Tuesday, October 15, 2019

High Shelf Press Issue XI: containing my satirical short story The Aviary

High Shelf Press has just released Issue XI today!

Available for sale in print for $15 from High Shelf Press (bundled discounts available) or from Amazon.

Cover art by Monica Wiesblott straight out of a classic horror movie. Image from the link to Issue XI above. Not my image, I just thought you'd like it.

Among other great artists, Issue XI features my short story "The Aviary", in which predators and scavengers engage in a war of words (war of birds?) over who gets to eat the big catch. The birds within are markedly more majestic than this guy I snapped, I assure you.

You can find a full table of contents here.

You can read the issue online in journal format here.

High Shelf Press is a Portland, Oregon-based independent literary publisher, featuring authors, poets and visual artists from the United States, Canada and more. High Shelf Press works in conjunction with Cathexis Northwest Press. In keeping with October, Issue XI is High Shelf Press's "spookiest issue yet".

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Panthers in Hotspur!

The NFL stadium in Tottenham Hotspur is the first NFL-designed stadium outside of North America, as per Melissa Stark. Today, it hosts the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which is the first division rivalry game in that stadium. (Last week's Chicago/Oakland tilt was a game between two vintage NFL franchises, but two that have never played in the same conference, let alone division.)

I went to London for the first time this past summer. I took over 900 pictures in eight days, including Westminster Abbey (just the outside!), the iconic statue of Richard I in front of the House of Lords, and the original 1854 dinosaur models at Crystal Palace.

I've been cheering on the Panthers since their inaugural season in 1995. Now I get to cheer them on in the shadow of this:

As someone who is such a big Panthers fan I wear my Panthers hoodie to a Guns 'N' Roses concert, I couldn't be happier.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

October's Book: Galveston

Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
Thriller (2010 - 258 pp.)

A doctor took pictures of my lungs. They were full of snow flurries. (3)
From Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of HBO's True Detective comes his first novel Galveston. The story is told from the voice of Roy "Big Country"* Cady, a mercenary/assassin diagnosed with lung cancer in the book's first two sentences (referenced above). With what he thinks is a short time left to live, and with his old colleague Stan Ptitko determined to make that time even shorter, Roy embarks on a journey that is part-escape, part-revenge. He is accompanied by Rocky, a teenaged prostitute he rescues after the book's opening conflagration, and eventually Rocky's little sister Tiffany. Ironically, Galveston takes place in some of the hottest parts of the Continental United States, yet Roy compares his cancer to snow.

No character in Galveston is particularly lovable, although it's difficult to dislike toddler Tiffany. Roy earns the reader's sympathy through his sardonic humour, extreme levels of pragmatism, lack of regard toward any traditional obligations, and the fact that he isn't any of the other characters. Roy is a cross between the Punisher and someone engaged on a long road trip in the South with unlimited drinks, especially Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam and J&B. When Roy murders people, he always finds a way to paint it either as self-defence (19) or as something that happened so quickly it was the only logical course of action. (234) Roy cares about Rocky and especially Tiffany, and seems genuinely willing to help people in trouble, but is otherwise emotionless about his surroundings, including rejecting Rocky's sexual advances even before he learns Tiffany exists. (44)

The book's main events occur in the late '80s, with the future "present" when Roy tells the story being 2008.** Conveniently, the story occurring in the pre-smartphone era makes characters evade each other more easily. When a character is not physically in front of Roy, the reader has no idea where that character is, or whether he or she is even alive. This sense of disappearance adds to Galveston's mystery; much like in the original Warcraft computer game, when you haven't discovered a piece of land yet, it may as well not exist. Feeling that way in a fantasy world is understandable, but when the hidden place is somewhere as obviously existent^ as the Southern United States, a fog hangs over the entire setting. When Roy leaves his motel room after rejecting a prostitute's advances, continuing his tradition of apathy toward sex, he reflects on how literally in the dark he is about his future: "You steer down lightless highways, and you invent a destination because movement is key." (155) The future Roy finds is as a sixty-two-year-old ex-convict with one eye and a dog, who lives a quieter life than he could have imagined in the '80s.

My one qualm with Galveston is the use of the "knocked unconscious with no lasting damage" trope, which is disproven by science once every few seconds. Any unconsciousness lasting longer than a few seconds has disastrous effects on the neural system,^^ yet Roy's head is treated like a pinata, only for his brain to function normally a couple pages later. (226-228) 

Unlike many of the other books I discuss here, Galveston is a blisteringly fast read with a simple story Pizzolatto conveys well. There is very little subtext, obscurity, theorizing, or questioning of what reality means; what you read is what you get.

A personal note: when I lived in Houston briefly on a work assignment, my parents visited me for a weekend. During that weekend, we went to Galveston. It was 2011, the year after Galveston was published. When Roy drives Rocky and Tiffany to the Gulf Coast, lending the reader an idea of how Pizzolatto picked the book's title, he notes the wide-open possibilities envisioned by the drive down the I-45 to Galveston: "Clear of the cities, Texas turned into a green desert meant to hammer you with vastness, a mortar filled with sky. The girls treated it like a fireworks show." (79) While we certainly had a better time there than Roy did, Pizzolatto's descriptions of the Gulf and the beaches took me back there. I might not have picked this book to read if the title didn't bring back those memories.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 1

*No resemblance to Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, retired centre for the (as they were then) Vancouver Grizzlies.

**Although I suppose this fact spoils that Roy survives the story, it's impossible to discuss the book's 2008 scenes otherwise.

^The word "existent" is used not nearly as often as its antonym "non-existent". Why, I've never learned. Perhaps things are assumed to be existent unless we hear otherwise.

^^A similar error is made in Richard Matheson's Somewhere in Time, also told from the perspective of someone with terminal cancer.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

September's Book: Days of Infamy

Days of Infamy by Harry Turtledove
Alternate History (2004 - 520 pp.)

Days of Infamy is the first book in Harry Turtledove's duology* about what could have happened if the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had turned into an all-out amphibious invasion. The book, therefore, alternates between various Japanese occupiers, American soldiers and American civilians. The events all occur on Hawaii except for the opening in Tokyo and the sections featuring Joe Crosetti, an Italian-American cadet living in San Francisco and training in Pensacola. As is commonplace on this blog, the Book One Effect is in full swing. However, there are only two books in the Days of Infamy series, so a quick follow-up read of End of the Beginning (2005) should be easy.

Days of Infamy starts the way history actually went: with Isoroku Yamamoto and Minoru Genda planning the Pearl Harbor attack. (1-5) Turtledove's combination of real-life figures and fictional-but-believable characters brings the reader right into the events, as if existing as a fly on the wall.** From there, the modified Pearl Harbor is 40-50 pages of action and suspense, sure to liven the heart of any Axis & Allies player. Then, of course, there's how people react to the sudden and unexpected Japanese occupation of Hawaii. One example is Oscar van der Kirk, an American transplant turned beach bum, who is a surfer who invents sailboarding in this timeline; his full story is too entertaining to be repeated.

Joe's world goes back and forth between the excitement he feels at training and the devastation he feels when his relatives die in a bombing raid. When he is bussed off to training as an aviator, he quickly meets his new roommate, Orson Sharp, a Mormon from Utah. Sharp is used to snow, but it's bizarre to Crosetti. (192)

Meanwhile, American military officers suffer, and anyone close to them suffers too. Fletcher Armitage is a high-ranking officer who becomes a POW, shortly after his separation from his wife Jane. Jane's fate is no better, as she ends up being coerced by the occupying Japanese authorities into mending a of turnips and potatoes. (234) Similarly, Lieutenant Jim Peterson ransfers from the Navy to the Army, which costs him epaulets. The book assumes Admiral Halsey dies during the initial raid, which leads to chaos.

The book's emotional high comes near the end, when the occupation is complete. Kenzo is a late-teenage-aged Japanese-American whose father is in favour of the occupation, but he and his brother are staunchly American. Kenzo dates Elsie Sundberg, an American. Kenzo can't make sense of the occupation, a sentiment that is surely echoed through many occupations past:
Then he looked west, toward Pearl Harbor. No, no fireworks tonight. The U.S. Navy was gone from these parts. Everything else that had to do with the United States seemed gone, too. So where was there a place for a person of Japanese blood who thought he had the right to be an American? Anywhere at all? (510-511)
Confusingly, there is another book called Days of Infamy that is, as well, an alternate history about the Empire of Japan conquering Hawaii in the time following Pearl Harbor. It is the second book in its series. It came out in 2008, well after Harry Turtledove's book hit the market. This is why you Google your proposed book titles before you write, folks.*** This second Days of Infamy was written in part by Newt Gingrich. I don't usually give Newt Gingrich unsolicited advice online, but when I do, it's apparently about searching book titles.

Ease of Reading: 7
Educational Content: 4

*So few book series are exactly two books that "duology" is an uncommon word. To wit: "trilogy" yields 168 million Google search results, whereas "duology" yields only 1.49 million.

**Turtledove has a tendency to use "as if" to introduce a simile, as in "he laughed, as if hearing a joke". He also has his characters frequently say clich├ęs in order to evoke the time and place. Whether these are faults is subjective.

***The musical equivalent is "Google your song titles before you write your choruses". Arguably the most notable example is British power metal band DragonForce releasing the song "Die by the Sword" in 2012, a full 29 years after the classic Slayer song of the same name. One would think the DragonForce song was a cover, but alas, it is not.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

RBC Race for the Kids 2019

This morning marked my fourth consecutive, and fourth overall, RBC Race for the Kids. The Race for the Kids is a spectacular annual event, held every September in North York, to raise money for Sunnybrook Hospital's youth mental health programs.

Notable regulars include Mayor of Toronto John Tory, the New Balance sneaker mascot and, of course, your favourite book blogger. Free giveaways set up throughout Mel Lastman Square include Starbucks coffee, Clif bars, Kashi snacks, and ROAR organic flavoured water. For more substantial appetites, Encore Catering offers breakfast sandwiches, and there are also bananas. For even more substantial appetites, the blocked-off stretch of Yonge Street between Sheppard and Finch is packed with restaurants.

A record 9,300 people ran today in either the 5K or the 10K (I did the 5K, starting in the red corral). I had the good result of finishing 131st out of all 4,742 people who ran the 5K, although only approximately the top half were actually running. (People with strollers and dogs, or prefer who prefer to walk, usually walk at the end.)

Here are a few of the many highlights from this morning's race:

From top to bottom, and left to right: (1) Me in front of the food tents, (2) Me with the finish line, (3) Me with the New Balance shoe mascot, (4) Runners waiting at the start line, (5) Runners in front of the North York Civic Centre, (6) John Tory speaking to the runners about the importance of youth mental health programs, (7) The yellow corral, (8) the start line. Where selfies have been taken, it was purely due to a lack of available picture-takers despite the bright blue ocean of people around me. Not pictured in this collage: my new profile picture is of me about to start the race!

It was a good day for the race, clear and cool. Armed with my fourth consecutive free Dri-Fit shirt, I'm ready to train for 2020!

A huge thank you to all of my donors, who helped me reach Community Fundraiser status.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Happy Labour Day from the Kawarthas!

In the spirit of celebrating long weekends by taking pictures of macro insects, here's a gorgeous monarch butterfly I caught by the Trent-Severn Waterway yesterday:

The shadow looks like another wing.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Bonus Book! The Moon and Sixpence

August has a proud history of being a month when I read, and discuss, a lot of books. In 2012, during Book a Week, I posted about five books, in genres spanning science fiction, low fantasy, social history and moral philosophy. In 2015, I birthed the Bonus Book tradition by posting about The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. In a sense, Bonus Books are the remnant of Book a Week: a striving to read and discuss more than one book per month, while acknowledging that a weekly standard would be invasive into the rest of my life, or else result in shorter and/or worse blog posts.

This next book is not the book that was recommended to me, but it's close. In 2012, my master's advisor recommended Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. For those who have read it, or even picked it up off of a table or shelf, it's a very long book. Nonetheless, I acquired an e-book of it, and proceeded, over 2012-2013, to read approximately 365 pages. That was a third of the book.

The next best thing is the follow-up. After the success of Of Human Bondage in 1915, W. Somerset Maugham released The Moon and Sixpence in 1919. The Moon and Sixpence also sold well, and is widely regarded to be one of the classics of World War I-era English literature. Its subject matter, though, could not be farther from the war. With that, I leave you...


The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
Literature (1919 - 250 pp.)

In The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham's passive narrator follows the life of Charles Strickland, a stockbroker turned painter who flees his London family for Paris, Marseilles, and finally Tahiti. The narrator, who befriends Mrs. Strickland, is sent to Paris at her behest, where most of the novel takes place. Strickland is simultaneously a case study of the motivation to abandon a profession to become an artist, and an outlet for Maugham to pontificate on the place of art in 20th-century society. Now, 100 years after the book's release,* the book's questions about art are still impossible to answer, as they may be for eternity.

Strickland as a person inspires either indifference or hatred. Maugham uses the narrator's less than flattering impressions of Strickland as a constant source of witticisms, such as the initial thought that "[o]ne would admire his excellent qualities, but avoid his company. He was null." (30) In the first part of the book, Strickland acts as a proto-Ned Flanders. When Strickland leaves his wife and children in London to become a starving artist in Paris, the narrator switches toward a quasi-religious take: "You evidently don't believe in the maxim: Act so that every one of your actions is capable of being made into a universal rule." (65) As someone who has lived this way, it's stressful. Whether Strickland embodies that part of any of us who would want to live as an artist in Paris, or whether Strickland is simply an irresponsible, selfish man, is up to the reader to decide.

The other characters add colour without adding plot points. Dirk Stroeve is a Dutch artist who cooks wonderful spaghetti but, according to the narrator, cannot produce a painting better than the equivalent of a Harlequin romance novel. (95) Stroeve, like the narrator and Strickland, acts as a vehicle for Maugham's one-liners. His greatest line comes early, before Strickland has an affair with his wife, before every character vacates Paris. He asks the narrator the question every artist loathes hearing, and receives the answer that makes every impoverished night sound pointless:
'And how, then, will you recognize merit?' asked Dirk, red in the face with anger.
'There is only one way - success.' (96)

The value of art is a recurring theme in The Moon and Sixpence. Strickland produces paintings that are alternately called beautiful and horrible. Whether Strickland's art is praise-worthy is a constant point of contention between the narrator, Stroeve, and Strickland himself, who, unlike the other characters, abandoned a successful career. The narrator ponders about the consumers of art: "They call beautiful a dress, a dog, a sermon; and yet when they are face to face with Beauty cannot recognise it." (159) It is exhausting, yet it follows the life of every artist, that this is the ultimate audience. The narrator considers himself discerning, yet the reader never hears what the narrator actually paints, only his impression of Strickland's and Stroeve's paintings, and his frustration with the market for art. The last hundred years has not made the market for art any kinder.

Although the novel famously follows the life of Paul Gauguin, Strickland's last years in Tahiti are analogous to Francisco Goya's last years. When the narrator pieces together Strickland's life in Tahiti, he learns that Strickland, afflicted with leprosy, painted murals on the walls of his small house. According to Strickland's doctor, these murals were Strickland's masterpieces, and "brought to mind vague recollections of black magic". (239) Strickland spent the last year of his life blind but still gazing at these murals. Goya spent the last years of his life in a two-storey house outside Madrid where he, too, painted murals on the walls; these became his famous Black Paintings. Goya was deaf at the time he lived in the house, one of the reasons the house was called "Deaf Man's Villa". In The Moon and Sixpence, Strickland orders the house burnt to the ground upon his death, which his wife obliges to the doctor's dismay. Thankfully, Goya's Black Paintings suffered no such fate, and they hang on canvas in Madrid today.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 4

*Last month's book, F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, was released 99 years ago. This blog is on a century streak!