Tuesday, November 12, 2019

My Photos on Google Maps Now Have over 300,000 Views!

Today, I reached over 300,000 views on my photos posted to Google Maps. As a result of my unpaid but enthusiastic submission of pictures to Google Maps, I was greeted with this cheerful screen this morning:

Here are some of my most celebrated photos from London, England this past summer (ignore the dates):

Here are a couple of my greatest hits, from Toronto, with location and (accurate) date:

This may be my one chance to simultaneously recommend a restaurant and a dog park, so yes, I recommend them both.

I assure you, many of my photos have more views than some of the meagre amounts posted here. I took a photo on Sunday in Hogg's Hollow that is now featured on Google Maps:

It's been fun. Google prompts me every chance it gets, which is often, because I enjoy taking photos. 

May we all discover a few more places than we would have before.

Monday, November 11, 2019

November's Book: The War That Ended Peace

The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan
History (2013 - 645 pp.)

The War That Ended Peace is Margaret MacMillan's fourth book I've read (Paris 1919, The Uses and Abuses of History, History's People). This is Margaret MacMillan's second appearance on this blog (History's People). Whereas Paris 1919 is understandably clumped within an approximately 18-month span, The Uses and Abuses of History is about historiography, and History's People is a set of interconnected biographies, The War That Ended Peace takes the veteran MacMillan reader to an unfamiliar place: the geopolitical strategy rooms of the two decades preceding World War I. In the setting, The War That Ended Peace brings James Joll's seminal Origins of the First World War to mind more than MacMillan's other works.

Like any holistic take on when, how and why World War I began, there can be no true thesis. Attempts to identify singular causes of World War I are sometimes extremely slanted: for example, following the French narrative of "German aggression", or following German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg's acidic remark that the British started the war through their neglect to rein in France and Russia. Similarly, narratives like "nationalism", "the alliance system" or "the cult of the offensive" are too vague to be accurate: as MacMillan reiterates over the course of the book, if these concepts were to blame, why did a general European war not erupt over Morocco or Bosnia? Stating that there were a multitude of factors is true, yet so unsatisfying and so uninsightful it scarcely needs to be said. The trigger events - the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand,* the responding Austro-Hungarian ultimatum toward Serbia, the Russian general mobilization order, Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality - are all well-known. What led to those trigger events, though, and why was it in the summer of 1914 that the guns, mortars and cannon were finally fired? That is the question MacMillan valiantly tries to answer.

Like Mary McAuliffe's Twilight of the Belle Epoque, which I reviewed back in June/July, The War That Ended Peace opens at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. MacMillan deals with some of McAuliffe's characters in her chapter "What Were They Thinking?" (247), but the Exposition Universelle portion showcases MacMillan's own characters perfectly: each nation has its own pavillion, replete with artifacts of national pride. (3-5) The year 1900 was twenty-nine years since the close of the last major European war (the Franco-Prussian War), but the Great Powers would become increasingly violent as the 20th century wore on.

The commonly cited, and not entirely accurate, World War I alliance map commonly shown in high school history classrooms was far from a certainty, especially where the United Kingdom was concerned. Early in the twentieth century, Germany and the United Kingdom had frequent alliance discussions. Shocking as it might seem today, the largest obstacle to an Anglo-German alliance was frequently Germany's desire to build its strength while the United Kingdom went to war against Russia: "Much better for Germany, [German Chancellor Bernhard von Bulow] felt, to remain neutral between Britain and Russia in their continuing conflict." (86) In 1905, two radical peers in the British Parliament formed the Anglo-German Friendship Committee. (298) Over a decade later, when William II would step down at the end of World War I, he suggested becoming a British-style constitutional monarch. It is fitting, then, that so much of the first quarter of the book discusses the background behind the Entente Cordiale. Although the United Kingdom and France were allies during the Crimean War, British public opinion had backed Prussia in 1870, and the Fashoda Crisis in 1898 nearly put the United Kingdom and France at war. Although Fashoda was temporally detached from World War I,** MacMillan's account is hilarious, including Major Jean-Baptiste Marchand's futile trek across a substantial portion of Africa, map included. (144)

That the United Kingdom and France would sign the Entente Cordiale in 1904 was a miracle. Even then, British politicians (especially Edward Grey) waffled on how far they would honour it, right up until the start of the war, intent on maintaining a "free hand" in European affairs. The only scenario that seemed assured was that France and Germany would not end up on the same side of a general European war. Britain, cognizant of this, knew that in siding with France, it was rejecting Germany. The ongoing Anglo-German naval race, which bled into the political sphere as German Admiral von Tirpitz and British Admiral Jacky Fisher constantly lobbied for naval spending increases,^ further pushed the United Kingdom toward France. Austria-Hungary was a useful partner for the naval status quo in the Mediterranean, but the French navy easily inherited that role as World War I drew nearer.

So much of the pre-World War I world is locked in a time capsule, unable to ever be recovered, at once romantic and barbaric. The Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires have no clear modern equivalents, and what once was the German Empire has vastly different now. MacMillan's best comparison between the world of then and the world of today is in how major countries compared failed states: "Where today the international community sees failed or failing states as a problem, in the age of imperialism the powers saw them as an opportunity." (165) These were the days of Fotochrom, of Ruritanian romances and of the invention of Fry's Turkish delight.

Although the Ottoman Empire was targeted in Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia in 1908, and again in the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), Austria-Hungary and Russia would fail sooner. During the Russo-Japanese War, the Russian Navy accidentally set off the Dogger Bank incident, in which Russian ships sunk British merchant ships and the British almost declared war in response. France, by then Russia's ally and the United Kingdom's friend, had to mediate the dispute. (173) This was all the more embarrassing when considering the Russian ships' ultimate destination: they belonged to the fleet that would be massacred by the Japanese at Tsushima. For years afterward, the Russians would call any foreign policy blunder "a diplomatic Tsushima". Outmuscled by Japan in the Far East, and then outmaneuvered by Austria-Hungary over the Bosnian Crisis, Russia's foreign policy was in tatters. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which guaranteed nothing except peace in Persia and Afghanistan, was cold comfort. Russia's domestic politics were even worse: "Between 1905 and 1909 nearly 1,500 provincial governors and officials were assassinated." (177)

Austria-Hungary lacked such military or diplomatic defeats, and was nowhere near as politically violent, but its nationalist stirrings and lack of a succession pipeline would prove fatal during the war. MacMillan presents a thoughtful mini-biography of Franz Josef von Habsburg, the last great Austrian emperor (219-223), capped by her poetic summary of his life view: "Franz Joseph soldiered on, working methodically through his piles of papers as though, through sheer hard work and attention to detail, he could stave off chaos and hold his empire together." (223) As voting rights expanded and nationalist groups formed in what would become Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and (an expanded) Romania, the image of an emperor holding up his empire became less realistic. When Franz Josef died in 1916, an astonishing sixty-eight years into his reign, his most likely successors had all predeceased him.

Some of the landmark plans of the early 20th century were made by men who would not survive to see the outbreak of war. Alois von Aehrenthal, Austria-Hungary's foreign minister during the annexation of Bosnia in 1908, died in 1912. One of his more infamous legacies was a charged meeting at Buchlau castle, now in the Czech Republic, with Alexander Izvolsky, the Russian foreign minister. As has always been common in diplomatic meetings, each man walked away from the castle with a vastly different story to tell his respective emperor. (423) The Schlieffen plan's creator, Alfred von Schlieffen, died in 1913, although the German army insisted on relying on that plan to the exclusion of ever discussing its implications with civilian leaders: "Germany's war plan, the most controversial to this day, was locked in an iron safe to which the chief of staff held the key, and only a small circle knew its strategic goals." (336) Joseph Chamberlain, who held almost every major British political position except Prime Minister, died a month before the war began. Jean Jaures, the French socialist leader, was assassinated on July 30, 1914, less than a week before German troops set foot in his home country. (618) Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination takes up most of a chapter, was known before the war for being perhaps the one man who could have brokered long-term peace with Austria-Hungary's South Slav populations. Franz Ferdinand's train ride from Vienna to Trieste was so spooky, leading up to the inexplicably disregarded reports of terrorist activity in Sarajevo, that his death almost seemed foreordained. (550)

MacMillan's discussions of the declarations of war is the book's highlight. In those crucial weeks from the June 28 assassination until August Madness, the Great Powers were locked in tension. The Russian general mobilization order came after Nicholas II seriously considered a mobilization on only the Austrian border, which could have contained the war but would have opened the long German-Russian border to a German preemptive attack. Ironically, Sergei Sazonov was able to convince the Tsar that a general war might be the only way to save his throne.^^ After Nicholas II authorized Sazonov to enact the order, Sazonov phoned General Nicholas Yanushkevich; Sazonov then said, dramatically, "Smash your phone." (603) Germany declared war on Russia in response to this order. Friedrich von Pourtales, the German ambassador to Russia, pled with Sazonov to stop the Russian mobilization, but Sazonov refused, leading Pourtales to hand him Germany's declaration of war: "In that case, sir, I am instructed by my Government to hand you this note." (616) Finally, the United Kingdom's declaration of war on Germany in response to Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality shattered Karl von Lichnowsky, the German ambassador to the United Kingdom, who tirelessly worked to keep those two countries at peace. (624)

My only qualm with The War That Ended Peace is the use of modern political terms to refer to now-antiquated events and precepts, including erroneous comparisons to modern times. This is repeated, and I have to assume deliberate. To call certain factions "conservative" or "liberal" in now-defunct countries with political systems that make no sense to a 21st-century North American is heavily misleading. While the Conservative and Liberal parties in the United Kingdom can rightly be referred to by their party names, and the Social Democratic Party in Germany was quite obviously socialist, going much further falls into the dreaded trap of tunnel-visioning history. People in the Russian Empire or the Ottoman Empire saw their worlds so drastically differently from modern English-language readers, few words can describe peoples' political predilections in all those places.

MacMillan's epilogue is a blisteringly fast twelve-page outtake on World War I. After everything from Queen Victoria's jubilee to the tales of "Foxy" Ferdinand of Bulgaria, the war finally arrives just in time for the end. After the war, Harry Kessler, a German diplomat, revisits a house of his that he had not visited since 1913. Kessler's diary entry on the experience is among the most nostalgic passages I have ever read. (640)

Finally, as exciting as the diplomatic intrigue leading up to World War I was, there is so much more to commemorate. That is why this review is being posted on Remembrance Day (Armistice Day or Veterans Day). Last year, I visited the World War I monuments in Prospect Cemetery in Toronto, and then visited the Toronto Archives collection of newspapers from the date of the armistice in 1918 in anticipation of the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I. The more we read, the less we forget.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 10

*In the interest of theming my experiences, as I often do in regard to this blog, I am listening to Franz Ferdinand (2004) while writing this review.

**The Fashoda Crisis happened sixteen years before World War I. A good comparison is considering the armistice in 1918 in assessing motives for the extremely ill-fated German-Polish non-aggression pact of 1934.

^MacMillan spends far more time with the Anglo-German naval race than I have here. The topic demands its own book, and is already the subject of many.

^^For all the book, and many other sources, mention the eerily accurate predictions regarding World War I, this has to be the worst World War I prediction I have ever seen.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Strange NFL Stats, Factual and Fictional

One of the core mandates of Matthew Gordon Books is the analytical approach to fiction and non-fiction, which I try to read in roughly equal amounts, such as when I read 26 of each for the venerable Book a Week. One of the more peripheral mandates is my lifelong interest in the National Football League. Sometimes, that even devolves into statistics.

Here are two extraordinary NFL statistics, one from non-fiction, one NFL.com accidentally made up:

Fact: Andy Reid has the same NFL head coaching record as Marty Schottenheimer

Right before the 2019 season, I noted on Quora that if the Chiefs started the season 5-2, Andy Reid would have the same lifetime NFL head coaching record as Marty Schottenheimer (200-126-1). (Even the same number of ties!) Moreover, Reid would achieve that record as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, which Schottenheimer famously took to multiple first-round byes back in the 1990s.

Thanks to Thursday night's 30-6 victory over the hapless Broncos, the Reid/Schottenheimer prophecy is fulfilled.

Fiction: The Lions led the Vikings 7-1

When the Vikings scored their first touchdown of today's game, the NFL.com Gamecenter of the game recorded the extra point but, through some glitch or human error, failed to record the touchdown. The result was this:

Depending on who you listen to, it is either impossible for a team to have a score of 1 in an NFL game, or so unlikely it's never happened. Today was not an exception.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

High Shelf Press Issue XI: containing my satirical short story The Aviary

High Shelf Press has just released Issue XI today!

Available for sale in print for $15 from High Shelf Press (bundled discounts available) or from Amazon.

Cover art by Monica Wiesblott straight out of a classic horror movie. Image from the link to Issue XI above. Not my image, I just thought you'd like it.

Among other great artists, Issue XI features my short story "The Aviary", in which predators and scavengers engage in a war of words (war of birds?) over who gets to eat the big catch. The birds within are markedly more majestic than this guy I snapped, I assure you.

You can find a full table of contents here.

You can read the issue online in journal format here.

High Shelf Press is a Portland, Oregon-based independent literary publisher, featuring authors, poets and visual artists from the United States, Canada and more. High Shelf Press works in conjunction with Cathexis Northwest Press. In keeping with October, Issue XI is High Shelf Press's "spookiest issue yet".

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Panthers in Hotspur!

The NFL stadium in Tottenham Hotspur is the first NFL-designed stadium outside of North America, as per Melissa Stark. Today, it hosts the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which is the first division rivalry game in that stadium. (Last week's Chicago/Oakland tilt was a game between two vintage NFL franchises, but two that have never played in the same conference, let alone division.)

I went to London for the first time this past summer. I took over 900 pictures in eight days, including Westminster Abbey (just the outside!), the iconic statue of Richard I in front of the House of Lords, and the original 1854 dinosaur models at Crystal Palace.

I've been cheering on the Panthers since their inaugural season in 1995. Now I get to cheer them on in the shadow of this:

As someone who is such a big Panthers fan I wear my Panthers hoodie to a Guns 'N' Roses concert, I couldn't be happier.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

October's Book: Galveston

Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
Thriller (2010 - 258 pp.)

A doctor took pictures of my lungs. They were full of snow flurries. (3)
From Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of HBO's True Detective comes his first novel Galveston. The story is told from the voice of Roy "Big Country"* Cady, a mercenary/assassin diagnosed with lung cancer in the book's first two sentences (referenced above). With what he thinks is a short time left to live, and with his old colleague Stan Ptitko determined to make that time even shorter, Roy embarks on a journey that is part-escape, part-revenge. He is accompanied by Rocky, a teenaged prostitute he rescues after the book's opening conflagration, and eventually Rocky's little sister Tiffany. Ironically, Galveston takes place in some of the hottest parts of the Continental United States, yet Roy compares his cancer to snow.

No character in Galveston is particularly lovable, although it's difficult to dislike toddler Tiffany. Roy earns the reader's sympathy through his sardonic humour, extreme levels of pragmatism, lack of regard toward any traditional obligations, and the fact that he isn't any of the other characters. Roy is a cross between the Punisher and someone engaged on a long road trip in the South with unlimited drinks, especially Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam and J&B. When Roy murders people, he always finds a way to paint it either as self-defence (19) or as something that happened so quickly it was the only logical course of action. (234) Roy cares about Rocky and especially Tiffany, and seems genuinely willing to help people in trouble, but is otherwise emotionless about his surroundings, including rejecting Rocky's sexual advances even before he learns Tiffany exists. (44)

The book's main events occur in the late '80s, with the future "present" when Roy tells the story being 2008.** Conveniently, the story occurring in the pre-smartphone era makes characters evade each other more easily. When a character is not physically in front of Roy, the reader has no idea where that character is, or whether he or she is even alive. This sense of disappearance adds to Galveston's mystery; much like in the original Warcraft computer game, when you haven't discovered a piece of land yet, it may as well not exist. Feeling that way in a fantasy world is understandable, but when the hidden place is somewhere as obviously existent^ as the Southern United States, a fog hangs over the entire setting. When Roy leaves his motel room after rejecting a prostitute's advances, continuing his tradition of apathy toward sex, he reflects on how literally in the dark he is about his future: "You steer down lightless highways, and you invent a destination because movement is key." (155) The future Roy finds is as a sixty-two-year-old ex-convict with one eye and a dog, who lives a quieter life than he could have imagined in the '80s.

My one qualm with Galveston is the use of the "knocked unconscious with no lasting damage" trope, which is disproven by science once every few seconds. Any unconsciousness lasting longer than a few seconds has disastrous effects on the neural system,^^ yet Roy's head is treated like a pinata, only for his brain to function normally a couple pages later. (226-228) 

Unlike many of the other books I discuss here, Galveston is a blisteringly fast read with a simple story Pizzolatto conveys well. There is very little subtext, obscurity, theorizing, or questioning of what reality means; what you read is what you get.

A personal note: when I lived in Houston briefly on a work assignment, my parents visited me for a weekend. During that weekend, we went to Galveston. It was 2011, the year after Galveston was published. When Roy drives Rocky and Tiffany to the Gulf Coast, lending the reader an idea of how Pizzolatto picked the book's title, he notes the wide-open possibilities envisioned by the drive down the I-45 to Galveston: "Clear of the cities, Texas turned into a green desert meant to hammer you with vastness, a mortar filled with sky. The girls treated it like a fireworks show." (79) While we certainly had a better time there than Roy did, Pizzolatto's descriptions of the Gulf and the beaches took me back there. I might not have picked this book to read if the title didn't bring back those memories.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 1

*No resemblance to Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, retired centre for the (as they were then) Vancouver Grizzlies.

**Although I suppose this fact spoils that Roy survives the story, it's impossible to discuss the book's 2008 scenes otherwise.

^The word "existent" is used not nearly as often as its antonym "non-existent". Why, I've never learned. Perhaps things are assumed to be existent unless we hear otherwise.

^^A similar error is made in Richard Matheson's Somewhere in Time, also told from the perspective of someone with terminal cancer.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

September's Book: Days of Infamy

Days of Infamy by Harry Turtledove
Alternate History (2004 - 520 pp.)

Days of Infamy is the first book in Harry Turtledove's duology* about what could have happened if the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had turned into an all-out amphibious invasion. The book, therefore, alternates between various Japanese occupiers, American soldiers and American civilians. The events all occur on Hawaii except for the opening in Tokyo and the sections featuring Joe Crosetti, an Italian-American cadet living in San Francisco and training in Pensacola. As is commonplace on this blog, the Book One Effect is in full swing. However, there are only two books in the Days of Infamy series, so a quick follow-up read of End of the Beginning (2005) should be easy.

Days of Infamy starts the way history actually went: with Isoroku Yamamoto and Minoru Genda planning the Pearl Harbor attack. (1-5) Turtledove's combination of real-life figures and fictional-but-believable characters brings the reader right into the events, as if existing as a fly on the wall.** From there, the modified Pearl Harbor is 40-50 pages of action and suspense, sure to liven the heart of any Axis & Allies player. Then, of course, there's how people react to the sudden and unexpected Japanese occupation of Hawaii. One example is Oscar van der Kirk, an American transplant turned beach bum, who is a surfer who invents sailboarding in this timeline; his full story is too entertaining to be repeated.

Joe's world goes back and forth between the excitement he feels at training and the devastation he feels when his relatives die in a bombing raid. When he is bussed off to training as an aviator, he quickly meets his new roommate, Orson Sharp, a Mormon from Utah. Sharp is used to snow, but it's bizarre to Crosetti. (192)

Meanwhile, American military officers suffer, and anyone close to them suffers too. Fletcher Armitage is a high-ranking officer who becomes a POW, shortly after his separation from his wife Jane. Jane's fate is no better, as she ends up being coerced by the occupying Japanese authorities into mending a of turnips and potatoes. (234) Similarly, Lieutenant Jim Peterson ransfers from the Navy to the Army, which costs him epaulets. The book assumes Admiral Halsey dies during the initial raid, which leads to chaos.

The book's emotional high comes near the end, when the occupation is complete. Kenzo is a late-teenage-aged Japanese-American whose father is in favour of the occupation, but he and his brother are staunchly American. Kenzo dates Elsie Sundberg, an American. Kenzo can't make sense of the occupation, a sentiment that is surely echoed through many occupations past:
Then he looked west, toward Pearl Harbor. No, no fireworks tonight. The U.S. Navy was gone from these parts. Everything else that had to do with the United States seemed gone, too. So where was there a place for a person of Japanese blood who thought he had the right to be an American? Anywhere at all? (510-511)
Confusingly, there is another book called Days of Infamy that is, as well, an alternate history about the Empire of Japan conquering Hawaii in the time following Pearl Harbor. It is the second book in its series. It came out in 2008, well after Harry Turtledove's book hit the market. This is why you Google your proposed book titles before you write, folks.*** This second Days of Infamy was written in part by Newt Gingrich. I don't usually give Newt Gingrich unsolicited advice online, but when I do, it's apparently about searching book titles.

Ease of Reading: 7
Educational Content: 4

*So few book series are exactly two books that "duology" is an uncommon word. To wit: "trilogy" yields 168 million Google search results, whereas "duology" yields only 1.49 million.

**Turtledove has a tendency to use "as if" to introduce a simile, as in "he laughed, as if hearing a joke". He also has his characters frequently say clichés in order to evoke the time and place. Whether these are faults is subjective.

***The musical equivalent is "Google your song titles before you write your choruses". Arguably the most notable example is British power metal band DragonForce releasing the song "Die by the Sword" in 2012, a full 29 years after the classic Slayer song of the same name. One would think the DragonForce song was a cover, but alas, it is not.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

RBC Race for the Kids 2019

This morning marked my fourth consecutive, and fourth overall, RBC Race for the Kids. The Race for the Kids is a spectacular annual event, held every September in North York, to raise money for Sunnybrook Hospital's youth mental health programs.

Notable regulars include Mayor of Toronto John Tory, the New Balance sneaker mascot and, of course, your favourite book blogger. Free giveaways set up throughout Mel Lastman Square include Starbucks coffee, Clif bars, Kashi snacks, and ROAR organic flavoured water. For more substantial appetites, Encore Catering offers breakfast sandwiches, and there are also bananas. For even more substantial appetites, the blocked-off stretch of Yonge Street between Sheppard and Finch is packed with restaurants.

A record 9,300 people ran today in either the 5K or the 10K (I did the 5K, starting in the red corral). I had the good result of finishing 131st out of all 4,742 people who ran the 5K, although only approximately the top half were actually running. (People with strollers and dogs, or prefer who prefer to walk, usually walk at the end.)

Here are a few of the many highlights from this morning's race:

From top to bottom, and left to right: (1) Me in front of the food tents, (2) Me with the finish line, (3) Me with the New Balance shoe mascot, (4) Runners waiting at the start line, (5) Runners in front of the North York Civic Centre, (6) John Tory speaking to the runners about the importance of youth mental health programs, (7) The yellow corral, (8) the start line. Where selfies have been taken, it was purely due to a lack of available picture-takers despite the bright blue ocean of people around me. Not pictured in this collage: my new profile picture is of me about to start the race!

It was a good day for the race, clear and cool. Armed with my fourth consecutive free Dri-Fit shirt, I'm ready to train for 2020!

A huge thank you to all of my donors, who helped me reach Community Fundraiser status.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Happy Labour Day from the Kawarthas!

In the spirit of celebrating long weekends by taking pictures of macro insects, here's a gorgeous monarch butterfly I caught by the Trent-Severn Waterway yesterday:

The shadow looks like another wing.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Bonus Book! The Moon and Sixpence

August has a proud history of being a month when I read, and discuss, a lot of books. In 2012, during Book a Week, I posted about five books, in genres spanning science fiction, low fantasy, social history and moral philosophy. In 2015, I birthed the Bonus Book tradition by posting about The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. In a sense, Bonus Books are the remnant of Book a Week: a striving to read and discuss more than one book per month, while acknowledging that a weekly standard would be invasive into the rest of my life, or else result in shorter and/or worse blog posts.

This next book is not the book that was recommended to me, but it's close. In 2012, my master's advisor recommended Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. For those who have read it, or even picked it up off of a table or shelf, it's a very long book. Nonetheless, I acquired an e-book of it, and proceeded, over 2012-2013, to read approximately 365 pages. That was a third of the book.

The next best thing is the follow-up. After the success of Of Human Bondage in 1915, W. Somerset Maugham released The Moon and Sixpence in 1919. The Moon and Sixpence also sold well, and is widely regarded to be one of the classics of World War I-era English literature. Its subject matter, though, could not be farther from the war. With that, I leave you...


The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
Literature (1919 - 250 pp.)

In The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham's passive narrator follows the life of Charles Strickland, a stockbroker turned painter who flees his London family for Paris, Marseilles, and finally Tahiti. The narrator, who befriends Mrs. Strickland, is sent to Paris at her behest, where most of the novel takes place. Strickland is simultaneously a case study of the motivation to abandon a profession to become an artist, and an outlet for Maugham to pontificate on the place of art in 20th-century society. Now, 100 years after the book's release,* the book's questions about art are still impossible to answer, as they may be for eternity.

Strickland as a person inspires either indifference or hatred. Maugham uses the narrator's less than flattering impressions of Strickland as a constant source of witticisms, such as the initial thought that "[o]ne would admire his excellent qualities, but avoid his company. He was null." (30) In the first part of the book, Strickland acts as a proto-Ned Flanders. When Strickland leaves his wife and children in London to become a starving artist in Paris, the narrator switches toward a quasi-religious take: "You evidently don't believe in the maxim: Act so that every one of your actions is capable of being made into a universal rule." (65) As someone who has lived this way, it's stressful. Whether Strickland embodies that part of any of us who would want to live as an artist in Paris, or whether Strickland is simply an irresponsible, selfish man, is up to the reader to decide.

The other characters add colour without adding plot points. Dirk Stroeve is a Dutch artist who cooks wonderful spaghetti but, according to the narrator, cannot produce a painting better than the equivalent of a Harlequin romance novel. (95) Stroeve, like the narrator and Strickland, acts as a vehicle for Maugham's one-liners. His greatest line comes early, before Strickland has an affair with his wife, before every character vacates Paris. He asks the narrator the question every artist loathes hearing, and receives the answer that makes every impoverished night sound pointless:
'And how, then, will you recognize merit?' asked Dirk, red in the face with anger.
'There is only one way - success.' (96)

The value of art is a recurring theme in The Moon and Sixpence. Strickland produces paintings that are alternately called beautiful and horrible. Whether Strickland's art is praise-worthy is a constant point of contention between the narrator, Stroeve, and Strickland himself, who, unlike the other characters, abandoned a successful career. The narrator ponders about the consumers of art: "They call beautiful a dress, a dog, a sermon; and yet when they are face to face with Beauty cannot recognise it." (159) It is exhausting, yet it follows the life of every artist, that this is the ultimate audience. The narrator considers himself discerning, yet the reader never hears what the narrator actually paints, only his impression of Strickland's and Stroeve's paintings, and his frustration with the market for art. The last hundred years has not made the market for art any kinder.

Although the novel famously follows the life of Paul Gauguin, Strickland's last years in Tahiti are analogous to Francisco Goya's last years. When the narrator pieces together Strickland's life in Tahiti, he learns that Strickland, afflicted with leprosy, painted murals on the walls of his small house. According to Strickland's doctor, these murals were Strickland's masterpieces, and "brought to mind vague recollections of black magic". (239) Strickland spent the last year of his life blind but still gazing at these murals. Goya spent the last years of his life in a two-storey house outside Madrid where he, too, painted murals on the walls; these became his famous Black Paintings. Goya was deaf at the time he lived in the house, one of the reasons the house was called "Deaf Man's Villa". In The Moon and Sixpence, Strickland orders the house burnt to the ground upon his death, which his wife obliges to the doctor's dismay. Thankfully, Goya's Black Paintings suffered no such fate, and they hang on canvas in Madrid today.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 4

*Last month's book, F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, was released 99 years ago. This blog is on a century streak!

Monday, August 12, 2019

August's Book: 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed

1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric Cline
History/Archaeology (2014 - 179 pp.)

Eric Cline's 1177 BC takes the reader through one of the most fascinating periods in human existence, using a multi-disciplinary approach centred on history, archaeology and science. Looming figures like Ramses III and Nefertiti reign. The Trojan War is current news. The Hittites send ships across the Mediterranean while the Babylonians and Assyrians cling to past glory. This is the Late Bronze Age, which ended, at least approximately, in the year that lends itself to the title of this book.

The Sea Peoples are the starting point for Cline's analysis. Who were they? Where were they from? (Early guesses include Sardinia and Sicily, but they may have been from the north of Greece.) Why do they only appear in Egyptian records, primarily the diaries of Ramses III? (Cline is confident Ramses III did not fabricate their existence.) From there, Cline tells stories of war, massacre, drought, earthquakes and infighting - essentially all the reasons a country can collapse. For all the Sea Peoples' notoriety, it is notable just how little of 1177BC is about them, whomever they were. They could have been anything from proto-Viking-style raiders to refugees.

Each of the Late Bronze Age's great civilizations experienced some combination of causes for its collapse, depending on factors from political culture to terrain. One of the most notable examples is the Hittites, denizens of what is now Anatolia, whose arid inland location made them impervious to Sea Peoples but prone to famine. Cline's thesis is that the Late Bronze Age civilizations suffered a global collapse that cannot be attributed to any one cause: "...the end of the Bronze Age empires in the eastern Mediterranean was not the result of a single invasion or cause, but came about because of multiple incursions and manifold reasons." (174) This collapse is reminiscent, postulates Cline, of the precarious situation the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East find themselves in today.

Partially, the book is a literature review of the discipline, which is incredibly useful for the scholar who is not as immersed in the late Bronze Age as Cline. These sources span different countries, languages and disciplines. Just as curiously, they differ in their own origins, from the bull-in-a-china-shop digs of Heinrich Schliemann in the 19th century to Howard Carter's discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 to the latest publication from Princeton University Press. With the multitude of voices came just as many pet theories on what went wrong, including Colin Renfrew's "systems collapse" theory favoured by Cline. (161) Then there are the critical studies types: Christopher Monroe of Cornell University "...suggests that dependence, or perhaps overdependence, on capitalist enterprise, and specifically long-distance trade, may have contributed to the economic instability seen at the end of the Late Bronze Age." (150) This quotation arises in Cline's discussion of the collapse of Ugarit, a semi-major city-state in the Levant. As tempting an explanation as this is due to the effect collapsing civilizations can have on each other, it may be too much an effort to see ourselves in the past; historians generally agree that modern capitalism surfaced no earlier than Medieval Italy. Similarly, identifications of ancient droughts and famines with the modern term "climate change" (142) may be only partially illustrative.

One of the book's more notable sources of archaeological material is the Uluburun shipwreck. (75-79) The origin and destination of the ship are unclear, but may be Hittite, Cypriot, Egyptian or Mycenaean. The ship carried bronze armaments, ivory, and a (literal) ton of resin made from pistachio trees, "a fortune". That the ship appeared to carry so much military gear and also so many commercially valuable products suggests that it could have been "on a shopping trip", or that it could have been used to resupply an invasion force of some kind: writers of Ancient Greek-themed fantasy fiction should have a field day with Uluburun.

Where the evidence is less conclusive is for the events of Exodus. Best estimates place Exodus sometime in the 75 years preceding the Bronze Age Collapse, although some sources place it in the mid-1400s BC; Cline postulates that the Exodus occurred during the reign of Ramses II in approximately 1250BC, which is 200 years after Biblical stories imply. (91) Fascinatingly, Cline's 1250BC dating would make the Exodus contemporaneous with the Trojan War. Less convincing is Cline's attempts to record the possibility of forty years wandering in the desert, as Biblical timelines are notoriously mythological.* The events themselves, though, were certainly feasible. Where difficulty arises is in Cline's apt observation that the Exodus wouldn't leave many traces: "On the other hand, what might one expect to find as artifacts of Israelites camped in the desert for forty years more than three thousand years ago?" (93) The ten plagues that struck Egypt during this era face similar difficulty in tracking, considering, for example, the tendency for dead pests to decay.

If there is a protagonist in a book like this, it is Ramses III, Egyptian pharaoh from 1184-1153. He repelled the Sea Peoples, oversaw a multitude of governmental reforms, and, in case ancient lineage ever got boring, died in a murder conspiracy launched by his harem. During his lifetime, he oversaw one of the most aggressive conquest campaigns of the era; artifacts from his regime have been found at the destruction sites of Megiddo, (117) Lachish (120) and Hattusa (125). Troy's destruction is less certain, but Cline estimates that it was some combination of Sea Peoples, earthquake and fire, rather than the Mycenaeans of Trojan War fame. (127) All of these destructions hearken back to the Bronze Age Collapse itself, a series of events so much better recorded than the era directly afterward in part due to the detail of Ramses III's diaries. This may be an example of winners writing history, though, as the book's map of Late Bronze Age destruction sites includes cities in (what is now) Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria and Israel, but none whatsoever in Egypt. (110-111)

Cline explores Egypt's more glamorous side in his analysis of Nefertiti and King Tut. After the death of Akhenaten, who declared there to be two gods, one of them reserved exclusively for his worship, Egypt normalized somewhat. King Tut did not accomplish much as a monarch, becoming famous to 20th-century audiences simply because of the wealth of material that is known about his short, tragic life. The late Akhenaten's wife Nefertiti takes up a greater part of the story, being one of two likely queens involved in the Zannanza Affair, the largest diplomatic incident of its time. The Hittite king's son was promised the Egyptian throne in return for marrying an Egyptian queen; en route, he was ambushed and killed, sparking a protracted conflict. Cline declares it more likely King Tut's wife Ankhsenamen was the queen in question. (69-70) On a modern note, Nefertiti's bust has been in demand by the Egyptian government since 1924, but it remains in Berlin.** (62) Millennia after Nefertiti's death, governments are still in uproar over her.

A brief word on the Minoans and Mycenaeans is in order. Unlike the Egyptians and Israelites, who are immediately recognizable, the Minoans and Mycenaeans don't seem like the Athenians and Spartans of the Classical Age afterward, let alone the Greeks of today. Mycenaean civilization was almost completely obliterated, ushering in the Greek Dark Ages (c. 1200BC-800BC), a time when early ironworking sported "technical deficiencies" compared to its bronze ancestors. Its language, Linear B, was lost forever, resulting in a complete lack of written documents for the few centuries following the Bronze Age Collapse. It was only in 1952 that Michael Ventris definitively linked Linear B to Ancient Greek, so for much of the history of scholarship of Mycenae, it was almost purely an archaeological site. (39) By learning ancient languages, archaeologists can turn sites into history.

Take note, prospective readers of the Ancient world: this is not an easy read. It's relatively quick due to its reasonable page count, but many of the pages require 2-3 reads. The book also has a glossary and numerous chronologies for ease of reference. I feel privileged to be able to remember a quarter of the events that took place so long ago.

Ease of Reading: 1
Educational Content: 10

*On the plus side, Cline never attempts to record all 969 years of Methuselah's life.

**The bust was transported to Berlin in 1912 but was not exhibited to the public - or, apparently, the Egyptian government - until 1924.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Congratulations, Vince Carter!

Vince Carter is now set to begin his 22nd NBA season this fall, an all-time record.

As a Raptors fan, I haven't seen Carter suit up for my team in almost fifteen years. However, when he was a Raptor:

I attended his basketball camp in Toronto for two straight years. The first year, he dunked on me. The second year, he couldn't make it, so I got to meet Steve Nash. (Here's a video of Carter's Orlando camp.)

I saw him win the Slam Dunk Contest back when it felt much bigger than it does today.

I bought his jersey 70% off a few days after the Raptors traded him to the Nets on December 17, 2004, a day that lives on in basketball infamy. I figured the jersey would be a collector's item, and I'd frame it; I'm technically not wrong yet.

Image result for Vince Carter Raptors jersey
Similar to mine, although mine's Medium rather than 48. It's flattering to see my old jersey on KYVintage.com. I guess my old times going to the Air Canada Centre during the Carter Era are more vintage than I realize.
It's hard to believe there are incoming high school students who were never able to see Carter play in a Raptors uniform. "Vinsanity" is, to them, a historical term.

Although Carter hasn't averaged 20 points per game in over a decade, he averaged double-figures until he turned 38.

For those who missed Monday's announcement,

According to NBA.com:
Veteran forward Vince Carter has agreed to a deal to return to the Atlanta Hawks, according to a report from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. The 2019-20 season will mark Carter's 22nd, breaking a record shared by Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Willis and Robert Parish.

As Global News aptly points out, Half-Man, Half-Amazing will be the first player in NBA history to play in four decades ('90s, '00s, '10s, '20s).

All this said, there's still another year of Carter. This is far from a retirement announcement. While I don't have the Hawks in the playoffs, I'm big on their recent drafts of DeAndre Hunter and Cameron Reddish, both of whom will no doubt love playing with the first greatest Raptor.

Here's to what looks like one last season of VC: the player who after starting with such a flash, has lit his way to the unexpectedly longest career in NBA history.

Monday, July 29, 2019

July's Book: This Side of Paradise

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Literature (1920 - 269 pp.)

Amory Blaine is a Midwestern youth who attends Princeton during World War I, serves in the war briefly, and ends up in exciting romantic entanglements before and after. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who almost certainly based Amory on himself, had the same story. This Side of Paradise follows Amory's life through his relationships with his college friends, girlfriends, and the ever-present Monsignor Darcy, who writes him lengthy advice letters. It's also, however, a real-life exposé of the then-veiled Ivy League party world, as well as a faithful tracking of Fitzgerald's relationships with Ginevra King and Zelda Sayre.* Whether taken as pure fiction or as the flimsiest roman à clef, the book is about life, and it portrays life as convincingly as possible. Amory, like Fitzgerald, is ultra-literate but hopelessly flawed. This Side of Paradise came out when Fitzgerald was only 23. Sadly, despite releasing The Great Gatsby in 1925 and working for MGM Studios in 1937, Fitzgerald would never again reach the same heights in his lifetime.**

Amory's Princeton years, while full of partying and self-discovery, fill him with doubt. Amory develops archetypes for "the Slicker" and "the Big Man", complete with bullet-point lists he can check off whenever he thinks he has encountered either. (44) Short version: the Slicker is someone who looks extremely clean and has slicked-back hair, whereas the Big Man is someone with more bravado than substance. In the decades before jocks, nerds and other categories were immortalized, Fitzgerald's Princeton had categories of its own. Much as with the mainstream-ification of jocks and nerds (fantasy football combines both nicely, for example), Amory finds the Slicker designation too blurred to be useful. The Princeton chapters would be nearly uniformly cheerful, even including Amory's failed romance with his old friend Isabelle, if not for his friend Dick Humbird's jarring drunk driving death. (89) The suddenness of the death, from a day of partying to a semi-gory description, delivers a more powerful emotional punch. Along with Amory's other Princeton friend Jesse Ferrenby dying in World War I, Amory's romantic mishaps are trivial by comparison; the tragedy of the book is Amory's complete failure to realize this, although he does reflect on his deceased friends.

When Amory meets his cousin Clara, whom he loves unrequitedly, Fitzgerald creates wit in each of them that plays into the book's penchant for clever one-liners. Amory and Clara have what appear to be the best conversations of either of their lives, punctuated by Amory's fascination at Clara's ability to discuss so many different people: Nobody seems to bore you,” he objected. “About half the world do,” she admitted, “but I think that’s a pretty good average, don’t you?” (138)  The flipside is that Clara finds 50% of the people she meets interesting, which bodes well considering the age-old trope that networking leads to career success.^ Their intellectual bents shine through as Fitzgerald states the concept of confirmation bias, in a tradition as old as Thucydides, extremely succinctly when Clara says to Amory, “Naturally your imagination, after a little freedom, thinks up a million reasons why you should stay, so your decision when it comes isn’t true. It’s biased.” (140) Based on Clara's employment of the concept, it is quickly clear the two are not meant to spend much more time together. Clara, a widow with two children, was probably not a good fit for then-college-aged Amory anyway.

This Side of Paradise is the arch-example of Fitzgerald's gift at switching between writing styles effortlessly. Most of the book consists of quick-moving prose in a similar style to Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, although This Side of Paradise was published six years earlier. Elsewhere, Fitzgerald leads the reader through multiple poems, winding letters, a 2-page Q&A session Amory has with himself (246-247) and a 16-page screenplay taking up a significant portion of "The Debutante". Never again would Fitzgerald change his characters' moods so readily through the diction and pacing of their thoughts and words, as well as how much setting lies interspersed throughout. When Amory falls in love with his friend Alec Connage's sister Rosalind, because of course Amory would fall in love with his friend's sister, numerous witty exchanges occur that do not require a single piece of setting or plot to tie them together. A good example is when Mrs. Connage, looking for Rosalind, finds Alec and their younger sister Cecelia at the party instead:
MRS. CONNAGE: Where on earth is Rosalind?

ALEC: (brilliantly) Of course you’ve come to the best people to find her. She’d naturally be with us. (176)
Rosalind is with Amory (who else?), discussing the merits of romanticism and sentimentality (Amory discusses these topics often). During the seemingly endless conversation that ends in, once again, a woman and Amory deciding they can't be together, they share the moment of realization that each is only capable of finding what the other wants:
ROSALIND: (sadly) Oh, nothing–only I want sentiment, real sentiment, and I never find it.

AMORY: I never find anything else in the world–and I loathe it. (178)
Amory's brief relationship with Eleanor is the last in the book, and its ultimate chapter opens with the narrator stating that the coming scene was Amory and Eleanor's last night together. Echoing Humbird's sudden and senseless death in Part I, Eleanor means to ride a horse over a cliff but then jumps off at the last minute, leaving her horse to jump off the cliff alone to its death. (229) Like the relationships before it, Amory and Eleanor's is doomed to fail. Amory has no relationship with a woman that survives the book, but then, the book virtually opens with the proclamation that "the Blaines were attached to no city." (17)

Arguably, This Side of Paradise should have ended sixteen pages earlier. After Amory's final affair ends in heartbreak, after it is confirmed Amory is jobless, and after Amory's financial situation is worsened still, Amory briefly flirts with socialism for the simple reason that he has little to lose. This turns into a lengthy diatribe to a man he later finds out is Ferrenby's father. For all its faults, this section contains of Amory's most enduring statements: “It’s not life that’s complicated, it’s the struggle to guide and control life.” (259) Once it was clear Amory was in this situation, though, before the quasi-socialist diatribe, there was a passage that rivalled The Great Gatsby's famous last words: “Another dawn flung itself across the river; a belated taxi hurried along the street, its lamps still shining like burning eyes in a face white from a night’s carouse. A melancholy siren sounded far down the river.” (253)

A criticism of the criticism of This Side of Paradise is that the literary community appears to care more about its extrinsic factors - Fitzgerald's rise to fame and marriage to Zelda - than on its intrinsic factors - the actual book. James L.W. West's The Making of This Side of Paradise (1983) contains, from what I can gather from the linked JStor article, one of the most detailed ever breakdowns of the writing and publication of a book. By contrast, for a classic novel, This Side of Paradise may have one of the worst Wikipedia plot summaries I have ever read. It barely mentions any of the characters, or anything Amory does with his life. This is a shame, as This Side of Paradise should be remembered as the book not only that made Fitzgerald famous, and not only as the book that rung in the Jazz Age, but also as a story about a supposed elite who rarely feels that way, and about coming of age during the WWI era. The idea that living a compromised version of the American Dream could make a proud young American man distanced from a firm understanding of his world is one that would creep up in Fitzgerald's later works and, indirectly, in many other authors' works since.

Fitzgerald presaged cultural movements. Amory's friend Tom D'Invilliers, a fellow literary type, remarks during a rant about literature that “I wish American novelists would give up trying to make business romantically interesting. Nobody wants to read about it, unless it’s crooked business.” (209) Gangster fiction wasn't yet an established genre when This Side of Paradise was published, but it would be throughout the 1930s and then into the noir era. In the same conversation, Amory discusses the relationship between WWI and the Lost Generation: “Well,” Amory considered, “I’m not sure that the war itself had any great effect on either you or me-but it certainly ruined the old backgrounds, sort of killed individualism out of our generation.” (204) The notion of a generational collective was not in the academic discourse in 1920, but later books like Generations (1991) and The Fourth Turning (1997) brought that research so far to the forefront it is now a global phenomenon. (Apologies for the substandard picture of me in that last link.) Perhaps most interesting of all the future wars Fitzgerald foresaw was over the rising cost of American university tuition. When Amory quits his job as an advertising copywriter over his perceived poor salary, Amory and Mr. Barlow spar over the money in a way an employer and employee could in 2019: “You had just started. You’d never worked before,” said Mr. Barlow coolly. [Then Amory said,] “But it took about ten thousand dollars to educate me where I could write your darned stuff for you.” (198)

Despite the tendency for parents to name their children after popular characters, and This Side of Paradise's smashing success, the name "Amory" never ended up in the top 1000 baby names in America. Fitzgerald didn't invent the name, though; it is derived from the Old German Amalric, and has some notable owners.

With This Side of Paradise being 100 years old next year, it's a perfect opportunity for a Hollywood blockbuster based on the book. This is rather short notice, so whoever can make a major movie in a year, please begin forthwith.

Ease of Reading: 7
Educational Content: Undefined^^

*The joke that will never die, or at least not for a while: Fitzgerald married a woman named Zelda, whereas Millennial men marry women who play Zelda.

**Although The Great Gatsby was popular, it did not sell as well as This Side of Paradise in Fitzgerald's lifetime. The idea of The Great Gatsby being Fitzgerald's magnum opus is a post-WWII invention. Regarding Fitzgerald peaking early, a more modern example is Swedish death metal band Entombed. Their first three albums, Left Hand Path (1990), Clandestine (1991) and Wolverine Blues (1993), when the band members were 18, 19 and 21 respectively, are their most critically acclaimed. Had Fitzgerald's short stories he wrote as a teenager been his most successful works, we probably would never have heard of him.

^Thousands of pop entrepreneurship websites promote networking, but Hans-Georg Wolff and Klaus Moser of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg actually performed a longitudinal study on networking and career success: http://homepages.se.edu/cvonbergen/files/2013/01/Effects-of-Networking-on-Career-Success_A-Longitudinal-Study.pdf Spoiler alert: networking is indeed positively correlated with career success, although career satisfaction effects remain stable over time.

^^This Side of Paradise is a crucial primary source for a scholar of early 20th-century literature. Likewise, it is a great view into how Americans in the early 20th century saw themselves, which could provide research directions for someone studying WWI-era social history. I assure you, however, that Fitzgerald had absolutely no inkling this book would ever be either, no matter how egotistical Amory becomes.