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.

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.