Sunday, July 16, 2017

June's Book: Marlfox

Marlfox by Brian Jacques
Fantasy (1998 - 386 pp.)

Marlfox is the 11th book (13th chronologically) ion the Redwall series. The one-paragraph version is that there are seven Marlfoxes, who are all children of  Queen Silth. One of the Marlfoxes, Lantur, serves as Silth's personal assistant, while the other six attempt to conquer the series's titular Redwall Abbey. What makes Marlfox special among Redwall books is what I have just said: whereas earlier books focus on heroes, or hero-villain personal vendettas, Marlfox is more about the villains than about anyone.

The Mokkan-Gelltor dynamic drives the book. Neither is particularly sympathetic - Mokkan is a deceptive thief, and Gelltor is bent on pillaging Redwall Abbey - but their personality conflict launches the book's two main plots. Gelltor leads three other Marlfoxes on an attack on Redwall that threatens every aspect of the residents' lives. Redwall is the cornerstone of the series, with the vast majority of books either set there or invoking its lore, so that its largely mouse/squirrel population to be overrun by foxes is (for the characters) terrifying. Negotiations between Gelltor and the Rusvul (squirrel)/Janglur (squirrel)/Skipper (otter) rulers of Redwall by committee go south rather quickly: "Gelltor waved his axe aloft. 'Now 'tis war. Your Abbey is surrounded, and we will stay here for as long as it takes to slay you or make you all surrender!'" (160) This exchange is in response to the only beheading I have ever read in what is ostensibly a children's book. (144) Gelltor later shows the ability to kill multiple enemies in battle virtually effortlessly: "The Marlfox fought like a demon, snarling in the face of his enemies as he wielded his axe savagely. Three shrews were laid low..." (223)

Mokkan, meanwhile, whisks away the Abbey's prized tapestry, leading young Dannflor (squirrel), Songbreeze (squirrel) and Dippler (shrew) to go on a quest to retrieve it. This double plot puts both sides on offence, with the sly, thieving Mokkan just as hunted as the defenders of Redwall. Dannflor and Songbreeze briefly appear to become love interests (200-201, for example), although in true Redwall fashion, they simply become good friends and leave the reader to assume more squirrels will exist at some undefined future point. This is not to say Mokkan isn't capable of fighting back. Mokkan's physical prowess is shown in lines like "Mokkan's paw was like a clawed vice. It dug savagely into Fenno [the shrew]'s neck..." (156) and "With a quick flick of his paws, he pushed [character name redacted for spoiler purposes] into the lake" (336). He also shows ingenuity in convincing other Marlfoxes of his status as quasi-leader, such as when he tells Predak, "Tell me. I'm not like our brother Gelltor, I'm always ready to listen to other schemes." (94)

Despite the ostensible good-versus-evil story, no character in Redwall is truly morally angelic. The Marlfoxes' desires to acquire wealth through plunder makes them understandably on the bad side of things, which Mokkan readily admits: "Remember, we're Marlfoxes, born to stealth and deceit." (65) It is only Janglur, a good guy, who ever resorts to killing foes by way of an oil fire. (276) The nominal good guys have no qualms about referring to entire species of animals as "vermin" (204, among others) but the Marlfoxes never refer to mice, squirrels, hares, otters, or any other nominally good animal with any epithet meant to cover an entire species. Even when Marlfoxes use abusive language, which is frequently, it is always aimed at a particular target, such as when Lantur says to a water rat, "You are growing fat and idle whilst your Queen suffers. There are no excuses for your stupidity." (96) Queen Silth then refers to the same rat as a "worthless piece of offal". (97) Mokkan says to Fenno the shrew, "Pain is the best teacher for stupid idiots." (215) Rats in general, though? Only the good guys could possess such a blanket level of hatred.

Marlfox's surprisingly ambiguous morality is further muddled by the ways in which Jacques's descriptions of the animals differs sharply from their real-life perceptions. A prime example is Jacques's portrayal of mice as heroes and ferrets as villains. Take, for instance, Jacques's plain description of a stoat and two weasels: "Their appearance was eerie and barbaric." (229) In the books, it makes enough sense in a Zootopia-style prey-predator dynamic. (But then why are badgers good?) In real life, however, ferrets are commonly seen as lovable companions for cats and children, whereas mice are afforded far different treatment. It's tougher to hate Raventail the ferret, and the Marlfoxes themselves, when one can't stop thinking about how cute they are.

Jacques's use of dialect is well on display for all these critters. Foxes speak in proper English, mice and squirrels have a commoner dialect, hares are affectedly British ("villainous chaps", "wot wot"), and moles border on incomprehensible: "Cos ee wurr outside, zurr, back o' ee likkle wallgate." (93) Or see: "Doan't feels loik oi gotten two 'eads no more, hurr hurr!" (244) Or see: "Hurr, you'm give umm billyo, zurr Skip!" (324) The Mighty Megraw, an osprey, is Scottish in even the most everyday phrases: "Ah'd like that fine, lass!" (288) In a particularly cute use of dialect-meets-Spoonerism, a mousebabe and a molebabe combine to impersonate "Marmfloxes" using ash and blankets. (246-247)

The back dust jacket of Marlfox tells something that I, as a faithful Redwall reader since about the age of eight, had not previously known. Apparently, Jacques spends his summers writing and his winters researching the Redwall books - by working "in a specially built conservatory so he can watch the comings and goings of birds, squirrels and the occasional fox, which are a constant inspiration." Jacques's imagination is immense to be able to create these settings, characters and plots out of what my personal experiences observing birds and squirrels has not yet delivered.

A final thought on Jacques's writing style: it is meant for Redwall books. Jacques frequently uses "tell, don't show" in order to achieve a storytelling mood. He puts thoughts directly in the reader's mind rather than have the reader figure out what's happening, as usually happens in literary fiction. Examples are limitless, but a good one is when Florian attempts to stop Marlfox-led forces from breaking into Redwall: "Curious to know what was going on, they hastened across." (192) Florian's curiosity should be evident from his surroundings without Jacques having to point it out in narration. From a worse (or beginning) writer, or with a worse story, the reader would feel railroaded. That said, Jacques still displays great "show, don't tell" passages, such as when Mokkan drives his boat through rapids. (266) What Jacques has achieved here is to spin the reader a yarn while using shorthand to make the plot move faster, all while making Marlfox accessible to readers of all ages.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 2

NOTE: There is a minor character, a mole, named Muggle. (92) Which came first: the Castle or the Abbey? Most likely, it's a coincidence.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Kitchener Rangers Sign Matt Gordon (Relevant Matt Gordon-Related News)

This is last month's news, but May 2017 was a busy time with no blogging. In my defence, it's still the Ontario Hockey League offseason.

The Kitchener Rangers have signed Matt Gordon.

He's from Guelph. I have family there. He's playing in Kitchener. I lived in Waterloo for four years. He even weighs what I did at that age.

Besides, 29 points in 34 games for the Guelph Gryphons last year is pretty impressive, especially at the 58th overall pick in the draft.

Go Matt! Make us Matt Gordons proud out there on the ice.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

May's Book, At Last: Dawn of the Belle Epoque

Sadly, May 2017 became the first month since November 2014 when I didn't blog, and the second overall. It was a good month, just apparently nothing meriting a post here. With that out of the way, and with the upfront admission that I tend to take my time with European history books, here's one my various followers and friends have been waiting for:

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Dawn of the Belle Epoque by Mary McAuliffe
History (2011 - 339 pp.)

Dawn of the Belle Epoque is the first in a set of two books covering the history of France, centred on Paris, from 1871-1914. Dawn covers the period from 1871-1900, and Twilight of the Belle Epoque, which I suppose I will read at some point, covers the period from 1901-1914. Dawn, and presumably Twilight, is a combination of an academic treatment and a celebration of the cultural journeys McAuliffe no doubt took in France, based on the pictures mostly bearing her or a family member's credit. That makes it a simultaneously best-of-both-worlds and worst-of-both-worlds book: a history book that reads like it could have been bought in an airport.

Dawn's thesis is simple and effective: that when France rediscovered itself as a nation in the aftermath of the crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, its political, artistic, literary and infrastructure developments all coalesced. People crossed paths in ways that have rarely happened in other countries, and every movement became an expression of Parisian-ness or greater Frenchness. Everything from the Eiffel Tower to the Impressionist movement, to, unfortunately, anti-Semitism, became an outward demonstration of a French soul. Fittingly, McAuliffe's narrative zips back and forth between every aspect of her main characters' lives. Among those featured are Degas, Renoir, Manet, Monet (they were confused at the time!), Mucha, Zola, Rodin, Morisot and daughter, Clemenceau, Debussy, Eiffel and Dreyfus.

Paris was truly a scene back then - everyone appeared to know everyone else. Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie, three of the most accomplished pianists of the day, met in 1893; Ravel credited meeting Satie for much of his later work. (232) Georges Clemenceau, of earlier and later political fame, knew Edmond de Goncourt and Emile Zola personally. (218, 294) World-renowned hotelier Cesar Ritz hired equally world-renowned chef Auguste Escoffier, who, in turn, made almost an entire dessert menu named after equally world-renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt. (177, 335) It was impossible to run into one major French figure of the time without running into all the others, which is what makes Dawn flow so well.

Alphonse Mucha, of 1890s Art Nouveau fame, drew an iconic image of Sarah Bernhardt. The two also became friends.

Two of the most stunning aspects of the artists who take up a significant portion of Dawn are how loose (or modern?) their social mores were, and how poor they often were. I read a print copy of Dawn, so I was unable to Ctrl+F to check word frequency, but the word "mistress" seemed to appear on almost every page. Claude Monet had fallen in love with Alice Hoschede, wife of Ernest Hoschede; Monet and Alice cohabited, while Ernest coped by maintaining his friendship with them both. Alice never stopped loving Ernest, appearing frequently at his bedside leading up to his death in 1890, but also married Monet directly afterward. (212) In 1894 alone, author Zola was "scandalously walking his illegitimate family" around the Tuileries gardens, and Debussy became engaged to one woman while continuing to cohabit with another. (245)

Among the artistic class, poverty was near-universal. Among the original Impressionists, exactly two could be described as reasonably well-off. (101) In 1881, Claude Monet, not yet famous, had not paid his rent in over a year. (113) In 1889, Mucha was "battling starvation" (198) in a "claustrophobic" apartment: "The staircase to Mucha's new quarters was so narrow that he had to dump his belongings on the sidewalk and bring everything up, piece by piece, through the window." (200) In 1898, Debussy was "inundated with debts". (303) Even Oscar Wilde, who has been enshrined as a literary titan since his death, "died in poverty" in 1900 - and where else but in a hotel in Paris? (336)

Much like the rest of Parisian reality of the era, this penury was not confined to the artistic class. Some of Pierre and Marie Curie's initial radioactivity research was conducted in a "rough wooden building" that Marie admitted was "incompletely protected from the rain". McAuliffe refers to it as "appalling conditions" but that she and Pierre were still "supremely happy". (302) Similarly, Clemenceau, who later history has portrayed as leonine, lived simply in a small flat while mostly excluded from political participation for almost two decades. He had gone through "a nasty divorce", which had affected him to the point that he "smashed a marble statue of his wife and decimated memory-inducing photos and paintings". (218) Accusations of bribery related to the Panama Canal scandal led him to admit in 1893 that "assassination would be preferable to the ordeal he had undergone". (237) As late as 1893, he paid for his furnishings in installments. He wrote to a friend: "I'm riddled with debts... I have nothing more, nothing more, nothing more." (238)

PBS Learning Media has Delance's painting of the Eiffel Tower too!

One of the greatest achievements of the era was the construction of the Eiffel Tower. Paul Louis Delance's striking picture of it is among the full-pagers that open every chapter (above). Fittingly, it is the opener for 1889, the year of its debut, and the centennial of the French Revolution. (193) Even that was fraught with scandal. Only a year after Gustave Eiffel debuted his tower, he was implicated on Panama Canal-related bribery charges. The following year, 1891, Eiffel's home was raided by the police. (207) Nonetheless, he carried on, and although he was convicted of breach of trust, he was found not guilty of "swindling", and "unlike Clemenceau, Gustave Eiffel's fortunes never affected his bank account". (238-239) Then, as now, it appears engineering is a good career choice.

Although each chapter roughly correlates to one calendar year, there is emphasis in the 1898-1900 range in order to separate everyday life from the Dreyfus Affair. McAuliffe begins her political criticism early by focusing on Paris's wreckage-strewn state in the aftermath of the Paris Commune, and, with it, rising political tensions along class lines, as Goncourt noted: "What is happening... is nothing less than the conquest of France by the worker and the reduction to slavery under his rule of the noble, the bourgeois, and the peasant." (15) Foreign crises such as the decision over whether to support papal territorial claims (69), protracted war in Indochina (now Vietnam) in the mid-1880s, (135-136) and rising Anglo-French antagonism that led to an embarrassing almost-war in which the British humiliated the French in Sudan in 1898, (311) worsened the situation.

It was against this fear of conquest and defeat that the French army would wrongfully convict 36-year old Captain Dreyfus of treason, largely because he was a territorial, religious and ethnic outsider: an Alsatian who had elected to keep his French citizenship rather than become a German citizen in 1871, a native German speaker, and a Jew. (254) This made him suspicious to a militarized French army that hated everything German, or anything that appeared not sufficiently French on the surface. Even among the Dreyfusards, who publicly supported him, there was anti-Semitism. (322) Thankfully, Dreyfus's innocence was finally recognized as the century turned, with the help of Emile Zola, the (greater) help of Rene Waldeck-Rousseau, and the (even greater) help of the criminal court system.

Manet's portrait of George Moore: apparently best served sunny side up.

The people of Paris more generally back then were extremely quotable.* Debussy wrote in 1893, "The bell has tolled now to mark my thirty-first year". (224) When Mucha protested the use of the term Art Nouveau to describe the style developing in England and France in the 1890s, he said "Art is eternal... it cannot be new". (252) Dramatism was not limited to popular artists; one of the rare republican clergymen, Abbe Fremont, warned that "between the Church... and progress, the Republic and the future... there is no relationship possible but the most deadly hatred." (89) Parisians were not lacking in humour. Edouard Manet famously said to his friend Antonin Proust in 1881, when discussing the unflattering-if-lifelike Manet portrait series, "Is it my fault if [the poet George] Moore looks like a squashed egg yolk?" (103)

Perhaps the most enduring sentence of Dawn is one tucked away between the far more exciting tales of Alice Hoschede's second marriage and Maurice Ravel's first big break as a sixteen-year old at the Paris Conservatoire. This time it is not a painter, or a musician, or a politician, but McAuliffe herself who notes, "Pioneers do not as a rule settle for the comfortable corners of life..."

The rest of that sentence reads, as it introduces another of the book's famous stars, "...and Maria Sklodowska [Curie] was no exception." (213)

Ease of Reading: 5
Educational Content: 8



NOTE: Now to be difficult about word choice, which I do sometimes. One of the most enormous word usage errors in the English language, which is an error of great enormity, is confusing the word "enormousness" with "enormity". Enormousness is the state of being enormous. Enormity is great evil. So when McAuliffe says "Part of the problem was the enormity of the task that Paris had undertaken" (328), one truly wonders if the French were as awful as the Germans claimed they were in 1904.

*Or "quotacious", if you're Shaq.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

[Bang2Write] 3 Important Beta Readers You Just Have to Impress

After writing, before publication, people will read your writing.

Who reads? Beta readers, that's who.

These people help get your work ready for editors, ready for publishers, and ready for the market.

You need at least types of them, and I explain that on Bang2Write:


Published authors, subject-matter experts, and target readers will get you where you want to go.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Jess Brewer: "Yes You Can!"

This past weekend, University of British Columbia Professor Emeritus Jess Brewer posted "Yes You Can!" on his blog. In 850 words, he said more than most people do all day.

"Yes You Can!" he says.

This mindset is the best to have.

Amidst his examples of his increasing age, the health problems people face, and those tired worn, excuses that stop people from reaching their dreams, there's this thesis:

Shall I run through an inventory of excuses?  No, that would be both mean and pointless.  Deep in your heart you know what actually prevents you from Doing It (whatever It might be for you) and what is just an excuse, doubtless backed up by a firmly entrenched stereotype.

It can be anything. It can be travelling to a new place, working on a new project, or meeting someone new. There are so many ways to build in a belief that you can't, it's easy to forget that you can.

There's also a surprise at the end, but I'm not going to spoil his blog entry for you, now am I?

What's nice, too, is none of this is coming from a motivational speaker. It's coming from someone who's put in decades of hard work - and loved doing it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

April's Book: Utopia for Realists

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman
Politics (2016 - 207 pp.)

Rutger Bregman's Utopia for Realists advances the not overly bold, but very boldly stated, idea that we live in utopia. It starts out as advocacy for universal basic income (UBI) but then morphs into a longer, more thorough, tract advocating for all kinds of things. Career changes, robots, open borders... if it exists, Bregman probably has an opinion on it. This is great.

Bregman's arguments for UBI come less from a charitable or moral standpoint - i.e. nowhere near Pope Francis's "moral economy" - but from a money-driven, practical standpoint. Bregman appears extremely socialist at times, such as when he bemoans the United States's falling life expectancy while remarking that "the market and commercial interests are enjoying free reign". (23) However, his vision of UBI comes off as conservative. This is for three key reasons:

  1. It slashes administration costs by removing means tests, and no longer requires people having to prove how disabled they are in order to collect benefits. (61)
  2. It encourages the founding of small businesses. (59)
  3. It forces recipients to participate in the market. (46) You can't eat, wear or sleep under money, but you sure can use it to help top up the GDP. It's tough to promote an anti-market ideology when money is what you use to elevate yourself.

That's a good theory. Practice may be more difficult, though, especially in large countries like Canada or the United States. Bregman's native Netherlands is, at least on the surface, a particularly good candidate for UBI because it's so small. One euro will take you about as far in Amsterdam as in Rotterdam as in Delft. What about in Regina versus Toronto, though, or in Bismarck, ND versus New York City? In large countries, UBI would either have to (A) be cost of living adjusted based on where the recipient lives, or (B) be the exact same in nominal terms. If we choose (A), how is someone from a small town ever supposed to be able to afford to move to a large city? If we choose (B), money will drain from high-COL areas to low-COL areas. Bregman never answers that question, possibly because his country's geography never asks that of him.

Where Bregman is flat-out wrong is in his demonization* of professional services. Everyone from an HR manager (143) to a lawyer (145) to a banker (147) is "bullshit" and "useless" to him. These three are particularly good examples of professionals who facilitate and grow the occupations Bregman values more. Bregman loves teachers, for example. Without HR managers to staff and compensate them, lawyers to negotiate their union contracts, and bankers to underwrite the funds that help build the schools, teachers would have a far more difficult time. These three professions also have a variety of conferences, seminars and events that promote - this'll sting for Bregman - education. Not everyone who seeks out graduate school or who wants to carry on the world's knowledge wants to do it within a university setting.

It's the same for small businesses, a group that could arguably benefit radically from UBI. (60) HR consultants can use their industry knowledge to find good employees, reducing turnover costs. Corporate law can be what stops a small business owner from losing his or her house in a lawsuit. Bankers can provide loans at discounted rates that, in the end, result in the banker making a cut while the business owner makes even more. I wouldn't rather have those people taking up all their time with, as Bregman quotes Benjamin Franklin, "leisure and pleasure". (34) Bregman's hatred of the 70-hour workweek (34) is laudable, but he may be going a smidgen too far in the other direction.

Recommending non-fiction is different from recommending fiction. Whereas in fiction, many people like to delve as deep as they can into a particular genre, any non-fiction field should be enjoyed in its entirety. Or would you read a dozen books about French military history without reading any on French political history, French social history, or the military history of the neighbouring nations?

That said, Bregman is establishing himself as a Dutch Slavoj Zizek of sorts: a European academic who is mostly far-left but doesn't feel constrained by other peoples' ideological boundaries, and who will stop at nothing to advance an entertaining view of the world. If you like politics, and aren't afraid to have your beliefs challenged, Utopia for Realists is for you. Bregman puts this best in his quotation of Lyman Tower Sargent, who Bregman casts as a "leading utopia expert": "One needs to be able to believe passionately and also be able to see the absurdity of one’s own beliefs and laugh at them". (28) Neither I nor Bregman is unknowing of the absurd.

My favourite part of Utopia for Realists is the conclusion. Seeing as I don't particularly consider it possible to give spoilers for non-fiction books, here are the last two sentences:
Ideas, however outrageous, have changed the world, and they will again. “Indeed,” wrote Keynes, “the world is ruled by little else.” (207)
No matter whether you're on the right, the left, or somewhere completely removed from any political spectrum. These last two sentences are something any reader can believe.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 7

*A fitting word, considering I'll be posting about The Screwtape Letters this month. Not to compare them to this book, thankfully.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Congratulations, Gamecocks!

The South Carolina Gamecocks won their first NCAA men's basketball tournament game in 44 years.

They went to the Final Four.

Now their women's team has won it all on the same stage.

For the first time in school history, the Gamecocks women's team has won it all.

I didn't pick them, but hey - I should have.

I still have Gonzaga in the men's final, but in the meantime, let's celebrate the team that really got it done:

Sindarius Thornwell


(from Gamecocks Online)

Angel Wilson


(from The State)

Congrats, Gamecocks! You've sure scored a hell of lot more points can I could have.