27 February, 2024

The Corona Diaries Vol. 106: Where are those confounded plums?

(late-August 2023)

(See the wonderful prelude.)

I admit to being thoroughly shocked that the kids were up and awake the next morning at a fairly early hour. It’s just not like them as I was under the impression that they prefer (and are able) to sleep until late morning, like 11, if not until the early afternoon. This has certainly been the case when they stay at our house. Maybe they’ve turned over a new leaf. Or perhaps they were simply being accommodating of the old farts whom they knew were accustomed to rising in the antelucan darkness to take coffee with the dawn chorus.

They drove over to our hotel and we were soon off to Connell’s Orchard which lies out in the gently rolling hills northeast of Eau Claire. While still fairly cool out, it wouldn't be long before the sun heated things to a toasty 85 degrees or so. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous as we drove down a series of mostly straight, though sloping, country roads to get there. The foliage was still verdant and the air rich with that country smell of trees, grass, and wildflowers. (No cow poop.) At one point, I saw a bunch of cars lining both sides of the road ahead. The first thing that came to mind was that another family farm had gone under and that there was an auction being held. Thankfully that was not the case. Instead, a church was having a potluck picnic. It seemed that it had drawn people from as far away as Seymour with the promise of tasty eats and fine company.

I have no recollection of ever having been out this way back when I lived in the area but decided a return trip was needed even before reaching the orchard.

Once we parked, I made a bee line for an observation tower that afforded one a nice view of the orchard in addition to a slide that was fairly high up.

It was simply lovely. The hills were lined with apple trees that went up and disappeared into the distance. Eve would have been spoiled for choice. Clusters of raspberry bushes were tucked between and, presumably, made for borders where a section of one pomaceous variety ended and yielded to another.

The kids were out to pick raspberries and plums while the Frau and I were content to just stroll around and take in some sun and scenery. Emphasis on sun because it got rather hot rather quickly.

Both of the kids had cameras which I soon learned were actual 35mm film cameras. Good on them! I knew that they had both gone retro and become aficionados of vinyl records but didn’t know that their analog preferences extended to photography as well. I blame the boy's Luddite stepfather.

Ahem.

There was corn too and I wandered down a trail that led into a field of maize that I presume will become a maze before too long.

As I was traipsing down the path through the corn - I mean, you never know what woodland creature you'll encounter having a snack or if He Who Walks Behind the Rows is around, I heard an engine not too far in front of me. Was the corn being harvested? Was I going to be gobbled up by a combine and spit out the side to become a tasty long pig treat for some animals?!

What an ignominious way to go, meeting your end at the cutter blades of a piece of farm equipment when you're doing absolutely no farm work. I can just imagine the headline in The Chippewa Herald: "City slicker killed in corn combine calamity". 

My momentary anxiety quickly dissipated when the sound became less loud as whatever farm implement it was had turned away from me. I exhaled in relief and wandered the corn a bit more before heading back out to the apples.

This poor tree was bending under the weight of all the fruit it bore.

Considering how dry the summer had been, I was surprised that the orchard appeared to have a bumper crop on their hands. I don’t know how long it takes for an apple tree to bear fruit (a few years?), but even the younger ones had apples aplenty.

My Frau went to relax in the shade as the heat had caught up with her so I met up with the kids who had a full quart of raspberries and were in search of the plums. I had no clue and found no signs so I flagged down a woman who presumably worked there as she was zipping along on her riding mower. I probably looked like a novice semaphore signaler with a case of Tourette syndrome as I frantically waved my arms around to get her attention as she was staring straight ahead and had a pair of hearing-protection headphones on.

With her blonde hair pulled back in a pony tail, she was clad in shorts and a white tank top showing off a fairly dark tan. Even more generous, though, was her smile which seemed genuine as opposed to a put-on for a dumb tourist who can't read a simple map. Maybe she wasn't really happy to dole out some customer service and instead just thrilled to be outside as opposed to inside in front of a computer screen. Regardless, I didn't feel too stupid asking her where to find the plums.

She told me that the desired fruits were to be found up the hill, past the blueberry bushes, and out near the fence on the far side of the orchard. And so we trekked over that way. The blueberries were easy to find.

They weren’t far from the fence that the mower lady had mentioned so we looked around and wandered between rows of apples.

Apples, apples everywhere
And not a plum to be seen!

I felt a bit silly not being able to find the plum trees. How hard could it be to find a row of them? So we started heading back towards the store and noticed that the mower lady was plying her trade, zipping in and out of rows of saplings. She must have noticed the glum looks on our faces and asked if we had found the plum tree.

Tree! A single tree!

We told her we had not and she kindly escorted us to it. We were in the right general area but a couple rows off and too close to the fence. On the way over, I asked her about the orchard and she explained that the land has been in the owners’ family for generations. Indeed, the plum tree we were headed to had been planted decades ago by a great-grandmother.

As we approached it, I felt like I was treading on hallowed ground. After all, this tree was many decades older than me. I wanted to tell the kids to pick the fruit carefully so as not to damage it lest we get run out of the orchard with brickbats.

Look at those plums!

They were smaller and bluer than the ones I commonly find at the grocery store. Must be a different variety.

Since it was still early in the apple season, most of the trees were full of fruit. We walked down rows of trees bearing green varieties and thought they simply looked delicious. And then we were ambling by a row of red ones and the air became sweetly scented with apple. I wonder why it is that some have a powerful aroma while others do not. Looking around, I don’t think it was that there more of the latter kind on the ground busted open. Those seemed to be scattered everywhere. I really think some apples just have more of some aromatic compounds than others.

Roaming the orchard was the perfect way to spend the day. I bought a couple apple fritters before we left and they were amongst the best I’ve ever had. While there was some sugar sprinkled on them, they weren’t glazed. This put the heavenly combination of fried dough and apple up front instead of the rush of sugar and more sugar. Just excellent.

As I've gotten older, I've become anti-glaze, anti-frosting. They're fine and I eat glazed and frosted pastries occasionally but it's really the grain tastes I favor. A good cake doesn't need frosting. I like the cake part. I love the taste of grains and the Maillard reactions resulting from cooking them. This explains the tersely worded tweet I sent Nabisco after they discontinued production of rye Triscuits as well as the severe depression I fell into when Natural Ovens Bakery stopped making their 7 Grain Herb Bread. It is also why I love beer but am not enamored of those that have been barrel aged, made to taste like Hawaiian Punch, or contain enough hops to fell a horse.

On an old man note, the girl – a teenager – who was manning the cash register was unable to make change correctly. It seemed like the register was broken or as old as the plum tree because it wasn’t telling her how much to give in return so she kind of froze, unable to figure things out on her own. Are kids not expected to learn how to subtract without a calculator these days? Or was it just this particular girl?

Regardless, I loved Connell’s Orchard and cannot recommend it enough. Just count your change.

********

A few weeks ago I subscribed to County Highway which bills itself as “America’s Only Newspaper”. It does so because, although the paper has a website, you won’t find any of the articles or content there, just an overview of the publication and info on how to subscribe.

County Highway is the brainchild of two writers: David Samuels and Walter Kirn. I am completely unfamiliar with Samuels – no offense – and know Kirn only as co-host of the America This Week podcast with journalist Matt Taibbi. Kirn mentioned the paper on a recent episode and I looked into it.

The website trumpets:

“County Highway is a 20-page broadsheet produced by actual human beings, containing the best new writing you will encounter about America. It features reports on the political and spiritual crises that are gripping our country and their deeper cultural and historical sources; regular columns about agriculture, civil liberties, animals, herbal medicine, and living off the grid, mentally and physically; essays about literature and art, and an entire section devoted to music.”

I was intrigued and, after a couple weeks of procrastination, finally subscribed. My first issue – the first issue. which is sure to be a valuable collector's item (ha!) – arrived recently.

I understood that it was to be in the form of a 19th century broadsheet but was still taken by surprise at the font choices. They looked positively old timey. The paper looked like something that had been read by Wyatt Earp as he sat in an outhouse doing his business.

I’ve read the reports and a couple essays so I’ve got a fair bit under my belt but still have many pages to go.

I have read about the Miracle of America Museum in Montana, failing wheat crops in Oklahoma, Appalachian protest novels, as well as a jeremiad against AI, big tech, and the future promised us by the Elon Musks of the world amongst other pieces. Oh, and one about the commercial development of the area around Joshua Tree National Park that I will mention because it fits in with a general theme thus far: it’s been largely Western in approach.

Montana, California, Oklahoma – nothing Midwestern, though Appalachia has gotten some column inches. So far nothing about my part of the country. So far.

The stories have been about the common man and woman. While the great and the good may be named checked or their influence noted, it’s the little people who have gotten the bulk of the ink thus far. The overall tone seems to be a mix of Hunter S. Thompson tempered by a dose of downers and Paul Harvey. There is also an element of weird America to be had as well as an America that is simply not conceived of by popular culture and the mainstream media. Nooks and crannies of an offline world that resists the ostentatious allure of TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter.

If the paper were to fall on hard times and throw a benefit concert to raise funds, the Bob Geldof/Midge Ure figures would be remiss if they didn't recruit The Handsome Family to the cause. Same for Wovenhand. The music of these bands captures the off-in-the-ditch vibe of County Highway with off-kilter and intense perfection.

This being the very first issue, I am eager to finish it and see where the publication goes in the next one. It’s weird to be reading a paper newspaper again and I cannot think of the last time I subscribed to a genuine print publication.

OK, I just thought of it but it's a magazine.

I enjoy the focus a physical publication brings with no browser tab sitting right there to lure me into checking my email or go off to waste time on Reddit. No indicators that I have a new text message appear next to the banner. The world is a quieter, slower, and more pensive place with a newspaper.

********

Bonus photo. The Frau bought the cats what I call a scratching tray. It’s this tray filled with rows of cardboard pieces for cats to scratch on. Apparently it has been laced with catnip and now Piper is using it as a bed and a couch too as she spends hours sitting on it, looking up at the picture window. She has even dragged her favorite toys onto it and squats on them like a hen incubating her eggs.

23 February, 2024

New single from The Claudettes

The Claudettes have a new single out called "Touch Me Back".

 
 
A sultry little tune and a nice change of pace from of all of the Whiskeytown I've been listening to lately.
 
The Claudettes will be here in Madison on 18 May out at the North Street Cabaret.

East Side Club Bockfest '24

The East Side Club's Bock Fest is set for 2 March.

 
Despite August Schell being from Wisconsin, I hope to be able to sample their bock(s?) there.

A deep-dive into Can's Future Days

BBC Radio 3's Arts & Ideas programme recently did a show on Can's fourth album, Future Days, presumably because of former singer Damo Suzuki's passing. I haven't listened to it yet but am looking forward to it. Nice to see some Krautrock getting some love.

22 February, 2024

Take off, it's a beauty way to go

Channel 27 here in Madison has a nice little profile of Dineo Dowd, a woman from Sun Prairie, who is on a mission to get people to enjoy the great outdoors.

"I'm so happy to see people get outside," Dowd said. "I'm so happy to see children, most of all. They don't have to wait until they're 27 years old to experience that first hike."

Yes!

Her website is called Wisconsin Adventure Family. Some blog, some swag, and I see she has written several books for kids.

19 February, 2024

The Teachers' Lounge

I saw The Teachers' Lounge (Das Lehrerzimmer) yesterday and it was excellent. Leonie Benesch plays a novice teacher, Carla Nowak, whose school is suffering from a rash of thefts. If I don't write about it again, then I will say that Benesch is fantastic here. She looked familiar and I read that she was in Babylon Berlin. Aha!

Leonard Stettnisch plays the class smart kid, Oskar, and he too is great here. He becomes angry and conflicted when his mother loses her job after his teacher levels accusations at her. The ending when the cops are removing him from the school as he sits in his chair palanquin style was perfect.

Director İlker Çatak did a really nice job of keeping the focus on the interpersonal conflict instead of trying to solve the mystery of the thefts.

The Corona Diaries Vol. 105 - Postlude: Mall

(Read entry #105.)

The Apocryphon of Neil: Revisiting The Pit


It’s been 11 years or so since I began my marathon trek through the Virgin New Adventures, those books chronicling the life and deeds of the Seventh Doctor after Doctor Who went off the air in 1990. I wrote about the first 9 books before setting aside any attempt to write about each of the rest of the stories. I don’t recall why. Perhaps because it was simply a rather large undertaking.

I did my level best to avoid summaries of the novels, much less spoilers, before I read them. However, after I’d read a book, I did seek out the opinions of fellow fans. The 12th VNA, Neil Penswick’s The Pit, was generally loathed. Received fan opinion of it was (and remains, I assume) that this tale is one of, if not the, worst VNA and is even in the top 2 of most horrible Doctor Who novels.

Baying packs of budding literary critics spewed their bilious commentary from blogs and forums alike and their words took me by surprise as I found that I rather liked The Pit. I didn’t find it to be the greatest Doctor Who tale ever nor the best VNA. There were definitely faults but all of the sheer derision heaped on the novel was unwarranted, in my opinion.

After a while of hearing and reading all of the vitriol, I vowed to re-read The Pit and reassess it. Had I been that far from the mark? A second reading always brings out new things in a text for me, elements that I hadn’t been looking out for because I was too busy trying to keep the plot in order. My vow, which was in truth more like an aspiration, was made several years ago but now, in 2024, I have finally fulfilled it.

As noted above, The Pit is #12 in the VNA series and I admit that I do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of everything that transpired in the 11 books that precede it. So I am hoping I didn’t forget something relevant. It’s Benny’s fourth appearance as companion. But, if I recall correctly, Ben Aaronovitch didn’t know much about here when he wrote Transit, her second outing, so she had a Nyssa pulled on her and was basically sent away for that story. And didn’t she just cruise around with some guy in The Highest Science? Her character got off to a slow start.


A prelude to The Pit was published in Doctor Who Magazine and it is a very dismal affair. A Major Carlson is at a crime scene where a body has been found. A teenage boy was discovered with his head bashed in and his body having been burned by a staser. Miraculously, he is still alive, though barely. Carlson asks the boy his name and he chillingly replies, “I am…Legion.”

Bible reference noted.

The prelude is short and gives us a brief introduction to the planet Nicaea (a city where the early Catholic Church did some important business) where drug use is rampant and murder on the rise. It ends with a grieving stepfather talking “about divine retribution and Judgement Day.” More Biblical allusions.

The novel begins, unsurprisingly, with a Biblical quotation - from Isaiah chapter 14. Verse 19 reads:

Yet thou shalt be brought down to Hell,
To the sides of the pit

Although Lucifer is mentioned in the verses here, I think they’re really about earthly kings, though perhaps there’s an analogy to be had. Whatever the case, “the pit” is a bad thing. (The concept, not the novel!)

A prologue introduces us to a Gallifreyan veteran of the Eternal Wars which saw the Doctor’s people fight the Monsters back in ancient times. This is Atraxi and he is the sole survivor of the horrendous conflict. Everyone from commanding General Liall a Mahajetsu on down to the lowliest infantryperson is dead except him.

This depressing intro gives way to the first chapter which takes place in the last several hours of DAY THREE, though we don’t know day three of what. The Doctor is behaving erratically and Benny decides it would be neat to investigate a solar system that mysteriously disappeared called the Seven Planets. The Doctor has never heard of it and neither hide nor hair of it is to be found even in the capacious TARDIS databanks. Off they go.

Nicaea is the capital planet of the system and things aren’t going well. Major Carlson, we learn, is a member of the Justice Police and there’s no shortage of work for him. Society on the Seven Planets is falling into disorder and chaos. There are food shortages, rampant drug use, and crime is on the rise, including a serial killer. To make matters worse, Carlson’s wife leaves him.

Carlson’s superior is named Kopyion and the leader of the Seven Planets holds the title Archon. The society is ruled over, not only by the Archon, but also a deliberative body called the Academy which seems to be a reference to Plato and not just the name. Philosophers, priests, and military personnel comprise the membership of the Academy.

We learn that chess has fallen out of favor and that the types that populate the Academy have turned instead to Snakes and Ladders. Chess demands skill but Snakes and Ladders best represents real life - the vicissitudes of existence and the capriciousness of Fate.

We also meet an antiques dealer named  Bulbir Singh Mann who is out to obtain a book of poetry by one William Ashbless using less than legal means. His buyer is Academician Brown who, in addition to being a scientist and member of the Academy, is also the leader of the opposition to the Archon’s rule.

The Doctor and Benny land on a planet but they’re not alone. A group of four androids are air dropped onto it to apprehend two shapeshifters, Butler and Swarf, who’ve absconded with the most powerful weapon in the Archon’s arsenal, “Pandora’s Box”. Also on the nameless planet are a scientist named Jarak and his wife Ell. They are there even though the planet has been declared off limits. Jarak is conducting some mysterious research.

An ominous red stain begins to spread across the planet like a nasty crimson weed. Anything caught in it freezes as if time stops for it and death quickly follows.

The Doctor and Benny run into Spike, the head commando android who was separated from his fellow troopers. At one point, our Time Lord hero suddenly disappears leaving his companion to stand there mouth agog. He literally is there one moment and gone the next. We eventually learn he has fallen through a wormhole and ends up in another world. In addition to running into the 18th century English poet William Blake there and becoming Virgil to his Dante, he also encounters a group of primitive people with skin painted blue and who ride pterodactyls. If that wasn’t enough, they also speak ancient Gallifreyan...

And so the plot fractures into several storylines. The Doctor and Blake ride the wormholes to various points in time and Earth history where they encounter various cultists wearing amulets featuring a snake wrapped around a globe; Benny is stuck with Spike on the mysterious planet; the remaining androids continue their mission and seek out the shapechangers; the shapechangers have enslaved some creatures called khthon who lug the Pandora’s Box around to its final destination, a castle. To make things interesting, the leader of the enslaved khthon, Chopra, can read the minds of others and see into the future. Lastly, we have storylines on Nicaea where Carlson is out solving murders and piecing together the sinister machinations of Kopyion.

For a book that falls just shy of the average VNA length, it sure has a lot of characters and many things going on. It’s a bit like Robert Altman decided to do Doctor Who with his pal David Lynch. Fans critical of The Pit for being convoluted perhaps have a point. Others note that certain matters were left unexplained. For example, how did Blake get to that other world? We never find out.

If Penswick’s propensity to not always adhere to typical storytelling conventions particularly closely is something that cannot be overcome, well, that’s fair. The Pit does have this feeling of trying to do too much without ever quite completing anything.

But on this second read, I think my initial take on the book was confirmed. Whatever it may lack in narrative acumen is more than made up by an uncanny vibe and various allusions that prop up a moody meditation on the eternal conflict between good and evil.

Whatever failings Penswick may have as a writer developing characters or making plot lines complete, his prose moves along at a nice clip and is dotted with humorous bits. One way this comes through is that the book is littered with instances of humor. Because the Doctor doesn’t say much to Blake and what he does say is mysterious, if not completely nonsensical, the poet thinks our hero to be an idiot. In another scene, Spike, the android commando, looks at Benny as if she were an idiot. Elsewhere we learn that on Nicaea there is an apartment complex named after Mikhail Gorbachev. Ah, the 1990s.

In another scene, Benny, Ell, and another android named Thomas have been locked up by one of the shapechangers. The jailers are the khthons and one of them falls for the old movie trick of having someone pretend to be sick and yell for help only to knock out the guard when he comes in to investigate.

“’I don’t believe it,” Bernice said, coming to the conclusion that the khthons didn’t have many cinemas.”

Towards the end of the book, there’s a spot where the severely damaged Spike closes his eyes. A couple carriage returns later we are back with the Doctor and Blake and witness the poet open his eyes. A minor match on action, true, but things like that make for more pleasurable prose.

Benny has a good reputation amongst fans and is considered by many to be one of the best things about the VNA’s. Fair. But, while I like Benny, she often times comes across as a dated 90s figure for me. That decade saw popular culture subsumed by irony and cynicism. It felt like everything had to imbued with snark and snideness and related in the most smarmy way. I spent my young adulthood here in Madison, home of The Onion, after all.

As I got older, I got tired of everything in pop culture being laced with sarcasm and sought out the genuine and the authentic. I wanted to hear what people felt in their hearts instead of insults. I didn’t want life to be a South Park episode.

For me, Benny’s sarcasm harkens back to that part of the 90s. In small doses, it’s funny and witty and I enjoy Benny. But when it becomes her primary contribution to a story, then I get turned off.

Penswick found a nice balance, for my taste. We get some sardonic commentary but also heartfelt emotion. She pokes fun at Spike but also fears him and, later, mourns for him.

The characterization of the Doctor, on the other hand, didn’t go so well. He’s not the kindly, avuncular mentor of the TV show who helps Ace mature but he’s also not the pragmatist who plays realpolitiks on a chess board. He begins cool and closed before a descent into a moody, sullen teenager who is either shrouded in silence or is spouting enigmatic phrases.

For a book that tackles the weighty topic of good vs evil (with an emphasis on the latter), I think the Doctor could have added more to the conversation. Instead he spends most of his time leading Blake through time, communicating in cryptic remarks and occasionally yelling at Blake to run. I’ve thought about it but cannot see how this quiet, brooding Time Lord adds to the themes of the story. He and Blake have some interesting conversations but they're few and far between.

When Kopyion reveals himself to be General Liall a Mahajetsu, the Doctor immediately prostrates himself before the ancient Gallifreyan. Why the submissiveness?

There are a lot of religious references here along with a few to the work of Philip K. Dick. Blade Runner came to mind several times (OK, it’s a PKD adaptation) including one instance where Spike, who initially thought Benny was one of the shapechangers, regards Benny as she sleeps. He wonders about her instead of simply feeling suspicious of her and views the archaeologist as perhaps something more than either an obstacle or a device to be used to fulfill his mission and then discarded, i.e. – killed. Roy Batty came to mind.

Immediately following this scene, Carlson reflects on his life and has to defiantly exclaim to himself that at least he’s better than androids. He comes across as rather pathetic in contrast to the androids which show more and more human traits over the course of the story.

There is even a reference to androids dreaming, though not about electric sheep.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that Spike, of all the characters, refers to the deities of the people of the Seven Planets and does most of the praying here. The androids seem to have more religious faith than the humans.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of a lot of the religious references here. Blake questions the Doctor about the existence of God but the Time Lord defers to faith and offers that the search for that being is a task taken at an individual level. The poet then asks how a benevolent God could allow the pain and suffering he has witnessed to which the Time Lord can only admit he doesn’t know.

Blake comments on the Fall of Man and says he seeks to understand it. At one point he tells the Doctor that humanity struggles against its own nature and its fall from grace. Perhaps he’s there to illustrate that there is a bit of the divine within us but a darker side as well. And perhaps if I were to read his Milton: A Poem in Two Books I might understand his inclusion here.


Blake’s sentiments are echoed by Academician Brown who, after explaining that men are mere animals that live for a time and then die, leans into human darkness and notes that “The Book” says we’re the product of original sin.

This leads me to note that the main supernatural religious figures here are the Prime Mover (God?) and the Form Manipulator (Satan?). I got big Gnostic vibes throughout the story but I suspect they mainly come filtered through Philip K. Dick and his VALIS period because I am not a scholar on the subject.

References to illusion, to reality being hidden abound here and I think it’s those that really give the story a Gnostic feel. I concluded that the Prime Mover is the demiurge. I dunno if there is a Satan figure in Gnosticism or a being that seeks to hide the truth behind of veil of illusion. Brown hypothesizes that “there’s a more powerful force in this universe than the Prime Mover” which lends credence to my own assertion that the PM is a Gnostic demiurge and that a more powerful deity - the real Big Wig - remains hidden.

Ooh! I learned that an archon is basically a handmaiden of the demiurge in Gnosticism and we’ve got one of those.

Chopra, the mind-reading khthon enslaved by the shapehangers, says he can see "beyond the veil of illusion". Later, the Doctor and Blake are in a truck and have driven through the wormhole to escape a baddie’s evil clutches. The Doctor notes that their environment is an illusion as the truck hasn’t yet run out of gas. The nameless planet is a fake. Behind the tree bark are wires and the giant snake turns out to be an android manufactured by Mirage Enterprises. During an argument with Academician Brown, Kopyion declares, "This is all appearance."

Another PKD reference comes when Ell is seemingly possessed by the bad guys and calls herself the “Empire That Never Ends” and Death. The Empire That Never Ends is a direct allusion to Dick’s VALIS.


As for the main theme, good vs evil, it’s probably best realized in Kopyion’s fight against the Monsters, a.k.a. – the Yssgaroth, which seem to be The Great Vampires from State of Decay and given a very Lovecraftian name. There’s even a reference to something seeming to be a castle atop a rocket. He continues to battle against their intrusions into our universe and remains vigilant for cultists who wear necklaces that have a snake wrapped around a globe. To defeat his mortal enemies here, this ostensible good guy must kill millions by destroying the Seven Planets.

The Doctor decries the taking of innocent life but soon concedes the point. Besides, he cannot change history. Kopyion tells Doctor to never interfere with his work (to keep Vampires from entering our universe) again or he shall pay the ultimate price.

The Pit ponders humanity and illustrates our good sides and our hearts of darkness. Another example comes to mind: while there is civil unrest and rampant drug use on the Seven Planets, we also find out that Carlson is essentially a good person and that his wife left him and has gone and volunteered to provide medical aid to those hurt in the unrest.

Kopyion is perhaps doing the ultimate good by protecting our universe but he kills a lot of people in that pursuit.

Penswick deals with some weighty topics here, good & evil, human nature, the meaning of life. He does so in a thoughtful way, even if not within the confines of a conventional Doctor Who story. You know, the TARIDIS lands somewhere, the Doctor and his companion(s) become separated, and the Doctor eventually saves the day. 

I find The Pit to be flawed but fascinating. It has a great uncanny feel to it and Penswick doesn’t reveal things too early. He lets the mystery ride until near the end. I had a wonderful time trying to figure out what was happening and teasing out meaning from metaphysical tidbits. Plus, there was the simple fun of characters in peril and reading onwards to discover their fates. Some say the prose here is simplistic and boring; I say it's generally taut and well-paced. Harumph.

I had no problem with The Pit being a kind of morality tale where ideas take precedence over causality. How did Blake end up in the other world? Who was Benny’s guardian angel that mysteriously appeared in her dire moments of need? What were those mini-typewriters with messages for Benny? Products of a Great Deceiver? We never find out and these questions are really unimportant in the end. To need every loose end tied up neatly and for logic to win the day is the miss the point here. This story is a novelistic game of Snakes and Ladders where chance and random encounters abound.

I'm glad I read this a second time and I found that I enjoyed it even more. Perhaps its flaws were also thrown into sharper relief but I think I spent less time reading it as a VNA and took it more on its own terms.

The Pit is anything but your typical Doctor Who tale and it turns a lot of readers off because of this. But I enjoyed the mood and the interplay of ideas here. Like we humans, it’s imperfect but I found it easy to buy the ticket and take the ride.

12 February, 2024

R.I.P. Damo Suzuki

For some reason, I saw a bunch of Damo Suzuki shows available on Dime but didn't put it together that he had died - last Friday.

I know him from his work with Can but I think he had a lengthy solo career too. Here's some early Can with Suzuki in fine form.

11 February, 2024

Feeling my Slavic oats

I went grocery shopping yesterday and couldn't resist buying pączki. I have to go into the office on Tuesday and this prevents me from being able to stop in at the Ugly Apple Cafe, which seems to be the best bet for pączki in town. The ones at the grocery store were from suburban Chicago. No classic flavors - prune, rose - were on offer so I went with apple, apples not being a tropical fruit nor Bavarian cream.

While it's not as easy to find pączki here in Madison as it is in the Chicago area, they are much more common today than they were, say, 10 years ago.

After a stressful couple days, I decided to run with the Eastern European thing and made gołąbki soup.

I decided to use buckwheat instead of rice as the buckwheat in my cupboard wasn't going anywhere fast. It turned out rather well, if I do say so myself. Perhaps a touch more paprika next time and a dash of oregano, but I was pleased with how it turned out.

I finished the trifecta with some rye chocolate chip cookies.

Remarkably, these also turned out rather well. The rye gives them a really nice nutty taste. I think the recipe needs tweaking as the dough was a bit dry and, while this sounds impossible, it called for too many chocolate chips. There just wasn't enough dough to accommodate them all. Still, very tasty.

Return to The Pit: Prelude Dismal

I've decided to revisit The Pit, a Doctor Who Virgin New Adventure novel. Featuring the Seventh Doctor, it's generally reviled and often held up as the prime example of the series at its worst. I rather enjoyed it on first read and am going to see if my initial impression holds up.

I began by reading the prelude from Doctor Who Magazine.

This must be the bleakest prelude of the bunch. It begins with a teenage boy who has been mutilated and burned and ends with his stepsister having been driven mad after being forced to consume drugs.

Uff da!