Thursday, November 30, 2017

November's Book: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
Science Fantasy (2000 - 623 pp.)

Perdido Street Station is a massive, twisting, fun ride through China Mieville's literary inventions. The darkened city of New Crobuzon hosts terrifying creatures, horrifying lines of work, and even the namesake subway station. The protagonist, the scientist Isaac dan der Grimnebulin, promises to build new wings for a bird-like creature (garuda) named Yagharek who has lost his wings as a criminal sentence. Isaac's girlfriend Lin, who is partially bug thanks to a parasite on her head, uses her artistic talents in the service of Remade mob boss Mr. Motley. Mr. Motley commands a team of other Remade, who have animal parts grafted onto them for various reasons, although there are many more Remade in New Crobuzon. During Isaac's research, he accidentally discovers a slake-moth, which feeds by consuming hallucinogens and then sucking out peoples' consciousnesses. Mr. Motley uses the slake-moths to produce more hallucinogens. Yes, that's the simplest I could explain this plot.

Perdido Street Station's strongest points are the rich, imaginative ways China Mieville draws us into his world, while never sacrificing his characters or plot. The italicized portions, narrated by Yagharek, are disjointed rambles that led credence to the notion that a creature like a garuda would think so much differently from a human, and also show how bizarre New Crobuzon is. Yagharek meant to arrive there from his homeland, but it still feels like he should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque. As a wingless outsider, Yagharek doesn't have anywhere else to go.

Who lives in such a place? Our protagonist, of course.

The only greater-than-minuscule problem I have with Perdido Street Station is its length. I'm not against long fantasy books in general - I loved Wizard's First Rule, and still love the A Song of Ice and Fire books that have actually been released - but Perdido Street Station at times feels like a first draft. There are mountains of adverbs and entire paragraphs of 6-plus-letter words. A shorter passage describes a group of quasi-robots who come to the good guys' aid: "In extreme contrast to the anarchic viral flurry that had spawned it, the Construct Council thought with chill exactitude." (552) Much of the writing is extremely flowery. The book is 220,100 words, and it gets exhausting. I could probably edit it down to below 200,000 easily. The length combined with the era and the bleakness make Perdido Street Station into fantasy fiction's Antichrist Superstar: "There's so much life in this dungeon, you'll never want to leave." The upshot of the book's length is the sheer number of fight scenes, against a surprisingly high number of characters. Perdido Street Station feels endless at times, but the plot is never boring.

If there's any part of Perdido Street Station that's realistic, it's this charming line: "Isaac found that trying to explain his work to Yagharek helped him. Not the big theoretical stuff, of course, but the applied science with furthered the half-hidden theory." (191) Even in fantasy worlds, people learn by teaching. China Mieville was a PhD candidate in political science when Perdido Street Station was released, and Mieville has gone to write extensively since then in both fiction and non-fiction. The PhD lends credence to Mieville's fictitious city the same way critics love to cite that Robert Heinlein was an engineer. Perdido Street Station is a dystopia where characters have to apply their learning, whether they are scientists, artists, or Mafiosi. The reader learns with them.

One final question I had while reading Perdido Street Station is whether it would make for a good movie. My first thought was that it would because of the action, the diversity of characters, and the way the book's length could be mitigated by, to use a stock movie phrase, making a picture be worth a thousand words. My next thought was that mob boss Mr. Motley, who is so Remade he is unrecognizable as human, is personified nausea fuel, as are many of the other Remade. It would take CGI far greater than what was available in the Avatar era to make a realistic portrayal of the Remade without grossing out the audience. The story would translate to the big screen great, though.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 3

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Some Pictures from the Guns N' Roses Concert at the Air Canada Centre (October 29, 2017)


I had no idea what to expect, considering Guns N' Roses had their prime 25-30 years ago, they'd broken up and reunited since then, and I am now thinner than Axl Rose. It was incredible, though. I went with a good friend who'd managed to get comped tickets. We were in the lower bowl with a great view. The animations were of a quality I don't think was fathomable in the '80s. (Especially for "Coma" - picture below.)

Axl was on point. Slash had tons of solos. Duff frequently came over to my side of the stage for photo ops, and sang "Attitude" great. Live addition Melissa Reese was sensational. The band played almost all the songs I hoped they would, which I suppose happens when you have relatively few albums that made it big. "It's So Easy" was a surprising opener, but got the crowd's energy up early. "I Used to Love Her" was a nice break from the intensity that peaked with "Rocket Queen", "Coma" and the closer "Paradise City".

For three hours, I stood, jumped around, and took pictures. In true counterculture fashion, I wore my bright blue Carolina Panthers hoodie, which would have looked more fitting at a Rage Against the Machine concert but also made me stand out among all the black shirts. One inebriated patron even gave me a foam middle finger, free of charge.

The opening animation before the show.

Pictorial proof that I was there. Not my finest picture - I blame the lighting.


Slash at my side of the stage. Still just as plaid as in the Use Your Illusion era.

Axl was singing to me here. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Axl and Slash onstage together had been a long time coming.

The light show demanded the use of such a great venue. I... think this one was "Rocket Queen"? One of these pictures was.

Duff took the top of the stage during "Coma", one of the band's most challenging songs, and also an opportunity for a great heart monitor animation.
I've had their set list stuck in my head ever since.

Fun fact: This was not my first time seeing Slash. I went to the Air Canada Centre to see AC/DC with my dad and uncle back in 2000, and the opener was Slash's Snakepit. Weird fact: I am now closer in age to Slash at that 2000 show than Slash when Appetite for Destruction came out. I don't know whether that makes me feel old or not.

Promoting the Toronto Writers' Co-Operative

I've discussed the Toronto Writers' Co-Operative on here before, whether it's because one of our authors is releasing a book, or whether it's because I'm releasing a story.

Well, now we're listed on the Toronto Public Library website. (Featured in picture, from left: me, group founder John Miller, crime novelist Laura Kuhlmann)

In a typical session, two writers from any combination of genres and forms have their writing critiqued by the group. Sometimes, we have guest authors who discuss their work.


Upcoming dates are on the site linked above.

We're also apparently "in partnership with" ourselves. That's when you know your membership numbers are good.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

October's Book: The Handmaid's Tale

Caught up! It feels good. I credit finally reading a short book one of these months.

And now we're back to the 20th century... or are we?

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Speculative Fiction (1985 - 358 pp.)

The Handmaid's Tale is the story of Gilead, a revolutionary post-United States taken over by a cult called the Sons of Jacob that divides everyone into classes. The men are Commanders, Eyes, Angels and Guardians, mostly; the women are Wives, Handmaids, Marthas and Econowives, mostly. Each commander's household has a wife (self-explanatory), a handmaid (for bearing children) and 1-2 Marthas (for housework). Everyone's role is circumscribed, with surveillance and secret police to catch and get rid of dissenters. Any further plot synopsis is located in the thousands of reviews already out there. Any typical review of The Handmaid's Tale can be found in the equally numerous sources confirming that yes, Gilead is a horrible place to live. Offred, our narrator, is a handmaid. She wears red but is a potential dissenter (Off Red), and is in the household of a commander named Fred (Of Fred).

The most striking parts of Atwood's dystopia are the overarching cultural norms that could happen anywhere. At Atwood has said, everything in The Handmaid's Tale is something that has already happened."* The execution of doctors and scientists is eerily reminiscent of WWII-era military occupations. (37) All the surveillance, suffering, and surveillance-induced suffering Offred experiences are directly caused by her upper-class, solid-red-wearing obviousness. In Gilead, living unnoticed is the ultimate prize. Gilead's mantra may well be Nick's warning to Offred late in the book, which could just as easily be advice to a driver with a suspended license or to a stark opposition of technological progress: "Keep on doing everything exactly the way you were before, Nick says. Don't change anything. Otherwise they'll know." (311)

For all the handmaid's internal life is developed, the reader never grasps Gilead's economy or the handmaid's role in it. Offred goes shopping early on, which is performed through tokens stamped with products rather than through any normal currency. (12) Non-pregnant handmaids are shuffled between commanders every two years. For all the purpose of being a handmaid is to bear children via "Ceremony",** though, Offred's commander doesn't appear to be trying very hard to impregnate her:*** "When the night for the Ceremony came round again, two or three weeks later..." (184) No mention is ever made as to what jobs the commanders have, how handmaids are supported financially, why a commander would agree to subsidize a handmaid for the two-year lease, or what Gilead could possibly export. The only conclusion I can make is that handmaids are wards of the state. As a result, the state appears to be draining funds on them^ without giving them any benefit in return: they can't work, they have no means to express themselves, and efforts to get them to bear children appear half-hearted at best.

The best off of any of the women in The Handmaid's Tale are the little-mentioned econowives. They perform the duties of wives, handmaids, and Marthas, and therefore they wear blue, red and green as a result. (48) They wear their colours all at once, in stripes; the stripes aren't mentioned in any further detail, so the reader can only imagine the varieties the econowives can choose. Functioning almost exclusively as a companion, mother and homemaker is similar to being an early 20th-century housewife. They are the only women in Gilead with remotely normal lives and with the ability to wear multiple colours at once. Sadly, they only appear in any prominence on one page, and the reader never gets to feel their experiences. The Handmaid's Tale came out 22 years ago, and The Econowife's Tale just doesn't have much of a ring to it, so I'm not crossing my fingers for a sequel.

Atwood's writing reminded me within the first few pages of how rarely I read books published between 1960 and 1990. The Handmaid's Tale reads somewhat like my dad's old spy novels, which I hadn't expected, but helps it read extremely quickly. The only time this fast pace lets up is during Professor Pieixoto's lecture at the very end. I love fictitious internal reporting, like The Navidson Record in House of Leaves, so the 10+ pages of metafictional academic journal entries make me smile. I would have liked to have known more about Late Gilead, though; the early^^ and middle periods are covered in detail, but we never know how Gilead ends.^^^ We know it's over because the Professor Pieixoto lecture, set in 2195, discusses Gilead as a historical country.

One minor mishap I noticed was the sheer repetition of the phrase "as if" for similes. It generally occurs in the form "<subject><predicate>, as if <comparator>." At one point, it occurs thrice in 3.5 pages. (96, 97, 99) This is why one of the greatest boons of the post-1985 editing world is Ctrl+F. As much as repeating a character's commonly used phrases helps to establish that character's tendencies, when it distracts from the story, it's problematic.

The words Offred makes in Scrabble are also completely improbable: Larynx, Valance, Quince and Zygote all in the same game, or even the same night, for starters. (161) Then Quartz and Quandary appear in rapid succession, in either the same game or two consecutive, when there is only one Q in the entire 100-letter game. (178) Far more often, the Q and Z are used to make the two-letter words Qi and Za on triple letter scores, leading to profanity from the opponent. That said, I'm just glad to see one of my favourite board games mentioned in a book at all.

Given how terrifying living in Gilead must be, and how I've mused on Gilead's lack of exports more than I've mentioned the book's horror, I leave you with the ultimate fridge horror thought: What if Gilead funds itself by exporting handmaids?`

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 3

*Except mandatory red-blue-green Trinitron-style striped clothing. (see the econowives paragraph)

**The Ceremony is described in detail at pages 106-111.

***The Handmaid's role in the Ceremony is so passive that this grammatical structure works fine.

^Who are the taxpayers in this system? Or have these revolutionary United States seized Fort Knox and melted all its gold supplies into the food voucher tokens?

^^For reference, the main part of the book takes place during the early period.

^^^There is one journal entry on civil war in Gilead, but the reader never gets to know when this civil war happens, why it happens, or whether it leads to Gilead's demise. (344)

`Even this is contemplated by ISIS's human trafficking economy.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

September's Book: Collaborating with the Enemy

Almost caught up! Unlike these past couple months, which have looked back to the 20th century, this time it's a really current book on display.

Collaborating with the Enemy by Adam Kahane
Organizational Theory (2017 - 109 pp.)

Adam Kahane's Collaborating with the Enemy rests on a very sound premise: that to work through conflict, we must seek out and embrace it, and then be experimental in how we solve our problems. The premise harkens back to post-World War II industrial pluralism, which encouraged management-union cooperation, and to the problems I looked at when I wrote a master’s paper on the psychological and economic pitfalls negotiators face in hostile collective bargaining. Expanded further, much like Freakonomics doesn’t just apply to economists, Collaborating with the Enemy becomes part of a series of books on how to industrial relations-ize your life.

At only 109 pages, Collaborating with the Enemy still feels overly long. Realistically, it contains a 25-page article’s worth of material. Most of the rest of the book is Kahane repeating himself, and sometimes telling personal anecdotes that don’t feel connected to the underlying premise. Reading about the political conferences in South Africa and Colombia was interesting, but those conferences needed to be tied into conflict resolution theme more. A 55-page book on conflict resolution and a 54-page book on political conferences Kahane has attended would be a compelling 2-in-1 bookstore purchase, but I doubt it’d sell as well. The how-to guide at the end of the book can be removed.

Kahane’s most effective argument is his four methods of coping with conflict, presented as a decision tree: force, collaborate, adapt, and exit. (19) He then expands them to five by opening collaboration up into traditional collaboration, which works when the situation is well understood, and stretch collaboration, which is necessary when the situation is not well understood. (47) Stretch collaboration is what Kahane needed to understand the problems in South Africa and Colombia: a willingness to work together even within relationships had previously been adversarial, and a willingness to try something new.

These decision trees are also effective because they recognize force and exit as valid options. Not every situation lends itself to accommodation or horse-trading. The decision trees also unpack collaboration based on whether the conflict can be controlled, which starts readers thinking about whether they can control the situations they face.

What really makes the decision trees special, though, is that they attack the problem like a first-entry deterrence game* rather than like a Myers-Briggs test.** There’s no Thomas-Kilmann conflict type. There’s no imputed personality. Anyone can use any combination of the five methods, and Kahane frequently emphasizes that everyone should.

Much like with Difficult Conversations, which came out of the Harvard Negotiation Project in 1994 but is written in a tone that is more popular than academic, Collaborating with the Enemy gets non-academics talking about the kinds of issues faced in the social science classroom, and the business and political worlds.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 4

*For example, the second game tree in this overview from Vanderbilt Business School.

**I'm an ENTJ and proud.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

August's Book: Light in August

August is apparently unofficial Faulkner month. This is Light in August* after all.

Light in August by William Faulkner
Literature (1932 - 507 pp.)

Light in August hit at a time when William Faulkner's career was far enough along its upward ascent that it never languished in obscurity, nor, like The Sound and the Fury (1929), did it ever act as a staging ground to see whether Faulkner ever could make it as an author. (Hindsight says yes, he could.) After the success of Sanctuary (1931), which was written in a straighter narrative format, Light in August blends non-linear with narrative.

In each character, as with the world in last month's book, the reader is forced to ask what went wrong? What could have been?** The story opens with Lena Grove, who is walking to fictitious Jefferson, Mississippi in order to find the father of her unborn child. Then it transitions to Joe Christmas, a planing mill worker accused of murder. (Rightly? Wrongly? We'll never know.) Byron Bunch, another of the mill's workers, reveals a good heart but nothing else. Reverend Hightower is the only source of wisdom in Jefferson, yet he is never shown actually doing anything except dispensing wisdom.

Early in the book, Faulkner sheds light on Brown, another planing mill worker, the [redacted for the father of all spoiler purposes] and [redacted for spoiler purposes, although it is a Burden to do so].*** Brown's gambling winnings say the most about him, and about the way varying levels of wealth play into people's likelihoods of keeping their jobs:
Sixty dollars is the wrong figure [for Brown to quit the planing mill]. If it had been either ten dollars or five hundred, I reckon you'd be right. But not just sixty. He'll just feel now that he is settled down good here, drawing at last somewhere about what he is worth a week. (39-40)
This sort of prospect theory-style risk aversion - taking a surer outcome with a lower payoff - epitomizes the sort of person who achieves missed opportunity in Faulkner's South. Brown has just enough to get by, and that's all he gets. Other more desperate characters, like Lena and Christmas, reach out more, and achieve something, even though they end up with drastically different results.

The transition from Christmas's present to his childhood recalls The Sound and the Fury. Although Light in August frequently features stream of consciousness monologues that slip into the characters' thoughts until Something is going to happen Something is going to happen to me (118), it is the sharp shift from the doomed present to the only possibly doomed past that draws the reader deeper into Christmas's life in the very next sentence: "Memory believes before knowing remembers." (119) Just as with Quentin Compson from The Sound and the Fury, understanding Christmas's past is crucial to understanding where he lies in the book's present [SPOILER]. Less poetically, "the sound and fury of the hunt" (331) reads like a self-promotion in comparison.

As Christmas ages, his relationship with time worsens. One of his first thoughts when passing by a local restaurant is that "there is something about it beside food, eating. But I dont know what. And I will never know." (176) This hopelessness pervades his thoughts and actions as he grows into adulthood. When he lacks the money to afford coffee with his pie, he muses that it is "terrible to be young". (181) Christmas's building relationship with a waitress causes him to note that: "And in time even the despair and the regret and the shame grew less." (181) When the waitress attempts to end the relationship, it is as though "in a moment she will vanish. She will not be. And then I will be back home, in bed, having not left it at all". (188) Time is always Christmas's enemy; like the other characters, he can never capitalize on it. Mr. McEachern, Christmas's adoptive father, combines Christmas's relationships with the waitress and with time in the starkest terms imaginable: "But you have still plenty of time to make me regret that heifer". (200) And so they lead downhill.

Death is "peaceful", in that word, to whomever encounters it, old or young, white or racially ambiguous, even if they're related. (205, 464) When Byron transforms mentally, he does not die, but a bad part of him dies: "Then a cold, hard wind seems to blow through him. It is at once violent and peaceful, blowing away hard like chaff or trash or dead leaves all the desire and the despair and hopelessness and the tragic and vain imagining too." (425) This transformation carries him past Hightower's quote below (411) to Byron's pinnacle in the book. (440) Nature, transformation and death all are peace to Light in August's characters. They reach peace when time runs out.

The last hundred pages sum up the lost (as in Lost Generation?), endless, sometimes tragic fates the characters face. Hightower dispenses his greatest piece of wisdom to Lena in reference to her plan to marry Byron, showing that the disgraced Hightower, whose life reads like a constant stream of failed opportunity,**** has come to understand what failed opportunity really means: "You are probably not more than half his age. But you have already outlived him twice over. He will never overtake you, catch up with you, because he has wasted too much time. And that too, his nothing, is as irredeemable as your all." (411) Wasted time, more lost opportunity, keep creeping up in every character's life. Yet what would some of these characters have ever achieved? Brown's cowardice shows in Lena's thoughts shortly after: "He will have no more shame than to lie about being afraid, just as he had no more shame than to be afraid because he lied" (430) Lena is unremarkable, and stunningly little of her life before her pregnancy is revealed, but she soldiers on.

When Byron tells Hightower about the beating Brown has just laid on him, with a bloody face, he says the book's most powerful line: "he aint broke anything that belongs to me." (440) Much more belongs to Byron at the end of the book than at the start; ironically, much of it could have belonged to Brown, who relinquished it. Byron's transformation is like a death, only it leads him out of town, where he had little left anyway. An unnamed focus character in the book's last chapter points out that Lena is still travelling, and that she probably has no set destination. (506) This is the way character goes, toward death or toward a sense of self that is not necessarily flattering. Yet there is light.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 6

*It isn't September until, in Toronto, Canada, it consistently drops below 30 degrees Celsius during the day (86 degrees Fahrenheit, for those from where Faulkner's from).

**Wondering what could have been apparently happens to those of us who review books, too.

***Now isn't that a way to get a reader interested in a character. He's rather mysterious... but why?

****"I acquiesced. Nay, I did worse: I served it. I served it by using it to forward my own desire. I came here where faces full of bafflement and hunger and eagerness waited for me, waiting to believe; I did not see them. " (487)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

July's Book: Time's Arrow

Now this is a situation that, when I reviewed June's book on July 16, I hadn't envisioned. I had finished reading another book on July 28th, and then another on August 1st, and was all set to be caught up, or even ahead, on these monthly entries. (This will happen. Just wait.)

I suppose sometimes we'd all like to go backwards to fix things, even when we can't...

------------------------------------------

Time's Arrow by Martin Amis
Literature (1991 - 165 pp.)

***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***


(Of course, the book spoils itself on the back dust jacket…)


Sometimes a book is reviewed dozens of times, and the reviews say all you meant to say. Your review feels meaningless as a result.

Other times, a book is reviewed dozens of times, and the reviews are completely silent on what you want to say.

The narrative structure has been covered. Backwards conversations that read cogently each way are the closest Martin Amis gets to literary virtuosity. The rest is either novelty or kitsch.

The most interesting aspect of Time’s Arrow is the idea that, as life falls apart, we can somehow track back to that critical moment when we could have fixed it. What if I hadn’t taken out that loan? What if I’d dated that one girl instead of that one other girl? What if I’d flown to Oslo when I had the chance?*

Life presents us with choices all the time. In Time’s Arrow, though, the reader can’t look back. The reader has to experience the life of a deceased German doctor who performed experiments in Auschwitz during World War II in reverse, narrated by a spirit or soul who follows along with the reader and is shocked by the protagonist's life events. Memories are of the future, and new experiences are of the past.

Obvious gimmick aside, along with the more literal interpretations of backwards (such as the oft-cited everything being made of shit), Time’s Arrow makes the ideas of past and future unsettling. One of the book’s famous lines is when the narrator, who is an observer inside the protagonist’s** head, realizes he can never commit suicide no matter how horrible World War II gets. The future has already happened. Our narrator can never look back and wonder what could have been, because it’s already been decided. The railroading of time leads to few opportunities for regret.

Amis is praised for the research he put into Time’s Arrow, most notably his reading on the psychology of Holocaust doctors. The Auschwitz scenes capture the intense mental anguish the narrator feels upon seeing the protagonist’s actions, along with prosaic but no less gut-punching phrases like “It was I, Odilo Unverdorben, who personally removed the pellets of Zyklon B and entrusted them to the pharmacist in his white coat.” Recall when reading this passage that the story happens in reverse.

This leads to the great disappointment of the book, which no other review I’ve read has ever caught. The beginning of the book, or end of the protagonist’s life, happens in 1998,** when the protagonist dies at 81. From 1998-1946, Time’s Arrow follows his life back through senior citizenship, middle age, and then that period people apparently experience in their 30s when they philander constantly. Auschwitz, which all the book’s promotional materials place at the forefront of the book’s importance, doesn’t happen until three quarters of the way through.

One mirrored set of questions remains. It’s the set of questions I slogged through monologues on a retired German-American doctor to see answered.

To the reader and the narrator, where did it all lead? To the historian and the protagonist, where did it all begin?

The protagonist is 22 when World War II begins.*** He is a medical school graduate with a wife by the time he starts participating in the Holocaust. The period of his life from 1939-1917 only lasts about twelve pages. All those memories – or new experiences – of life as a young adult, adolescent and then child in interwar Germany are barely mentioned. They are so formative to the protagonist as a person, yet they are pre-empted by his later life.

Our protagonist is from Solingen, a medium-sized city in Northwestern Germany. After the bizarre backwards rollercoaster ride that goes from waking up in a dead senior’s body through New York City, Portugal, Poland and Germany, shouldn’t there be more wonder at the place where his life started – and ends? Aside from half a paragraph on famous knives and scissors, all Amis can scrounge for information on a city of over 100,000 residents is: “Finally, modest Solingen harbours a proud secret. I’m the only one who happens to know what that secret is. It’s this: Solingen is the birthplace of Adolph Eichmann.” A city where our young protagonist grew up, and where our weary narrator is rewarded for his stunning patience, is reduced to this?

Time’s Arrow is a fun read. It just feels front-heavy and back-light.

And then, to quote from the time when the protagonist assumes the name of John Young during middle age, over a third into the book: “Thank God. He’s out. Like a baby.”

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 3



*In 2011, in what is still my only ever foray to the Newark, NJ airport, I passed a gate where a plane was about to depart for Oslo. I was carrying my passport, too. My ticket was to Ithaca, NY, where I did go. I probably couldn’t have boarded that Oslo flight at the extreme last minute, but it’s always fun to wonder…

**The protagonist’s name changes so often I simply call him “the protagonist”.

***Time’s Arrow was released in 1991. Why Amis added to the already confusing timeline by placing the start of the book seven years into the future, I’ll never know. I got to this date by adding 81 to the protagonist’s birthdate of 1917. If I’ve made an error here, let me know.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Rediscovering the H.L. Hunley [WaPo] [UNC]

On Thursday, the Washington Post reported on the unearthing of the H.L. Hunley, the fabled Confederate submarine that sunk in 1864 while assaulting a Union post during the Civil War. After 136 long years on the seafloor near Charleston, South Carolina, and then another 17 years after the sub's recovery in 2000, a team of researchers were finally able to figure out what sunk it.

The report contains a picture of the inside of the recovered H.L. Hunley, as it looks now. The closest comparison I can think of is a sewer with a skeletal tree branch running through it.

Here's the report.

University of North Carolina biomedical engineer Rachel Lance, assisted by the omnipresent co-author et al., couldn't find a reason for the crew's deaths on the sub, as the Post explains:

But when they ventured inside the boat, they found not a single clue. Its 40-foot-long iron hull was barnacle-encrusted but not broken. The skeletons of eight members of the crew were found still in their seats at their respective battle stations; their bones bore no evidence of physical harm. The bilge pumps hadn't been activated. The air hatches were closed. There was no sign that anyone had tried to escape.

The report and article demonstrate that the H.L. Hunley may have accidentally sunk itself by means of a pressure wave caused by its own torpedo. The pressure wave could kill without a trace:

Instead, when a torpedo blows something up underwater, it creates pressure waves that reverberate in the water and through the body of anyone who happens to be in it. The instantaneous increase in pressure can squeeze oxygen out of the lungs and pop blood vessels in the brain. The effects are often deadly.

But the damage occurs exclusively in a victim's soft tissue, like the gut, lungs and brain — from the outside, it can be impossible to tell that the person has been harmed.

On the plus side, if it can be called that, the torpedo sank the Housatonic, a Union ship.

The academic article also contains some really cool diagrams of the H.L. Hunley as it would have looked on its final voyage back in 1864.

Here's the article.

A couple interesting thoughts after reading that aren't answered by the article or the study:

1. The WaPo story is filed under "Science", rather than "History" or something similar. Where does such an inherently interdisciplinary article get filed? The study it cites was written by an engineer, which supports the "Science" label. Still, not every traumatic blast happened in 1864, and history books frequently focus on disciplines from artists to homemaking...

2. To what extent did the Confederacy or outside observers realize what had happened? The discovery is so new, yet self-defeating pressure waves apparently weren't such a problem 50 years later when submarines were standard fare during World War I. The Russian Empire's submarine program faced severe problems in the Baltic Sea, but they were still 55 strong.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

ESPN: Finding Darko

This past Wednesday, ESPN published this fantastic piece by Sam Borden about retired NBA centre Darko Milicic.

Yes, that Darko.

from Detroit Free Press

Milicic was frequently the butt of jokes during his surprisingly long NBA career (2003-2012). Those who watched the 2003 NBA Draft recall the following draft order:

1. LeBron James
2. Darko Milicic
3. Carmelo Anthony
4. Chris Bosh
5. Dwyane Wade

Four of those five went on to do great things in the NBA. LeBron James has appeared in seven straight NBA Finals, winning three, among countless other accomplishments. Carmelo Anthony has career averages of 24.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Dwyane Wade has won three NBA championships, two of them coming with the aforementioned James. Chris Bosh has won two NBA championships, on those same Miami Heat teams with James and Wade. Bosh is also the only Toronto Raptor to ever average 20+ points and 10+ rebounds in the same season - thus far. (He's done it thrice.)

Milicic never made it in the NBA. No worries, though. He made $52 million, learned a lot about life, and now runs his own fruit farm in his home Serbia, near his hometown of Novi Sad.

He looks happy and healthy. A monk from his local monastery put it best (from the linked ESPN article at the top):

The monks see Darko differently than everyone else. When I ask Father Joanikije what he thinks of Darko as a person, he pauses for a beat or two, then says, "A man who succeeded in life. A man who achieved his goal."
... 
They just see a man who has a wife and children and a business and a comfortable life and a place in the community of his hometown. They see a man who achieved his goal or, at the very least, is trying to right now. So why can't they be right?
Milicic mentions farming apples and cherries, two of my favourite fruits.

from the ESPN article mentioned above
Sometimes success comes in surprising places. Looking at it from a detached view, five years after Milicic's retirement, it doesn't seem that surprising that someone who seemed so unnatural in the NBA would return home to Serbia, put his money to good use, and put his efforts into something he loves.

Sounds delicious to me.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

June's Book: Marlfox

Marlfox by Brian Jacques
Fantasy (1998 - 386 pp.)

Marlfox is the 11th book (13th chronologically) in the Redwall series. The one-paragraph version is that there are seven Marlfoxes, who are all children of  Queen Silth. One of the Marlfoxes, Lantur, serves as Silth's personal assistant, while the other six attempt to conquer the series's titular Redwall Abbey. What makes Marlfox special among Redwall books is what I have just said: whereas earlier books focus on heroes, or hero-villain personal vendettas, Marlfox is more about the villains than about anyone.

The Mokkan-Gelltor dynamic drives the book. Neither is particularly sympathetic - Mokkan is a deceptive thief, and Gelltor is bent on pillaging Redwall Abbey - but their personality conflict launches the book's two main plots. Gelltor leads three other Marlfoxes on an attack on Redwall that threatens every aspect of the residents' lives. Redwall is the cornerstone of the series, with the vast majority of books either set there or invoking its lore, so that its largely mouse/squirrel population to be overrun by foxes is (for the characters) terrifying. Negotiations between Gelltor and the Rusvul (squirrel)/Janglur (squirrel)/Skipper (otter) rulers of Redwall by committee go south rather quickly: "Gelltor waved his axe aloft. 'Now 'tis war. Your Abbey is surrounded, and we will stay here for as long as it takes to slay you or make you all surrender!'" (160) This exchange is in response to the only beheading I have ever read in what is ostensibly a children's book. (144) Gelltor later shows the ability to kill multiple enemies in battle virtually effortlessly: "The Marlfox fought like a demon, snarling in the face of his enemies as he wielded his axe savagely. Three shrews were laid low..." (223)

Mokkan, meanwhile, whisks away the Abbey's prized tapestry, leading young Dannflor (squirrel), Songbreeze (squirrel) and Dippler (shrew) to go on a quest to retrieve it. This double plot puts both sides on offence, with the sly, thieving Mokkan just as hunted as the defenders of Redwall. Dannflor and Songbreeze briefly appear to become love interests (200-201, for example), although in true Redwall fashion, they simply become good friends and leave the reader to assume more squirrels will exist at some undefined future point. This is not to say Mokkan isn't capable of fighting back. Mokkan's physical prowess is shown in lines like "Mokkan's paw was like a clawed vice. It dug savagely into Fenno [the shrew]'s neck..." (156) and "With a quick flick of his paws, he pushed [character name redacted for spoiler purposes] into the lake" (336). He also shows ingenuity in convincing other Marlfoxes of his status as quasi-leader, such as when he tells Predak, "Tell me. I'm not like our brother Gelltor, I'm always ready to listen to other schemes." (94)

Despite the ostensible good-versus-evil story, no character in Redwall is truly morally angelic. The Marlfoxes' desires to acquire wealth through plunder makes them understandably on the bad side of things, which Mokkan readily admits: "Remember, we're Marlfoxes, born to stealth and deceit." (65) It is only Janglur, a good guy, who ever resorts to killing foes by way of an oil fire. (276) The nominal good guys have no qualms about referring to entire species of animals as "vermin" (204, among others) but the Marlfoxes never refer to mice, squirrels, hares, otters, or any other nominally good animal with any epithet meant to cover an entire species. Even when Marlfoxes use abusive language, which is frequently, it is always aimed at a particular target, such as when Lantur says to a water rat, "You are growing fat and idle whilst your Queen suffers. There are no excuses for your stupidity." (96) Queen Silth then refers to the same rat as a "worthless piece of offal". (97) Mokkan says to Fenno the shrew, "Pain is the best teacher for stupid idiots." (215) Rats in general, though? Only the good guys could possess such a blanket level of hatred.

Marlfox's surprisingly ambiguous morality is further muddled by the ways in which Jacques's descriptions of the animals differs sharply from their real-life perceptions. A prime example is Jacques's portrayal of mice as heroes and ferrets as villains. Take, for instance, Jacques's plain description of a stoat and two weasels: "Their appearance was eerie and barbaric." (229) In the books, it makes enough sense in a Zootopia-style prey-predator dynamic. (But then why are badgers good?) In real life, however, ferrets are commonly seen as lovable companions for cats and children, whereas mice are afforded far different treatment. It's tougher to hate Raventail the ferret, and the Marlfoxes themselves, when one can't stop thinking about how cute they are.

Jacques's use of dialect is well on display for all these critters. Foxes speak in proper English, mice and squirrels have a commoner dialect, hares are affectedly British ("villainous chaps", "wot wot"), and moles border on incomprehensible: "Cos ee wurr outside, zurr, back o' ee likkle wallgate." (93) Or see: "Doan't feels loik oi gotten two 'eads no more, hurr hurr!" (244) Or see: "Hurr, you'm give umm billyo, zurr Skip!" (324) The Mighty Megraw, an osprey, is Scottish in even the most everyday phrases: "Ah'd like that fine, lass!" (288) In a particularly cute use of dialect-meets-Spoonerism, a mousebabe and a molebabe combine to impersonate "Marmfloxes" using ash and blankets. (246-247)

The back dust jacket of Marlfox tells something that I, as a faithful Redwall reader since about the age of eight, had not previously known. Apparently, Jacques spends his summers writing and his winters researching the Redwall books - by working "in a specially built conservatory so he can watch the comings and goings of birds, squirrels and the occasional fox, which are a constant inspiration." Jacques's imagination is immense to be able to create these settings, characters and plots out of what my personal experiences observing birds and squirrels has not yet delivered.

A final thought on Jacques's writing style: it is meant for Redwall books. Jacques frequently uses "tell, don't show" in order to achieve a storytelling mood. He puts thoughts directly in the reader's mind rather than have the reader figure out what's happening, as usually happens in literary fiction. Examples are limitless, but a good one is when Florian attempts to stop Marlfox-led forces from breaking into Redwall: "Curious to know what was going on, they hastened across." (192) Florian's curiosity should be evident from his surroundings without Jacques having to point it out in narration. From a worse (or beginning) writer, or with a worse story, the reader would feel railroaded. That said, Jacques still displays great "show, don't tell" passages, such as when Mokkan drives his boat through rapids. (266) What Jacques has achieved here is to spin the reader a yarn while using shorthand to make the plot move faster, all while making Marlfox accessible to readers of all ages.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 2

NOTE: There is a minor character, a mole, named Muggle. (92) Which came first: the Castle or the Abbey? Most likely, it's a coincidence.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Kitchener Rangers Sign Matt Gordon (Relevant Matt Gordon-Related News)

This is last month's news, but May 2017 was a busy time with no blogging. In my defence, it's still the Ontario Hockey League offseason.

The Kitchener Rangers have signed Matt Gordon.

He's from Guelph. I have family there. He's playing in Kitchener. I lived in Waterloo for four years. He even weighs what I did at that age.

Besides, 29 points in 34 games for the Guelph Gryphons last year is pretty impressive, especially at the 58th overall pick in the draft.

Go Matt! Make us Matt Gordons proud out there on the ice.

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:

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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".