Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Wine Dark Sea by Patrick O'Brian

Source of book: I own this.

This is number 16 in Patrick O’Brian’s excellent Aubrey and Maturin series. I’ve been reading these for some time, but started blogging a few installments back. Here are the ones I have already written about. I recommend reading these first, for some background on O’Brian and the series.

While some series can be joined in the middle, this one really needs to be read in order from the beginning to the end. Not only does the series take place in actual historical sequence (although things are bent a bit for the needs of the narrative), but some of the books are linked in a longer story arc.

This book qualifies, as it continues the story begun in The Thirteen Gun Salute and continued through the next two books. So these four books really need to be read as a set - and they make more sense if you have read the earlier ones too, as characters that are introduced in previous books are mentioned.

One of the things I love about this series is that O’Brian takes the long view with his characters. Jack Aubrey, in particular, grows from an impetuous young captain to a more mature and steady man as he reaches middle age. We first meet him carrying on an affair under dangerous circumstances (and this affair casts a long shadow throughout the series), but he later marries, and grows up, and changes as he ages. Stephen Maturin is already more of an old soul, but he too ages realistically as time goes on. It isn’t just another rodeo for these two. They are the same people as they are in the earlier books, but with more time and experience. This is good writing, and careful thought.

The narrative in this book takes the crew of the Surprise from the south Pacific island where they have, well, participated in a tribal war, to the coast of Peru, where Maturin, in his capacity as a spy tries to foment a revolution. Things go badly, and Stephen must flee across the Andes to reunite with the ship.

In addition to this main plot, there are some other interesting things going on. Maturin’s friend and fellow doctor, Nathaniel Martin, ends up with a mysterious malaise. He has lost his zest for life and his interest in nature. It turns out that he has been one of those captivated by Clarissa Oakes (from the previous book). Since he is a married man, his conscience haunts him, even though he may never have consummated his lust. Nevertheless, he worries he has contracted a sexually transmitted infection, and nearly kills himself with an overdose of mercury, which was a common - and poisonous - treatment at that time.

Also fascinating to me is the description (largely by Stephen) of the fauna of the Andes, particularly the condor. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a deep fascination with the California Condor, a bird which nearly went extinct during my childhood, but which has made a comeback as the result of conservation efforts. (You can read more about it in my various posts on Pinnacles National Park.) [link] The Andean Condor is a close relative to the California Condor, and the two together are the largest buzzards in the world. I have seen an Andean Condor at the San Diego Zoo, and, like the local one, it is a beautiful and majestic bird.

O’Brian really does his homework on all aspects of his writing, but I particularly appreciate the biology. I also love the way he incorporates music. Jack Aubrey is a violinist, while Stephen Maturin is a cellist. The two in fact become friends in the first book as a result of their musical interests. Martin is a violinist as well, but not of the same caliber. In this book, they are oh so close to getting a real string quartet, with the utopian French prisoner Dutourd (I believe he is a composite of utopians of the era). Alas, it is not to be, despite Dutourd’s observation, “Quartets! What joy! That is living in the very heart of music.” Like many a string player before me, I would love to spend my retirement playing chamber music with fellow musicians. So Aubrey and Maturin must stick to duets, as they often have, the magic of the quartet alluding them as it usually does.

One final bit is Jack Aubrey’s pithy comment on Dutourd’s utopian dreams. Jack isn’t always that perceptive about issues on land, even as he runs a tight ship. But I think he is right in this case about utopian visions in general.

“He was a Frenchman with enthusiastic visionary notions about an ideal community in a Polynesian island - no Church, no King, no laws, no money, everything held in common, perfect peace and justice: all to be accomplished, as far as I could make out, by the wholesale slaughter of the islanders.”

This has been the problem of utopian ideas from the beginning, particularly in the Euro-American tradition. Utopia requires a clean slate, which in turn requires a wee bit of genocide to clear paradise for the new settlors. Even modern utopias, whether originating on the right or the left, tend to assume pretty significant collateral damage in order to get up and running. The problem is, of course, that a clean slate requires elimination of dissidents, which doesn’t end well.

Anyway, another delightful installment in this series. As always, O’Brian writes dialogue and characters well, and the details add to the experience. Start at the beginning, but take time to discover O’Brian and his unforgettable characters.


There are two composers which appear more often than the rest (at least as I recall) in the books. The first is Boccherini, who would have been only slightly out of date, and this fact would have been compensated for by the fact that he wrote prolifically for small ensembles so his works would have been classics at the time. (Mozart was the new-fangled composer…) The other was Corelli, who likewise wrote an astounding number of chamber works. Certainly out of style by the early 1800s, but nevertheless a staple of string players then - and even now. This Christmas, Corelli will get some play from our orchestra here in the 21st Century.

Some music clips, then. Boccherini duet:

Corelli duet:

The famous Boccherini quintet, because most of us violinists learned a version of this in our youth, and because it is so delightful.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Redwood National Park

This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can.

This last summer (2016), we didn’t get to as many parks as we did in 2015, as that feat would be difficult to repeat. We didn’t do badly, however, visiting eight total parks, including one new one (Crater Lake) and one that my youngest hadn’t seen, which is this one, Redwood National Park.

The California redwoods are famous for a reason. They are the tallest plants on earth, reaching 350 or more feet. They are not the largest trees, as that crown goes to the sequoia, nor the oldest, which is the Bristlecone Pine. For sheer size, however, they are impressive. Sequoias are wider - but not by a huge amount. Redwoods are still twenty plus feet in diameter in a few cases, and stretch so high that the tops are often out of sight.

Redwoods grow in a limited band up against the Pacific coast in Northern California. They require cool temperatures, sufficient water, and thrive with fog. In fact, a significant amount of their water supply comes from fog, as the leaves can absorb it. Because of this narrow range of climates that they can tolerate, they are at risk from climate change.

Once, old growth redwood forests covered vast acreages in the coastal hills, but 19th Century logging removed most of the old trees, leaving only about five percent, and these remaining forests are separated from each other. This is problematic for the flora and fauna that requires contiguous habitat. Fortunately, as our knowledge of ecology has grown, so has the drive to protect what remains and to allow the previously logged areas to recover. By selectively cutting, rather than clear cutting, the forest remains healthier even in the logged areas.

Redwood National Park is a peculiar place, in that it is a joint federal and state park. The federal park itself is only a portion of the redwood forest, much of which lies within state parks or national forest land. Because a major highway traverses the park, there is no entry fee for most of it. However, the state parks and some of the areas off the road do charge a fee. (Unless you have a parks pass…) This also means that camping is in the state park portions. We stayed at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, which is a delightful area with a beautiful campground. In addition to the trees, which are easily accessible, there is a large meadow that attracts elk early in the morning. (Unfortunately, didn’t get a good picture.)

Like just about anywhere in the wilderness, crowds disappear once you get about a mile from a road, so hiking is really a must here.

Prairie Creek also includes a stretch of beach and a magical place called Fern Canyon. Redwood National Park and the surrounding area features beautiful views and places around nearly every bend. It is impossible to pick just one favorite spot - there are too many to choose. I’d say pick one and explore it thoroughly rather than just driving through and trying to see everything.  

Because Redwood National Park is a popular place, camping reservations should be made well in advance. An alternative is to come in the off season. The year after my wife and I married, we made a winter trip through the redwoods. While some of the tourist traps were closed, the crowds were non-existent, and the woods quiet. We did get rained on, but rain in the forest smells so nice anyway. Another bit of advice: expect that driving times will be longer than expected. The roads are curvy, and the scenery amazing, so slow down and enjoy.

View through trees at Prairie Creek in the morning. I am particularly proud of this picture. 
Sometimes, the lighting just turns out right. 

Wild Iris


This is another one that turned out really well. Webs are nearly impossible to capture, unless you get them backlit against a dark background. Early morning did the trick here.

My kids love Banana Slugs

Fern Canyon. The hardest part about this was getting a shot without people in it.

Beach, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

This stump isn't that big by redwood standards. Some kids for scale.

Another tree picture for good measure.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

How to even explain this book? It’s a zombie apocalypse novel. And a literary novel written by a serious author. It’s a thoughtful examination of consumer culture. It’s an ode to the trappings of our culture, from strip malls to chain restaurants to bureaucracy. It’s these things and more.

I would never have just picked a zombie book off a shelf. Not that I have anything against zombies. I’m not a big genre fiction reader, even if I do enjoy a murder mystery from time to time. This one caught my eye because the author, Colson Whitehead, recently wrote a re-imagining of the Underground Railroad as a literal train. The book sounded interesting, but, as it was new, it was popular, and thus on a waiting list. So, I checked out his other books, and discovered that this one was available on audiobook. Since I had several out-of-town cases within a two week period, and this book was about the right length for the combined trips, I gave it a shot. 

It was, to say the least, an interesting experience. There is the requisite blood and gore - although not gratuitous. There are the standard boxes checked, although some zombie tropes are changed for the story. There are suspenseful passages, but suspense isn’t really the point. Horror abounds, but the banality of it all is more frightening than the horror itself. The pace is slow, and the constant flashbacks can be disorienting. Although some lines are a bit trite, most of it is written in a decidedly literary style, quite different from the page-turning pace of typical genre fiction.

One of the major changes to standard zombie orthodoxy is the introduction of “stragglers.” These are the one percent of the infected that don’t go in search of edible flesh. Instead, they hang around some touchstone of their previous life, endlessly repeating the same tasks. The copy boy in the law firm. The fortune teller at her desk. The man flying a kite that has long since disintegrated. These stragglers can be found throughout the book doing mundane things without recognition of anything else around them. It is these that make for the moral core of the book.

Since stragglers are not really a threat - they won’t harm anyone - is it ethical to kill them? On the other hand, they aren’t really “there” in any cognitive sense, so isn’t killing them an act of mercy? And can we trust them to stay benign? And, more disturbingly, how exactly are stragglers different from us? Aren’t most of us drones at what we do? Is the meaning we assign to our activities more valid than what the stragglers assign? How do we know?

In this book, the protagonist’s job is to go through part of Manhattan as a “sweeper,” cleaning up the remaining zombies that escaped the soldiers. Most of these are stragglers, easy to put down. But there are other zombies, the more common “skels” (short for skeleton) that have gotten trapped or locked in. These are more dangerous, and require decisive action to kill.

After the zombies are killed, the sweepers put them in body bags, and place them in the street for Disposal, who collects them and eventually incinerates them. One of the best lines in the book comes after the author describes why the sweepers are not permitted to toss the bodies out the window. They tend to splatter. Anyway, Disposal is not amused. “Defenestration unduly aggravated their job.”

This is one of the uncomfortable truths of war, though. At its heart, it involves killing. And killing humans. Real people. And one cannot do that without a protective defense mechanism to shield one from the horror of what one is doing. The protagonist, nicknamed “Mark Spitz,” (we never learn his real name) occupies an interesting psychological space. He tends to see people he knows in the faces of the stragglers, and yet he doesn’t really have difficulty killing. He himself isn’t sure why - or he doesn’t want to know.

One of the most disturbing scenes in the book comes as the author reveals how these defense mechanisms work for other characters. For Gary, the marginalized mechanic, he envisions the undead as the people who have disrespected him, the establishment finally getting theirs, the people who have called him epithets of all kinds, and called the cops on them for noise. For Kaitlyn, the former preppy girl, “this scourge came from a different population...single moms incessantly breeding, flouters of speed laws, and those who had only themselves to blame for their ridiculous credit card debt.” The sort who didn’t attend parent teacher conferences, and ate fast food too often. Both Gary and Kaitlyn are revealed as much by who they denigrate as anything else they do. The people who are subhuman to them. I’d say that Whitehead is being rather unsubtle here, caricaturing the views of the left and right, but at least as far as Kaitlyn goes, I have heard far too many of those things in my own circles. Heck, I’ve said some of them, something I am ashamed of having done. Whitehead’s summary is devastating:

If the beings they destroyed were their own creations, and not the degraded remnants of the people described on the “things’” driver's licenses, so be it. We never see other people anyway, only the monsters we make of them.

If this political season has proven anything, it is the tremendous power of making monsters of the “other,” the better to support policies that harm or destroy them…

That’s one of several truly depressing themes of this book. Another is that there are no permanent refuges. Every refuge fails. Every barricade fails. Every human tie fails. Mark Spitz feels this instinctively, and he seems to have a preternatural ability to sense when it is time to move on. This is his one survival skill. He describes himself as “B average” at everything. And mediocrity is perfectly suited to a mediocre world, as he puts it. He knows how to focus on what is necessary to get by. To get that B, but never an F or an A. To stay out of trouble and off of the radar of nearly everyone else. And thus, he survives where no one else can.

One of the strengths of this book is its characters, which are interesting and sympathetic. You really do care about them, even the ones destined to be zombie food. Everyone is flawed, and most have redeeming features. At first glance, many of the bit characters seem like “types.” And they are intended to be. But if they stick around for more than a page, the edges soften, and they become human. Kaitlyn should be annoying - and she is at times - but the war has changed her, and her attachment to Gary and Mark, who she would probably never socialize with ordinarily, shows a depth of character one would not expect from her shallow pre-apocalypse lifestyle.

In any suspense or horror book, there are bound to be set pieces. In many books, you can envision the future movie. (One of my beefs with Peter and the Starcatchers, which was mostly enjoyable notwithstanding.) Zone One has several set pieces. But they completely defy expectations. Normally, one would think of an action sequence that would play out with spraying blood and severed limbs. Or a tense scene with ominous music.

These are different. Each set piece ends up as a paean to some facet of culture. The opening scene in the offices of a large law firm has its suspense, but mostly, it is about the culture of the big firm, intent on winning and image and being important. It is no surprise that the zombies are locked in Human Resources. Even the details of the wall art and furnishings come into the story, and in a surprisingly loving manner. Whitehead both satirizes and eulogizes these trappings of our modern life.

Other sets include one in a chain restaurant, one in an expensively restored farmhouse, one on I-95, and one in an upscale toy store. It is easy to recognize each of these and their one-time inhabitants. Likewise, the diet fads, the addiction to cell phones, suburban car culture, and the ever-present corporate sponsorship and consumerism are both mocked and held up as the comforts of modern civilization that will be among the things missed after it crashes down.

For the most part, these are all things that this west coast denizen can recognize, albeit with an east coast twist. There is one, though, that puzzled me. Mark Spitz was raised as a member of the educated middle class on Long Island. For some reason, he seems to take every chance to run down Connecticut. Every depravity. Every annoyance. Every incompetence. Connecticut. So, east coast readers, what is this all about? Why does he hate Connecticut?

Colson Whitehead is an interesting character himself. He is an African American writer, who defies the usual stereotypes. In a 1999 interview with Salon, he noted that he had more freedom than previous generations.

Definitely, decades ago, there was the protest novel, and then there was “tell the untold story, find our unerased history.” Then there’s the militant novel of insurrection from the ’60s. There were two rigid camps in the ’60s: the Black Arts movement, denouncing James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison for being too white, and Ralph Ellison calling the Black Arts writers too militant and narrow, not universal enough. Now I think there are a lot more of us writing and a lot more different areas we’re exploring. It’s not as polemicized. I’m dealing with serious race issues, but I’m not handling them in a way that people expect.

Zone One is definitely that way. It handles plenty of serious issues, including race. However, we don’t know the races of the characters other than our assumptions about them - at least until near the end. Kaitlyn, naturally, is a blonde. Gary and Mark are both African American, but from totally different backgrounds. And it isn’t until the final couple of chapters that we learn this. There are others one can guess at. The Lieutenant (no name is given) kind of sounds like he might be black (at least in the audiobook), but mostly what we know about him is that he was is a military lifer. Other characters can be identified primarily by regional accents or interests. But, then again, not all vegans are white hippies - not even in my own acquaintance. So with the exception of the three main characters, we must rely on our prejudices, not on information the author gives us. 

One final thought that also ends the book. The new government that is trying to rebuild civilization in the wake of the disaster teeters between a pale imitation of our own bureaucracy and the totalitarian instincts that always arise in times of extreme peril. (And perceived peril, as well.) So you have the silly corporate sponsorships, the attempts at treating PASD (post apocalyptic stress disorder) which affects, well, pretty much everyone. And you have the slogans and patriotic songs, and so on. And you have a Forbidden Thought. It isn’t until the last pages of the book that we find out what this is. I assumed it was suicide, but it isn’t quite that. It is the thought that this is the end of the world. That downbeat thought is anathema to the reconstruction effort.

But after things go south (and boy do they ever), Mark Spitz comes to a realization. The world isn’t ending. It has already ended. What is past will never come back like it was, even if the zombies are eventually overcome, and humans rebuild. The big problem is that everyone keeps pretending that things haven’t changed forever. That the world they knew hasn’t ended. Only once they can admit that can the future become clear.

This idea really struck me. Fundamentalism of all stripes, after all, is really about going back to an idealized past. As such, it is particularly attractive to those who think they would have had power under past structures. Thus, groups like ISIS seek to return to the imaginary glory days of an Islamic empire. The Rushdoony’s of the world seek to return to their vision of a Patriarchal theocracy. “Make America Great Again” is just the latest in the series. An unwillingness to admit that the world has changed, that the past is gone - and never was like the vision anyway. It’s something I recognize all too well from my own sojourn in the Gothard cult. “We must return to the old ways, to the cultural trappings and unjust power structures of the past.” Whitehead is no optimist. He assumes that prejudice and tribalism will survive the apocalypse. But this book is intended to be bleak. After all, most of mankind has been infected with the zombie virus. Pretty hard to get worse than that, except maybe nuclear annihilation, that fear that was pretty justified in the middle of the 20th Century. But our own age also has its apocalypse. As Frank Kermode put it in The Sense of an Ending, we each face our own apocalypse: our inevitable death. And we face change. And to cope, we idealize a golden past before we came along, a cultural decay within our lifetime, and our only hope lying in recapture of that which cannot be recaptured.

And thus, we find zombie fiction to resonate with us, just as epics like The Lord of the Rings mine the same ideas and emotions.

Whitehead denies us closure. The book ends bleakly, but we never really know what happens. Mark Spitz himself realizes “you have to learn to swim sometime…” and we can assume he will live at least a little longer. But what of the world? The world has ended, but the future awaits. What will it be? What can be made of it?

I would not label this book as “enjoyable” in the traditional sense. It’s slow, disturbing, and nerve wracking. But it grew on me. And I have been unable to stop thinking about it in the days since I finished it. If nothing else, I am eager to read more of Colson Whitehead. He is an exceptional writer, and quite thoughtful.

Note on the audiobook: The book was narrated by Beresford Bennett, who I have never heard of, but apparently is an actor, writer, director, and musician. Whatever the case, he is a fantastic audiobook narrator, handling differences in gender, age, and dialect with ease. He is a perfect fit for this book, although I suspect he would be good at about anything. 


A few years back, some friends put together a zombie themed run to raise money for a local veterans charity. My kids probably got their love of zombies from that. We ran, but my wife dressed up as a Donna Reed zombie for it. 


Hey, we need some music. Cue Michael Jackson (who was considered the very devil in Fundie culture...until Prince came along…) 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Herding Hemingway's Cats by Kat Arney

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Yet another impulse pick from the new books shelf at the library. I think I have a problem. 

This book is about genetics, which makes it a cousin, if you will, of a previous book on that topic, The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean. (I’m a big Sam Kean fan, so you can find posts about his three pop-science books on this blog.) This book is quite a bit different, however. Kean writes his books by exploring a topic through stories. Each chapter will typically focus on a real life story, and bring the science into the discussion. By contrast, Arney focuses more on the science, both the process of discovery, and the current understanding of how things work. In genetics, there are so many remaining mysteries and controversies that the best she can do in many cases is lay out the different competing hypotheses.

Each chapter focuses on one area of genetics, whether the genes themselves (genes encode recipes for proteins), the control switches that turn genes off and on, or the many other areas of DNA that do different things - or nothing at all.

Probably the thing that was most apparent from this book is that the more we learn about genetics, the more “kludgy” our genetic code appears to be. And by “our” I mean that of all living creatures. Even simple organisms show signs of mutation and junk and unnecessarily complex ways of doing things. It is certainly not how an engineer would do things. But it fits very well with the idea that the genetic code arose through mutation and selection. If something “worked,” it stuck, even if there was a simpler way of doing things. Useless bits could stick around indefinitely, as long as they didn’t kill the organism before reproduction. (As Sam Kean noted, we have a lot of junk in our DNA that was randomly inserted by viruses in our past. It doesn’t harm us, but it generally doesn’t do anything either.)

I won’t even attempt to get into the various topics. There are 22 chapters, each of which addresses a different facet of genetics. Each chapter builds on the last, so picking one out of midstream is unhelpful.

There are a few things that are worth mentioning, though. First, DNA and genetics has become a kind of shorthand for “science.” Anyone can recognize the DNA molecule, and spout off some nonsense about genes. But most of what we “know” in the pop cultural sense is wrong. Particularly, the idea of genes as a neat cookbook for life, or the idea that most diseases are due to a single faulty gene. The whole picture is both far more complex and nuanced, and also less neat and orderly than believed. One thing is true, however. Our understanding of genetics is fairly new, and has grown exponentially over the last few decades. Still, we have a long way to go to understand even fairly basic mechanisms. When we look back on our era from 100 years hence, chances are, our present understanding will be viewed as primitive.

In the introduction, the author recalls her secondary school headmaster (she’s British, so this is the equivalent of high school here in the US) bemoaning “modern” science.

“He took to the stage, black academic gown flowing out behind him like a cape, clasping in his hand what looked like a magazine, but must have been a scientific journal of some kind. Towering in impotent fury from the stage, he shook it at us in disapproval as if it were a piece of pornography fished out from behind a cistern in the boys’ toilets. ‘Look at this!’ he thundered, slapping at a page covered in the letters A, C, T and G, repeated ins seemingly endless permutations. ‘It’s like the phone book! All these letters. Letters, letters, letters.’ A pause for breath. “THIS IS BIOLOGY NOWADAYS!’”

In our own cultural moment where science is broadly dismissed and denigrated, and faked “studies” by discredited hucksters are considered by many to outweigh multiple repeated large scale legitimate studies, this is both amusing and all to prescient.

In the interest of equal time, I’ll note with amusement the line from geneticist Mark Ptashne that scientists often use “complex” when they mean “mysterious.” The tendency to pretend understanding where there is none…

Another bit which stood out on its own was the discussion on genetic switches. While this implies on and off, many serve more like a dimmer, adjusting the activity of a gene. One particular set of switches control the genes for melanin production. In essence, just a few letters in a few switches among billions of DNA bases are responsible for a trait which has been the pretext for millennia of violence, enslavement, genocide, and prejudice.

One final one: even the “simple” genes, the ones that encode proteins, turn out to be neither simple nor straightforward. In fruit flies (which are the most studied animal because of their relatively simple genome, fast generation, and ease of handling), one particular gene codes not one or two proteins, but 38,016 different RNA messages, depending on how it splices. This is both kludgy and innovative. On the one hand, it saves space to reuse one gene. On the other, it looks a bit like using duct tape for everything. It isn’t always pretty, it doesn’t always hold together, it tends to waste energy due to mistakes in transcription, but it is “good enough.” Which is really all evolution needs.

This is a fascinating book, fairly heavy on the science for a pop-sci book, but intriguing. Kat Arney’s background in both science and writing are apparent. Her main gig right now is with the UK Cancer Research Center, where she is responsible for translating science jargon into understandable English for the rest of us. She succeeds in this book. Her obvious grasp of the topic combines with a clear writing style that makes the complex understandable.

One warning, however. This book does assume that the reader has a high school level of biology and genetics. If you don’t already have a basic idea of what DNA, RNA, and proteins are, and how a cell is laid out, you probably should brush up before reading the book, as she does not go back and explain the basics.

I rather enjoyed this book, and recommend it for anyone interested in expanding their knowledge of modern genetics.


The title, by the way, comes from the “Hemingway" cats, genetic mutants that have six toes on a paw. Okay, sort of. My family owned several of them during my teens, so I have some firsthand knowledge. Normal cats have five toes on the front paws, four on the back. The most common Hemingway variant adds a non-functional claw between the “thumb” and first finger of the front paws, sometimes accompanied by a vestigial fifth claw midway up on the back paw. We had some like this. A few will have even more toes. One cat we had was truly unusual (and very rare). He had six toes on each front paw - but they were all connected to bone and evenly spaced. The rear paws were even more unusual, with five equally spaced toes. His paw prints in the snow were unusual. Like the Sasquatch of felines. 

Tell me you can resist that...


My kids really like the DNA Cat logo on the book.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The 39 Steps as adapted by Patrick Barlow

Perhaps most people are familiar with this story because of the Alfred Hitchcock movie from 1935. A few, like my wife, read the original book by John Buchan (I haven’t, I’ll admit), which naturally contains additional scenes that didn’t make it into the story.

Hitchcock’s film is one of the best known from his earlier British period, and is a definite classic. (For what it’s worth, my favorite early Hitchcock is I Confess, which explores the conflict between conscience, confidentiality, and self preservation.)

This adaptation of the movie (which is already an adaptation of the book) dates from 2005. Barlow’s twist was to make a serious spy suspense movie into a comedy, and have all the parts played by only four actors. This means that the lead part is played by one, the three younger female parts are played by one, and the remaining two actors have to cover everyone else, man, woman, and child. In some productions, this can run to nearly 100 characters. As one might imagine, this requires lightning quick costume changes, and several scenes were the change of a hat alone changes the character.

The particular production that my wife and I went to see was a local one here in Bakersfield, at the Stars Theatre Restaurant, a local dinner theater which specializes primarily in musicals. The major draw for me was the fact that Kevin McDonald would be playing the lead part. I have mentioned his work at The Empty Space in You Can’t Take It With You as the uptight parent of the normal daughter’s love interest, and his outstanding turn as Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

Also in this production was Bethany Rowlee, playing Annabella, Pamela, and Margaret, and Bob Anderson and Bruce Saathoff playing everyone else. I hadn’t seen Saathoff in anything in quite some time, but I recall in my pre-kid days (late 1990s?) playing in the orchestra for a production of Hello Dolly in which he portrayed Cornelius. Good memories. 

Kevin McDonald, Bruce Saathoff, Bethany Rowlee, and Bob Anderson
Photo by Peter Beckman, Stars promotional photo. 

Anyway, all four members of the case were solid, and brought the requisite degree of physical comedy to a play that lacks enough witty dialogue to rely solely on that for laughs. This isn’t due to lack of skill on Barlow’s part, but is more because the original source contains more suspense and atmosphere than dialogue.

What Barlow does bring to the script is an abundance of clever references to other Hitchcock works, and careful and creative staging to bring out the humor of the multiple parts.

The story is something like O Henry in one of his darker moods might write: Richard Hannay, a nondescript Englishman with a pencil mustache (this is played for definite laughs) is at the theater, when a shot rings out. The beautiful and foreign woman next to him appears to be terrified, and talks him into taking her home for the night. She tells a tale of dangerous spies and a secret vital to national security. Hannay thinks she is crazy, and sleeps on the couch. Later in the night, she staggers in, morally stabbed, and warns him of “The 39 Steps” and a man missing part of a finger, and urges him to go to Scotland to save England.

The rest of the movie is spent with Hannay on the run from the police, who think he murdered the woman, while at the same time trying to foil the spies so he can clear his name. This was, of course, a fertile idea for suspense and thrills, as well as psychological drama. After all, the veneer of civilization is thin, as Hannay discovers when he must do things he would never have dreamed in order to stay alive. Likewise, few people are who they seem at first glance, from the fake “policemen” that work for the 39 Steps to the country bumpkin married to a ravishingly beautiful woman half his age. Hannay himself is unbelievable - except that he is telling the truth. So he has to tell lies because those are more plausible than what he has actually experienced and done.

The line, though, between thrill and suspense on the one hand, and comedy on the other, is fine indeed - the reason that spoof movies remain endlessly popular. Hannay’s journey is nothing if not ludicrous, and the sinister characters practically parody themselves. The distance of years, too, makes a difference. In 1935, Nazi Germany was on the rise, but the full extent of the threat and looming disaster for the world was not yet realized. But it was entirely plausible that German agents would seek to steal British technology. Here, from the safety of 2016, when “German” and “technology scandal” brings to mind not ruthless spies, but cheating auto emissions programmers, there is a whiff of the ridiculous to what was once deadly serious. And so the comedy fits.

In addition to the character changes, which were well executed and quite amusing, I must mention one joke that is perhaps specific to this production. Richard Hannay is described in the police bulletins as being dashingly handsome, about six feet tall, with dark hair and piercing blue eyes, and, let us not forget, “a very attractive pencil mustache.” But Hannay isn’t these things at all. Kevin McDonald does indeed sport the mustache, but he has lighter brown hair, is, well, not quite leading man material, and most importantly, is the shortest member of the cast by an obvious margin. As a “fun sized” guy myself, I sympathize. But it is quite hilarious to hear those attributes accompanied by McDonald hamming it up on the suave and dashing as he is described. Good fun.

I’ve said before that Bakersfield has a vibrant local theater scene for years, and this production was a good example. We are located close to Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and Utah is a mere day’s drive away. But don’t forget the local productions, intimate venues, and reasonable prices. There’s good stuff here too: you just have to get out and see it.