Wednesday, January 16, 2019

January's Book: Notes from a Big Country

Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson
Journalism (1998 - 363 pp.)

Bill Bryson was born in Iowa in 1951. In the '70s, he moved to the UK, where he would spend his next two decades. Over the course of his career, he became an established travel writer and, later on, science journalist. During the mid-'90s, he, his wife and children moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, home of Dartmouth University. Bryson's impressions of returning to the USA after such a long absence are this book, one weekly column at a time for eighteen months from 1996-1998.

I can identify with Bryson in moving back to a home. I grew up in Toronto, lived in Ithaca, New York (another Ivy League home city), then lived in Edmonton, Alberta with a pit stop in Houston, Texas... all to move back to Toronto, where I am now. Coming back, it's all so different...

Bryson's most prevalent and hilarious theme is his return to American consumer culture. Advertisements featured in Notes from a Big Country include a character conveniently carrying hemmorhoid cream in his pocket while at a bowling alley, (37) a $39.95 (in 1997 dollars!) revolving tie rack (234), and an artery-clogging "chili cheese tater skillet" that is exactly what it sounds like. (297) How to acquire all these fantastic items has changed only slightly since the book's 1998 publication date. Bryson notes telemarketing, outlet malls and more detailed catalogues as three signs of increasing commercialization; (81) of the three, only outlet malls are relevant today despite their brick-and-mortar nature. As a child of the '90s, I remember telemarketing and catalogues well, but I went to an outlet mall last month. On a more heartwarming note, a now-defunct highway attraction called Roadside America consists of a scale model of a train set with surrounding people, animals and stores; it was a highlight to Bryson. (217) Notes from a Big Country would be nothing without great one-liners, though, and Bryson offers one of his best on commercialization: "CNN, as far as I can tell, has nothing but commercial breaks." (114)

Many of the issues Bryson confronts remain relevant in 2019. His commentary on rising American tuition costs for his newly matriculated son (212) ring truer with each passing year. (CNBC) (US News) (NCES) Airport security is comprehensive in a way someone in 1998 couldn't have envisioned. Observational humour with a slightly political bent has become so popular we're all saturated with it.

Bryson has written extensively on travel, so it is no surprise he has plenty to say about Americans' travel habits. I sympathize with his frustration at having no way to walk across the street from a mall to a bookstore, being forced to drive by virtue of the roads connecting the buildings. (157) His fury at incorrect travel guides on the UK had me in stitches; (190) I can only imagine what guides about Canada say. Fun fact: in Bryson's article on motels, he reveals that one of the original terms discussed for a motel was a "tourist court". (70) Amazing how things change. Although the popularity of motels has waned since the '90s, I stayed in a motel on Route 66 in Pasadena back in 2017.

One of Bryson's final statements is this quip: "Of all the things I am not very good at, living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding." (356) A few lonely times in Notes from a Big Country, I side with Bryson's irritating opponents. When Bryson is angry in an airport for being asked to show picture ID, I wonder why he doesn't carry picture ID anyway. He seems to have a driver's license, for example. (58) When he phones the Social Security Office to ask for his wife's SSN, and the person on the other end only agrees to divulge that information to Bryson's wife, (185) of course. I would never expect to be able to find out someone else's SSN. Likewise, when Bryson is exasperated at all the options '90s coffee shops have,* he could simply ask for a "drip coffee" or, worst case, an Americano, and receive a cup of coffee. (330)

Younger readers may miss a few of the experiences I share with Bryson. Bryson's frustration with a payphone, for example, (167) is something I've barely felt since 1998. Bryson's love of the since-demolished Des Moines theatre, (173) with its single screen and old-fashioned charm, reminds me of the also since-demolished Westwood Theatre in the west end of Toronto. I saw Titanic there for $2, funnily enough, during the time when Bryson was writing these columns. Y2K was everywhere in the late '90s, which inspires a short rant from Bryson, (231) but now there are registered voters who were born after Y2K's interest expired. The one reference that was too old for me was his detailed description of interwar-era diners, which, according to Bryson, were pre-manufactured in set designs and then shipped to site. (288) I've never eaten in a diner quite so formulaic before, but then, there's a lot of America I still haven't seen.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 2

NOTE: Although this is my first Bill Bryson entry on this blog, I've read A Short History of Nearly Everything. I mention it as the end of this 2015 entry on 51 Eridani b, and I also mention it recently on Quora. As Notes from a Big Country predates A Short History of Nearly Everything by seven years, Bryson's other listed works didn't include anything I'd read.

ANOTHER NOTE: My dad loaned me this book. He also loaned me Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz, which I discussed three years ago this month. Apparently, January is the month to read my dad's books. Happy New Year indeed!

*The number of coffee shop options has snowballed since then.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The 2018 NFL Season: A Refusal to Be Average

In the 2018 NFL regular season, teams occupied each record from 13-3 down to 3-13, except one. The four teams that played to a tie finished 9-6-1, 8-7-1, 7-8-1 and 6-9-1, clustering around .500 ball.

No team actually finished 8-8, despite it being, by definition, the league's average record. Every team had either a winning season or a losing season.

Past seasons' standings have seen notably absent records, like the curious lack of 12-4 teams last season despite three teams being 12-3 (Patriots, Steelers, Vikings) and another three teams being 11-4 (Panthers, Saints, Rams). This season, the only 8-8-eligible teams heading into Week 17 were the Eagles, who won in emphatic defensive fashion to win 9-7, Washington, who took a 7-8 record into that same game, and the 7-8 Miami Dolphins. The Arizona Cardinals were the only NFL team to finish 8-8 last season. With only one 8-8 team in the past two seasons, this is either a trend toward more complete rebuilds (as there's no reward for barely missing the playoffs), or it could just be random noise.

This is the first time no team has finished 8-8 in the history of the 16-game season. No team finished with a .500 record in the shortened seasons of 15 games (1987) or nine games (1982), but that is easily explained by both seasons having an odd number of games, meaning a tie would be required to play .500 ball. Even then, in each of those seasons, there were nine teams within one game of a .500 record. The previous high is nine 8-8 teams in 1999.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Speaking of Resolutions...

I've blogged about New Year's Resolutions before, jokingly. In 2015, I resolved to buy at least six pairs of socks because I was out of socks back then. I accomplished that feat.

In 2018, I resolved to make my homemade hot sauce again. I did that emphatically, in June and then in December. Here are some pictures of December's batch:

For 2019, I'm resolving to make homemade peanut sauce in the same kitchen. Here's to a great new year!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

December's Book: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Magic Realism* (1843 - 93 pp.)

A Christmas Carol is my first Dickens book reviewed on this blog, and my first in general since January 2012's Bleak House review. Dickens's authorship is one of two things those two books have in common. The other is the division of an estate; in A Christmas Carol, it is the pillaging of protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge's estate, whereas in Bleak House it is the estate dispute of Jarndyce v Jarndyce that trudges through the Court of Chancery. A notable difference between the books is their sheer length. Bleak House has, depending who you ask, between 355,936 and 377,076 words. A Christmas Carol only has approximately 30,000 words.

A Christmas Carol, like all of Dickens's works, is now in the public domain. The copy I read is from Elegant Ebooks, and includes all the original John Leech illustrations.

The protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley. Marley's ghost is haunted by chains and moneyboxes due to Marley's intense greed in life, a trait also seen in Scrooge. Examples of Scrooge's greed include the pittance he pays his clerk, Bob Cratchit, and his stern refusal to spend Christmas with his nephew Fred. Marley warns Scrooge that Scrooge will be visited by three ghosts; if Scrooge does not heed their words, Scrooge's ghost's fetters will someday be even heavier than Marley's. (24) The Ghost of Christmas Past is an eerily childlike figure who guides Scrooge through his childhood and early career. The Ghost of Christmas Present starts as a man en-robed in green, who demonstrates to Scrooge the poverty of London and how its citizens cure Scrooge for refusing to help them, before wilting toward frailty. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a foreboding, Deathlike creature (sans sickle) who remains silent while Scrooge is doomed to see his future if he does not change. Given my long-standing tradition of refusing to spoil books unless it is absolutely necessary, I will let you read the above-linked copy of A Christmas Carol to see whether Scrooge succeeds.

The bleak conditions of early Victorian London come through, which makes Scrooge and Marley's avarice all the more offensive. When confronting the wretched children Ignorance and Want, the Ghost of Christmas Present claims they are fit for prisons or "workhouses". (67) Child labour diminished and then disappeared in London after then, but the ghost's casual reminder of 1843 conditions is jarring to the 2018 reader. The Cratchits' poverty is virtually expected by comparison, despite the tragic starvation of Tiny Tim according to the ghost: "What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."** (56)

Although a Scrooge is the popular culture term for a miser, reflected in media from DuckTales to Scrooged, Scrooge is a sympathetic character through the last two-thirds of the book. Although the reader never sees the modified future, it is assumed the future has improved for Scrooge, and Scrooge never successfully says the word "humbug" after page 21. For Marley, whose ghost is weighed down by chains and moneyboxes, the future is not so bright. Perhaps a miser should be called a Marley.^ As A Christmas Carol opens: "MARLEY was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that." (7) One of A Christmas Carol's enduring messages is that nearly anyone's fortunes can improve with time.^^ Marley ran out of time but Scrooge did not.

Popular media and grief counsellors typically warn against living in the past. After learning from the three ghosts, Scrooge proudly exclaims, "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!" (84) The great memories of Scrooge's business and relationship successes early in life propel him forward to a greater appreciation of his present, which, in turn, may grant him a better future. Perhaps for Scrooge, living in the past works?

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 3

*I do not usually append a footnote to a book's genre, but then, this is the first time I have seen A Christmas Carol associated with magic realism. According to Wikipedia's entry on magic realism, though:
Magical realismmagic realism, or marvelous realism is a style of fiction that paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements. It is sometimes called fabulism, in reference to the conventions of fablesmyths, and allegory. "Magical realism", perhaps the most common term, often refers to fiction and literature in particular,[1]:1–5 with magic or the supernatural presented in an otherwise real-world or mundane setting.
A Christmas Carol's contemporary London setting and procession of ghosts cross the everyday with the supernatural. Dickens's naming of the children Ignorance and Want mirrors Edmund Spenser's naming of various characters in The Faerie Queene, for example, as morality plays entered into incarnate characters.

**The Victorian literary device of conserving resources through children's deaths, morbid as it is, is not limited to A Christmas Carol. Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895) presents an even darker version.

^Implications of a miser being called a Marley for the movie Marley and Me are likely to be unfortunate at best.

^^See also Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene III, when Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius because Claudius has just prayed. According to the logic of the play, killing Claudius before he prayed could damn him, whereas killing him after he prayed gave him a better chance to be saved. Claudius's reprieve is only temporary, of course.

Back to A Christmas Carol: Bob Cratchit's fortunes literally improve due to the raise Scrooge gives him.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Expand and Contract

I've spoken out in favour of some writing rules and against others. Here's one of my own I don't usually see discussed but that makes good writing come alive. Just like the mortar between bricks, good writing should...

Expand and Contract

The longer the sentences and paragraphs, the slower the action is happening. (Expand) This is perfect for context scenes, such as setting description or background. It also works when a character has to wait or is held up for some reason. When you’re in expansion mode, paragraphs can top 150 words.

The shorter the sentences and paragraphs, the faster the action is happening. (Contract) This is perfect for action scenes, such as fight scenes or romance scenes, and also for when a character is in a rush. When you’re in contraction mode, two-word sentences and one-sentence paragraphs are more common.

When you know how to expand and contract, your writing springs to life. The presentation of the words dictates the action to the point that adjectives and adverbs become annoying at best. You’ll never say my least favourite word, “suddenly”, again. The words themselves will be so sudden that word is eliminated.

This post also appears on Quora.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Storm's Passed

I apparently love devastating storms during the Christmas season. Five years ago, I was in Toronto for the ice storm. This year, I managed to be on Vancouver Island during the windstorm that did everything from take down power lines to compromise water supplies.

Pictures of fallen and uprooted trees:

A huge thanks to the Ravensong Aquatic Centre and the Qualicum Beach Civic Centre for the coffee, cookies and sanity during this bizarre time. I am also now far more used to cold showers.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

November's Book: The Winter Family

The Winter Family by Clifford Jackman
Western (2015 - 332 pp.)

Here it is: the first Western in the history* of this blog!

The Winter Family tracks a group of outlaws through their career as a gang in the Wild West. The book is divided into six parts, listed below. The outlaws centre on Quentin Ross, a lieutenant in the Union army in the Civil War who quickly turns out to be a psychopathic killer and pathological liar; Augustus Winter, the golden-eyed killer; and other characters including the Empire brothers, (part of) the Shakespeare brothers, German immigrant Jan Mueller, and Quentin's brother Noah Ross. Clifford Jackman is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School (2008) who, according to the dust jacket, now lives in Guelph, Ontario. Those are all close things to my heart.
  1. Prologue: Oklahoma 1889
  2. Georgia 1864
  3. Chicago 1872
  4. Phoenix 1881
  5. Oklahoma 1891
  6. Epilogue: California 1900
The eponymous "Winter family" isn't a literal family, nor is any other character but Augustus named Winter. Quentin Ross's posse originates during Sherman's march to the sea in 1864. Winter is a young recruit but he elevates himself from the start, becoming equal to (or possibly greater than) Ross as the novel wears on. Winter and Ross enter into a quasi-rivalry, with Winter being the nominal leader while Ross leads any preemptive strikes. Winter was recruited into Ross's platoon almost at random (21) but then Winter becomes an informed hero later in the book (265). The best comparison is Marlfox, with Winter being Mokkan and Ross being Gelltor.

Jackman makes a few extremely accurate historical points. Winter is waterboarded during his Civil War campaign (57), which surprised me because I hadn't thought of waterboarding as being common until the 2000s, but there's a historical precedent for it from the Civil War era. As early as 1852, the New York Times reported on "hydrological" torture, and, yes, it was controversial even back then. Equally realistically, Noah Ross is the leading figure behind Winter, Ross and the rest supporting the Republicans during the violence-fraught Chicago municipal election of 1872. Noah made enough money to bankroll multiple properties by shorting insurance companies right before the Great Chicago Fire. (182-183)

The Winter Family's aesthetic is dark, foreboding and limiting. The Winter family consists of outlaws who don't fit properly into an organized state. Ironically, that helps them serve in the Union army and then help fix a Chicago election, but they quickly run out of territory. They have Arizona and then only Oklahoma, which was commonly called "Indian Territory" in the late 1800s, where they can operate. Eventually, they have no territory, which leads to their last stand in "Oklahoma 1891".

For all that goes into the Winter family interfering in the 1872 Chicago election - it's the only part that's over 100 pages - he never tells the reader how the election ends. That wondering about the result of the fictional election ate me as I read the rest of the book. It's also questionable just how quickly Jan enters Mickey Burns's Democrat-backing hustle crew during that election campaign, as Jan appears to be a close confidant of a major player within mere days. (134) There is the oft-seen "hanged/hung" error (230); remember the old rule, "people and hanged, pictures are hung". Finally, although I love that "Oklahoma 1891" starts with Ross in federal prison, and it's certainly understandable how all his larcenies** and murders would have landed him there, I would have loved to have known why. A shootout between Ross and U.S. Marshals in circa 1885 would have made for a fascinating scene, even one only as long as the 8-page epilogue.

The Winter Family is a historically accurate Western that makes the reader turn its pages just as fast as an airport thriller.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 1

*I launched the blog on March 24, 2012, so it's been a long time without a Western.

**This is the only time I've ever pluralized this word.