Thursday, November 30, 2017

November's Book: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
Science Fantasy (2000 - 623 pp.)

Perdido Street Station is a massive, twisting, fun ride through China Mieville's literary inventions. The darkened city of New Crobuzon hosts terrifying creatures, horrifying lines of work, and even the namesake subway station. The protagonist, the scientist Isaac dan der Grimnebulin, promises to build new wings for a bird-like creature (garuda) named Yagharek who has lost his wings as a criminal sentence. Isaac's girlfriend Lin, who is partially bug thanks to a parasite on her head, uses her artistic talents in the service of Remade mob boss Mr. Motley. Mr. Motley commands a team of other Remade, who have animal parts grafted onto them for various reasons, although there are many more Remade in New Crobuzon. During Isaac's research, he accidentally discovers a slake-moth, which feeds by consuming hallucinogens and then sucking out peoples' consciousnesses. Mr. Motley uses the slake-moths to produce more hallucinogens. Yes, that's the simplest I could explain this plot.

Perdido Street Station's strongest points are the rich, imaginative ways China Mieville draws us into his world, while never sacrificing his characters or plot. The italicized portions, narrated by Yagharek, are disjointed rambles that led credence to the notion that a creature like a garuda would think so much differently from a human, and also show how bizarre New Crobuzon is. Yagharek meant to arrive there from his homeland, but it still feels like he should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque. As a wingless outsider, Yagharek doesn't have anywhere else to go.

Who lives in such a place? Our protagonist, of course.

The only greater-than-minuscule problem I have with Perdido Street Station is its length. I'm not against long fantasy books in general - I loved Wizard's First Rule, and still love the A Song of Ice and Fire books that have actually been released - but Perdido Street Station at times feels like a first draft. There are mountains of adverbs and entire paragraphs of 6-plus-letter words. A shorter passage describes a group of quasi-robots who come to the good guys' aid: "In extreme contrast to the anarchic viral flurry that had spawned it, the Construct Council thought with chill exactitude." (552) Much of the writing is extremely flowery. The book is 220,100 words, and it gets exhausting. I could probably edit it down to below 200,000 easily. The length combined with the era and the bleakness make Perdido Street Station into fantasy fiction's Antichrist Superstar: "There's so much life in this dungeon, you'll never want to leave." The upshot of the book's length is the sheer number of fight scenes, against a surprisingly high number of characters. Perdido Street Station feels endless at times, but the plot is never boring.

If there's any part of Perdido Street Station that's realistic, it's this charming line: "Isaac found that trying to explain his work to Yagharek helped him. Not the big theoretical stuff, of course, but the applied science with furthered the half-hidden theory." (191) Even in fantasy worlds, people learn by teaching. China Mieville was a PhD candidate in political science when Perdido Street Station was released, and Mieville has gone to write extensively since then in both fiction and non-fiction. The PhD lends credence to Mieville's fictitious city the same way critics love to cite that Robert Heinlein was an engineer. Perdido Street Station is a dystopia where characters have to apply their learning, whether they are scientists, artists, or Mafiosi. The reader learns with them.

One final question I had while reading Perdido Street Station is whether it would make for a good movie. My first thought was that it would because of the action, the diversity of characters, and the way the book's length could be mitigated by, to use a stock movie phrase, making a picture be worth a thousand words. My next thought was that mob boss Mr. Motley, who is so Remade he is unrecognizable as human, is personified nausea fuel, as are many of the other Remade. It would take CGI far greater than what was available in the Avatar era to make a realistic portrayal of the Remade without grossing out the audience. The story would translate to the big screen great, though.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 3

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Some Pictures from the Guns N' Roses Concert at the Air Canada Centre (October 29, 2017)

I had no idea what to expect, considering Guns N' Roses had their prime 25-30 years ago, they'd broken up and reunited since then, and I am now thinner than Axl Rose. It was incredible, though. I went with a good friend who'd managed to get comped tickets. We were in the lower bowl with a great view. The animations were of a quality I don't think was fathomable in the '80s. (Especially for "Coma" - picture below.)

Axl was on point. Slash had tons of solos. Duff frequently came over to my side of the stage for photo ops, and sang "Attitude" great. Live addition Melissa Reese was sensational. The band played almost all the songs I hoped they would, which I suppose happens when you have relatively few albums that made it big. "It's So Easy" was a surprising opener, but got the crowd's energy up early. "I Used to Love Her" was a nice break from the intensity that peaked with "Rocket Queen", "Coma" and the closer "Paradise City".

For three hours, I stood, jumped around, and took pictures. In true counterculture fashion, I wore my bright blue Carolina Panthers hoodie, which would have looked more fitting at a Rage Against the Machine concert but also made me stand out among all the black shirts. One inebriated patron even gave me a foam middle finger, free of charge.

The opening animation before the show.

Pictorial proof that I was there. Not my finest picture - I blame the lighting.

Slash at my side of the stage. Still just as plaid as in the Use Your Illusion era.

Axl was singing to me here. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Axl and Slash onstage together had been a long time coming.

The light show demanded the use of such a great venue. I... think this one was "Rocket Queen"? One of these pictures was.

Duff took the top of the stage during "Coma", one of the band's most challenging songs, and also an opportunity for a great heart monitor animation.
I've had their set list stuck in my head ever since.

Fun fact: This was not my first time seeing Slash. I went to the Air Canada Centre to see AC/DC with my dad and uncle back in 2000, and the opener was Slash's Snakepit. Weird fact: I am now closer in age to Slash at that 2000 show than Slash when Appetite for Destruction came out. I don't know whether that makes me feel old or not.

Promoting the Toronto Writers' Co-Operative

I've discussed the Toronto Writers' Co-Operative on here before, whether it's because one of our authors is releasing a book, or whether it's because I'm releasing a story.

Well, now we're listed on the Toronto Public Library website. (Featured in picture, from left: me, group founder John Miller, crime novelist Laura Kuhlmann)

In a typical session, two writers from any combination of genres and forms have their writing critiqued by the group. Sometimes, we have guest authors who discuss their work.

Upcoming dates are on the site linked above.

We're also apparently "in partnership with" ourselves. That's when you know your membership numbers are good.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

October's Book: The Handmaid's Tale

Caught up! It feels good. I credit finally reading a short book one of these months.

And now we're back to the 20th century... or are we?

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Speculative Fiction (1985 - 358 pp.)

The Handmaid's Tale is the story of Gilead, a revolutionary post-United States taken over by a cult called the Sons of Jacob that divides everyone into classes. The men are Commanders, Eyes, Angels and Guardians, mostly; the women are Wives, Handmaids, Marthas and Econowives, mostly. Each commander's household has a wife (self-explanatory), a handmaid (for bearing children) and 1-2 Marthas (for housework). Everyone's role is circumscribed, with surveillance and secret police to catch and get rid of dissenters. Any further plot synopsis is located in the thousands of reviews already out there. Any typical review of The Handmaid's Tale can be found in the equally numerous sources confirming that yes, Gilead is a horrible place to live. Offred, our narrator, is a handmaid. She wears red but is a potential dissenter (Off Red), and is in the household of a commander named Fred (Of Fred).

The most striking parts of Atwood's dystopia are the overarching cultural norms that could happen anywhere. At Atwood has said, everything in The Handmaid's Tale is something that has already happened."* The execution of doctors and scientists is eerily reminiscent of WWII-era military occupations. (37) All the surveillance, suffering, and surveillance-induced suffering Offred experiences are directly caused by her upper-class, solid-red-wearing obviousness. In Gilead, living unnoticed is the ultimate prize. Gilead's mantra may well be Nick's warning to Offred late in the book, which could just as easily be advice to a driver with a suspended license or to a stark opposition of technological progress: "Keep on doing everything exactly the way you were before, Nick says. Don't change anything. Otherwise they'll know." (311)

For all the handmaid's internal life is developed, the reader never grasps Gilead's economy or the handmaid's role in it. Offred goes shopping early on, which is performed through tokens stamped with products rather than through any normal currency. (12) Non-pregnant handmaids are shuffled between commanders every two years. For all the purpose of being a handmaid is to bear children via "Ceremony",** though, Offred's commander doesn't appear to be trying very hard to impregnate her:*** "When the night for the Ceremony came round again, two or three weeks later..." (184) No mention is ever made as to what jobs the commanders have, how handmaids are supported financially, why a commander would agree to subsidize a handmaid for the two-year lease, or what Gilead could possibly export. The only conclusion I can make is that handmaids are wards of the state. As a result, the state appears to be draining funds on them^ without giving them any benefit in return: they can't work, they have no means to express themselves, and efforts to get them to bear children appear half-hearted at best.

The best off of any of the women in The Handmaid's Tale are the little-mentioned econowives. They perform the duties of wives, handmaids, and Marthas, and therefore they wear blue, red and green as a result. (48) They wear their colours all at once, in stripes; the stripes aren't mentioned in any further detail, so the reader can only imagine the varieties the econowives can choose. Functioning almost exclusively as a companion, mother and homemaker is similar to being an early 20th-century housewife. They are the only women in Gilead with remotely normal lives and with the ability to wear multiple colours at once. Sadly, they only appear in any prominence on one page, and the reader never gets to feel their experiences. The Handmaid's Tale came out 22 years ago, and The Econowife's Tale just doesn't have much of a ring to it, so I'm not crossing my fingers for a sequel.

Atwood's writing reminded me within the first few pages of how rarely I read books published between 1960 and 1990. The Handmaid's Tale reads somewhat like my dad's old spy novels, which I hadn't expected, but helps it read extremely quickly. The only time this fast pace lets up is during Professor Pieixoto's lecture at the very end. I love fictitious internal reporting, like The Navidson Record in House of Leaves, so the 10+ pages of metafictional academic journal entries make me smile. I would have liked to have known more about Late Gilead, though; the early^^ and middle periods are covered in detail, but we never know how Gilead ends.^^^ We know it's over because the Professor Pieixoto lecture, set in 2195, discusses Gilead as a historical country.

One minor mishap I noticed was the sheer repetition of the phrase "as if" for similes. It generally occurs in the form "<subject><predicate>, as if <comparator>." At one point, it occurs thrice in 3.5 pages. (96, 97, 99) This is why one of the greatest boons of the post-1985 editing world is Ctrl+F. As much as repeating a character's commonly used phrases helps to establish that character's tendencies, when it distracts from the story, it's problematic.

The words Offred makes in Scrabble are also completely improbable: Larynx, Valance, Quince and Zygote all in the same game, or even the same night, for starters. (161) Then Quartz and Quandary appear in rapid succession, in either the same game or two consecutive, when there is only one Q in the entire 100-letter game. (178) Far more often, the Q and Z are used to make the two-letter words Qi and Za on triple letter scores, leading to profanity from the opponent. That said, I'm just glad to see one of my favourite board games mentioned in a book at all.

Given how terrifying living in Gilead must be, and how I've mused on Gilead's lack of exports more than I've mentioned the book's horror, I leave you with the ultimate fridge horror thought: What if Gilead funds itself by exporting handmaids?`

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 3

*Except mandatory red-blue-green Trinitron-style striped clothing. (see the econowives paragraph)

**The Ceremony is described in detail at pages 106-111.

***The Handmaid's role in the Ceremony is so passive that this grammatical structure works fine.

^Who are the taxpayers in this system? Or have these revolutionary United States seized Fort Knox and melted all its gold supplies into the food voucher tokens?

^^For reference, the main part of the book takes place during the early period.

^^^There is one journal entry on civil war in Gilead, but the reader never gets to know when this civil war happens, why it happens, or whether it leads to Gilead's demise. (344)

`Even this is contemplated by ISIS's human trafficking economy.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

September's Book: Collaborating with the Enemy

Almost caught up! Unlike these past couple months, which have looked back to the 20th century, this time it's a really current book on display.

Collaborating with the Enemy by Adam Kahane
Organizational Theory (2017 - 109 pp.)

Adam Kahane's Collaborating with the Enemy rests on a very sound premise: that to work through conflict, we must seek out and embrace it, and then be experimental in how we solve our problems. The premise harkens back to post-World War II industrial pluralism, which encouraged management-union cooperation, and to the problems I looked at when I wrote a master’s paper on the psychological and economic pitfalls negotiators face in hostile collective bargaining. Expanded further, much like Freakonomics doesn’t just apply to economists, Collaborating with the Enemy becomes part of a series of books on how to industrial relations-ize your life.

At only 109 pages, Collaborating with the Enemy still feels overly long. Realistically, it contains a 25-page article’s worth of material. Most of the rest of the book is Kahane repeating himself, and sometimes telling personal anecdotes that don’t feel connected to the underlying premise. Reading about the political conferences in South Africa and Colombia was interesting, but those conferences needed to be tied into conflict resolution theme more. A 55-page book on conflict resolution and a 54-page book on political conferences Kahane has attended would be a compelling 2-in-1 bookstore purchase, but I doubt it’d sell as well. The how-to guide at the end of the book can be removed.

Kahane’s most effective argument is his four methods of coping with conflict, presented as a decision tree: force, collaborate, adapt, and exit. (19) He then expands them to five by opening collaboration up into traditional collaboration, which works when the situation is well understood, and stretch collaboration, which is necessary when the situation is not well understood. (47) Stretch collaboration is what Kahane needed to understand the problems in South Africa and Colombia: a willingness to work together even within relationships had previously been adversarial, and a willingness to try something new.

These decision trees are also effective because they recognize force and exit as valid options. Not every situation lends itself to accommodation or horse-trading. The decision trees also unpack collaboration based on whether the conflict can be controlled, which starts readers thinking about whether they can control the situations they face.

What really makes the decision trees special, though, is that they attack the problem like a first-entry deterrence game* rather than like a Myers-Briggs test.** There’s no Thomas-Kilmann conflict type. There’s no imputed personality. Anyone can use any combination of the five methods, and Kahane frequently emphasizes that everyone should.

Much like with Difficult Conversations, which came out of the Harvard Negotiation Project in 1994 but is written in a tone that is more popular than academic, Collaborating with the Enemy gets non-academics talking about the kinds of issues faced in the social science classroom, and the business and political worlds.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 4

*For example, the second game tree in this overview from Vanderbilt Business School.

**I'm an ENTJ and proud.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

August's Book: Light in August

August is apparently unofficial Faulkner month. This is Light in August* after all.

Light in August by William Faulkner
Literature (1932 - 507 pp.)

Light in August hit at a time when William Faulkner's career was far enough along its upward ascent that it never languished in obscurity, nor, like The Sound and the Fury (1929), did it ever act as a staging ground to see whether Faulkner ever could make it as an author. (Hindsight says yes, he could.) After the success of Sanctuary (1931), which was written in a straighter narrative format, Light in August blends non-linear with narrative.

In each character, as with the world in last month's book, the reader is forced to ask what went wrong? What could have been?** The story opens with Lena Grove, who is walking to fictitious Jefferson, Mississippi in order to find the father of her unborn child. Then it transitions to Joe Christmas, a planing mill worker accused of murder. (Rightly? Wrongly? We'll never know.) Byron Bunch, another of the mill's workers, reveals a good heart but nothing else. Reverend Hightower is the only source of wisdom in Jefferson, yet he is never shown actually doing anything except dispensing wisdom.

Early in the book, Faulkner sheds light on Brown, another planing mill worker, the [redacted for the father of all spoiler purposes] and [redacted for spoiler purposes, although it is a Burden to do so].*** Brown's gambling winnings say the most about him, and about the way varying levels of wealth play into people's likelihoods of keeping their jobs:
Sixty dollars is the wrong figure [for Brown to quit the planing mill]. If it had been either ten dollars or five hundred, I reckon you'd be right. But not just sixty. He'll just feel now that he is settled down good here, drawing at last somewhere about what he is worth a week. (39-40)
This sort of prospect theory-style risk aversion - taking a surer outcome with a lower payoff - epitomizes the sort of person who achieves missed opportunity in Faulkner's South. Brown has just enough to get by, and that's all he gets. Other more desperate characters, like Lena and Christmas, reach out more, and achieve something, even though they end up with drastically different results.

The transition from Christmas's present to his childhood recalls The Sound and the Fury. Although Light in August frequently features stream of consciousness monologues that slip into the characters' thoughts until Something is going to happen Something is going to happen to me (118), it is the sharp shift from the doomed present to the only possibly doomed past that draws the reader deeper into Christmas's life in the very next sentence: "Memory believes before knowing remembers." (119) Just as with Quentin Compson from The Sound and the Fury, understanding Christmas's past is crucial to understanding where he lies in the book's present [SPOILER]. Less poetically, "the sound and fury of the hunt" (331) reads like a self-promotion in comparison.

As Christmas ages, his relationship with time worsens. One of his first thoughts when passing by a local restaurant is that "there is something about it beside food, eating. But I dont know what. And I will never know." (176) This hopelessness pervades his thoughts and actions as he grows into adulthood. When he lacks the money to afford coffee with his pie, he muses that it is "terrible to be young". (181) Christmas's building relationship with a waitress causes him to note that: "And in time even the despair and the regret and the shame grew less." (181) When the waitress attempts to end the relationship, it is as though "in a moment she will vanish. She will not be. And then I will be back home, in bed, having not left it at all". (188) Time is always Christmas's enemy; like the other characters, he can never capitalize on it. Mr. McEachern, Christmas's adoptive father, combines Christmas's relationships with the waitress and with time in the starkest terms imaginable: "But you have still plenty of time to make me regret that heifer". (200) And so they lead downhill.

Death is "peaceful", in that word, to whomever encounters it, old or young, white or racially ambiguous, even if they're related. (205, 464) When Byron transforms mentally, he does not die, but a bad part of him dies: "Then a cold, hard wind seems to blow through him. It is at once violent and peaceful, blowing away hard like chaff or trash or dead leaves all the desire and the despair and hopelessness and the tragic and vain imagining too." (425) This transformation carries him past Hightower's quote below (411) to Byron's pinnacle in the book. (440) Nature, transformation and death all are peace to Light in August's characters. They reach peace when time runs out.

The last hundred pages sum up the lost (as in Lost Generation?), endless, sometimes tragic fates the characters face. Hightower dispenses his greatest piece of wisdom to Lena in reference to her plan to marry Byron, showing that the disgraced Hightower, whose life reads like a constant stream of failed opportunity,**** has come to understand what failed opportunity really means: "You are probably not more than half his age. But you have already outlived him twice over. He will never overtake you, catch up with you, because he has wasted too much time. And that too, his nothing, is as irredeemable as your all." (411) Wasted time, more lost opportunity, keep creeping up in every character's life. Yet what would some of these characters have ever achieved? Brown's cowardice shows in Lena's thoughts shortly after: "He will have no more shame than to lie about being afraid, just as he had no more shame than to be afraid because he lied" (430) Lena is unremarkable, and stunningly little of her life before her pregnancy is revealed, but she soldiers on.

When Byron tells Hightower about the beating Brown has just laid on him, with a bloody face, he says the book's most powerful line: "he aint broke anything that belongs to me." (440) Much more belongs to Byron at the end of the book than at the start; ironically, much of it could have belonged to Brown, who relinquished it. Byron's transformation is like a death, only it leads him out of town, where he had little left anyway. An unnamed focus character in the book's last chapter points out that Lena is still travelling, and that she probably has no set destination. (506) This is the way character goes, toward death or toward a sense of self that is not necessarily flattering. Yet there is light.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 6

*It isn't September until, in Toronto, Canada, it consistently drops below 30 degrees Celsius during the day (86 degrees Fahrenheit, for those from where Faulkner's from).

**Wondering what could have been apparently happens to those of us who review books, too.

***Now isn't that a way to get a reader interested in a character. He's rather mysterious... but why?

****"I acquiesced. Nay, I did worse: I served it. I served it by using it to forward my own desire. I came here where faces full of bafflement and hunger and eagerness waited for me, waiting to believe; I did not see them. " (487)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

July's Book: Time's Arrow

Now this is a situation that, when I reviewed June's book on July 16, I hadn't envisioned. I had finished reading another book on July 28th, and then another on August 1st, and was all set to be caught up, or even ahead, on these monthly entries. (This will happen. Just wait.)

I suppose sometimes we'd all like to go backwards to fix things, even when we can't...


Time's Arrow by Martin Amis
Literature (1991 - 165 pp.)


(Of course, the book spoils itself on the back dust jacket…)

Sometimes a book is reviewed dozens of times, and the reviews say all you meant to say. Your review feels meaningless as a result.

Other times, a book is reviewed dozens of times, and the reviews are completely silent on what you want to say.

The narrative structure has been covered. Backwards conversations that read cogently each way are the closest Martin Amis gets to literary virtuosity. The rest is either novelty or kitsch.

The most interesting aspect of Time’s Arrow is the idea that, as life falls apart, we can somehow track back to that critical moment when we could have fixed it. What if I hadn’t taken out that loan? What if I’d dated that one girl instead of that one other girl? What if I’d flown to Oslo when I had the chance?*

Life presents us with choices all the time. In Time’s Arrow, though, the reader can’t look back. The reader has to experience the life of a deceased German doctor who performed experiments in Auschwitz during World War II in reverse, narrated by a spirit or soul who follows along with the reader and is shocked by the protagonist's life events. Memories are of the future, and new experiences are of the past.

Obvious gimmick aside, along with the more literal interpretations of backwards (such as the oft-cited everything being made of shit), Time’s Arrow makes the ideas of past and future unsettling. One of the book’s famous lines is when the narrator, who is an observer inside the protagonist’s** head, realizes he can never commit suicide no matter how horrible World War II gets. The future has already happened. Our narrator can never look back and wonder what could have been, because it’s already been decided. The railroading of time leads to few opportunities for regret.

Amis is praised for the research he put into Time’s Arrow, most notably his reading on the psychology of Holocaust doctors. The Auschwitz scenes capture the intense mental anguish the narrator feels upon seeing the protagonist’s actions, along with prosaic but no less gut-punching phrases like “It was I, Odilo Unverdorben, who personally removed the pellets of Zyklon B and entrusted them to the pharmacist in his white coat.” Recall when reading this passage that the story happens in reverse.

This leads to the great disappointment of the book, which no other review I’ve read has ever caught. The beginning of the book, or end of the protagonist’s life, happens in 1998,** when the protagonist dies at 81. From 1998-1946, Time’s Arrow follows his life back through senior citizenship, middle age, and then that period people apparently experience in their 30s when they philander constantly. Auschwitz, which all the book’s promotional materials place at the forefront of the book’s importance, doesn’t happen until three quarters of the way through.

One mirrored set of questions remains. It’s the set of questions I slogged through monologues on a retired German-American doctor to see answered.

To the reader and the narrator, where did it all lead? To the historian and the protagonist, where did it all begin?

The protagonist is 22 when World War II begins.*** He is a medical school graduate with a wife by the time he starts participating in the Holocaust. The period of his life from 1939-1917 only lasts about twelve pages. All those memories – or new experiences – of life as a young adult, adolescent and then child in interwar Germany are barely mentioned. They are so formative to the protagonist as a person, yet they are pre-empted by his later life.

Our protagonist is from Solingen, a medium-sized city in Northwestern Germany. After the bizarre backwards rollercoaster ride that goes from waking up in a dead senior’s body through New York City, Portugal, Poland and Germany, shouldn’t there be more wonder at the place where his life started – and ends? Aside from half a paragraph on famous knives and scissors, all Amis can scrounge for information on a city of over 100,000 residents is: “Finally, modest Solingen harbours a proud secret. I’m the only one who happens to know what that secret is. It’s this: Solingen is the birthplace of Adolph Eichmann.” A city where our young protagonist grew up, and where our weary narrator is rewarded for his stunning patience, is reduced to this?

Time’s Arrow is a fun read. It just feels front-heavy and back-light.

And then, to quote from the time when the protagonist assumes the name of John Young during middle age, over a third into the book: “Thank God. He’s out. Like a baby.”

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 3

*In 2011, in what is still my only ever foray to the Newark, NJ airport, I passed a gate where a plane was about to depart for Oslo. I was carrying my passport, too. My ticket was to Ithaca, NY, where I did go. I probably couldn’t have boarded that Oslo flight at the extreme last minute, but it’s always fun to wonder…

**The protagonist’s name changes so often I simply call him “the protagonist”.

***Time’s Arrow was released in 1991. Why Amis added to the already confusing timeline by placing the start of the book seven years into the future, I’ll never know. I got to this date by adding 81 to the protagonist’s birthdate of 1917. If I’ve made an error here, let me know.