Thursday, June 22, 2017

May's Book, At Last: Dawn of the Belle Epoque

Sadly, May 2017 became the first month since November 2014 when I didn't blog, and the second overall. It was a good month, just apparently nothing meriting a post here. With that out of the way, and with the upfront admission that I tend to take my time with European history books, here's one my various followers and friends have been waiting for:


Dawn of the Belle Epoque by Mary McAuliffe
History (2011 - 339 pp.)

Dawn of the Belle Epoque is the first in a set of two books covering the history of France, centred on Paris, from 1871-1914. Dawn covers the period from 1871-1900, and Twilight of the Belle Epoque, which I suppose I will read at some point, covers the period from 1901-1914. Dawn, and presumably Twilight, is a combination of an academic treatment and a celebration of the cultural journeys McAuliffe no doubt took in France, based on the pictures mostly bearing her or a family member's credit. That makes it a simultaneously best-of-both-worlds and worst-of-both-worlds book: a history book that reads like it could have been bought in an airport.

Dawn's thesis is simple and effective: that when France rediscovered itself as a nation in the aftermath of the crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, its political, artistic, literary and infrastructure developments all coalesced. People crossed paths in ways that have rarely happened in other countries, and every movement became an expression of Parisian-ness or greater Frenchness. Everything from the Eiffel Tower to the Impressionist movement, to, unfortunately, anti-Semitism, became an outward demonstration of a French soul. Fittingly, McAuliffe's narrative zips back and forth between every aspect of her main characters' lives. Among those featured are Degas, Renoir, Manet, Monet (they were confused at the time!), Mucha, Zola, Rodin, Morisot and daughter, Clemenceau, Debussy, Eiffel and Dreyfus.

Paris was truly a scene back then - everyone appeared to know everyone else. Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie, three of the most accomplished pianists of the day, met in 1893; Ravel credited meeting Satie for much of his later work. (232) Georges Clemenceau, of earlier and later political fame, knew Edmond de Goncourt and Emile Zola personally. (218, 294) World-renowned hotelier Cesar Ritz hired equally world-renowned chef Auguste Escoffier, who, in turn, made almost an entire dessert menu named after equally world-renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt. (177, 335) It was impossible to run into one major French figure of the time without running into all the others, which is what makes Dawn flow so well.

Alphonse Mucha, of 1890s Art Nouveau fame, drew an iconic image of Sarah Bernhardt. The two also became friends.

Two of the most stunning aspects of the artists who take up a significant portion of Dawn are how loose (or modern?) their social mores were, and how poor they often were. I read a print copy of Dawn, so I was unable to Ctrl+F to check word frequency, but the word "mistress" seemed to appear on almost every page. Claude Monet had fallen in love with Alice Hoschede, wife of Ernest Hoschede; Monet and Alice cohabited, while Ernest coped by maintaining his friendship with them both. Alice never stopped loving Ernest, appearing frequently at his bedside leading up to his death in 1890, but also married Monet directly afterward. (212) In 1894 alone, author Zola was "scandalously walking his illegitimate family" around the Tuileries gardens, and Debussy became engaged to one woman while continuing to cohabit with another. (245)

Among the artistic class, poverty was near-universal. Among the original Impressionists, exactly two could be described as reasonably well-off. (101) In 1881, Claude Monet, not yet famous, had not paid his rent in over a year. (113) In 1889, Mucha was "battling starvation" (198) in a "claustrophobic" apartment: "The staircase to Mucha's new quarters was so narrow that he had to dump his belongings on the sidewalk and bring everything up, piece by piece, through the window." (200) In 1898, Debussy was "inundated with debts". (303) Even Oscar Wilde, who has been enshrined as a literary titan since his death, "died in poverty" in 1900 - and where else but in a hotel in Paris? (336)

Much like the rest of Parisian reality of the era, this penury was not confined to the artistic class. Some of Pierre and Marie Curie's initial radioactivity research was conducted in a "rough wooden building" that Marie admitted was "incompletely protected from the rain". McAuliffe refers to it as "appalling conditions" but that she and Pierre were still "supremely happy". (302) Similarly, Clemenceau, who later history has portrayed as leonine, lived simply in a small flat while mostly excluded from political participation for almost two decades. He had gone through "a nasty divorce", which had affected him to the point that he "smashed a marble statue of his wife and decimated memory-inducing photos and paintings". (218) Accusations of bribery related to the Panama Canal scandal led him to admit in 1893 that "assassination would be preferable to the ordeal he had undergone". (237) As late as 1893, he paid for his furnishings in installments. He wrote to a friend: "I'm riddled with debts... I have nothing more, nothing more, nothing more." (238)

PBS Learning Media has Delance's painting of the Eiffel Tower too!

One of the greatest achievements of the era was the construction of the Eiffel Tower. Paul Louis Delance's striking picture of it is among the full-pagers that open every chapter (above). Fittingly, it is the opener for 1889, the year of its debut, and the centennial of the French Revolution. (193) Even that was fraught with scandal. Only a year after Gustave Eiffel debuted his tower, he was implicated on Panama Canal-related bribery charges. The following year, 1891, Eiffel's home was raided by the police. (207) Nonetheless, he carried on, and although he was convicted of breach of trust, he was found not guilty of "swindling", and "unlike Clemenceau, Gustave Eiffel's fortunes never affected his bank account". (238-239) Then, as now, it appears engineering is a good career choice.

Although each chapter roughly correlates to one calendar year, there is emphasis in the 1898-1900 range in order to separate everyday life from the Dreyfus Affair. McAuliffe begins her political criticism early by focusing on Paris's wreckage-strewn state in the aftermath of the Paris Commune, and, with it, rising political tensions along class lines, as Goncourt noted: "What is happening... is nothing less than the conquest of France by the worker and the reduction to slavery under his rule of the noble, the bourgeois, and the peasant." (15) Foreign crises such as the decision over whether to support papal territorial claims (69), protracted war in Indochina (now Vietnam) in the mid-1880s, (135-136) and rising Anglo-French antagonism that led to an embarrassing almost-war in which the British humiliated the French in Sudan in 1898, (311) worsened the situation.

It was against this fear of conquest and defeat that the French army would wrongfully convict 36-year old Captain Dreyfus of treason, largely because he was a territorial, religious and ethnic outsider: an Alsatian who had elected to keep his French citizenship rather than become a German citizen in 1871, a native German speaker, and a Jew. (254) This made him suspicious to a militarized French army that hated everything German, or anything that appeared not sufficiently French on the surface. Even among the Dreyfusards, who publicly supported him, there was anti-Semitism. (322) Thankfully, Dreyfus's innocence was finally recognized as the century turned, with the help of Emile Zola, the (greater) help of Rene Waldeck-Rousseau, and the (even greater) help of the criminal court system.

Manet's portrait of George Moore: apparently best served sunny side up.

The people of Paris more generally back then were extremely quotable.* Debussy wrote in 1893, "The bell has tolled now to mark my thirty-first year". (224) When Mucha protested the use of the term Art Nouveau to describe the style developing in England and France in the 1890s, he said "Art is eternal... it cannot be new". (252) Dramatism was not limited to popular artists; one of the rare republican clergymen, Abbe Fremont, warned that "between the Church... and progress, the Republic and the future... there is no relationship possible but the most deadly hatred." (89) Parisians were not lacking in humour. Edouard Manet famously said to his friend Antonin Proust in 1881, when discussing the unflattering-if-lifelike Manet portrait series, "Is it my fault if [the poet George] Moore looks like a squashed egg yolk?" (103)

Perhaps the most enduring sentence of Dawn is one tucked away between the far more exciting tales of Alice Hoschede's second marriage and Maurice Ravel's first big break as a sixteen-year old at the Paris Conservatoire. This time it is not a painter, or a musician, or a politician, but McAuliffe herself who notes, "Pioneers do not as a rule settle for the comfortable corners of life..."

The rest of that sentence reads, as it introduces another of the book's famous stars, "...and Maria Sklodowska [Curie] was no exception." (213)

Ease of Reading: 5
Educational Content: 8

NOTE: Now to be difficult about word choice, which I do sometimes. One of the most enormous word usage errors in the English language, which is an error of great enormity, is confusing the word "enormousness" with "enormity". Enormousness is the state of being enormous. Enormity is great evil. So when McAuliffe says "Part of the problem was the enormity of the task that Paris had undertaken" (328), one truly wonders if the French were as awful as the Germans claimed they were in 1904.

*Or "quotacious", if you're Shaq.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

[Bang2Write] 3 Important Beta Readers You Just Have to Impress

After writing, before publication, people will read your writing.

Who reads? Beta readers, that's who.

These people help get your work ready for editors, ready for publishers, and ready for the market.

You need at least types of them, and I explain that on Bang2Write:

Published authors, subject-matter experts, and target readers will get you where you want to go.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Jess Brewer: "Yes You Can!"

This past weekend, University of British Columbia Professor Emeritus Jess Brewer posted "Yes You Can!" on his blog. In 850 words, he said more than most people do all day.

"Yes You Can!" he says.

This mindset is the best to have.

Amidst his examples of his increasing age, the health problems people face, and those tired worn, excuses that stop people from reaching their dreams, there's this thesis:

Shall I run through an inventory of excuses?  No, that would be both mean and pointless.  Deep in your heart you know what actually prevents you from Doing It (whatever It might be for you) and what is just an excuse, doubtless backed up by a firmly entrenched stereotype.

It can be anything. It can be travelling to a new place, working on a new project, or meeting someone new. There are so many ways to build in a belief that you can't, it's easy to forget that you can.

There's also a surprise at the end, but I'm not going to spoil his blog entry for you, now am I?

What's nice, too, is none of this is coming from a motivational speaker. It's coming from someone who's put in decades of hard work - and loved doing it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

April's Book: Utopia for Realists

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman
Politics (2016 - 207 pp.)

Rutger Bregman's Utopia for Realists advances the not overly bold, but very boldly stated, idea that we live in utopia. It starts out as advocacy for universal basic income (UBI) but then morphs into a longer, more thorough, tract advocating for all kinds of things. Career changes, robots, open borders... if it exists, Bregman probably has an opinion on it. This is great.

Bregman's arguments for UBI come less from a charitable or moral standpoint - i.e. nowhere near Pope Francis's "moral economy" - but from a money-driven, practical standpoint. Bregman appears extremely socialist at times, such as when he bemoans the United States's falling life expectancy while remarking that "the market and commercial interests are enjoying free reign". (23) However, his vision of UBI comes off as conservative. This is for three key reasons:

  1. It slashes administration costs by removing means tests, and no longer requires people having to prove how disabled they are in order to collect benefits. (61)
  2. It encourages the founding of small businesses. (59)
  3. It forces recipients to participate in the market. (46) You can't eat, wear or sleep under money, but you sure can use it to help top up the GDP. It's tough to promote an anti-market ideology when money is what you use to elevate yourself.

That's a good theory. Practice may be more difficult, though, especially in large countries like Canada or the United States. Bregman's native Netherlands is, at least on the surface, a particularly good candidate for UBI because it's so small. One euro will take you about as far in Amsterdam as in Rotterdam as in Delft. What about in Regina versus Toronto, though, or in Bismarck, ND versus New York City? In large countries, UBI would either have to (A) be cost of living adjusted based on where the recipient lives, or (B) be the exact same in nominal terms. If we choose (A), how is someone from a small town ever supposed to be able to afford to move to a large city? If we choose (B), money will drain from high-COL areas to low-COL areas. Bregman never answers that question, possibly because his country's geography never asks that of him.

Where Bregman is flat-out wrong is in his demonization* of professional services. Everyone from an HR manager (143) to a lawyer (145) to a banker (147) is "bullshit" and "useless" to him. These three are particularly good examples of professionals who facilitate and grow the occupations Bregman values more. Bregman loves teachers, for example. Without HR managers to staff and compensate them, lawyers to negotiate their union contracts, and bankers to underwrite the funds that help build the schools, teachers would have a far more difficult time. These three professions also have a variety of conferences, seminars and events that promote - this'll sting for Bregman - education. Not everyone who seeks out graduate school or who wants to carry on the world's knowledge wants to do it within a university setting.

It's the same for small businesses, a group that could arguably benefit radically from UBI. (60) HR consultants can use their industry knowledge to find good employees, reducing turnover costs. Corporate law can be what stops a small business owner from losing his or her house in a lawsuit. Bankers can provide loans at discounted rates that, in the end, result in the banker making a cut while the business owner makes even more. I wouldn't rather have those people taking up all their time with, as Bregman quotes Benjamin Franklin, "leisure and pleasure". (34) Bregman's hatred of the 70-hour workweek (34) is laudable, but he may be going a smidgen too far in the other direction.

Recommending non-fiction is different from recommending fiction. Whereas in fiction, many people like to delve as deep as they can into a particular genre, any non-fiction field should be enjoyed in its entirety. Or would you read a dozen books about French military history without reading any on French political history, French social history, or the military history of the neighbouring nations?

That said, Bregman is establishing himself as a Dutch Slavoj Zizek of sorts: a European academic who is mostly far-left but doesn't feel constrained by other peoples' ideological boundaries, and who will stop at nothing to advance an entertaining view of the world. If you like politics, and aren't afraid to have your beliefs challenged, Utopia for Realists is for you. Bregman puts this best in his quotation of Lyman Tower Sargent, who Bregman casts as a "leading utopia expert": "One needs to be able to believe passionately and also be able to see the absurdity of one’s own beliefs and laugh at them". (28) Neither I nor Bregman is unknowing of the absurd.

My favourite part of Utopia for Realists is the conclusion. Seeing as I don't particularly consider it possible to give spoilers for non-fiction books, here are the last two sentences:
Ideas, however outrageous, have changed the world, and they will again. “Indeed,” wrote Keynes, “the world is ruled by little else.” (207)
No matter whether you're on the right, the left, or somewhere completely removed from any political spectrum. These last two sentences are something any reader can believe.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 7

*A fitting word, considering I'll be posting about The Screwtape Letters this month. Not to compare them to this book, thankfully.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Congratulations, Gamecocks!

The South Carolina Gamecocks won their first NCAA men's basketball tournament game in 44 years.

They went to the Final Four.

Now their women's team has won it all on the same stage.

For the first time in school history, the Gamecocks women's team has won it all.

I didn't pick them, but hey - I should have.

I still have Gonzaga in the men's final, but in the meantime, let's celebrate the team that really got it done:

Sindarius Thornwell

(from Gamecocks Online)

Angel Wilson

(from The State)

Congrats, Gamecocks! You've sure scored a hell of lot more points can I could have.

Friday, March 31, 2017

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

Imagine seven people at a conference table.

On Monday, they show up as usual.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

March's Book: Save the Cat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 8

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

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

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

February's Book: Murder on the Orient Express

Happy Leap Day 2017!

I mean, Happy March 1st...

Speaking of being late to the party:


Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Mystery (1934 - 137 pp.)

This is yet another of those books that has been read, reviewed and studied so many times I will focus on my personal experience with it, as well as try to bring up a couple angles I do not usually see. First, though, I have to consider what Murder on the Orient Express isn't. It isn't a police procedural. If it were, Hercule Poirot would be the worst police officer ever for many reasons.* It isn't noir.** It isn't Sherlock Holmes, as much as Holmes understandably influenced it.

Murder on the Orient Express ends is so old it's become mysterious again. For those who haven't read it, the premise is this: 16 passengers are in a train car from Istanbul ("Stamboul") to Paris. On the second night of the journey, somewhere in what once was Yugoslavia, the train is trapped in a snowdrift. It is then that one of the passengers on the train car is murdered. Our daring protagonist Hercule Poirot, with the aid of a Wagon Lit conductor and a doctor, must figure out who committed the murder.

Murder on the Orient Express is essentially two things: an inspiration for mystery dinner theatre, and a precursor to whodunit-style logic puzzles.

The logic falls apart for the benefit of the theatrics. Poirot sometimes misses clues that are plainly obvious, such as in certain omissions in the Ten Questions he asks based on the evidence. (106) At other times, his guesswork is so outlandish it leads to conclusions a reader could not possibly reach. (132) This removes the suspension of disbelief, making it appear less like Poirot is brilliant and more like Christie needed to get to the end of the book.

Almost as outlandishly, the women's nightgowns are discussed often, including during Poirot's luggage searches. Poirot notes that "I suspect it is the property of Countess Andrenyi, since her luggage contained only a chiffon negligee so elaborate as to be rather a teagown than a dressing-gown" (135) in front of the entire train car, yet the Countess doesn't bat an eye. Christie delivers the dramatic proclamations and garish outfits that would be fitting for a stage, which would probably make such revealing statements more interesting.

Christie's strongest suit is her language. She shows this right from the beginning, as in the introductions of Colonel Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham:
The Colonel, Hercule Poirot noticed, accompanied her back to her compartment. Later they passed through the magnificent scenery of the Taurus. As they looked down towards the Cilician Gates, standing in the corridor side by side, a sigh came suddenly from the girl. Poirot was standing near them and heard her murmur: 
“It’s so beautiful! I wish—I wish—” (10)
The setting is enchanting, Debenham's awed reaction conveys the scene's grandeur, and the dialogue is crisp. Dialogue is a strength that Christie maintains throughout the book, including in the lengthy conversations between Poirot and Dr Constantine.

This linguistic gift continues in her character descriptions. Her description of Princess Dragomiroff is at once hideous, mysterious and hilarious: "Her small toad-like face looked even yellower than the day before. She was certainly ugly, and yet, like the toad, she had eyes like jewels, dark and imperious, revealing latent energy and an intellectual force that could be felt at once." (62) The Count Andrenyi's more imposing manner is equally apparent: "There was no doubt that he was a fine-looking man seen face to face. He was at least six feet in height, with broad shoulders and slender hips. He was dressed in very well-cut English tweeds and might have been taken for an Englishman had it not been for the length of his moustache and something in the line of the cheekbone." (65) His character is the one that calls Christie's Sherlock Holmes influence to mind, from the tweeds to the inexplicable something calculating about him.

In both the time period and the genre, writing mechanics looked much different from the way they do now. An example is Christie's copious use of adverbs. Those atrocious, abolishment-worthy, overused, "shoot on sight"(!!!), "dumping ground" adverbs. (Yes, I know there's a debate. I'm firmly on the pro-adverb side.) In Murder on the Orient Express, Christie ends a word in "ly" 1044 times.** Subtracting words like "reply", and adding those sneaky non-ly adverbs, is probably a wash, so let's say she uses 1044 adverbs in a 137-page book. Removing the six pages of front matter and contents, leaving us at 131, that's approximately 7.97 adverbs per page. I shudder to think of what would happen to Christie at a writing workshop now. Yet... her writing doesn't suffer for it. That might be an interesting blog entry for a writing advice site.

The diagram of the train car is a fun addition. (42) I referred back to it quite a few times while reminding myself who stayed in which room. A zoomed-in diagram showing the inside of a room would have been good too.

NOTE: In my ebook, there is a massive list of Agatha Christie novels "Coming Soon". (2) I felt like I was reading it in 1934, if ebooks had been a thing back then.

FURTHER NOTE: I read Murder on the Orient Express largely on the TTC. Not exactly the Orient Express, but, like Christie's characters, I did experience a train delay.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 1

*Improperly handling evidence, (90) harassing witnesses, (79-80) conducting warrantless searches, (89) telling his theory of the case to the entire traincar, (134-136) and - of course - doing all of this apparently unarmed and with no backup. (28)

**Oddly, only one precedes a semicolon: "'Do not distress yourself,' said the latter kindly; 'I cannot see that there has been any negligence on your part.'" (45) All other similar phraseologies place a colon after the offending "ly".

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Gaming Your Protagonist

The author insert is a usually loathed type of character: often associated with wish fulfillment, being a "creator's pet", or with the Mary Sue group of characters. They're flypaper for parody and bad reviews.
On the other hand, authors are frequently told to "write what you know". (Or not.) I, for example, couldn't express the feelings of someone completely different from me unless I spent years of research on the subject. That's okay.
So how do we bridge that gap in order to create a character who is from the author's heart, but without having the entire ship tilted toward it?
A character like you but different.
I developed a method for this while writing the protagonist for the book I finished last year.
Imagine every one of your decisions as a node on a game tree. Your life looks something like this:
(from Study)
Each rectangle in this tree is a node, meaning it’s when you make a decision to follow one of the arrows below it.
Let’s say your parents don’t visit (#1). Then it ends up being windy (#2). Then you’re rich (#3). You end up shopping.
What if, hypothetically, you could go back in time and change the weather to sunny (#2)? Then you play tennis.
You can’t do that with your real life but you can do it with a fictional character.
For a character that is (a) enough like you for you to really get into the character’s head, but (b) different enough to not be an author insert, ask yourself the following:
  1. What’s a major decision I’ve made in my life?
  2. What if I’d decided differently?
  3. Then who might I be now?
Run wild with it. Be as speculative as you like. What you’ll likely find is that the character sees the world the way you’d see the world if you’d chosen a different path.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

January's Book: The Eagle Unbowed

The Eagle Unbowed by Halik Kochanski
History (2012 - 591 pp.)

The Eagle Unbowed is an ambitious look at the experience of Poland and Poles during the Second World War. The book touches upon everything from life in the Second Polish Republic (1918-1939), to military operations, evacuations to the Soviet Union and then worldwide, social life, the situation Polish Jews faced, and the diplomacy that led to Poland's 1945 borders. As a result, it is a valuable reference, but reads as though it could have been split into two, or even three, books. The Table of Contents shows just how much material The Eagle Unbowed covers.

The book's central theses are that Poland contributed a considerable amount to the allied effort of World War II, and that the plight of the Poles has been overlooked by foreign historians. Five-hundred and ninety-one pages later, it is difficult to disagree.

Kochanksi does very well in placing the 1939 war in its farther-reaching historical context. The three Partitions of Poland, which had split the country between Prussia/Germany, Austria and Russia from the late 18th century until 1916, had prevented Poland from being a unified nation-state. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact repeated these events all at once. (95-96)

Germany and the USSR justified dividing Poland between them in many ways, including ethnic ones. Between the World Wars, Poland was one of Europe's few multicultural states during the era of self-determination. Whereas Slovaks and Magyars had been separated by land, or Greeks and Turks by religion, Poland contained not only Poles but also Germans, Jews, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Belorussians, among others. Poland was also not homogeneously Catholic; there were many Lutherans, Jews and Orthodox Christians. This diversity, while a cultural asset, presented a "fundamental weakness" (22) during World War II, explaining why Poland contained so many political dissident groups.

The underground factions in occupied Poland require a list of abbreviations at the start of the book. The most prominent Polish underground army was the Armia Krajowa (AK), the army most associated with the Government in Exile, and most representative of the pre-war government. However, there were also the socialist Armia Lubowa (AL), which received aid from the USSR, and the anti-Semitic extreme-right NSZ. Some Jews sought membership in the AK or the AL, or in the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB). There were also Ukrainian armies, such as the OUN, the OUN-B and the UPA. The only time the AK and AL fought with any cohesion was during the Warsaw Uprising, which also saw participation from "Italians who had deserted the Germans, escaped Soviet POWs, Hungarians, Slovaks and a Frenchman." (404) Otherwise, divisiveness was the norm, and civil war was the worst case. During the OUN's short-lived declaration of Ukrainian independence in 1939, "Ukrainians flocked to help the Germans, providing much of the manpower needed to shoot the Jews, joined German paramilitary formations and wore German uniforms", (260) whereas UPA units may have unofficially cooperated with the Soviet internal police NKVD. (546) Kochanski's not always flattering treatment of the Ukrainian groups is likely one of the book's more controversial points.

Still other pre-war Polish citizens - soldiers and civilians alike - were evacuated and expelled. Many ended up in such far-flung places as Siberia, Kazakhstan, Iran, India and South Africa. The Eagle Unbowed follows Wladyslaw Anders's II Corps, most famous for its capture of Monte Cassino in 1944 but which had completed its training in the USSR, Iran and Palestine, and which had nearly invaded the German-occupied Balkans. Other stories focus on the efforts of families in exile to reunite when possible and to resupply each other when not.

The Eagle Unbowed manages to do what possibly only a book about World War II-era Poland can do: list statistics that move the reader emotionally. The UPA frequently massacred entire villages of Polish civilians, such as on July 11-12, 1943, when it "coordinated attacks on 167 localities and killed about 10,000 Poles." (361) This was part of a campaign that killed approximately 60,000-80,000 Poles in the Kresy lands during the war. (363) Holocaust statistics are published widely, but see more compartmentalization here, such as in the three dedicated and compact extermination camps. In Belzec, 600,000 Jews died; in Sobibor, along the 100-metre-long "Road to Heaven" from the undressing stations to the gas chambers, 250,000 Jews died; and in Treblinka, 900,000 Jews died. (299-300) Perhaps most stultifying is the number of survivors of these three camps, and the earlier camp at Chelmno, combined: 110. (300) In total, 20 percent of the pre-war Polish population (6,000,000) died during the war, along with 90 percent of the pre-war Polish Jewish population. Specific pockets were targeted: "A third of all academics, scientists and doctors had been killed, and over half of all lawyers." (532) Nor was the suffering limited to humanity; "[Poland's] agricultural ouput had been devastated by the loss of 72 percent of all sheep and 60 percent of all cattle." (532)

Touching personal stories from soldiers and civilians, many in exile, make The Eagle Unbowed far more than a series of battle diagrams and tragic statistics. In Tehran, according to Polish minister Karol Bader in a letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Raczynski: "You should see Teheran today: the streets are full of Poles, including attractive girls in uniform who captivate British officers and the local male population; Polish bands and choirs who have invaded all the bars and hotels..." (249) Even among the normally humourless events of occupied Poland, there were occasions to smile. In the Warsaw ghetto, in 1940, "One enterprising Jew even managed to keep a cow in the ghetto, and milk was sold in return for fodder and cash. When a German owner of a factory in the ghetto found out, he provided an official ration for the cow." (295) The weaving together of a story about war with a story about survival is one of the book's finer points.

Kochanski emphasizes the warmth of Polish-Hungarian relations. Hungarian hussars smuggled Polish army officers across the Polish-Hungarian border. (205) Hungarian, rather than German or Soviet, soldiers were charged with the occupation of Stanislawow (now in Ukraine); Hungarian soldiers sang a Polish national song with Poles in the churches, and actively encouraged Poles to evacuate to Hungary before the Germans occupied the territory. (263) Poles in Hungary received government aid, self-governance within makeshift cities during integration, ran their own newspaper (Wiesci Polskie), and educated their own children: "Official support for cooperation between the Hungarian authorities and the Poles meant that, after the fall of France, Hungary was the only belligerent or neutral country in the whole of Europe where Poles could still receive a secondary school education."* (240) The refusal of Hungary to acknowledge the most recent partition of Poland is among the reasons Germany invaded Hungary in 1944. (239)

Wherever the Poles went, they were concerned with education. Poland was a major contributor to higher education between the wars: "many of the universities, including those in Krakow, Warsaw, Lwow, Poznan and Wilno, were highly regarded both at home and abroad." (24) A Polish cadet school for exiled military trainees in Palestine was based off of the six-year pre-WWII Polish secondary school curriculum. (195) In India and in South Africa, Polish children received education based on the pre-WWII Polish curriculum, with English as a second language. (254) Polish University College (1947-1954), a Polish architectual school in Liverpool, and a Polish agricultural college in Glasgow all received British university accreditation. (562)

Oliver Bullough of The New Statesman calls the book "opinionated, fluid and forceful". (back cover) While these attributes are usually assets, Kochanski's slant is evident throughout the book. It is unsurprising that a book based on Polish sources would be pro-Polish. Kochanski may have gone a step farther. Many of her sources are personal interviews with people who surface disproportionately often, including ones whose last names are Kochanski/Kochanska. These sources are still vastly outnumbered, but they appear decidedly less neutral than, for example, diplomatic discussions between President in Exile Wladyslaw Sikorski and British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden. As always, though, each source can be taken at face value. Kochanski lists them very thoroughly.

The Eagle Unbowed represents years of searching through an impressive list of books, articles, primary sources, interviews, and anything else. Kochanski discusses issues that are often difficult from both a research and an emotional perspective. Most of her points are well taken. There are occasions when she sounds more like an advocate for Poland than like a truly neutral academic (any time she says "but in fact...", inevitably followed by something good aout Poland) but these are not the norm. Her grasp of her source material is enviable.

A direction for further research could be to write an archival collection like this one but about the Second Polish Republic. Poland's interwar years are still relatively unknown to many English speakers. Poland is a riveting setting for a history book, and it would be good to read one with less death.

Ease of Reading: 1
Educational Content: 10

*There is no indication as to whether a peripheral country, like the United Kingdom or Sweden, offered such a program. However, it would likely not have been in the pre-WWII Polish curriculum, as Polish students could learn in Hungary.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

December 2016's Book: The Sun Also Rises

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Literature (1926 - 130 pp.)

The Sun Also Rises continues my trend of appreciating America's great interwar writers.* The Sound and the Fury also came out in the 1920s; Tender Is the Night is also set among American expats in Paris in the 1920s. It is exactly a year since I reviewed Tender Is the Night. January 4th is Parisian, apparently.

The book stars narrator Jake Barnes, an American living in Paris. He, along with his erstwhile girlfriend Brett Ashley, Princeton graduate Robert Cohn, adventurer Bill Gorton, and Brett's other boyfriend Michael, travel from Paris to Spain. First Jake and Bill go fishing in Burguete, and then the whole crew watches a bullfight in Pamplona. For those in the mood to re-enact this plot, Pamplona still hosts bullfights.

The most striking aspect of The Sun Also Rises is how unbelievably modern it is. The only notably absent technology is smartphones, meaning The Sun Also Rises could realistically have taken place in the 1990s. (The telegrams could be voicemails.) As someone who did not live in a home with a computer until 1996, and who did not carry a cellphone with any regularity until 2006, I felt as though I could have lived my childhood in Hemingway's world. Aside from that, much of 1920s slang persists (see the note below), and the characters act the way 20-somethings apparently still do.

A highlight is Hemingway's descriptions of the characters' more physical moments. An early encounter between Jake and Brett uses the image of a dark gate as possible foreshadowing of a conflict-filled trip, but more importantly, opens up an opportunity for Brett to show her affection: "We turned off the Avenue up the Rue des Pyramides, through the traffic of the Rue de Rivoli, and through a dark gate into the Tuileries. She cuddled against me and I put my arm around her. She looked up to be kissed. She touched me with one hand and I put her hand away." (8) The reader sees how the characters' relationships build through their actions, which delivers more excitement when they finally do get what they want.** The fight between Jake and Robert is a less happy, but equally riveting, moment. (100) It is the only truly sad part of the book, as Robert soon reflects that Jake is his "only friend". (102)

The dialogue is short, fast, clipped and snappy, with very few tags. A lack of dialogue tags increases the book's pace, making it feel more lifelike in a conversational setting, at the occasional expense of knowing who is talking if there are more than two characters present. Hemingway's dialogue (see extended passages on pages 64, 77 and 96, for example) is one of The Sun Also Rises's best features. It rivals William Faulkner's, and the general style is a huge influence on my own novel about 20-somethings.

Hemingway frequently violates the usually-but-not-always-true maxim of "show, don't tell". Robert Sawyer explains why he prefers showing to telling here:
Why is showing better? Two reasons. First, it creates mental pictures for the reader. When reviewers use terms like "vivid," "evocative," or "cinematic" to describe a piece of prose, they really mean the writer has succeeded at showing, rather than merely telling.
Second, showing is interactive and participatory: it forces the reader to become involved in the story, deducing facts (such as Mary's age) for himself or herself, rather than just taking information in passively. [emphasis mine]
Hemingway writes such non-vivid statements as "But the effort of talking American seemed to have tired him" (57) and "Then after a while it was better and I lay in bed and listened to the heavy trams go by and way down the street, and then I went to sleep" (17). The reader never sees the man's eyes droop or hears the screech of wheels on tracks, but that is no problem. Hemingway shows when it makes the setting come alive and tells when it is perfectly fine to trust Jake's admittedly usually drunk judgment. There are many more of Jake's offhand observations throughout the book, even during longer paragraphs, few of which create the evocatic imagery of the settings. Ironically, Hemingway's later essay Death in the Afternoon, which also discusses bullfighting in Spain, is largely seen as one of the greatest examples of "show, don't tell" of all time.

NOTE: As can be expected of a book released in 1926, The Sun Also Rises contains some 1920s slang. Many of these have caught on in the North American slang canon, such as drawing out the word "ab-so-lute-ly". Among the key terms in The Sun Also Rises is one I never hear anymore: "tight", meaning drunk. "Tight" appears 32 times in the book, albeit not all in that context, and "drunk" appears another 59 times. At the 130-page figure my ebook has, that is almost 0.7 instances per page. Ah, to be an American in Paris in the 1920s...

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 2

*As with many of these frequently reviewed books, I discuss my experience reading it, as well as any point that discusses how the book displays the craft of writing. In many cases, all the literary criticism has already been said, such as a teacher assigning parts of three Hemingway novels, including The Sun Also Rises, in the eighth grade.

**Brett gets her wish on page 14: "Brett's face was white and the long line of her neck showed in the bright light of the flares. The street was dark again and I kissed her." Again, the contrast between the white flares and the dark street is what makes this scene magical.