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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Review: Seeing Red

Seeing Red
The True Story of Blood
Tanya Lloyd Kyi
Annick Press

As this book is difficult to summarize, I’ll put the primary information up front and follow with details.  Seeing Red is about all things blood, from superstitions to science, from rites to transfusions.  The material is fascinating but loosely related.  Tying all of this disparate material together is a cartoon character, Harker, whom we follow as he learns about blood, runs into vampires.  He has to decide if he wants to join them; meanwhile, the police are hot on their trail after a vampire attacks a man.

Harker makes notes at the end of each chapter--a clever way of reinforcing, reviewing, applying and thinking more deeply about what readers learned.  The author laudably expends much effort on trying to introduce readers to customs through history and around the world, providing a great deal of scope.  Occasional if inadvertent and indirect opining might make some religions or cultures uncomfortable, but the treatments are so minor, cursory, and broad in scope that most won’t notice.  This is recommended for young people with a fascination for the weird and grotesque, young goths in training.  Readers will have a better picture of where we came up some of our ideas about blood.  Even I, who thought he something about blood, was surprised by how his knowledge transformed.

Seeing Red opens with a historical perspective, illustrating some of the stranger notions humans have had.  For instance, while Galen of Turkey noted blood circulated through the body, he assumed it carried aspects of the person’s personality.  Even into the Middle Ages, medical ideas of the Egyptians and Greeks persisted, leading to blood-letting.  Not until the 1800s with microscopic examination of pus did humans begin to see blood differently.

Next, we see how blood played an integral part in ancient and current religions. The Mayans who used royal blood for harvests and the Aztecs were famously brutal in their open-heart surgeries.  Of course, brutality knew no bounds as we venture to France where the marrow houses the soul and heads of your enemies make nice knick-knacks for your home.  But blood plays a role in today’s religions as well:  in India, in the Catholic church communion, in Santeria and in a Shiite Muslim ritual celebrating a doomed battle.

From there we proceed to rites of passage where in Papua New Guinea young men go through rites to rid themselves of their mother’s blood.  Elsewhere: whipping matches in West Africa and tattoos in Polynesia, lion baiting in Africa, and literally pinning wings to your chest in the US military.

When girls, on the other hand, have periods, in some countries they are treated like goddesses or in others as dirty and disobedient to God.  The isolation can either be seen as punishment or a break from daily duties. Menstrual blood has been seen as protective, healing and poisonous.

People around the world--from England to China to the Arctic--eat blood.  The book points out we eat meat with blood, so why do we balk at eating blood?  While some religions ban its consumption, many insects and animals do.  We also have an unstated psychological law of contagion where we believe something is blessed or diseased, depending on whether it touched something we admire or fear.  And of course, vampires continue to interest modern readers as much as the Victorians.

The first transfusion took place in 1664, to calm a man, thinking as Galen did that blood carried personality.  The man survived but subsequent attempts failed.  Not until the 1900s did transfusions occur scientifically, but even today we hide donor identities to prevent people from feeling connections because of the blood.

Royal blood, or genetics, is discussed to introduce indirectly concepts of recessive genes, which can plague (so to speak) a family with genetic diseases as royal families intermarried to keep their royal blood “pure.”  This allows a simple discussion of porphyria and hemophilia.  Genetic deficiencies may have affected governments and upheavals from Russia to England.

Blood was also used rites to become blood brothers, to join gangs, and to earn blessings.  The idea of blood was also used by Hitler and friends to make a pure Aryan race.  Still their process involved superstition as when a Jewish doctor donated his own blood to a German, he was punished (the blood source, and not the type, being held importance).

Blood has been used to tell the parents of switched babies, identify murderers and innocent, decide how the murder occurred, among other forensic evidence.  One can even tell if they’re related to Ghengis Khan.

Does violence in video games cause violence?  Romans of the empire days worried the same.  Warnings actually encourage viewing.  Fainting at the sight of blood might have occurred because it protected people from enemies who thought them dead.

The book concludes with sources for further reading.  Recommended.  The target audience is probably older elementary to high school.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review: The Book of Why

The Book of Why
A Novel
Nicholas Montemarano
Little, Brown and Company

The narrator in The Book of Why is the former author of self-help books, the underlying philosophy of which is that people are responsible for their circumstances because of how they think about them.  Negative thoughts beget negative circumstances.  It's not just psychological situations but literal, physical ones, too.  People need to be thankful so the universe will reward them. But when the narrator lost his wife, a wife who seems not to be as convinced by what her husband teaches, the self-help author retires and hides away, lying when people ask him his name.  But a woman, a stranger who was helped by his books, has sought him out to bring him back.

I am certified to teach a certain self-help author's material, much of which is useful--attitudes that successful people often employ--but a peripheral item or two kept bumping into me that I was less certain of.   The self-help guru gave me a website of daily mystical encouragement, the mystical content of which did not make sense until I read this novel, The Book of Why.  

The book was marketed to me as a self-help novel that selected me.  The initial scenario pulled me in, and the previous marital difference in attitude and subsequent declining belief in his own books intrigued me.  I expected/anticipated a feel-good ending that would renew my faith in humanity and faith itself.  

Instead, despite occasions where characters find help in self-help, readers are confronted with a litany of questions that are never addressed as the narrator's readers write in non-antagonistic, earnest questions:  Why did this happen? Why that?  It then rattles off past book wisdom that sometimes is useful, sometimes contradictory.  Surprisingly for me who expected self-help, these are all presented in a literary manner (the author bio perhaps intimates the author's interests although it's possible I am mistaken).  While the ending does not pay off in an emotional or story sense, it does so intellectually.  Despite the acknowledgement of Deepak Chopra, I suspect this novel is meant as self-help for those addicted to or disillusioned by self-help.  As my time for reviewing this is limited, I'll forgo a rereading, but such might pay off.

After writing this review, I found the author's website and this article which appears to validate my reading.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Review: Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing

David Farland’s Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing points out that people talk about resonance without telling what that is.  Farland first defines resonance.  Next, he demonstrates how works can resonate with art, titles, names, quotations, movies, operas, other literature, settings, motifs, characters, real people, emotions, common or universal experiences, social conditions, and within a work itself.   J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings becomes his case study, discussing how Tolkien draws upon mythology and such to resonate.

If you’d like to read more of his writing advice, he has an entire blog of such on his website.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: Nightingale by David Farland

Like The Golden Queen, Nightingale ramps up the speculation to deeper and wilder speculations.  The Kindle is enhanced with sequential art illustrations (and music apparently, but I have an older Kindle, so that doesn’t work).  If you enjoyed Stephen Gould’s YA novel Jumper, Nightingale is likely to appeal.  Where Jumper is systematic in its uncovering of powers,  Nightingale’s speculation unveils like a mystery.  (Readers, who do not care for YA point of view, may not want to read this.)

Nightingale thrusts the reader immediately with Sommer, a masaak, fleeing three mastiffs and a Draghoul.  While she is able to overcome the mastiffs by calming them mentally, she is unable to do so to the Draghoul, a minion of Lucius, who wants to know where her child is.  She doesn’t recall having a child.  The memory must been erased.  The Draghoul promises to hold the lives of her family hostage unless she helps them find the child.

Sixteen years later, Bron is shuffled to another foster home; finally, he finds a home with Olivia, a woman who senses who Bron is, what his potential is, though she doesn’t yet know his abilities might.  Despite the danger of drawing Draghouls to her and her masaak family, Olivia decides to adopt.  Meanwhile, she teaches him how to act kingly and how to play guitar professionally in one night--one night of working his memories while he slept fitfully.  Years as an unwanted foster child left scars on Bron, so Olivia extracts harmful memories.

When they go shopping for clothes, they run into five Draghouls who threaten them but back down when Bron employs his newly learned acting skills to fool them who he is.  However, they figure out the ruse and pursue.  After an accident, not only are the Draghoul in pursuit, combing the schools, so are the police.  None of this helps Bron when the police suspect him in the disappearance of his neighbor, Galadriel, a pretty girl his age.

Bron attends school where he’s immediately entangled in a love triangle, with a rival that’s out to get him--a rival who coincidentally is the police officer’s son who came to investigate Galadriel’s disappearance.  Meanwhile, Draghouls stop by to check if Bron is registered to attend classes here.

Then Bron learns of his talent--a rare and dangerous one.  He had done something to the girl that brought her close to death.  After a visit to the Weigher of Souls, he realizes this battle has lasted far longer than he could have imagined.

From there, it only gets cooler.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Review: Nightingale Songs

David Farland threw a writing contest for stories in his Nightingale universe.  Nightingale Songs 1 and 2 represent the winning entries, written by S. James Nelson and Gabriela Martinez, the first set in the future and the second in an Arthurian past.  Both are competent stories and both capture their settings well. 

Also included in each set is a Farland story.  “Mooncalfe” I reviewed here.  The other, “Against Eternity,” is an experimental tale written in the second person, future tense.  It creates an oddly prophetic tone about a future body in body armor on a future ship thrust into a future war.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Review: From Iron to Car

From Iron to Car 
Shannon Zemlicka
Lerner Publishing Group
Lerner Publications
Target Audience:  Grade K-3

This book traces the process of manufacturing a car from the iron to the car itself.  The pictures are fantastic--the molten ore, the shaped steel, melding of shape to shape--giving a sense of insider knowledge on the process.

The scientist in me, however, desires a few more details--such as why do they add limestone and charcoal to the iron ore?  A sentence might give readers insight or at least an early glimpse into the chemical processes occurring.  But maybe this might be asking too much for younger readers.

The book is ideal for the young who can't get enough of cars.  Scientific aspects will need to be brought in from outside the book.  The back of the book includes a glossary of new vocabulary used.

Friday, January 25, 2013

On Writing and Creativity

The New, a new magazine (FB)

New course in Fantasy and SF by Eric Rabkin at Coursera 
As  well as one on scientific thinking
Cartoonist, Lynda Barry (fascinating, humorous talk on creativity and imagery)
Overlap with similar anecdotes:  Writing to Remember
Max Sebald's writing rules

21 Woman Writers to know

6 things prose writers might learn from screen writers

25 truths about publishing
Thought on numbered posts -- While often intriguing, usually supporting examples do not occur in these articles, which would help seal the information for readers.
Farland on going from idea to story

Benjamin Rosenbaum on The Hobbit film (good for complex narrative reasoning)

John Langan on Horror

Michel Kelly interview

Theodora Goss's Fairy Tale class

Michael Swanwick on James Branch Cabell

Science Stories Prize fighters Support

What it's like on an orbiting space station lab:

Russia to the moon

DNA information-storage

Anti-aging baby

Coughing duration

David Brin revisits his idea of following prophesies to find who's prophetic (as well as what, when, where, why)

We are still stuck in high school:
[T]he prefrontal cortex has not yet finished developing in adolescents.... This explains why adolescents are such notoriously poor models of self-­regulation, and why they’re so much more dramatic.... [E]verything an adolescent does... [and] feels—is just a little bit more intense. And you never get back to that intensity.... Puberty... is everyone’s first experience of a sentient madness.
Why older brains don't remember

5 Historic Misconceptions
Stories to read or hear

Flannery O'Conner's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" read by ol' Flannery herself.

Small Beer podcast of Kij Johnson's story

Online story from Richard Parks

Prize fighters future and present
Story Prize finalists

Philip K. Dick Award finalists

Books to look for in 2013

More books to look for (same year, different site: IO9)

Glitter and Madness anthology

World SF Travel Fund

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Review: Norse Greenland by Jared Diamond

Norse Greenland
A Controlled Experiment in Collapse
Jared Diamond
Penguin Penguin Books

When Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Jared Diamond, wrote Collapse, it became a cornerstone book about humanity’s role in the collapse of various civilizations.  He lists a number of environmental causes:  deforestation, habitat destruction, soil (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per-capita impact of people.  He also mentions other causes:  climate change, hostile neighbors, and friendly trading partners.  The concept behind Collapse is that examining other civilizations that collapsed will help us today as we face new environmental challenges.

The Penguin excerpt from Collapse, Norse Greenland, takes out three chapters, which is more substantial than it sounds--a thin book in and of itself.  It covers the basics of the Vikings, the flowering period, and their demise.

“The Viking Prelude and Fugues” treats their successful expansion, agriculture, importance of iron, political organization, religion, and a short history of Vinland.  The Norse were “push/pulled” by available lands and population growth.  Diamond describes this as an autocatalytic process which brings profit and discoveries that began in 793 AD.  1066 AD describes the end of the process due to an end to easy conquering.  The Norse colonists continued their European values on lands that did not support such values (such as cows although sheep and goats did better in their new lands--goats, the least popular, did best). 

Eventually, pagan Norse converted to Christianity.  The effect of this brought European values (even down to clothing that did not fit the weather) as bishops imposed values that prevented the Norse from adapting the ways of the Inuit, who had adapted to life in Greenland thousands of years earlier.  The Inuit had several technologies (kayaks, whale harpooning, and seal killing) not available to the Norse, which might have aided their survival.  

Iceland serves of a case where a Norse colony could have survived although they did not have Inuit to compete with.  Iceland soil was ash that easily exposed to erosion due to flooding, sheep or farmers.  Initially, the Norse treated the land as they would have in Norway.  To survive, they had to adapt and manage the land conservatively.

The Norse traveled to Greenland during a “warm” period, deceiving colonists into what was normal for the area (this illustrates Diamond’s idea of climate change delivering a blow to civilization).  During cold periods, rich farmers supported the poor but at a cost.  The Greenland Norse also did not eat as much fish their contemporary Norse.  Why not?  While it remains a mystery, Diamond proposes that intestinal organisms, bacteria or protozoa, caused food poisoning.

Greenland was poor in tar lubricants, iron, and lumber for furniture.  These and other items were imported in exchange for sealskins, polar bear furs, and walrus tusks for carving.  This was done during the summer came at the expense of their working  land or getting lumber.  Iron processing required more wood than was available in Greenland.  They had to use bone and spend more time working than they might have had they processed iron.  Diamond suggests that the Greenlanders would have done better to import more iron to protect themselves for their inevitable clash with the Inuit.  Moreover, Vikings were notoriously inhospitable to those different to them, killing eight of nine native Americans when colonizing Vinland.  Possibly, trade could have improved the Norse Greenlanders’ lot financially and nutritively. 

Even so, Norway became less interested in Greenland’s walrus ivory because the Asia trade routes opened back up, and ivory fell out of fashion.  The Norse ate their dog and the cows down to the hooves.  Mysteriously, the Norse remains have not been found.  Diamond explains that perhaps they were given Christian burial when discover.

Probably, more set up would aid a reader to Diamond’s purposes, such as begins Collapse, summarized above.  Nonetheless, the excerpt is self-contained and gives the reader good sampling of Collapse without having to read the entire work.  Other readers might be interested only in Viking culture and the ecological conditions for the farmers who colonized Greenland.  Whether for an illustration of civilization collapse or cultural drawbacks for Viking colonists, this Diamond excerpt or “single” should prove useful.  Other readers seeking greater breadth may want to seek the original.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Review: Creatures of Light by Karin Rita Gastreich

In Creatures of Light, Selenia is in love (lust?) with Master Nicholas, a sailor with a woman in every port.  When he returns with an animal for her to use in her study of poisons, they embrace in passion.  You suspect you are in well trodden historical fantasy romance territory.  But then you learn she's been married since fifteen to kindly gentleman who set her up in the university and she's okay with his other lovers.  It's not until she needs to test out her new poison that you realize what the author means by the opening quote:
"I have been familiar with the face of these monsters so long that I have even learnt to love them." --W D Hudson, The Naturalist in La Plata
 The despicability may fascinate some readers, impelling them to read on; however, the story is soon over leaving readers with more of a Day-in-the-Life-of-Selenia than a story.  This ought to be enough to know if this story is for you.  Likely, if this leads to a novel, this will hook them to read on.

Another popular book (according to reviews) is her first novel, Eolyn.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Interview: Christopher Barzak on "Birthday"

Aqueduct Press
ISBN: 978-1-61976-014-1 (13 digit)
Publication Date: 8/1/2012
(paperback) 96 pages

QIn “Birthday” (possibly a new classic of the field) I’m still puzzling over how you took a woman I ought to despise and make me feel deeply for her. A landlady snoops in other people’s apartments, evicts them because of her embarrassment of her own actions, and then abandons not only her family but the other apartments she ran to. How’d you do that? What was your revision process or major difficulty of this piece? Am I mistaken to think that the nuance in the story was difficult to come by? If so, how?
BarzakThis is one of my favorite stories of the bunch, so I'm really pleased that you liked it so much. Especially because the narrator, Emma, really does have a lot of things going against her in terms of readers who have been trained to have to "like" a character in order to empathize with their plight. She's does a lot of things that, if we were to encounter her in "real life," would put us off of her. But reading fiction for me is different from "real life." I don't need to "like" characters in order to be interested in them. Fiction is a safe place to get closer to people who you wouldn't want to be close to in your daily life. And it's a place where you might come to understand people who you might find horrible or off-putting in real life. It's one of the things that fiction does, I think, or can do: open up a space for compassion that we might not allow ourselves to have open so readily in daily life because it makes you vulnerable to not have boundaries. So for me, as I wrote from Emma's point of view, I wanted to explore the nature of identity, and how it's this thing that holds us together and gives us shape, but that it's also something that we actively shape, even if we're not aware of ourselves doing it as we do it. Emma's situation was one that elicited innate sympathy from me immediately: she's a very young woman who has lost her entire family in her early twenties and has no one and nothing else in her life beyond the apartment building she inherits, and the people who live within it. What she's really trying to do throughout the story is to create a new life for herself, but she doesn't know how to do it. She makes a lot of mistakes on the way to finding or making the self that makes her happy, which is someone she was before her world was changed so radically, and she hurts a lot of people along the way, including herself. If she didn't get to a place of self-actualization by the end, I probably would have been left with a distaste for her, but she's someone who (I think is evident) is trying hard and doesn't intend to hurt others and wants to make good once she's in a place in her life where she's more capable of doing that. I think this isn't so different from real life people, actually. I think most of us are trying hard and don't purposefully want to hurt others, and want to make good when we're capable of making good. In order to make a character like this, who is both unlikable and yet somehow sympathetic, I felt like I had to be as compassionate to her as I wrote from her point of view as I would be for myself or someone I care about a great deal. I had to suspend judgment. And this is something that she brings up to the reader at the end of her story. She knows what she's done and she knows that her character is now in the hands of the reader and she even understands if they can't find her forgivable. I think it's something about narrative that a reader does, as we do in life: we judge as we're taking in the details of another person's actions. Sometimes we judge without trying to understand them, though.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Interview: Christopher Barzak on his essay "Re-Membering the Body: Reconstructing the Female in Surrealism”

Aqueduct Press
ISBN: 978-1-61976-014-1 (13 digit)
Publication Date: 8/1/2012
(paperback) 96 pages

QMy review [forthcoming from SF Site] attempts to tackle deconstruction as it sometimes seems problematic. Do you see any problems with deconstruction? What’s your take?

Barzak:  I don't really have a take on deconstruction. I studied it as a theoretical way of writing about reading in grad school, but it wasn't what I thought of as the most useful or even interesting way to write about the experience of reading. Most of the time deconstructive criticism seems to miss a lot of things, or to make assumptions. I don't feel like the essay I wrote at the end of Birds and Birthdays is a deconstruction of the paintings I was working with, but more of an observation of a pattern I noticed (and that others have noticed, I saw, through my research) as I looked at a lot of Surrealist art over a period of years. I don't think the male artists intended to exclude women, but I do think it's something they undeniably did. It's similar to the way that many people don't understand the nature of privilege because they've been born privileged, and they assume everyone has the exact same opportunities in life as they have, and if someone hasn't made something of themselves then it's their own fault and maybe they need to work harder, etc. When in reality, I know a lot of people who work hard, really hard, and nothing comes of it but a crappy paycheck and the person they work for has inherited a business or was given a great sum of money from family wealth that allowed them to basically start out on third base from the beginning. That sort of thing is something people don't see--they assume everyone has the same start in life, but they don't, and this does affect one's ability to move through social and economic classes. I think for the men within the Surrealist movement, they were working from a cultural template where women were the wives and mothers in general, and this was simply something that they couldn't see because it was so normalized. They saw a lot of other things about their culture that they wanted to change, but I think this just wasn't one of the things they were able to see very clearly. I don't think it means they're horrible people, or that they excluded women intentionally. But it was there.

For me, deconstruction is a tool of reading applied to a particular painting or a piece of writing or some other readable/interpretable text. I don't think I did that, really, in my essay. I think I was mainly tracing a gender relationship pattern or dynamic I saw as I researched the Surrealist movement itself, both in how women weren't given space in exhibitions and how not one woman's signature was included in the famous manifesto, and how the female body was employed, over and over, in Surrealist iconography in a way that the male form simply wasn't subjected to. I hope that my observations on that pattern don't minimize the artwork of the men, though. I mainly wanted to point it out, and to hopefully direct some attention to the work of the women working on the margins of the Surrealist circles their male friends, lovers and husbands or brothers inhabited as central figures.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Interview: Christopher Barzak on the Not Chosen One

Aqueduct Press
ISBN: 978-1-61976-014-1 (13 digit)
Publication Date: 8/1/2012
(paperback) 96 pages

Story available online

QIn “Guardian of the Egg” we have a witness to wonder--not the person to whom the magic occurs, but the brother. Probably, like Watson to Sherlock Holmes, the brother helps us experience the mystery as an outsider. And yet we are outside the wonder, which is rarely where a speculative reader wants to be. What are the pitfalls of such a narrative, and how do writers avoid them?

BarzakYes, a lot of spec-fic readers want the wonder to be something experienced firsthand by the protagonist of the story. But I'm a fan of "peripheral narrators" like Nick in The Great Gatsby, someone who is telling a story about what they're witnessing. My narrator in "The Guardian of the Egg" isn't a key player, even though he wants to be. It's his sister's story, and in some ways I think he's jealous of what she's experiencing. She's kind of a girl goddess. Her story of transformation is something he wants for himself in a way, but she's the one experiencing this event and part of his own transformation is learning that, you know what, it's not always about you. Sometimes it's someone else's story, and you're in the periphery, and if you are observant enough, you might learn something from watching. I think one of the things about a lot of fantasy or science fiction narrative that kind of irks me is how there is a lot of weight put on narrators who are always these "chosen ones". Only I can save the world. Only I was born with this incredibly unique power and no one understands me because of it, but that's okay, I'm going to do what I have to do, because I'm the hero. There are all kinds of people on the periphery of those stories, just like in life, and I think it's useful to write from outside of the "chosen one" mentality because, honestly, most of us aren't the chosen one. Most of us are schlepping to work and paying bills and trying to have a good relationship with partners and friends and family, etc., and while it would be totally awesome if we were the chosen one, sometimes we're just us, and that's okay too.

I'm not sure how to avoid the pitfalls of that kind of narrative, other than to make sure that even if your narrator or protagonist, however peripheral to the really awesome wondrous magical stuff, is still able to experience in some way. I think that means actively engaging with whatever strangeness is occurring, rather than just simply slouching in a corner.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Interview: Christopher Barzak on "The Creation of Birds"

Aqueduct Press
ISBN: 978-1-61976-014-1 (13 digit)
Publication Date: 8/1/2012
(paperback) 96 pages

QIt's been a month since I first read the collection. I suspect my ranking them must have been in the order they appeared, based on the wild strangenesses encountered, but I reversed this, in part, after I reread it. I accepted that I didn't understand the relationship at first ("The Creation of Birds"), but on the second read l wondered what was up: Was their relationship like that of Zeus and Hera, where we mere mortals cannot fathom what holds them together? Or am I missing the boat?
BarzakI think the comparison with Zeus and Hera is a useful one here. When I was creating the relationship between the Star Catcher and The Bird Woman in "The Creation of Birds" I wanted to achieve two things, specifically, in the dynamics of their affair. Thing 1 was to create an air of epic or mythic archetypal drama between them, as if their relationship was something cosmic and beyond human love affairs. Thing 2 was to use details that were immediately relatable to contemporary human love dramas. In other words, I wanted their relationship to feel both archetypal and familiar to readers at the same time. So their relationship has mythic qualities and mundane qualities as well.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Interview: Christopher Barzak on the Story Fount of the Surreal

Aqueduct Press
ISBN: 978-1-61976-014-1 (13 digit)
Publication Date: 8/1/2012
(paperback) 96 pages

QWhere do your ideas for surreal stories come from? surrealist paintings mentioned in your essay? dreams? wordplay? misunderstandings? Do they arrive whole? Or do you milk them to see what greater speculations you can squeeze out?

Barzak:  Well, in the specific stories in Birds and Birthdays, much of the imagery comes from the paintings I used for inspiration. But the imagery I responded to in those paintings and used in my stories also led me to originate some of my own, as I wrote the stories. So in that way I "milked them to what greater speculations I could squeeze out of them." In other stories of mine that aren't written directly in response to paintings, I tend to arrive at my images and visions from all of the ways you suggested. Dreams, wordplay especially, misunderstandings and misreadings of things in my daily life in general.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Interview: Christopher Barzak on the Appeal of the Surreal

Aqueduct Press
ISBN: 978-1-61976-014-1 (13 digit)
Publication Date: 8/1/2012
(paperback) 96 pages

Q: From the first story, your vision immediately enthralled me: a woman who makes birds, a man who catches stars, a girl with a mission to protect an egg and a tree growing out of her head. What attracts you to such visions?

Barzak: I'm interested in dream imagery and visions from the subconscious mind. I always have been. There's something about surreal imagery and visions that is fresh compared to so much of fantasy iconography that has become encoded by the fantasy writing and art industry's iconography. I'm not excited to see paintings or stories about elves or dragons very much, unless they've been incredibly rendered in some way that I may not even recognize them as such. Likewise with the tradition epic fantasy worlds that are lush and green and heavily mountained and rivered, etc. They're pastoral and that's fine, but they're sort of nostalgic in a way that bores me. I find the freshest fantasy I read or see is non-conventional, non-traditional, because they haven't been assimilated into popular culture yet, defined and made easily accessible in regard to what they mean. As a writer, when I originate or work with someone else's personal fantasy iconography, it's a way for me to explore that imagery rather than to employ it in the conventional way that the fantasy genre tends to take pre-fab settings and situations and characters and employ them to do what they've unfortunately been used to do over and over already, like windup toys.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"Weeping Czar" by Ken Scholes

Czar Frederico weeps.  He's lost his twelfth wife, one he love well. As women prepare themselves to be number thirteen, Frederio receives a silver sliver that connects him to some dream world where he meets the woman who stops his weeping and makes him want to marry again.  He sends men all over the world to find her.  They worry that they are only dreams--until Frederico investigates something his people have long forbidden.  Not only are they correct, but also for a thousand years, a war's been brewing.

This may be may favorite of his Scholes' stories.

Author Interviews

Ellen Datlow

Brian Evenson interview

Paul di Filippo

George Saunders interview

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Writers, Writing, Free, Movies, Art, Science, Philosophy and Education

Writers and Writing:
Kristine Ong Muslim sample from her collection, We Bury the Landscape.

  • Be one of the annoying cool kids to discover her before everyone else, and you'll say, "Oh, yeah. You mean you haven't read her?"

Free ebooks:
David Farland story

Islamic SF

Film about writer Jay Lake's life & fight against cancer (Kickstarter/support)
Jay Lake has stage IV cancer and has a fundraiser for new treatment.
Petition to restore missing 25-min to Clive Barker's Nightbreed

Art and Artists (one's a fine writer, too)
Waiter Kevin Fair turns your guest checks into art

Mark Ferrari's art, writing and blog
Science, Philosophy and Education:
Giant squid

Future travelers to Mars may have to have psychological toughness.

Brain implant for depression.

The probable improbable?

Interesting link says, "[M]any students abandon their pursuit of science and engineering majors [because t]heir professors are grading too hard."
Comment: What this link doesn't show (and what I tell students) is that while students may get lower grades here, they may get higher pay/demand outside of college.  
On Social Media (gives partial perspective on where our electronic culture is headed):

"One Small Step" by Ken Scholes

Aeon Speculative Fiction

Chimps have been modified to enhanced intelligence.  Helen wonders if Mike, their English teacher, is God.  The other chimps want clothing and weapons.  Mike want to prevent planet of the apes.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Gregory Benford on SF, technology, romance, and marriage

"Remember also that science fiction is to technology as romance novels are to marriage:  a delicious form of propaganda."
--Gregory Benford from his collection, Anomalies

Review: Shakespeare on Toast

Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard
Ben CrystalIcon Books

Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard opens with Shakespeare’s importance to language (neologisms and common phrases) and film (sixteen in 2005 alone), but he also points out that the work of Shakespeare, a man of humble birth, wrote 95% of whose words we use, making his work more accessible than an episode of The West Wing.  wants Shakespeare to be acted before dissected. Shakespeare had not sought to print them but to show them.  Also, since visual images would be rare, viewers in his time would have used their imaginations and seen the actions were more real than those of us who require CGI to visualize reality.  Moreover, the plays--comedy or tragedy--ended in a dance with the living and dead, friends and enemies dancing together to show that they had seen a play.

The author feels it is a crime to update Shakespeare’s language as it excises the poetry.  He emphasizes this by discussing how knowing thee/thou are informal, and the iambic pentameter put in the mouths of kings and queens.  The meter, moreover, showed where it should be stressed (or where it was broken to a purpose not unlike jazz), showing changes mood and emotion.

Next, the author puts Shakespeare into context in terms of political and social history.  He tries to put readers in the minds of the 17th  century--kings chosen by God, the danger and reality of witches.

The commentary here should prove a powerful introduction to Shakespeare.  Will this woo otherwise recalcitrant readers of Shakespeare?  Maybe.  Some readers will always balk, but maybe his idea of viewing the plays before reading them would have a stronger impact on bringing in fans of Shakespeare into the fold.  The author admits that he also was once not a fan.

While the first half works to convince readers to be fans (discussed above), the latter half is for the rest of us, showing context, language and some basic patterns to poetry that give deeper insight into the Shakespeare’s works.  This book is recommended for those who are wondering what the big deal’s about, for those who already are fans but not academics, and for teachers of Shakespeare who intend to introduce Shakespeare. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Gregory Benford on ideas

"I don't understand why people [a]re frightened of new ideas; I'm more frightened by the old ones.  On to the next idea!
"But ideas aren't everything."
--Gregory Benford from his collection, Anomalies

"Hibakusha Dreaming in the Shadowy Land of Death" by Ken Scholes

Japanese Dreams

After WWII, Japanese gods gather in for psychotherapy.  Disillusioned, Kintaro breaks down and kills fifteen.  Their therapist, an amnesiac, slowly regains memory until he knows what to do.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"The Santaman Cycle" by Ken Scholes


An experimental prose piece focusing on loss and regaining faith in a surreal fantastic Santa Claus.

Walter Jon Williams on style and story?

“Our Sarah has style....  Style and discipline.  You are to give it form, to fashion it.  Her style must be a weapon, a shaped charge.  You will make it, I will point it.  And Sarah will punch a hole right where we intend she should.”  
--Walter Jon Williams, Hardwired,

Friday, January 11, 2013

Guy Davenport on the pleasure of and ideas for writing

DAVENPORT: As long as you have ideas you can keep going. That's why writing fiction is so much fun, because you're moving people about, and making settings for them to move in, so there's always something there to keep working on..

--Guy Davenport, The Art of Fiction No. 174, Paris Review

"Into the Blank Where Life is Hurled" by Ken Scholes

Writers of the Future Volume XXI

In hell, William Hodgson, a reporter, and Houdini travel to the Ear, in order to talk into it.  However, Hodgson fears Houdini might remember what he'd done to him, so he travels under an assumed name.

They encounter a howler disguised as a small boy crying and holding his own head.  The fallen seem to have designs of their own.  They want Hodgson to bind Houdini again.  But the victory is hollow.

A story of reconciliation and renewal.  As always, charming voice and scenario, full of heart.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Household Management" By Ellen Klages

Strange Horizons, 02 November 2012


What was a certain landlady like--landlady of a famous detective?  Might she be up to more than an excitable old lady?

"A Good Hair Day in Anarchy" by Ken Scholes

Lone Star Stories, June 2005
Best of the Rest 4:  Best Unknown Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2005

Ed, a barber in New Texas, is visited by Kid Jackson, who claims to have found outlaw Slope Dobins here in Anarchy.  Ed and the Marshall take to the Kid to the bar to convince him Dobins changed his ways.  Charming voice.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Guy Davenport on his biography

INTERVIEWER:  Is anyone writing your biography?

DAVENPORT: I have no life.

--Guy Davenport, The Art of Fiction No. 174, Paris Review

"Soon We Shall All Be Saunders" by Ken Scholes

Polyphony 6

Genius title.

Phil Saunders earns a plaque for sales.  Now, Bill, the narrator believes that everyone's becoming a Saunders.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Monday, January 7, 2013

Free ebook

"After a Lean Winter" by David Farland 

"The Man with Great Despair behind His Eyes" by Ken Scholes

Talebones, Winter 2005

Available online (Baen)

Meriwether Lewis is sent to the Pacific, not only to find a way west and map it, but also to investigate a note that has a picture of Andrew Jackson twenty years older, and on a twenty-dollar bill is his picture.

Out west, Lewis discovers an old man named John Fitzgerald Kennedy who will translate for Lewis an exchange with The-Man-from-the-River, who decorates his dirt floor lean-to with thousands of dollars bills from the future.The-Man-from-the-River talks Lewis into swimming the dream waters.

They use the bills to smoke herbs that allows Lewis to see the future, but Lewis' deepest question remains.

A creative play with history, if not resonant, quite moving.

“I don’t do as much nonfiction as I used to as a writer, and I think that part of it is that I don’t have the stomach or heart to say even truthful things that might hurt someone’s feelings.”
David Foster Wallace, from Conversations with David Foster Wallace

University Press of Mississippi, 2012


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Review: Conversations with David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace, from Conversations with David Foster Wallace
University Press of Mississippi, 2012

David Foster Wallace said "that no truly interesting question can be satisfactorily answered within the formal constraints (viz. magazine-space, radio-time, public decorum) of an interview,” which is and is not true--a Schrodinger’s-cat paradox that plays itself here in Conversations, his fiction and his life.  Wallace describes his life/artistic aims:
“[T]he standard arc that just about everybody goes through, in that my interest in intellectual and cerebral and clever stuff--although it’s not like I’m not interested in that [emphasis mine]....  [T]he older I get the more what’s magical about art becomes for me the idea of stuff that’s moving.”
This both neatly describes what this volume manages to capture:  both Wallace’s arc of life and that of his art--their transformation yet their paradoxical uniformity.  This conveys that sense that Wallace is completely honest yet he honestly pulls aside to say that while what he says is true, it’s not completely true, either.  Another instance of paradox occurs when Wallace began wearing bandannas in Tucson while getting his MFA:
“ ‘because it was a hundred degrees all the time, and I would perspire so much I would drip on the page.’  The woman he was dating thought the bandanna was a wise move.  ‘She was like a sixties lady, a Sufi Muslim.  She said there were various chakras, and one of the big ones she called the spout hole, at the very top of your cranium. Then I began thinking about the phrase ‘Keeping your head together.’  It makes me feel kind of creepy that people view it as a trademark or something--it’s more a recognition of a weakness, which is that I’m just kind of worried that my head’s gonna explode.”
After reading this interview collection, one gets the sense of play present not only in his fiction but also his life.  There was no reason to continue wearing bandannas except as a game rule, which also adds significance to the meta-narrative of his life:  “my head’s gonna explode.”

You also witness Wallace’s high-degree of fidelity to reality yet while observing more such rules--a form that’s only necessary within a game construct, which becomes persuasive within the construct but not necessarily so if removed from its context.  An example is visible in his statement about suicide:
“All this business about people committing suicide when they’re ‘severely depressed;’ we say, ‘Holy cow, we must do something to stop them from killing themselves!’ That’s wrong.  Because all these people have... by this time already killed themselves, where it really counts....  When they ‘commit suicide,’ they’re just being orderly.”
This is genius insight into the mind of the depressed, but it only holds true if there actually is no way out.  Who is this paradoxical man that is David Foster Wallace?  Conversations captures the essence of Wallace in a way that no biography or reading of his fiction could ever quite match.  Imagine Wallace’s own ingeniously structured Brief Interviews with Hideous Men transposed on his own life.  The final interview after Wallace’s suicide with those who knew him well brings a kind of closure and fuller understanding.  This book is recommended for writers (to see previous quotes, see David Foster Wallace label) and for any reader who has enjoyed Wallace’s work.

David Foster Wallace on play in fiction, part 2

“The stuff that I cut my teeth on, the stuff that I really like to read, struck me as being challenging but also just fun as hell.  I think a lot of avant-garde stuff in the U.S. has lost touch with the fun.”
David Foster Wallace, from Conversations with David Foster Wallace

University Press of Mississippi, 2012


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Absolute Sterling Shatner Jackson

Bruce Sterling interview (with Cory Doctorow, Paul Di Filippo, Richard Nash, Ted Striphas, Matthew Battles, Marianne de Pierres, Giuseppe Granieri, John Sundman, Nils Gilman, Giuliana Guazzaroni):
Ted Striphas: Beyond the fact that neologisms can make for lively writing, why push the limits of language this way? 
Bruce Sterling: I know that can sound like "pushing" language, but from my point of view, social change reveals gaps in language.

 Sterling references this article from Atlantic Monthly (wiki):  "As We May Think" by Vannevar Bush

Seth Abramson stands up for Peter Jackson and The Hobbit, backing up his thoughts from the "canon," so to speak.

Below absolute zero?  Nature magazine

Captain Kirk to Commander Hadfield (William Shattner)

David Foster Wallace on play if fiction, part 1

“I hate... those books where you get halfway through and you get the sense that the author is so stupid that he thinks he can fool you into thinking that the book is really sophisticated and profound just because it’s difficult.  It’s an epidemic in academic writing.  And it happens about half the time in avant-garde writing.  And it’s the thing I most fear as a writer because it’s the thing I most hate as a reader.  And I’m sure I’m guilty of it sometimes.”
David Foster Wallace, from Conversations with David Foster Wallace

University Press of Mississippi, 2012


Friday, January 4, 2013

"Creation" by Jeffrey Ford

Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2002

This was voted as the #14 tale of the 21st century.  Nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula, it won the World Fantasy.  What endears it to or makes it linger in the minds of readers ten year later?

The story deals with a boy interested in creation of life, from Sunday school to the back woods where he tries to create his own being, a man made of sticks.  The boy feels some guilt about and responsibility toward his creation. Part of its charm is the father's almost indifferent willingness to roll with his boy's imagination--even if he is largely antagonistic to what he would call superstition.  The boy's earnestness about how he goes about his creation is both endearing and spot on, this coming from a former boy with similar imaginative persuasions.

This could be read as a story paralleling Frankenstein, the imagination required for writing, or even a view of the supernatural.  Key moments:

"I learned about Creation from Mrs. Grimm, in the basement of her house."
Suggestive of Brothers Grimm, or fairy tales...if a darker aspect yet...

"a can that endlessly poured golden beer into a pilsner glass that never seemed to overflow." has humorous aspects.  Suggests the magic of the speculative genre--whether real or not (see ending)

"She had the nose of a witch."

Paradox: Things of one aspect yet she teaches the Bible.
"After God had made the world, he made them too, because he had so much love an not enough places to put it."
This later comes to fill the narrator's mouth when asked why he created it.
"Throughout all of this he never lost the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and only put it out in order to hug the girl and quiet her from crying."
The father proves himself irreverent in church, but later a hero.  The cigarette though is a magic talisman as it paradoxically brings life through the burning of dead things.
"I gave him a weapon to hunt with; a long pointed stick that was my exact height."
The woods, that the narrator does his magic in, are rumored to be filled with urban-legend magic.  Interesting that he chooses the weapon of his height.  Is the creator the target?
"I whispered to him all of the questions Mrs. Grimm would ever ask [from the catechism book]."
Reading from the most sacred book of magic the boy knows.  Asking about hell (scenes from hell decorate the catechism book--another paradox) seems portentous for the creature's eye falls off.  Paradoxically a humorous yet solemn moment.
"[A] capped, cleaned out baby food jar.... was filled with breath.  I had asked my father to blow into it."
The father doesn't even look up from his gambling or racing forms when he fulfills this step on his son's magic  quest.  He mumbles, "Don't say I never gave you anything."  Paradoxically, what the father does is negligent yet full of love.  What the father does humorously, the boy accepts reverently and holds the glass to a light bulb to see the magic there:
"The spirit swirled within and then slowly became invisible."
Smoke becomes spirit and invisible--two magical properties.

The mother sings "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" and the boy's sure his mother can feel his guilt for leaving his catechism book out there, getting him in trouble when he can't remember the answer to a key question:
"Why did God make?  ...that's one of the easiest ones."
The narrator imagines his tree man's life in daydreams (or mind camera?) so that it feels/is real.  When the narrator wants to find Cavannaugh, the creature, the father obliges, indulges the boy's dream.  Finally, he encounters his creation.
I didn't know why, and wished I had read him the book's answers instead of the questions the day of his birth.... [Recalls beer sign which triggers...] "I had too much love."
When he asks his dad, the dad says,
 [The dad] stared hard without a smile, directly into my eyes. "I don't know what the hell you're talking about," he said and exhaled a long, blue-gray stream of life.
Smoke is still equated with life.  The creation may or may not have occurred, but the son still believes in the magic of it.

David Foster Wallace on people watching for fiction writers

“Fiction writers tend to be oglers.  They tend to lurk and to stare.  They are born watchers.  They are the ones on the subway about whose nonchalant stare there is something creepy, somehow.  Almost predatory. This is because human situations are writers’ food.  Fiction writers watch other humans sort of the way gapers slow down for car wrecks.”
David Foster Wallace, from Conversations with David Foster Wallace

University Press of Mississippi, 2012


Thursday, January 3, 2013


What you'll need an editor for (Billie Sue Mosiman)

Damien Walter on state of SF

New views of microscopy: viruses

SF becomes fact

Christopher Barzak's writing process

Misery & Memoir

Cat Rambo's reading pleasures

Pinball magazine

Philip Pullman reviewed in NY Times, SF Site.  Biased, I tend to think one more informative.

Jerry Seinfeld on standing up for comedy

TV Tropes

Neil Gaiman on ideas

David Foster Wallace on the writer's job to notice

"[W]e notice... more than we notice we notice.  A particular job of fiction is not so much to note things for people but rather to wake readers up to how observant they already are, and that’s why for me as a reader the descriptions or just toss offs that I like the most are not the ones that seem utterly new but the ones that have that eerie ‘good Lord I’ve noticed that too but have never taken a moment to articulate that myself.”
David Foster Wallace, from Conversations with David Foster Wallace

University Press of Mississippi, 2012


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

David Foster Wallace on Brief Lives of Hideous Men and gender relations

“[E]vents... are being related to [a hostile] interlocutor... so that there is a blur between how much of the stuff is involuntary and how much is the rhetoric of the presentation, because as far as I can see the one thing that most of these men have in common is an unconscious genius for self-presentation and self-defense.  They try to anticipate how they are going to be interpreted and head it off, which seems to me to be not all th[at] different from ordinary discourse between the sexes.”

David Foster Wallace, from Conversations with David Foster Wallace

University Press of Mississippi, 2012


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Book Review: Candy Experiments

Candy Experiments
by Loralee Leavitt  
Andrews McMeel Publishing 
U.S.: $14.99 Canada: $16.99
ISBN: 9781449418366
Format: Paperback
On Sale: January 1, 2013
Category: Cookbook – Baking and Desserts – Cooking with Kids

With a title like Candy Experiments, you know these will grab kids’ attention.  Subject matter is clearly chemistry and biology where they overlap (and also includes brief allusions to astronomy, geology, and physics:  comets, rock formation, and gas laws, respectively).  Most of the experiments in here are not quantitative, so the book is primarily aimed at grade school students (including your young precocious ones or possibly a sweet-toothed youth whom you’d like to see grow a deeper fondness for science) and junior high as well if terms are taught as part of the experiments.

What’s nice about these experiments is that they explore the edges of a topic.  It does not just deliver the take-home message (i.e. candy has acid in it), but it also discusses ramifications such as, for instance, in the acid-in-candy experiment, it mentions damage to teeth, the formation of carbon dioxide and how that impacts cooking.  They even make a cabbage indicator to check for acidity.

Types of experiments:
  • ·         Acidity (checked with baking soda)
  • ·         Miscibility
  • ·         Separation
  • ·         Density (liquids and solids)
  • ·         Dispersion
  • ·         Chromatography (paper)
  • ·         Convection (& factor determining -- unequal temperatures)
  • ·         Chemicals break down due to sunlight
  • ·         Solubility
  • ·         Gas Laws: Temperature’s effect on volume, pressure on volume
  • ·         Chemical properties (gelatin, sugar)
  • ·         Crystal shape and formation
  • ·         Election and light emission
  • ·         Solids and liquids (properties)
  • ·         Enthalpy of solution or heat of solution
  • ·         Capillary action/adhesion
  • ·         Hygroscopy
  • ·         Rate of dissolution and reaction (factors determining--heat, surface area)

If you wanted students to learn some of these terms, you’d want to incorporate them with your regular textbook.  Unfortunately, the above terms are not used in this book or are not thoroughly explained, which may indicate this book is more for the grade school student.  An issue that should probably be addressed--since both melting and dissolving are introduced but not explained--is the difference between melting and dissolving.  Most students do not know that there is a difference and confuse the two.

A number of these experiments could easily be made quantitative by the enterprising upper-level instructor who would like to increase interest-level of his class (most kids do love candy).  For example, use titrations with a known concentration of a base to see how much acid is inside the candy.  Density experiments could include weight and volume measurements with subsequent calculations.

All in all, this book is ideal for the grade-school student and for instructors looking to increase student interest using something that young people have a natural affinity for.