Monday, December 31, 2018

Speaking of Resolutions...

I've blogged about New Year's Resolutions before, jokingly. In 2015, I resolved to buy at least six pairs of socks because I was out of socks back then. I accomplished that feat.

In 2018, I resolved to make my homemade hot sauce again. I did that emphatically, in June and then in December. Here are some pictures of December's batch:





For 2019, I'm resolving to make homemade peanut sauce in the same kitchen. Here's to a great new year!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

December's Book: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Magic Realism* (1843 - 93 pp.)


A Christmas Carol is my first Dickens book reviewed on this blog, and my first in general since January 2012's Bleak House review. Dickens's authorship is one of two things those two books have in common. The other is the division of an estate; in A Christmas Carol, it is the pillaging of protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge's estate, whereas in Bleak House it is the estate dispute of Jarndyce v Jarndyce that trudges through the Court of Chancery. A notable difference between the books is their sheer length. Bleak House has, depending who you ask, between 355,936 and 377,076 words. A Christmas Carol only has approximately 30,000 words.

A Christmas Carol, like all of Dickens's works, is now in the public domain. The copy I read is from Elegant Ebooks, and includes all the original John Leech illustrations.

The protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley. Marley's ghost is haunted by chains and moneyboxes due to Marley's intense greed in life, a trait also seen in Scrooge. Examples of Scrooge's greed include the pittance he pays his clerk, Bob Cratchit, and his stern refusal to spend Christmas with his nephew Fred. Marley warns Scrooge that Scrooge will be visited by three ghosts; if Scrooge does not heed their words, Scrooge's ghost's fetters will someday be even heavier than Marley's. (24) The Ghost of Christmas Past is an eerily childlike figure who guides Scrooge through his childhood and early career. The Ghost of Christmas Present starts as a man en-robed in green, who demonstrates to Scrooge the poverty of London and how its citizens cure Scrooge for refusing to help them, before wilting toward frailty. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a foreboding, Deathlike creature (sans sickle) who remains silent while Scrooge is doomed to see his future if he does not change. Given my long-standing tradition of refusing to spoil books unless it is absolutely necessary, I will let you read the above-linked copy of A Christmas Carol to see whether Scrooge succeeds.

The bleak conditions of early Victorian London come through, which makes Scrooge and Marley's avarice all the more offensive. When confronting the wretched children Ignorance and Want, the Ghost of Christmas Present claims they are fit for prisons or "workhouses". (67) Child labour diminished and then disappeared in London after then, but the ghost's casual reminder of 1843 conditions is jarring to the 2018 reader. The Cratchits' poverty is virtually expected by comparison, despite the tragic starvation of Tiny Tim according to the ghost: "What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."** (56)

Although a Scrooge is the popular culture term for a miser, reflected in media from DuckTales to Scrooged, Scrooge is a sympathetic character through the last two-thirds of the book. Although the reader never sees the modified future, it is assumed the future has improved for Scrooge, and Scrooge never successfully says the word "humbug" after page 21. For Marley, whose ghost is weighed down by chains and moneyboxes, the future is not so bright. Perhaps a miser should be called a Marley.^ As A Christmas Carol opens: "MARLEY was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that." (7) One of A Christmas Carol's enduring messages is that nearly anyone's fortunes can improve with time.^^ Marley ran out of time but Scrooge did not.

Popular media and grief counsellors typically warn against living in the past. After learning from the three ghosts, Scrooge proudly exclaims, "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!" (84) The great memories of Scrooge's business and relationship successes early in life propel him forward to a greater appreciation of his present, which, in turn, may grant him a better future. Perhaps for Scrooge, living in the past works?

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 3



*I do not usually append a footnote to a book's genre, but then, this is the first time I have seen A Christmas Carol associated with magic realism. According to Wikipedia's entry on magic realism, though:
Magical realismmagic realism, or marvelous realism is a style of fiction that paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements. It is sometimes called fabulism, in reference to the conventions of fablesmyths, and allegory. "Magical realism", perhaps the most common term, often refers to fiction and literature in particular,[1]:1–5 with magic or the supernatural presented in an otherwise real-world or mundane setting.
A Christmas Carol's contemporary London setting and procession of ghosts cross the everyday with the supernatural. Dickens's naming of the children Ignorance and Want mirrors Edmund Spenser's naming of various characters in The Faerie Queene, for example, as morality plays entered into incarnate characters.

**The Victorian literary device of conserving resources through children's deaths, morbid as it is, is not limited to A Christmas Carol. Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895) presents an even darker version.

^Implications of a miser being called a Marley for the movie Marley and Me are likely to be unfortunate at best.

^^See also Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene III, when Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius because Claudius has just prayed. According to the logic of the play, killing Claudius before he prayed could damn him, whereas killing him after he prayed gave him a better chance to be saved. Claudius's reprieve is only temporary, of course.

Back to A Christmas Carol: Bob Cratchit's fortunes literally improve due to the raise Scrooge gives him.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Expand and Contract

I've spoken out in favour of some writing rules and against others. Here's one of my own I don't usually see discussed but that makes good writing come alive. Just like the mortar between bricks, good writing should...

Expand and Contract

The longer the sentences and paragraphs, the slower the action is happening. (Expand) This is perfect for context scenes, such as setting description or background. It also works when a character has to wait or is held up for some reason. When you’re in expansion mode, paragraphs can top 150 words.

The shorter the sentences and paragraphs, the faster the action is happening. (Contract) This is perfect for action scenes, such as fight scenes or romance scenes, and also for when a character is in a rush. When you’re in contraction mode, two-word sentences and one-sentence paragraphs are more common.

When you know how to expand and contract, your writing springs to life. The presentation of the words dictates the action to the point that adjectives and adverbs become annoying at best. You’ll never say my least favourite word, “suddenly”, again. The words themselves will be so sudden that word is eliminated.
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This post also appears on Quora.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Storm's Passed

I apparently love devastating storms during the Christmas season. Five years ago, I was in Toronto for the ice storm. This year, I managed to be on Vancouver Island during the windstorm that did everything from take down power lines to compromise water supplies.

Pictures of fallen and uprooted trees:




A huge thanks to the Ravensong Aquatic Centre and the Qualicum Beach Civic Centre for the coffee, cookies and sanity during this bizarre time. I am also now far more used to cold showers.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

November's Book: The Winter Family

The Winter Family by Clifford Jackman
Western (2015 - 332 pp.)

Here it is: the first Western in the history* of this blog!

The Winter Family tracks a group of outlaws through their career as a gang in the Wild West. The book is divided into six parts, listed below. The outlaws centre on Quentin Ross, a lieutenant in the Union army in the Civil War who quickly turns out to be a psychopathic killer and pathological liar; Augustus Winter, the golden-eyed killer; and other characters including the Empire brothers, (part of) the Shakespeare brothers, German immigrant Jan Mueller, and Quentin's brother Noah Ross. Clifford Jackman is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School (2008) who, according to the dust jacket, now lives in Guelph, Ontario. Those are all close things to my heart.
  1. Prologue: Oklahoma 1889
  2. Georgia 1864
  3. Chicago 1872
  4. Phoenix 1881
  5. Oklahoma 1891
  6. Epilogue: California 1900
The eponymous "Winter family" isn't a literal family, nor is any other character but Augustus named Winter. Quentin Ross's posse originates during Sherman's march to the sea in 1864. Winter is a young recruit but he elevates himself from the start, becoming equal to (or possibly greater than) Ross as the novel wears on. Winter and Ross enter into a quasi-rivalry, with Winter being the nominal leader while Ross leads any preemptive strikes. Winter was recruited into Ross's platoon almost at random (21) but then Winter becomes an informed hero later in the book (265). The best comparison is Marlfox, with Winter being Mokkan and Ross being Gelltor.

Jackman makes a few extremely accurate historical points. Winter is waterboarded during his Civil War campaign (57), which surprised me because I hadn't thought of waterboarding as being common until the 2000s, but there's a historical precedent for it from the Civil War era. As early as 1852, the New York Times reported on "hydrological" torture, and, yes, it was controversial even back then. Equally realistically, Noah Ross is the leading figure behind Winter, Ross and the rest supporting the Republicans during the violence-fraught Chicago municipal election of 1872. Noah made enough money to bankroll multiple properties by shorting insurance companies right before the Great Chicago Fire. (182-183)

The Winter Family's aesthetic is dark, foreboding and limiting. The Winter family consists of outlaws who don't fit properly into an organized state. Ironically, that helps them serve in the Union army and then help fix a Chicago election, but they quickly run out of territory. They have Arizona and then only Oklahoma, which was commonly called "Indian Territory" in the late 1800s, where they can operate. Eventually, they have no territory, which leads to their last stand in "Oklahoma 1891".

For all that goes into the Winter family interfering in the 1872 Chicago election - it's the only part that's over 100 pages - he never tells the reader how the election ends. That wondering about the result of the fictional election ate me as I read the rest of the book. It's also questionable just how quickly Jan enters Mickey Burns's Democrat-backing hustle crew during that election campaign, as Jan appears to be a close confidant of a major player within mere days. (134) There is the oft-seen "hanged/hung" error (230); remember the old rule, "people and hanged, pictures are hung". Finally, although I love that "Oklahoma 1891" starts with Ross in federal prison, and it's certainly understandable how all his larcenies** and murders would have landed him there, I would have loved to have known why. A shootout between Ross and U.S. Marshals in circa 1885 would have made for a fascinating scene, even one only as long as the 8-page epilogue.

The Winter Family is a historically accurate Western that makes the reader turn its pages just as fast as an airport thriller.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 1


*I launched the blog on March 24, 2012, so it's been a long time without a Western.

**This is the only time I've ever pluralized this word.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Do Not Mix Apple Juice and Milk

Today, I wrote a gnomic poem. Put shortly, a gnomic poem is one that uses a simple phrase to educate, inform or otherwise indoctrinate the reader into a certain truth (the "gnome"*). At the heart of the gnome is an easily memorable aphorism. In the interest of stating what I believe to be an example of a truth, I highly recommend no one ever mix apple juice and milk in the same glass.

In the interest of putting more of my original writing online for free (remember, there's fiction on Smashwords too!), I'm sharing the poem in its entirety here and on Quora.

It's 29 lines in three stanzas, and vaguely resembles a Dr. Seuss book.

Do not mix apple juice and milk.
Upon the breakfast table lies
A carton of varying size
A beverage to cap off your meal
That’s sweet, and flavourful for real.
One beverage, that is all you need
To make your breakfast plans succeed.
Eat bacon, eggs and all their ilk
Do not mix apple juice and milk.

Do not mix milk and apple juice.
At lunch, you may enjoy a soup
Of mushrooms, which are grown in poop
A hearty sandwich on a bun,
Or salad, tacos, ain’t this fun?
To wash it down you wholly might
Drink dairy, whether brown or white.
A crisp refreshing jug of clear
Translucence may be what is near.
Your curious mind is on the loose
Do not mix milk and apple juice.
 
Do not mix apple juice and milk.
Come dinnertime, you’re tempted still
To bend the rules to meet your will.
Fusion cooking, braised tofu
There’s no idea that stymies you.
To drink, do you prefer a wine
Or crushed tomatoes off the vine?
Zig when they zag, wear tweed with silk
Do not mix apple juice and milk.

See the poem here on Quora as well.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Me on Quora: Literary Analysis Is Unavoidable

November's been the most active month on this blog all year, starting this past Sunday, in large part because of Remembrance Day monuments and exhibits in my hometown of Toronto. This blog is called Matthew Gordon Books, though, so let's talk literature for a moment.

On Quora just now, I answered the question: Why is it important to do literary analysis and how does it benefit society? I have a teacher who thinks that literature analysis is useless, and I disagree with him, but I can't find a theoretical (books, essays, articles) basis to prove my point.

The question's second sentence is superfluous. The first part of the first sentence is hopefully not lost on any universities that are cutting funding to their English departments amidst flagging enrollment numbers. "Why is it important to do literary analysis?" someone asks, so...

Here's my answer in full, with a different background so it stands out from my usual blogging:

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Literary analysis is something we all do with any fiction or non-fiction source, virtually by accident.
Consider this passage I just made up:
Xenia’s broom lashed at the ice crystals on her car windshield as she cursed her lack of any better scraping tool. With each shove she gave, the broom’s wiry bristles caught and flung minuscule pieces of ice onto her driveway. Her hot white breath swept up the snowflakes that fell in front of her, while the ones behind her gently wafted down into her hair.
Now, answer the following question: Does Xenia currently feel warm or cold?
It’s clearly winter, or at least winter weather, in what likely is a cold-weather climate. That’s a good case for Xenia feeling cold.
However, this also means she’s likely wearing a warm coat, and she’s just been shown to have physically exerted herself. That’s an equally good case for Xenia feeling warm.
Maybe her face feels cold but her midsection feels warm.
Regardless of the answer you picked, you’ve just engaged in literary analysis.

Now, let’s look at intrinsic versus extrinsic analysis. In extreme shortness, intrinsic analysis looks only to the work in front of the reader, whereas extrinsic analysisinvolves everything from other literary works to the author’s life experiences to world politics at the time of the writing.
What you just did above is intrinsic analysis.
However, I, the author of the above passage, have lived in a place where it frequently reaches -40 in the winter, even without snow. Often, snowfall would occur during temperatures far warmer, but still cold at around -10.
What if you use my experience living in that place to speculate that Xenia may have finally emerged from the bitter, snow-less -40 to the comparatively “warm” -10? Remember, I only said above that she’s “likely” to be wearing a warm coat. For all we know, Xenia’s wearing a T-shirt. That snowflakes waft into her hair shows that she’s definitely not wearing a hood, and probably not wearing a hat.
Congratulations! You’ve now differentiated between intrinsic and extrinsic analysis.

This answer could go on with all different types of literary analysis but the point should be clear by now. Literary analysis is unavoidable. It only makes sense to want to be good at it.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The City of Toronto Archives Commemorates the 100th Remembrance Day

This past Sunday, I blogged about the World War I memorials at Prospect Cemetery in Toronto. Now it's time to look at a more temporary, more indoor exhibit, but one that is in yet another unfairly unheralded Toronto location.

The City of Toronto Archives, on Spadina Road between Dupont Street and Davenport Road, host rotating exhibits that show off Toronto's history, culture and place in the world.

The 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I is certainly a "place in the world" time. The Archives featured a series of editions from The Daily Mail and Empire, dated October-November 1918. Here are some of the highlights (and a picture of Casa Loma):

Casa Loma, viewed from the top of the Baldwin Steps, on the way from Spadina Museum to the City of Toronto Archives.

The City of Toronto Archives shows a timeline of all the fronts of World War I.

An article calling Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany "Political Offender under International Law".

Eaton's, defunct since 1999, was a powerhouse retailer 100 years ago.

Then, as now, Canada has been a resource-driven economy. Here's an ad for bituminous coal.

While various leaders were signing the armistice, the National Hockey League was establishing rules for a five-year period.

In Continental European news, Poland assumed control of Galicia on November 11, 1918, while the Austrian Emperor's brother "vanished".

As before, here's to commemorating. As now, here's to enjoying those parts of Toronto that are surprisingly tucked into the heart of the city.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

NFL.com Rams Article Mentions 1540s Prussia

As many of my most faithful readers know, I love NFL football and European history. I don't usually get to discuss both in the same blog post.

NFL.com notes that the fiery-hot Los Angeles Rams (9-1) are set to win the NFC West in Week 11 if the Seattle Seahawks (4-5) lose against the Green Bay Packers (4-4-1) on Thursday and then the Rams beat the Kansas City Chiefs (9-1) on Monday Night in Mexico City. This would be only the second time since the inception of the 16-game schedule in 1978 that a team has clinched a division as early as Week 11. The first team to do so was the Chicago Bears in 1985, who clinched the NFC Central in Week 11, finished the season 15-1, and then won the Super Bowl. The '85 Bears are often regarded as the greatest single-season team in the history of the sport.

What makes this Rams chance interesting is that they have a loss. The Bears' only loss in 1985 was in their thirteenth game, after they'd clinched the division. With a win and a Seattle loss, the Rams would become the only team in the history of the 16-game schedule to clinch the division in Week 11 having already lost a game.

If that wasn't thrilling enough for you, NFL.com decided to post an absolutely bizarre but lovable "spoiler alert":
Spoiler Alert: Whether it happens this week or next -- or soon after -- the Rams are winning this division with ease barring an unprecedented large-group alien abduction or the entire roster being sucked through a time-travel portal that ships Sean McVay and friends back to 1540s Prussia.
In the 1540s, Prussia was relatively firmly under the control of the King of Poland. Ducal Prussia, now split between Poland and Russia, had gained quasi-autonomy in 1525 with the end of the Teutonic Order. The Order's last Grand Master, Albrecht von Hohenzollern, would lend his name to the line of kings who eventually led Prussia and then the German Empire up until World War I. I'm not entirely sure how this will be relevant to the Rams' postseason hopes but I feel that if the Rams can win in 1540s Prussia, this coming Monday's game in Mexico City shouldn't feel like too much of a road game.

Fun fact: the Bears defeated the Rams in Chicago in the 1985-1986 NFC Championship Game.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Prospect Cemetery Before Remembrance Day

First, I hope everyone is having a thoughtful Remembrance Day 2018, the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. People from around the world are taking the day to honour the fallen and the veterans of various wars, including (but not limited to) World War I, World II, the Korean War and the Afghanistan conflict.

In Toronto, Prospect Cemetery at St. Clair Avenue West and Lansdowne Avenue is home to the final resting places of approximately 5,300 World War I veterans. Fittingly, it hosts the Sunrise Ceremony every year on November 11 at 8:00AM. It has done so every year since 1928, the tenth anniversary of the 1918 armistice, when World War I was a fresh memory.

Breakfast Television Toronto broadcast this morning's ceremony: https://www.bttoronto.ca/videos/2827621716001/

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This is also a time to reflect on the fact that Prospect Cemetery's various memorials, as well as the five acres of veterans' plots, are not Remembrance Day props. They are not assembled on the night of November 10 and then disassembled every November 11 at noon.

I visited Prospect Cemetery on October 29 with my faithful canine companion, Ory. Here is a small sampling of what we saw:

The south entrance on St. Clair Avenue West.
A map of major Canadian engagements during World War I.


Background: the tank memorial.

A circle of plots at the north end of the cemetery.

The cemetery's smaller north entrance at Eglinton Avenue West.
Let us commemorate this Remembrance Day and then never forget.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

October's Book: Based on a True Story

Based on a True Story by Norm Macdonald
Comedy (2016 - 240 pp.)

Based on a True Story is what happens when Norm MacDonald, the famous Canadian comedian, writes a memoir: it is full of laughs, reflects on some old shows and jokes in a memorable way, and contains a mountain of creative license. The book's events sometimes appear realistic, such as MacDonald's job interview with Lorne Michaels for Saturday Night Live. Events quickly become questionable, though, from the larger (entire stories), to the fact that MacDonald is born in 1963 in the book (33) but he is born in 1959 on his Wikipedia entry. MacDonald's brother Neil, a journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, discusses in more detail.

The story zips back in forth in choppy, short chapters between:

  • An embellished chronological account of MacDonald's life from birth until 1998;
  • A fictitious present-day car ride from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, which parodies MacDonald's gambling addiction; and
  • The descent into madness of an alleged ghostwriter, Terence Keane, whose detached writing style is weirdly reminiscent of avant-garde science fiction.

Everything is written as though MacDonald is delivering it as a stand-up show, so the provisional rules are relaxed. Even the acknowledgments are notable; MacDonald says of publisher Julie Grau, "She believed in me and left me be, a fine gift." (239) May we all be so gifted when we write our own memoirs.

Running jokes include MacDonald attempting to win enough money on credit in Vegas to purchase a ranch in Montana, various comedians calling MacDonald "Einstein" (probably sarcastically), and constant consumption of Wild Turkey 101. The ranch joke gets surprisingly literary, as MacDonald's friend Gabe spends part of the Vegas trip looking at properties in Billings, MT; (79) when MacDonald meets with a man he suspects is the Devil slightly later in the book, the bartender is named Mr. Billingsly. (108) With all the themes that run through Based on a True Story, the one device MacDonald never repeats is that it only contains one footnote. (186)

Many of MacDonald's greatest jokes make appearances. The early parts of the books, about MacDonald's upbringing, are full of apocryphal family stories, including the rose joke. The moth joke, which you can see MacDonald telling Conan O'Brien here, is inverted so that in the book, a supposedly unfunny doctor tells it to MacDonald. (123-125) One chapter is nothing but a bullet-point list of MacDonald's 25 favourite SNL Weekend Update jokes, 24 of which are his. (156-160)

I hadn't expected to have a personal connection to Based on a True Story besides the obvious (I'm a Norm MacDonald fan, I'm Canadian), but there was a shocking coincidence. One of MacDonald's vignettes is of him meeting Slash of Guns N' Roses fame. (75) Later on, during an almost certainly fictitious funeral scene, one guest is wearing a Carolina Panthers jacket.* (139) Here's a picture of me wearing my Carolina Panthers hoodie to the Guns N' Roses show in Toronto a year ago yesterday. I really felt like a part of the story at that point.

My only real issue with Based on a True Story is that its plot points end so abruptly in 1998, with MacDonald's departure from SNL and the release of Dirty Work, despite the fact that the book was released in 2016. His 2000 movie Screwed deserved a chapter, in part so the reader could learn what it was like to work with Dave Chappelle and Danny DeVito. The Norm Show (1999-2001) is mentioned as a logo on MacDonald's T-shirt but the book never tells the reader what actually happened during the episodes. MacDonald voiced Lucky the Dog in Dr. Doolittle (1998) and its sequels, which deserved at least a page or two (MacDonald wasn't in as major a role), in part so the reader how MacDonald worked with Eddie Murphy. MacDonald's stand-up comedy album Ridiculous (2006) would have brought the book right back to stand-up, and it also saw MacDonald work with Will Ferrell. In a non-comedic context, but certainly relevant to the book's gambling theme, MacDonald placed 20th in the 2007 World Series of Poker's $3,000 No-Limit Hold 'Em event, yet this is never mentioned.

The book's 240 pages flew by. I was in stitches the whole time. If Based on a True Story can have a thesis, it's this: "A joke should catch people by surprise; it should never pander. Applause is voluntary, but laughter is involuntary." (152) My reaction was purely involuntary.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 1



*MacDonald suspects the guest is there by mistake. That's not the joke, though. Listen to the scene here. (Carolina Panthers jacket mentioned at 11:57.) In the spirit of Based on a True Story, this review only has one footnote.

Friday, October 12, 2018

(Almost) All the Time Writing Tips

I encounter writing tips more often than most, or so I would guess.

Whether it's at the Toronto Writers' Cooperative, on Quora, or on a significant number of the literary blogs I follow, I'm bombarded with writing tips. Some are repeated to the point of being ingrained ("Show, Don't Tell", which I discuss below). Others are accepted by most of the literary community but still have a few naysayers ("Chekhov's Gun", which I discuss at Rule #4 here*). Still others are good practice for most of the time but not all of the time ("Use Active Voice"); passive voice has its place in every work, but should be applied like a strong seasoning. Yet others are applicable only to the point that they help with clarity and avoid redundancy ("Avoid Adverbs"); there are adverbs in this blog entry. Then there is the assumption that every story is wrapped up like a Christmas present, which cannot apply in any realist or slice-of-life story.

What writing tips would I give, then? Not many. Aside from the basic "make sure your spelling and grammar are good", there are few blanket rules I would attach to any work of literature. No one ever built an ironclad by following the rule of using good-quality wood. That said, I see easily fixable mistakes again and again. Here are five:

  • Show or Tell
  • Coordinating Conjunctions Starting Sentences
  • Comma Splices
  • Familiarity Assumptions
  • Names Again

Each of these tips naturally has an exception I state along with it.

The examples I give below are all of bad writing I then discuss. Anything indented should not be construed as good writing, as anything I would seek to have published (except as an example of bad writing, as here) or anything I would want to read.

Show or Tell. Whether you're abiding by "Show, Don't Tell", or telling because you need the story to advance faster, don't do both. In its most extreme form, showing and telling looks like this:
"I am wearing red," said the man who was wearing red.
In its less blatantly obvious form, showing and telling takes one of two main forms, although there doubtless others:

1. Describing something and then immediately telling what was described, or vice versa.
Arthur's cheeks flushed red. His hands balled into fists with trembling white knuckles. His breaths became heavy and short. His eyes lit up like fireballs. Make no bones about it, Arthur was angry.
The first four sentences show that Arthur is angry. What does the reader gain from being told Arthur is angry in the last sentence? Why does this sentence exist? Neither of those questions is answerable.

Bonus points for the hackneyed "Make no bones about it", especially in a story that may not even be in the first person.

The only notable exception to this rule is if the author wants to tip off that either the narrator or the speaker is lying. "I am wearing red," the man wearing nothing but blue said. The dialogue and narrative are barely describing the same thing at this point.

2. Using narration and dialogue to reach the same conclusion.
"Look... I... don't know if we can go on with this situation any longer. It's - just that I - I'm seeing someone else," she said in a nervous, stilted way.
Why does the reader need to be told that our character is speaking "in a nervous, stilted way" when it is clear from the structure of the dialogue? The dialogue tag "she said" is sufficient.

This is like the "man who was wearing red" example but subtler.

Never start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. A coordinating conjunction is meant to connect two parts of a sentence. Starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction is like installing a hinge on the wrong side of a door.
Bianca liked going to the confectionery to pick out the finest cakes for Sunday dessert. And she loved the taste of the crisp, sweet icing on her tongue.
The word "and" should either be deleted entirely, which means the second sentence should start with the word "she", or else the sentences should be combined. I would usually keep this as two sentences but it depends how central Bianca is to the story. Maybe her love of cake is only worth a sentence.

To unpack this further, imagine ending a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. To reprise our cake-purchaser Bianca:
Bianca liked going to the confectionery to pick out the finest cakes for Sunday dessert and. She loved the taste of the crisp, sweet icing on her tongue.
The quickest glance shows the first sentence here to be complete nonsense. The reader may ask "... and what?" This is a very reasonable question. The writer of the first Bianca passage should approach these passages the same way. The reader asks "...what and?"

Exceptions include dialogue and stream of consciousness. If we talked the way we wrote, conversations would be stilted and obtuse.

Never insert a comma splice. 

Separate thoughts are separated by a period. Quasi-separate thoughts are separated by a semicolon, uncommonly as writers should use semicolons. Commas connect parts of the same thought.

A comma, then, should never be in this part of a sentence:
The river flowed, the sun set.
The comma serves absolutely no purpose here, and also confuses the reader by creating the expectation that whatever follows it will relate directly to the flow of the river. It should be replaced with a period (more likely) or a semicolon (less likely).

To parrot the above rule: Exceptions include dialogue and stream of consciousness. If we talked the way we wrote, conversations would be stilted and obtuse.

Assume your reader doesn't know your characters.

Settings can be sufficiently familiar they need little introduction. Most English-language readers do not need to be told that New York City is in the United States. Although London isn't necessarily in England, any basic signpost can tell the reader the story takes place in London, England. A fictional setting probably requires some introduction but this can often be unraveled as the story requires. (For example, the first descriptions of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings hardly require the reader to know the location of the nearest post office.)

Characters can be anyone.

If a writer reprints a character sheet without giving any context to why the character is present, the reader is confused.
Uncle Carl is a good, honest man. He was born in 1958 to a family of dairy farmers who would always use the phrase "pass muster" and he took some very firm values with him when he went away to school. I saw him a lot in those days because he was caring for my mother's garden.
If this point by point description of Carl (which isn't well-written anyway) precedes any other mention of Carl, it takes the reader out of the story. If Carl hasn't been present yet, the reader isn't sure why he's being discussed in this way.** If Carl's existence hasn't been mentioned yet, the above passage sounds like someone accidentally copied and pasted in a passage from a different story.

The only exception is if the work of literature is a series of biographies, with the above passage beginning a section entitled "Uncle Carl" or something similar.

Names can be reused.

In an effort to avoid overusing character names, authors occasionally substitute in descriptions. This has the unfortunate effect of making it ambiguous to the reader how many characters are present.
Daria handed her paper to the teacher. The teacher's pen tapped each of the answers as she saw Daria had answered all but one of the fill-in-the-blank questions.
"Did you miss a question?" the teacher asked.
The shy girl never wanted to admit to not knowing the answer.
Is Daria shy? Presumably, at least two children in any given class of 20-30 is shy. Is the conversation only between Daria and the teacher, are there other students at the teacher's desk, or is the teacher making an announcement to the entire class? Replacing "The shy girl" with "Daria" fixes this problem.

Worse still is when a description may match more than one character but is adjectivized*** according to the author's own opinion of his or her work. The reader may perceive the characters differently, causing confusion over who is speaking. Using our character Daria from the above passage, meet her classmate Evelyn:
Daria handed her paper to the teacher. The teacher's pen tapped each of the answers as she saw Daria had answered all but one of the fill-in-the-blank questions. Evelyn stood behind Daria, a trembling finger tracing over the answers on her own incomplete test.
"Did you miss a question?" the teacher asked.
The shy girl never wanted to admit to not knowing the answer.
Which of Daria or Evelyn is "the shy girl"? Is Daria shyer than Evelyn or vice versa? Even if previous scenes have shown Evelyn being talkative and bubbly, maybe she has text anxiety. Again, replacing "The shy girl" with the character's name makes the reader's life easier.

The author can also specify who the teacher is addressing (e.g.: "the teacher asked Daria") but there is still no need to introduce an already established character as an adjective-noun combination.

The exception to this rule is if the author is attempting to keep a character's identity secret. There could be a crucial plot point regarding the reader's lack of knowledge of which student is shyer, although that sort of identity game is more likely in a spy novel or whodunit.

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*My writing has improved substantially since I wrote that blog post. My formatting appears to have improved as well.

**Carl's presence in a photo album would still indicate that he is present.

***This can be a word.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

September's Book: Dictators without Borders

Dictators without Borders by Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw
Politics (2017 - 231 pp.)

Dictators without Borders explores the connections between internal security measures and global financing efforts conducted by the ex-Soviet dictators of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Internally, these dictators use foreign direct investment to prop up their regimes; externally, they set up shell corporations to hide funds offshore, and then hunt down enemies through "extraterritorial security measures".* The global aspect is very much in step with these countries' histories: Cooley and Heathershaw use the Russian Empire's overseas agents and the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940 as historical inspirations, and time the book so that it was released a year after the Panama Papers.** 

Under the heading aptly titled "Our argument", Cooley and Heathershaw state: "In this book we argue that Central Asia is best understood by focusing on the sprawling, informal transnational links between elites from Astana to London and Bishkek to Beijing." (23) These links include Western and other banks, law firms and real estate brokers. Cooley and Heathershaw conclude by arguing that Western governments can quell the exodus of investment funds through proper due diligence checks and through greater enforcement of anti-corruption laws.

Central Asia's role as historical Silk Road is prevalent in Western media, such as major parts of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt. (See, for example, "The Alchemist", set in Samarkand, in present-day Uzbekistan.) Here's a map of the Silk Road and a map of current Central Asia.) In Dictators without Borders, the Silk Road becomes a metaphor for the connection between Central Asian governments and foreign^ investors, and transformation of countries like Kyrgyzstan into de facto inland offshores.^^

The American "New Silk Road Initiative" and the Chinese "One Belt, One Road" (OBOR) project figure prominently. Each, however, has run into the virtually ubiquitous roadblock of Central Asian restriction of private enterprise, which effectively funnels foreign investment into state coffers. Regarding the American airfield in Kyrgyzstan during former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev's regime, "US Defence Secretary Robert Gates refers in his memoir to Bakiyev's 'amazingly corrupt' government, which 'saw our continued need for the airfield as a rich source of revenue or, as I called it, extortion.'" (176) Bakiyev's son Maxim now lives in a 3.5-million-pound mansion in Surrey, UK. Regarding OBOR, Cooley and Heathershaw note the difficulty of making highways profitable when they do not lead to businesses: "...merely building infrastructure (the hardware) within a environment as prone to rent-seeking and poor governance as Central Asia is unlikely to reform entrenched crony capitalism - quite the opposite in fact, as these upgraded networks may provide additional opportunities for cronyism and the distribution of informal payments." (179) This mirrors the assertion in The Dictator's Handbook that any dictator under threat immediately invests in a high-quality road toward an international airport.

In addition to the book's Silk Road story, there are four spotlight chapters, one on each country, that concern one country's regime and often a wanted person. Many of the wanted people are ex-regime insiders, such as Kazakhstan's Mukhtar Ablyazov or Uzbekistan's Gulnara Karimova. Others are political opponents, such as Obidkhon qori Nazarov (Uzbekistan) or Umarali Kuvvatov (Tajikistan). Details of the state-led persecutions vary from the expected, such as Nursultan Nazarbayev ordering Ablyazov's assets frozen, to the terrifying, such as the 2012 attempted assassination of Nazarov in Stockholm by way of "three or four" bullets to the head or the 2015 poisoning-shooting of Kuvvatov by a Tajik government agent in Istanbul.+ For reference, Cooley and Heathershaw provide a map of disappearances, renditions and assassinations from Uzbekistan, (210) and the same from Tajikistan. (217) The level of detail here, from who owns which shell corporations to who is imprisoned where, is at its peak.

Dictators without Borders also includes a series of flowcharts that escalate in their complexity as the book goes on, from the relatively simple chart showing Ablyazov's former ownership of BTA Bank (59) to the labyrinthine network connecting Swedish telecom giant TeliaSonera's investments to the Karimov family's personal wealth, resulting in a $406 million windfall to the Karimovs and their associates. (122) The $406 million included in that one investment appears tiny by that point in the book, as Cooley and Heathershaw show repeatedly that these regimes come out with windfalls as high as 25% of their countries' GDPs. Little of this money goes toward usual Western-style public expenditures.

The only issue I can take with Dictators without Borders is the authors' reliance on the dictators' lack of evidence in criminal prosecutions being directly followed by the condemnations that themselves lack sufficient evidence. Cooley and Heathershaw are fond of saying that a crime was "probably" connected to a dictator, yet "probably" is also the kind of language dictators use when discerning who committed which financial crime. As much as the reader sympathizes with various hunted quasi-criminals over the dictators who chase them, it's hard to look at someone like Ablyazov and see the picture of innocence.

I don't usually give a book a 10 for Educational Content, but the sheer volume and variety of sources that went into Dictators without Borders is astounding. Cooley, Heathershaw and the interviewees they credit went through everything from UK legal proceedings to NGO reports to news stories. The numerous interviewees, most of whom have pseudonyms, drew on many of their own terrifying experiences. People with knowledge of Russian, Kazakh, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz were required. At the end of the book (Appendices 1-3), Cooley and Heathershaw list authoritative charts of Central Asian expats' real estate holdings, Uzbek Stage 3 (disappearance/rendition phase) exiles and Tajik Stage 3 exiles.

If there's one way Dictators without Borders could have been even more educational (up to 11?), it would have been a chapter on Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan is mentioned briefly in the opening and closing chapters, and figures prominently on the book's cover. It's also one of the world's most fascinating countries, from the statues of Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov in the capital Ashgabat; to Niyazov's memoir-meets-Bible the Ruhnama, of which I've read approximately the first seventy pages; to its strikingly extensive natural gas reserves. That said, Turkmen is not the easiest language to learn, and independent journalists are notoriously difficult to locate in Turkmenistan, so a lack of a full chapter on Turkmenistan is understandable.

Ease of Reading: 3
Educational Content: 10

*This is a diplomatic way of saying "intimidation, unmeritorious Interpol Red Notices, legal proceedings in foreign courts, extradition back to the home country where torture may occur, and, in some cases, assassination".

**For those itching to make drone strike or Guantanamo Bay comparisons, Cooley and Heathershaw address this during the preface: "There is a qualitative distinction between the national security rationales of the US and UK (questionable though they are) and the regime security rationales of Central Asian states. In an autocracy, there is no such thing as an opposition and even opponents in exile are fair game." (xiii)


^Typically, foreign investors are any combination of American, British (including British Virgin Islands shell corporations owned by Central Asian or Russian nationals), Russian and Chinese. There are also numerous other investors, including Sweden's TeliaSonera, that arise within the book.

^^An "inland offshore" is a jurisdiction where money can be hidden or laundered due to lax corporate registry and financial reporting requirements, much like a typical island tax haven (e.g.: British Virgin Islands), but landlocked.

+If you're wondering what a "poisoning-shooting is", Cooley and Heathershaw describe in detail:
On 5 March 2015, Kuvvatov, his wife and two children were invited to dinner at the house of Sulaimon Qayumov, a 30-year-old Tajik citizen who had been in Istanbul for several months and expressed sympathy for [Tajik political opposition] Group 24. Kuvvatov's wife told Radio Ozodi that she, her husband and their sons "felt sick after consuming food offered by Qayumov and rushed out for fresh air. An ambulance eventually arrived at 10:30 p.m. When they were outside, Hafizova said, an unidentified man approached Kuvvatov from behind and fired a single shot to his head before fleeing. Kuvvatov died at the scene." (216)

Friday, August 24, 2018

August's Book: Burning Chrome

Burning Chrome by William Gibson
Science Fiction (1986/2003* - 204 pp.)

Finally, some William Gibson on this blog!

Burning Chrome is, roughly speaking, his ten most famous short stories he published from 1981-1986, so around the time he released Neuromancer. He wasn't as well-known during this period as he would be later on, but he wrote some of his most iconic material. It's almost all the first wave of cyberpunk. Enough type has been shed on the fusion of cybernetics with humanity that I'll focus on the few of the more obscure aspects of Burning Chrome here: the way it rockets its characters into its settings, and its use of clipped style.

Gibson's love of Eastern Hemisphere settings comes through in stories like "Johnny Mnemonic", "Red Star, Winter Orbit" and "New Rose Hotel" . "Johnny Mnemonic"'s opening of Yakuza, "Squids", a.k.a. Superconducting Quantum Interference Detectors, (10) and Jones the drug-addled talking dolphin blends Japanese gangster movies with Blade Runner-esque cyberpunk. (In a bizarre way of Gibson predicting the future, though, Jones's talking is surprisingly realistic.)

"Red Star, Winter Orbit" deals with the disturbing USSR-era term "military custody", (94) is based on politically motivated psychiatric treatment. (Although scary Cold War-era institutionalization was available in other countries, including the US, as well.) From its beginning, Gibson makes the Western reader feel like a foreigner: "He'd never liked the boy's father, either - an easygoing party man, long ago settled into lecture tours, a dacha on the Black Sea, American liquor, French suits, Italian shoes..." (85) The geographical otherness the Western reader feels reinforces the strangeness of the stories' more overtly science fiction features.

Similarly, the titular hotel of "New Rose Hotel" is just outside Narita Airport in Tokyo, yet the characters try to transform away from Japanese-ness. The initial description of the person to whom the story is narrated is "Eurasian, half-gaijin... Dark European eyes, Asian cheekbones" (110), and then later, the same character says, "I'm Dutch now, you said. I'll want a new look." (117) A meeting between the narrator and a Welshman in Berlin is for the express purpose of "disappearing" one of the few still-totally-Japanese characters, Hiroshi, yet the narrator admits that "Europe is a dead museum." (116)**

Gibson's American settings are full of drug addicts. In "The Gernsback Continuum", the narrator suffers from amphetamine psychosis. (33) In "Fragments of a Hologram Rose", Parker wakes to find unexplained cocaine in his pocket. By the time "Burning Chrome" hits, the compilation has read like a story in which the characters are so fried they are no longer real; they are instead distinguishable from aspects of a computer program, "Chrome: her pretty childface smooth as steel..." while Rikki acts like a video game character. (180)

In "Dogfight", after Deke falls asleep while operating the flight simulator, his experience combines Parker's cocaine-planted awakening in "The Gernsback Continuum" with the programming cartridge as power model of "Burning Chrome": "He woke to the rancid smell of frying krillcakes and winced with hunger. No cash, either. Well, there were plenty of student types in the stack. Bound to be one who'd like to score a programming unit." (155)

Stylistically, a few key patterns emerge throughout Burning Chrome. One is the clipped, conversational, fragmentized nature of Gibson's writing. This ties into his often first-person narratives of people who think in short bursts. In "The Belonging Kind", when the protagonist Coretti's obsession with his unnamed, prospective love interest takes over his life: "He'd missed classes too many times. He'd taken to watching the hotel when he could, even in the daytime. He'd been seen in too many bars. He never seemed to change his clothes." (54) In "Hinterlands", when Toby discusses the space travel highway: "The promise of pain. It's there each time." (75) The block-quoted Rules 1-3 add to the staccato narration. In "The Winter Market", the album Kings of Sleep obsesses the characters.^ Our narrator describes part of it as "Amazing. Freedom and death, right there, right there, razor's edge, forever." (132)

If Burning Chrome has any weakness, it's not to do with Gibson's storytelling. Gibson could have used a better editor; sentences frequently start with coordinating conjunctions, which is one of the few writing rules I actually think shouldn't be broken. Secondly, the last five stories take up a combined 60% of the compilation, which makes it feel longer as it progresses. This is tough to avoid, as 8 of the 10 stories are within a page or two of 25 pages, but the two shorter stories (8 and 16 pages each) could have been split up rather than placed back to back. Again, no fault of Gibson's, as far as I know.

Burning Chrome is sophisticated enough for a cold night in with a snifter of cognac, but I read it on the balcony with a beer.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 2^^

*Burning Chrome was first released as a compilation in 1986. My edition has an additional preface Gibson wrote in 2003.

**Funnily, though, West Germany still exists in the future of "The Winter Market". (125)

^Perhaps a reference to another fictitious, never quoted, omnipresent King in Yellow?

^^I originally had this as a 1. Click the link above where I refer to Jones the dolphin's conversational skills.

Monday, August 20, 2018

How Was Your Day?


Don’t ever ask me, “How was your day?”



Every day is a chance for me to accomplish something great. In a day, I can run the fastest mile I’ve ever run. I can write the greatest fiction I’ve ever written. I can talk down a litigation client from a completely untenable position. I can show a friend around a surprisingly high number of cities in North America. There’s a lot I can do, and a lot of that only takes a few hours. More than likely, my day is still going.



This question is often asked as early as four or five in the afternoon. With any luck, it might be asked at seven or eight. Why ask it then, when there’s so much left of the day? Why not ask it at 11:59? One-third of anyone’s life happens between the hours of 4:00PM and midnight. One quarter of anyone’s life happens between 6:00PM and midnight. Why wish those hours away?



Using a standard Western life expectancy of 80, any given person lives 20 years of life between 6:00PM and midnight. So much can be done in an hour, or a minute, or a second. Why wish away two decades of someone’s life? Saying your day is over at some point in the late afternoon has a greater loss of average life expectancy than smoking.



Don’t ask me how my day was. It’s not over yet.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

July's Book: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Late again, but I'll be early soon!

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Literature (1962 - 272 pp.)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is my first exposure to the Beat Generation in years. During what mainstream society dubbed "the American High", Ken Kesey sets a chilling tale inside a psychiatric facility. Kesey's experiences working as a maintenance staffer in a psychiatric facility in Oregon were a direct inspiration for a story that, although set in one of the most optimistic societies in world history, presents few options for its characters other than complete bleakness. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's characters, especially Bromden, Randle Patrick McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, are examined 10 billion ways in numerous publications, so I'll stick to my views on the setting and plot.

As someone who can barely stand the sight of blood, Kesey's descriptions of contemporary 1950s psychiatric surgery made me lose sleep. Both forms of lobotomy once used in the United States (prefrontal and transorbital) are discussed at length, through the eyes of the narrator Bromden, who never sees a surgery being performed but sees the aftereffects. Ruckly, one of the less heralded characters, receives a transorbital lobotomy near the start of the book that leaves him with "black-and-blue eyes" and barely responsive. (20) Another transorbital lobotomy near the end of the book gives a character "a face milk-white, except for the heavy purple bruises around the eyes" that renders him "like one of those store dummies". (269) The patients also compare lobotomy to castration.* (165) These lobotomy horror stories remind me of Authorson v Canada.** a class action in which Canadian war veterans sued for the interest accrued on their pension funds; the representative plaintiff Joseph Authorson had received a prefrontal lobotomy while in a psychiatric institution in London, Ontario.

Electroshock therapy (EST) is not presented in a much better light. Bromden frequently wakes from bouts of EST, which leaves him in a mental fog so severe the reader is forced to question the veracity of many of the book's events. When the other patients explain EST to McMurphy, what results is possibly the scariest lines of the book:
McMurphy shakes his head. "Hoo-wee! Electricity through the head. Man, that's like electrocuting a guy for murder."
"The reasons for both activities are much more closely related than you might think; they are both cures." (164)
Patient death is common in the facility, whether by natural causes or unnatural causes such as drowning (151), none of which appears to concern Ratched or many of the other staff.

The level of cruelty the reader sees from Bromden's perspective is comparable to a kangaroo court: "...it might be beneficial that he receive some shock therapy - unless he realizes his mistakes." (235) This invites an immediate comparison to communism. (236) The patients' words and actions are written off as delusions of their compromised mental states, which has the horrifying side-effect of making everything the staff says right, and everything a patient says wrong. In this way, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest becomes a tale about scientific veracity, and even about morality as well; can a "wrong" philosophical, or even moral, belief be recast as mental illness in order to attack the believer?*** Back to the staff's self-proclaimed inherent rightness, what if the staff decide to perform EST or a lobotomy on someone who isn't insane? The Rosenhan experiment, conducted only a few short years after Kesey released One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, identifies the possibility of misdiagnosis or staff misconduct in psychiatric institutions.

The entire psychiatric facility is, in its own way, subject to lobotomy and EST. When Bromden briefly wanders the facility at night, after evading bedtime, his escape of sorts doesn't reveal some sort of Animal Farm-style elitism. Instead, he sees "dreamy doll faces of the workmen" and the furnace's fire "like a thundering pulse". (80) Even when there is no staffer to inflict the facility's violent treatments on Bromden, he sees them everywhere he goes.

The main events in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are thankfully unthinkable in 2018. However, it remains far scarier than most horror novels, and its themes of science and rightness remain relevant.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 5

NOTE: 31-year old Billy's mother describes him as "a middle-aged man" despite only being 31 years old. She also treats him like a child. (247) As a 31-year old, I can attest that I'm not yet middle-aged! Perhaps Billy's mother is the crazy one.

*For more literal castration, consider Kyu in "Awake to Emptiness".

**2003 SCC 39 at paras 21-24.

***For example, the psychological/philosophical/moral idea put forth in this study claiming that belief in meritocracy may have mental health consequences.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Spring-Summer Highlights

I don't usually post much about myself on social media, but in honour of my 31st birthday today, I will.

May, June, July and August (already) have been exciting months. I've:
  • seen Angel Witch live at Lee's Palace
  • gone to the Preakness
  • seen most of the National Mall in Washington DC
  • hiked Mount Nemo
  • made a root beer kit
  • made my own hot sauce for the first time in a while
  • had my dog's picture on the wall of my local pub
  • attended the Doug Ford inauguration party
  • gone to Ripley's Aquarium
  • gone to Niagara on the Lake
  • shown friends from across North America around my hometown Toronto
  • just today, walked from Roncesvalles to Etobicoke Point.
Pictures to follow ASAP. You won't miss these!

This is what I do when I'm not reading, whether law or literature, apparently.
(July's book coming soon as well.)