Monday, May 25, 2020

RIP Chamsine/Kababana, 2017-2020

In addition to the mounting death toll from the current COVID-19 pandemic, we've started seeing a restaurant death toll. Among the more prominent examples in Toronto are Vesuvio's, a family-owned Italian restaurant near High Park that was in continuous operation from 1957 until April 19, 2020; and Prohibition Gastro Hub, a notorious hangout for Raptors fans with a hankering for happy hour deals at Yonge and Eglinton or in Leslieville.

Now there's a casualty at the corner of St. Clair Avenue West and Vaughan Road.

April 13:


This morning:



Chamsine, and then Kababana (you can see the red Kababana sign over the old bright orange Chamsine menu) served some of Toronto's most delicious Middle Eastern takeout food at affordable prices. For $5, including tax, you could have a falafel wrap. $6.19 got you a chicken shawarma wrap. $7.08 got you a shish taouk. I can recall those prices from memory due to the sheer number of times I went. Their fries with garlic sauce were a great Canadian side.

I ate from Chamsine/Kababana at home, on the 512 streetcar, or walking to Wychwood Barns. Given the propensity for takeout there, as the tables were frequently vacant despite the lineup at the counter.

Gone but not forgotten.

I worried about this exact scenario on Quora over a month ago.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Things in Life

On this blog, I have a history of cataloguing things. From the books I review, the soup I eat, listing virtues and sins, or even my laundry (that last one was admittedly early in the blog's history), I make lists and diaries that challenge me in some way.

I've also taken to an oddball COVID-19 pandemic diary. Rather than the usual detonator blast of Instagram stories (although there's nothing wrong with those), I've tackled some very specific issues that are not usually covered on the same blog but that work fine right here: cooking a shelter-in-place-friendly menu, archival book readings, even more shelter-in-place-friendly cooking, and my inhalation of The Last Dance, starring none other than Michael Jordan.

Today, I combine the two: a life catalogue that can make you thankful even in these trying times.


None of the categories should overlap.
  • ·Things I Love Doing are non-competitive. For example, drinking coffee or walking in the park.
  • ·Things I Am Good At are either competitive or have some capability to outachieve. For example, a sport or a game.
  • ·Goals I Have are experiences in life. They are neither competitive nor non-competitive. For example, visiting a certain historical site.
Love, be good at, and set goals away! My responses are mine alone.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

The Last Dance, Episodes I-X

I finished watching The Last Dance today. As a huge NBA fan, I have a lot of thoughts. As someone born in 1987, whose hometown got its NBA franchise in 1995, I have a lot of thoughts. (Full post on Quora, linked below.)

I wore my Mitchell and Ness Bulls shirt while watching Episodes IV-VI.

The format is perfect: a chronicle of the 1997–1998 Chicago Bulls season, in which they finished 62–20 en route to their sixth NBA championship in eight years, interspersed with a chronological account from Michael Jordan’s youth until the season right before. The prominent Jordan interviews combine with interviews of Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson, Jerry Reinsdorf, Horace Grant, and many of the other protagonists. The back-and-forth was easy to follow thanks to a number line-style segue whenever the documentary changed time periods.
The first topic that comes to mind for as fan who’s watched over two decades of basketball since the Bulls’ last championship is how close most of the games were. The Bulls frequently won and lost multiple games in the same playoff series by 1, 2, 5, 8 points. (Watch Episode IX, about the epic 1998 Bulls/Pacers Eastern Conference Final, for the best example.)
The second topic that comes to mind is that the Bulls never won a Finals in four games or in seven. There’s a uniquely “never in doubt, but never a complete blowout” about the team.
My favourite moments (basketball) were the early contending and championship years, from about 1988–1992.
  • The Bulls/Pistons rivalry
  • The first championship: Jordan over Magic
My favourite moments (other) were the sports business aspects behind Jordan’s rise to stardom and the Bulls’ near fall from grace.
  • The development of the first Air Jordan shoe
  • The inside material on the Scottie Pippen contract dispute
What I thought the series needed more of was detail on the 1996 and 1997 seasons. Only four teams have won 69 or more games in an NBA season; the Bulls won 72 and 69 games in those consecutive seasons. At the time, a couple decades before the 73–9 Warriors, you had to go back to the 1971–1972 Lakers in order to see that kind of production.
Although there was a great discussion about the 1996 NBA Finals (against the 64–18 SuperSonics, who in many other seasons would have had the best record in the league), most of the 72–10 flies by. The 1996–1997 season, in which the Bulls went a blistering 69–13, appears as a glossed-over prelude to the first Jazz Finals. The Bulls/Heat Eastern Conference Finals is not even mentioned, or else was so briefly I missed it entirely while getting up for a drink of water.
What I didn't enjoy as much was when the biopic sections on Michael Jordan steered too far away from the team’s story. The section on the rumour of David Stern suspending Jordan for 18 months(!) could have been shorter. I didn’t need to hear from Barack Obama, although he’s always good for ratings. Some of the praise toward Jordan felt obvious more than anything.
A final, mischievous thought: Neither the Rockets nor the Spurs ever played against the Bulls in the Finals. To win it all, Jordan never had to knock off Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson when it mattered most. We’ll never know what would have happened.

See my full post on Quora here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

May's Book: Battle Cry of Freedom

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
History (1988 - 867 pp.)

Battle Cry of Freedom, 32 years after its initial publication, is still widely considered the leading book on the American Civil War. For an academic text, it is gripping. For such a fast read, it is supremely well sourced, drawing from hundreds of primary sources and a wealth of secondary sources.

Fortunately for McPherson and his North American audience, the Civil War may be the best-documented event to ever have such a high percentage of its historiography written in English. It has been reviewed by so many leading professors of American history that I will not attempt to displace their scholarship. Instead, I will highlight a few of the major issues that may entice new readers, surprise old ones, and look at the book from the perspective of 2020. Due to the extensive nature of the material, which I am sadly unable to cover in full in such a short review (my apologies to Battle of Antietam enthusiasts), I am also taking the uncommon (for me) step of adding subheadings.

McPherson's Retelling, 1847-1861

Surprisingly for a book about the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom starts not at Fort Sumter or at the 1860 Presidential election, but in Mexico City in 1847. (3) Manifest Destiny, and with it the Mexican-American War, led to the United States's massive territorial expansion. This expansion brought a minor difficulty and a major difficulty; the minor difficulty was how to outfit and supply ports on the United States's new western coastal state of California,* (49) whereas the major difficulty was whether these new states would be free states or slave states. This major difficulty sets up McPherson's extensive discussion of the America of the 1850s, which is itself crucial to the book for two reasons. One reason is that it was arguably the most disastrous decade in American history, so full of sectarian divisions that civil war seemed inevitable by its end. The other reason is that Battle Cry of Freedom is part of a ten-book series covering all of American history; with so few volumes to cover so much ground, if McPherson had not written such a definitive history of 1850s America, one might not exist.

In the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln's stunning 1860 election victory, and the Southern slave states' subsequent secessions,** it becomes easy to forget that those states more or less on the Mason-Dixon Line were in a uniquely poor position: they had enough slaves to be antagonized by abolitionism, but not enough to be willing to fight for the institution. (284) This was the heartland of John Bell's Constitutional Union party, which won Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee; Kentucky would remain in the Union, Tennessee would secede, and Virginia would be rent in two with the independence of West Virginia in 1863. No slave state voted for Lincoln, even the ones who would send troops to die for the Union.

A Long War

Like World War I half a century later, each side thought it would win quickly: "With such confidence in quick success, thoughts of strategy seemed superfluous." (333) In retrospect, that was the only outcome that might have favoured the South.^ David Farragut and Benjamin Butler's capture of New Orleans came early in 1862, Butler leading "unscathed troops" into the city, (420) leading diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut, who McPherson quotes extensively, to state: "New Orleans gone--and with it the Confederacy. Are we not cut in two?" (422) Popular culture's relative emphasis on Robert E. Lee's march north to Pennsylvania understates just how devastating the Western Theater was to Southern interests, including (as Chesnut implied) cutting Texas off from the rest of the South. Later Southern incursions into Kentucky, for example, would find the local populace so indifferently resistant toward Braxton Bragg's invasion force to the point that he considered his brief military successes in that state pointless. (518) More decisively, occupied Louisiana and Tennessee were permitted to collect votes in the 1864 Presidential election; both states voted for Lincoln, which would have been unthinkable in 1860. Even Lee's laurels he carried into Gettysburg in 1863 were elusive, as his and James Longstreet's^^ defeat there quickly ended the ongoing mediation discussions to have a consortium of European Great Powers resolve the war. (664)

Everything from poor-quality uniforms to disease outbreaks ravaged both sides, but no one was ravaged worse than the Confederacy. The Confederate medical corps, for example, was full of capable people who lacked the resources to heal wounded troops. (485) Similarly, even in Lee's Virginia Theater the Southern soldiers frequently looked so bedraggled, such as during the Battle of Spotsylvania in 1864, the local civilians were appalled at their appearances. Then there was General William Sherman, oft-cited as the inventor of modern total war, whose victory at Atlanta in 1864 and subsequent March to the Sea caused McPherson to note: "'War is war, and not popularity-seeking,' wrote Sherman in pursuance of his career as Georgia's most unwelcome visitor." (755) Philip Sheridan would bring a similar mindset to the Virginia Theater during his Burning of the Shenandoah Valley, as would Ulysses S. Grant in ordering the use of a ground mine in the assault on Petersburg, Virginia, "a tragic fiasco" that resulted in part of the Confederate line plummeting to death in a makeshift sinkhole. (758) Worst of all, perhaps, was the sack of Columbia, South Carolina, by Sherman: "Units from two of Sherman's corps occupied the capital on February 17; by next morning almost half of the city was rubble and ashes." (829)

The Book Itself

There are so many cities, rivers and other locations, with the only maps being extreme closeups focusing on individual hills or plains. Battle Cry of Freedom could have used more maps, especially zoomed-out maps of entire states or even the entire United States of America. Maps of the old South would have been especially useful considering how much of it was destroyed. Regarding one of the war's more prominent examples, Grant's capture of Vicksburg, (map on 632) I have never seen Vicksburg mentioned once outside of a Civil War context; a non-North American might not even realize that Vicksburg is in Mississippi.

Battle Cry of Freedom, already at almost 900 pages (a contender for longest book I've reviewed on here), could have used an expanded epilogue briefly introducing the Reconstruction. Although Battle Cry of Freedom is part of a series, so the Reconstruction is presumably covered in the following book, the end of the book does not even get as far as the infamous barn burning of John Wilkes Booth a mere seventeen days after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. The Ironclad Oath, first promulgated in 1863, does not appear in the book's index. For a book that starts with an overview of the Mexican-American War, it ends so suddenly the reader is flummoxed by the lack of explanation of what happened in the defining first few months of Reconstruction.

A frequent mention by McPherson, which I have seen echoed by other authors, is the frequent use of the word "conservative" to describe Southern Democrats. This raises the question: what, precisely, were Southern Democrats attempting to conserve? Although Jefferson Davis is quoted once as self-identifying as a conservative, both sides far more frequently referred to themselves as the heirs of the Revolutionary War generation. The comparison between the rapidly industrializing, navally dominant, abolitionist North and the United Kingdom was not lost on Southerners, who called Abraham Lincoln "his Majesty Abraham the First". Northern Democrats accused Lincoln of passing "aristocratic legislation" from which "The rich are exempt!" (italics in original, quoting Robert Sterling's 1974 PhD thesis on Midwestern Civil War draft resistance) for the commutation laws that allowed Northerners to pay a fixed sum of $300 to evade conscription. (602-603)

As always, I give credit to authors for teaching me new words where it is necessary. In the case of McPherson, it is enfilade, "a position of works, troops, etc., making them subject to a sweeping fire from along the length of a line of troops, a trench, a battery, etc." It is effectively the infantry version of a broadside.
The Civil War: A Conflict That Takes Time to Digest

By complete coincidence, I reviewed Ward Moore's 1953 alternate history novel Bring the Jubilee a month ago. It's been a Civil War-inspired spring. Perhaps this is due to my planned trip to Harpers Ferry, cancelled amid coronavirus concerns. Perhaps it is due to the fact that sheltering in place, with all the activities that entails, finally gave me the time necessary to read an 867-page academic tome. May this opportunity for more mountainous reading fare you well.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 10




*In an otherwise thorough book, the establishment of the early US Pacific Fleet (Pacific Squadron until 1907) is completely unexplained despite the fleet's critical role in American expansion during this period. Prior to a railway to California or the Panama Canal, how did the US get the necessary manpower, supplies and infrastructure to the Pacific? Ideas from my general knowledge of 19th-century world history ricocheted through my synapses, from a perilous journey around Cape Horn to a purchase agreement with the Russian Empire. Thankfully, this is researchable. As early as 1821, when the Pacific Fleet was founded, some ships did go around Cape Horn, and at least some ships went all the way around the Cape of Good Hope.

**Among McPherson's gifts is a tendency toward being just literary enough to keep the reader interested without drawing too much attention to the form of his prose. I write this alliteration in that spirit.

^Any scenario in which the South wins the Civil War is pure speculation at this point. The most likely discussed scenario is Generals Joseph Johnston, Pierre Beauregard and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson leading a force north from the First Battle of Bull Run up to the poorly defended walls of Washington, D.C., where they could have induced Abraham Lincoln to sign a surrender document acknowledging the independence of the Confederacy. (344-349)

^^I fear I do not give Longstreet enough credit here, as he was one of the Confederacy's finest generals during the war. In Gettysburg in particular, he opposed the disastrous Pickett's Charge, only ordering it due to direct orders from Lee. (656, 662) After the war, Longstreet joined the Republican party, showing a willingness for at least some prominent Southerners to make the best of the restored Union. Nonetheless, if my great sin in discussing this book is not giving enough credit to Confederate generals, I can sleep soundly.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

MatthewGordonBooks.com - it's mathematically worth something!

As you know from reading this blog, I launched my website, MatthewGordonBooks.com, last December. I've been quiet about public appearances ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but apparently my website is appreciating in value anyway.


I appear to be in the good company of self-employed musicians and, of all brands, a line of watches with the same name as a popular clothing manufacturer.

The word "books" raises my domain name's value.

"Someone" owns that domain: me!

Saturday, May 2, 2020

In Honor of the Books I Read Before 2012

As all you devoted readers of this blog know, I've posted about books religiously since March 2012, based on the dare a fellow RateYourMusic user sent me (and her, but she never completed it) to read a book a week in 2012. It's not as though I went from being a non-reader to being a power reader overnight, though. Here's one of many examples I'll feature on this blog of a fantastic book I read before that fateful January 2012 date:

A Great and Fateful King: Edward I and the Forging of the British Empire by Marc Morris

My post on Quora: https://www.quora.com/Out-of-all-English-monarchs-who-had-the-most-interesting-life-I-m-currently-going-through-reading-about-them-all-on-Wikipedia-in-lockdown-to-learn-about-them-Which-one-would-you-recommend-I-definitely-check-out-I-m/answer/Matthew-Gordon-7
Edward I of England (1239–1307; r. 1272–1307) was destined for greatness. He scored an early victory while crown prince in the grisly Battle of Evesham (1265), which established him as the main force standing between rebellious nobleman and his father, Henry III. Edward became king while on the Ninth Crusade, which he aborted early in order to attend his own coronation ceremony. From there, he went on to conquer substantial portions of what is now Southwestern France, conquer Wales, land a decisive blow against the Scots at the Battle of Falkirk (1298), and set off reforms of the English legal system. Refreshingly for the time, his marriage to Eleanor of Castile appears to have been a genuine love match.

More controversially, he increased the use of drawing and quartering, especially in the wake of the conquest of Wales. He also expelled the Jews from England in 1290, which modern historians have understandably listed as the worst act during his reign; to show how much times change, it was one of his most popular acts at the time.

If you want a lengthy but fast-reading book that follows one of England’s most iconic rulers through swashbuckling battles and diplomatic tensions, this one’s your bet.

I read this book 12 years ago, but it’s still so vivid to me I just wrote the above summary off the top of my head. It’ll be available on pretty much any online retailer.
If you want a biographical slice of medieval England, Morris's book is a great place to start.

Friday, May 1, 2020

A Word on New Literary Journals

As someone who's considered launching a literary journal from time to time, who follows a number of them, and is generally active in Toronto's literary community, I have a thought on new journals.

When authors look to submit to a literary journal, whether it's fiction, nonfiction, poetry, a one-act play, or a photograph they took of their favourite peony, there are only three ways to tell whether a journal is worth the effort (and/or cost) to submit:

Past issues.

Ultimately, literary journals live and die on the content they produce. While this may seem obvious, it's not as simple as saying "this journal is a SF journal, and I write SF, so I should submit" or "this journal publishes stories about the Pacific Northwest, and I write stories set there, so I should submit". Everything from the typical word count (which is often different from the maximum word count on Submittable) to the author bio format play into whether a submission is the right fit for that particular journal. There's also the niggling background question, constantly out there, as to whether any given literary journal is publishing material that is good.

The submitter's question here, that the journal has to answer, is: Do I want my story to be one of these stories?

Aesthetic.

Website design, layout and visuals are even more important in the artistic (including literary) world than anywhere else. A website like Pro Football Reference or Basketball Reference doesn't need to look good because it's an aggregation of data meant to be used by sports analysts, bettors and fans. That said, the Flash attack approach of a website like NBA.com is enough to crash a laptop. I've used sports websites here to avoid drawing attention to any particular literary journal. A good literary journal website, in its layout and its art, will draw in the reader. An additional stylistic point: typos look especially bad when you're telling your prospective authors to submit their best, most edited, work.

Self-plug time: my website, Matthew Gordon Books, is a good example of the balance between stripped-down and spiffed-up.

The submitter's question here, that the journal has to answer, is: Do I want my story to look like one of these stories?

Masthead.

The editor(s) of a literary journal are presumably living people, not bots. Their names should be on the website, either under a Masthead heading or on the submission page. Being able to Google the editor(s) allows a prospective author, or even a prospective reader (literary journals get purchased sometimes!), to see what else the editor has written and what else the author likes. For example, if I were listed on a masthead somewhere, you could quickly see, from my Quora posts and from my short story "The Aviary", that I like experimental, punchy fiction that gets straight to the point and is at or under 1,000 words. My educational and professional backgrounds are also easy to find if you dig a little. If you graduated from my alma mater, tell me that!

The submitter's question here, that the journal has to answer, is: Do I want my story to be published by these people?

The above three criteria are especially important when a literary journal is either set to release its first issue, requires payment along with submissions, or especially both.

If you have no past issue to show, and no one can tell who you are, yet you are expecting money along with submissions... I can't imagine who would even fork over $5 because some unknown person might publish a literary journal at some point. You can buy a sandwich for that.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Bacon Pepper Bind

In the spirit of my ongoing and updating COVID-19 menu, I invented a new dish yesterday. Self-isolation and sheltering in place mean more slow-roasting; who has the time to leave a roast in the oven for hours on a workday? This time, I've concocted a cross between a jalapeno popper and a turducken.

The Bacon Pepper Bind

Ingredients:
  • 1 bell pepper
  • 1 jalapeno
  • 2 bacon strips
  • Cream cheese in enough quantity to line the inside of a bell pepper
  • Pepper and/or other spices to taste (I used cardamom)
Directions:
  1. Preheat oven to 350. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.
  2. Cut the top off the bell pepper. Cut the inside out of the bell pepper so you have a bowl. Punch the stem out of the top of the bell pepper but leave the rest intact so it looks like a ring.
  3. Line the inside of the bell pepper with a thick layer of cream cheese.
  4. Insert the jalapeno (keep it whole) into the cream cheese-lined bell pepper so that the jalapeno’s stem looks like it could be the stem of the bell pepper. If you need to cut part of the jalapeno off to meet this height requirement, do so as necessary.
  5. Put the bell pepper ring on top of the jalapeno. At this point, you should have what looks like a whole bell pepper with a conspicuous-looking stem.
  6. Wrap the bacon strips around the bell pepper so that it is mostly covered. Ensure that there is bacon sealing the cut you made during step 2 above.
  7. Place the bacon-wrapped, stuffed bell pepper onto the foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 45 minutes or until bacon is crispy.
  8. Let sit for 2–3 minutes before serving. It should be steaming at this point. Enjoy!

You can also find this recipe in a Quora answer I wrote yesterday.

Coincidentally, the sunset from my balcony was roughly the colour of my cooking:


In the spirit of this blog, and my predisposition to assign rankings and ratings,

Ease of Cooking: 8
Nutritional Content: 5*



*The bacon and cream cheese add fat, including saturated fat, but the bacon pepper bind is gluten-free and effectively no-carb. I also used Longo's in-store-made light cream cheese, for whatever fat content that saves. The bell pepper and jalapeno, of course, are as healthy as can be.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Bonus Book! Call of the Wild

Call of the Wild by Jack London
Literature (1903 - 83 pp.*)

In Call of the Wild, Buck, a St. Bernard/Scottish shepherd mix, is kidnapped from his home in Santa Clara to be sold up north as a sled dog in Alaska and Yukon during the 1897 gold rush. Buck is sold numerous times, from French-Canadian prospectors Francois and Perrault, to incompetent fortune-seekers Hal and Charles, to John Thornton. Finally, in one of the few spoilers I will ever deliver on this blog, Buck finds that he belongs with a wolf pack in the wild despite being a lifelong pet with not a drop of wolf blood in him.

People new to Call of the Wild, perhaps from the movie released earlier this year, will probably be surprised while reading this book. According to the Rotten Tomatoes critics' consensus of the 2020 film, "It's undermined by distracting and unnecessary CGI, but this heartwarming Call of the Wild remains a classic story affectionately told." Much as I compared White Fang to a slasher movie back in 2012, Call of the Wild has some gory scenes, such as the brutal gang murder of Curly early on, or when Buck and his fellow sled dogs fend off some starving, mangy mutts who are after their meat: "Buck got a frothing adversary by the throat, and was sprayed with blood when his teeth sank through the jugular. The warm taste of it in his mouth goaded him to greater fierceness." (218) The scene in the book in which a sled, its passengers and its dogs fall through the ice, killing them all, (250) is a less bloody but no less evocative vision of doom in Jack London's world. (Buck was supposed to be pulling that sled, but John Thornton bought him just in time. The whole scene has a Dion DiMucci during "The Day the Music Died" feel to it.) Buck's killing spree near the end of the book goes unsaid; this apparently was omitted from the new Disney movie.

Like any good dog, Buck responds to Pavlovian conditioning. He initially fails to understand why he is being clubbed, which obviously never happened at his house in Santa Clara, but learns quickly. Later in the book, when he is hungry for a slab of bacon, he takes it when the prospector's back is turned and then lets a less cunning dog take the blame. Buck is most upfront about his learning process when he sees the other dogs keeping warm by burrowing in the snow: "Another lesson. So that was the way they did it, eh?" (210) Buck applies his lessons when his rival, Spitz, is the one receiving the clubbing instead of him.

Buck's lessons turn him wild, in his observations, in his traits, and even in the way his fur feels to the touch. In an uncharacteristic one-liner, London notes: "Mercy was a thing reserved for gentler climes." (228) In contrast to Santa Clara, where Buck was the ruler of the demesne (London's word) and the other dogs seemed barely capable of pulling a popsicle stick wagon, the Klondike turns Buck into a literal ball of energy: "When Thornton passed a caressing hand along his back, a snapping and crackling followed the hand, each hair discharging its pent magnetism at the contact." (270) Buck is shown to be faster and smarter than huskies who had spent their entire lives up north. In these few tender moments, Buck is a true companion, a cross between a pet and a sentinel. London anthropomorphizes Buck most when Buck processes the outside world in a way no other dog can: "Buck possessed a quality that made for greatness - imagination." (228)

My favourite part of Call of the Wild, a scene I'd never heard discussed, is when John Thornton bets on Buck being the strongest dog in the town. Other prospectors bet on their dogs being able to pull 500, 600 or even 700 pounds on a sled; Thornton, in a fit of enthusiasm, bets that Buck can pull 1,000 pounds. (Thornton's overenthusiasm is evident in his failure to bet on 750 or 800. If you ever have a chance to select a teammate for The Price Is Right, don't pick John Thornton.) London tracks each inch of Buck's Herculean effort to pull the sacks of flour. (259-262) The whole time, the reader is spirited away from the harshness of the wild and cold in order to root for Buck.

Eight years later, finally returning to Jack London was even more fun than I thought it would be. Call of the Wild is an extremely fast read, clocking in at about an hour and a half for me, including a break to get my morning coffee. London is nowhere near what 2020 audiences would call politically correct, especially in his treatment of the Yeehats, although in the world of Buck, virtually everyone except him or Thornton is a bad guy anyway. The north is cold and isolating, but a dog like Buck, part hero, part victim, part avenger, finds his home there.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 2





*My edition of Call of the Wild is a two-part compendium that also includes White Fang (1906), which I reviewed back in 2012. Call of the Wild's pages run from 195-278.

2020 has been a fun year for this blog so far. In keeping with my tradition of not reviewing the same author twice in the same calendar year, I've accidentally punted or forgotten some of my favourite authors. During the venerable Book a Week of 2012, I last read H.G. Wells (In the Days of the Comet) and first read Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; I also read The Restaurant at the End of the Universe in 2018).

Last month, I read Life, the Universe and Everything, raising my Douglas Adams count to 3. Earlier this month, I read The Food of the Gods, raising my H.G. Wells count to many more than that, although most of my Wells reading far predates this blog.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

April's Book: The Post-Office Girl

The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig
Literature (1982/2008* - 257 pp.)

The Post-Office Girl follows the life of Christine Hoflehner (b. 1898), a young woman in interwar Austria who lives with her mother in poverty after the family business collapses during World War I. Christine's life is forever changed by an invitation by her mercurial and largely absent aunt, a former dress model who has moved to America and married into money. They vacation together in Switzerland in Part One, after which Christine can no longer be content at the post-office again. Curmudgeonly in her home village in Part Two, where everyone takes note, she soon meets Ferdinand, who may be the love of her life - or play a different role entirely.

One of Zweig's immediate strengths is the way he builds the dark, crushing atmosphere of provincial Austria during and directly after World War I. Only two hours outside Vienna, the veneration of the Habsburgs and the cult of militarism are absent, whereas the reader feels each vivid family crisis: Christine's father's illness and destitution, her brother being drafted, and then, especially, the ominous letter from her brother's commander on the front lines. Much of the first thirty pages discusses the robbery of Christine's childhood, how she brims with simultaneous contempt and jealousy at the carefree nature of the postwar generation, how she feels, at age 28, like her only missions are to work her loathsome job at the post office and to care for her ill mother.

Then her aunt Klara invites her to Switzerland for a vacation. Christine is initially intimidated by the high society she encounters when she leaves the train: "Once shame touches your being at any point, even the most distant nerve is implicated". (36) After Christine's return from Switzerland, her old appearance revolts her to the point that she does not know how she could have ever endured it before: "She got up furiously, got dressed furiously: the old underthings, the repulsive black dress." (153)

A wardrobe and a makeover later, though, she sees herself as their equal because she can look like the people she meets at the hotel. She undergoes a 1930s-era version of What Not to Wear, in which Klara refits her, and then she feels alive: "Now the eyes are quite openly and proudly laughing at her, and the parted red lips seem to acknowledge with amusement: 'Yes, I am beautiful.'" (55) Christine's lack of experience in luxury settings shows when her gambling victory initially confuses her, (80-81) but she also forgets to check her mail from home, showing that she is not succeeding in either of her worlds. The irony that Christine's slight improvement in life upon returning home is due to her gambling winnings is not lost on her.

The greatest question The Post-Office Girl asks, though, is: Who am I? Much as anyone who's taken a high school English course has heard that William Shakespeare mastered "the human condition", Zweig constantly forces his characters to consider their own identities. In turn, the reader does too. In Switzerland, Christine becomes so consumed by discovering how she relates to her suitors, clothes and new name of Christiana van Boolen that "She's discovered herself for the first time in twenty-eight years, and the discovery is so intoxicating she's forgetting everyone else." (91)

When Christine meets thirty-year-old Ferdinand, he is wondering the same thing about himself. He concludes, and she agrees, that staking his own place in life is all that will satisfy him:
Christine was taken aback. The man beside her had just said what she'd been thinking all this time; he'd expressed clearly what she'd dully felt - the wish to be given one's due, not to take anything from anyone, but to have some kind of life, not to be left out in the cold forever while the others were warm inside. (184)
Ferdinand's words near the end of the book show the choice he has to make,** that Christine, by being with him, has to make as well. Whether Christine is at home in her village, which she hates, or in Switzerland at the whim of her aunt and uncle, she is either in thrall to her precarious finances or to the opinions of everyone around her. Ferdinand directly, correctly, associates accomplishment with making one's own decisions:
There [the world] was, so bright and beautiful, so full of warm and sunny life, and there I was, still fairly young and quick and spirited. I reckoned everything up and asked myself what I'd actually accomplished in this world, and the answer was painful. Sad to say, I haven't acted or thought for myself at all. (239)
Zweig's wordsmithing is crisp and witty, especially during Christine's introspections, but parts of the book are dragged down in exposition. A discussion of the future of socialism dominates a portion of Part Two, to the point that after page 191, there is no paragraph break until page 194. Opening the book to pages 192-193 reveals a perfectly rectangular block of text, which would be difficult enough in a science textbook but is eye-popping in fiction.

Sadly, Zweig was never able to see The Post-Office Girl's legacy. Although he wrote The Post-Office Girl in the 1930s, it was not published until 1982, forty years after his death. It has lived on most notably in Wes Anderson's 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is one of my favourite movies of all time.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 4




*I use a double publication date whenever I review a translation. The first date is the original publication; the second date is the English-language edition I'm reading. Recently, I have reviewed three other Central European translations:
My German and Polish are nowhere near advanced enough to read full-length texts like those, especially not an academic history text, so I greatly appreciate the work of the translators whose affinity for multiple languages brings these great works to life for English-speaking audiences.

Aside: All three fiction translations I've read in the past thirteen months take place in the 1920s, at least in part, although all three were written in subsequent decades. After World War I but before the Great Depression, the 1920s left an indelible mark on fiction across continents.

**As much as I would love to write about this part of the book in more detail, I would be violating my (almost) no spoiler policy. I was stunned by the book's last few pages. I hope future readers are just as surprised by the twist as I was.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Happy Earth Day! With Comets and Monkeys!

Once again, April 22nd is Earth Day.

Happy Earth Day!

If there are two things to share, they're uplifting nature photos and wacky environment-related news stories.

I took all of the below pictures today.

Conifers in the background


CNET is reporting that Borisov, a comet, is "strange": Interstellar comet, visiting from deep space, is stranger than we thought

Both studies [Hubble and ALMA] show Borisov is extremely rich in carbon monoxide. It's not strange to find carbon monoxide in a comet, but the levels seen by Hubble and ALMA are off the charts, measuring about three times higher than comets from our home solar system. Because carbon monoxide only freezes at extremely cold temperatures, the research teams suggest it likely formed at the dark, outer edges of a distant star system before being flung toward us.
Comets in our solar system are extremely rare, but we're lucky enough to see Borisov as it enters our solar system, meaning we should be able to see its entire sojourn here. That makes me want to dust off my old telescope...

Rushing river


The month's worth of news on how COVID-19-related self-isolation measures have diminished air pollution appears to have come to a head. Fewer people on the streets also means more wildlife on the streets, as the Associated Press reports: As people stay home, Earth gets wilder and cleaner

As people across the globe stay home to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, the air has cleaned up, albeit temporarily. Smog stopped choking New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world, and India’s getting views of sights not visible in decades. Nitrogen dioxide pollution in the northeastern United States is down 30%. Rome air pollution levels from mid-March to mid-April were down 49% from a year ago. Stars seem more visible at night.

People are also noticing animals in places and at times they don't usually. Coyotes have meandered along downtown Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. A puma roamed the streets of Santiago, Chile. Goats took over a town in Wales. In India, already daring wildlife has become bolder with hungry monkeys entering homes and opening refrigerators to look for food.
As someone who lives in an upper-floor apartment, I have no worry about my building being taken over by goats. My fridge is full, though, thanks to the magic of online grocery ordering, so I may have to monkey-proof.

Macro needles!


Happy Earth Day again.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The COVID-19 Menu So Far

I've been self-isolated for a month today. I haven't entered a store in that time. (Hooray for online groceries!) I haven't been on public transit in that time. Some days, I go little farther than the dumpster outside my apartment building.

I've been reading extensively, although I've only written one review so far. (More to come! Soon!) 

What I have done is cook a lot more recipes that need time to bake, roast, simmer or otherwise absorb all their great flavours. The advantages of being stuck at home...

Chicken leg with okra and maple BBQ seasoning:


Hot dogs with sautéed onions, Dijon mustard and sriracha:


Schnitzel with brown butter sauce:


Moroccan lentil and rice soup:


Cheese dreams:


Bacon mac 'n' cheese:


Black bean curry soup:


May your social distancing be tasty!

Sunday, April 5, 2020

March's Book: Bring the Jubilee

Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore
Alternate History (1953 - 199 pp.)

Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee takes the reader on a wild ride through alternate time: the South wins the Civil War (to the characters, "the War of Southron Independence"), the North becomes an oppressed backwater, abolitionist characters have to hide their views, World War I is drastically different, and Germany (the "German Union") and Spain become superpowers, with a German-Spanish war set to occur at some unknown future date. As if this were not jarring enough, our protagonist, Hodge Backmaker, endures a series of bizarre events including a mugging, six years as a bookseller's assistant punctuated by frequent philosophical discussions, and then over a decade in the Haggershaven think tank, where he obtains permission to use a time machine that he uses to go back to the Civil War. The best summary of the book is its opening line, which is arguably the greatest opening line in mid-20th-century American literature:
Although I am writing this in the year 1877, I was not born until 1921. (1)
Throughout Bring the Jubilee, Moore's characters grapple with the ethics of the alternate world. Backmaker's dissatisfaction with the current (i.e. independent South) order foreshadows his eventual time travel: “Spectator? Why not? Spectators had no difficult decisions to make.” (43) In traveling through time to change history, Backmaker becomes the ultimate participant. Moore, through Backmaker, also praises the value of general knowledge, which was not lost upon the contemporary community of World War II veterans and general business managers: “Specialisation, the division of labour, is certainly not cheap in anything but dollars and cents, and not always then.” (106) The Southern victory, and its attendant survival of slavery, leads America down a race-obsessed path that Moore could see, in our timeline, in Jim Crow laws: “Only the Americans, in the United States and the Confederate States, too, judge everything by colour.” (147) Bring the Jubilee succeeds in alternate history in that it shows the real world (true events) through the telling of a fantastical, non-existent timeline (false events).

Events in the alternate universe between the Civil War and Backmaker's birth are believable and safe rather than distracting from the novel's main points. Although William Jennings Bryan becoming President of the United States is realistic in Moore's alternate timeline, as the Republican Party would no doubt have gone into hibernation if the South had won the Civil War, it is completely unexplained why Bryan's first term would begin in 1896 rather than in 1900. (173) Bryan (Nebraska), William McKinley (Ohio) and Grover Cleveland (New Jersey) were all from the North. Similarly, although Spain as a 20th-century superpower seems farfetched to us now, the lack of a powerful United States means that the Spanish-American War never happens, which combines with Spanish neutrality in World War I to create an at least somewhat plausibly more powerful Spanish Empire: “He [the Spanish diplomat] had patiently pointed out that a Spanish subject was a citizen of a wealthier nation than the United States; as an heiress she could enjoy the luxuries and distractions of Madrid or Havana and eventually make a suitable marriage.” (141)

The failure of the alternate history United States is reflected in the failure of its institutions, a concept that in 1953, when Bring the Jubilee hit the market, would have been utterly terrifying. Moore anticipates later non-fiction authors in having Backmaker's friend and sometime romantic interest Barbara decry the state of American higher education: “The colleges have not only decayed, they have decayed faster than other institutions. They are mere hollow shells, ruined ornaments of the past.” (89-90) If you ascribe to the view William Deresiewicz takes in Excellent Sheep (2014), Moore's line is not alternate history at all. Similarly, as the North is humiliatingly poor but proud to the end, a customer in Roger Tyss's bookshop notes about the poor Northerners: “Necessity makes ‘em have a lottery; Puritanism keeps ‘em from buying tickets.” (67)

As a book of alternate history, Moore meta-analyzes his own work by discussing the nature of historiography itself. An alternate Henry James, who appears as a UK citizen in the court of a fictitious King William V, embraces the sort of nihilism one might expect if the nascent United States had been smashed in the Civil War: "'History,' said Sir Henry [James], who had renounced his United States citizenship and been knighted by William V, 'history is never directed or diverted by well-intentioned individuals; it is the product of forces with geographical, not moral, roots.'" (38) This sentiment reflects Backmaker at the beginning of the novel: a drifting youth who is desperately searching for purpose. Moore later combines philosophy with foreshadowing when he tips off the reader as to the immensely difficult task awaiting Backmaker, to travel in time back to the Civil War: “There are no shortcuts in writing history.” (160)

Backmaker's romantic interests needle him profusely, but sometimes Backmaker needles them back.* Tirzah Vame, one of the earliest friends Backmaker makes upon his arrival in New York City, demonstrates a cynical attitude toward money and one-upmanship. When Backmaker tries to divert her from operating as a paid companion to the few wealthy New Yorkers who remain, she rebuffs him:
“There are other things besides money.”
She [Tirzah] drew away. “That’s what those who can’t get it always say.” (48)
During one of the Haggershaven scenes, when Barbara decides not to write a book, Backmaker's response is hilarious and insightful. As those of us who have written unpublished novels can attest, book writing is not a financially secure endeavour. Backmaker goes one step further in decrying the waste of writing materials:
‘Hodge,’ she [Barbara] said, her grey eyes greenish with excitement, ‘I’m not going to write a book.’
‘That’s nice,’ I answered idly. ‘Saves paper, time, ink.’ (149)
Backmaker marries another of Haggershaven's residents, Catalina "Catty" Garcia, a shy but extremely intelligent woman a few years younger than him. When they confess their love for each other, a moment that figures prominently in Backmaker's memoirs, he notes: “The shock of desire was a weight on my chest, expelling the air from my lungs.” (145) One of the book's tragedies, of which there are many, is that travelling back in time costs Backmaker the rest of his married life.**

One of Moore's underappreciated talents is his ability to invent characters' names. Surnames like Pondible and Backmaker sound realistic, but a Google search of either shows no one with either last name; accordingly, no real-life reader can have that name. A Back-maker is apparently "a trade useful to brewers", according to Malachy Postlethwayt's The Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, Volume 1 (1774), though. For those less inclined toward complete fabrication, this list of extinct surnames is useful for everything from good uses like writing novels to bad uses like making fake IDs (or, if you agree with Backmaker, writing novels).

Moore's influence is felt, as in other places, in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), Another scenario I've looked at on here include Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt (2002). What all these authors do is say "how would people respond to living in a world that, for some key reason, is radically different from our own?" In The Man in the High Castle, the mechanics of how Germany and Japan partition the United States are irrelevant; what is important is the way in which they, as well as the Americans and the British, all act so reprehensibly that the reader is left queasy about the Americans' attitudes toward dropping the bomb. The Man in the High Castle is about moral relativism, not U-boat strike capabilities. In The Years of Rice and Salt, reincarnation occurs as an obvious alternative when most of Christian civilization is wiped out; precisely how the Black Death kills 99% of Europe is beyond the point. Similarly, if the South winning the Civil War in Bring the Jubilee seems unrealistic, consider that the other main storyline involves time travel. I, personally, view time travel as less realistic than the South winning the Civil War, but to each their own. The fact that the HX-1 time machine's physics are completely unexplained (165) is an asset, not a liability; the reader's focus remains on the ethical and political struggles the characters face.

The only qualm I have with Bring the Jubilee is how late in the novel Backmaker travels through time. The stunning visuals of the Civil War battlefield are relegated to the last 10% of the book, which spends far more time in Tyss's bookshop and Haggershaven. Although the characters' philosophical debates challenge the reader, the reader is left to eventually wonder: "When will we see the Civil War already?" much like a child during a long car ride asking "Are we there yet?" Backmaker's seemingly trivial actions during this time alter the course of history irreparably, locking him into the past, and leading to Backmaker's observation that shows at once the climax and the denouement:
A poisoned continent, an inheritance of hate. Because of me. (193)
Read in 2020, Bring the Jubilee becomes even more labyrinthine. Hodge Backmaker is born in an alternate 1921, lives out the years 1921-1952 in an impoverishment rump state, then turns an alternate 1863 into our actual 1863, and then, finally, writes his memoirs in the real 1877. When Bring the Jubilee was published, a real-life Hodge Backmaker was the age I am now. Backmaker in an alternate 2020, if he had somehow missed the opportunity to travel through time, would be almost a century old, writing memoirs of a world we could barely fathom but that, in some small way, would remind us of our own.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 1***





*The arch-example of romantic needling is probably F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, which was released during the same year Ward Moore turned 17. I have not seen any extant interview or diary in which Moore notes having read This Side of Paradise, but the latter's jittery banter would not be a surprising influence on Moore. Contrast Philip K. Dick openly discussing Bring the Jubilee in the acknowledgments to the first edition of The Man in the High Castle.

**Contrast Richard Matheson's Somewhere in Time (1975/1980), in which the protagonist has a doomed love life in 1971 but meets the love of his life almost immediately upon traveling back to 1896. It is highly likely Matheson read Bring the Jubilee, as Matheson's "Born of Man and Woman" and Bring the Jubilee itself were both published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in the early '50s.

***Alternate history is, by definition, the one genre in which the author must be describing falsehoods. While other genres may include events that are wildly unrealistic, the question What if reality were different? presupposes events that have a probability of zero. This leads to the conclusion that realistic-seeming, but false, past events have the same probability (zero) as fantastical past events. For example, I didn't go grocery shopping yesterday, rendering the phrase "I went grocery shopping yesterday" completely, 100% false. I also didn't ride a dragon yesterday. The phrases "I went grocery shopping yesterday" and "I rode a dragon yesterday" are equally false regardless of how likely they might have been if I'd been able to run a hundred simulations of my life. Real life isn't a series of simulations, though; it only gets one iteration. Keep that in mind when you read alternate history. Even the most realistic possible deviation from the course is just as likely as dragons.