Thinking about Prequels

I just finished reading Charles Finch’s newest book in his Lennox series, The Woman in the Water, which is a prequel to the series.  It got me started thinking about the nature of prequels.  When I bought the book at my local bookstore, Mystery on Main, the owner remarked that it seemed a bit strange to have a prequel to a well established series.  Then in this morning’s New York Times Book Review Marilyn Stasio wrote, “Prequels are fun because you get an intimate glimpse of your favorite detectives while they’re still wet behind the ears and not so full of themselves.”

So what is a prequel all about?  I’m thinking mainly about  some television series like Tennison, the prequel to the great Helen Mirren series, Prime Suspect and Endeavor about the young John Morse as well as The Woman in the Water.  When there are great characters we always want more.  We want to know more about them.  Who exactly are they?  What makes them tick?  Where did they come from?  These three prequels attempt to answer these questions.

I have to say that I could never get into Tennison.  Maybe because there was no Helen Mirren, but I think it is because it tried too hard.  Perhaps too much focus on Jane Tennison and not enough on the stories.  But I have to admit I only watched the first two episodes.  The character seemed to be much like the older Tennison without much indication of how she got there.  The same tensions with her family and her same predilection for sleeping with the wrong men exist without much explanation.


Fred Thursday and Endeavor Morse.  Photo copyright by ITV,

Endeavor is another story.  I’ve read a number, although not all, of the Colin Dexter books featuring Morse and I totally missed the original Inspector Morse television series with John Thaw.  (One can purchase only the European DVDs that won’t play in U.S. machines.)  So perhaps I love Endeavor because I never saw the original series, but more likely it is because they are great stories on their own plus they have the great Fred Thursday character.  We learn a great deal about the young Morse including that he was raised as a Quaker.  Through the first four seasons, one can see him mature, but also glimpse the seeds of the irascible man he becomes, at least in the books.  But he is at the core always the intuitive detective.  One does get a glimpse of the mature Endeavor Morse through the eyes of Inspector Robbie Lewis in the wonderful TV series, Inspector Lewis as Lewis recalls his old boss in several of the early episodes.  Morse even helps solve a murder from his grave.

blue deathAfter I finished reading The Woman in the Water I went back and re-read the first book in the series, A Beautiful Blue Death.  I first bought the book for my mother who, like me  was a voracious consumer of mysteries.  I remember her saying that Finch was trying too hard to made Charles Lennox into a Peter Wimsey like character.  On my re-reading, I find that somewhat true, but also that it is not as well written as the later books including Woman.  We do learn a great deal about the 23 year old Lennox including his love for Elizabeth (Jane) and how he and his brother lost their father.  In Beautiful Blue Lennox is described as being close to 40.  I wonder if there will be other books filling in that gap.  In the meanwhile, I’m like Marilyn Staiso and just enjoying the the series.




New music

These are troubled and troubling times but one distraction for me is music.  Last week I went to three concerts:  two young musicians at the Yellow Barn; the Boston Symphony Orchestra; and our local Windham Orchestra.  Three distinct venues and three kinds of players.

The Windham Orchestra is a community enterprise that has been going for 65 years.  I’ve been attending their concerts for many years and have seen them get better and play more challenging music.  Made up of a mix of music teachers, retired professionals, and talented amateurs they have really made progress under their relatively new director, Hugh Keelan.  (I should note that my sister has been principle flute for a number of years.)  Last Sunday they did a stunning Scheherazade. 

I was privileged to hear two works making their premieres.  There is something magical about knowing that you are listening to a piece of music that no one has ever heard before.  The first was a Yellow Barn residency concert; the second, a BSO commissioned work.

The Yellow Barn in Putney, VT is primarily a summer music festival but in the last few years they have expanded to occasional winter residency concerts.  Musicians come for a week to develop a new work or to polish working as an ensemble.  In this case a pianist and violinist, Lee Dionne and Brigid Coleridge put together a new work consisting of music and recitation.    Based on an interpretation of Homer’s Iliad by poet Christopher Logue titled War Music, Dionne and Coleridge recited excerpts and then matched them to music.  The music included works by Bach, Gyorgy Kurtag, John Cage, Manuel de Falla, and Richard Strauss.  What we saw and heard was a first performance, not without flaws, but fascinating.  They had to play music, do dramatic recitation and sing – quite a stretch for classical musicians!  I had never heard of War Music and immediately ordered a copy.

The BSO work, Express Abstractionism, by Sean Shepherd is a work in four movements.  Each expresses emotions illustrated by an artist or artists.  My husband loved it, but I was taken only with the first and last movements.  That might be because I was familiar with the artists.  Movement I is titled “dense bubbles, or: Calder, or: the origin of life on earth.  Movement IV. the sun, or: the moon, or: Mondrian.

I’d like to hear both of the new works again.  I love hearing music no one has heard before.  Listening intensely takes me away from the troubles for just a little while.


The future of American democracy

I’m married to a pessimist.  He’s been reading Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and is convinced we are now well into the decline.  While I’m not quite so pessimistic, I admit I have my own moments of despair.  Sometimes it feels as though we have no control over the future.  Almost certainly, the Republican party has already caved in.  But events like the recent election in Alabama and the  generic polling that consistently shows a preference for electing Democrats to Congress this year give me a ray of hope.  If Virginia can almost completely flip the state legislature, why can’t we do the same for Congress?

I can think of at least three roadblocks:  Money (think the Koch’s), voter suppression (gerrymandered districts and new voter rules), and, last but not least, the age of the Democratic leadership.

A lot has been written about the first two roadblocks on my list but not so much about the third.  I love the members of the Vermont delegation but, let’s face it, the youngest is Representative Peter Welch who is exactly my age – 70.  I’m pretty sure that I am will vote for his reelection – and for Bernie’s – but there are a number of younger folks who will be ready to take their places next time around.  For right now, we need their seniority.

Moving from Vermont to national politics we have Nancy Pelosi (77) and Chuck Schumer (67).  If the Democrats retake the House, and even if they don’t, it is time for Nancy to retire gracefully.  She has served us well as both majority and minority leader, but it is time for the next generation.

Howard Dean, another Vermont politician I supported for President, is one of the few of my generation speaking out about this.  In a recent NPR interview with Rachel Martin, Dean said

The most important age group for us is people under 35. They elected Barack Obama in 2008. But now it’s time to let them take over. And they’re going to have to take over on their own terms. We have tons of talent in our party. We do not need to rely on my generation anymore. And these kids think differently. They’re more respectful of each other. They’re willing to listen to each other’s ideas and work things out. They’re entrepreneurial. They’re more conservative than we are economically than the left wing of the Democratic Party. They’re mostly libertarian.

I just think this is the future of America. They are diverse. They value immigration. They value different kinds of people. They believe that gay rights is the civil rights issue of their time. They care deeply about the environment. We need a real change in this country and the only way to do it is for us to get out.

Dean goes on to say that the party has to change because the world is changing and is no longer so dependent on institutions.  There are all sorts of interesting people running for Congress this year filed as Democrats.  I believe I read that most of the House seats in red districts have a Democratic challenger.  At this point, I think the most important role the Democratic Party as an institution can play is to help raise money as the elections will be won by grassroots workers who will not necessarily be Democrats.

So what about 2020.  The word here is that Bernie is gearing up for another run.  Yes, I know that Bernie’s base was young people in 2016, but by 2020 he and they will be four years older.  And even though there is likely nothing there, the Jane Sanders financial stuff is going to haunt any campaign.

My pessimistic husband sees no one who can run, but remember in 2007 no one thought that Barak Obama known only to Democratic activists for his speech at the 2004 Convention, could run, much less win. So let’s look at some new faces:  Seth Moulton (age 40, ex-Marine Congressman from Massachusetts); Cory Booker (Senator from New Jersey, age 49); Kamala Harris (Senator from California, age 55); Kirsten Gillibrand (Senator from New York, age 55); Amy Klobuchar (Senator from Minnesota, age 58); and Chris Murphy (Senator from Connecticut, age 45).  Look them up.  And I’m sure that there are some Mayors out there who would be interesting candidates.

I still think our democracy can be saved, but we each have to play the proper role and for Democrats of my generation, that means following Howard Dean’s example and moving ourselves to a supporting role.


The consequence of sexism

I’m writing this the morning after the Republicans in the Senate passed a massive tax reform bill that I doubt many of them, or their staff members, or maybe even leadership had read.  The bill wasn’t even printed but evidently photocopies with handwritten insertions and changes were passed out in the hours just before the vote.  There were no hearings.  And now we get to watch Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell try to reconcile the House and Senate bills.  I wish them no success.

So how is this bill a consequence of sexism?  I hadn’t thought about it either until I read this piece by Jill Filipovic in the New York Times.  She writes

Many of the male journalists who stand accused of sexual harassment were on the forefront of covering the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Matt Lauer interviewed Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump in an official “commander-in-chief forum” for NBC. He notoriously peppered and interrupted Mrs. Clinton with cold, aggressive, condescending questions hyper-focused on her emails, only to pitch softballs at Mr. Trump and treat him with gentle collegiality a half-hour later. Mark Halperin and Charlie Rose set much of the televised political discourse on the race, interviewing other pundits, opining themselves and obsessing over the electoral play-by-play. Mr. Rose, after the election, took a tone similar to Mr. Lauer’s with Mrs. Clinton — talking down to her, interrupting her, portraying her as untrustworthy. Mr. Halperin was a harsh critic of Mrs. Clinton, painting her as ruthless and corrupt, while going surprisingly easy on Mr. Trump. The reporter Glenn Thrush, currently on leave from The New York Times because of sexual harassment allegations, covered Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 campaign when he was at Newsday and continued to write about her over the next eight years for Politico.

A pervasive theme of all of these men’s coverage of Mrs. Clinton was that she was dishonest and unlikable. These recent harassment allegations suggest that perhaps the problem wasn’t that Mrs. Clinton was untruthful or inherently hard to connect with, but that these particular men hold deep biases against women who seek power instead of sticking to acquiescent sex-object status.

What these journalists did when they interviewed Mrs. Clinton has the same roots as their sexual harassment.

For arguing that gender shaped the election narrative and its result, feminists have been pooh-poohed, simultaneously told that it was Clinton, not her gender, that was the problem and that her female supporters were voting with their vaginas instead of their brains.

The latest harassment and assault allegations complicate that account and suggest that perhaps many of the high-profile media men covering Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump were the ones leading with their genitals. Mr. Trump was notoriously accused of multiple acts of sexual harassment and assault, and was caught on tape bragging about his proclivity for grabbing women. That several of the men covering the race — shaping the way American voters understood the candidates and what was at stake — were apparently behaving in similarly appalling ways off-camera calls into question not just their objectivity but also their ability to cover the story with the seriousness and urgency it demanded.

Filipovic continues

This moment isn’t about a nation of confused men. It’s about a minority of men who choose to treat women alternately as walking sex objects or bothersome and potentially devious nags. It’s about a majority of Americans who give men a pass for all manner of bad behavior, because they assume men are entitled to behave badly but hold women to an entirely different standard.

That is why it’s so egregious that sexual harassers set the tone of much of the coverage of the woman who hoped to be the first female president.

There are at least two other well known men accused of sexual harassment:  Senator Al Franken and Garrison Keillor.  It is true that both supported Clinton.  Both are alleged to have committed an act or acts that, while harassment, are rather on a different scale than Matt Lauer’s or Charlie Rose’s multiple actions.  I taught my first workshops about sexual harassment in the late 1970s to managers in Virginia state government and my staff began investigating complaints.  The manager who put his hand down an employee’s blouse was suspended; the manager who patted an employee on the rear was reprimanded.  No act can be excused, but we need to maintain some perspective.

As Filipovic writes

The 2016 presidential race was so close that any of a half-dozen factors surely influenced the outcome: James Comey, racial politics, Clinton family baggage, the contentious Democratic primary, third-party spoilers, Russian interference, fake news. But when one of the best-qualified candidates for the presidency in American history and the first woman to get close to the Oval Office loses to an opponent who had not dedicated a nanosecond of his life to public service and ran a blatantly misogynist campaign, it’s hard to conclude that gender didn’t play a role.

 And what we get is a tax reform bill that will only help the rich, destruction of the environment, alienated allies, and potential nuclear war.  Thanks a lot, fellows.

Reading, thinking, and the state of things

Andy Borowitz from the New Yorker Magazine posted a few days ago something like “It has been hilarious, but can we have a real President now?”  That is how I’m feeling these days as I’m bombarded with constant misspeaking, mismanagement, and simply ignorance.  Some days I wonder if anyone in the administration ever learned any history, geography or simple arithmetic.  As a defensive measure for my own psyche, I am mostly using social media to catch up on personal things posted by friends and have drastically cut the political stuff I post on Facebook and Twitter.  My sanity demands more selectivity.

Charles Blow, in an April 17 New York Times column, expressed much better how I feel.

His failures so far, I suppose, should bring resisters like me some modicum of joy, but I must confess that they don’t. Or, more precisely, if they do, that joy is outweighed by the rolling litany of daily horrors that Trump has inflicted.

The horrors are both consuming and exhausting. For me at this point they center on an erosion of equality. This by no means downplays Trump’s incessant lying, the outrage of his draining the Treasury for his personal junkets, or his disturbing turn toward war. But somewhat below the radar, or at least with less fanfare, our access, inclusion and justice are being assailed by a man who lied on the campaign trail promising to promote them.

And the very sad thing is that even with his approval rating hovering around 40%, his core still supports him despite the knowledge that his actions hurt them the most.

I’ve been reading a lot to escape and have found some very interesting books to recommend.  Rudolf Fisher was the first African-American to write a mystery.  His book, “The Conjure-Man Dies”, is set in a 1930s Harlem.  Fisher (1897-1934) was a doctor, music arranger, and writer, which explains his interest in using science to solve the crime.  Everyone in the book is black:  The police detective, the medical examiner, the victim, and all of the suspects.  “Conjure-Man” has just been reprinted and reissued.  In some ways, “Conjure-Man” is clearly a first mystery.  I’ve found that in many first mysteries the plotting is more complicated than needed, but the glimpse of life in Harlem is well worth the effort of getting though the twists and turns.

ows_136396805189380“Ordinary Grace” is a total opposite.  Set in the summer of 1961 in rural Minnesota, it is narrated by a now middle-aged man recalling the summer.  I think this is considered to be a mystery as it won an Edgar Award for William Kent Kruger, but I thought it was just a wonderfully written novel.  I read this for my book group, Malice on Main, and I was not the only one who reported crying through much of it.  “Ordinary Grace is an extraordinary book.

My final recommendation is “Writing to Save a Life” by John Edgar Wideman.  I’m not sure how to characterize this book which tells the story of Louis, Emmett, and Mamie Till.  The New York Times Book Review and the National Book Awards call it non fiction, but some of the almost stream of conscious speculation about Louis Till seemed to be excellent fiction writing.  Louis Till, Emmett’s father, was executed during World War II in Italy for the rape and murder of a young local woman.  I have to say I still am not sure how I feel about this book, but it is fascinating reading.

Reading, baseball, and gardening this summer will save my sanity – I hope.

Life in baseball without Ortiz

Sorry, I’m not one of the fans that keeps begging David Ortiz to come out of retirement.  He says his feet and his knees hurt all last season, but he kept on playing.  I don’t think we want him crippled by continuing to play.  Besides, I just saw the Red Sox come from 5 down to win a spring training game against the Twins; I don’t think we have a lot of worries if they keep not giving up.  Yes, it is only spring training, and I kept not knowing who was playing for either team, but everyone was out there playing hard.  And there were some lovely plays.  So happy it is time for baseball again.  But can I ask whose idea it was to have 38 – that is 38 – spring training games on top of a long season?  Blame World Baseball, I guess.

But I really want to talk about the game itself.  I have to say that I despise Rob Manfred, the Commissioner.  I don’t think he understands the game and the beauty of it.  He wants time clocks and other things to speed up the game.  I would speed up the game by doing away with that stupid instant replay.  It generally shows the umpires to be pretty damn good and it takes a lot longer than an instant.

This is why I loved Nick Cafardo’s column in the Boston Globe the other day.  He begins

Oh, I hear the moaning about this and that and the slowness of the game. But I love baseball just the way it is. I hate that it is using artificial means to “improve” things.

I already hate instant replay because I think it adds to the interruption and extension of play more than anything. Oh yeah — we have the technology, so why not use it? Well, why don’t we just ignore the technology?

I long for the days of umpire/manager disputes. That made the game exciting, whether the call was right or wrong. I’d rather see that than taking 2½ minutes for a replay decision to come down from New York. How boring.

I guess I can live with the pitcher throwing the ball for an intentional walk as there weren’t very many instances of a misfire, but we can stop right there with the changes.

The game goes better for everyone when the pitcher gets the ball back and then pitches.  None of this walking around between every pitch business.  (I’m talking about you, David Price.)  But this is something pitchers should be taught; they don’t need a time clock.

And I love what Tony Clark, the current head of the Player’s Association had to say to Cafardo.  Clark is a former player himself, not a lawyer like previous heads.

While Clark indicated that the players were “OK” with instant replay — not a ringing endorsement — and the collision rules that protect fielders at second base and home plate, he also made a good point: Many players would like the game preserved. They were taught to slide hard into second. They were taught to try to dislodge the ball from the catcher.

“You grew up playing the game a particular way,” Clark said. “You fall in love with the game a particular way. You appreciate and respect that history.

“You also are willing to have conversations on ways to improve, and that will continue with understanding and appreciating that you never want to get so far away from the game itself that those who love the game no longer recognize it.”


Tony Clark

I understand that people have short attention spans these days and that a baseball game that runs close to 3 hours seems like an eternity to many.  But we all need to take a deep breath and learn to relax.  Didn’t someone once write a book on the Zen of baseball?

Clark continues

What about this seeming obsession to speed up the game?

“There’s checkers and then there’s chess,” Clark said. “But again, I am a bit of romantic there. There’s so much going on in our game that when it doesn’t look like it, there’s things going on.

I love watching live.  Any game at any level.  But baseball on TV can be difficult.  The answer may lie in better announcers who notice things and tell us about them.  Can the irrelevant chatter about what they had for dinner and tell us about where the third baseman is positioning himself.  Stop talking about neckties and tell us about the outfield.  I noticed that Jerry Remy and Dennis Eckersley were doing more of that last year:  Do even more.  I admit that I sometimes watch without sound and like the radio because they are forced to tell you exactly what is happening.

I’ll let Cafardo have the last word

Baseball is one of the few games where you can sit down and watch and let things unfold in a natural way. If it takes a while, who cares? You watch because you love the game. So love the game.

Enjoy the season, baseball fans.

Photograph: Jeff Fannell

Belated Presidents’ Day: Calvin Coolidge

Last year on July 4, a friend posted that she was at President Calvin Coolidge’s grave site at the wreath laying ceremony for his birthday.   I asked here where it was and she said “Plymouth Notch, Vermont.”  I looked it up and found that Plymouth is a tiny town in the center of the state; not quite in the middle, but close.


In November, my husband and I were near by and went to visit.  Although the museum and visitor center was closed, the grounds were open for walking and the Plymouth Cheese factory was in full operation.  The views are lovely in all directions.

The Calvin Coolidge Homestead website begins the story this way

At 2:47am on August 3, 1923, Vice President Calvin Coolidge became the 30th president of the United States when he took the oath of office in the sitting room of this modest frame and clapboard farmhouse.  President Harding had died only a few hours earlier.  Coolidge’s father, a notary public, administered the oath by the light of a kerosene lamp; he refused to install such modern conveniences as electricity.  Located in the tiny community of Plymouth Notch in the beautiful hill country of Vermont, the house where he took the oath of office was also Calvin Coolidge’s boyhood home.

Although he grew up in Plymouth, Coolidge left Vermont to study at Amherst College in Massachusetts and later settled in Northampton where he practiced law and got his start in politics.  Coolidge was a Republican and notorious in Massachusetts for breaking up the Boston Police strike of 1919 when he was Governor.  After he became President, he established the summer White House above the family store in Plymouth.


Cilley Store In 1924, President Coolidge established his Summer White House office above the store.

Coolidge served out Harding’s term and one term of his own before retiring to Northampton where he died suddenly in in 1933 at age 60.  He is buried in the cemetery at Plymouth.


Photographs:  Town of Plymouth; Vermont Division for Historic Preservation; and Seth Mussleman on Find-A Grave.