In 1928, British lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was published. It scandalized official British society, was decried as “a danger to the nation” and was eventually suppressed and censored for being a work of “obscene libel”—not because there was any actual description of lesbian sexual behaviors beyond a kiss and the most oblique mention of sharing a bed. Simply admitting that lesbianism existed was considered a scandalous act, and allowing a lesbian to share her thoughts on what it was like to experience romantic feelings for another woman caused official fear and outrage.
“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know … that any … spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
—A Christmas Carol
In my family, A Christmas Carol is almost a sacred text. My grandmother quoted from it each Christmastime, and she, my mother (a teacher of English literature) and I watched each film and television version of it, cocoa and Kleenex in hand. We recited along with Marley’s Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, weeping and hugging and loving every moment of the story. Each viewing or reading of A Christmas Carol left us renewed in our commitments to each other and ourselves to hold Christmas in our hearts all through the coming year, and to remember Jacob Marley’s exhortation that looking after each other and lifting up those around us was our true reason for living. A Christmas Carol reminded us that humankind was our business, that “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” were our collective responsibility to each other, and the source of humanity’s greatest joys as well.
When my own daughter was old enough, I began reading Dickens stories aloud to her, and of course A Christmas Carol was among them. I read the whole of it to her in one evening, stopping occasionally to compose myself. She and I went to see a beautiful theatrical production of it in Seattle when she was a girl, just as my mother and I had seen multiple wonderful versions of it at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco during my childhood. Seeing A Christmas Carol has always meant far more to me than attending any production of The Nutcracker ever could.
This masterful work, so perfectly composed, so moving, so excitingly paced, was written in just six weeks when Charles Dickens’s fortunes were flagging, his coffers low and his popularity waning. But it was not worry about his purse or his reputation that inspired Dickens; it was his childhood spent in a debtor’s prison with his family that made him speak out so powerfully on behalf of the poor. While still a young boy, Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a boot blacking factory. There he spent his days pasting labels on bottles in hopes of making enough money to bail his father out of his debts. It was only through the efforts of children that Dickens’s father could pay off his debts and at last leave the Marshalsea Prison. Though Dickens later grew prosperous and world-renowned, he never forgot his time spent among the poor, the sick, the fearful and the abandoned.
In early 1843, Britain’s Parliament published a report on the damaging effects of the Industrial Revolution on poor children. The Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission moved Dickens deeply, and he planned to write and publish an inexpensive political pamphlet to encourage commissioners and other lawmakers to do more on behalf of the poor.
Dickens gave a fundraising speech in October of that year at the Manchester Athenæum, urging workers and employers to come together to combat ignorance with educational reform. It was during that visit to Manchester that he realized his greatest ability to influence and inform was not through political tracts and speeches but through his works of fiction. In those early days of October 1843, he devised the plot of A Christmas Carol. When he returned to his home in London, he worked in a fury to complete the story in time for Christmas publication, and just made it: it was published 175 years ago this week.
It’s true: Hamilton totally earns the hype. My sweetheart treated me to a touring company performance of the musical here in Boston last night, and it was the first time either of us had seen it. What a tour de force!
It’s a constantly moving, singing, dancing, quite literally spinning masterpiece of intricate physical, vocal and emotional involvement among cast, crew, musicians, choreographers, set designers and visionaries. Everything is held aloft by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant rhythm, rhyme, and lyrical passion and inspired by Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow’s erudition.
It starts with a pow and never slows down, and turntables within turntables spin against each other to allow for even more movement and multiple simultaneous stories to play out before your eyes.
There is very little spoken dialog separating the musical numbers—it’s a constantly flowing, beautifully paced river of rhythm, full of emotion yet always supported by a framework of fact, a propulsive political urgency and this historical imperative: Make this moment count. Make your vision real. Fight for what matters. Keep on trying. You can rest another day—acknowledge your power to make a difference right now and turn that potential power into positive action. It’s honest, with no holds barred: thrilling, merciful, inspiring.
From left: Twiggus, Flerjoob, Snorgustuflox and Zmoojius
Number 37 in the Cryptids Large and Small Series of Monster Care Guides by Dr. Skeezix Fremulon, World-Renowned Monstrologist
Welcome to the Wonderful World of Monster Care!
In order to keep your baby monsters healthy and happy during their crucial early months, Dr. Skeezix Fremulon has formulated this short-form guide to baby monster care based on his original three-volume classic guide to a monster’s first year. We at Téras Publishing have provided Dr. Fremulon with key details about your particular monsters so that we may provide you with this customized guide.
First, Meet Your Monsters
All four of your monsters are crepuscular fneedids, and each first emerged from its hanging cave pod at twilight during a January full moon. As you know, crepuscular monsters prefer to dine at twilight and absolutely avoid noshing during the noon or midnight hours. Because they are young, they need more sleep than adult monsters. They prefer to rest suspended upside-down like bats, but they are versatile beings and can adapt to resting in any position given practice.
Being flabjescent (finger-dwelling) monsters, they sleep with their eyes open so that they can always be aware of micromovements that might require them to rearrange their eyes, claws, antennae or fingers. Do not be alarmed if you awake to find them staring at you. They may actually be sleeping. If they are awake, you are likely to find that they are simply admiring your good looks.
Monster #1: Twiggus
Twiggus is a Jaundiced Pricklebelly. A gentle, jovial soul, her favorite foods are gooseberries and Triscuits. Her gelatinous eye pockets are light-sensitive and they act as night-vision goggles that allow her to see in perfect darkness. Her antennae are ticklish, so be careful that when you flex them, you do so delicately. Twiggus likes nomming lightly on fingertips and rolling in cotton balls. Her favorite performer is Charles Mingus.
Likes: Ginger-lemon tea, being read to during late-morning snack time, doing needlepoint, engaging in philosophical discourse
Dislikes: Chervil, mangoes, Hanna-Barbera cartoons, the letter M
Monster #2: Flerjoob
Flerjoob is a Tangerine Zogulanthropus. Anxious and easily startled, he needs frequently soothing. Though he does not own an automobile, he is always worried that he has misplaced his car keys. Has a tendency to shriek quietly when startled, and he startles easily. His shrieks are barely audible, but they rattle Snorgustuflox, so they are best avoided. When he is nervous, he finds tapioca pudding and golden raisins very comforting.
Likes: Having his teeth counted, being told that he’s a good boy, doing jigsaw puzzles featuring photos of rubber ducks, sharpening crayons
Dislikes: Loud noises, strobe lights, polyester blends, bar soap
Monster #3: Snorgustuflox
Snorgustuflox is a Celery Queezix. Singularly lacking in self-awareness, Snorgustuflox thinks he is easy-going and friendly because he waves at everyone all the time, but his gruff barking voice and aggressive manner often put people off. He is desperate for friendship and will wiggle his ferny antennae with glee when having a conversation with a new friend, but his direct questioning and habit of interrupting may be considered rude. He reacts badly to time-outs and benefits from a more relaxed approach. Gentle reminders and pleasant distractions when he becomes overbearing work best.
Likes: Cilantro-based herb blends, under-ripe bananas, hang gliding, luna moths
Dislikes: Fox News, cough syrup, backgammon, socks
Monster #4: Zmoojius
Zmoojius is a Flangified Multiocularian. A practical joker, she likes bending her eyestalks around corners, sticking them into things and commenting on what she sees. As a rare aubergine-snooted variety, she tends toward self-importance, but she has a good heart and is more likely to pick flowers for you with her clasping flangicles than to pinch you with them. A romantic monster, she enjoys eating Valentine heart candies and listening to soft-rock ballads while staring up at the moon.
Likes: Rom-coms, cornstarch, the way people’s eyes scrunch up when they smile, sphagnum moss
Dislikes: Cider vinegar, dust mites, egg salad, stand-up comedy specials
In Conclusion: Relax and Enjoy Your New Friends
It is normal for baby monsters to sleep for up to 23 hours a day and to cluster together in strange combinations. They play a mini-monster variant of Twister that requires no mat or spinner, so don’t be surprised if you find them gathering and piling up in unexpected ways. They are quite fond of bubble baths and underwater toe rides. They play hide and seek whenever possible, and particularly enjoy hiding in medicine cabinets, refrigerators, underwear drawers and glove compartments.
While your monsters have strong opinions, they are gentle souls at heart. You will find that as long as they receive frequent smiles, kind words and good snacks, they are quite easy to live with and will provide years of enjoyable companionship.
The Little Man movie rating system has been used by the San Francisco Chronicle since 1942. The excited Little Man above signifies a critic’s greatest satisfaction and is equivalent to a four-star rating.
• • • • • • •
The following is one of a series of six film review parodies I wrote for the Sunday Punch section of the San Francisco Chronicle some years ago. In each piece I wrote about outrageous, nonexistent foreign films and reviewed them in the voice of a pompous film critic. This was the second parody of the six.
• • • • • • •
Among the new foreign film releases this season are two films by female directors: Bebe Francobolli’s ode to Dada, Ciao Chow Chow, and Christiane de Geronimo’s children’s thriller, Nightlight.
Francobolli is the daughter of the Suprematist painter Mazlow Molotov (“The Black Russian”) and Constructivist painter Kiri de Kulpe Kloonig (a former courtesan known as “The Dutch Treat”). Bebe’s parents met in Rome at an international stamp-collecting convention and became Italian citizens before their only child was born.
Named Bebe Francobolli (literally Baby Postage Stamps) after her parents’ avocation, she refused to become a philatelist and rejected the art of her ancestors. She turned to Dada, the nihilistic movement that created “non-art,” laughed at overly serious artists and spawned Surrealism.
These influences can be seen clearly in Ciao Chow Chow, in which Bebe herself stars. Translated from Italian into English, and then back into Italian again, with no subtitles, the film begins and ends with Bebe waving goodbye to her beloved Chow dog, Antipasto, symbol of her lost youth and of her ridiculous early films.
Ciao is a parody of a self-parody, masterful in its simplicity and in its bold statement that life is to be laughed at, and that nothing is serious or sacred.
Basically nihilistic, with Dadaist subject matter and camera angles, this film is convoluted and uneven, personalized and stylized, and will make no sense to anyone who has not seen Bebe’s early travelogue films. Yet, Bebe promises that it will be her last film work, and that alone has prompted critical acclaim.
Avant-garde director Christiane de Geronimo’s Nightlight tells the terrifying story of the night the Mickey Mouse nightlight burned out in the Turner household. Little Bobby Turner is forced to face The Clown Puppet, The Vicious Animal Slippers and The Dreaded Man from Under the Bed.
Filmed in black and white, Nightlight captures the shadowy horror of every child’s bedroom, and forces even the adult viewer to come to grips with The Thing in the Closet. Not for the squeamish.
De Geronimo’s earlier attempts at children’s thrillers include The Teddy Bear with No Face, Scream, Barbie, Scream and Revenge of the Katzenjammer Kids, in which comic-strip characters from the past are set loose on an unwitting Nebraska farm town.
Nightlight, the third of her bedtime stories series, features the late French film star Estella de Lumiere in her final role before the dreadful accident on the set of Murder on the Trampoline.
Next month, two recent remakes: Canadian filmmaker and ice-hockey champion Pete Steed’s sport-oriented version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Fujiko Shiatsu’s sumo wrestling remake of The Music Man.
Icicles, those shimmering, elemental, diamond-like structures, may be nothing but water, but they can turn deadly in the right circumstances. Imagine a dark winter’s night in a Finnish forest, the sounds of icicles crashing down around you, the air filled with shattering noises and the wailing of the wind. You hear the cracking of tree limbs weighed down by their icy shrouds, the lowing of frightened animals in the barn, and your mind turns to the stories your grandmother told you about the spirits of the forest, the demons, the maleficent influence of the long dark nights, the wild animals, the errant hunters. This is the sound of Värttinä.
Over thirty years ago Finnish sisters Sari and Mari Kaasinen took their love of Finnish and Karelian (southeastern Finnish) folklore and decided to add music to their recitations of poetry and epic stories. They named their group Värttinä, which means “spindle,” as a way to honor women’s traditions and creations, and ever since the group has sung in the Karelian dialect of the Finnish language accompanied by various acoustic instruments.
Värttinä has long been known for singing “korkeelta ja kovvoo” (high and loud) in a style Americans may recognize as sharing some elements of singing made popular by Bulgarian women’s choirs in the 1980s and early 1990s. The group mixes wonderfully intricate and unexpected rhythms with high, vibrato-free, intense women’s voices singing in close but dissonant harmonies. Their nasal, diaphonic, tension-filled sound isn’t what most of us who grew up on Western musical traditions usually find beautiful. Yet there is an intense and dramatic quality to their music, and their precision and power bring joy to what could otherwise be a jarring, even disturbing sound.
Many of their songs are based on Finnish folk tales involving death, darkness and misery, but there’s an open-throated ardency and precision to their music that helps one understand how sitting before the fire on a stormy night sharing bloody tales of horror could be a fascinating way to while away the long, dark Finnish winters.
Finland had an ancient tradition of oral storytelling and poetry, but it was overshadowed by the rise of European-style rhymed written poetry around the 18th century. During the 19th century Elias Lönnrot compiled centuries’ worth of Finnish (and probably ancient Estonian) folk tales and combined them into the written epic poem known as the Kalevala. The poem, first published in 1835, is the national epic of Karelia and Finland. The region spent ages under the thumb of Swedish and later Russian domination, and the compilation of stories into the Kalevala made it easier for Finns to share and treasure their history. This led to the rise of a Finnish national identity and inflamed the desire of Finns to be self-governing and to use and delight in their own language instead of subsuming their identity to conquering nations’ desires. The movement inspired by the power and popularity of the Kalevala is said to have propelled the growth of national pride that resulted in Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917.
I first heard Värttinä on the PRI radio show “The World” in the late 1990s around the time that their album Vimha was released. The title cut, which means “The Ice Storm” in Finnish, captured my imagination instantly. I was captivated by the complexity of the rhythms, the unexpectedly bold and dissonant yet beautiful voices, and the joy of hearing rapid-fire Finnish, which was the first language of my beloved grandmother. She had sung to me in Finnish when I was a little girl, and I played and sang Finnish folk songs to her at the piano during my teens, though those songs were nothing like the wild, animalistic, galloping folksongs of Värttinä.
There is a tradition of darkness in Finnish culture which can also be found in Russian literature; it’s not surprising considering the bitterness and length of the dark winters and the dangers inherent in making a life in such inhospitable surroundings. But there is also an indomitable spirit to be witnessed and savored in their arts, and a powerful desire to face down death in order to reaffirm the life force. Värttinä adds a strong feminist element to this desire to acknowledge but laugh in the face of death. While this formerly all-female group has expanded to include men over time, and men have gone on to write much of their music, the power of women’s voices still underlies their modern take on roots music.
One of the loveliest of The Carpenters‘ songs, “Bless the Beasts and the Children” was the theme to a 1971 film directed by Stanley Kramer based on a coming-of-age novel by Glendon Swarthout. The book, the film and the song warned of the dangers of failing to look out for the most vulnerable among us—youths and animals. “Bless the Beasts” reminded us that neglecting or harming the most fragile members of society weakens and degrades all of us. Sadly, we are seeing our failure to heed these warnings play out again in deadly, tragic ways in our own world today.
In 2018, the film and song seem a bit obvious and cloying, but during the Vietnam War years, when they were written, young Americans were being killed by the tens of thousands in a war they didn’t believe in. They had to fight hard to be heard and respected by a world that had long believed children’s first duty was to shut up and obey their elders. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. teenagers were shipped off to kill and die in Southeast Asia, and young people at home who protested were often gassed, assaulted, even killed on campuses or in public streets for speaking out against the war.
In that context and in contrast to other messages presented to teens by the establishment, this story and song had a powerful message—as sung by the especially wholesome-seeming, middle-of-the-road Carpenter siblings, “Bless the beasts and the children, for in this world they have no voice—they have no choice” made a strong statement. On what would have been Karen’s Carpenter’s 68th birthday, please enjoy her beautiful voice and this thoughtful song. In the current climate, teenagers are again forced to act as America’s conscience. As they urge us to think before we allow troubled people to rush out into the world to try to solve problems with guns, their messages are as important as ever.
Today is Boxing Day, a day traditionally set aside to remind those who have been blessed with comfort to share their bounty with those to whom life has been less generous. The tradition seems to have begun in the 1600s in England when the more well-to-do put together boxes of money, gifts, hand-me-downs and leftover food for their servants who had worked on Christmas Day. These servants were given the day after Christmas off to spend with their families and enjoy the contents of the box.
One of the central tenets of the religion which takes Jesus as its lord is expressed in the following passage from the New Testament’s Book of Matthew: “‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’’
The true character of a human being is shown in the way that she or he treats those who are in need, those who are suffering, those who have no power. People of character don’t spend time determining that some people are unworthy of human decency. The Jesus lauded as the redeemer of Christians did not trample on the weak or crush those who had erred. He saw no poor as “undeserving,” nor did he believe that some prisoners deserved kindness while others deserved a boot in the face. Jesus said that the way to show reverence for that which was pure and good was to show reverence for and generosity to “the least of these”—those most degraded, despised, troubled and troubling people among us. He said we should focus more of our love, mercy and understanding on these people than on the fortunate few. His concern was not with the inhabitants of any shining city on a hill; he saved his blessings (and, Christians say, his miracles) for those who had the least and needed love most.
We can celebrate the spirit of Boxing Day without using boxes; just choose a favorite charity or two and help them to help others, or do a good deed for someone in need. In the spirit of Boxing Day, I’m giving to my local food bank today. If you’re looking for an especially effective nonprofit to support with your Christmas cash, Hanukkah gelt or secular humanistic savings, CharityNavigator.com is a great place to start.
Blessed are the merciful. Peace be with you today and throughout the new year.
Fisher’s writing talents are evident from her memoirs, in her one-woman theatrical show, Wishful Drinking, and in the screenplay based on her autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge. In late 2001, when the nation was deeply shaken after the September 11 attacks and frightened lawmakers began urging each other to limit Americans’ freedoms, Carrie Fisher donated an autographed copy of the screenplay for Postcards from the Edge to an auction of celebrity artifacts to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union. I was the winner of that auction, and my Carrie Fisher-autographed script is one of my prized possessions.
Fisher grew up as Hollywood royalty, the child of popular singer Eddie Fisher and America’s sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds, and was later the stepdaughter of Elizabeth Taylor and wife of musician Paul Simon. Despite such privilege, she also grew up seeing the seedy side of fame: her parents’ scandalous and very public divorce (her father left Debbie for Elizabeth); her father’s addiction to speed; and her mother’s financial catastrophes brought on by marriages to faithless gamblers who stole her money, diverted Debbie’s savings to their mistresses and brought prostitutes into their home.
In Fisher’s first big film role (in Warren Beatty’s film Shampoo,) she played a jaded teenager who propositions the much older character played by Beatty. Her character’s world-weary attitude and hard-edged directness in Shampoo show up again in her portrayals of Princess Leia in the first three Star Wars films. By her twenties, she was self-medicating and addicted to drugs. It was only when she learned that she had bipolar disorder that the reasons for her mood swings, depressions and hunger for intoxicants became clear to her. She sought to wean herself from her addictions and began to divert her insecurities and keen observations into her writing.
To the benefit of her readers, she shared her stories of her own depression, self-loathing, addictions and mental disorders, first through her art, then through memoirs and interviews. Fisher fought to destigmatize mental illness and encouraged people to be honest with themselves and others, to get help and to accept themselves as imperfect but worthy of love and understanding. For a woman who had grown up believing that putting on a perfect façade and never letting the world see her sweat was of paramount importance, her journey toward self-acceptance and her willingness to tell the world of her flaws and illness and her ultimate freedom from addiction was a brave one.
From her earliest days, Fisher had a steely confidence on screen and spoke in an authoritative voice that didn’t jibe with her fresh, youthful beauty. Her world-weary delivery and seeming steeliness made her a compelling Leia Organa. On screen she was a princess and the leader of a galactic rebellion, but behind her seeming confidence was enormous self-doubt. While her insecurities led her to dangerously self-defeating impulses in her youth, they also brought her to deep insights which she used to fuel the raw, honest, hilarious but brutally true stories she wrote of her life. She showed us how smart, beautiful, rich and talented people could be just as fearful, self-defeating and confused as the rest of us.
Carrie Fisher was a woman who spent her life creating fictions through her acting and writing, but she lived her own life as fiercely and honestly as she was able. She laid herself bare in her writings, one-woman shows and interviews, including her recent discussion of her life and work with NPR’s Terry Gross. She laughed at herself before anyone else had a chance to, and let us know that it was okay to fail, to fear, to fall. Even a Hollywood princess is only human.
Just this year, the Harvard Humanist Hub gave Fisher the Outstanding Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, saying that “her forthright activism and outspokenness about addiction, mental illness, and agnosticism have advanced public discourse on these issues with creativity and empathy.”
“Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows”
—From “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
The Nobel Committee’s decision to honor folksinging musical legend Bob Dylan with a Nobel Prize in Literature is inspired.
One of history’s most influential songwriters and lyricists, Bob Dylan has meandered through the musical disciplines of folk and protest songs, blues, pop and rock and come out the other end with his own amalgam of raw, bleating authenticity, intimacy, cynicism and wordplay. It’s hard to think of a voice that has threaded its way into the world’s consciousness more powerfully over the past half century.
The Nobel Committee has long sought out fresh voices that speak to the human condition in original and insightful ways. In past years the committee has honored writers who have explored enduring topics including folk tales, race and feminism, violence, poverty, segregation and myth through prose, poetry, reportage and social criticism. This year marks the first time a Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to a musician for his lyrical output. Since the prize was established in 1901, the Nobel Committee has sought to celebrate voices that express eternal conflicts, awaken minds and deepen compassion, and the work of Bob Dylan encompasses all of these themes.
Dylan’s voice was the urgent social conscience of the 1960s. The stripped-down simplicity of his musical messages was disarming, yet he convinced the world to recognize folk as a sophisticated medium and a driving social force. With his storytelling, Dylan altered the way we think and hear, and in so doing he changed the world.