mug, tea, writer

Some thoughts on popular culture

In the library where I work, there’s a popular series of thrillers for adults. It has, I believe, reached 21 books and counting. There are audiobooks and even a TV show, and titles in the series have been bestsellers. The series I’m referring to is the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva. When I first heard of it, the main character—spy, killer, patriot, art restorer—struck me as a perfect Gary Stu.  If he were a fanfic character, no one would believe him. But he’s the main character in mainstream, popular, adult novels, and his readers delight in his exploits rather than noticing how improbable they seem.

There is an excellent critique of this series, focusing on one title in particular, at this link.

If we believe words—and stories—have power, we must take that power seriously. Mr. Silva does. As he says himself, his goal was to influence his readers and cause them to support Israel. And I think he’s largely been successful in this.

If we are to challenge imperialism, racism, greed, and violence, we need to change popular culture. For one thing, I’d love to see a series, whether for kids or adults, with a Palestinian crime-fighting hero! I am not the person to write such books, but I hope there’s someone out there who is.

But, regardless of whether we are writers or readers, we can’t simply consume popular culture mindlessly. We need to examine and question it. And we need to show children how to do the same.

Because we build our lives on stories.  If the stories we base our actions on are false or toxic, our actions will also be toxic.

That’s why it’s so important to become aware of our own myths, whatever they are. That’s why it’s incumbent on us, as responsible adults, to examine them. If they prove to be untrue, we must tell ourselves different and better stories. May heaven in its mercy give us the strength and wisdom to do so.

Hope and Fears--

Like millions of others, I am in shock. I'm deeply upset by what happened in Washington DC yesterday, on the feast of the Epiphany. Our democracy, such as it is, has survived for another day. But here's the thing:

I know, after the turbulence of the last four years, that many of us are longing to get back to normal. But what was that "normal", anyway? Constant war? The Patriot act, and surveillance and entrapment of Muslim citizens? The continuing violence against Black Americans and Native Americans? Fracking and pollution? Economic uncertainty and poverty? Not to speak of murder by drone, and oppression abroad.

Because none of these things went away under Obama. They certainly didn't go away under Trump! And--

We can't go back. We mustn't try to. We can only go forward.

This incoming administration will have a lot to handle, and a lot to repair. And I'm honestly not sure they are capable of it. We MUST change if we are to repair our country, and help to repair our world. We must end the wartime economy, and think of better ways of living. I think it can be done, but I also think the impetus will have to come from us, and some of the younger and/or more enlightened Pols, not the President and Vice President. (I love Bernie so much! and, right now, I am cheering on the Squad as they draw up articles of impeachment. But we CANNOT rely on politicians, no matter how well-meaning or principled, to be the change in the world. We have to be the leaders. As my man says, it's not me; it's us.

So I am tired, scared, overwhelmed, and also--just a little--hopeful. Let's all try to hang on to hope, and help each other.
mug, tea, writer

Frosty's tribute to Greta!

Here's another poem inspired by a prompt I gave in writing club. We were to write a new verse for Frosty the Snowman or a new chapter in his life. I had fun with it, and i hope you will, too.

Frosty the snowman
Has transpired, don't you know?
He's in the air,
He's everywhere,
and he'll come back when it snows.
Frosty will visit
When the snow's back on the ground.
So don't be sad!
Get good and mad,
And make sure the snow's around.

(Mary Johnson, 2020--just for fun!)
Kiril, Science Fiction

Reviews (thoughts on Return of the Thief and Avatar: the Last Airbender)

It's here! It's here! I read it! And it's every bit as good as I hoped and expected it to be.

"It", of course, is Megan Whalen Turner's series finale, Return of the Thief. I hope this will be a link to my Goodreads review.

Just a couple of things to add that I forgot to include in that review:
1. Megan's self-insert! At least, I'm pretty sure she gave herself a walk-on. Those who've read the book, what do you think?
2. Ohmygosh, that direct quotation from Henry V! Very appropriate, and very, very clever.

As I said on Goodreads, I could envision a reader starting with this final book and liking it a lot, but you'd gain so much if you read the previous books first. In fact, I think I'm going to reread them all in order before tackling Return of the Thief a second time. And all of Megan Whalen Turner's books need to be read twice, at least.

Part Two: Avatar: the Last Airbender

The short version here is: R.J., you were right. This is a terrific show.
The slightly longer one is: Prince Zuko, you have given me a logline for querying my book. Here it is: Prince Zuko meets Katniss Everdeen when 16-year-old Kiril risks family, life, and honor to save his little half-brother from slavery.

The characters differ in some fundamental ways, obviously, and so do their stories. But the similarities are actually startling to me. Here we go:

Both boys are sixteen. Both are expert swordsmen. Both are burdened by the expectation they will head their families (that's a much bigger burden for the Prince because, as he himself says, his family is seriously messed up.) And both betray/deeply disappoint family members who are dear to them. Finally, both boys are serious--neither has an especially strong sense of humor.

Kiril is a farmer, and a steady, thoughtful person. He does have flashes of Zuko's temper and pride, but these are not as much of a temptation to him as they are to the other boy. And Zuko's betrayals have very different motives than Kiril's. He has actually served, and done, evil, in trying to please his genocidal father and regain his honor. Kiril, on the other hand, is driven by the desire to save a child's life.

So their arcs are really quite different, in spite of the similarities above. I agree with Mark (google "Mark watches Avatar"!) that Zuko has possibly the best, and best-written, redemption arc I've ever seen.

But enough on this compare and contrast! Back to Avatar! Because Zuko isn't the only character with a redemption arc. Uncle Iroh is absolutely the best. And he, too, changes from a warrior serving a genocidal master to a man of true peace. Then there are the other kids. Aang, the avatar, is a genuinely sweet, open child. He's delightful. And Toph, also only 12, is pretty amazing, too--how could I have forgotten her? Born blind, the little girl has her own way of seeing the world, and what a way it is! Katara is a strong and admirable young woman, and her brother grew on me. I ended up liking him a lot--he's funny, loyal, and smart, but still a kid, and sometimes more than a little goofy.

I really enjoyed hanging out with these characters over three months. I loved the writing of the show, the beautiful colors the animators used, the moral questions the show dealt with so thoughtfully, and the heart and humor. Also, in spite of some tragedies, the show is hopeful. Good can prevail; people can change for the better and work with each other to create a better world. How we need that message right now.

(Note: I copied and pasted this from my Dreamwidth journal--It's supposed to show up here, and I will try to delete the extra entry if it does.)
mug, tea, writer

Fantastic Natural History, Part 2: Botanical Edition!

…”Or there maybe ‘tis cloudless night/and swaying beeches bear/the Elven-stars as jewels bright/amid their branching hair” (Sam’’s song, from The Return of the King, page 194 Hardcover Folio edition)

  • A   What sort of trees are Mallorns?

It was my sister who spotted this, while we were on a hike. We were going through a stand of beech trees, and, in our neck of the woods, anyway, these trees hang onto their leaves throughout the winter, until the new growth comes in the spring. The old leaves are yellow—almost gold—and the bark is smooth and grey—almost silver.


(here's a picture of a beech tree with new leaves that I took on another hike later in the spring. )

Here, Tolkien describes a mallorn tree. It has a grey trunk and yellow leaves. “The branches of the mallorn tree grew nearly straight out from the trunk, and then swept upward;…” (page 389, The Fellowship of the Ring, hardcover Folio edition.) Mallorn trees retain their golden leaves even in the winter—it is late January or early February when the company arrives at Lothlorien. (They leave Rivendell on December 25th.)

Later, we find the fruit of the mallorn is a little silver nut. Beech trees, of course, have nuts, though they aren’t silver.

As Sam’s song proves, Mallorn trees aren’t actually beeches. But it certainly seems that Tolkien, who knew and loved trees, might have been inspired to create the Mallorn by observing beech trees.

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        B. What is Kingsfoil?

About this, I’m sure I’m right! Kingsfoil means, literally, the king’s leaf. It is an aromatic herb with narrow leaves, which grows so readily in certain locations that people think it a weed. It is said to have healing properties, especially in the hands of the king, and it is fragrant, smelling sweet and wholesome when crushed. When I was a little girl, I dreamed of finding kingsfoil growing in the woods. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Well, it’s pretty easy to find, but the woods aren’t a likely location since it needs sun as well as moisture. There is a common herb whose name, translated, means the king’s herb. It’s basil., from the Greek “Basileus”. Tolkien, educated in English schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, would have studied both Greek and Latin. He surely knew that basil was the royal herb.

But we’re not quite there yet. If Kingsfoil is basil, what sort of basil is it, exactly?


Here’s a description from a box of tea:. “..revered as a sacred plant infused with healing powers.” The tea contains Tulsi, or Indian holy basil.

It seems that, in traditional medicine, holy basil is supposed to combat stress and boost the immune system, among other things. As Spock would say, fascinating! What’s more, no one in The Lord of the Rings eats kingsfoil. It’s not used for cooking, but for healing teas, washes, and steam. Similarly, though Tulsi is used as a seasoning just like regular basil, it’s most frequently drunk in teas.

So kingsfoil is basil. No doubt at all. It’s most likely Tulsi, rather than our common basil, but I might be wrong about that. What do you think? Could Tolkien have known about the Indian healing herb?

mug, tea, writer

Fantastic Natural History, part 1

"You are not going back out to discover if Louise, magnificent though she be, likes cocoa. Save your experimental zeal for the morning." (Kate Murry to her young son Charles, quoted from memory.)

So, I've been thinking of some beloved books, and real-world equivalents of their plants and animals. We'll start with Madeleine L'Engle.

What sort of snake is Louise the Larger?

A "black snake" in Connecticut, October 2019
A "black snake" in Connecticut, October 2019

Well, what do we know about Louise?

She lives in a stone wall near an orchard in Northwestern Connecticut. She is fairly tame and friendly toward the young boys who name her. She is big, and black. She's got a pretty strong grip, winding herself round the children's arms and shoulders. Of course, there's a lot more to Louise than that, as fans of A Wind in the Door will know. But those are the basic facts. She's a black snake, and that's what she gets called. As a young teen reading the book for the first time, I was convinced she was a black racer, because that was the only black snake I'd ever heard of.

So, when I spotted this lovely creature on a hiking path last fall, I naturally assumed she was a black racer. When I posted her pic to iNaturalist, that's what I called her. And that's where things got interesting.

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mug, tea, writer

That Monstrous Country

That monstrous country where I lived

when I was a child,

where everybody looked like me;

that monstrous country

where we played cowboys and Indians,

and the Indians were fierce warriors,

and the cowboys rode over the hill

to save us;

that monstrous country

where the good guys always won,

and the bad guys died peacefully,

tumbling down like leaves

and lying still;

no blood, no shattered bones;

that monstrous country

where the good guys always 

looked like us—

that monstrous country 

is still with us.

The wounds are bloody now.

This is a poem I wrote during another dark time, in 2017. God bless the people of Iraq and Iran. And of my country, too. May we all work for peace, and help to bring it. 

Mary Johnson

mug, tea, writer

Sacrifice of Angels (thoughts on DS9's "Past Tense")

I have been rereading Carol Plum Ucci’s excellent teen novel, “What Happened to Lani Garver”, and that caused me to start considering angels, and what they really are.

Epstein's Saint Michael the archangel, Coventry Cathedral
Epstein's Saint Michael the archangel, Coventry Cathedral

It is now October, 2019. In a little less than five years, as all passionate Niners know,  the Bell riots will take place in San Francisco. Government troops will open fire on impoverished, homeless citizens and kill hundreds. 

Showrunner Ira Steven Behr commented that, as they were filming the show, politicians were actually talking about putting homeless people in sanctuary districts—ghettos like those we see in these episodes. He was appalled at how close to real life a science fiction story became.

In Donald Trump’s America, where children are being torn from their parents’ arms and locked in cages, these episodes seem even more relevant than they were thirty years ago. The world of the Bell Riots and the sanctuary districts is a world of extreme capitalism, casual racism, and great wealth juxtaposed with dire poverty. It’s no wonder Past Tense, in spite of some weaknesses, is among the most admired of DS9 episodes.

Plenty of reviewers have discussed Past Tense. They’ve looked at the way the story shows the mentally ill, class divisions, government, and even redemptive violence.  They’ve quibbled about the technobabble and some minor logical glitches in the time travel. All fair enough! But, so far as I know, no one has focused on the story’s spiritual overtones. 

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