I've finally self-published more original short fiction! This time it's another novelette, and farther in the puzzle/game direction I Drank the Toxic Cocktail started last year. The long description I gave on my Smashwords page explains this in better detail.
What 2012's I Drank the Toxic Cocktail started, The Knight and the Princess continues in spirit, although it is no sequel. The Knight and the Princess uses a series of character descriptions, hypotheticals, cryptic messages and logic puzzles to advance the reader through its fairy tale storyline. Borrowing intellectually from literary criticism, political science and economics, The Knight and the Princess tells a familiar tale of love and war in an analytical way. The story is told not through adventure or dialogue but through the minds of the protagonists as they grapple with the collapse of the kingdom they hold dear.
Every year, someone of some description who knows I'm an author asks, "are you doing NaNoWriMo?" Every year, my answer is simple: well, no. The next question is, inevitably, "why not?" I've made up a number of answers to this one, all of which are true. I'm busy with school, I have another novel I'm writing, and so on.
Back in 2010, no doubt under identical questioning, Max Barry gave the best answer of all: "I think it makes you write a bad novel." He said he doesn't like saying that but he's absolutely right. Admittedly, using his 2,000 word per day target outlined in that article results in writing more than 50,000 words per month. It's also done when one actually has a month available, not forced into November. I've used word targets extensively, just always over the course of a few months. Besides, if I have an idea in October that's so great, why would I wait until November 1 to kick it off?
Regarding the 15 writing techniques, End-to-End (#12) was used for Inside the Rift (2009) and Void (2011), whereas Jigsaw (#11) is being used for State of Sin (2014). I'm a night person, not a morning person, and I generally need to work at home. I used to listen to music years ago but no longer, and perhaps the occasional coffee or whisky splashes down my throat as I write.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson Horror (1954 - 96 pp.) I Am Legend occupies a weird space in literary history. It's too late to be Dracula yet too early to be about zombies. It's far past the Victorian era of Gothic revival yet predates the slasher movie by a solid 24 years. (For anyone wondering why I'm being so exact, it's a reference to the release date of the original Halloween, which I consider to be among the greatest horror movies ever created.) Yet here it is, vaguely in the same era as a book like Brave New World or 1984. Perhaps that's the kind of book that makes the most sense as a comparison for it. The dominant theme in the book is that of the self and the other, at least from what I can tell. Who is the in-group? Who is the out-group? Why do they differ? Consideration of why we maintain our selves and others is important to consider when reading I Am Legend, especially in light of the racial issues present in America at the time of its writing. Much of the rest of the book deals with the difficulty of dealing with one's own mind: "He turned away from the bar as if he could leave the question there. But questions had no location; they could follow him around." (44) Such a thought is chilling, as it makes the reader consider his or her own unanswered questions. Being left alone with them is almost as scary as the vampires besieging our protagonist, Robert Neville. The question I am certain every scholar has asked bears repeating here: what if instead of Neville being a human and all the other characters being vampires, the situation had been reversed? What if Neville was the only vampire and everyone else was human? The reader's perception of Neville would likely be very different. This is a very easy read. A few hours should be enough for anyone, even when re-reading some of the key passages like I did. It teaches the reader plenty about the human condition but not much else - but then again, I'm sure that's just an issue of the book focusing where Richard Matheson wants it to focus. As an aside, the Peggy Lee lyrics from her classic 1948 single "Love, Your Magic Spell Is Everywhere" humanize Neville in a way almost anything never could. Ease of Reading: 8 Educational Value: 5
Astonishingly, I hadn't read this one yet. A little less astonishingly, events prevented me from writing this entry until now despite having actually finished reading the book on Halloween. To the benefit of all my American friends' consciences for now knowing I've read To Kill a Mockingbird, here it is:
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee Literature (1960 - 257 pp.)
More than enough has been said about To Kill a Mockingbird, and I have read almost none of the many binders full of essays and book reports filed on it. Therefore, I will be brief. The storyline is easy to follow and well-told, with the plot acting as the defining feature of the book. The setting is convincing, the characters less so. Atticus Finch is the most essential Mary Sue I have ever read, and the antagonists - however defined, but the Ewells will suffice - have so few redeeming qualities they are barely human. The blatantly clear good versus evil dynamic in such a socially complex setting dampens the conflict, as none of the characters ever seem to be torn up about anything. Mrs. Dubose is possibly the most human character in the whole book, mainly because Atticus explains why she is to Jem and Scout partway through. If there is one thing I can possibly add, and I presume someone has thought of this well before I have, it is the observation that Atticus is basically Eddard Stark. Doing right and accepting blame to a fault crosses over multiple genres and time periods, it appears. The quotation from the book that resonates most with me is one from Atticus a short time before the famed trial: "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do." (103) It's something I have found true in my life and I am sure many others who have read the book in its 53 years of existence have as well. This is an easy read, with a couple points taken off for the occasional Southernisms that make us Northerners pull up a dictionary. The book, while educational in the sense of providing a telling picture of interwar Alabama, is not a traditionally educational book in the way some of the others I have read for this blog are. As a side note, the anti-Hitler comments on page 223 seem more like they are from 1960 than 1935. In 1935, Adolf Hitler's various actions were either not nearly as publicized or simply not done yet. That a family in small-town Alabama would even know who the leader of Germany was at the time seems surprising, let alone that it would take that particular view toward the particular issue mentioned (i.e. reasoned opposition to his persecution of the Jews). Ease of Reading: 8 Educational Content: 5
Today, I did something I've been meaning to do for almost a year now. I listed the seven cardinal virtues and seven deadly sins, and then listed how I observe the former and reject the latter. I then listed corresponding ways I can improve, whether becoming more virtuous or less sinful in the area I identified. I made a spreadsheet with four cells for each virtue and sin. Here's a blank version in case you're motivated to try it. As with all things of this nature, my finished version is blissfully private. It was a great experience, though - really enlightening. It forced me to think. I like to think of it as a Christian version of something like, say, The Happiness Project.
When I was 22, I broke my elbow two days before a scheduled flight from Toronto to Minneapolis. The X-ray tech in the ER described my prognosis as “very painful”. Forty-five minutes of surgery later, I had a plate and six screws in my elbow. Shortly thereafter, I received a potent blend of Demerol and morphine that kept me going through the following two nights in hospital. I told my mom to tell the people I was slated to see in Minneapolis about the injury. I would have called them myself but I was bedridden, frail and periodically hallucinating.
I was determined to make the trip to Minneapolis. I also knew my parents were going to Vancouver to visit my dad’s side of the family at the end of the month, and I really wanted to go with them. My dad’s father’s health was failing, and besides, I hadn’t seen most of his side of the family in four years. My aunt and uncle’s daughters were growing up so quickly, I didn’t want to miss a stage of their adolescence. The fracture unit staff at the hospital told me I couldn’t fly in a full cast – there was a worry of my arm expanding in midair – so I had a half cast put on.
I flew twice in that half cast, thrice if you count a hop from Vancouver Island to the mainland. I spent an extra week in the cast so I could make the Vancouver trip. Those trips ended up being some of the most valuable of my life. In Minneapolis, I got a better idea of where I wanted to move. (It ended up not being Minneapolis, but I still loved the city.) In Vancouver, I got to see my dad’s side of the family for the first time as an adult. Most importantly, it was the last time I ever saw my grandfather, who died a year and a half later. My dad had urged me to come to Vancouver, even though it would have been so much easier to get the half cast off a week earlier and stay home. To this day, I’m glad I took my dad’s advice.
I learned some valuable lessons from that month. One, that I was tougher than I’d realized; a person can really fight through even the most painful adversity. Two, that my pain would pass but the memories from those trips would remain. Three, that family can make almost anything worthwhile, even flying across Canada in a half cast. Four, that opportunities aren’t always there, so to take them every chance you get.
Heat Wave by Richard Castle
Mystery (2009 - 274 pp.)
Heat Wave is the first tie-in book to the hit ABC series Castle, which premiered a few months before this book's release. I was a latecomer to the show, only starting to watch it at the behest of a friend a few months ago, so this whole mystery-writer-joins-the-cops thing is still relatively new to me. I'm hooked, though.
The book is basically a textual Castle episode. Journalist Jameson Rook rides along with Detective Nikki Heat, bearing absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to writer Richard Castle riding along with Detective Kate Beckett. The characters, setting and plot are almost carbon copies of the show - set in New York City, a high-profile homicide with lots of twists and turns, and lots of bullets flying. Rook is cheeky, Heat is tough, the other main characters Raley and Ochoa ("Roach") have the same great characters their TV equivalents have, and the bad guys don't have many redeemable qualities. The character of Casper is an interesting one of a type not often seen in Castle episodes, which is a highlight. However much you like Castle, that is exactly how much you will like this book. The writing is very stock mystery but it works perfectly as a portrayal of how the pulp author Castle writes rather than attempting to tie some kind of literary masterpiece to a show that simply isn't about them. I got over the imperfections as soon as the plot started advancing.
As a bonus, there's a fake interview with Richard Castle at the end. It's hilarious. I was in stitches the whole time. Whoever wrote this book, a mystery ABC is keeping from us all until an undisclosed future date, has Richard Castle's personality down pat.
Completely unrelated to the book, I just had to listen to the Martha Reeves & the Vandellas classic "Heat Wave" while writing this entry. Having known the song since childhood, it played in my head a little every time I saw the book's cover.
I successfully completed Soup Diet Week! After a check-in, I've done everything I need to do. As of 12:00AM this morning, I've been able to eat whatever I want. I've responded by eating healthy food like chicken and pasta, and not so healthy food like a bit of candy and chips. Of all things, I've also eaten a couple cups of applesauce, which were such a staple on my fruit days I thought I'd be sick of them by now.
Day 4 ended up just as well as I could have hoped. Day 5 was a boon, the steak being just the thing I needed, although it was frustrated not being allowed to eat vegetables that day. The six fresh tomatoes I ate made for a nice snack cut into sixth like apple slices and seasoned with black pepper. On Day 6 I bought fast food - ginger beef and chow mein vegetables from a Chinese-Canadian place in my local food court. It was painful not being able to get chow mein noodles with them but such are the rules. Day 7's brown rice, which I cooked with the remainder of Day 2/3's zucchini and onion, was just as welcome as the steak.
I finished the week by killing off the rest of the soup. There was a surprisingly high amount left. I ate about two and a half bowls with less than two hours to go in the diet and even had enough to let a friend eat one. (She enjoyed it - it's not just me who likes the soup.)
Something any Soup Diet Week participant learns rather quickly is it's not about healthy eating habits, although those are encouraged. It's an Iron Man-style challenge. As tempting as it is to say, "you're already eating healthy, so why go to this extreme?" it's probably equally tempting to walk up to someone five hours into the Iron Man and say "you're already getting your exercise, so why go to this extreme?" It's a mental challenge and a personal achievement. I can now say I've done it, as little credibility as that I'm sure that buys me with anyone.
That said, I had fun cooking some of the dishes, I was still able to go to a bar and eat fast food, and I genuinely enjoy the soup. I may even start making roasted potatoes and salads a little more often now.
Here's my weight, by day, since I started. I'm 5'10" and am reasonably athletic. My scale measures in 1/5 pound increments.
Soup Diet Week: Weight Record (September 4-11, 2013)
Day 1 (Wednesday, September 4): 170.0
Day 2 (Thursday, September 5): 167.4
Day 3 (Friday, September 6): 165.2
Day 4 (Saturday, September 7): 164.2
Day 5 (Sunday, September 8): 164.0
Day 6 (Monday, September 9): 163.2
Day 7 (Tuesday, September 10): 163.8
Final (Wednesday, September 11): 163.2
I lost 4.8 pounds the first two days, which amazed me. The 2.0 pounds in the next three days is still quite impressive but is overshadowed by the first two days. After that, I leveled off considerably, which is to be expected once all the initial water weight is gone. I lost 6.8 pounds for the week, less than Ralph Pohlman's estimate of 8-10, but I think it was still a success. Perhaps people with greater weight loss goals than mine are more inclined to lose an extra couple pounds. The final measurement also factors in the food I ate after midnight, candy and diet cola included. I still haven't picked up a slice of bread since I finished, though.
Day 7's measurement was annoying. Gaining any weight on any day while on a crash diet is depressing. For a rebound effect, it was nothing. Now let's see if the weight stays off.
As I'm now most of the way through Day 4 of Soup Diet Week, this seems like a good time to share some observations from the first three days and most of today. My weight loss will be documented in the finale post because there's more of a pop to it when it hits all at once. Suffice to say it's going well.
Day 1 was surprisingly livable, largely thanks to my decision to fill up on potatoes and eggs at about 11:50PM the night before. It was also the time when I ate the most soup, seeing as the soup/fruit diet is probably the most restrictive of any day. A couple things I've realized while doing this diet are (1) to really lean on each day's prescribed foods, limiting the soup to about one meal per day in order to not get sick of it; and (2) to view it as a cooking challenge, and actually have fun with different foods on their allotted days. I've also upped my coffee consumption, as there's nothing prohibiting that, and I can barely drink anything else besides water for the first six days.
That leads us to Day 2, i.e. baked potato day. Seeing as Ralph Pohlman allows butter on the baked potato on this day, and I normally substitute out butter for olive oil when I cook, I figured I'd use some olive oil instead. That gave me enough to oil a pan. I ended up making this medley of a russet baker, an onion and a green pepper in the oven. I'm aware peppers contain seeds and are therefore fruit but it was easier to hold off on them on fruit day to use them on vegetable day for culinary purposes. I added plenty of basil, garlic, pepper and paprika, the last of which blackened a bit. For those interested in trying it, cut everything up and bake it at 400 for 70 minutes. I also ordered a mixed green salad with minimal balsamic vinaigrette dressing at a bar, proving that Soup Diet Week isn't a complete social life killer.
Day 3 was vegetable overload. I dealt with that by making this stirfry from zucchini, orange and yellow pepper, thai green chili, onion and bok choy, and then this salad (at 11:43PM!) from artichokes, the rest of the peppers, onions and chili garlic paste. I used a minimal amount of canola oil for the stirfry seeing as Ralph Pohlman doesn't specifically allow oil for this day. Planning certain foods for right before or right after midnight is smart if you're someone like me who's typically awake then.
Day 4 hasn't been nearly as bad as I thought it'd be. I never eat bananas as a snack, nor do I drink much milk. Maybe as a result of this diet, bananas and milk have never tasted so good. I'm down three of each and have three of each to go. Tomorrow, I finally get to eat meat again. That will be a boon.
As an aside, this is my 100th post! ...and it has nothing to do with books. So be it.
In 2000, psychiatrist and columnist Ralph Pohlman wrote a week-long diet guide for the Toronto Sun. Thirteen years later, I'm doing it! A friend and I will spend a week, starting tomorrow at 12:00AM and finishing on Tuesday, September 10 at 11:59PM, on this diet. She wants to lose weight and I like to think I'm a supportive friend.
The diet is based on a tomato and cabbage-based soup my mom has made a few times. It's delicious... the first three or four times. Subsisting on this soup and only prescribed foods should be special, to say the least.
Here's a textual version of the diet:
As much soup as possible may be eaten in addition to the following.
Day 1 (Wednesday, September 4): fruit other than bananas
Day 2 (Thursday, September 5): vegetables other than beans, peas or corn + baked potato
Day 3 (Friday, September 6): fruit and vegetables
Day 4 (Saturday, September 7): six bananas + six glasses of skim milk
Day 5 (Sunday, September 8): steak + can of tomatoes or six fresh tomatoes
Day 6 (Monday, September 9): beef (may be substituted for chicken or fish) + vegetables
Day 7 (Tuesday, September 10): brown rice + unsweetened fruit juice + vegetables
How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
Literary Theory (2003 - 314 pp.)
How to Read Literature Like a Professor covers a lot of the main patterns and images a careful, informed reader will (often? hopefully?) find in every book he or she reads. For the most part, each chapter covers a different type of image (death, sex, flying, water, et al.) along with appropriate examples in (mostly) 20th-century literature. Foster's choice of authors feels arbitrary at times - I know Toni Morrison and Angela Carter are acclaimed, but why them instead of similarly acclaimed authors? - but is generally consistent with the aims he sets out in the book. For the water chapter, pick a book that involves water imagery, and so on. My favourite choice, a book I had never heard of but think Foster explains masterfully, is Judith Guest's Ordinary People. The uses of drowning and identity in it are exactly what Foster is going for with his book.
Foster and I are in complete agreement on some of the points he makes. For one, I too consider "The Waste Land" to be by far T.S. Eliot's best work. I don't think "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is even good. The more important agreement we have, if only because it is far from limited to a single author, is the importance of avoiding tunnel vision. (This is an even bigger mantra in history.) Put glibly, a reader shouldn't impose his or her time's norms on a literary work. This principle can be applied to reading everything from The Iliad to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both of which Foster use as examples. Not everything was always the way it is now, nor will the way things are now persist forever. Understanding that is extremely important for any kind of literary or historical study.
One of Foster's readings that diverges considerably from mine is that of D.H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner". Foster reads it in lockstep with Lawrence's more salacious works, most notably Lady Chatterley's Lover. He goes on to depict "The Rocking-Horse Winner" as a story about masturbation; the boy cannot please his mother like his father used to (rather thankfully), so he engages in repetitious rhythmic motions hoping to win big while his sisters look on aghast. I had always read "The Rocking-Horse Winner" as being about opiate abuse. The boy is desperately trying to escape economic depression, is constantly trying to get back to where he used to be, eventually falls off the horse in an exhausted daze, and, of course, is riding a horse. Whether this means Foster is wrong, I am wrong, we are both wrong (maybe the boy's really just riding a rocking horse), or whether either interpretation is equally valid and we're both at least kind of right, is anyone's guess. Certainly, a reading about something with a bad stigma as of the story's 1932 publication date is a good start.
The extended section on Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party", which Foster reproduces in full and then discusses based on levels of imagery, is a sharp break from the rest of the book. Surely, in a book on literary theory, I hadn't expected to read actual fiction. It is a good story, perhaps not the masterpiece Foster makes it out to be, but definitely a signpost of modernism. Foster walks through how different levels of student may respond to the story, including an A answer from an English graduate and then Foster's own analysis. His analysis is more in-depth than mine, if only because I had no particular desire to write an essay on "The Garden Party" in the middle of reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor. When I want to write, I'll write. Reading a book is about reading. Although Foster makes some wonderful points, including a few I did not, I am stunned at the lack of attention he pays to Laura looking "Spanish" and the cottages at the bottom of the hill being "chocolate brown". In a story so reliant upon the insulation of the self from the other, I am surprised Foster does not draw attention to the exotic look Laura takes for the party or the racialized otherness* of the poor. Those descriptions are part of the linchpin of my criticism.
It is difficult to read a book like this without thinking of my own writing, as I imagine any author would. I have employed symbolism and allegory extensively, yet I tend to bristle a little at the idea I may have included something beyond my intent. There have been times when I have included elements of a story that I do not consider crucial to the main point in a haphazard way simply to show they do not matter as much. Examples are generating lesser characters' names using a random name generator and giving objects such as cars arbitrary colours simply because people tend to notice their colours when they see them. Any professor who reads something into one of these traps would have a very unpleasant surprise at discovering its true nature, I suspect.
Now for a footnote section far longer than mine have ever been before:
INSIDE THE TEXT: My page numbers are so different from the original book's (thanks, e-readers!) I haven't bothered giving page references, only chapter references by topic. The book is so well organized nothing should be too difficult to find.
BRAGGING: When discussing different grades of literary development, Foster places Great Expectations in the "Master Class". I read it in grade 11, at the tender age of 16. Feels good. I moved on to Bleak House in early 2012.
SELF-AWARENESS: Yes, I understand how ridiculous "racialized otherness" sounds, and how much it gives away that I hold an English degree. Well, you think of a better way to describe what's happening in the story.
NITPICKING: In his discussion of "Lolita", Foster uses the term "pederasty" to describe Humbert's affections for Lolita. When I read that, alarm bells immediately went off in my head - isn't pederasty limited to homosexual interactions? I looked it up to confirm and yes, I am right on this one. This is minor, though, as Foster's communication isn't really hampered by this tiny error. I also refuse to recognize anything as mind-bending as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as "kiddie lit", but I recognize it's one of the literary works Hollywood has gift-wrapped for children in the years since its publication.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS: From Foster's conclusion: "What this book represents is not a database of all the cultural codes by which writers create and readers understand the products of that creation, but a template, a pattern, a grammar of sorts from which you can learn to look for those codes on your own. No one could include them all, and no reader would want to plow through the resulting encyclopedia." Astoundingly, TVTropes would start doing this exact thing the following year (Est. 2004), and has garnered widespread popularity for it.
OUTSIDE THE TEXT: Foster drew my attention to "The Arrow of Heaven" by G.K. Chesterton for the first time. I love the premise of that story, but having read it, Chesterton is far too taken with the detective/mystery angle to really use the premise to its fullest extent. It would be better off as a logic puzzle or brainteaser than as a full pulp story, as the character development never adds to the solution of the problem, only distracts from it. Maybe I'll write it as a puzzle and see what happens.
On Tuesday, Brandon Sneed of SB Nation posted this story on early '80s Detroit Tigers hopeful Bill Dillon. It's an incredibly written piece, and is a must-read for anyone interested in baseball, criminal law and/or detective stuff.
Something that's been around for a few years but has more or less languished in obscurity is The Fantasy Novelist's Exam. It consists of 75 yes/no questions any prospective author should ask him- or herself before writing a fantasy novel. An answer of "yes" to so much as - get this - one of the questions "results in failure and means that the prospective novel should be abandoned at once." This isn't a traditional high-school test, in which either 50% or 60% (depending where you are) connotes a pass, nor is it an occupational test sitting in the 70-80% range. Not in the least. A normally sterling 74/75 will fail you this test. As I haven't written a full-length work of fantasy in a number of years, and probably never will again, I sadly can't nominate any of my work to be put through it. What I can nominate, however, is Wizard's First Rule, which I reviewed here last year. The book is the first book in the Sword of Truth series. For those unconvinced of how steeped in the genre this book is, I quote the author text from Reed Business: The protective barrier that separates Westland from its neighbors to the east is about to fall, letting loose a monstrous evil upon the world. Only the combined efforts of a young man dedicated to finding the truth, an enigmatic woman intent on concealing her past, and a crusty old hermit resigned to his inevitable destiny can prevent the opening of the three boxes of Orden-an event with the potential to destroy existence itself. The inclusion of graphic scenes of sado-eroticism, though integral to the story, may deter purchase by some libraries. Nevertheless, this first novel offers an intriguing variant on the standard fantasy quest. The richly detailed world and complex characters will appeal to mature fantasy aficionados.
It's an interesting exam and a fun book. The combination of the two will probably result in something akin to the famed death of short-lived Simpsons robot Linguo. Here are the question numbers corresponding to "yes", as done for Wizard's First Rule:
That's a solid 40/75, or, to invert the score like I did above, 35/75. On a test requiring 74/75 (.987) to pass, Wizard's First Rule got a lowly 35/75 (.467). None of this should be considered surprising.
So, basically, if you're going to write a fantasy novel, either avoid all the items on the list or hit as many as you can with such extreme audacity no one's reaction will matter? That should do fine.
The Hobo Handbook by Josh Mack
Non-Fiction (2011 - 200 pp.)
The Hobo Handbook is one of the most practical books I've ever read. Although I doubt I'll become an 1890s-style riding the rails with no fixed address hobo at any time, the book is remarkably modern. A life of Craigslist odd-jobs, VIA/Amtrak rides and couch surfing feels a lot more doable than the frequently mentioned train-hopping. Camping is also discussed at length. While I knew about a few of the subjects Josh Mack mentions (like the importance of purifying water), tips on how to cook a fish over a campfire are useful even for the relatively light packer who isn't a hobo. Sections like the one on signage hobos use to communicate feel quainter but add to the historical background Mack uses to flesh out the reasoning behind the hobo way of life.
The main premise of all this travel is the romantic notion of living life without being under the control of landlords, cable companies, you name it. Mack concedes this control may not seem so bad after a while on the road. I've never been one to rail against corporations, and indeed, Mack discusses the importance of maintaining a bank account. The hobo experience is one that truly has to be done for love, as it isn't profitable and doesn't succeed in removing you from society. The money you save not having to pay rent and bills (although you'll probably maintain a smartphone anyway) is more than offset from the money you aren't getting working a traditional job. The hobo lifestyle started as a way for the unemployed and unattached to travel the United States while finding work wherever it came. Perhaps that resonates with the open-minded yet increasingly jobless youth of today?
My favourite parts are the ones that depart from the book's very loose story entirely. The opening Hobo Aptitude Test and the three appendices vindicate The Hobo Handbook's purported field guide status. I have a penchant for books like this, having read so many novels in my 25 years I need frequent changes of pace. The lack of traditional literary forms is what makes The Hobo Handbook so much fun. Seeing as Mack has done much of what he writes, I was worried this might be an account of his travels. The end product here is far more interesting.
The only qualm I have with this book is the sometimes lax copy-editing. Seemingly every chapter has one or two typos. It's not enough to interrupt the flow of the book, just enough to make an author/journalist/humanities graduate like me a tiny bit annoyed. Otherwise, the language is accessible enough for an airport read yet engaging enough for a more in-depth look.
State of Sin is the working title of the novel I'm about to write. I wrote this promotional blurb for it, working city names and all. Here's a piece of the writing process:
Bankers, farmers and mobsters fight over what it means to be a good person. The boardrooms of Fourth Rome vie with the homesteads of Inlandia for supremacy in the legislature. For some, one moral miscue is a banishment to the underworld – for others, acting morally is the problem. A shroud of lawlessness means morality is all that matters.
The Monroe Doctrine by Jay Sexton
History (2011 - 250 pp.)
The Monroe Doctrine is an easily readable (at least to the history major), well-written narrative about the history of the Monroe Doctrine from its drafting in 1823 until World War I. It concerns itself primarily with the men who drafted it (including then-future president John Quincy Adams), the intellectual conception of the Doctrine from approximately 1823-1920, and most of all the domestic and foreign policy ramifications. Jay Sexton aptly states that perhaps the Monroe Doctrine should be pluralized, as its many interpretations included such diametric opposites as expansionist/isolationist and anti-slavery/pro-slavery. The story of empire as it unfolded in nineteenth-century America is connected to the malleability of the Doctrine, as Sexton demonstrates.
As someone who has received at least some baseline historical training, but not in American history, I found the book very accessible. Sexton assumes the reader has an idea of who the presidents of the period were and what the major world events were. He does not, however, presume intimate knowledge of the background involved, for example the why of the Gadsden Purchase or of the 1895 kerfuffle in Venezuela. He also stays very strictly on topic, avoiding perhaps interesting side commentaries on events indirectly influencing invocations of the Monroe Doctrine such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act. One of the more curious aspects of the book is his willingness to cast usually derided presidents like James Buchanan in a rather neutral light. The whole book is refreshing in this way.
The one criticism I can make of this book is that nowhere does it actually include the text of the Monroe Doctrine. A full reprinting of Monroe's 1823 address, with the paragraphs identified as the Doctrine in bold, would be best. It must be in the public domain by now, after all. While I am certain I could find it easily, it would be very convenient to have the text handy for reference as I read. Getting through a 250-page on the impact of a document not made readily available to the reader feels a little awkward.
From now until June 23 (this coming Saturday), take some method of transportation other than driving to your workplace for the chance to win prizes! As a devoted transit-goer, the 21st annual Clean Air Commute sounds great to me. Canadians only.
O.P.E.N. Routine by Christopher Craft
Marketing (2013 - 105 pp.)
In O.P.E.N. Routine, Christopher Craft looks at his four elements of personal branding (Opportunity, Passion, Education, and Networking) in an easily readable, engaging little book. While the book does not cover much in the way of new ground, it sums up a lot of the current branding wisdom well, and also adds a lot of Craft's personal touches. (The Atlanta Falcons references are welcome to this football fan, for example.)
My favourite part of O.P.E.N. Routine is that it constantly forces the reader to look inward. What use is reading about personal branding if you aren't thinking about your own personal brand, after all? The six-part question on page 50, near the start of the "Passion" section, is one I answered in about two seconds, with the same answer for all six questions:
"1. What will keep you working through your body's desire to sleep?
2. What would you do every day without monetary compensation?
3. What activity makes you not care about your comfort zone?
4. What doesn't feel like work?
5. What feels right?
6. What's the one thing that makes you feel like nothing else matters?"
Quick, try to guess what I said. Similarly, there's an exercise at the end of the introduction imploring the reader to write a short essay and then email it to Chris. I did so and found it to be a fun exercise.
The "Networking" section can be underwhelming, although perhaps that should be credited to my pre-existing human resources training. Social media platforms are so new that any advice on how to navigate LinkedIn, Twitter and their ilk can only be preliminary no matter who is offering it. I knew most of what was in this section, more so than the others, although again, O.P.E.N. Routine is a pocket guide, not an atlas. Overall, it's a good read and a good way to spend a lazy day thinking without labouring.
A worthy read that discusses the very real pitfalls of one of higher education's fastest booming trends. I agree wholeheartedly with pretty much all of it. One of the greatest experiences of my life has been getting to know my professors on a personal level.
The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen
Thriller (2012 - 370 pp.)
This is Owen Laukkanen's first book, or at least first to be published on any kind of wide scale. It is about four university graduates who, unable to find jobs in this horrendous market, resort to kidnapping. The premise is great, as are Laukkanen's kidnappers, headed by (of course) one with a master's in English, Arthur Pender. His girlfriend and partner in crime, Marie McAllister, holds a history degree. As someone with a degree in history and English, I can attest to its being far from useless, but the satirical value alone deserves a smile.
Laukkanen's character development, foreshadowing, and grasp of American geography are among the defining features of the book. Each of his kidnappers share a multitude of experiences, something I think really binds the Millennial generation. Each event, from a kidnapping to which state's plates are on a given stolen car, builds toward the book's shocking climax that will not be divulged here. The book has virtually no falling action whatsoever, which does not present a problem. The plane and car chases across the United States are really well done, especially considering the Canadian-ness of the author (Canadian-ness and a certain affinity for the United States being traits I also possess). Some of the characters' flight patterns feel ill-conceived but that can be chalked up to the urgency they face rather than any authorial fault.
The few flaws are of the suspension of disbelief variety. How does a character who is genuinely shocked at the sight of a gun suddenly become such an adept street fighter less than a week later? How do some characters persist for days with gaping gunshot wounds, while others crumple and die in seconds? These and similar questions are perhaps best left unanswered. They do not take away from the enjoyment of the book, though, and are nowhere near as egregious as similar flaws found in the average James Bond movie. (Moonraker, of course, being in its own category altogether.)
As someone whose favourite character is Arthur Pender by a mile, and who found the kidnappers by far the most compelling characters (among the best scenes in the book are when their underlying motives and tensions surface), it is disappointing the next book will be about a police team I found uninspiring. Agents Stevens and Windermere play roughly the role Sandra Bullock's character does in Murder by Numbers. As much as I enjoyed The Professionals, I am unsure as to how excited I am to read Laukkanen's next book. Four university graduates, each with his or her own fun personality, turning to kidnapping, is a gripping story. A mismatched cop team... I suppose we will see.
I'm beyond terrible at timing this year so far. I have the next couple weeks off so expect a lightning-speed comeback. Well, I hope.
After the Welfare State ed. Tom G. Palmer
Politics (2012 - 136 pp.)
As with almost any political book, suffice to say I agree with parts of it but not with other parts. As this is a compilation of essays rather than a monograph, with Tom G. Palmer writing only some of them (albeit certainly selecting the others in part due to their thematic consistency with his overarching thesis), that is to be expected. The title, and the subtitle "Politicians Stole Your Future... You Can Take It Back", provide a good five-second rundown of that thesis. Palmer and his American, Italian, Greek and British contemporaries take unbridled shots at the political establishment, big government, social programs, and what they see as the erosion of liberty since the nineteenth century.
Italy and Greece's economies emerge as easy targets. Decades of increased government control, along with a clientelist structure, are described very effectively in a way that would make any U.S. Senator blush. The doomsday warnings of America's economy heading in the Italian/Greek direction feel a little exaggerated, but only a little. Hidden between the usual comments about Social Security being a Ponzi scheme are very real concerns about reckless lending from banks that had no stake in the outcome of the home loans they underwrote and bought. The American Dream may not fade as quickly as Palmer and his contemporaries argue, yet 2011's US home ownership rates validate their claims. It is also worth mentioning that public healthcare has worked to varying degrees in Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden, among other countries. Whether it could succeed in a country with as many unique problems as America at this point can only be conjecture. A Dutch- or Swedish-style system may be in some other countries' futures.
The admittedly bachelor-level historian in me finds "Part II: The History of the Welfare State and What It Displaced" particularly interesting. "Bismarck's Legacy", Palmer's entry in this section, is an uncharacteristically scathing review of the Bismarck administration, which is usually more lauded. The connection between it and Adolf Hitler's regime feels tenuous at times, although the continuation of the social safety net is explained well. The essays on mutual aid societies were the most educational parts of the book to me, explaining a community I knew almost nothing about and am now very interested in learning about more. The big takeaway I get from this part is that people will voluntarily help each other even when there is no exertion of the coercive power of the state.
Like many a libertarian manifesto before it, and likely many after it, After the Welfare State does not explain exactly how people without money should be acquiring their healthcare or education. Perhaps my qualm in that regard is a sign of my own attachment to the restrained Canadian version of the welfare state Palmer fears.
Ease of Reading: 4 (much higher for those with history, political science, and/or economics backgrounds)
This has been making headlines lately. As an advocate of education, I feel the need to respond to it.
Others have already discussed the relative value of her degree (BS in digital media with a music minor), as well as her attitude toward employment, so I'll leave those points. What I want to address is this part:
But none of that really matters Send Cash
As parody or sarcasm, perhaps as an existential rant on employers' recruiting practices as they pertain to non-STEM degrees, I like it. If it's serious, I feel bad for her past four years.
Still, come on, graduation is a milestone in life.
O Venerable Shirt Laundry Challenge, it was nice knowing you while you lasted. Last night and tonight have entailed an obscene amount of laundry, naturally. That was fun. Certainly let me know it'll be a while before I buy another shirt.
I'd post a picture of the completed laundry pile but I figure the month mark is enough of that.
A couple hours ago, The Awl published this article. It sheds a lot of light on the problems contemporary writers face. The part about student loans is certainly accurate. As someone who's never fully been in favour of educational programs teaching creative writing (teaching creativity is something I can't get behind, and writing is a component of most arts programs anyway), the idea that someone with a MFA would be a more qualified writer than I am is mildly disturbing. I certainly don't see creative writing as a viable career option, both in terms of the ability to get paid and the motivation for writing. Economic incentives can severely change a writer's output...
...which brings me to suggestion #1, The Unworkshop. I don't like its name, which is too much like Uncollege for my liking, but I love the concept. I'd gladly participate, especially as the person who would stand to gain financially. I wouldn't view it as much of an exercise in improving my writing. It's the industrial relations student in me that would get the most fun.
The Accounting sessions would be good. I'm a huge proponent of financial literacy. As someone who's learned the business of freelance writing through continuing education and found it highly educational, at a fraction of university cost no less, this is something I can support.
All I have to say about the Grant Writing section is that if this statement, "Even more important than your own writing, which is what it is, is your ability to write in such a way that people will give you money", isn't sarcastic, it's alarming. If your goal is to make money, writing's about the last thing you should do.
Charm Classes, Sex Ed, and Concentration Class? Sure, why not.
I like challenging myself to do all kinds of different things. Sometimes they're ambitious, lofty, or meaningful, like the venerable Book a Week 2012. Other times, not so much. This challenge falls in the latter category.
I last did laundry on March 10th. I imagine I'll be doing laundry again soon. This next time, though, I won't be washing any shirts. Or the next time. Or (possibly) the time after that. The challenge is to see how many days I can go without washing a shirt. Re-wearing a shirt also isn't allowed. On days when I don't need to leave the apartment, not wearing a shirt is fine.
For the record, I own 43 shirts, at least that are with me in my current home. (There are a couple sitting around at my parents' place but that's a four-hour flight away.) They come in a variety of styles, colours, and appropriateness in different situations. How will I allocate these shirts to yield the longest possible non-laundry streak? I'll have to balance this hopefully next month and then some among everything from double-cuff dress shirts to the rattiest band shirts from my younger days. It's easy to have enough shirts planned out when you wash them every two weeks - what happens when you can't?
This might end up being environmentally friendly in the form of saving energy. More likely, it'll result in a massive load of laundry when I finally give in and wash my shirts.
I finished this book a week ago. I'm finally getting around to this entry now. Sorry and all that.
--- How to Make Love Like a Porn Star by Jenna Jameson with Neil Strauss
Autobiography (2004 - 592 pp.)
As with any book with a ghostwriter, it can be hard to tell where Jenna ends and Neil begins. The book is well written, especially as far as the quite interesting plot goes. The ups and downs of fame and abuse recounted in sometimes graphic detail are interesting regardless of Jenna's occupation. The pacing feels a little odd at times, with adulthood and childhood mashed together even when it does not seem topical, but there are enough consistent parts to stop the book from suffering.
Much of the book concerns Jenna's internal strife while her world spun around her. Her childhood diary is dutifully preserved and scanned so you can read her writing. Her various firsts come out in detail, as do topics ranging from her insecurity about her body ("Time's Scythe", Chapter 42) to her need "for someone to love me for myself, not for my looks or body." (Time's Scythe", Chapter 46) One of the more sobering moments, albeit there are many, comes when she reflects upon all that has occurred in the first three decades of her life: "When I look back at the people who had to deal with me, I feel terrible." ("Trophies of Lovers Gone", Chapter 9) Throughout, she refers to then-husband Jay Grdina with nothing but praise; their 2006 divorce would be an interesting subject for a second-edition preface, should she chose to be as open about that as about seemingly everything else.
Life in the porn industry certainly does not look appealing, which is presumably the impetus for the subtitle "A Cautionary Tale". From the human side, there are all ranges of experiences one may encounter, which are told far more effectively than I could venture here. From the business side, there are numerous examples of porn contracts, many with restrictive terms and moderate salaries in the $40,000-$70,000 range. Strippers often make far more, to the point that a 19-year old Jenna earned $1000+ per night - before her big break in porn. Post-break, she mentions buying $3,800 and $5,000 dresses. Make of all this what you will.
The celebrity stories are among the more interesting anecdotes. Want to know what it was like to party with Marilyn Manson in the late '90s? Or to dance for Nicolas Cage? This book can tell you. I was especially touched by her description of dancing at a strip club in Toronto; she was apparently pelted with coins while onstage and then arrested for obscenity. ("The Gentle Closure of My Breast", Chapter 5) My distaste for strip clubs aside, I always fall for when my hometown receives famous visitors.
My favourite line in the whole book is one her father says in reference to the time he spent with her mother: "Even if I had the worst life in the world afterward, I knew I’d always have that." ("Time's Scythe", Chapter 1) That's what memories are for. It really puts the rest of the book into perspective.
I'd read quite a bit of Mitch Albom's work for the Detroit Free Press (an inevitable consequence of having watched so much Pistons basketball in their mid-2000s heyday) but never any of his fiction. Time Keeper follows the concurrent stories of Dor, a man who becomes Father Time; Sarah, a seventeen-year old high school in New York City; and Victor, an exceedingly wealthy octogenarian who also lives in New York City. The lessons they are able to teach each other, especially the ones the fantastically doomed Dor teaches the urbanites, form the basis of the book's substance. Most of the time Albom builds up to these moments by humanizing the characters through background stories that portray life in New York City, or in Dor's case, that inject prehistoric fantasy. (One offshoot of this is that Albom gives himself a perfect opportunity to use the word "karst".)
Overall, I thought it was well-written and interesting, albeit lacking that it factor that made a book like Night Circus so endearing. As much as I enjoyed it, I feel like having not read it wouldn't have altered my life much. Albom's characters are good, realistic fits; Sarah, for example, feels like a believable teenage girl. His settings are good, reflecting their surroundings yet not overly dense for this type of writing. The plot felt already done, which is my main qualm with what ended up being a good page-turner. The didacticism is a bit of a turnoff for such a light read yet it is of a relatively benign variety (e.g.: the reader isn't stuffed full of political protests or anything) so it doesn't affect the reading experience much. Albom's faith is evident throughout, which I personally like but may not resonate so much with other readers.
The best quotation from Time Keeper occurs near the end, during an exchange between the eponymous character and one of the people he discovers. It happens near the end of the book but doesn't spoil anything, unless you thought a charming Christian easy read would be killing off characters A Song of Ice and Fire-style.
DOR: "There is a reason God limits our days."
DOR: "To make each one precious." (206)
If you have a night free and are a fan of Albom's work, check this out.
Last June, I blogged about Generations, a (the?) seminal book of what we now call generational theory. Yesterday, The Week posted this article about Millennials. It appears I'm not the only Generations fan. (For the record, I like The Week article. It's nice to see these Greatest Generation/Millennial comparisons float around considering the shared affinity for technology and civic duty.)
Breaking news: I have just finished writing a choose your own adventure book. Once I have the formatting perfected, it should be ideal for e-readers. The effort took me three non-consecutive days (one in August, one in October, and today) and totals 17,464 words. Hopefully it can be up soon! It was a fun one to write.
This story has nothing to do with me except that a character has the same name as me. I never knew exactly who I'd be as a fictional character. As it turns out, I'm the colleague and friend of a lawyer-turned-prostitute who, well, seems to like her quite a bit. From Dark Haven Book Reviews:
For her parents’ sake, Leila the lawyer becomes Charlotte the whore. It’s a financially lucrative business, and now with only a few jobs needed to finish paying off the debt, there’s light at the end of this sordid tunnel. However, the unexpected brings her whoring and professional side crashing together when her boss, Joseph Merchant, with her colleague and friend, Matthew Gordon, hire her for a night. A one night ménage tryst opens the door to emotional and sexual ramifications that affect them all. Her boss, may be the choreographer of their ensuing sexual dance, but it’s still up to Leila to choose her partner and decide the life she’ll lead. Being in law school makes this passage feel oddly fitting. (NOTE: In case it wasn't already clear, this character bears no resemblance to me that I can tell from this review.)
N for non-fiction / F for fiction
R for recommendation
E for e-book
with running totals of N/F/R/(R)/E/(E) afterward, (R) meaning not recommended and (E) meaning a print book.
Some stats that will likely only interest those who are as big lit nerds as I am:
3 of the first 6 books I read were recommendations - only 11 of the remaining 44 were. If you recommend me a book wondering if I honestly intend to read it anytime soon, hopefully that should answer you pretty definitely.
I read 8 fiction recommendations and 6 non-fiction recommendations.
11 of the first 14 books I read were non-fiction. 9 of the next 12 books I read were fiction, leaving me at an at least somewhat balanced 14 non-fiction to 12 fiction after the first half of the year. The difference between non-fiction and fiction never exceeded three books after that, which it only did once (24 non-fiction to 21 fiction after 45 books).
After reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (completed August 8th), I'd read 16 fiction books and 15 non-fiction books. That was the only time all year I'd read more fiction than non-fiction.
My move halfway across the continent made it prohibitively difficult to drag all my print books with me. It worked nicely for e-books, though. Before the move, which took place on August 30th, I'd only read 8 e-books out of 34 total. After that, I read 11 e-books out of 18 total, including the print book I took with me on the plane.
September 30th-October 6th's Secrets from the Vinyl Café was the last print book I own that I read. The print books I read after it all came from the library. I have a couple print books lying around that may surface soon for Book a Month 2013, though...
To anyone looking for read a book a week for an entire year, whatever motivation you may hold, any of the ones on that spreadsheet are good picks. Certain books aren't meant for busier weeks (like the immensely difficult In the Days of the Comet, the immensely long Wizard's First Rule, or the combination of those two phenomena in Bleak House) but that's what variety can do.
This was definitely a one-off experience. It was a great time and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
In order to focus on writing fiction, as well as the rest of life, I'm looking at reading and writing on a book each month in 2013. This is something I could hypothetically continue indefinitely as long as I live. The same variety of old and new, fiction and non-fiction, and the rest still applies. This'll also allow me to read longer books, which were with few exceptions not an option for Book a Week.