The Sunday Magazine: The Unspoken Name by A.K. Larkwood

One of the things I miss that our digital world has obliterated was my weekly visit to the bookstore. For most of my life there was always a part of my week where I spent some time in a bookstore. The people who worked there became familiar with me and I them. Which lead to recommendations of new books I might like. I always felt pretty clued into what was new in those days.

As I was looking at the various Best of 2020 lists for books, I came to realize how out of touch I am now. More than any other thing I enjoy I don’t have much of a clue what’s new. Which means those year-end lists have turned into reading lists. One which sounded interesting to me because it was described as steampunk and fantasy was “The Unspoken Name” by A.K. Larkwood. As I would read it, I came to realize something I had never thought of in epic fantasy.

AK Larkwood

Ms. Larkwood begins her book with a maiden of an orc-like race named Csorwe. She has lived her life to eventually ascend to becoming a sacrifice for her people’s god. On the day she is about to do this a wizard shows up and offers her life in exchange for serving him. She decides to forsake her duty and leaves with him. He trains her to become his assassin. On one of their missions they run into a young magic user Shuthmili. It is at this point the story takes off.

As I was reading, I was expecting the classic trope of wizard and apprentice on a quest. Which is a good trope I have happily read in the past. The reason the story takes off when Shuthmili arrives on the scene is that she and Csorwe begin to fall in love. Which is when everything that lays before them now has emotional stakes. Before this everyone was trying to “save the world” but the characters were just the implements to do that. Once Csorwe and Shuthmili connect it is what gives every subsequent decision something to lose more precious than “the world”. It is also seemingly where Ms. Larkwood is the most comfortable chronicling.

The early parts of the book moves along but it was a bit perfunctory. Introducing the rules of the setting and so on. Once it moves past that it becomes something more engaging. As the plights of one of our heroines deepened, I was flipping pages to make sure they were going to be all right.

Which turned a light bulb on in my head. The best epic fantasy has a love story at its core. There are always two characters who will live for the other. Once this was in place in this book, I was all in on seeing it out. I look forward to where Ms. Larkwood is taking these characters.

Disclosure: this review is based on a copy I borrowed from the library.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Mandalorian Season 2

I’ve often written about how the best results for geek franchises is when you put a true believer in charge. I’ve also mentioned with a bit of a sneer how I am not a supporter of fan service in search of a plot. The entire movie “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is an example of the worst of those impulses. I hadn’t considered what could happen if you allowed true believers the chance to apply their sense of fan service. The Mandalorian Season 2 is what happens.

One bit of warning. I usually stay away from spoilers and major plot twists when I write about these things. This time I will be breaking that rule. Much of what I want to talk about requires me to reveal some of the best parts of the season. After the end of the next paragraph there will be spoilers.

The Mandalorian picks up where we ended the first season. A lone exiled Mandalorian bounty hunter has been tasked with returning a child to its own kind. Because that child looks like Yoda, we as an audience know where this should lead. A lot of the fun of the first season was writers Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni enjoying translating classic movie Western tropes into a Star Wars setting. There was also a kind of lone samurai or ronin feel to the title character as well. As the season begins The Mandalorian is looking for how he can return the child to where he should be. Spoilers From Here, Last Warning.

Jon Favreau (l.) and Dave Filoni

Right from the start we end up on Tatooine meeting a lawman wearing very familiar armor to any Star Wars fan. As this Mandalorian sees it he practices his code of only one of his race can wear it. In a saloon standoff an alternate option is offered. This is what I mean by fan service that assists the story. Only the audience knows the wider history of the armor belonging to Boba Fett. The characters are only interested in it for what it is not who owned it. In lesser hands the actors would have been saying “Boba Fett’s armor” twenty times in five minutes. It isn’t necessary to do that. Favreau and Filoni just let it be armor which one man wants and the other doesn’t want to give up.

This leads into a season of the return of many characters previously seen in the Star Wars saga. Yes, Boba Fett does show up because he wants his armor back. The ex-Jedi Ahsoka Tano is given an entire episode in which The Mandalorian believes she is a person he can leave the child with. By the time we are done Baby Yoda/ The Child has a name, Grogu. The other Mandalorian sect we know from the animated series comes to life as Bo-Katan and our Mandalorian work together. Every bit of this is fan service. Every bit of it works because they are characters given story.

The reason is Favreau and Filoni care about Star Wars. This isn’t corporate storytelling. It is creative people who grew up with this in their DNA. And it shows. They don’t want to see these characters devalued through hackneyed plots designed to get people to point at the screen. They do something much more difficult they get us to point at the screen in joy because these characters are being shown in the most relevant way.

Which leads to the very end of the season and the appearance of Luke Skywalker. Because these guys get it his return is fantastic. It has wonderful echoes to his father as Darth Vader in the way he moves towards rescuing Grogu. But here is where Favreau and Filoni get the gold star. The most iconic Star Wars character shows up and yet the emotional weight of the scene is on The Mandalorian and Grogu. This is the way.

The best part of it all at the end is we now know this is the beginning of wider exploration of this time and place in the Star Wars timeline. Because Masters Favreau and Filoni are here it looks like a new saga has begun.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Jackson Year 4

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It was four years ago on January 2 when we adopted Jackson from a rescue organization. Ever since the first post of the year in this column has been about his last year. I’ve also realized this post is a little bit about my last year, too. Plus Jackson is probably the second most asked about subject in e-mails.

Jackson Pre-Quarantine and Pre-Pooch

At the beginning of the year Jackson was an only poodle. Henry passed away the previous November. Mrs. C is the word on if or when we adopt another dog. I knew Jackson was going to have company when she started looking online to see what was available. By the end of February she had found a seven-year-old black poodle, Pooch, who’s owner was unable to take care of him anymore. We went and got him the first week of March just before everything shut down, including Poodlesville.

Just like most everyone else Jackson has spent the year in quarantine with us. Mrs. C and I made the decision early on to minimize contact with the outside world. Which meant that my two-year long process of acclimating him to the world outside the yard was also paused. Jackson was left entirely alone in the year before we got him. Which means he is very cautious at any new experience. Except other dogs.

Jackson (r.) providing Pooch with a resting place

When we brought Pooch home the two of them spent an hour in the back yard. I held an imaginary conversation in my head as Jackson gave him all the 411 on Poodlesville. One funny thing that happened is in our big back yard we have a stand of trees and shrubs we call “the island”. Every dog we have had has run around it without going into it. Pooch dove right in that first hour, bursting out the other side. Jackson stood there as if he had discovered a new thing. Which of course he had. When I look out in the backyard these days and can’t see them. I am likely to see two black dogs leap out of the island in a breakneck run to the porch.

Both dogs but especially Jackson have become my surrogate for human contact. I am pretty sure I have hugged him more this year than the previous three combined. He also has an ability to make us laugh which has been invaluable.

It looks like it will be a few months before Jackson and I can get back out beyond the confines of our yard. For now we walk the perimeter every day. Pooch has also taught Jackson to nip at the back of my heel to encourage me to play. This is the first set of poodles that have coordinated their play. I am often throwing a toy while the other one is bringing back “his” toy that I threw before. It has been funny to see both dogs choose to collaborate like this. My throwing shoulder is getting stronger as a result.

Like I said this is about Jackson but it is also a little about everyone else in Poodlesville. We are all looking forward to the day, soon, when we can be back out in the world.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: My Favorite Non-Perfume Things of 2020

I’ll be spending the next week going into all the good smelling reasons 2020 didn’t entirely stink. But for the readers of this column I also like doing a list of my favorite non-perfume things of the year. This year the list is heavy on that which helped me deal with my quarantine more enjoyably.

Favorite Book: Long Bright River by Liz Moore– I read a lot this year but this was the first new book I finished in 2020. It still resonates with me emotionally. The story of two sisters whose paths have diverged and the Philadelphia neighborhood they grew up in is amazing. It isn’t an easy read, but it is an honest one with a mystery which drives the narrative.

Favorite Comic Book: Swords of X– I used to spend too many summers tied up in a months-long story across all the X-Men titles thirty years ago. I didn’t realize how much I missed that until Jonathan Hickman followed up his reboot of the franchise last year with Swords of X. An old-fashioned throw down as the mutants must battle for the fate of the earth with their own special swords. Great escapist fun.

Favorite Album: Women in Music Part III by Haim– The sisters gave me an album I’ve listened to a lot. They are continually evolving their sound and subject. This album seemed more personal than the previous ones. That’s from a band that didn’t shy away from that in the past. Here it felt like we reached the soul of the matter.

Favorite Single: Rain on Me by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande– When I needed to dance it out this year it was this track I queued up. When pop divas are confident enough to give each other the room to do what they do best you get a single like this.

Co-Favorite TV Show of the Year: The Queen’s Gambit– I didn’t sit in a movie theatre this entire year. What it meant was the streaming networks gave me the main source of my visual entertainment. The Queen’s Gambit followed the trend of unlikeable protagonists who seek redemption. Actor Anya Taylor-Joy sells the story of a chess prodigy’s climb up the ladder in the 1960’s. This has incredible acting, authentic chess, and the best fashion of any show on television.

Co-Favorite TV Show of the Year: The Mandalorian– I already wrote about what a perfect piece of Star Wars the first season was. Inexplicably Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni oversaw an even more meaningful and better second season. Each episode fed into the next one with no slow teases or slow fuses to what we knew had to happen. They knew a better story was to be had when you just go to the punchlines quickly. This series is becoming the hub which unites every Star Wars fan across generations. I can’t overstate what a gift that is.

I’m going to touch on this when I get down to the perfume things of 2020. This blog and the readers of it also kept me going this year. Especially the small group of readers I think only visit to read this specific column. I just like to write about the things I enjoy. That there is an audience who also enjoys it makes it satisfying. Thank you for reading.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Christmas Crack

As we wind down these final days before Christmas 2020, I want life to be easy. But I also want it to be full of Holiday goodies to eat. The easiest treat I know how to make has been called Christmas Crack.

The beauty of this is if you are any kind of a baker you most likely have all the ingredients you need to make it. Just four: butter, brown sugar, chocolate chips, and saltines. It takes about thirty minutes to make and a couple hours in the fridge. You then have a perfect treat to watch your favorite Holiday movie with.

The recipe couldn’t be easier. Take a baking sheet and line it with foil or parchment paper. If using foil some non-stick spray is useful but not critical. Layer as many salted saltine crackers as you can on the pan. We can usually get a whole sleeve in the pan. Then fold up the edges to make a rim.

Preheat the oven to 350. While waiting take a cup of salted butter and a cup of dark brown sugar and melt them over high heat in a saucepan. Once they are boiling reduce the heat to medium and hold there for 5 minutes. Once the timer goes off pour it over the saltines. Use a knife to spread it evenly. Then stick it in the oven for 5 minutes. Pull it from the oven and sprinkle a full package of semi-sweet chocolate chips on top.

This should soften the chocolate so that you can spread it evenly as the heat softens them. If you need more heat pop it back in the oven for 30-45 seconds. Keep the time as short as necessary to make the chocolate spreadable.

Now is the fun part you can choose to add toppings. We’ve added M&M’s, all kinds of nuts but pecans are our favorites. We’ve added crushed peppermint candy and red and green Holiday sprinkles. Once you’ve done that pop the whole tray into the fridge for about 2 hours.

After that peel away the foil or parchment paper and break up along the lines of the saltines. This has been a staple when we want something fast and festive. Or in the past when we have needed something to bring to a party which is quick and easy.

It is the perfect blend of salt and sweet which most of us crave. If you leave some for Santa, I suspect it will put you at the top of the “Nice” list.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Happiest Season

As I’ve written about in this column in our house, we watch a lot of Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. They are as much a part of our Season as anything else. Part of it there is a reliable formula. There is a protagonist who isn’t that much into Christmas. They end up in a new situation where they are surrounded by others who love the Holidays. Not so much a fish out of water plotline as a genial bah humbug plotline with less mean intent. Over the course of two hours our modern humbugger will find romance and the spirit of Christmas.

For many years, these movies lacked diversity they were entirely filled with white actors in the lead roles. There was a gradual awakening to that and over the last three or four years there have been other ethnicities represented. Who also have the identical issues that their predecessors had. It’s a formula because it works. Just plug in two star-crossed lovers one who doesn’t like Christmas and fill in the blanks.

In the spirit of that diversity the streaming channel Hulu takes a shot at their own Hallmark-style Christmas movie featuring lesbian heroines. Called “Happiest Season” it is written by Clea DuVall and Mary Holland with Ms. DuVall directing. The basic setup of the story follows the formula. Abby played by Kristen Stewart is in love with Harper played by Mackenzie Davis. After a romantic pre-Christmas night in their Pittsburgh hometown Harper cajoles Abby into coming home with her. Abby lost her parents on Christmas and that is the association for which she chooses not to celebrate. When Harper convinces her to come with her Abby thinks it is also the time to propose to her. At this point this is the kind of Holiday formula I enjoy.  I expected a comedy of errors in getting the ring on Harper’s hand while Abby discovers Christmas through the effort. That is not what Ms. DuVall and Holland have in mind. The roadblock to happiness is more serious and real this time.

On the car ride home Harper tells Abby she is still closeted to her family. The reason she gives is her father is a local politician and it would cause a problem. She asks Abby to introduce herself as her orphaned roommate when they arrive. The movie then unravels this plot with much more seriousness than the typical Christmas movie.

There are times when Harper’s desire to remain closeted verges on being too mean to Abby. I grimaced a bit at a couple of the scenes. The wonderful Dan Levy as Abby and Harper’s friend John arrives just in time to take some of the sting out of those actions. The other character Riley, as portrayed by Aubrey Plaza also helps find the right tone to help Abby understand what Harper is going through. There was a part of me that wanted a movie where Riley and Abby ended up together. This is a Hallmark-style movie and after a disastrous Christmas Eve of revelations they all manage to find the requisite happy ending.

Happiest Season is a bit too serious to fit easily into the Hallmark-style Christmas movie genre. Which is okay because it never hurts to add a little bite to the egg nog.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Skipping Christmas by John Grisham

In doing seven years of these Christmas inspired columns during December I’ve left out one form of Holiday cheer. The fictional story set during the Season. It was one of the readers of this column who pointed it out to me last year. She asked me, “Don’t you have any favorite Christmas stories?”. I am a fan of many of the classics and I will read “The Tailor of Gloucester” by Beatrix Potter, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and Chris Van Allsburgh’s “The Polar Express”. Those are well-known Holiday stories. There is one I also read most every year which might not be as storied, “Skipping Christmas” by John Grisham.

The reason I have a copy at all is its own Christmas story. My nephew is a pilot and back in 2001 when this came out, he was flying for a private jet company. His client at the end of the year was author John Grisham who was out promoting “Skipping Christmas”. My nephew got him to autograph some copies and handed them out on Christmas morning.

Mr. Grisham is not one of my favorite authors, so I wasn’t in a hurry to read it. In fact it wasn’t until a year later when I noticed it on the shelf with all the Christmas books that I even thought of it again. It was short enough that it felt like an evening’s reading time would see me through. By the time I closed the book I realized it was going to be on my perennial Holiday reading list.

It tells the story of the first empty nest Christmas for Luther and Nora Krank. They are finding it hard to drum up the spirit with their daughter gone. When Luther calculates how much they spend on their Holiday stuff he believes there is little to show for the money spent. After Nora insists, they still make the same charitable donations they always have she agrees to skip Christmas. They decide to put the money into a trip that leaves on the day after.

For the rest of the book it is a riff on the “It’s A Wonderful Life” what would things be like if I weren’t here. Except in this case the people who the Kranks have affected over the years let them know they don’t like their idea of skipping Christmas, not one little bit. It is all played for broadly comic effect. Until events cause the Kranks to reconsider what Christmas means.

While I may not enjoy his typical legal thrillers Mr. Grisham is an excellent writer. He shows a deft comic touch throughout the book. I may not spend time in the courtroom with him, but we spend a little time every Christmas together.

Disclosure: This book was received as a family gift.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: A Very Special Christmas

In 1987 an album of Christmas music was released called “A Very Special Christmas”. Produced by Jimmy Iovine he gathered some of the biggest music stars of the day for a project to benefit Special Olympics. I generally enjoy my pop star Holiday tunes to be original but all of the tracks on this are on my Xmas playlist.

The reason is Mr. Iovine got some of the most distinctive voices to provide their own spin on classic songs. Madonna’s “Santa Baby” is just what you’d expect as she slinks through it all. Bono does his part on the U2 version of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. Chrissie Hynde leads The Pretenders through “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Alison Moyet does “The Coventry Carol”.

My two favorite versions of classics done by divas are Eurythmics’ “Winter Wonderland” and Stevie Nicks doing “Silent Night”. On an album which includes Whitney Houston doing “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Annie Lennox and Ms. Nicks slay their songs. If you need some confirmation of the latter’s talent after discovering her on TikTok recently this “Silent Night” will give it to you.

The song the album is most known for is the only original on it. Run-DMC were at the height of their fame as one of the first black music stars to break through on MTV back then. They wanted to create the first rap Christmas song. “Christmas in Hollis” is what they came up with. It was built on the classic rap rhythms about spending the Holidays in Hollis, Queens. Each verse is its own story of Christmas cheer. It ends with them getting a new turntable and microphones from Santa to wish us Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

This remains one of the most popular Holiday albums of all-time as each year it makes it back on to the charts as new fans learn of it. It has earned its longevity.

Disclosure: this is based on a copy I purchased.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Trial of the Chicago 7

One of the best things about the number of streaming services is movies I think would have had little chance to get made are finding an audience. If a writer or director has a passion piece within them there is now a place for them to have it seen. The other great part is these are movies that only would have played art house cinemas in larger cities. Now it is available to anyone with a subscription. Netflix has been the most aggressive about giving the go ahead to these kinds of projects. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is one of them.

I would have watched this for one reason, Aaron Sorkin. He has one of my favorite voices in movies and tv. I find the rhythm of his dialogue effortlessly captures me more than any special effect. Not only does Mr. Sorkin write it he also directs it. He then gathered a top-notch cast of actors to play it out.

The story is based on the real-life Chicago 7. They were a group of anti-Vietnam protesters who were at the Democratic National Convention in August 1968. They were arrested for rioting during their protests. Nothing happened until after Richard Nixon was sworn in after the election that year. His Attorney General John Mitchell indicted eight of the protesters with federal crimes. The movie is about that trial.

Mr. Sorkin uses this material to comment on the importance of protest at any time. As the movie plays out the forces who are against the change being pushed by the defendants do what they must to “save” the country. That’s what they think. The Chicago 7 themselves make the equally compelling case that the very act of protest is what will “save” the country. The movie lets that struggle come to a climax as the trial proceeds.

The cast is full of great performances but there are two which are the heart of the movie. Eddie Redmayne who plays Tom Hayden and Sacha Baron Cohen who is Abbie Hoffman. The latter is brilliant as the instigator who wants to make it clear who and what he is protesting. Mr. Redmayne is the intellectual face of the same argument. Mr. Sorkin gives them the words to make it clear.

I believe this movie is going to be competing for many of the year-end movie awards and I’m glad I was able to watch it from my sofa.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Set My Heart on Fire Immediately by Perfume Genius

After nearly seven years of having this blog the small community of The Sunday Magazine readers have been one of the surprises. From that group there has been a constant question, “Have you heard of Perfume Genius?”

Perfume Genius aka Michael Hadreas

It is a natural thing to ask because the writer of a perfume blog should dig a guy called Perfume Genius. Michael Hadreas is the singer songwriter behind the moniker. I hadn’t become aware of him until his second album was released in 2012 called “Put Your Back N2It”. He should have been exactly what I like. My readers weren’t wrong. Except the music didn’t connect. It was like a well-made quirky perfume that just didn’t make me want to wear it.

For the past six-plus years my answer to the readers who ask me about Perfume Genius is I like him, but he isn’t one of my faves. One of the things about Perfume Genius is the sound changes from album to album. I always had in the back of my head that he would find a sound which would connect. His latest “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” is it.

I have always admired his vocal range. He can hit the high notes, but it was always in the moments when he found his lowest octave voice that seemed most intimate. A masculine version of vocal fry imparting genuine feelings. On the new album there are more instances of that.

While he can add that emotion through the timbre of his voice, he is a songwriter. His lyrics have never been more affecting. “Your Body Changes Everything” tells the story of two lovers who are in different places. One needs to rely on the other to hold them up. It is the poignancy of asking for help and receiving it. It has become one of my favorite songs this year.

To my dear readers who show up every Sunday I have finally found Perfume Genius to be just what I needed him to be.

Disclosure: This review is based on music I purchased.

Mark Behnke