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.




Friday, March 31, 2017

[Amazing Stories] March's Writing Prompt: A Week at the Conference Table

Imagine seven people at a conference table.


On Monday, they show up as usual.

On Tuesday, though, each mind shifts one body to the left. Red's mind is in orange body and so on. On Wednesday, they shift again, so that red's mind is in yellow's body, and so on. By the next Monday, they're back where they started. In one full week, a mind has experienced the life of seven bodies, limited to one day of the week, and then the cycle repeats.

Do these people compete for the bodies in some way, or do they view all seven bodies as a corporeal commons?

Were they always like this, or did they wake up one day to find themselves in this predicament? Did they even know it'd happen?

Most pressingly, who are these people and why are they here?

Check out my blog post "A Week at the Conference Table" on Amazing Stories to see a few of the possibilities that emerge...

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

March's Book: Save the Cat

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Non-Fiction (2005 - 195 pp.)

Blake Synder's Save the Cat is part memoir (he wrote Blank Check, after all), part DIY guide to screenwriting. Snyder's overarching theory is that movies fall into preset categories with predetermined plot arcs - but that doesn't mean just anyone can write the next summer blockbuster. There are rules about what sells, according to Snyder. The title comes from the notion that a sympathetic character must be one we see Save the Cat, or do a good deed that flaunts a redeeming quality.

As a screenwriting guide, it only makes sense that Save the Cat would apply, and not apply, to many screenplays. What can I, as a fiction author, take from Snyder's methods?

I don't usually open with something I don't like about a book, but Snyder is on such a solid foundation with the clarity and fun of his writing style that I can make an exception here. The 10 Types of Movies (25-26), while certainly 10 available types of movies that span a wide range, are far from a comprehensive list. His focus on theme rather than genre is impressive, such as grouping Dracula with Superman under "Superhero". However, he lacks movies centred on internal conflict or on the relationship between character and setting. If a book like 1984 were ever made into a movie, where would it lie? It could be "Institutionalized" ("about groups"), but that categorization would be so facile it'd be meaningless. "Institutionalized" seems better served for movies like Mean Girls and The Secret Life of Pets.

My favourite parts of Save the Cat are the most interactive ones. Each chapter ends in numbered exercises, textbook-style; I should do that in a novel sometime. Near the start of the book, Snyder introduces loglines: single sentences that answer the question "What is it?" using (1) irony, (2) a compelling mental picture, (3) audience and cost, and (4) a killer title. (16) Audience and cost are through images, like how "interstellar flight" probably costs more to produce than "two people sitting at a restaurant". A little later on is the Beat Sheet, one of Snyder's most famous contributions to the world of screenwriting. (70) Using that sheet, a would-be screenwriter can plan out an entire 110-page play, being careful not to miss a single plot point. It's fun to apply these sorts of tools to any form of writing or storytelling to see where there might be a plot point missing.

Notice I said "plot". Save the Cat is all about plot. When Snyder discusses the protagonist, with precious little description of the other characters, he calls the protagonist "the guy who needs the lesson most". (50) He does this in the middle of his list of plot points, with a subsequent heading up "AMPING UP THE LOGLINE". This is the extent to which Save the Cat prioritizes the plot. I appreciate this, though, given my stultifying aim toward character and setting.

A word Snyder uses a lot, and explains late in the book, is "primal". Every character has to be motivated by something base in Save the Cat: food, sex, survival, or some variation. (158) Expanding these terms, as Snyder does, the primal motivation makes sense on its face. Escaping the basement of the hockey standings can be survival. Romance can be sex. All kinds of things can be food. Whether all memorable motivations really are primal is debatable. What about nationalism or civic duty? I like the way Snyder uses the word to force the viewer to think about visceral reactions, though. Before someone is truly engaged with a work, some base level of attention has to be grabbed.

Something I frequently recommend during the writing workshops I attend is to describe something in narrative or in dialogue but not both. My favourite example is to say to a writer not to write, "'I am wearing red', said the man in red." Snyder agrees with me in his warning about "talking the plot":
Try "talking the plot" in real life. Seriously. Go to a party or meet with a group of friends and say: "I sure am glad I'm a screenwriter who was born in Chicago!" or "Gosh, you've been my friend for 20 years ever since we met in high school!" See what reaction you get to this kind of dialogue.
Considering how fabricated many of Snyder's plot points feel (All Is Lost always on the same page? Really?), it's nice to see him side with the realists among us.

As a writer and contrarian, I had to think: "What are some exceptions to Snyder's seemingly hard and fast rules?" The one that immediately comes to mind is My Dinner with Andre, the movie Roger Ebert once called "entirely devoid of cliches". The plot is simple: two men sit down for dinner, and the movie follows their conversation. The characters, and the settings imparted by their words, are what make the movie work. Neither character has a Save the Cat moment, the Bad Guys (who? the waitstaff?) never Close In,* and there's certainly not much primal going on. Then, I tend to believe that rule-breaking is for the classics anyway.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 8

NOTE: Pages 186-194 list a glossary of the terms Snyder invents, converts and otherwise uses in the book. As someone who loves reference guides, I fell in love with this section immediately.

*Snyder cites "Bad Guys Close In", the part of the screenplay when the protagonist's nadir becomes an appetizing meal for the antagonist, as the toughest part to write. (85)