Wednesday, December 31, 2014

WWII-Era Heinlein

A couple years ago, I finished the venerable Book a Week by posting about Stranger in a Strange Land. I've finally returned to the work of Robert A. Heinlein by reading a couple of his WWII-era stories - "-And He Built a Crooked House", published in 1941, and "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag", published in 1942. Each is significantly earlier than the aforementioned Stranger in a Strange Land, which was published in 1961. Each provides a good view into that era's pulp sci-fi, which I admittedly know only as a dabbler, yet each is drastically different from the other.

Of what I've read of his so far, i.e. these three works, "-And He Built a Crooked House" is my favourite. It is only 12 pages long, and is available as a free e-book, making it perfect for an e-reader ride on a subway/light rail/commuter train/etc. Its opening, which zooms into the story's Hollywood setting, is a great piece of humour that shows off some of Heinlein's wittier writing. The main story concerns the question, "What if a house were built in the shape of a tesseract?" The story itself is an imaginative construction of the likely possibilities, as well as some twists I wouldn't have included but which make the story more surreal. (No spoilers, and yes, I know I'm refusing to spoil a story published in 1941.) The math-fiction blend of this story, ostensibly of the Flatland variety, is what sets it apart from other sci-fi of the time period. It is something I far prefer to aliens and ray guns, or even to only slightly more realistic Lovecraft-style fiction. The way Heinlein has characters living in an otherwise normal world become legitimately confused upon attempting to navigate the tesseract-shaped house is reminiscent of a work like the 2000 horror book House of Leaves.

My one issue with "-And He Built a Crooked House" is that it often devolves into using the protagonist, architect Quintus Teal (and what a name!), as a vehicle for explaining complex mathematical concepts rather than as a real person. How I would deal with this, I'm not sure, as most readers probably aren't too familiar with four-dimensional objects. I sometimes felt as though he resembled a textbook more than a character, though, and could even be an example of the author speaking through a character in that sense. Then again, this was one of my chief criticisms of the last part of Stranger in a Strange Land, so I wasn't too surprised it surfaced.

"The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" is significantly longer, at about 50 pages, and has more of a coherent storyline. It is also apparently a candidate for a movie rendition, which I think could work great. Of course, In the Country of Last Things has been in movie limbo for almost a decade now, so as with most movie releases, I'll believe it when I see it. Like "-And He Built a Crooked House", "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" is at its best when it sticks to events that make one unrealistic deviation from the real world, rather than making further deviations from the first one. More simply, when either of these stories asks "What if our real world were modified in this way?" rather than "What if our now modified world were further modified?", it is at its best. The titular character's mysterious occupation is thrilling enough without realism having to be completely shunted in order to accommodate the fantastical storyline that comprises the second half of the book.

A few observations: this story is by far the earliest instance of the phrase "Keep your pants on" (18) I have ever seen. I cracked a smile at that one. The completely surprising kick to the groin a character suffers later on is equally slapstick-happy. (51) The '40s noir atmosphere is plainly evident in the private eye calling his also-a-private-eye-wife "kid" throughout the story. Although I liked the first ten pages best of the whole story, as Heinlein does an absolutely brilliant job setting up the story's principal problem (i.e. what does Jonathan Hoag actually do during his days?), the last few paragraphs making up the very end are quite clever.

Each of these stories is a fun read. "-And He Built a Crooked House" contains more of what can be possibly compared to actual science, whereas "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" has more proto-Dark City feel. Lastly, and hopefully also leastly,* the sheer amount of alcohol the characters drink in each story makes me feel better about the average North American holiday season.

*Yup, I invented a new word there. I do that from time to time, kind of like my influences.

This is, incidentally, also my last post of 2014. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

December's Book: Excellent Sheep

It feels good to have 2014's reading requirement done so early, in contrast to ice-storm-riddled 2013 or even jam-packed 2012. Happy Christmas Eve!


Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz
Education (2014 - 242 pp.)

In Excellent Sheep, ex-Yale English professor William Deresiewicz attacks the elite university system in the United States. At the heart of the attack are the focus on revenue rather than educational integrity, lack of humanities instruction, and insufficient professor face time for undergraduate students. Although my experience with American education is solely at the graduate level, giving me a different perspective from what Deresiewicz or many of his former students may have, I sympathize with Deresiewicz's arguments overall. I am a huge proponent of humanities education, as should hopefully be evident in my willingness to blog about even the most arcane literary sources. I also spent a significant amount of time during my BA in professors' offices discussing my papers.

Many of Deresiewicz's arguments come up in a few places in similarly stated ways, so I will go light on quoting the book directly. I start by agreeing to the utmost with his clearest one: that education in the liberal arts (broadly speaking, arts and sciences), and the humanities more specifically, is absolutely crucial. Higher education should exist for its own sake, not simply as a vocational school (although those are fine too), and its benefits toward employment should come through transferable skills. The time-honoured tradition of Wall Street investment banks and brokerage houses hiring humanities graduates^ speaks to this. As someone who studied the humanities with a pinch of the social sciences in undergrad, I remember being asked what I would do with my education. Well, there is plenty I can do. I would feel horrible for anyone graduating from an undergraduate or postgraduate degree only able to do one thing, which is one of the reasons why I applaud good professional programs in areas like nursing or engineering setting their students up for any number of careers. (For example, engineering graduates are prized by software consulting firms.) This all comes down to the individual school or program, though, which Deresiewicz stresses in his support of liberal arts colleges. As someone who went to a school that can roughly be called the Canadian equivalent of a liberal arts college, I sympathize with his argument there.

The discussion of admissions processes reminds me of something a professor once told me about law school admissions: that they are, in his words, "like sausage being made". The notion of collecting accolades for the sole purpose of affixing them to a résumé rather than for their inherent worth is unsettling. While I have occasionally used the phrase accomplishment derby to describe my life, I like to think I do the things I do because they matter to me in some way. The accumulation of numbers of advanced placement (AP) courses in high school seems asinine. The book mentions that some students have as many as nine or ten. At the standard five courses per semester, that requires a Grade 12 student to be taking nothing but AP courses, presuming his or her school even offers that many. I believe my high school, which was well regarded, offered about 2-4 total.

Deresiewicz's discussion of grade inflation is very apt. The use of GPA presumes a certain equality in course offerings and school grading systems that simply does not exist. Whether elite universities bother to differentiate between difficulty of schools and courses would be interesting to see. I part company a little with his seeming praise* of the Cleveland State student's abundance of marks taken off for handing a paper in late due to her part-time waitressing job, as I tend more toward the side of allowing extensions if it results in better work, but I certainly understand the contrast between that story and the considerable leeway given to students in the Ivy League.

I do not feel that Deresiewicz gives the study of economics enough credit. When I studied economics, at an elite university no less, I felt like I was learning an exciting discipline that could inform my overall arts and business knowledge. How do people arrive at the decisions they make? How should "rationality" be defined, and to what extent are which people rational in different situations? How can I use incentives to bring about the outcomes I want? Thousands of questions just like these emerge in that field. At its beginning, as in a book like The Wealth of Nations, economics looked more like philosophy than a social science. A book like After the Welfare State shows it still can. The way I always typify economics is to say that, if the humanities are white and the sciences are black, true social sciences like psychology are grey, whereas economics is a black and white chessboard. The unique confluence of what is essentially history/philosophy and algebra makes economics a very interesting subject. Properly taught, economics should ask as many questions as any field. Even the more quantitative areas of economics, such as econometrics, ask their own questions, although I am less familiar with this side of it.

My two issues with Excellent Sheep are so wildly different it almost seems strange discussing them at once. One is Deresiewicz's flat refusal to cite the vast majority of his sources. While I greatly respect his research skills and am sure he has quoted everything accurately, some of the sources look like interesting reads and I may have difficulty finding them. The other is that Excellent Sheep is overly long at the end - the book could have easily been 142 pages - and becomes increasingly preachy as it starts discussing American class issues. Precisely how to counteract economic inequality generally, while related to the book's core subject matter of lack of inventiveness at top-tier American universities, is departed from the main thrust of the book. (Ironically, use of a Gini coefficient may help Deresiewicz's case there, which does not mix well with his bemoaning of the popularity of economics one bit.) I think a book like this is at its best when is at its most focused. After about chapter ten or so, I felt its focus was not as sharp.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 7

^While I laud the practice of hiring humanities graduates generally, I understand I picked a controversial example, so I remain tongue-in-cheek in doing so.

*If this was simply a statement of fact, i.e. that this does happen, I stand corrected and remain informed by the event.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Character Interviewing

As an author, something I've always been interested in is how other authors write their stories. Beyond the simple existence of the final work (novel, play, etc.), what went into it? Fantasy/sci-fi author K.M. Weiland (no relation to Scott Weiland, I presume) talks about the character interview. It's an old post but she's elaborated on it many times since. As someone who's used a lot more setting in the past, it's interesting to see how someone else approaches another crucial area of any novel, written work, story, yarn, or anything else that requires people to interpret letters on a page.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Few Notes on the Plot Diagram

For Book a Month (née Book a Week), I review all sorts of books. Some are fictional whereas others are not. Some are deep literary ponders and others are pure escapism. Some are handbooks, field guides, or entire theories. I also post from time to time about my writing, which ranges from fiction to journalism. In the books I read and the stories I write, I do my very best to look at something different every time. One reason I do that is because I like variety. Another is plot. I could read a different fictional storytelling-style novel every month, and write one just like all of them every couple years, but where would that get me?

That isn't a rhetorical question. I'm about to answer it by referencing a very special little picture that's been reproduced millions of times.

A defining feature of elementary school language arts classes in North America is the plot diagram. There's a good chance you've seen it. It looks like this:

There's a good reason it's taught so widely and is such a valuable tool for teaching children how stories work. It's because it's how the vast majority of stories actually do work. There is an opening ("Exposition" here, which I find clunky as a term), a trigger event (the obtuse angle separating "Exposition" and "Conflict"), and then the usual. You can even make your own.

If I were an elementary school English teacher, I would teach this diagram. I would just find it too bad I have to in the first place.

Writing a story? If you can explain it using the plot diagram, it's probably already been done before. It calls to mind the Elizabethan tradition of hanging a red curtain for a comedy or a black curtain for a tragedy. Changing the names of characters or settings only goes so far that way.

Here's a list of questions to ask yourself if you want to write something that can't be easily explained by the plot diagram.
Exposition/Opening: What am I explaining? Why do I need to explain it at the start of the story, or perhaps even at all? When should I reveal which details to the reader?
Trigger Event: Why should this event take place at the beginning of the book, as opposed to the middle or end? Why should it be one event rather than a sequence or a gradual shift?
Rising Action: Why is the plot intensifying? What are my characters and settings doing to encourage this, and should they be doing something else? Can the reader predict how the tension will cease?
Climax: What does an event consist of? Why would it qualify, or not qualify, as the climax? Can I make different events matter more to different characters or readers so that there are, in effect, multiple climaxes? On a riskier level, should I avoid having a climax at all?
Falling Action: Why has the ostensibly highest point of this story passed? What needs to happen in order to direct this story toward the Resolution, or in the absence thereof, the end?
Resolution: Why does this story need to be resolved? Whose story am I resolving? Am I starting or developing a new one without degenerating into flagrant sequel bait?

If there appears to be an abundance of the word "why" in that list, it's intentional. Asking why is something that should be done at every possible opportunity.

Shameless plug: the vast majority of my writing over the past 3-4 years either lacks a set beginning or end in the plot sense, lacks a climax, or even lacks a plot altogether. Amazingly, it's still just as readable, just (hopefully) not very predictable.

With that in mind, do something different. The plot diagram can be used to describe some great works. It doesn't need to be able to describe all of them.

Friday, December 19, 2014

November's Book: Straight and Crooked Thinking

November represented a dark time in the history of this blog - the only month since its beginning that I didn't post an entry. Expect this inactivity to be rectified very soon, starting right now with November's book. I had it mostly done by the end of last month but alas, sometimes life gets in the way.


Straight and Crooked Thinking by Robert H. Thouless
Psychology (1930 - 127 pp.)

I will open by saying that my description of this book may not be totally accurate, and there's not much I can do about that. This book is not really psychology by current standards - it is best described as something clunky like "reasoning and argumentation". However, as Robert H. Thouless was a practising psychologist, and applies social science methods at various points throughout the book, I will defer to what it meant to write on psychology back in 1930. Related, the book was originally published in 1930, re-released in 1953, and I have the latter version. I have listed 1930 here in order to capture the spirit that went into composing this book rather than the one that went into issuing a second print run. That said, Thouless's 1953 preface admits to some changes, most notably the updating of discussed issues to meet the Cold War climate. (Frequent discussion of socialism figures prominently in these changes.) Lastly, my copy is a PDF copy meant for tablets or e-readers, so the page count is wildly off. If you want to check my page references, you may do so here.

The book's practical field guide style is a welcome departure from more arcane academic tracts: "If we have a plague of flies in the house we buy fly-papers and not a treatise on the zoological classification of Musca domestica. This implies no sort of disrespect for zoologists, or for the value of their work as a first step in the effective control of flies. The present book bears to the treatises of logicians the relationship of fly-paper to zoological classifications." (109) My study of professional fields makes me sympathize with this position. It is good to be able to read a book and then act on that book in practice. Although I already knew much of what is contained here, it is a good summation of many of the dishonest and/or incompetent tricks that are regularly used in argumentation. It is also very well organized, with each of the first thirteen chapters discussing a different argumentative flaw. Thouless openly admits to discussing crooked thinking (fallacies) far more than straight thinking (truisms), for which he compensates by including ready-made solutions for when an opponent in debate uses crooked thinking. An example is his attack on the use of words in different ways to muddle arguments: "What we must be clear about is that a new use of a word is not a new statement of fact." (43) Simple statements like these help frame his thesis quite effectively.

Many topics are covered very well. Thouless's interdisciplinary application of his thesis that people should be clearer and more honest in their arguments is well done. An early example is in Chapter I (use of emotional words or phrases), which he applies in a criminal trial context, in that "[an] obvious objection to the use of the word 'scoundrel' before the man is convicted, which puts it in the ranks of 'crooked thinking', is that it 'begs the question' or assumes what is to be proved. The man is only a scoundrel if he is guilty, and yet the word has been used in the course of an argument to prove that he is guilty." (12) This is absolutely spot-on. Another is the very well presented position I was taught in an entirely different context by a New York labour lawyer. Put simply, it is that whenever someone enters an unfamiliar environment, that person should look around, learn how it works, and when necessary, question its practices. Just because something was done before does not mean it should be done now or in the future, or even that it was optimal back then. Thouless's comparison of the past and the present underlines this perspective: "we should not be hoodwinked by mere authority, but ask in the first case whether, in this particular matter, our ancestors had sound reasons for their opinion, and in the second case whether the modern man is in this matter better informed than his fathers and therefore more likely to be right." (72) Straight and Crooked Thinking's continual emphasis on breaking positions down into their underlying parts is one with which I sympathize completely. Similarly, Thouless's argument against blind obedience to authority figures is stated very well. In true academic fashion, Thouless criticizes regurgitation-based academic environments: "It is part of the business of a professor to see that his students remain in a condition of critical alertness towards what he tells them instead of falling into this reverence which is the emotion accompanying the acceptance of prestige suggestion." (72) Thouless's "critical alertness" is something I have always tried to achieve, regardless of how much consternation it may have caused my professors over the years.

In true 1930 fashion, and I suppose also in true 1953 fashion, the book is gratingly didactic. The mock conversation at the end of the book is difficult to read as a result. I fully understand Thouless's fury at what he must have perceived to be a society full of poor-quality debaters. It is difficult to believe, though, that the right answers are necessarily his. Sometimes he strays too far down that path, as in the exam-style presentation of the mock conversation, including a recommendation to the reader to not read his commentary until after attempting to find all the crooked thinking. (115) While I understand Thouless wants to make the book as accessible as possible, quizzing the reader comes off as overbearing. All things considered, though, the list of fallacies mentioned throughout the book, along with their cures, is a great way to conclude. (109-114)

My largest problem with Straight and Crooked Thinking in an argumentative sense is in its slavish application of social science methods to fuzzier problems. This is where the distinction between a science and an art is of extreme importance, and Thouless simply refuses to acknowledge it. He writes an entire section on the use of irrelevant or misleading analogies (Chapter XII), yet fallaciously compares the solving of social problems to the curing of medical problems: "Our own individual illnesses can be cured by scientific methods. The diseases of the great society to which we belong cannot be so healed until we accept for national and international affairs the same basic scientific principle that the way to get rid of an evil is to discover its cause by the methods of scientific research and then to destroy that evil by removing its causes." (107) Many would argue that national and international affairs cannot be studied with the same sort of scientific pursuit as the curing of an illness. I will take Thouless's advice here and note that "Imperfect analogies occur commonly in serious discussion and are best dealt with by simply pointing out where the analogy breaks down." (94) Where Thouless's analogy of social problems to medical problems breaks down is as follows: (a) many illnesses may be cured permanently, whereas social problems will persist regardless of what government or private industry does to ameliorate them; (b) expertise in medical matters is far more explainable than in social matters - who is the expert dictating social solutions to us? A politician? A historian? A lawyer? - and (c) unlike with the general consensus that curing illness is good, there are so many perspectives on social problems it is impossible to evaluate them without considering Thouless's named fallacy of each debater having his or her own internal prejudices. (Chapter XIII) Certain issues in this world are not solvable objectively as Thouless may wish, and in doing so, he has violated his own rule against wrong analogies. This, ironically, may reveal his prejudice. The word "destroy" in the passage above may also be an emotionally charged word, which he recommends against doing in Chapter I.

Straight and Crooked Thinking is an interesting historical artifact that should be appreciated for what it is and is not. It is a useful summary of many logical fallacies, argued in an entertaining way covering multiple disciplines. It is not going to solve anyone's world, nor is it going to appear entirely applicable in a 2014 context. The reference to discussing a "Negro" near the start of the book (5) is an especial example of how the book, for all its timeless argumentative points, is also completely locked into its own time period.

NOTE: Coincidentally, while writing this entry I received an email alert directing me to this article. While Warren Buffett tends to make good points, I could not help but think of Thouless's fallacy of following prestige. (64) The article also runs into the issues of dealing with businesses Buffett is not necessarily an expert in (for example, how would one apply Buffett's investment knowledge to running a shop floor of a steel company?), and vagueness in suggestions like "keep your focus". (66) I will finish by introducing an interesting fact that is utterly useless as an argument: Warren Buffett was born in the year Straight and Crooked Thinking was first published.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 6

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

October's Book: Europe's Indians

Europe's Indians by Vanita Seth
History (2010 - 232 pp.)

Europe's Indians sits in an interesting place in the body of literature concerning early modern Europeans' contacts with overseas peoples. Its double-entendre on the word "Indians" invites the reader to think of multiple intercultural contacts simultaneously, much like in a book like Vermeer's Hat, but with an emphasis on India that many global history books lack. Specifically, the relationship between race, thought, and fingerprinting in 19th-century India was a selling point given the relative paucity of material on it in a global history setting.

Seth's first overarching thesis, that descriptions of self and other as a binary when discussing Europeans and non-Europeans is woefully incomplete, is a very good one. It's similar to what I've argued in a lot of situations discussing, for example, First Nations issues in Canada. Seth expands upon and argues against Edward Said's thesis from Orientalism, that the West needed a non-Western other to define itself, by stating that we do not really know what the West's self is. England, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and every other country that ever engaged in exploration all had radically different ways of viewing themselves, as did non-European civilizations within one continent, let alone all around the world.

Seth discusses the body as a precondition for race in an enlightening way. From her notions of the Renaissance body as fluid, to the Classical (circa 1600-1800) body as mutable, to the 19th-century body as immutable, she presents race in a really interesting way. Her second overarching thesis, that a modern understanding of race requires a 19th-century outlook, is convincing as well.

My only issue with Europe's Indians is how much time Seth devotes to overviews of European intellectual history. Although examples from Europe are important, and many of the great thinkers of the period she discusses write extensively on the body, it would be more interesting to read more of what sets her research apart. A particularly egregious example is in Chapter 4, ostensibly about fingerprinting. The chapter is 54 pages and only the last five discuss the subject, the previous 49 being about European intellectuals. Less mainstream intellectuals could also be mentioned more, like Josiah Nott's specifically racial writings rather than more material on the titans of the day.

This book was a great idea. Its execution occasionally falters but it is still well worth the read. Here's hoping Seth follows it up with some more subject-specific material.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 7

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

I Drank the Toxic Cocktail's Gone... Gold? Silver? Bronze? Pyrite?

My 2012 self-published short story I Drank the Toxic Cocktail is now over 1,000 Smashwords downloads! It's gone... some sort of metal, I presume. Keep in mind these are Smashwords downloads alone, and do not represent downloads on Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Chapters, any other fine site, or shared files.

It's now reasonably popular! Get your downloaded copy before the infinite supply expires!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

September's Book: Songs of Love & Death

Songs of Love & Death ed. by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
Science Fiction / Fantasy (2010 - 468 pp.)

Songs of Love & Death is, as advertised in the book's dust jacket, a "star-studded cross-genre anthology" replete with "brand-new tales of ill-fated love". While some of the stories end more happily than this, the theme holds generally, as even the more fortunate characters endure hardships that thrust their relationships into jeopardy. There are seventeen stories in total, ranging from 15-39 pages, each by a different prolific science fiction or fantasy author. That George R.R. Martin is one of the two editors is what grabbed my attention at first. I had not read any of the authors here before.

As with any anthology, Songs of Love & Death is up and down. There were times when I couldn't stop reading it and times when I had to force myself to keep going. The former made up for the latter. The opportunity to sample so many authors is one of the biggest draws of a book like this, so I could see reading 15-39 pages of a bad story being worth not having to read 300 pages of something I wouldn't like later. I read the book over the course of twenty-four days (September 3-26), reading a maximum of one story each day, so it was a far more methodical read than my usual mad dashes near the end of the month. (This is especially apparent in my reading of Maus, which began on July 31 despite being July's book, and in numerous 2012 Book a Week entries.) 

Some of the stories kept me in suspense the whole time - I've shown them in my "Highlights" section below. "Rooftops" is as swashbuckling as an urban low fantasy story can be, although the end is frustrating. "Hurt Me" is the most chilling story in the whole book, giving the reader a feeling of something wrong yet mysterious lurking throughout the plot. "The Thing About Cassandra" is likely the best written and also has some interesting plot twists, although the end is a little confusing. "His Wolf" plays with the editorial edict of writing a story about lost love in the most playful way found in the entire book. "Kaskia" combines an '80s nostalgia sort of cyberpunk with a decidedly modern narration style that places it firmly in the (almost) present day. "The Man in the Mirror" takes the sort of setting "Hurt Me" has but replaces the horror with something closer to warmth but not quite there. "A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows", the final and longest entry, is a WWII fiction story with just enough of the supernatural to break it away from pure historical fiction, which is an interesting reprieve from the aliens and sorcery throughout many of the others.

Not all of the stories connected with my admittedly at least somewhat fantasy nerdy self. Some of the stories ("Demon Lover", "The Wayfarer's Advice", "Blue Boots", "You, and You Alone") are essentially teen fiction, which immediately limits my attachment to them. The semi-frequent loss of female virginity theme ("The Marrying Maid" and "Blue Boots" come to mind first) drives home this dissonance between my experience and that of a possible different reader, given my understandable lack of experience in this realm. "Love Hurts", the book's initial tale, occurs in a pre-existing universe I had never explored before (Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series), so although I enjoyed the plot, I had a more difficult time appreciating the titular character than a reader who is already a Jim Butcher fan would have. "Courting Trouble" and "The Demon Dancer" fit very traditionally into their genres (science fiction and urban fantasy respectively), making them fun getaways from my usual reading but not the highlights they would likely be to devotees of those genres.

A minor qualm that comes up in a few stories is the use of slang while in third-person omniscient. As effective as it in dialogue to show many characters' informal speaking styles, in the third person it breaks from the atmosphere of having everything be descriptive and value-neutral. It is also a little jarring to see modern-day turns of phrase in historical settings, even when said by characters who speak casually. The juxtaposition of historical setting and modern diction is difficult to deal with effectively, though, as the alternative is often anachronistic over-correction.

Something particularly stunning about my apparent lack of science fiction and fantasy knowledge is that every one of these authors has written dozens of books (over a hundred, in the case of a couple), yet I had only heard of a few of the authors and only a few of the awards they've won. Whether I look further into many of these authors probably hinges on whether I happen to run into their books at a bookstore and find them interesting, which is of absolutely no help for anyone seeking recommendations, I realize.

Oddly, two of the best stories, "M.L.N. Hanover's "Hurt Me" and Yasmine Galenorn's "Man in the Mirror", involve similar concepts. In each, a deceased man haunts a woman under similar circumstances. Frustratingly, many of the best stories were the shorter ones. For a particularly annoying example, Neil Gaiman's "The Thing About Cassandra" is only 15 pages long.  Similarly, "Hurt Me" is only 19 pages. As someone who generally veers toward short rather than long, in everything from writing essays to listening to albums, I suppose it makes sense I'd prefer the shorter stories. Diana Gabaldon's "A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows", the longest at 39 pages yet also at the upper end of a strong second tier of this book's stories, is a notable exception to this very loose rule.

"Rooftops" by Carrie Vaughn
"Hurt Me" by M.L.N. Hanover
"The Thing About Cassandra" by Neil Gaiman*
"Kaskia" by Peter S. Beagle
"Man in the Mirror" by Yasmine Galenorn (unsure if Michael Jackson reference is intentional)

A full list of the stories is here.

*I recently bought Neil Gaiman's Coraline. Considering I've been recommended Gaiman's work on numerous occasions and Coraline is my favourite movie of 2009, I anticipate only good results. Stay tuned for this one in a future installment, Gaiman fans.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 1

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Heartwarming Answer on Quora

It's true. I post on Quora.

Today, I stumbled across this great answer to the question "Have you ever fallen in love with your best friend?" (paraphrased)

It brought me a smile as I thought of my life and how thankful I am for all the wonderful people I have in it. Hopefully it does for yours too.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

August's Book: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Literature (1844 - 460 pp.)

This entry will not be particularly academic, as a mountain of academic material has already been written on The Count of Monte Cristo. There is not much more I can reasonably add on a blog. Additionally, I will only hint at a few parts of the book, as The Count of Monte Cristo is so plot-driven it is difficult to comment on much without accidentally giving spoilers. While it may seem like the story is so well-known there is no harm in spoiling it, some people have not read even the most obvious literary choices.

The Count of Monte Cristo combines early modern French romance with travelogue to create a swashbuckling adventure story. Our hero, Edmond Dantes, is a successful young merchant sailor who is wronged by his peers for various reasons and then whirled through a twisting, exciting adventure. This adventure is primarily located in Marseilles and Paris, but detours to Rome and (offstage) to Greece. Dumas's consistent references to Hamlet and to Greco-Roman mythology underscores the educated nature of most of the characters, who are mostly noble either by birth or by acquisition of a title.

Two of the defining aspects of The Count of Monte Cristo are the melodrama and the humour. Characters regularly go on lengthy rants in flowery language, often about threatening to commit suicide whenever something goes wrong. More surprising is that sometimes the third-person omniscient narrator is similarly flowery. A well-written example is when considering a character's choice of future husband: "What devotion does she deserve from him for whom she has sacrificed everything! How ought she really to be supremely loved! She becomes at once a queen and a wife, and it becomes impossible to thank her sufficiently." (300) However over the top a passage like this is, it makes me smile. Similarly, Dumas is fond of cracking jokes within the narration. Possibly the funniest example is in explaining the difficulty for an ignoble man to appear noble among strangers: "Many, also, who were not aware of the circumstances attending his withdrawal from Paris, were struck with the worthy appearance, the gentlemanly bearing, and the knowledge of the world displayed by the old patrician, who certainly played the nobleman very well, as long as he said nothing, and made no arithmetical calculations." (430) The mental image of incompetence here is enough to make the reader feel like one of Dumas's elites.

Dumas demonstrates no interest in showing what characters like Danglars, a banker, or Villefort, a lawyer, actually do for a living. Danglars delivers exhortations on the importance of money above all else while speculating wildly; Villefort froths at the mouth while discussing a very one-sided view of justice. Everything is moulded to Dumas's principal interest of crafting a riveting adventure. Other details, like how someone fresh out of a long-term prison sentence can retain social skills, are equally fantastical. The one time The Count of Monte Cristo is not quite so riveting is when characters, most notably Albert de Morcerf and Franz d'Epinay, appear seemingly out of nowhere in order to be more mysterious, which may come off as confusing rather than intriguing. Even so, all the characters' valuable secrets are generally revealed a few dozen pages later. The book's winding plot is eventually explained in full, with no lingering question at the end.

Interesting fact: The Count of Monte Cristo is approximately 464,000 words, yet the edition I read is only 460 pages. That is a little over 1,000 words per page. Anyone reading the same edition may find that each page takes about twice as long to read as that of a different book. There is a good reason why.

Thanks to a friend for recommending this one. As it was serialized from 1844-1845 in its original incarnation, it proved quite voluminous for a series of blog entries called Book a Month. Just about anything can be read in a short period of time, though... I suppose.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 3

Sunday, August 3, 2014

July's Book: Maus

Maus by Art Spiegelman
Graphic Novel (1991 - 159+136 pp.)

Maus, a graphic novel in two parts, is renowned comic book artist Art Spiegelman's transcription of two years of conversations he had with his now deceased father Vladek, a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor. The book(s) alternate between life in Europe from about 1930-1945 and life in Queens, New York in the late 1970s. Different national and ethnic groups are shown as different animals, most notably Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs. Art, whom I call "Spiegelman" through this entry, shows anguish throughout the book(s) as to how he will represent Holocaust-related events, his relationship with his father, and how to show his father's less desirable traits without conjuring up visions of negative stereotypes of Jews.

I won't get into any political or historical commentary here, as I try to approach my sources as neutrally as possible. Sure, I could get upset that Spiegelman portrays my mother's ancestry as a bunch of pigs, but that wouldn't be much different from a segment of Iran that was offended by 300. I'd rather accept someone's perspective and appreciate a work for what it is than worry about taking offence to things.

The storytelling is quite good. The reader gets an idea as to how Vladek lived, who his family was, what their priorities were, and how World War II changed everything forever. Although I do not know graphic novels that well, I enjoyed the animation thoroughly. Spiegelman invested a considerable amount of work into the panels, which came out in serialized form in his Raw magazine for eleven years (1980-1991). The direct quotations from the family members in their dialects, the emotion the characters demonstrate, and the lack of large blocks of text make Maus a fun, accessible work.

The most interesting part to me is Art and Vladek's relationship. The mention of children being forced to finish food on their plates before eating anything else (I: 43) is something I've encountered in some of my experiences with Continental European culture more generally. Vladek's extreme financial conservatism is evident in statements like, from his second wife Mala, "He has hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank, and he lives like a pauper!" (I: 132) Mala often comes off as overly desirous of Vladek's money, though, especially from Vladek himself, so the reader is left to wonder whether anyone is right or wrong in the frequent arguments about money in the Spiegelman household. A particularly hilarious/worrisome episode comes when Vladek, unable to eat old cereal, attempts to return it despite the box being opened (II: 78).

Spiegelman's struggles with the book go to an existential level. He grapples with attempts to commercialize Maus, something he opposes virulently, (II: 42) and with an inability to draw tin shop equipment he has never seen (II: 46). Then there is the guilt of worrying about things like how to properly depict an electric drill press when so much of the book concerns death and lost love.

Ironically, Maus is very human. It's not educational in terms of politics or history, as I disclaimed above, but it's great for learning about how peoples' experiences shape their lives. It makes me wish I could interview my grandfather, whose story from the same time and place would have been fascinating to tell...

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 6

P.S. I have a bit of a history of publishing these blog entries on my birthday. It's more fun than a lot of the other things I could be doing, I suppose.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

June's Book: The Game

The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists by Neil Strauss
Journalism (2005 - 452 pp.)

The Game is journalist Neil Strauss's foray into the world of pickup artists (PUAs), which he does in true investigative fashion - by becoming one of them for two years. The adventures Strauss and other PUAs get into are some of the most entertaining things I've ever read, and I speak as someone who's read Strauss before. I've also taken more notes on this book than any other. Rather than being like, say, a history book with a thesis and a narrative that builds toward that thesis, The Game often feels like an unending barrage of crazy quotations. For a full list of my favourite quotations from the book, click here.

Some brief background: A PUA is someone who approaches strangers with the intention of closing (in Mystery's terms, number-close, kiss-close, and I'm sure you can imagine a few others). PUA training is typically given in seminar form by a guru to AFCs (average frustrated chumps) who want to become better socially, have more girlfriends, and so on. There are also lots of acronyms involved, as you may have already guessed. A glossary of them, and other terms, appears on page 439. The art of pickup started in 1970 with Eric Weber's book How to Pick Up Girls before taking off in the '80s and '90s with the teachings of Ross Jeffries. Since then, mPUAs (master pickup artists) like Mystery, Style (Strauss's pseudonym) and David DeAngelo have emerged. The community typically consists of online message boards and local hangout spots called lairs in various cities. The timeline in The Game is the early 2000s, as the reader is reminded through references to then-popular Kazaa (190) and Party Poker (192). The only development since that I'm aware of is the mainstreaming of pickup through reality shows.

The book starts with Strauss, an AFC at the time, agreeing to write a story on PUAs when goaded to do so by a friend. This segues nicely into Strauss's first time meeting Mystery, at one of Mystery's seminars. That first seminar contains some of Mystery's statements of philosophy, such as "A pickup artist must be the exception to the rule. You must not do what everyone else does. Ever", (18) and "Think of tonight as a video game. It's not real. Every time you do an approach, you are playing this game." (19) Being special in some way, or "demonstrating value" as Mystery puts it, comes off as a codification of a basic social principle. The second quotation sums up the book in some ways. Pickup is in large part about treating each rejection as a chance to respawn.

Strauss's first reaction to Mystery is that "This was a guy who thought about seduction nonstop, like a mad scientist working on a formula to turn peanuts into gasoline." (22) Strauss's humour shines through frequently in quotations like these. In expressing disbelief at his first time seeing PUAs in the field (in this case, Mystery and a wingman entitled Sin), Strauss notes that:

To Mystery and Sin, these clubs didn't seem to be reality. They had no problem whispering in students' ears while they were talking to women, dropping pickup terminology in front of strangers, and even interrupting a student during a set and explaining, in front of his group, what he was doing wrong. They were so confident and their talk was so full of incomprehensible jargon that the women rarely even raised an eyebrow, let alone suspected they were being used to train wanna-be ladies' men. (27)

Mystery's lack of trepidation about being seen as a PUA is evident from the above. Strauss's comparative lack of confidence at the start of the book is shown in "Sexual Frustration", a poem he wrote as a teen. (30-31) A more prosaic depiction of Strauss's pre-PUA existence is that "Somewhere, in another life, I used to wake up in the morning, sit at a desk before even eating or showering, and stew in my own filth as I sat typing on a computer and not getting laid." (227) Gaining confidence is a crucial first step to becoming a PUA. For those wondering, a set is a number of people being approached. For example, a group of three people is a three-set.

Not even the most hallowed PUAs have always had such confidence. Ross Jeffries is described as being "beaten down". (124) A quotation from Jeffries about rival and former student David DeAngelo highlights the combination of competitiveness and insecurity capable of existing within the seduction community: "The guy is so fucking good-looking and well-connected in the nightclub scene it just astounds me that people think he could ever understand their situation and the difficulties they encounter in dealing with women." (125) This can be coupled with a feeling of being denied something, as in the following conversation between Mystery and Strauss: "'I'm the world's greatest pickup artist,' [Mystery] grumbled in my direction. 'How come I don't have a girlfriend?' [Strauss:]'Well, maybe because you're the world's greatest pickup artist.'" (182) The frankness of the situation, that Mystery has such a difficult time maintaining a relationship throughout the book despite at times seeming to want one, speaks to the surprisingly isolated and wanting life of the PUA. In a particularly crass demonstration of desiring women from afar, Extramask, a student of Mystery's, remarks that he plans to "pound out the biggest batch thinking about that girl who just kissed you" to Strauss early in the book. (64)

Different PUAs have different solutions to this problem. Some are admirable in their sheer honesty, whereas others are inexplicable. One otherwise unmentioned PUA approaches 125 women in one day, an impressive feat regardless of his intentions, which are never stated. The man claims to feel far more confident after the experience, albeit with little success. (298) At the very least, it must have been fun to try. A stark contrast is found in a method Rasputin advises during a seminar. Keep in mind the following was said to a crowd of men during a motivational speech: "You don't shower or shave for a month, until you smell like a sewer. Then you walk around for two weeks wearing a dress and a goalie mask with a dildo strapped to the front. That's what I did. And you will never be afraid of public humiliation again." (140) This is a method for improving confidence I find far more difficult to embrace. It is highly entertaining to read, though. 

A rather ironic issue PUAs tend to face is their rapid exposure to more men than women. The seduction community consists almost entirely of men, and friendships with fellow PUAs are far more likely to last than encounters with women. Strauss observes, "Since I'd started spending so much time with PUAs, I'd lowered my standards for who I hung out with... And though the community was all about women, it was also completely devoid of them." (129) In the case of gurus offering seminars, often at substantial rates, seduction is about competing for paying students rather than for women. Jeffries, Mystery and others compete for students throughout the book. Popular techniques are cyclical in the community, leading Strauss to find that "These were trends that had nothing to do with women and everything to do with male ego." (232) The most jarring example of the lack of women in the seduction community occurs late, when Project Hollywood (a mansion full of PUAs) is falling apart: "At Papa's twenty-fourth birthday, not a single woman showed up." (424) Papa is the same PUA who once acquired Paris Hilton's phone number at a taco stand, (256) although he never saw her after that, and whose name appears on the mansion's lease.

On the sadder side, a certain dissatisfaction can come from so much pickup. At a particularly distressed point, Strauss muses that "Every girl in my life could disappear and never call me again, and I wouldn't have cared." (373) When he finally meets one who does make him care, it's almost too late. After so long in the game, Strauss notes that asking a woman out to dinner feels strange to him: "It was so AFC of me. I was asking her out on a date." She, of course, said that "I was wondering when you were finally going to ask." (400) When the date arrived, Strauss admits that "It was one of the toughest dinners of my life. We'd spent so much time together already that I literally had no more material left. I was forced to be myself." (409) Thankfully, the couple survives this dreaded dinner date. Even so, it serves as a cautionary tale for having pickup skills but little else. Strauss's words of wisdom earlier in the book that "...the best way to pick up women is to have something better to do than pick up women" (301) ring true here.

Since I've read the book, a few friends have asked me what I think about PUAs. Some variation of "Isn't this unethical?" inevitably surfaces. Without fail, I've replied that I think there's a good side and a bad side to the seduction community. The good side is that the mPUAs often function as quite effective motivational speakers. For people who have a difficult time approaching others in social situations, having a community to talk to about socializing is probably a boon. The bad side is the falsehood that sometimes surfaces in peoples' personalities. Examples come up with Jeffries, as in when Strauss notes that "there was something artificial and rehearsed about the way he spoke, the way he moved, the way he looked at me" (48) and with Mystery, who, before Strauss befriends him, "seemed to be a conscious, rehearsed invention". (20) Tyler Durden is probably the worst of them in terms of this issue, as Strauss is told later in the book that "[Tyler Durden]'s not motivated by girls. He's motivated by acquisition and power." (427) When it stops being about social interaction as a way to meet people and starts being about social interaction as a way to control them, that's when it gets dangerous.

I expected to completely disagree with the everything the book stood for which I've done before. What I ended up doing was reflecting on my own social interactions, comparing them to those of the PUAs. I'm not a Satanist or a communist, but could I be a pickup artist? Yes and no. Yes, absolutely, in the sense that I'm comfortable approaching people in social situations, even - gasp - HB10s. (These are women so attractive they merit a 10/10 score based on their looks. How this is calculated is never explained.) No, absolutely not, in the sense that a Mystery phrase like "Everything I say in a pickup has an ulterior motive" (152) goes completely against anything I would ever do. I've also never used canned material, nor would I ever. Those who continually do so fail the "Are You a Social Robot?" test (300). It's that good/bad dynamic again. Then again, everything is.

A note on the term "AFC": As someone who grew up during the latter half of the unprecedented 13-year streak of Superbowls in which the NFC emerged victorious (1985-1997, those being the years in which those Superbowls were played), the idea that AFC game is weak brought a smile to my face.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: N/A*

*How educational this book is goes by a variety of factors, including but not limited to:
1. Gender. The book is very male-centred in that the only pickup artists witnessed are men.
2. Marital status. I can't imagine this book being that educational to married people, with a few notable exceptions.
3. Social inclinations. Some people just aren't interested in pickup. Further, some people feel like they don't need it. People in either category may not gain as much as others.

The Game: The Quotations

Below is a comprehensive list of my favourite quotations from The Game. My other favourites are included in the main entry. Some are surprisingly uplifting given the rest of the book, whereas others are simply entertaining. In the exact sort of chaotic fashion in which pickup artists often appear to live life, I've made no effort to differentiate them. Warning: Spoilers lie ahead. That's why this is a separate entry. Note that a startling number of these are courtesy of Mystery, who must have been one of the most fun interviews in the whole book.

"Nobody wants to sleep with a writer. They're at the bottom of the social ladder. You must be a superstar. And not just with women." -Mystery (55)

"...there is no such thing as failure, only learning lessons." -Neil Strauss, quoting a book called Introducing NLP (74)

"In life, people tend to wait for good things to come to them. And by waiting, they miss out." -Neil Strauss (114)

"Talking too fast is usually a sign of a deep lack of confidence... Such people usually become writers." -Juggler (115)

"Three percent [of people approached] respond with enthusiasm [when asked how they're doing]: 'great' or 'super'. Those are the ones you learn to stay away from. They're nuts." -Juggler (117)

"I was experiencing seducer's paradox: The better a seducer I became, the less I loved women. Success was no longer defined by getting laid or finding a girlfriend, but by how well I performed." -Neil Strauss (161)

"'When you can get any girl you want, every guy - even if he's rich or famous - looks at you in a different way because you have something he doesn't,' he said. 'But after a while, I'd bring girls home, and I didn't want to have sex with them anymore. I just wanted to talk. So we'd talk all night and bond on a very deep level, and then I'd walk them to the subway in the morning. That's when I started to leave it behind. I realized that I got my entire validation from women. Women became like gods to me, but false gods. So I went to find the real God.'" -Dustin (165)

"It's not that I'm scared of commitment; it's that I'm scared of arguing with someone I love over whose turn it is to the dishes, of losing the desire to have sex with the woman lying next to me every night, of taking a back seat in her heart to our children, of resenting someone for limiting my freedom to be selfish." -Neil Strauss (180)

"The idea of having many girls in many ports can be wholesomely nurtured." -Mystery (185)

"...most people in this world are not closers. They don't finish what they start; they don't live what they dream; they sabotage their own progress because they're afraid they won't find what they seek." -Neil Strauss (194)

"I want a woman I can respect for her art, like a singer or a super-hot stripper." -Mystery (233)

"Dad always wanted whiskey poured on his grave, so my brother said, 'I just hope he doesn't mind me filtering it through my bladder first.'" -Mystery (234)

"I look at you, and I just know that you were born to protect my sphincter." -Tyler Durden (236)

"Papa's face clouded. He didn't like the word no. He was an only child." -Neil Strauss (255)

"I feel strange and empty, like after a shit." -Mystery (329)

"Seduction was easy compared to [love]." -Neil Strauss (342)

"I'm not an insane maniac. I'm a poser insane maniac. I'm just dealing with the absurdity of existence by shoving absurdity down existence's throat." -Jlaix (353)

"And I was standing there just looking at that ass and that skin thinking, 'I deserve this.'" -Mystery (376)

"You can't handle not being the center of attention for even one minute. That is your tragic flaw." -Tyler Durden, to Mystery (382)

"Perhaps it was really shared emotion and experience that creates relationships, not seven hours of routines followed by two hours of sex." (395)

"[Lisa] lived by the advice most women hypocritically give to men; She wasn't afraid to be herself." -Neil Strauss (399)

"...the bros before hos ethic only exists if you think of the girl as a ho." -Mystery (404)

"I suppose we were all searching for the moves we needed to win at life, the knightly code of conduct, the ways of the alpha male*." -Neil Strauss (415)

"My dick, which I had thought was a completely mindless animal desperate to stick itself in any hole, actually responded to emotion. It had feelings too." -Neil Strauss (416)

"I was never interested in conquering women in a despotic way. I was interested in finding somebody to love." -Eric Weber (430)

"You're much too pretty to let get away." -a young Eric Weber, to his future wife (431)

"The new age couple contend that Tyler Durden and Papa skipped out after local authorities tried to deliver a summons charging them with running a commercial business in a residential zone." -Neil Strauss (449)

Then, of course, the word "sesquipedalian" is used by Strauss on the book's final page. (452)

Oh, why not...

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 10

*According to Mystery's criteria on page 21, I possess all six of the five factors of an alpha male. No, my math there isn't wrong.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

State of Sin: The Last Day

Today is a very special day that's both a happy day and a sad day.

A year and a day ago, I started officially writing the first draft of State of Sin. I'd planned on finishing the draft in a year flat, but hey, it's been a fun weekend, including finishing reading June's book. So today I write the last chapter to be written of State of Sin. I say the last to be written as opposed to the last in the book - I wrote the chapters out of order for the most part. You'd be impressed at how easy that makes foreshadowing. The less impressive explanation is that the fourth chapter was so difficult to write I had to come back to it a couple times, and I wasn't about to delay the rest of the novel for its benefit. At that point, writing in order was scrapped. That's fine, though, as State of Sin is as much a collection of short stories as it is a novel, each with a different narrator. There are twenty-nine narrators over the span of twenty-four chapters and a prologue. Over the past year, I've been a teenage girl, a housewife, an elderly person and a homeless person, among others, four people I thought I'd never be. I went into State of Sin thinking it'd be easier to write because I'd never get bored of a particular narrator. Naturally, it was far tougher. The closest comparison is writing a Machine of Death book all by yourself. Something like Megamorphs may also be a decent comparison, although the narrators in those books recur quite often. In State of Sin, no character ever appears twice, whether as a narrator or otherwise.

Whether I'll write another novel after State of Sin, I'm not sure. I might get so wrapped up in other pursuits I only ever have time to write short stories. Alternatively, I might want to take the plunge of writing a novel again at some point. At my current rate, having started novels in 2007*, 2009^, 2010** and 2013^^, I'll be back on the trail in a year or two. Part of me hopes I will be. Part of me hopes I won't be. I suppose it'll come down to whether I feel I have as compelling a storyline again.

State of Sin is unique to me in the sense that it's the first novel I've written that has a story I truly love. I originally came up with the story in about 2003 when learning about token economies in high school. From then, it's been a lot of putting the idea in the back of my head while writing other novels (technically, seven of them), refining the idea once I realized this was really going to happen (from mid-2012 onward), and doing things like drawing maps of where everyone lives.

From the time I was no taller than my bed, I've wanted to write fiction, especially novels. I wrote a 33,000-word story at age fourteen and went from there. Although State of Sin will be in editing for probably all of July, today could be the last day of my life I ever spend just sitting and writing part of a novel-length work of fiction. How fitting that this chapter will be so much about reflection.

*This novel, entitled Beautiful You, has only been read by a handful of people. It took me six months in almost exactly the first half of 2007. It's abjectly terrible in some ways but it contains some good ideas and was an important step in my development as a fiction writer. Think of it as my Flesh Ripping Sonic Torment. It's also the longest piece of anything I've ever written, coming in at almost 154,000 words. When considering a page holds about 500 words, that's a 308-page book.

^This novel, entitled Inside the Rift, was written in two and a half months. I don't recommend that, for any aspiring authors reading this post. Inside the Rift has its charms, and was ready to be sent to publishers according to an author who read a small part of it, but I ultimately balked because I wanted something better. It's still a pretty solid book, especially what I consider to be the best setting description I've ever written. My goal of writing a novel revolving around setting rather than character or plot was achieved; whether that's a good thing, time may tell. It's the only one of the four novels written from a third-person perspective, something I used a lot more often earlier in my writing career. If/when I write another novel, I'll probably go back to this perspective. Inside the Rift is around 108,000 words.

**This novel, entitled Void, is my shortest at about 71,000 words. It was written in three months from 2010-2011. It was my easiest to write in that it only has one narrator but my toughest in that the subject matter was difficult to get on the screen. I flirted with submitting it and may still do so - watch for it?

^^This novel is State of Sin. It's taken the longest of any novel I've ever written. I've also had to juggle the most responsibilities while writing it, making this no surprise. It's over 132,000 words so far, and will probably end up in the 140,000 range, making it my second-longest work.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Eyeball Selfies

The wide world of selfies needs something new. I propose eyeball selfies. They can look very different based on how far the camera is from your face, how open your eye is, what the lighting's like, and (ouch) whether you accidentally left the flash on. They're also uniquely you.

Here are four I took last week. You can see I was pretty tired at the time.

Eye partially closed: It looks a little like an oyster with a moustache.


Eye open, less zoomed in: You can see the eye clearly but you can also see my hair wasn't in the greatest shape that day.


Flash on: This looks like something from the Blair Witch Project, only better.


True close-up: I think this is the best one. Behold my eye!


That's all for now. Try some of your own!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Happy First Day of Summer!

It's a beautiful day out in Edmonton and has all the makings of something truly special. Hope everyone has a good one!

Friday, June 20, 2014

LinkedIn Pulse: 5 Signs You're Going to Make It Big One Day

I'm on LinkedIn, and I enjoy it quite a bit, yet I rarely mention it on here. Well, now I am.

This article released yesterday by Ariella Coombs, her first for the site, is exactly what the title says. In order to reproduce as little of the article as possible, and to make everything nice and accessible, here are the 5 Signs:

1. You’ve Got A Dream (A Big One!)
2. You’ve Got A Road Map, But You're Prepared To Take Detours
3. You’re Extremely Curious
4. You’re A Little Cocky (Just A Little)
5. You Realize Failure Is A Minor Setback, Not A Game Changer

While this isn't empirically tested or peer-reviewed, it's an uplifting little editorial. I hope I'm five for five.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

May's Book: Before Motown

Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-1960 by Lars Bjorn with Jim Gallert
Music (2001 - 207 pp.)

Before Motown is, in Professor Lars Bjorn's own words, "the first book-length treatment of Detroit jazz history." (1, fn 1) That alone makes it a worthy read. The book's thesis, that Detroit was a seminal jazz city for a period of about forty years but especially during the 1950s, is driven home by a breakdown of the people and places that made Detroit music what it was prior to the Motown explosion. My background playing jazz trumpet and my rearing on Motown as a child made this book an obvious read for me.

Before Motown progresses chronologically, roughly by decade, before veering off into related musical forms (blues, early Motown) near the end. It is a setup that works, as most readers will not be starting the book with a good understanding of the artistic and social climate of Detroit in 1920. I surely did not. Race relations factor into the book as much as music does at times, although the artists, clubs and songs that defined Detroit in the jazz era are always at the forefront. An example of race relations shaping early Detroit band music is in the name of McKinney's Cotton Pickers, a 1920s-'30s band named to sound exotic but who were, in reality, from Ohio. (26) Various maps of racial migration throughout the 1920-1960 period are useful.

Within Before Motown, there are dozens of anecdotes intertwined by virtue of jazz and Detroit. A couple stand out. One is of Miles Davis's time spent in Detroit in 1953-1954, when he was coming off some of the most frequent heroin use of his life and therefore specifically wanted to avoid the rampantly abusive New York City scene. When in Detroit, he borrowed a trumpet every night for shows from a then 14-year old Lonnie Hillyer, who would also become a great musician. Hillyer's mother made Davis return the instrument every night so he could not pawn it for drug money, and indeed, Davis kept his word. (137-138) Another is the briefly told life story of John Lee Hooker in the blues chapter. In a reminder of how different the World War II era was from the current financial situation, Hooker remarked in an interview that "At that time jobs weren't hard to get - it was during the war. Good money too. You could go anywhere any day and get a job..." (174) This passage must seem alien to current job seekers.

It is truly a shame that many of the artists featured so prominently in Before Motown have either been recorded sparingly or never been recorded at all. Some, like well-known pianist Phil Hill from the late '40s and early '50s, lack personal pages on sites like Wikipedia or Rate Your Music. It is simultaneously enlightening to learn about what must have been a really interesting scene and frustrating to have to relegate many artists' sounds to the imagination. Reading about clubs like the Blue Bird Inn, the Flame, and so on, it would have been nice to somehow gain a greater appreciation to how the music there sounded in the '40s-'50s heyday. All considered, the reader is blessed with photographic evidence, including a picture of Frank (alto sax) and Gene (bass) Taylor standing on top of a bar. (190) Copies of old concert posters also pop up throughout the book.

My only qualm with Before Motown is that it sometimes takes on an encyclopedic quality, bombarding the reader with snippet-sized life stories that do not always tie into the overarching narrative in an obvious way. That the appendices do not include a list of jazz musicians from different decades or styles compounds this problem. It also has many island quotations, which can become troublesome when there is a sentence followed by a not entirely related quotation. These are minor issues, though, as the book is still very readable. Before Motown contains a lot of information, and digesting it takes longer than the 207-page count implies.

Ease of Reading: 5
Educational Content: 8