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.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Rediscovering the H.L. Hunley [WaPo] [UNC]

On Thursday, the Washington Post reported on the unearthing of the H.L. Hunley, the fabled Confederate submarine that sunk in 1864 while assaulting a Union post during the Civil War. After 136 long years on the seafloor near Charleston, South Carolina, and then another 17 years after the sub's recovery in 2000, a team of researchers were finally able to figure out what sunk it.

The report contains a picture of the inside of the recovered H.L. Hunley, as it looks now. The closest comparison I can think of is a sewer with a skeletal tree branch running through it.

Here's the report.

University of North Carolina biomedical engineer Rachel Lance, assisted by the omnipresent co-author et al., couldn't find a reason for the crew's deaths on the sub, as the Post explains:

But when they ventured inside the boat, they found not a single clue. Its 40-foot-long iron hull was barnacle-encrusted but not broken. The skeletons of eight members of the crew were found still in their seats at their respective battle stations; their bones bore no evidence of physical harm. The bilge pumps hadn't been activated. The air hatches were closed. There was no sign that anyone had tried to escape.

The report and article demonstrate that the H.L. Hunley may have accidentally sunk itself by means of a pressure wave caused by its own torpedo. The pressure wave could kill without a trace:

Instead, when a torpedo blows something up underwater, it creates pressure waves that reverberate in the water and through the body of anyone who happens to be in it. The instantaneous increase in pressure can squeeze oxygen out of the lungs and pop blood vessels in the brain. The effects are often deadly.

But the damage occurs exclusively in a victim's soft tissue, like the gut, lungs and brain — from the outside, it can be impossible to tell that the person has been harmed.

On the plus side, if it can be called that, the torpedo sank the Housatonic, a Union ship.

The academic article also contains some really cool diagrams of the H.L. Hunley as it would have looked on its final voyage back in 1864.

Here's the article.

A couple interesting thoughts after reading that aren't answered by the article or the study:

1. The WaPo story is filed under "Science", rather than "History" or something similar. Where does such an inherently interdisciplinary article get filed? The study it cites was written by an engineer, which supports the "Science" label. Still, not every traumatic blast happened in 1864, and history books frequently focus on disciplines from artists to homemaking...

2. To what extent did the Confederacy or outside observers realize what had happened? The discovery is so new, yet self-defeating pressure waves apparently weren't such a problem 50 years later when submarines were standard fare during World War I. The Russian Empire's submarine program faced severe problems in the Baltic Sea, but they were still 55 strong.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

ESPN: Finding Darko

This past Wednesday, ESPN published this fantastic piece by Sam Borden about retired NBA centre Darko Milicic.

Yes, that Darko.

from Detroit Free Press

Milicic was frequently the butt of jokes during his surprisingly long NBA career (2003-2012). Those who watched the 2003 NBA Draft recall the following draft order:

1. LeBron James
2. Darko Milicic
3. Carmelo Anthony
4. Chris Bosh
5. Dwyane Wade

Four of those five went on to do great things in the NBA. LeBron James has appeared in seven straight NBA Finals, winning three, among countless other accomplishments. Carmelo Anthony has career averages of 24.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Dwyane Wade has won three NBA championships, two of them coming with the aforementioned James. Chris Bosh has won two NBA championships, on those same Miami Heat teams with James and Wade. Bosh is also the only Toronto Raptor to ever average 20+ points and 10+ rebounds in the same season - thus far. (He's done it thrice.)

Milicic never made it in the NBA. No worries, though. He made $52 million, learned a lot about life, and now runs his own fruit farm in his home Serbia, near his hometown of Novi Sad.

He looks happy and healthy. A monk from his local monastery put it best (from the linked ESPN article at the top):

The monks see Darko differently than everyone else. When I ask Father Joanikije what he thinks of Darko as a person, he pauses for a beat or two, then says, "A man who succeeded in life. A man who achieved his goal."
They just see a man who has a wife and children and a business and a comfortable life and a place in the community of his hometown. They see a man who achieved his goal or, at the very least, is trying to right now. So why can't they be right?
Milicic mentions farming apples and cherries, two of my favourite fruits.

from the ESPN article mentioned above
Sometimes success comes in surprising places. Looking at it from a detached view, five years after Milicic's retirement, it doesn't seem that surprising that someone who seemed so unnatural in the NBA would return home to Serbia, put his money to good use, and put his efforts into something he loves.

Sounds delicious to me.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

June's Book: Marlfox

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

Marlfox is the 11th book (13th chronologically) in 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:


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.