sebastian), me and fellow writers TimWB (Tim) and Swede (David):
Content warning: graphic violence and deaths

I continued being one of the Skiffy and Fanty crew and co-hosts. The Skiffy and Fanty Show was one of the six finalists for the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Podcast! I went to Ireland and met some of the crew in person instead of just over the Internet! It was amazing! I didn't get a trophy, but I got a shiny rocket pin and an exclusive dinner, and sat in the auditorium for the awards show and clapped for the winners!
The nomination was for 2018 episodes, of course.

Here are the Skiffy and Fanty episodes that I appeared on in 2019:
I couldn't make it to the scheduled recording, but I sent them a voice clip with my thoughts.
Discussion of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosiverse book "Memory" with Paul Weimer, Alex Acks, Kate Sherrod and my sister, Sarah Elkins!
Jen Zink and I interview Alasdair Stuart and Marguerite Kenner, the CEO and COO of the Escape Artists podcast group (Escape Pod, Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders.
Brandon O'Brien, Daniel Haeusser and I discuss A Larger Reality: Speculative Fiction from the Bicultural Margins / Una realidad más amplia: Historias desde la periferia bicultural edited by Libia Brenda
Stina Leicht, Paul Weimer and I discuss LMB's Komarr.
Jen Zink, Shaun Duke and I discuss Starcrash, a terrible 1978/79 movie, in a Torture Cinema episode. The torture is the badness of the movie, not anything gory.
Kate Sherrod, Alex Acks, Stina Leicht, Paul Weimer and I discuss probably my favorite LMB Vorkosiverse book, A Civil Campaign.
A lot of people, including me before this fall, preferred to act as though the Terminator saga ended with T2 or after The Sarah Connor Chronicles. But did you know that Terminator: Dark Fate, which came out this fall, was actually great? It both subverted and extended some of the mythology in ways that Alex Acks and I found incredibly pleasing! Listen to us rave!

I continued the Supergirl Supercast, reviews of The CW's Supergirl episodes.
Supergirl S4E10 Review: “Suspicious Minds” with David Schaub and Brianna Taeuber
Supergirl S4E11 Review: “Blood Memory” with David Schaub, Deanna Chapman and Sarah Elkins
Supergirl S4E13 Review: “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” with David Schaub
Supergirl S4E16 Review: “House of L” with David Schaub
Supergirl S4E17 Review: “All About Eve” with David Schaub and Deanna Chapman
Supergirl S4E18 Review: “Crime and Punishment” with David Schaub
Supergirl S4E19 Review: “American Dreamer” with David Schaub and Deanna Chapman
Supergirl S4E20 Review: “Will the Real Miss Tessmacher Please Stand Up?” with David Schaub
Supergirl S4E21 Review: “Red Dawn” with David Schaub and Deanna Chapman
Supergirl S4E22 Review: “The Quest for Peace” with David Schaub
Supergirl S5E01 Review: “Event Horizon” with David Schaub
Supergirl S5E02 Review: “Stranger Beside Me” with David Schaub
Supergirl S5E03 Review: “Blurred Lines” with David Schaub
Supergirl S5E04 Review: “In Plain Sight” with David Schaub
Supergirl S5E05 Review: “Dangerous Liaisons” with David Schaub
Supergirl S5E06 Review: “Confidence Women” with David Schaub
Supergirl S5E07 Review: “Tremors” with David Schaub and Deanna Chapman
Supergirl S5E08 Review: “The Wrath of Rama Khan” with David Schaub
All of the Supercast episodes are collected here:

Now, I'll go ahead and start my 2020 list instead of creating a separate list right now. I may break it off in a separate post later.

I made my debut on another podcast today! The SFF Audio podcast is one that I've been listening to for quite a while. They discuss mostly classic, public domain science fiction and fantasy stories. Usually they release a book one week and have the discussion the next week, although sometimes for a short story they'll combine them for an episode. On Twitter, I mentioned my favorite obscure Edgar Rice Burroughs book, The Efficiency Expert, set in 1919 Chicago (no SFF elements). After some conversation, the host Jesse Willis invited me onto his podcast to discuss it. My Skiffy and Fanty buddy Paul Weimer joined us, along with Evan Lampe.
SFF Audio packaged the Librivox reading by Delmar H. Dolbier in one convenient 5-hour podcast here:
Spoiler: I have already recorded a couple more podcasts with SFF audio!
Also, I plan to write more about The Efficiency Expert in a later post. Brief content warning for now: a few uses of objectionable language and an offscreen character death.

I have continued podcasting on Supergirl:
Supergirl S5E09 Review: “Crisis on Infinite Earths, Parts 1-3” with David Schaub
Supergirl Supercast: “Crisis on Infinite Earths, Parts 4-5” with David Schaub. Doesn't technically include a Supergirl episode, but she's in all the Crisis episodes, as part of the CW crossover.
Supergirl S5E10 Review: “The Bottle Episode” with David Schaub
Supergirl S5E11 Review: “Back From the Future, Part One” with David Schaub
Supergirl S5E12 Review: “Back From the Future, Part Two” with David Schaub
Supergirl S5E13 Review: “It’s a Super Life” with David Schaub
Supergirl S5E14 Review: “The Bodyguard” with David Schaub
Supergirl S5E15 Review: “Reality Bytes" with David Schaub
Supergirl S5E16 Review: “Alex in Wonderland” with David Schaub.

The Skiffy and Fanty show has dialed itself back a little, so I haven't appeared in any episodes so far this year. However, I still have a Reading Rangers episode (on Winterfair Gifts) in the can, which will hopefully be released eventually.

My podcasts from 2018 are listed here:

and my podcasts from before then are listed here:

Also, I have read some chapters for two Librivox books:
The Child of the Moat by Ian Bernard Stoughton Holborn
(chapters 3, 14, 18, and 21)
I wrote a full blog post about it here:

The Secret Power by Marie Corelli (chapters 14 and 15)

I also sang in Librivox's 13th Anniversary Song with other readers and volunteers.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Ethiopian explorations in literature

I took a break from my Hugo Awards reading to finish a couple of overdue library books. Usually I stick to fiction during my time off, since I read nonfiction all day for my job, but these were an exception. I've been doing character-backstory research for a game I'm playing/writing at and needed more of a personal feel than the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Ethiopia could provide. So I turned to my lovely local New Hanover County Public Library and found two books pertaining to Ethiopia's last emperor, Haile Selassie. They are "The Wife's Tale: A Personal History" by Aida Edemariam and "The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat" by Ryszard Kapuscinski. They are about as different as two biographies can be that cover the same era in the same country, but they are both fascinating, and the combination of perspectives is illuminating.

Image: Cover of The Wife's TaleThe Wife's Tale (2018) is the story of Yetemegnu, an Ethiopian woman who lived from about 1916 to 2013, from feudalism and monarchy, through fascist invasion and occupation, back to monarchy, through revolutions, and into modern times. A child bride, married to an Orthodox Christian cleric, she was repressed for much of her life, but remained strong and smart. After her husband was imprisoned, she petitioned the emperor for his release, or at least a fair trial, and he agreed to hear the case. But her husband died, and she led her family after that, raising the children, and arguing court cases herself to protect their property, and eventually learning to read.

The memoir is written by her granddaughter, a journalist for The Guardian, who had heard many stories told by and about Yetemegnu. It is intensely personal, including details of beatings by her unjustifiably jealous husband, and many conversations with her relatives, and her dreams and religious experiences. It is also extremely immersive in Yetemegnu's way of life, everything from the expectations placed on her, to the food she cooked for her family and for her husband's many guests, to details of clothing and how the household was run.

Through all these personal details, and watching the rise and fall of Yetemegnu's husband, and what happened to some of her children, a vision of Ethiopian history is also revealed. Strict hierarchical traditionalism is combined with the arbitrariness of courtly and churchly intrigues, punctuated by the Italian occupation and conflicts of when cooperating to survive might turn into collaboration, and then the revolutionary periods affect Yetemegnu's family.

Parts of the memoir are a little hard to get through because of the emotions sparked by what is happening, but it's still a very accessible book, told clearly and plainly. This sometimes strict but always loving woman is worth getting to know, through her granddaughter's words.

The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat (1978) is not a personal book, though it contains personal perspectives. It is a compilation of interviews with some of the former members of Haile Selassie's court, after he was deposed and they went into hiding. Kapuscinski, a Polish foreign correspondent who'd reported from Ethiopia before, sought out these eyewitnesses and interwove their descriptions and anecdotes, with occasional explanatory bridges of his own writing, into a coherent narrative of what happened leading up to, during, and immediately after Selassie's ouster in 1974 -- as coherent as you can get when courtiers are explaining everything through the lenses of their own perspectives and agendas, anyway.

I was amazed and appalled to read about how the emperor maintained his power throughout most of his reign, until it melted away. He kept his entire court off-balance all the time, raising the status of some and lowering others' each day during the Hour of Assignments, so that the courtiers and ministers had a hard time trying to maintain any momentum, let alone power bases. He also disapproved of any efforts at reforms made by anyone other than himself; apparently, he alone was to be the dispenser of mercy, justice, and any improvements in the people's lives; he alone was to be their father-figure, their savior. He denied reports of mismanagement and waste by his officials, sometimes elevating them to show that they couldn't possibly be guilty (and he couldn't possibly have made mistakes by appointing them); he and his court decried "troublemakers" whenever complaints arose.

The emperor made ambiguous verbal statements, written down by the Minister of the Pen, so that he could claim any unpopular decisions had been misinterpreted. He was a master of evasion, avoiding capture by the Italians before World War II, and surviving the attempted coup by Mengistu in 1960; when the Army encroached on his power, making arrests in his name, he appeared to accept their decisions; when he was finally officially deposed, he said "If the revolution is good for the people, then I am for the revolution."

The interviewees often speculate about the reasons for their emperors' habits and decisions, but they don't know, because he rarely, if ever, trusted anyone enough to reveal his thinking. Some of the interviewees seem to maintain their adoration of the emperor; others use overtly respectful language that yet seems to be incredibly sarcastic, given the ironic juxtapositions with the events being described.

This book has an incredible way with words. I have no idea how true the 1983 English translation of the Polish book (probably mostly translated from Ethiopian originally) is to what those courtiers actually said, but the phrases are often poetic -- conveying mood and mindset with elegance.

Some examples:
"All the people surrounding the Emperor are just like that--on their knees, and with knives."
"In a poor country, money is a wonderful, thick hedge, dazzling and always blooming, which separates you from everything else. Through that hedge you do not see creeping poverty, you do not smell the stench of misery, and you do not hear the voices of the human dregs. But at the same time you know that all of that exists, and you feel proud because of your hedge."
"Yes, looking was a provocation, it was blackmail, and everyone was afraid to lift his eyes, afraid that somewhere--in the air, in a corner, behind an arras, in a crack--he would see a shining eye, like a dagger."
"There was such a fear of the precipice in the Palace that everyone tried to hold on to His Majesty, still not knowing that the whole court--though slowly and with dignity--was sliding toward the edge of the cliff."
"And how can anyone justify not having achievements in today's world? Certainly it was possible to invent, to count things twice, to explain, but then troublemakers would immediately stand up and hurl calumnies, and by that time such indecency and perversity had spread that people would rather believe the troublemakers than the Emperor."
"That's it, my friend--His Venerable Majesty wanted to rule over everything. Even if there was a rebellion, he wanted to rule over the rebellion, to command a mutiny, even if it was directed against his own reign."
I do wonder how many of those courtiers surrounding the emperor were out for their own advantage, and how many were just doing the best they could to survive in that court of chaos? It's hard to say, but it's pretty clear that anyone who'd told the emperor he was on the wrong path would have been swept away.

Anyway, I feel lucky that my recreational interests led me to read these two books. The Emperor, despite its specificity of period and place, has some important things to say about autocracy and access to power, and the wise and foolish uses thereof, which are relevant to here and now. The Wife's Tale tells us about a woman whose life was very different from most of ours, but she has a lot to teach anyone about perseverance.

Aside from the life lessons, it's really interesting to steep myself for a little while in another culture. These two books are both great, in very different ways, and I highly recommend them both.