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It appears...

... that my quiet little suburban town has had its own George Floyd incident.

Several days ago, a Hispanic man named Mario Gonzales was (apparently) drunk in a public park. I make no apologies for him on this level; but he was, on the other hand, employed, supporting his four-year-old son, and the primary caretaker for his autistic brother.

I watched the bodycam video last night, and this is what I saw:

A neighbor called 911, complaining of a man hanging out near his fence, talking to himself. Police came and tried unsuccessfuly to engage Gonzales in conversation - not that he didn't answer them, but that he didn't do so coherently. When he would not give his last name or show ID, they decided to handcuff him. He struggled and they repeatedly said, "Please don't resist us. Put your hand behind your back." That sort of thing.

Eventually he fell over and continued struggling. They put their weight on him. Due to the angle of the body cam it's hard to say where, exactly, one of them knelt on him, but it was upper torso or neck. He suddeny stopped struggling. With cuffs on him, they rolled him on his side, and discovered he had no pulse. They began CPR and called for support and an ambulance.He was dead.

Need I say that I am extremely pissed that his happened in my town? 

I mean, I'm pissed when it happens anywhere, but when it happens this close to home ... well.

One positive note: while I think they mishandled this, there did not seem to be any racial motivation or intent to harm Gonzales. But, well, he's dead anyway.

Shit.
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Various: Legion of Super-heroes Before the Darkness Vol. 1

Some people just don't dig the Legion, and I understand that. You have to set aside a certain amount of rationality, logic, and even common sense to even accept the concept, and the execution is, at times, utterly whack. There are stories that are just downright embarrassing to Legion fans.

A couple of those are in this volume.But there are also a couple of pretty good ones, including the four-part "Dark Man" story, which I've heard of for years. The scripting, mostly by Gerry Conway or E. Nelson Bridwell is generally competent, though never superb. The art, by a number of artists, similarly varies: the best I can say is that the characters are always recognizable, even in closeups where you don't see their distinctive uniforms.

The "Before the Darkness" concept makes me very happy. It implies that they are going to take this series of archival books up to _just_ before the "Great Darkness" storyline, which is where my collection of actual Legion comics begins. (I had a nice set of the early _Adventure Comics_ run when I was a kid, but, yes, my mother threw them out when we moved. Ah, well, I probably wouldn't have taken good care of them anyway....) 

So if they put out just two more volumes (by my rough calculation) my run will be complete, and I shall be a very happy camper and probably take a couple of "me" days to read through the whole thing sequentially at some point.
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Susan Cooper: Dreams and Wishes (2021-31)

I bought this used book online for about (don't recall exactly) five dollars. It sat dutifully, if a bit sullenly, on my TBR shelf until its turn came. I opened it, turned to the title page and found that it was an inscribed copy: "For the students at Park Schoolwith best wishes - Susan coooper 1996". I don't suppose this makes it terribly valuable (Ms. Cooper is still alive at nearly-86, and, for a blessing, still seems to be writing: her two last books - picture books, but still - were published in 2019), but it makes it valuable to me.

It is nominally a collection of "Essays on Writing for Children", but Cooper's muse takes her all over the place, wandering most of all to autobiography; usually coming back to the topic above, but not always.And the word "Essays" is loosely used: there are a number of talks and one essay included herein.

And that's just fine. Each of these pieces (except for the interview, whose structure was in the hands of the interviewer rather than Ms. Cooper) is a web of connections that always come back to, not writing for children, but writing and the creative bent. Cooper is somewhere in the gap between "detailed plotter" and "seat-of-the-pantser": she starts out with some characters, a situation, and a general idea of where they're all going to end up, but usually with no idea of how they're going to get there. Incidents, characters, locations present themselves to her, and she knows that they belong in the current story - or that they don't - and the ones that do, find their places.

This is not to suggest that Cooper practices some sort of "automatic writing"; far from it, she is a conscious and conscientious craftsperson and artist. But the material she consciously and conscientiously works with bubbles up from her unconscious mind and the experiences of her past, especially her childhood in England and Wales.

Cooper writes about how her experience of war (she was a child in London during the Blitz and after) made its way to the surface in the five-book sequence "the Dark is Rising", how her childhood homes and landscapes weave their way into her books, and more. She (a Briton who has lived in the United States since the 1960s) writes about how a person transplanted to another place, another culture, feels the shape of things differently, feels holes in her world that nothing in the new place can rightly fill. The Welsh have a word, _hiraeth_, and it is a much fuller word than "homesickness": it is a deep longing of the soul, the desire of the exile or emigrant for "the old country". (She also speaks about how Americans don't often feel this, because our world is polymorphous and still shaping itself: the "old country" needs to be an _old_ country.)

She also describes writing a book set in a geography she remembers well. She wrote about it with a pair of topographic maps pinned to the wall, and made only one change to the terrain for the story's sake - she combined two valleys. Since her novels don't generally give the exact names of where in England or Wales they take place - and the names given are sometimes changed - there's no one to know, really, how faithfully they hew to real geographies: but the reader feels the places as real.

These are warm, friendly pieces. I do not think I learned much about writing for children from them - though perhaps I learned something about Susan Cooper writing for children (which she does not; she writes the book that is there to be written, and lets the publisher decide on categories). But I learned a lot of other stuff, some of it emotional, some of it factual, some of it simply other.
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I wish I could celebrate...

...the guilty-on-all-charges verdict in the matter of Derek Chauvin.

But I can't.

Because George Floyd is still dead. 

And Daunte Wright is still dead.

And Breonna Taylor is still dead.

And Atatantiana Jefferson is still dead.

And Botham Jean is still dead.

And Philando Castile is still dead.

And Freddy Gray is still dead.

And Tamir Rice is still dead.

And Michael Brown is still dead.

Those are the ones that come to my mind quickly and easily.. There are so many more. Dead. Dead. Dead, dead dead, still dead, dead forever (modulo one's religious beliefs), lives chopped off, famillies destroyed, friends devastated.

And the systemic racism that enables it is still in place.

We can't make racism go away. But there are some things we can do.

1. Pass the George Floyd.
2. Take military-grade weaponry out of the hands of police.
3. Transfer some percentage, to be decided by people much smarter than me, of police funding to funding for non-violent intervention specialists.
4. Call racism by its name wherever and whenever you see it.
5. Hold authority figures - not just police, but ministers, your boss, any authority figure - to the fire when they show signs of racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, genderism, and so on and on and on.

The first two will take an act of faith and willion the behalf of Congress, and the third ultimately might. Write your Senators and Congressfolk. Bury them in letters, calls, emails, telegrams, smoke signals, anything you can think of to get their attention on the fact that we, the voters, demand these things and their jobs are on the hook.

The third one - I honestly don't know where that should take place. Local governments would be ideal. State governments would be the second choice. But in both cases, the towns and states where it's most badly needed  are exactly the jurisdictions that will be most resistant to implementing it: so it may take another act of Congress. Others know more than me about the practicalities of such a thing.

But number 4 and number 5 will require your own iron courage, your own will, your own faith in and hope for and love.of this country and its people.

Is this as urgent, ultimately, as responding to climate change? Maybe not. But it's mighty close.

Get to work.
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Dean Koontz: Velocity (2021-30)

The best horror is about an ordinary person or people in extraordinary and untenable circumstances. (Of course, that applies to a lot of other fiction as well...) Billy Wiles is not quite an ordinary person, though he seems to be one: the day bartender at a local bar in Napa county. But four years ago, BIlly was a moderately successful beginning author, with a beautiful, intelligent fiancée.

Then Barbara ate some bad food, got very sick, and wound up in a coma. Billy visits her every evening. She occasionally says mysterious and haunting things, which Billy writes down in a little notebook.

One evening, leaving the bar, Billy finds a typewritten note on his car, giving him a choice:

"If you don't take this note to the police and get them involved, I will kill a lovely blond schoolteacher somewhere in Napa County.
"If you do take this note tothe police, I will instead kill an elderly woman active in charity work.
"You have six hours to decide. The choice is yours."

Thus begin several days of hell for Billy WIles. He takes the note to a policeman, a close personal friend, who tells him that it's a joke, real serial killers don't play that sort of game.

The next day, Billy learns that a lovely blond schoolteacher has been brutally beaten, and then strangled to death. And another note appears on his car.

And then things get much, much worse. "The freak", as Billy thinks of the killer, has a series of tortures in mind for Billy, forcing him to make worse and harder decisions, and at the same time seeing that for Billy to go to the police would make him a suspect in multiple murders. As the freak plays his (her?) twisted game, Billy squirms more and more on the hook.

The tension is high and unrelenting, to the point that in real life I found myself shying from shadows, literally.


I have never read anything by Koontz before. I had always thought of him as likely to be a second-rate Stephen King. If this book is representative of his work, he isn't, by a long margin. His style is as utlitarian as Kings, but without the comic relief King throws in to relieve the tension here and there: the darkness grows and gets continually darker, right up to the end.

I'm either never going to read another novel by Dean Koontz again, or I'm going to read a bunch of his stuff. I'm not sure, at this point, which.
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Stephen Hayes: The Enchanted Grove (2021-29)

...and this is Stephen Hayes's most recent novel, a direct sequel to _Of Wheels and Witches_. It is now the Christmas holiday, which is summer in South Africa, and Jeffery and Catherine return from their various homes to Eerstelling, where they are soon reunited with their friend Janet. This is going to be pretty disjointed, because to summarize in a more connected way, I would nearly have to type in the whole book. It's that tightly wound together.

- On a horseback ride, the three see something that the police do not want them to see.


- Janet's older sister is still into mystical witchy things, and this time wants to tell fortunes by tarot, using only the Greater Trumps. The tidings are, predictably, dire.


- Barry, the son of a high-ranking local police officer, takes to bullying the three younger kids: first verbally, but then onto bigger and better things, like a horsewhip, and like taking them briefly captive and forcing them to take a puff of marijuana. A lesser officer gives Barry what he says is a jackal's skull that has been enchanted by a witch, and tells him to use it to put a good fright into the threesome.

- Jefferey, to rescue a small child, enters a grove (not the titular grove) of poisonous, witch-haunted trees. Here he does find the child, tied to a post atop which is the skull; he hears maniacal laughter, and after setting the child free, flees, encountering along the wat a jackal and a green mamba. Jefferey is convinced that the jackal is Barry shape-shifting like a werewolf.

- In a semi-ruinous aboriginal village (the residents have been forced out by the government), they have tea with an old man who is the sole resident. As they look at the village's church, Barry surprises them, and grabs Janet. Jefferey head-butts him in the stomach - and he (Barry) vanishes. Their story is not fully believed, and the old man is arrested for the kidnapping or murder of Barry.

- Woven in among all this is a blue hair bobble which seems to have been enchanted so that it takes people where they need to go.

...and then things get _really_ complicated, and turn bad for Jefferey, Catherine, and Janet.

Hayes's storytelling here is mature and sure, never missing a beat or dropping a plot thread. As with the two previous books, Saints have an important role to play, though more subtly than in the first and especially the second. There are ikons, but they aren't as central to the plot. 

I hope Hayes will continue writing his Williams-influenced stories.
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Stephen Hayes: The Year of the Dragon (2021-28)

This is sort-of a sequel to the author's _Of Wheels and Witches_. But where that was a children's book, _The Year of the Dragon_ is decidedly adult, and very much in the mold of Charles Williams.

It is late 1988 in South Africa, shortly before the fall of apartheid. Richard Rutherford, a lawyer, and his friend Denis Walters, an auctioneer, travel from the Durban to the back country, to look over the estate of the recently-deceased Mrs. Irene Sanderson, the owner of the farm Eerstelling. The firm Richard works for is the executor for Mrs. Sanderson's will, which is decades old. 

On arrival, they find Mrs. Sanderson's nephew, Ivan, sorting through her papers and a collection of Orthodox ikons. He asks them to take them and get them appraised, as some Russian ikons can bring a large price. Later that day, Richard and Denis return to Eerstelling and find the police blocking the driveway as a crime scene. When they drive out of sight of the police, a young boy pops out of the shrubbery and tells them that the police have killed his daddy. His name is Tim, and he is Ivan Morton's son.

They immediately become felons by taking Tim back to his mother. 

The next day, on returning from church, Denis finds his flat ransacked, but nothing seems to be stolen. (Richard had the ikons, and has turned them over to his boss, who put them in a safe.) 

Denis and Richard go to see an expert on ikons, who turns out to be Jefferey from _Of Wheels And Witches_, and who, in turn, takes them to see a priest of the Ethiopian Catholic Church, Father Mandla.



Tim is taken by the a pair of officials who claim to be from child protective services, but when the agency is contacted, they have no knowledge of it.

When he goes to talk to Tim's mother, Denis is informed on his cell phone that if he wants the boy back alive, he should bring the icons to the airport where he will be contacted. He goes, but does not bring the icons. He is rendered unconscious and put into an Army plane headed for he knows not where. In the plane with Tim and Denis are the plastic-wrapped corpses of the Black workers from Eerstelling. On arrival at their destination, which is by a river, the bodies are dumped into the water and quickly devoured by crocodiles.

Richard receives an anonymous call. If he wishes to see Denis and Tim alive, he is to turn over the ikons. After discussion with his boss and the boss's daughter Rachel (who is becoming his girlfriend during all this), he turns the ikons over to the local police precinct.

Things get much worse, as you might expect, and ultimately the plot hinges on a sacred McGuffin of the sort Williams liked to use. Not everybody survives, but there is a moderately-happy ending with the good rewarded in various ways, and the evil similarly punished. 

Hayes has a writing voice of his own, clear and concise. This one is definitely worth reading if you're a fan of Charles Williams's novels.

Again, this book is (for whatever reason) not available on Amazon; the only way I know to get hold of Hayes's books is to visit his Smashwords page, https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/hayesstw. ;
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Stephen Hayes: Of Wheels and Witches (2021-27)

Stephen Hayes is an Orthodox deacon in Tshwane, South Africa. I must confess to a loose acquaintance with him, largely through online Inklings fandom. He self-published this book in 2014, and I feel terribly guilty about only now getting around to read it. In my defense, it disappeared when I sent it to my Kindle and I only recently figured out how to acess Send-To-Kindle materials.

Imagine, then, if you will, a Charles WIlliams novel about kids. In South Africa during the Apartheid era - the early to mid 1960s, from internal cultural references: the Beatles' "Michelle" is A newISH. _Rubber Soul_  was released in December of '65, and this takes place in the South African winter, so probably around the middle of '66. With, I suspect, some influence from Susan Cooper's "The Dark Is Rising" sequence.

Jefferey*, a ten-year-old boarding-school boy, is sent for the winter holidays to a farm-cum-resort for kids run by a Mrs. Sanderson. (Well, she lives under the name of Sanderson, but she says her husband was Russian...) When Mrs. Sanderson picks him up at the train station, she introduces him to Catherine, her nine-year-old niece by marriage, a British orphan whose aunts have sent here to spend the summer (up north) holidays. In the evening, Jefferey is exposed for the first time to ikons and serious praying: Catherine has an ikon of Saint Catherine with her Wheel. 

The next day the two of them meet twele-year-old Janet, from a neighboring farm, upon whom Jefferey immediately develops a serious crush. Her mother invites them to a party for her older sister's birthday, where they hear several Beatles' songs and a rather obscure surf tune called "Wheels". One of the older girls proposes a game of "glassie-glassie", a variation on the Ouija board. A cryptic set of letters and numbers appears twice, under the hands of different players; Catherine and Jefferey eventually recognize that it was describing the spokes of a wheel.

But before that, they go for a horseback ride with Janet, to a cave where there are some Bushmen** paintings of hunters hunting. Catherine finds herself irrationally afraid that they are hunting her. Jefferey sees a wheel similar to St. Catherine's in the painting; photos of the cave taken earlier show no such wheel.

A few days later, as they try to cross a river before a storm makes it impassable, lightning strikes the water. Janet, an experienced rider, controls her horse, but Catherine and Jeffrey are thrown, and Catherine nearly drowns. 

(Somewhere in here we learn that witches attack people with lightning, and can control wildcats.)

Well, I don't want to summarize any more, but let's say that things get really bad. The Security Police appear to be involved with witchcraft†. Mrs. Sanderson is "detained". I don't think most of Williams's protagonists go through the kinds of scrapes, pains, and torments our three (soon four) young heroes encounter.

There is a more-or-less happy ending, but the less is not small. And the larger situation remains unresolved, but the kids - in various ways - are made safe from it.

______
* Yes, it's spelled that way.
** I know, but that's what the kids call them...
† African-style witchcraft, not the European variety.
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Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works (2021-26)

In her lifetime, Flannery O'Connor published two novels and one short story collection, preparing a second collection for publication before she died. I have reviewed these individually.

There are, however, another five hundred plus pages of material here - longer than any two of her books - and that is what I am covering here. 

First up we have "The Geranium and Other Stories", containing her earilest work - this collection of stories, though she did not publish it, was presented as her thesis at Iowa State University for her Master's in Fine Arts. They are indeed early work, and it shows. Three of these stories were reworked later: "The Train" as the first chapter of _Wise Blood_; "The Turkey" as "An Afternoon in the Woods", which appears later in this volume; and "The Geranium", which was her first professional sale. She reworked "The Geranium" several times during her too-short career, at one time trying to publish its then-current version as "An Exile in the East", and finished her final revision on her deathbed in 1964: "Judgement Day", which was the last story in _Everything That Rises Must Converge_.

Probably the strongest story in here is "Wildcat", a story of a old Black (other words are used) man and his community when a wildcat (probably a bobcat, given that O'Connor's stories mostly take place in Georgia) comes and threatens their livestock and, they think, their lives. As the old man reflects on a previous time that this happened, when he was young, a group of younger men go out to find and kill the wildcat. But the wildcat has other plans.

There are three more short stories here. "An Afternoon in the Woods" tells of a boy who runs down a wild turkey; "The Partridge Festival" sets the story of a murderer and his admirers against the backdrop of a small town's Azalea Festival; and "Why Do the Heathen Rage?" is a slight story about the family of a man who has had a paralyzing stroke. (No spoilers here!)

Next up we have eight essays, or, as the table of contents calls them, "Occasional Prose". Though several of these are talks on her position as a writer, the two best are not.

The "Introduction to _A Memoir of Mary Ann_" tells how O'Connor came to edit and market a book by a convent of Dominican nuns, the "Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer", about a small girl who came to them with a face severely disfigured by her cancer and brightened all their lives until her death eight years later. It begins with the story of how the order was founded by the daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and ends with a reflection of how the book may "illuminate that join the most diverse lives and that hold us fast in Christ." 

"The King of the Birds" is about her lifelong hobby (except for the decade or so she was away from home in Iowa and Connecticut and New York) that began with the fancy chickens that got her into a Pathé newsreel at the age of five and, in maturity, led to her hosting a small horde of peafowl. It is poignant and funny at the same time, which ain't easy to pull off.

The talks are insightful but slight, covering topics like "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction" and "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South". (Though she was a lifelong, and devout, Catholic, O'Connor's stories are mostly about Protestants.)


Finally, after the Occasional Prose, there are roughly three hundred fifty pages of letters. The first is O'Connor's  attempt to acquire an agent in 1948; the last, sixteen years later, is a note to a friend written days before her death. In between they paint a picture of a woman of her time and place. A modern liberal will find some of them offensive, as O'Connor was a conservative in rural Georgia in the mid-twentieth century. She gathered pen-pals like a flower patch attracts bees, and was very open in these letters for a decided introvert. The letters also detail her struggle witih lupus, decalcifying bones, kidney infections, and more.

I found them fascinating, and very revealing about what she meant her stories to reveal: the action of grace on those unwilling to bear it. For example, both her novels are about people with a real calling from God who desperately try to refuse it, and who fail in the end to do so. Grace to O'Connor generally takes forms that are rarely what we want, but always what we need.

That Mary Flannery O'Connor was a great American writer, her Collected Works leave no doubt. She is not a writer for everyone, but for those receptive to what she does, the effect of reading her is likely to be permanent.