Monday, August 31, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Ambrose Bierce's Short Fiction

***For once in this normally pristine blog's history, spoilers abound*** (but thankfully, these stories are so short it'll be 10-15 minutes between the ruination of the plot and your discovery of it)

I've highlighted American authors before. Now, look at me, I'm doing it again. This time, I'm discussing two extremely short pieces that portray the Civil War chillingly well, namely "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "A Resumed Identity". They're well worth reading, and they're a welcome diversion from far longer works.

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" immediately became one of my favourite pieces of short fiction. The way in which it deals with a dream sequence-like event, combined with the harshness of Civil War-era America, cuts deep. Bierce's prose is highly descriptive, which frames the consciousness of Peyton Farquhar. What can, or cannot, happen, in the few moments stretched out to five pages, is a creature of the imagination. The reader is quickly lured into a reality in which truly anything can happen, even something like Peyton retrieving stray bullets from his flesh with minimal pain, without ever losing the underlying Civil War setting. It may be a true triumph in low fantasy in that setting, in that the real and fantastical worlds are each so convincing.

Its open discussion of hanging - I have no idea if it was controversial at the time - is interesting in light of the ongoing death penalty debate. Its main character is "about thirty-five", which is not that much older than me, but then again, neither was William Kemmler. The way Bierce ties the start and the end together here is brilliant, especially to someone who's read about the details of hanging. Peyton has been hanged successfully, which we all know within the first page, yet Bierce keeps us reading. It is reminiscent of the Stockton-Malone pick and roll. You see it coming, you can't stop it, and you revel in it when it happens.

"A Resumed Identity" is admittedly not quite as good but still quite good. It calls to mind the experiences of Japanese soldiers marooned on remote islands during World War II, which Bierce could not possibly have known even happened but he seems to have foreseen flawlessly. The only thing I worry about is that the few people the narrator encounters do not bother commenting on his appearance. In that sense, a Twilight Zone-esque effect occurs. Details that should have been obvious are used strategically to instruct the reader on, to put it as bluntly as possible, social norm deficiencies.

With that, hope you read and like these pieces!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Homemade Sinus Decongestant

Sinuses congested? Don't worry, we've all been there before. Thankfully, I've developed a homemade sinus decongestant! It tastes really good too. I'm sure it's painfully similar to what others have conceived before, but hey, it works and it's a delicious snack. I'd be remiss not to share it with the world.

Here it is:

1 can chicken broth (Swanson is my preferred brand, but any will probably do)
1/4 serrano pepper

green onions to taste

Add rice if you want to make a meal of it. I recommend Texana long gain brown rice, but ultimately, any rice will probably do.

Keep your sinuses feeling good!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What Makes a One-Hit Wonder?

We all know them, and at least love some of them. They are as memorable as they are fleeting. They're apparently also in decline, according to this recent CBC feature article. Using Canadian songstress Carly Rae Jepsen, of "Call Me Maybe" fame and more recent E·MO·TION fame, as a case study, the article discusses the recent tendency of hitmakers to return to the top of the charts. It quite aptly mentions the risk-averse nature of today's music industry, which leads to proven hitmakers receiving more financial backing than first-timers, along with the paucity of different songs on the charts these days. If songs stay on longer than before, there are less of them, and thus less one-hit wonders, and so on.

This post isn't simply a discussion of the article, though. I've linked to the article for that. Rather, it's about the metric the interviewed data journalist uses for determining whether an artist is a one-hit wonder:

BB: So what is the definition of a one-hit wonder that you're working with when you do your research?
DK: People that only made the Billboard Top 100 one time and never made it again.
BB: So even if you cracked at 99, you're no longer a one-hit wonder.
DK: That's right.
[underline emphasis mine]

I raised an eyebrow at that underlined part there. On its face, it makes enough sense. The Billboard Top 100 is far from perfect, but it seems to be a good enough metric. It is, of course, heavily biased toward the US, especially considering the prominent place the UK Singles Chart holds in Western pop music lore. The more glaring question that came to mind, though, is "what about album artists?"

I decided to look up the chart histories of some of the past few decades' most famous artists known principally for their albums. Think of it as the one-hit wonder version of the infamous BMI of NFL players study from a years ago. Here are some understandably hilarious results.

Artists you didn't know were one-hit wonders:
King Crimson - "The Court of the Crimson King" (1969)*
Judas Priest - "You've Got Another Thing Coming" (1982)
NWA - "Straight Outta Compton" (1988)
The Replacements - "I'll Be You" (1989)
Megadeth - "Symphony of Destruction" (1992)

King Crimson was a highly influential band that had albums chart at 28 and 31 in the US, and much higher (5 and 4) in their native UK. Judas Priest has sold four platinum albums in the US alone. NWA has sold two platinum albums in the US (their only two). The Replacements released a string of influential albums that are sadly obscured in terms of commercial performance. Added to that is that "I'll Be You" is nowhere near their best-known song. Megadeth has sold six platinum albums in the US alone. So... one-hit wonders, anyone?

Possibly even weirder, none of Slayer,** Anthrax, Pantera or Iron Maiden has ever cracked the Billboard Top 100, despite a slew of highly successful albums between them - and plenty of UK singles hits. Meanwhile, [gulp], Duncan Sheik has. Sister Hazel actually has two Top 100 singles. (No, I don't know "Change Your Mind" either, and I was pretty into pop culture in 2000.)

While the metric is safely blasted to bits on its letter, I get the spirit of it. Some artists are just one-hit wonders, no matter how great they are. Nonetheless, the Billboard Top 100 test needs a lot of qualifiers, mostly based on UK Singles Chart and just about everywhere album performance.

*In all fairness to the metric I'm poking fun at here, King Crimson was notorious for simply not releasing singles off its albums, even more than, say, Pantera.
**Hot Singles Sales is a separate chart.

NOTE: Apparently, EMF and A-Ha had multiple Billboard Top 100 hits. You learn something every day, I suppose. (Check the top links if you're confused about why I'm commenting on this.)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

State of Sin: The Synopsis

It may seem a little cryptic, but I wrote a book called State of Sin from 2013-2014. Publication is... taking a while, but it wouldn't be publishing if it didn't. Self-publication as a possibility is on ice for now thanks to time constraints.

Anyway, here's a fun little synopsis meant to draw the reader into the book. Hopefully it gets you excited for this very much finished and at some point totally purchase-able masterwork!


The world of State of Sin is a reflection of our own – unchained. Corrupt officials are power players. Organized criminals advertise freely. Rural preachers rouse their constituents while mainstream urban churches become indistinguishable from banks. At the heart of the bedlam is one elegant tweak to the workings of society: there is no more criminal law. Instead, there is moral law, an intricate point system that sorts everyone in the country based on morality set out in an arcane, inaccessible document called the Moral Code. Station in society is based on social pressure, and no one can escape moral law even in innermost privacy.

In response to these developments, society has broken into factions. Moralists believe in amassing points for their own sake. Levellers believe in balancing points based on the obligation to do good and the temptation to do bad. Hedonists believe in doing whatever feels right, disregarding the system. Immoralists believe in an iconoclastic restoration of the old order, and will go to any means to prove their point. Political parties have become branches of the factions, each attempting to use the electoral system to shape the country according to their agendas. These missions range from introspectively challenging to outwardly violent.

State of Sin is a cross-section of its world. Of its 29 narrators, each one holds his or her own perspective, shaped by his or her faction, location, age, gender, race, class, and lifetime of experiences. State of Sin is unique in that the reader never sees the same character twice. What does become apparent is that within such a fractious environment, no two people perceive their surroundings the same.


Doesn't that just make you want to read all 347 or so pages in one go?

A fun little addendum to my 2014 entry on State of Sin's last day, linked above: in it, I say...

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.

In addition to a few planned short story projects - one of which I'll blog about in the near future - and one finished short story in the hopper, I indeed have a new idea for a novel. We'll see how it pans out.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The 20-20-20 Break

For those of us who frequently spend our days in front of computer screens, yet also seem to be living in caves so as to have not heard of all the hot new eye-related fads, here's a fun little something I just discovered.

Every 20 minutes of reading, especially at a computer screen, should be broken up by 20 consecutive seconds of staring intently at an object 20 feet away, according to both The Mayo Clinic and Oregon State University. This helps get the human eye focused and blinking, which is good for it. I'm sure other sources agree, but two seems to suffice.

I haven't tried it yet, but I may do so and report back.

(Countdown timer included.)

Friday, August 14, 2015

Bonus Book! The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Mystery (1939 - 231 pp.)

The Big Sleep is the world's introduction to Philip Marlowe, a tough-guy private detective in Los Angeles, and to Raymond Chandler as a novelist. Chandler's story is an interesting one in and of itself; he was 51 when The Big Sleep came out, and had done just about everything non-literary possible before then. It is to the novel, though, that I turn.

The first thing that comes to mind when reading this book is that it is just plain exciting. It is plot-driven and action-packed, like a 231-page Game of Thrones in how frequently characters die, croak, bite the dust, and, to borrow from the book's titular phrase, find themselves "sleeping the big sleep". (230) The Big Sleep's 32 chapters average about eight pages each, and are not in small print, yet each presents an important plot event. Chandler does not sacrifice description, either. His opening scene, for example, features a paragraph-long description of a stained glass window and "some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs". (2-3) The reader gets a feel for the seediness Marlowe encounters in every adventure right beside the snarky wit he displays toward it all.

Characters vary from sinister to deranged with very few exceptions. Marlowe's client, the venerable General Sternwood, has two daughters (Vivian and Carmen) who are up to antics that alternate been helping and hurting Marlowe's file. The Sternwoods' butler, Norris, has a wit nearly matching Marlowe's. Arthur Geiger comes at the reader quickly, and Marlowe has to figure out what he is trying to accomplish. Carol Lundgren is best known for his erstwhile catchphrase, "Go fuck yourself", which is surprisingly merited given his precarious position vis à vis the police. (101) As for others, I sadly cannot even divulge their names - in a book this fast-paced, telling character names could actually be a spoiler.

If there are good guys, they are certainly Marlowe and his police friends. Marlowe as a character is perhaps best summed up in a monologue he gives: "I do my thinking myself, what there is of it; the hatred of the cops... I dodge bullets and eat saps, thank you very much... that makes me a son of a bitch. All right. I don't care anything about that. I've been called that by people of all sizes and shapes." (227-228) The dynamic Marlowe shares with Sergeant Bernie Ohls is repeated in future detective fiction, a notable example occurring in Lawrence Sanders's Archie McNally series between private eye Archie McNally and Sergeant Al Rogoff. Somehow, the private detective always ends up being a little too crazy for the more level-headed sergeant, whether the series is grim (Marlowe) or comedic (McNally). Police officers' public sector employer is probably the reason for this phenomenon.

Changing cultural norms have made parts of the book feel a little anachronistic, through no fault of Chandler's. A particularly notable example is when Marlowe sits in his car drinking from an open container of whisky, not in small quantity either, but then worries only that he might receive a ticket for "overparking". (31) Similarly, racially based expressions of the era have faded from view since, like when Marlowe "harshly" calls Carmen "cute as a Filipino on a Saturday night." (154) What does this mean? Is it racist? Is it not? Unlike obviously racist characters, Marlowe's world is so full of contemporary slang it is tough to slot into modern society.

The Big Sleep cannot really be said to be educational in any academic sense, unless you study noir academically. As a cultural artifact, though, it offers a great look into what made the genre so effective. Marlowe's hard-boiled demeanour, and the book's overall senses of setting and pace, have influenced everything from Dick Tracy to Dark City to Sin City. That is worth studying a little.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 3

Thursday, August 13, 2015

51 Eridani b

In what has to be the biggest news story today (sorry, Canada Post), a new planet has been discovered, and it looks an awful lot like how a young Jupiter presumably looked. The planet, named 51 Eridani b, is only about 20 million years old, making it a "baby" by planetary standards. Its methane-rich atmosphere, which resembles our solar system's gas giants far more than most other planets, makes it instructive for learning how planets closer to us once looked.

51 Eridani b is not named for any Roman deity like many of the planets in our solar system, although a deity named Eridani sounds interesting. Rather, it is named for the Eridanus constellation visible from much of the Southern Hemisphere, which is in turn a Latin name for the Po River. One of its stars is called Eridani; 51 Eridani b orbits this star.

A team led by Stanford University astrophysicist Bruce Macintosh discovered the planet using the Gemini Planet Imager, a recently developed device that measures planets according to their glows. Measurements it takes include temperature and mass - in 51 Eridani b's case, twice the mass of Jupiter and a scorching 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Oddly, it is the lowest-mass planet discovered using this method, and one of the coldest.

Here's an artist's rendition of 51 Eridani b that's been floating around the internet for the past few hours courtesy of the Stanford website:

Isn't it... cute?

NOTE: Irrelevant to this story, but certainly relevant to a book blog, is that I read Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything last month. Despite its title, the book is a few hundred pages summarizing a significant part of the history of science, including dozens of entertaining stories about scientists. (I especially recommend the stories about Jack Haldane's decompression chamber experiments, which have to be read in as much possible detail in order to be believed.) Amazingly, in light of Bryson's lack of any doctoral education, the book succeeded in its mission of popularizing science for me, considering I read far more news stories on 51 Eridani b than I would have otherwise. This was in large part due to the book's extensive astronomy section. I assure you, it would have made for a fine entry on here if I had not suddenly been given The Sound and the Fury as a birthday present.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

August's Book: The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Literature (1929 - 281 pp.)

It is funny the way location shapes our early experiences. As a child, I read plenty of Canadian fiction, but had never read another American classic until fall 2013, and had not read The Sound and the Fury until last week. As I tend to do with classics, I will refrain from being too academic in this entry considering so many others already have. Instead, I will share more personal observations, as well as anything connecting the book to the present day.

The book consists of four parts, titled with a nod to the passage of time. "April 7, 1928" is narrated by Benjy, "a man with the mind of the child" according to the back of my edition, which in 2015 parlance probably implies he has some sort of mental disability. He is mute, and never expresses a thought longer than about two lines, so Benjy's narration can never be appreciated in long form. Instead, what the reader experiences is a counterbalancing pull between a fast-reading, dialogue-heavy style that packs as many paragraphs per page as I have ever read, and a push toward having to read the section multiple times in order to properly understand it. As a reviewer on Goodreads put it, "Jumping into 'The Sound and the Fury' with no prior introduction is like driving through an impenetrable fog or into a blinding glare—you can't quite tell who is who; male or female; black or white; first, second, or third generation; relative or friend or stranger." Although I have a general anti-spoiler policy, with noted exceptions, I will spoil exactly one key detail of this book: there are two separate characters named Quentin. If you spend most of the first chapter confused about Quentin's gender, so was I. Quentin is the name of Benjy's brother, who narrates part two, and Quentin is also the name of their niece. As if to emulate the South of the period, Faulkner never employs a female narrator. I also took an inordinate amount of time figuring out who the black servants were, in large part because Benjy does not bother distinguishing them from the family members.

"June 2, 1910" is, in some ways, the book's literary pinnacle. Contrary to analyses that place Candace at the centre of the book, as intriguing as I found her character, I found Quentin (the Elder) the most compelling. His alternation between an easily followed style with excellent character description to an early example of stream of consciousness shows the reader how intelligent he is without being able to escape his emotions. A line like "The trout hung, delicate and motionless among the wavering shadows" (108) shows Faulkner's capacity, through Quentin, to evoke powerful images of the riverside in the Northeast. It feels strange that the book's first good setting description (sorry, Benjy) happens so far away from the South, which is the book's focal point. Quentin's Southern-ness is still evident, though, like when he calls a fellow Harvard student "as crotchety about his julep as an old maid". (134-135) The story of Quentin's chance encounter with a little Italian girl who does not speak English but who needs to be returned home (120-133) may be about how Quentin has been so far removed from his roots, but regardless, it is a consistent feat of Faulkner's - and Quentin's - sense of humour. The stream of consciousness scene that may or may not involve any of Quentin, Candace, and a whole bunch of water is the book's emotional high (low?) point, and gripped me the two or three reads I needed to fully grasp what was happening. (138) The most jarring part of Quentin's chapter is the end, which happens so suddenly I was surprised not to flip the page and hear from him again.

"April 6, 1928", Jason's story, presents the South's decline. So many of Benjy's memories are from happier days, and so much of Quentin's narrative is about his struggle to find himself while not even living in the South, that it is left to Jason to describe the woes that have befallen the Compson household. Jason is a miserable human being, to put it lightly, who, for example, opens his narrative by saying "Once a bitch, always a bitch, what I say" about his niece. (162) He then proceeds to threaten her with violence (166, 169), and then promptly says disheartening comments about blacks (169) and Jews (171). If the closeness of the page references alarms you, you may find it interesting to know those are only the first of them. As much as Jason's character could have been a caricature, Faulkner handles the negative stereotype of the historical Southern man very well, to the point that the reader becomes frustrated with Jason while lamenting how far the Compsons have fallen. The reader never gets a sense that Quentin would act this way, for example.

"April 8, 1928" is my least favourite chapter. This could be because it is the only chapter with a third-person omniscient narrator, meaning it lacks the personal touch any of the first three have. For whatever it is worth, it also has the least action. Other than Benjy being taken to a black church service, and Jason being his usual crazy self, not much happens, at least when compared with the mayhem of the first three chapters. That it occurs on Easter Sunday, and Jason is still so bitter, is a nice touch.

My experience with The Sound and the Fury was a good one. I loved Benjy's chapter as I read it, later resented that it was presented first rather than having Jason explain the family's situation from the start, but then came to appreciate the chapter order again. That the reader never gets to experience a chapter set in the South during the happier times (very late 1800s) without having to navigate Benjy's frustrating narrative style adds to the feeling of loss. The Compsons apparently once had a thriving property built around a farm. The reader's only guesses at that property are from characters speaking either incoherently or in the past tense. Perhaps most sadly in a book all about sadness, it is not so much the feeling of the Compsons' losses that permeates the reader so much as how buried in history their victories are.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 5

NOTE: Here is a PDF of Faulkner's appendix, written in 1945. It is useful for seeing some of Faulkner's opinions of his own characters along with a few historical notes on the family. Oddly, I like Quentin more than Jason, whereas Faulkner's words are both lengthier for Jason and generally more positive.