Monday the Blogger Posted

The last few months I’ve been dipping into the Rabbi Small murder mysteries, which are written by author and professor of English Harry Kemelman (1908–1996). The series is in the Amateur Sleuth sub-genre. In this case the amateur who is constantly solving murders is a Jewish rabbi.

The Tony Hillerman books (Leaphorn and Chee) are filled with Navajo background. The Jonathan Gash books (Lovejoy) are filled with antiques background. The Lawrence Block books (Bernie the burglar) are filled with burglary background. In all cases, this background enriches the reading and can be educational (the Hillerman books especially).

Harry Kemelman’s books are enriched by all the Jewish background.

Actually, the Bernie the Burglar books snuck onto that list (as burglars do). Bloch doesn’t include many details; lock picking, for instance, is just a fait accompli. The only really information is: wear gloves and be quiet.

I might instead have listed the Perry Mason books by Erle Stanley Gardner, which educate about trial procedure. Among other things, I learned about leading questions and probative evidence from those books. Any fiction with accurate information can be educational, but some authors (such as Kemelman) deliberately seek to educate as well as tell stories.

So his books tend to have three levels; they’re…

  1. …amateur sleuth murder mysteries.
  2. …Jewish slice-of-life stories.
  3. …treatises on Jewish law and custom.

The slice-of-life element revolves mainly around synagogue life and business — the conflicts between the congregation, who often trade tradition for modern goals not well aligned with Jewish law and custom, and the rabbi, who is the specially trained expert regarding those laws and customs.

The Hebrew word rabbi (רבי) means spiritual teacher. Equivalents in other languages seem to carry a flavor of master as well as teacher, but the Hebrew and Yiddish versions don’t appear to. (Based on the Wiktionary entries.)

If that’s an accurate perception, it makes sense. A rabbi is a teacher, a leader by example, and they act as a judge of Jewish law and custom when needed. In ancient times rabbis were hired by an entire town mainly to act as judge and mediator. Unlike priests, ministers, or pastors in Christian religions, a rabbi is not in any sense between the congregation and God. They aren’t required for leading prayers or services; any Jewish male of age can do that.

This puts Kemelman’s rabbi, David Small, in the position of having no power (other than the willingness to walk out if he feels the congregation has crossed a line). Most of the tension in the books comes from the conflict between the congregation and the rabbi. There is often some group with a scheme that serves themselves, but which doesn’t follow Jewish custom.

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Each book I’ve read so far has the same Special Forward by Kemelman. It explains the creation of Rabbi Small. He talks about members of a synagogue in the small town his family moved to:

They knew about religion in general from reading or from the movies they had seen, but little or nothing of the tenets of Judaism. Typical was the reaction of the young lawyer who had asked the rabbi they had engaged to bless the Cadillac he had just bought. He was surprised and hurt when the rabbi refused and said he did not bless things. The friends in the synagogue whom he told of the rabbi’s refusal felt much the same way.

Which suggests the kinds of daily conflicts his rabbi Small encounters. Kemelman concludes:

I was fascinated by the disaccord between the thinking of the rabbi and that of the congregation, and the problems it gave rise to. So I wrote a book about it. My editor, Arthur Fields, thought the book too low-keyed and suggested jokingly that I could brighten it up by introducing some of the exciting elements in the detective stories that I had written. […] Thus was born Rabbi David Small.

Rabbi Small always explains why he can’t do this or that thing, or go along with some big plans the congregation has, and that’s Kemelman providing a treatise on Jewish law and custom.

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Here is a list of the Rabbi Small books:

  1. Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1964)
  2. Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry (1966)
  3. Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home (1969)
  4. Monday the Rabbi Took Off (1972)
  5. Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red (1973)
  6. Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet (1976)
  7. Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out (1978)
  8. Conversations with Rabbi Small (1981)
  9. Someday the Rabbi Will Leave (1985)
  10. One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross (1987)
  11. The Day the Rabbi Resigned (1992)
  12. That Day the Rabbi Left Town (1996)

Kemelman died in 1996, so there won’t be any more. These were never hugely popular books. Only the first one rates its own Wiki page.

As Sue Grafton did with her Kinsey Millhone Alphabet books, Kemelman created a limiting factor in his titles. Grafton had the whole alphabet (and died between “Y” and “Z”),  but Kemelman only gave himself seven days (no doubt a reference to Genesis). He broke convention with #8, but found a way to reference days in the last four.

They’re enjoyable enough reads, but I don’t consider the series one of my favorites. Several times the murderer has been easy to spot early on (if not right away). The books’ value to me comes from the Jewish background information, which I find fascinating. It’s a very pragmatic and practical religion; more a way of life than a way of worship and with some very sensible beliefs.

In the book I just read (Tuesday), the rabbi talks about Christian theology, which seeks to explain the whole God-Son-Mother-Holy Spirit-Heaven-Hell-Angels structure. In comparison, Jews don’t even have a theology in that sense. They feel God is beyond any human ken. One is free to study God, but it’s like trying to build a perpetual motion machine. There’s just no point; it can’t be done. The Jews neither need nor seek an explanation of God.

Another point Kemelman makes repeatedly involves the Jewish response to the observed fact that good often perishes while evil prevails. Hindus answer this with a wheel of life and reincarnation; Christians with Heaven and Hell. The Jews don’t believe in Divine Justice. They take their cue from the book of Job — life can suck; deal with it; good is its own reward.

Some might also enjoy the humanity of the slice of life bits, many of which have various members of the congregation misinterpreting Small’s actions because they keep looking for the hidden motives of a man who, unlike them, has none. (Kemelman isn’t writing for humor, but some of it is definitely tongue-in-cheek.)

Any reader with scholarly inclinations will find a friend in Rabbi David Small. And in Judaism in general. The Jews revere learning for its own sake, too. They view it as especially human.

§ §

Ritual is a big aspect of any religion, certainly of any as ancient as Judaism.

I’m fascinated that many Jewish traditions, customs, or laws (which, for the Jews, are largely the same thing), exist solely to remind the Jews they are the chosen people. (Rabbi Small points out that being chosen once does not imply being forever blessed. Being good is a daily chore.)

Ritual can be just a sign or reminder of membership, but it also has a connection with regular practices. For example, our daily grooming and exercise rituals (brush and workout regularly). We also have food health rituals (no cutting lettuce on the same board used to cut raw chicken; don’t leave the milk out).

And let us not forget the warming wonderful ritual of holidays. Ritual can also be grounding, a reference point in an ever-changing difficult world.

On the other hand, ritual can be the enemy of thought and creativity. Rituals, especially daily ones, tend to performance by rote; they lose meaning. Think how grade school students mouth the Pledge of Allegiance. I recall how perfunctory and quick our family dinner prayer was.

I take to heart the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

Indeed, and there may be some connection between a love of ritual for ritual sake and a conservative viewpoint.

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(One of my weaknesses is that I can’t stand ritual because I loath repetition. If something vanishes a document I’m editing, be it email, code, post, or whatever, I usually have to do something else rather than re-type what I just typed. Even when I take a walk, I make it a loop, not a line out and back.)

§ § §

I also read the first five (out of ten) books in the Patricia Fisher Cruise series by Steve Higgs (who is too new and/or too obscure to have a Wiki page). There is apparently another ten-book series, the Patricia Fisher Mystery series, and I think it says something they were all published in the 2019–2021 time frame (all but one in the first two years).

The series starts with Patricia Fisher, 50, an overweight “nobody” who accidentally — by getting the date wrong — catches her husband sleeping with her best friend.

So Patricia packs a few suitcases, empties the joint bank account, and heads to the port where all the cruise ships are. She tries to book passage on the first one she sees — the one leaving almost immediately — but the only room available is (if memory serves) the Windsor Suite, the most expensive suite on the ship, the one usually reserved for heads of state or princes of nations.

She spends everything she has on a round-the-world cruise in a suite fit for a queen. It even comes with a personal butler, Jerome, who’s from Jamaica but affects a British accent. He’s also trained in the martial arts, which comes in handy a few times.

Patricia, determined to lose some weight (viewing it as a reason the husband strayed), becomes friends with the ship’s fitness director, Barbie. Who, no kidding, looks pretty much exactly like her namesake. Higgs describes her impossibly large firm breasts and incredibly narrow waist in every book.

She quickly catches the eye of the handsome (single) captain, and by book four or five they’re an item. For Patricia, it becomes a voyage of self-discovery and self-recovery, plus she becomes famous as she solves important murder mysteries in each book. Very quickly she’s being approached as a mystery solving expert.

In the first book she stumbles upon and solves a 30-year-old mystery involving a huge stolen sapphire (“big as a man’s fist”). Next she gets caught up in a thing involving gangsters from Miami. In book three it’s a murder of the star of an action film being shot onboard. The fourth book involves gangsters in Tokyo and drug smuggling. The last book I read, which was actually I-kid-you-not titled Doctor Death, involved a terrorist plot to use the ships crew and passengers to secretly test a viral weapon intended for a local civil war.

If you’re sensing any disdain in this account, well,… yeah, guilty as charged.

These are what I call “beach books” — something trivial and easy breezy to read in a highly distracting environment where one anticipates many interruptions. They’re shallow, fast, and harmless. Easy to put down, trivial to resume whenever.

In this case, between Barbie and Jerome, they’re very Hollywood — very cinema ready. The whole cruise concept just begs for a streaming series.

It got a bit much for me during book four, and I had a hard time finishing book five (I skimmed a lot of it). After that I was done. A definite Meh! rating.

§ §

Stay cruising, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

28 responses to “Monday the Blogger Posted

  • Wyrd Smythe

    As much respect as I have for the religion, I could never be Jewish. There’s the whole organized religion thing, which isn’t for me, but also the thing about pork and ham. I’m an unabashed meat-lover, and pork is one of my favorites, be it bacon, brats, shredded, or that Black Forest Ham I love so much.

    Rabbi Small mentions something I found interesting, though. Cows provide milk and butter, chickens provide eggs and feathers, sheep provide wool, so those animals contribute as living beings even if not eaten. Pigs, the rabbi says, are only raised for their meat. Interesting point!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Lawrence Block also used a title pattern for his Bernie the Burglar books, but his pattern, “The Burglar [in/who/on] …” was a lot more open-ended. (See All the Christie for a list of those books.)

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    It seems like while I’ve been on an anime / manga binge, you’ve been on a mystery novel one. Although in my case, the binge is starting to slow since I’ve burned through much of the low hanging fruit. I suspect there’s an endless supply of mystery novels, although in both cases I guess it depends on how much we like sub-genre and backlist niches.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Ha, it probably seems that way once I began writing Mystery Monday posts. I’ve been meaning to do posts like that for years, so there’s been a bit of a backlog. There is also that the library app I’ve been using the past couple of years has given me access to books I wouldn’t spend money on, so I’ve re-visited some old friends I haven’t seen in a long while. And I have made some effort to explore new authors in that genre, although I haven’t found most of those worth posting about. This Patricia Fisher series, though, is one of those. (I haven’t found any new mystery authors that have really grabbed me, although, as you say, there is a very large pool to fish in.)

      That said, murder mysteries and detective stories have long been my other fiction. My dad really loved them, and I inherited that from him. He introduced me to some of the authors there I still follow. (But I was never able to get him interested in SF despite many years of effort. I’ve never been able to turn any adult on to SF.)

      Looking at my list of Book Reviews it almost seems I’m binging on science books more than murder mysteries. Those are usually much more expensive, so I’ve only ever bought authors I really wanted to read and own. And I have been grabbing every interesting one the library has. (You skipped a number of those posts, and other more technical ones, which that might affect your perception of what I’ve been writing about lately.)

      You just need a ladder to reach the higher fruit! I’m impressed by the amount of anime offered on Netflix and Hulu (and Prime). I tend to just dabble, so even the low-hanging fruit will take me a while to consume. For instance, I recently watched the anime movie, Trigun: Badlands Rumble on Hulu, and really enjoyed it, so I added the series, Trigun, to my watchlist (haven’t started watching it, yet). There was also a short series, Deca-Dence, that was kinda cute.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Now that you mention it, it seems pretty rare to get an adult to be a regular science fiction reader if they weren’t one before. I have had a few read a book here or there, and maybe be slightly more likely to occasionally read an SF book, but with one possible exception, no one has ever turned into the type of consistent SF fan that starts reading them as a child or teenager.

        And I’ve seen a few, who read a lot of SF when they were younger, drift away from it as an adult. I guess if you’re going to be attracted to it, you’ll usually find it fairly early, and there’s no guarantee it’ll last. My own interest has waxed and waned over the decades, so if the right life conditions had happened, I could easily have been one of those who waned and never waxed again.

        Looking at that book review list, I think I read and engaged with most of those entries. Maybe the mystery book posts just stick in my head more. I have been skipping topics where I perceive things are likely to get heated between us. Sorry, stressors in my life are making my capacity for that more limited these days. I’ve also never been great with the highly mathematical stuff, and it’s probably gotten worse recently.

        You’re probably right on the higher fruit. I’ve seen Trigun on a lot of recommended lists, and have actually watched the first few episodes. I probably need to just power through enough for the good parts to start gaining traction. With a lot of anime, it takes at least half a dozen episodes before I finally start feeling the pull, and I haven’t quite got there yet with Trigun. I’m currently making my way through Code Geass, which actually managed to grab me from the first episode, although it’s a much darker show.

        Deca-Dence looks really interesting. Just bookmarked it. Thanks!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I think the imagination of science fiction spoiled me as a child. It takes a special something for me to like ordinary fiction, so I don’t foresee my general interest ever waning. My interest in certain things within it certainly can, though. Star Trek, for instance. I decided I’d had enough around the 50-year mark, and I’ve largely ignored it ever since.

        To some extent that’s because it goes on and on (and on and on). They won’t let it die; the train just keeps on going. To me that gets old. In contrast, Discworld (or any of a number of other series I’ve liked) died with its creator (as far as I’m concerned), so there’s an end, a body of work one can appreciate in full. I have special respect for storytellers who tell a story that ends, so we can all move on to new stories.

        I’ve tried, really tried, to turn some adults on to SF, and it never worked. My theory for a long time was that SF was something one had to be exposed to young. The factor was youth. I’ve come to realize it may have more to do with worldview. Some minds embrace it, others find it weird, or opaque, or silly, or whatever. SF requires, I think, a certain mindset. What happens, I suspect, is that people with that mindset glom onto SF early in life, hence the youth correlation.

        I am seriously unhappy about the contentious debate thing. I don’t quite understand it; intellectual opinions aren’t something I get heated over. (It’s a pity we can’t have these debates over beers. Bare text lacks the emotional cues necessary to make it clear, ‘this is all in fun!’ I try to throw in little jokes and quips as signals, but I’m not sure anything really works.) FWIW, I have a perception that all interesting — all debatable — topics have weak and strong arguments on both sides. I think congenial debate comes from constantly acknowledging the weaknesses of one’s own position and the strengths of the opposing position. If they didn’t exist, there would be no debate. I admit, I do get testy when I make a valid argument, and it’s disdained or ignored. Something along the lines of “that’s a good point” is a good way, I think, to keep things balanced, and I think I’ve commented before I often struggle to get the validity of an argument acknowledged. (Finished reading Frank Wilzcek’s Fundamentals this afternoon, and he makes the point that accepting the validity of an opposing argument isn’t the same as agreeing with it. That’s an important point. Acknowledging an argument isn’t agreeing.)

        There is also that, with interesting topics, it doesn’t even have to be a debate. For example, I’m happy to discuss the details of putative brain scanning and uploading even if I’m skeptical it’s possible. One can discuss rather than debate within the context of “I don’t actually believe in this.” When the contest is unwinnable anyway, sometimes it’s nice to put the question entirely aside. It would be my wish we could find a way to discuss those topics as we do SF or anime.

        I suppose it’s always a consequence of telling a long story that it takes a while to get going, and one does have to just hang in there for a handful of episodes. With the Trigun series, it was trying the movie that hooked me. I’ve decided to start seeking out movies from series as a way to check out the series. The movie has to be a complete story, self-contained. I’ve usually avoided such spin-off movies figuring the lack of knowledge of the characters and context would make it confusing (and it sometimes really does). But it gives one a sense of the characters and modes. I really liked what I saw in the Trigun: Badlands Rumble movie; a lightness of style.

        (On the other hand, I watched K: Missing Kings, an anime movie from a much bigger series and was confused as hell. I had no idea what was going on, but it was awfully pretty. A lot of rainbow color washes across the screen, and color is a central theme from what I could tell.)

        Deca-Dence was fun, and I think you’ll like it. Got a lot of action and a lot of whimsey. In addition to anime movies, I’m seeking out shorter series I can binge quickly. This one was just 12 20-minute episodes, and it’s a complete story.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I actually don’t mind Star Trek continuing if they do something new and interesting with it. But it’s become a long time franchise and conservatism has set in. Most of what they’ve done in the last 20 years has been nostalgic, which is the opposite of what ST was in its heyday. Picard started breaking new ground, although I found the writing lackluster. Reportedly Discovery has jumped several centuries in the future in the latest season, which I’ve been meaning to check out, although the quality of the writing in the early seasons turned me off, so we’ll see.

        On embracing SF, it’s interesting who it does attract and who it doesn’t. I’ve known construction workers and evangelicals who read it, and scientists who can’t get into it. It’s also interesting how many people are SF only, fantasy only, or someone like me who flits between them. I sometimes wonder if we’re all getting the same thing out of the material.

        On debate, I’m willing to give it another shot on those topics. The key is allowing room for respectful disagreement. That will sometimes include arguments one of us thinks is the most perfect thing ever, but doesn’t even get to first base with the other. As I’ve noted to others, the most interesting discussions come from those we disagree with, as long as we can do so constructively.

        One of the things about anime is that often the entire premise at the beginning isn’t the overall series premise, but that’s not laid out anywhere, or the descriptions of it don’t give it justice, because it would involve spoilers. There’s also the issue of just getting to know the characters. Often what seems silly and off putting in the beginning becomes endearing later.

        I watched the first episode of Deca-Dence last night and enjoyed it. Thanks again! That was after an episode of Code Geass that was so horribly dark I’m not sure I want to watch it anymore. Maybe I’ll just use Deca-Dence as a break.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I think you hit the nail on the head with nostalgic. I am so not nostalgic. I’m barely sentimental. Even those original Trek novels I bought way too many of were peppered with callbacks to TV episodes. No doubt people are tickled by those insider references, but they just annoyed me. The wink-nudge-meta-ness broke the narrative wall for me.

        I think maybe any long-running series can get into a lose-lose dilemma: Keep true to all the series elements, and things go stale. Break new ground, and some fans will be upset, plus if it’s no longer true to the series, why not do something entirely new? Why retread? (But then I also don’t get branding. The idea of ‘wearing a label’ seems perverse to me. I’m not a billboard.)

        Lower Decks sounds fun. Maybe a bit like Scalzi’s Redshirts? Or at least on the deconstructive side? I think for me Star Trek is down to parodies and deconstructions. I grew up with, and loved, Kirk, but I’ve realized I like Shatner’s Denny Crane on Boston Legal way better. That’s quite a sea change for me.

        There are so many aspects of SF that would be fun to study! Why people read it, what they get from it, what sectors of it they like; there’s gotta be a huge spectrum in all cases. As you suggest, the cross section of people you run into at a Con can be surprising. (Admittedly, the bulk of us do look like we belong.) I think I’ve said before that I don’t see SF as a genre, but as a platform. Every genre I can think of shows up in SF.

        I wonder if debate itself falls under the umbrella of what you said about most perfect thing not getting to first base. Are there aspects of debate itself that we might see differently? I know you don’t like heat, and I’m thinking we have different thresholds for that. I think I mentioned I come from an arts background where passions normally run high and hot. As long as ideas are still being exchanged, heat isn’t an issue for me, so I can be blind to when it is for others. OTOH, I place an especially high value on understanding, so I’m always probing for reasons and perhaps blind to whatever discomfort that can cause. Maybe the bottom line is just tolerance. It’s the ideas that matter. Everything else is dressing.

        Indeed. One reason I’m seeking anime movies and short series is very much because of how hard it is to know what you’re getting into. Some of them are large franchises, which makes it even harder to take up.

        Glad you like Deca-Dence. It doesn’t sound like Code Geass would be a good idea for me. I’m just not up for dark these days.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I forgot about Lower Decks, another show I’ve been meaning to check out. From what I’ve heard about it, it does seem inspired by Redshirts. There is something refreshing about taking a longtime franchise and just seeing it through the eyes of a different class of characters. I think that’s why so many people liked Rogue One, a chance to see a little of the underbelly of the Star Wars universe. I think about that Babylon 5 episode told from the perspective of those two maintenance guys.

        I’ve actually never been to an SF con. I have some friends who historically went to Dragon Con, and I always meant to join them one year, but we’ve drifted apart in recent years and I”m sure COVID threw a wrench in that anyway. Maybe one of these years.

        I do agree that the majority of SF fans do fit the stereotype, and the majority of those who can’t get into it fit their own stereotypes. But definitely the exceptions are interesting.

        On debate and different thresholds, you might think about reviewing our discussions in the last quarter of 2020. It seemed like they were becoming increasingly heated, but it was actually your expressed frustration in them, as well as comments you made about them (and me) weeks or months later, that made me feel serious damage to our friendship was happening. Again, I’m willing to take another shot at it, but that dynamic returning would be my biggest concern.

        I watched the next two episodes of Deca-Dence. Talk about the premise shifting!

        Yeah, I don’t think I would recommend Code Geass to you. The world portrayed is interesting but probably up there with Game of Thrones in grittiness, which I’m ok with. But the show is starting to feel like it’s about the protagonist’s descent into tragedy and moral ruin while taking a lot of sympathetic characters with him, a type of story I’m not wild about.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        A friend of mine has been watching Lower Decks and seems to like it a lot. He also watches Discovery and Picard, so he’s still very much on board the Trek train, but his opinion of Lower Decks does seem more positive.

        I’ve been thinking it would be fun to watch Bab5 again. It’s been a long time, and it would be interesting to see how it feels to me now. I’ve noticed my interest in watching TOS episodes is greatly diminished from what has been for decades. There are only a few special episodes that attract me now. (Of course I’ve seen them all so many times.) That Bab5 episode you mentioned may have been inspired by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead a Tom Stoppard play from 1966. It stars two of the minor characters from Hamlet, and presents the events of that play from their offstage point of view. It is a very cool narrative device — a view of established characters from another point of view. (The Stoppard play also presents established events from another point of view, so it doubles that alternate POV thing. Vaguely reminiscent of Fred Saberhagen’s retelling of the Dracula and Frankenstein stories from the “monster’s” point of view. Alternate versions are some of my favorites!)

        My friends and I were regulars at the annual Minni-Con for many years. At first it was a small fairly unknown local party of fans. But then others, non-fans, began picking up on the party aspect, and things went way downhill. We stopped going. I heard they made an effort to return to the way things were, but we’d all moved on by then. (Many years ago my even more of a fan cousin dragged me to a local Con because Shatner and Nimoy were going to appear — apparently for the first time at a con. They’d made a painted cardboard Guardian Gate (complete with dry ice smoke) for the two to leap out of onto the stage. I haven’t thought of that in years, but this talk of Cons surfaced the memory. It was kinda cool seeing them.)

        Between the last political cycle, social issues that disturb me, COVID, aging, and this generally being a shitty century for me so far, no doubt frustration and negativity have crept into places that hasn’t earned them. For that I can and do apologize. Hurting feelings is never a goal, but trying to communicate frustration can be, and it’s not always one I’m good at. (It’s possible I’m somewhere on some spectrum, because I do have problems connecting.) The frustration in this case goes back a lot of years, though, and it traces mainly to so many unfinished dialogs. For me the dialectic is a bit like a poker game. One raises, calls, or folds; one doesn’t walk away the game. If I make a valid point, and it’s ignored, or it causes the conversation to end abruptly, then I feel the dialog wasn’t in good faith. What I look for in any debate is a final consensus on the points of conflict, the points of agreement, and the relative weights of arguments. Without that closure, things fester.

        The weird thing about Game of Thrones, or other shows I consider “too dark” for my taste, is that it isn’t the violence or gore or nasty behavior, but the lack of balance. I’m a big fan of Quentin Tarantino’s films, for instance, which are way dark and violent, but they also have elements that counter that. It’s another example of looking for Yin-Yang balance, I guess. And the thing about Game of Thrones, Picard, Discovery, the DC superhero films, probably Code Geass, and many more, is that they take themselves so seriously. All Yin, so to speak. I find that’s less of a problem with animation — that lack of reality helps — but such grim live action with no leavening doesn’t grab me much. (The TV series Grimm versus Once Upon A Time make a good example. Both were magical realism, fairy tales are true, shows, but Grimm was fun whereas Once Upon A Time was the more grim one. Loved the former; couldn’t get into the latter.)

        And like you, I don’t enjoy moral ruin stories that much. I just watched Denzel Washington do that in Flight. Good movie, though. It ends as it has to, but on a positive note for all that.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        It’s been several years since I watched B5. My cousin, who I managed to turn on to the show a long time ago and ended up loving it, has been trying to get his wife interested. But he’s been telling me that it hasn’t aged well. Even back in the 90s the special effects were pretty cheap, and apparently with time it’s become harder to look at. He also said the acting is worse than he recalled. And a lot of what made it great, a long planned storyline, isn’t nearly the unique thing today it was back then. So he’s having a hard time keeping her engaged. They haven’t gotten through the first season yet.

        I’ve never heard of that play, but in retrospect it’s probably inspired a lot of stuff. Reading your description of it made me think of The Wind Done Gone, which is reportedly Gone With the Wind told from the POV of one of the slaves. I’ve never read either of the novels (although of course I have seen the GWtW movie). I also think of The Last Ringbearer, which is reportedly a Russian author’s retelling of Lord of the Rings from Mordor’s POV, with Morder being an early multiethnic industrial society with scientists, who get overrun by medieval zealots. Both sound like they’re very subversive to the themes of the original.

        On frustration, I’m grateful for the apology. I understand completely. I have to admit my own temper has gotten shorter in recent years, particularly with all the COVID and political stupidity, both nationally and in what I have to deal with in my personal life, so I know where you’re coming from.

        I do have a habit of walking away from a discussion when it seems to be getting heated. I can definitely see how it can be frustrating from the other end. My motivation, aside from protecting my own state of mind, is to end the conversation before it gets into a complete meltdown. But I’m aware I’ve been depending too much on that escape hatch in recent years, not working hard enough to avoid those situations in the first place. That’s my bad. Sorry. I’ll work harder at not getting us to that point.

        That’s an excellent point on balancing the darkness. I read something a few years ago noting that the biggest bestselling books and blockbuster movies actually do have that balance, often referred to as an emotional rollercoaster between positive and negative emotions. I think that’s why the Marvel movies are so much more popular than the DC ones. The Synder movies are much more heavily weighted toward negative emotions. And of course a story too positive comes across as cloying and unrealistic. Achieving that balance takes a lot of skill, and can be tough if the author or director leans more negative to begin with.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ah, yes, I can see how someone new to Bab5 might not find it engaging. All the shows these days do seem to have series arcs (and season arcs), don’t they. That has been an interesting progression to live through. Roots showing that, yeah, people would stick around for a multiple episode “mini-series” and TV evolved to something new. I kinda like it. TV is the new movies, and the longer format allows some nice exploration of world and characters.

        I see that evolution in Trek. TOS, totally the episodic TV of old. TNG, taking the lesson from Roots, had some multi-part stories and longer arcs. Later episodes have callbacks to earlier ones. By the time of DS9 and VOY, there are long arcs, but almost kind of background-y, and then ENT was pretty much the modern mode of telling one long story. Sounds as if Picard (PIC?) and Discovery (DIS?) follow the modern mode. No clue, but I have a sense Below Decks might be more episodic (which would accord with the animated format I think). Be interesting if they resisted the lure of the series arc.

        I’ve never heard of The Wind Done Gone, although it sounds intriguing. I’ve never read the novel nor seen the epic. My family went once, but 20 minutes into it someone in the balcony threw a water balloon that hit the back of the seat in front of me, and my pant legs got soaked, so my folks took us all home. The Last Ringbearer sounds really interesting. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that one. (I very much enjoyed the National Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings.)

        I’ve been noticing a hard-to-describe look a lot of people have these days. Like shell shock or something. And an edge to many in the service sector. We’re humans, adaptable, we muddle through, but try to remember what society felt like 10, 20 years ago, and it seems a long way back. I know I’m suffering from some form of PTSD. I have not liked this century very much so far.

        One thing about walking away from a debate is that it can give the impression one is surrendering the point. (Worse, surrendering without admitting it.) Obviously that’s not always the case; it can also be an act of strength and faith in one’s position, but silence allows interpretation. As I’m quite sure you’re not conceding the point, maybe a way to bow out is laying out the points of conflict and saying we’ll just have to disagree on these. I think the laying out is important in showing that one has understood the argument. If it seems an argument hasn’t been heard and understood, it’s easy to think one just has to keep trying other approaches. But if it’s clear the disagreement is based on a good understanding, there isn’t much more to be said. For me a big aspect of debate is establishing those points of conflict and agreement.

        I really do see Yin-Yang as a pervasive fundamental pattern that shows up at all levels and in all guises. Much as I’m meh on superheroes, the Marvel films are much more watchable than the DC films exactly because Marvel gives you that rollercoaster ride. I can take a lot of grim so long as there is some balancing joy. And, yeah, a story that’s all joy isn’t much fun, either! 🙂

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Picard and Discovery are definitely in the modern form, with overall season arcs, at least. I think I’d be disappointed if Below Desks turned out to be episodic, but maybe I’ve just been watching too much anime lately. Even the old stuff is arc driven. (And I suspect JMS and the writers of The X Files were influenced by those forms, or maybe they were both influenced from something else.)

        Sadly, it doesn’t sound like The Last Ringbearer has been translated. Which is just as well, since any publisher in the English world would probably get sued for it. But just hearing about the concept tickles me to some degree.

        Certainly silence can be misinterpreted, and will be intentionally by some people. But I think if we allow ourselves to worry about that, we give those people a power over us, to draw us into and hold us in pointless arguments. It’s like the kid on the playground that has to attack on every taunt; they’re destined to be in many fights. I do think what you describe can be a good way to end a congenial debate.

        Finished watching Deca-Dence and enjoyed it a great deal! It strikes me as a tale that could have been told from a very dark angle, but it found every opportunity to keep it positive, such as making the cyborgs look like cute toys. Anyway, it’s that totally alien environment I enjoy in fiction, particularly the kind where the protagonist discovers their world isn’t what it appears to be.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Episodic broadcast TV was premised on the notion that viewers are fickle. The biggest nightmare for network TV execs has always been that the viewer changes the channel. (Remember when they messed around with show times not lining up with the half hour mark? All to prevent channel switching.) The streaming era has upset that dynamic rather completely. 😉

        Common wisdom is that it was the Roots “mini-series” in 1977 that showed the bean counters that viewers would stick around for multiple episodes. It led to other mini-series and regular TV shows began experimenting with multi-episode arcs. Generally we ate it up like hotcakes, and now it’s the general mode.

        But you raise an interesting point about anime. It’s been around a long time. The Wiki page History of Anime puts the origins in the early 1900s, and it was big in TV starting in the 1970s. I’m not familiar with those old shows and how episodic they were, but the titles and brief descriptions suggest long-running stories to me. In contrast, I remember Jonny Quest and other American shows as being entirely episodic. Maybe that’s why modern anime is so good and rich; they’ve been doing this a long time.

        Speaking of Wiki, it looks like The Last Ringbearer has been translated! Amazon only has the Russian version. Apparently the English translation is hard to find. Perhaps hired goons from the Publishing Industrial Complex have suppressed it.

        Glad you enjoyed Deca-Dence! I also liked that contrast between the world of the cyborgs and the more realistically drawn world of humans and gears. That was a nice touch.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Hmmm. The earliest anime I’ve watched that’s arc heavy is Mobile Suit Gundam, which was 1979, a couple of years after Roots. And I recall watching anime as a kid that was more episodic, so maybe Roots is at the root 🙂 of it after all?

        Of course, serialization is a very old thing. There were the old weekly serials from the 1930s and 40s. And many classic novels were serialized in magazines when they were first published. Comics also have a long serialization tradition.

        So maybe the episodic period in TV could almost be seen as an outlier. I suspect it really existed because it was easier to manage. If everything returned to status quo at the end of every episode, the amount of coordination between different script writers and directors was a lot easier. Coordinating an arc seems like it would increase production costs.

        In Deca-Dence, I actually found it kind of weird when Natsume first encountered the cyborgs. I was wondering how close their perceptions of reality would line up. I half expected her to see something totally different when she saw them.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, serialization does go back. Sherlock Holmes appeared serialized in British periodicals. The Perils of Pauline go back to 1914. The Hardy Boys started in 1927 (although I only had eyes for Nancy Drew, who started in 1930).

        But as far as TV serials,… yeah, maybe the conventional wisdom got it right. For one, network execs wanted a low entry bar to programming — we’ve commented on how a long-running series has a high entry bar which can be off-putting. They also felt there should be no order to the episodes, so they could be viewed in any order. A lot of hopes were pinned on viewers checking out new shows during summer reruns. Every episode needed to be a potential entry grabber. Roots… really surprised them. (Some had feared cliffhangers or the need to commit would turn viewers off.)

        I binged Deca-Dence so might have missed connecting some dots, but I had some sense things didn’t quite jibe as described. There may have been some corner-cutting on the world building for dramatic effect. Or maybe it was just my imagination, but I do recall being vaguely puzzled by a few bits.

        I watched nine episodes of Trigun the other night and really enjoyed it. The hero, Vash the Stampede, is a lot of fun, and so are those two insurance agents.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        You know, thinking about it, the TV execs may not have been wrong. Today if a long running series has to be started at the beginning, it’s not a big deal. Streaming services will start you there by default anyway.

        But prior to the 1980s, when everything had to be caught when broadcast, it would have been a serious barrier to getting into a show. Even with VCRs, it would have required more effort and cost than most people were willing to pay. That meant the old TV shows had to be approachable throughout their entire run. Arc intensive stories would definitely make that more difficult.

        So really, we probably have DVD sets and streaming services to thank for everything being serialized today. It was a lot easier to start Lost from the beginning than the original Battlestar Galactica (1978), not to mention ST:TOS (1966). It also makes the fact that Mobile Suit Gundam struggled in its original 1979-80 run make more sense.

        On Deca-Dence worldbuilding, I actually spent a good part of the series not sure who the term “Gears” referred to: just the avatars, or all of the fighters including human ones. And the lack of interaction between the Gears (avatars) and Tankers (humans) never seemed to strike anyone as strange.

        You jumped ahead of me on Trigun. I’ve gone through the first five so far.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It does make sense in a broadcast TV context. Imagine it being the summer reruns, so you switch to a different show you’ve heard about but never watched because it aired the same time as something you always watch instead. But the episode you happen to see is the second part of a two-parter. You’re confused and switch to another channel and maybe never try that show again.

        So, yeah, I’m sure the long arcs of TV do owe a lot to DVDs and streaming. They’ve made the idea viable and ubiquitous. (As I said earlier, I kinda like it!)

        I have a sense Japanese storytelling is a little more dream-like than Western storytelling. They’re more inclined that stuff is unquestioned. It is what it is. That movie Penguin Highway is a perfect example. Much is unexplained (and is even open to interpretation). It can sometimes leave me unsure if my confusion is due to a translation thing or a storytelling choice.

        I’m almost sorry Trigun is only 26 episodes. I’ll probably watch a bunch more tonight and/or tomorrow. When it’s over it’ll be back to Recommendation Roulette. As you mentioned, descriptions and come-hither graphics don’t tell much and even mislead.

        (Ha. In contrast to typical modern Western trailers that act as mini-versions of the movie because Americans have made it pretty clear they want a good idea what a movie is about before they see it. I have to admit it’s helpful in avoiding movies I’d not like.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I’ve definitely noticed that Japanese storytelling has a tendency to mix in fantasy in different places than western fiction. They’ll have a mostly hard science fiction setting, and then introduce vampires, or martial art mysticism. Outlaw Star was space opera that included spellcasting sorcerers. Of course, we have Star Wars, so it’s not like we never go there.

        They also use fantasy in time periods westerns don’t often place it. Several months ago I watched Shadow and Bone on Netflix, and thought it was pretty original in terms of setting, a fantasy set in a world similar to 19th century Russia. But it’s now clear to me it was heavily influenced by a lot of anime.

        Not sure what I’m going to watch now that I’ve soured on Code Geass. I might swing back to Trigun, or maybe Dr. Stone which I had also started but then got distracted from.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yes, very true. That mixing of modes is another aspect of dream-like storytelling. Our dreams often do the same thing. Frodo and Sam on a spaceship with Obi-Wan and Spock! 😀 As you say, we do go there, but not like the Japanese. It’s easy to see why anime is popular with so many. The fun of animation plus some very rich storytelling.

        I’m halfway through Trigun now. Something of a new element has turned up…

        Last night I watched the anime movie Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky on Hulu. The movie seems super obscure — hard to find any references to it — and is apparently based on a popular video game. I can only give it an Eh! Pretty standard stuff.

        You might consider the original UK version of Utopia on Amazon. I liked it way better than the American remake, plus there’s a second season that develops the plot further. The series was intended to continue, but there’s fairly good closure of the main arc by the end of season two. The plot would have needed a new direction. And then you could watch the American remake for comparison. It’s just interesting enough to not be a waste of time. Lack of a second season is an issue, though.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I figured Trigun had to have some plot twists coming up. Western stories with a dash of sci-fi might interest some people, but didn’t seem enough to explain its popularity.

        There are actually a number of new shows dropping this month I might have to check out: Y: The Last man, Foundation, Star Wars: Visions (Star Wars anime!). And I keep hearing good things about Loki.

        Thinking about Foundation reminds me that I need to sign up for Apple TV. Hope they don’t mess it up.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The popularity of Trigun might be due to the tone and tenor. Vash is supposedly this desperate criminal, but in reality he’s a non-violent peaceful guy. The two insurance gals are fun, too, and Meryl is increasingly conflicted between her disdain for the criminal and growing love interest in the guy. Plus it’s been around long enough to have gathered a following; that might help.

        I do wonder about Foundation. I’ve seen a couple of trailers. Didn’t obviously suck, but it does have a lot of the pop sci fi elements and, apparently, a plucky young female protagonist. Didn’t obviously say ‘this is great’ either.

        Between that and Jon Stewart’s new show, I really need to look into Apple TV. They were pestering me a couple of months ago, but I never followed up. I need to see what their live TV lineup is. Given no one except AT&T carries the Twins and how little other live TV I watch, it could be almost anyone, and I’m not thrilled with YouTube TV.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I signed up for Apple TV+ this afternoon. The lineup includes See and “For All Mankind”, both of which have an interesting premise, although I haven’t heard great things about See. I’m not sure if it’ll be enough if Foundation turns out lame.

        Also watched the first two episodes of Loki. Have to say I’m impressed. Much better than WandaVision, or the first episode of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”, at least so far.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Part of it with Apple TV for me is seeing if there’s an app for my LQ TV. I’ve been a Sprint customer for many years, and when Sprint was bought by T-Mobile, there was a TV deal, but no Sprint app. There are workarounds, but it’s enough of a pain to make the bar too high given all the other stuff there is to watch. (And, I rationalize, who needs yet another source of having to choose what to watch? I’ve almost had to come up with a protocol to help avoid choice-freeze.)

        Enjoy Loki. 🙂 I haven’t even gone so far as to watch the TV Sins videos making fun of it. They had a lot of fun making fun of WandaVision and Falcon/Winter Soldier, though. (All in good fun. They’re not serious.) They’ve done a few for Loki now, too.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Don’t know about carrier deals, but in terms of devices I’ve used Roku for years and highly recommend it. The Roku Ultra plugs into one of your TV’s HDMI ports, connects over your wifi, and has an app for everything.

        The only time I had to do a workaround was when Roku and HBO Max couldn’t come to an agreement. I had to use the Asus Chromebox I keep plugged into the TV, which I got years ago for services that aren’t on Roku, but which only gets used now for the occasional long video on a website that’s too dense to do their video through Youtube or Vimeo.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        So far I haven’t needed anything like a Roku (LQ has apps available for the platforms I use), so there was no incentive.

        I do wonder about long-term support as the model I have ages, as well as about app availability of less popular platforms. Roku is more of a common carrier thing and probably does have better support. My needs just haven’t made it necessary so far, but it’s always in the back of my mind.

  • Michael

    Wyrd (and Mike),

    I enjoyed skimming your discussion on debating. It’s not that I was trying to eavesdrop–but I think it’s a very important topic and was curious how you both felt about it. FWIW, I’m a fan of “dialogue” as opposed to debate, but it’s much more difficult to initiate and sustain, frankly. The reason is that the purpose of dialogue isn’t to settle any particular point, but to discover oneself in the process of sharing, and to “come to know” the other in a deeper way or light. To do this (and blogging may not be the ideal forum, but it’s way better than the quick hit insta-post forms of social media) requires a certain vulnerability. Exposing reasons why we think a certain way, for instance, and also cultivating an understanding for why and how others think as they do, and ultimately perhaps discovering something unexpected.

    That aside, your review of the Rabbi mystery series was intriguing to me because I just listened to the Youtube debate with Hitchens, Harris, Rabbi Wolpe and Rabbi Artson entitled “Is There an Afterlife?” and I was fascinated to learn things about Judaism I’d not previously known. Judaism is probably the one world religion I’ve never deliberately read up on or meaningfully explored. And it was really quite interesting to me. I had my usual hard time with a few points made by both sides, while generally I agreed with more (of both) than I disagreed with.

    Hitchens is always impressive, and I could listen to him for hours on end I think.

    Also, I greatly enjoyed the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

    As to sci fi and literature and writing, I try to mix it up. I’ve read more sci fi (and fantasy) than those who are not fans, but much less than fans who read predominately sci fi (and fantasy) I suspect. We’ve talked about Mr. Stephenson before, so no need to reiterate his mastery of the craft. I love his writing. On the fantasy front, I went through a Terry Brooks phase once, read Tolkien’s big ones, the Chronicles of Narnia, had a bit of a Dragon Lance phase, and I read three or four of the Dune series. On the sci fi front I read a fair bit of Heinlein, some Gibson, one or two from Niven, one or two from Chuck Wendig (sort of sci fi?), and most recently An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon.

    On the purely literary front, I’m 90% complete with David Foster Wallace’s opus Infinite Jest, which probably seems ridiculous to tackle as it weighs in at about 1,000 pages of text and another 100 or 150 of end notes. But even if you read just 100 pages I think you will find it well worth it. He’s as smart (and creative) as any author I’ve read, astonishingly funny as well as ironic and sad at the same time, and a profound commentator on the human condition. I don’t read too much non-fiction but plan to read a few of his essays in the near future. It would perhaps be unfair of me to compare him to Paul Beatty, but. . . yeah. . . DFW is different for sure. His topic is different. His aim is different, in a way. But his prose is every bit as good, and just as sharp.

    I’ll leave you with this, in Infinite Jest each calendar year is sold to a corporate sponsor of the highest bid, with several being:

    (1) Year of the Whopper
    (2) Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad
    (3) Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar
    (4) Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken
    (5) Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishwasher
    (6) Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office, Or Mobile (sic)
    (7) Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland
    etc., etc., etc.

    (Written in the 90’s, Item 6 is essentially DFW’s prediction of a Netflix-like entertainment world he saw coming, and wasn’t terribly wrong about, though he missed the possibility of streaming and focused on cartridges/discs… So he didn’t quite foresee that streaming would replace hard discs, etc.)

    Michael

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Hey Michael-

      Comment threads are open to all, and, as you say, important topic. I quite agree about dialog, and I, too, am a fan. I do find value in debate as well. As I mentioned to Mike, I see it as a form of sport. To me it’s like racquetball or chess. I enjoy the exercise and the competition. The latter isn’t for everyone, but for those who do enjoy it, the playing is usually the thing (winning is nice, losing is less so, but there are always other games). Another thing I think competitors like is the drive to get better; even those who compete with themselves (runners, lifters, golfers, etc) feel that drive.

      That said, a dialog is certainly more relaxed. Yin-Yang again. Dialog is effective in a different way than a debate. We can have a dialog about matters of taste, but a debate is famously impossible. Another Yin-Yang, the dividing line is pretty fuzzy. I think one difference might be the goals. Dialog, as you say, is more about sharing and connecting. Debate is more formal (there are rules), and the goal is comparing two ideas as abstractly as possible. It’s not for everyone, but what is?

      I like the practical outlooks of Judaism as well as the sense of it being a way of life rather than a way of worship. I also approve of their reverence for intellect and learning. (It’s so high they regard the teaching of children as something anyone ought to be able to do and therefore have an odd disdain for grade school teachers.) That said, I have issues with customs from the stone ages. I’ve long said that, as we did with medicine, we need to modernize religion to make it compatible with what we understand about the world now. (I’ve seen them as compatible for a long time.)

      I’m am so ruined when it comes to fiction. I began reading SF as a child, and I’ve been reading it avidly as long as I’ve been picking my own reading material. Now it takes something really special in the way of regular fiction to grab me. Like The Pillars of the Earth, I enjoyed that a lot, although I haven’t been attracted to the sequels. I started World Without End but put it down and never picked it up again. Not sure I ever will.

      Speaking of which, I’ve tried to read Infinite Jest three times now. I’ve put it down and left it so long I had to start over when I tried again. So I have read (more than) 100 pages — thrice — and just haven’t been grabbed. I’m not typically a fan of surrealism or absurdism. Given all the SF I’ve read, they seem like science fiction without the science fiction. Paul Beatty is a rare exception to that, and a lot of that owes to his facility with language. His words have the patterns of music, which seems a cultural gift of Black pastors, poets, and rappers. Amanda Gorman is a recent addition to those great word smiths.

      I may have mentioned this one before, but one modern novel that surprised me is Between the Bridge and the River (2006) by none other than TV’s Craig Ferguson. I wouldn’t have expected that book out of him, but in retrospect it does somehow seem to fit.

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