Rework: Change the Way You Work Forever

@ 2010, Vermilion, London, pp. 279
by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

I wish every boss in the whole wide world had this book, and lived by it. The authors are the guys who started Basecamp, Highrise, Backpack, Campfire, and Ruby on Rails. Of these companies, I had only heard of Basecamp, but that alone was enough to impress me. And they present a truly modern, visionary view of the working world, what it’s like for them, and what it could be like for us.

They go against practically everything my former employer lived by, which makes them little darlings in my eyes.

Page 5: “It’s time to throw out the traditional notions of what it takes to run a business.”

Ok, I’m listening…

While much of what this book preaches is what I already suspected or believed, it’s a feel-good page-turner eloquently stating the obvious with ruthless honestly:

“[Workaholics] try to make up for intellectual laziness with brute force. This results in inelegant solutions.”

It rails against perfectionists, informing us that these types fixate on “inconsequential details.” It urges us to solve our own problems and to get enough sleep:

“If you encounter someone who’s acting like a fool, there’s a good chance that person is suffering from sleep deprivation.”

The book is sharp and sassy, advising us to emulate drug dealers (I won’t spoil that section for you), build an audience, spend time teaching, and when in doubt, hire the best writer.

Page 253: “Cut the crap and you’ll find that people are waiting to do great work…”

And when you treat people like children, surprise, surprise, they act like children.

It tells us that we don’t need as much as we think to start our own business. We can get along with a lot less. It tells us not to pay so much attention to resumes, the best candidates reveal themselves in the cover letter.

And, planning is guessing.

Yes, yes, and yes.

This book drips with integrity and honesty. It sums up beautifully why and how growing too fast will ruin your company and destroy your culture.

It’s awesome that my boss recommended this book, but sad that its concepts are fresh and new: not working your employees to death, not treating them like children, getting enough sleep, not being a perfectionist, not giving the fake, no-ownership apology, doing with less than you think you need, etc., etc.

I would like to think that Seth Godin is right: “Ignore this book at your peril.”

The Dhammapada

Introduced and Translated by Eknath Easwaran; @2007 Nigiri Press, 275 pages.

Dhammapada means “the path of truth, righteousness.” These are the teachings of Prince Siddhartha Gautama once he became the Buddha.

If you’re like me, some if this may need a bit of explaining. And since I am new to Buddhism, I will probably get some of this wrong. Just gently correct me in the comments. If you are a Buddhist, I need not tell you to be gentle. 🙂

Basically, the message is this: Life is all about suffering. Everyone/everything alive suffers. That’s a real pain. If you’d like to stop this madness, here’s how. There’s an eightfold path and four noble truths. It’s going to take some work on your part and you can do this with or without a teacher.

The Dhammapada is a map of the journey, the journey you’ll take to escape samsara, which is this continual cycle of death and rebirth that everything alive is stuck in.

Ok, Ok, so what are the four noble truths and the eightfold path?

Four Noble Truths

  1. All desire happiness and yet all find that life brings suffering. Life is change and change can never satisfy desire.
  2. Selfish desire brings suffering. Selfish desire is a desire for permanent pleasure unmixed with suffering. Selfishness can only bring sorrow.
  3. Any ailment that can be understood can be cured. When the fires of selfishness have been extinguished what remains is wakefulness (Buddha means awakened one), joy, peace, perfect health, i.e. nirvana.
  4. Selfishness can be extinguished by following the eightfold path.

Eightfold Path

  1. Right understanding
  2. Right purpose
  3. Right speech
  4. Right conduct
  5. Right occupation
  6. Right effort
  7. Right attention
  8. Right meditation

In this book the introductions are long (and interesting) and the actual verses are short.

I liked the message of this book and the philosophy, but it didn’t grab me like the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita did. Those really “spoke” to me. The core messages are very similar. There is a heavy emphasis on meditation and on right action and on respecting all life, not just human life. The more attached you are to things and even people, the greater are your chances of a return trip into another incarnation, and hence more suffering.

If you follow my blog, you already know that I have an interest in anger management and also in the psyche. This has grown over the years as I have become a caregiver for my husband and his advocate in our medical (cough, choke) system. This has given me my own strong dose of suffering and sorrow, and it has definitely been trying for my husband.

We are like two trees that have grown up together. During our lives we have wrapped around each other as we have reached toward the sky. Now one of us has fallen terminally ill and as this illness takes the unhealthy tree it leans more and more on the tree that is still vital. As time goes by they both begin to lean. The sickness for one is a sickness for the other. I don’t have the brain injury. I am not losing my mind, but to watch and bear the weight is bad in its own way. What I’m saying is that I am not unaffected.

The verses about anger resonated with me and will give you an idea of what the Dhammapada is like:

Anger

Give up anger, give up pride, and free yourself
from worldly bondage. No sorrow can befall
those who never try to possess people and things as their own.

Those who hold back rising anger like a rolling
chariot are real charioteers. Others merely hold the reins.

Conquer anger through gentleness, unkindness
through unkindness, greed through generosity, and
falsehood by truth. Be truthful; do not yield to
anger. Give freely, even if you have but little. the gods
will bless you.

Injuring no one, self-controlled, the wise enter the
state of peace beyond all sorrow. Those who are
vigilant, who train their minds day and night and
strive continually for nirvana, enter the state of peace
beyond all selfish passions.

There is an old saying: “People will blame you
if you say too much; they will blame you if you
say too little; they will blame you if you say just
enough.” No one in this world escapes blame.

There never was and never will be anyone who
receives all the praise or all the blame. But who
can blame those who are pure, wise, good, and
meditative? They shine like a coin of pure gold. Even
the gods praise them, even Brahma the Creator.

Use your body for doing good, not for harm. Train
it to follow the dharma. Use your tongue for doing
good, not harm Train it to speak kindly. Use
your mind for doing good, not for harm. Train your
mind in love. The wise are disciplined in body,
speech, and mind. They are well controlled indeed.

 

I have to admit that I don’t completely “get” all of the Dhammapada. I like the idea of meditating, but my Western perspective looks down on those who renounce everything and expect others to feed them. And I have a little bit of a problem with the idea that it’s ok to eat meat as long as you don’t kill it personally. There’s an inconsistency there that bothers me. Monks are supposed to take whatever is offered them and yet shun hurting other lifeforms.

I have to admit, I don’t truly understand everything here, and the Buddha would tell me to go and meditate—and I will understand more in that way.

So, I think I will. I like that idea.

The Bhagavad Gita

Introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran,
@ 2007, Nilgiri Press,
295 pages.

How has it taken me so long to find and read this book? It is difficult to form words around this, but that’s the whole point of posting, so I’ll try.

“Gita” means “song,” and “Bhagavad” means “Lord” or “God.” This is the Song of God.

It’s a dialog between a warrior in a desperate circumstance and the Lord, here called Krishna.

The Bhagavad Gita is a “song” and is thought to be an Upanishad that was inserted into the classic Indian epic, the Mahabharata, which I have yet to read. I gather that the Mahabharata is a big big deal Indian literature, so, of course, it’s on the list.

In Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert refers to the Bhagavad Gita several times as she describes her time in India. Apparently, her task in the ashram was to recite the “Gita” in Sanskrit daily for hours on end. This was understandably quite a chore. And, raises a hell of a lot of questions for me. Is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Sanskrit that good? Did she understand it as she was reciting it? Had she ever read it in English?

I had a different reaction to it. It blew my mind. It filled in a lot of spiritual gaps, as did the other Upanishads. I found it intense and fascinating. The idea is that God Himself is speaking. He is explaining life, death, human nature, and how to escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth so a person can be with Him eternally. Fascinating. Simply fascinating.

At the heart of the Gita’s message is to see the Lord in every creature and to act accordingly. It urges self mastery. It makes the distinction between the Body and Mind, and what is the true core Self. It discusses the process of dying and what happens to us after we die. And it gives the purpose of life: to realize God.

Meditation is key. There are also other key ways to realize the purpose of life as well.

This was Gandhi’s favorite scripture.

There’s a lot here. It’s worth a second and third read. I can’t possibly cover all the high points; there are so many.

The introduction says the Gita is a “handbook for self realization.” I couldn’t put it any better.

The Upanishads

Introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran,
Nilgiri Press,
@2007 by the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation,
381 pages.

upanishadsJust as my two great desires come head to head—that of seeing the world and that of staying safe and hidden at home, just as these competing needs threaten to derail me, I grasp this book in my hands. This book that, for me, illuminates so many of my own spiritual questions. This book that I had never heard of before and never would have picked up had I not been researching India. This great book with its incomprehensible name and seemingly impenetrable content. This book of that.

So, what is it? What are the Upanishads?

  • Utterances of mystical truth
  • Spiritual instructions
  • Commentaries on the Vedas, the ancient and sacred hymn collections (Samhitas) of the Indo-Aryans
  • Four thousand-year old texts
  • Distillations of spiritual wisdom
  • “Sitting down near” as at the feet of an illumined teacher
  • Inspirational writings
  • The teacher’s textbook
  • Descriptions of a reality that cannot be described, but only experienced
  • Teachings that all life is one
  • Numbering 108, although we don’t know how many originally existed; collections, such as this, usually contain ten “principle” Upanishads and sometimes a few”lesser” (as in shorter) ones are included
  • “Snapshots from the towering peaks of consciousness”

So, as you can see, there’s a lot there. And yet, these “lessons” are written in parable form and as thought experiments, and because they address the reader directly, they are easy to read. The message may be big, but they in and of themselves are not intimidating.

Please forgive me, because I may not get this entirely right. My impressions were as follows. The main idea is that all life is one. My life and your life and the dog’s life and the bird’s life, this thing that we call life is a unified thing. To us it appears separate and distinct. Most of us perceive life only through our senses of the physical world, and because of this, we think each thing has its own individual life. We don’t see life as a single entity, which according to the Upanishads, it is.

But, say the teachings, don’t take it from us. You must go and find this out yourself, and this is how you can do it.

You can experience firsthand what life truly is by exploring the four states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep, and a higher state of consciousness that is indescribable—you can only know it by experiencing it through meditation.

In the climax of meditation, says Easwaran, “the barrier of individuality disappears, dissolving in a sea of pure, undifferentiated awareness.”

The Upanishads teach that the “Self” is not the body, but instead the “Self” is “Life” and “Life” is eternal.

I got the feeling that when talking about God and gods, we are in the difficult area of semantics. Since I’m coming to this work from the Christian tradition, I started noticing similarities between this text and what I’ve been taught about God in the Western world. The two traditions do not necessarily negate each other, but instead work to reinforce an idea or description of the Divine. And finally, the “Self” is divine. Divinity runs through everything alive.

Most of the text is more straightforward than this, but I liked the poetry of this passage:

Two birds of beautiful plumage, comrades
Inseparable, live on the selfsame tree.
One bird eats the fruit of pleasure and pain;
The other looks on without eating.

Forgetting our divine origin,
We become ensnared in the world of change
And bewail our helplessness.

I think overall this is a call to adventure, a call to experience, and an idea of what you might find if you look inward. Ultimately, it tells us that we do not need to fear for we are all divine. But, we will remain blind to our own divinity if we don’t seek to experience the oneness of life through meditation, self-sacrifice, living righteously, controlling the senses, and stilling the mind.

Oh, and this is a dangerous journey and you’ll need a teacher who has done this before.

 

Eat, Pray, Love

One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia
By Elizabeth Gilbert
@2006, 12 hours, 49 minutes.
Audible version read by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Back in 2008 a coworker said, “You really gotta read this book!” She described it to me fairly accurately, and I didn’t think it would be for me. I didn’t want to read about some blond lady’s spiritual journey. I didn’t want to read about her travels across Italy, India, and Indonesia. Eating? I was on a diet!

So it’s fair to say it took me a little time to get around to this book, but it kept showing up here and there. People kept trying to give it to me. And I don’t really know what my problem was. It seemed, well, so “girly.”

The first book by Elizabeth Gilbert I “read” was her Audible version of Big Magic, and I probably would not have listened to that if it hadn’t been for her 2009 TED Talk on Creativity (which hit me like a ton of bricks) and yet another coworker sending me her podcast on Magic Lessons.

OK already, I’ll read your damn book!

Which wasn’t too bad. You know, I liked it. I like Liz’s openness to well, everything. Liz is engaging and interesting and sweet and supportive. You get the feeling that she’s the kind of person people seek out—all the time. Like she never has a free Saturday night. And this puts me off a little. It’s my issue, not hers.

She begins her book talking about how many people she’s going to offend by discussing her search for spirituality and healing, and I get that. I can easily think of people in my own life who would be terribly offended by this book. Liz looks for God on her own terms. She isn’t too sure about marriage or having children. She wants to claim space for her creativity, her own writing. She puts the breaks on her life and focuses completely on herself.

My mother-in-law would hate this book. In fact, she hates all books except for the Bible. If you’re reading a book that isn’t the Bible, there’s something wrong with you. If you can relate to my mother-in-law on the topic of books, Eat, Pray, Love may not be for you—-and, of course, you should definitely read it.

I’m not so easily offended. People can believe things radically different from what I believe, and it doesn’t upset me at all. I just think, hmm, that’s interesting. Wonder how they came to that conclusion? Liz does talk about one thing that I think, gee, why Liz? Why did you want to talk about that. TMI. TMI!

That said, Liz has a great reading voice. I think this book was probably better listened to than read.

So, yes. This was an interesting book. Liz’s problems are not my problems, though, so I wasn’t saying, oh yes, I really get you. Rather I marvel at this woman’s life. I marvel at her success and her freedom. I marvel at her ability to travel and her ability to pursue her dream because my dream has always seemed so hard to pursue. The small issue of money has always presented a barrier to me. I am only just conquering it, and even as I say this I’m not terribly sure that’s true. I mean “future me” probably is going to hate “past” and “present” me.

But Eat, Pray, Love. Should you read it? Yes, I think so. I think it is an important book of our time. I think it taps into women’s issues and gives a picture of the female condition that is very accurate for a large number of people. I think it’s historically and culturally significant.

Plus, Liz’s contemplation of meditation and yoga is very interesting. Yoga and meditation are becoming more important to me lately. My husband got some really bad news back from a test the other day. His ability to concentrate was judged to be under the 20th percentile with his working verbal memory measured just above the 1 percentile. So yes, I’m talking a range from 1 to 100. Does this mean dementia? We still do not know. But it does confirm brain damage. Well, duh. The 40 plus lesions on his MRI told us that. I mean really, what do we pay these doctors for?

But—I digress.

The point is this. Meditation could help my husband improve his cognitive function as long as he doesn’t have dementia. It can help with focus and concentration. Meditation is simple the practice of focusing your attention, of paying attention to what’s happening, right now. The act of bringing your mind back once it starts wandering is like lifting a weight and your ability to control your mind becomes stronger just as weight training makes your muscles stronger.

And as Liz discusses, there are all kinds of ways to do it because meditation has been explored by ancient cultures like India for a very long time. And by a long time, I mean for more than five thousand years. These cultures have the information, in other words.

Liz’s accounts of her heartaches rang true, but her account of her love story in Bali, while I get her excitement, seemed like she was holding back. So I think Liz nailed the “Eat” part of her story as well as the “Pray” part. But the “Love” part, I think she didn’t quite do it. I felt empathy. I felt relaxation. I felt her peacefulness. But I didn’t feel love. Love being a very complicated topic indeed.

Liz laments constantly: was Eat, Pray, Love her greatest work? Is her best work behind her?

Here’s my advice to her. Explore the concept of “love” and I mean this exploration to go beyond the Western one-word “love.” Explore love in Greek terms. Explore love in Middle Eastern terms.

As if I should be giving advice to Liz Gilbert! I should be giving advice to myself! Where’s my advice? Where’s my journey?

But alas, I have a gift for seeing what others must do, and Liz, your best work is not behind you. Best work does not equal most recognized work. Is your most recognized work behind you? Well, that’s anyone’s guess.

All roads lead to India?

india-topographic-mapI’ve been wanting to do some foreign travel for some time, but I just could not figure out where in the world to go. Some said “Belize, you’ve got to go to Belize.” And then someone else said Scotland, and well, I do love castles. I wanted to honeymoon in a castle when I was young and dreaming about such things.

But then the other day, as I was eating Indian fast food for lunch, I was invited to a wedding—in India. And in a moment, I knew I must go. I must go to the wedding, and I must go to India. I mean for crying out loud, I love elephants. I’ve always wanted to see some elephants, up close where they live, not in a zoo.

But India, I have to admit I don’t know very much. I read George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” in school. That was depressing. I saw the movie “Gandhi.” That was inspiring and a bit depressing too.

OK, so let’s face it. I know nothing about India. It’s this mysterious place. Columbus thought he had found India when he arrived in North America. He obviously didn’t know very much about India either.  The Taj Mahal, Bollywood, Slum Dog Millionaire, crime, lots of people, heat, poverty, nukes, Kashmir, and terrorist attacks on the hotel where I would like to stay. This is what the Western media has told me about India. A lot of my stuff is made in India.

I mean any one who reads this blog probably thought I was headed to Russia. I thought I was going to Georgia.

But India. It seems crazy and yet it seems right.

So what am I doing to prepare?

Hindi. I’m learning Hindi. I’ve decided that I will learn the syllabary, and I will learn a few niceties (please, thank you, you’re welcome, hello, good-bye, etc.), and I will learn food words and maybe some discomfort words: I’m so freakin’ hot. There are tons of free apps for learning Hindi script and vocab. Plus, there’s YouTube. I’ve got no excuse.

Google Maps. I love Google Maps. It’s so cool to have a bird’s eye view of an area, plus labels over what things are.

Applied for my passport.

Watched a video on how to tie a saree.

Still to do: figure out to blend into a crowd. This of course is a great reason to go shopping!I found some incredible clothing sites. Oh. My. Goodness. Indian clothes are beautiful! And, I want to blend in as much as possible. In Russia, that was easy. I just wore clothes bought there and kept my mouth shut. Instant Russian. This won’t be so easy in India. Not only is my skin white, it’s freckled. I’m clearly from the far north. My hair is light brown with reddish tones. The only things I’ve got going for me are my large dark eyebrows.

I’ve booked two hotels and have reserved the flight.

Started researching museums and national parks. This trek looks awesome: https://www.thrillophilia.com/tours/trek-to-the-great-himalayan-national-park-shilt-thatch

Found a list of wildlife sanctuaries: http://www.thrillophilia.com/blog/top-10-wildlife-sanctuaries-in-india/

And, researched a list of books to read:

  1. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
  2. The Upanishads, translated by Eknath Easwaran
  3. The Dhammapada translated by Eknath Easwaran
  4. The Bhagavad Gita translated by Eknath Easwaran
  5. The Ramayana translated by Ramesh Menon
  6. The Mahabharata translated by R. K. Narayan
  7. Maximum City by Sukheth Mehta
  8. A Free Man by Aman Sethi
  9. The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger
  10. A Strange Kind of Paradise by Sam Miller
  11. The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts
  12. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
  13. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
  14. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  15. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
  16. Not Only the Things That Have Happened by Mridula Koshy
  17. The Shadow Lines by Amitov Ghosh
  18. Chronicles of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry
  19. God’s Little Soldier by Kiran Nagarkar
  20. Serious Man by Mann Joseph
  21. The Lost Flamingos of Bombay by Siddharth Dhanrant Shanghvi
  22. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
  23. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  24. A Matter of Rats by Amitava Kumar
  25. The Death of Vishnu by Mauil Suri
  26. Our Moon Has Blood Clots by Rahul Pandita
  27. The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar
  28. Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar
  29. Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh
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Joy of Zentangle

By Suzanne McNeill, Sandy Steen Bartholomew, and Marie Browning

The first sentence caught my attention:

“This book will change your life.”

How’s that for bold? If I were to subtitle this book, I would say: Joy of Zentangle: What to do to not go crazy. Something like that. Has my life changed? Well, I haven’t drawn everything in the book! But I do feel a bit more relaxed. I have something I can go to when I want to check out, when dissociation doesn’t come fast enough.

The authors insist that when you are drawing these forms, you are not doodling, you are “tangling.” There is a special certification program you can sign up for if you get really into this. Simply go to Providence, Rhode Island to become a CZT (Certified Zentangle Teacher). For more information, visit zentangle.com.

Here are some of my first tangles:Art swirls

cube cross hatch

Cubs pop ups

Doodle leaves

Doodle bricks

Doodle fern

eyeballs in space2

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

By Elizabeth Gilbert, @ 2015; Audiobook read by the author,

I’ll just cut to the chase. I loved this book. I can think of four people I want to buy it for, and I want to re-listen to is as soon as possible. Yes, it was that good.

That said. I’m totally freaked out,and I’m sitting here at 1 a.m. on a worknight eating cheese and drinking a leftover green drink made of spinach, kale, and other assorted goodies.

I loved the idea of living the creative life and of the blurring of the sacred and profane and of the trickster and of embracing curiosity when inspiration flags. I love it all. And I love that living the creative life is enough and the goal, not recognition or publication or any other of the other ego-gratifying things we tend to aspire to. I love the idea that this is all about feeding the soul. Yes. Yes. Yes.

That said. I’m totally thinking about eating more cheese. Totally. What’s wrong with me?

The election? The violence? The media? The news in general? My husband’s brain? Or his doctor, who I really like, but who is starting to seem like any other doctor. He actually asked me if I read. Really? Or is it the recent development that my therapist is leaving for Thailand and Vietnam to pursue “my dream” of travel and teaching ESL? While she tells me that I’m not stuck and that I have choices.

I’m sitting here literally cringing. Awake. Unable to think or to sleep. I’m supposed to see a lawyer tomorrow about advanced directives.

My husband seems to be doing better in some ways. He’s controlling his anger. He doesn’t seem as violent. I think this is because he’s started taking pottery classes. His doctor thinks it’s because he’s started taking Alka Calm. Regardless, I welcome the change. He’s still in his own world. He’s sweeter, but still distant. He wants to buy buy buy, and has no realization of what things cost or of trade offs. And I’m feeling so unequipped to deal with any of it. My life has turned on its head.

But speaking of creativity. Music has exploded for me. I just sit down at the keyboard and play, almost without thinking. My thinking is directional and spatial, but nonspecific. I don’t think in terms of notes and now, not even in terms of chords. However to expand on my creativity, I bring my focus back to chords and how I might alter them slightly. Rhythm isn’t my strong suit at the moment. And everything I play sounds classical. Ideally, I’d like it to sound Cuban. Planning to work on that.

Elizabeth Gilbert says that her way of coaxing creativity applies to everything, not just writing, but even scientific discovery. And I’ve been having these crazy ideas that match her description of inspiration, but around neuroscience, and I think wow, is this idea asking me to bring it into the world? Me? I’m not a scientist. But then I think I’m not doing science, merely reviewing literature and noticing patterns, which then lead me to questions. And then I think I know people who could help me if I need it. I know chemists and physicians and microbiologists. I have a collection of friends who speak languages that span the entire globe. There’s a rag tag team there waiting to be created and interrogated. If only I didn’t want to run away so very badly. Bali sounds nice this time of life.

Gilbert says that when an idea confronts you, you can say yes or no. She proposes that ideas roam the earth looking for humans to bring them out of the ether. It’s magical thinking. And while my sense of logic dismisses magical thinking, I also wonder if it’s merely the terminology that is throwing me and it’s simply a mystery we don’t understand. Why not embrace it?

Thank you, Elizabeth Gilbert. Thank you for such an excellent book and for bringing this great idea into the world. Thank you. And now I will have to go and think about all this for a while and perhaps I’ll start drawing brains and tau proteins and tangles and microtubules and such. And maybe it won’t come to anything, but the act of doing it will be interesting, and diverting, and maybe I won’t have to move to Bali, or maybe, just maybe, I’ll set forth a plan to do just that.

Anger

In my review of Nonviolent Communication, I also neglected to cover anger. And since anger is a big part of my life right now, it’s worth it to me to dig into it.

Rosenberg encourages us to express our anger fully.

I would suggest that hitting, blaming, hurting others—whether physically or emotionally—are all superficial expressions of what is going on within us when we are angry. If we are truly angry, we would want a much more powerful way to fully express ourselves.

The first step in expressing our anger is to divorce the other person from any responsibility for our anger.

(Tell this to my husband!)

We are never angry because of what others say or do.

Say what?

Others can provide a stimulus for our feelings, but not the cause. And it is important to establish a clear separation between the stimulus and the cause.

This is like Greek to me. I like it!

Rosenberg says that it’s easy to equate the stimulus of anger with the cause in a culture that uses guilt as a means of controlling people.

In such cultures, it becomes important to trick people into thinking that we can make others feel a certain way.

“The cause of anger lies in our thinking—in thoughts of blame and judgment. Whenever we are angry, we are finding fault—we are judging the other person for being wrong or deserving punishment.”

This is the cause of anger.

Anger is a result of life-alienating thinking that is disconnected from needs. It indicates that we have moved up to our head to analyze and judge somebody rather than focus on which of our needs are not getting met.

When stimulated to anger, we turn off that feeling of anger by focusing on our own needs and feelings or the other person’s feelings and needs.

So isn’t anger sometimes justified?

To this Rosenberg says that rather than agreeing or disagreeing on the righteousness of anger in different situations, we serve life better by focusing attention on what we are needing.

When we judge others, we contribute to violence.

At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled. Anger can be valuable if we notice its presence as a need that isn’t being met and that we are thinking in a way that makes it unlikely for that need to be met. It’s time to connect empathically with your needs:

“I am angry because I am needing…”

And remember it’s important not to judge. If you put a label of “wrong” on anger, you are judging. It’s better to be inquisitive about anger. What are the thoughts that are fueling the anger?

Step back. What needs aren’t being met?

How do you feel? Scared?

Violence comes from the belief that other people cause our pain and therefore deserve punishment.

People trick themselves into believing that pain derives from other people and that consequently those people deserve to be punished.

Hmm, I’m still struggling with this. I still think those neurologists who were so callous with my husband need to be punished. I guess somewhere I’m not following. I understand how my unmet needs made me angry and the neurologists didn’t meet my needs and I’m still angry—at the neurologists.

I suppose I could find out what the unmet needs of the neurologists were, but they weren’t seeking help. They weren’t in a vulnerable situation, as was my husband.

Nope. Still angry.

I can make all kinds of justifications for them and it still comes down to they had a sacred duty and they shirked it. I don’t really care why. I don’t care about their needs. They took our money and our insurance’s money and they didn’t render the service we needed them to render.

I want my money back and I’m still angry.

I guess though, the NVC process helps me from being blinded by anger. It has a calming effect. A slowing effect.

  • Steps to expressing anger:
  • Stop. Breathe.
  • Identify our judgmental thoughts.
  • Connect with our needs.
  • Express our feelings and unmet needs.

Ah, so maybe here is what I’m missing. I need to express the feelings and needs to the neurologist. I need to be heard. I need to know that they know. Ah, I need the other party to connect with what is going on in me.

But before those nasty neurologists will be able to hear me, I have to first empathize with what leads them to behave in the ways that are not meeting my needs, or the needs of their patients.

I need them to make it right.

But warning: as soon as people think that they have done something wrong, they will not be fully apprehending our pain.

People do not hear our pain when they believe they are at fault.

If we sense blame entering their mind, we may need to slow down, go back, and hear their pain for a while more.

 

 

 

Empathy

I reviewed Nonviolent Communication and didn’t touch on empathy.

What is empathy?

“Empathy is a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing….Empathy with others occurs only when we have successfully shed all preconceived ideas and judgments about them….Instead of offering empathy, we tend to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position or feeling. Empathy, on the other hand, requires us to focus full attention on the other person’s message.”

I wanted to add this post because I believe the information on empathy that Rosenberg gives is so critically important. It can be impossible to communicate completely with someone when they don’t know how to be empathetic. Sometimes, you just need to vent. Sometimes, you just need to be heard.

Rosenberg lists common behaviors that prevent us from being sufficiently present to connect empathetically with others:

Advising: “How come you didn’t…?” or “I think you should…”

One-upping: “That’s nothing. Wait ’till you hear what happened to me…”

Educating: “This could turn out to be a very positive experience for you if you just…”

Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault; you did the best you could.”

Story-telling: “That reminds me of the time…” (I call this shifting focus to oneself.)

Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.”

Sympathizing: “Oh, you poor thing…”

Interrogating: “When did this begin?”

Explaining: “I would have called but…”

Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.”

Oh man, I am guilty of doing so many of these when I really wanted to be there for someone, but didn’t know how. Now that my husband’s condition is so much on the forefront of my reality, I cringe at some of these when they are directed at me.

This communication language thing is very hard.

We know a speaker has received adequate empathy when we sense a release of tension or the flow of words has come to a halt.

When we can’t give empathy to others, it’s a sign that we need to give empathy to ourselves.

When we can speak our pain without blame, even people in distress can hear our need.

So why is empathy important?

Empathy allows us to reperceive our world in a new way and to go on.

And empathy gives us strength.

When we listen for feelings and needs, we no longer see people as monsters.

Empathy can help us mourn our past mistakes:

NVC mourning: connecting with the feelings and unmet needs stimulated by past actions we now regret.

There is incredible memoir fodder in the statement above.

Nonviolent Communication

By Marshall B. Rosenberg

What allows us to remain compassionate even under the most trying of circumstances? This is the question that Marshall Rosenberg seeks to answer in Nonviolent Communication. To answer this question, he examines the crucial role that language and and our use of words play in our thinking and communication.

Rosenberg points out that most of us grew up speaking a language that encourages us to “label, compare, demand, and pronounce judgments rather than to be aware of what we are feeling and needing.” He believes that “life-alienating communication has deep philosophical and political roots.”

It originates from and supports hierarchical or domination societies, where large populations are controlled by a small number of individuals to those individuals’ own benefit.

Wow.

The language of wrongness, should, and have to is perfectly suited for this purpose: the more people are trained to think in terms of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness and badness, the more they are being trained to look outside themselves—to outside authorities—for the definition of what constitutes right, wrong, good, and bad.

Nonviolent communication is a “specific approach to communicating—both speaking an listening—that leads us to give from the heart, connecting us with ourselves and with each other in a way that allows our natural compassion to flourish.” When practiced, this communication method can help you move beyond feeling attacked to really listening and extracting other people’s underlying feelings.

NVC asks us to focus on clarifying what is observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging. When we focus our attention on clarifying what we observe, feel and need, we are more likely to get what we are seeking.

Our cultural conditioning leads us to focus our attention on places where we are unlikely to get what we want. That’s one reason why it can be so difficult for us to get along, and once we know how this works, it’s relatively easy to address our differences by communicating differently, more accurately, and with more compassion.

Our language leads us astray. Instead of articulating our needs and values directly, we insinuate wrongness when they haven’t been met. We say: Violence is bad. If communicating through compassion, we would state our feelings or needs and then our values: I am afraid of violence, I value resolution of conflict through other means.

Notice how the version without the judgement is longer and less fluid. To me this points to the fact that humans have not evolved to be nonviolent and our language (at least English) is a reflection of that.

Our language also helps us deny that we are each responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. This easily observable in the phrase: I had to. As in: I washed the car because I had to. This implies that someone was making us and we didn’t have a choice. Denying our own responsibility is “life-alienating.”

The NVC translation of “I have to” is: I choose to do X, because I want Y.

Our language obscures awareness of personal responsibility.

We deny responsibility when we attribute our actions to factors outside ourselves:

  • Vague impersonal forces
  • Our condition, diagnosis, or personal psychological history
  • The actions of others
  • The dictates of authority
  • Group pressure
  • Institutional policies, rules, etc.
  • Gender, social, age roles
  • Uncontrollable impulses

Rosenberg believes that it is in everyone’s best interest that people change, not in order to avoid punishment, but because they see the change as benefiting themselves.

The concept that certain actions merit reward while others merit punishment is also associated with life-alienating communication.

Four components of NVC:

  1. Observations (articulate without judgement or evaluation/interpretation the concrete actions we observe that affect our well-being)
  2. Feelings (state how we feel in relation to this action)
  3. Needs (state what needs, desires, values of ours are connected to our feelings)
  4. Requests (something specific the other person could do to make our lives better)

The other part of NVC is receiving this information from others.

  1. Connect with them by sensing what they are observing, feeling, needing
  2. Discover what would enrich their lives; getting their request.

With my husband, because of his brain injury, I am often in the dark as to what he is feeling and needing. NVC has shown me that a lot can be gained by guessing. It is also helpful to have this kind of conversation with yourself.

Your guess doesn’t have to be correct. What matters is that your guess is a sincere attempt to connect with the other person’s feeling or need. If this makes you feel uncomfortable or vulnerable, you’re on the right track.

What’s tricky is that our language sets us up to confuse thinking with feeling. For me personally getting these two straight is pretty difficult.

The other critical aspect of this is not to judge. I think we are all wired to judge. It’s a survival mechanism. So if catch yourself judging, becoming aware of that as soon as possible is helpful. Try to move past your judgement and into a space of curiosity. Question your perceptions. Find out if you are correct. Judging alienates us from compassion. Rosenberg includes great examples that tease apart simple observation from judging. If your observation contains an element of rightness or wrongness, you are judging. Try thinking through your observation once again to get to the bare bones facts. And don’t forget, comparisons are a form of judgement.

Classifying and judging people promotes violence.

If we can stop thinking and communicating in terms of what’s wrong with others, we get closer to our NVC goal. Instead if we ponder what other people are needing and not getting, we can open up an area of compassion in ourselves. By questioning others to see if our guesses are correct, we can begin a dialog with them and open up a space of compassion in them.

One thing I really loved about this book was that if clarifies a misquote that I’ve often heard and always doubted as false. People will say that whatever you think others are doing that’s wrong, you are actually doing yourself. They say you are projecting. Rosenberg puts this concept a bit differently:

Analyses of others are actually expressions of our own needs and values.

Now that, I can get onboard with. I get that. If I say you are hateful, it doesn’t mean I’m hateful. It means I’m needing something from you. Maybe connection.

My interpretation of you as being hateful is a judgement I’m making about you. This judgement isn’t helpful for me to get what I want from you: connection. What I need to do to get what I want is to find out what you need and feel. Once I do that, we can start to progress into a space where we both get what we need, and hopefully feel better.

Of interest to me in my new goal as a caregiver was this:

We all pay dearly when people respond to our values and needs not out of a desire to give from the heart, but out of fear, guilt, or shame. Sooner or later, we will experience the consequences of diminished goodwill on the part of those who comply with our values out of a sense of either external or internal coercion. They, too, pay emotionally, for they are likely to feel resentment and decreased self-esteem when they respond to use out of fear, guilt, or shame.

He goes on to say that each time they respond to our needs out of fear, guilt or shame, their compassion for us decreases.

Bingo.

Beyond putting NVC into practice in difficult situations, it also appears to be a good method of self examination for the purposes of introspection or for writing memoir. How can you nonviolently communicate with yourself? A good question for those of us who are plagued with negative self-talk.

In difficult situations, it’s helpful to take charge of our feelings. But how?

When making sense of your feelings, try this linguistic construction:

I feel … because I need …

We have four options for receiving negative feedback:

  1. Blame ourselves
  2. Blame others
  3. Sense our own feelings and needs
  4. Sense others’ feelings and needs

Worldwide, NVC is used to mediate disputes and conflicts on a wide range of levels.

The more directly we can connect our feelings to our own needs, the easier it is for others to respond to us compassionately.

Read the book for exercises and to test yourself. Learn more about feelings and non-feelings and how expressing your own vulnerability can help resolve conflicts.

But because I can’t resist, here is one more example, of a  conversation between two people in a relationship:

Partner 1 (not having awareness and taking responsibility for their feelings): “You are so needy and dependent. It’s really stressing out our relationship.”

Partner 2 (enlightened by NVC): “So you find yourself in panic. It’s very hard for you to hold onto the deep caring and love we’ve had without turning it into a responsibility, duty, obligation…. You sense your freedom closing down because you think you constantly have to take care of me.”

Alternative a non-empathic response from Partner 2 where Partner 2 takes responsibility for Partner 1’s feelings could look like this: “Are you feeling tense because I’ve been making too many demands on you?”

This last version keeps both partners enmeshed in emotional slavery, a real bummer of a place to be.

You can use the components of NVC to tune into the feelings and needs of others in stead of blaming them or blaming yourself.

Comment on the Treason of the Artist

The Treason of the Artist was probably one of my best posts. The neurons were firing that day.

And it’s funny. You can sound pretty darn good talking about something you don’t agree with.

I don’t think artists commit treason.

The reason artists focus on the bad, painful stuff is because artists are either trying to help us solve problems or deal with our pain.

Artists tell the “story” of the saber toothed tiger hunt to educate, to warn, and to entertain. This is what Garg did, and it didn’t go so well for him.

Or artists imagine how things could have gone better, and they tell that story. Artists are solution engineers.

If I hear of your troubles, I can draw from that when I face a similar experience. That’s what storytelling is all about. I think.

So the artist focuses on what’s bad rather than on what’s good. If there is no problem to solve, what’s there to talk about?

That’s just bragging, isn’t it?

How to Write a White Paper

Purdue Owl’s YouTube Advice:

Purdue says that white papers are written to inform about new trends and research. They provide background for decisions. They address the question of how these new trends are changing the nature of a particular industry and suggest actions to take so that the people or industries concerned don’t fall behind. At minute marker 3:33, the video addresses how corporate white papers can function like ads. These white papers can tell potential customers why they need to hire your firm.

Winter Is Coming

Winter is ComingWhy Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped.

By Garry Kasparov

With the crazy state of the world today, I just haven’t felt like reading fiction. Craving news of Russia, as per usual, I gravitated toward this book, Winter Is Coming, by the famous Russian chess champion, Garry Kasparov.

After my very brief time in Russia in my twenties, I have always wondered: should I have stayed? Should I have tried to learn Russian really well and started some kind of business in Russia? My employer at the time had encouraged me to start a business tourism venture, where I would bring Moscow businessmen to the town of Vladimir. The idea was that I would promote the arts and culture of Vladimir to American businessmen or expats.

Even in my twenties with the huge sense of adventure I had back then, I didn’t think this was wise. I kept meeting people who didn’t seem quite trustworthy and with my language skills at only a low intermediate level, I was sure I was missing a lot of what was going on around me.

Mr. Kasparov seems to have confirmed my doubts in his book Winter Is Coming. I very likely would have gotten into trouble of some sort.

Since the recent Russian clashes with Georgia and Ukraine and the resulting territory grabs, I’ve been wondering as have others, just what is Mr. Putin up to?

Kasparov claims Putin is probably the richest man in the world. That by itself makes him interesting, especially given his roots growing up in poverty in Leningrad. Rags to riches stories are always interesting.

Kasparov’s disappointment with the West’s seeming lack of interest in the loss of civil liberties in Russia is apparent. We should step up and do more.

I was hoping for more info on Putin in this book, but instead I got a fair bit of lecturing by someone who understandably is quite emotional on the topic.

The text of the title Winter Is Coming suggests that something will happen and that the author will make some predictions based on some facts. The basic prediction was: Putin is bad. Watch out!

Ok, that’s fair, I suppose. But where will he strike next? What are his real aspirations? How likely is he to succeed? And what about the recent drop in oil prices? How is that affecting him? How strictly are the citizens of Russia watched now? With all the technology for eavesdropping have their lives turned into a version of 1984?

So while Winter Is Coming is an interesting book for someone way out of touch with current events in Russia, it didn’t fulfill the promise of its title. And the subhead: “Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped”—well, that’s a no brainer.  Of course enemies must be stopped. But how? And when? And is Vladimir Putin really an enemy of the free world, or just self-interested?  Who are all these enemies and are they colluding? Is there an organized conspiracy? What’s Russia doing with Syria? What’s the connection there? Oil?

There are soooo many unanswered questions.

I don’t expect fortune telling, but I was in the mood for some speculation.

Dan Carlin recently produced a podcast where he talked about Russia’s recent aggressions in Ukraine and speculated on the likelihood of the West standing up for one of the Baltic states if it were invaded by Russia. The question he posed was would we engage in World War III or would we turn a blind eye and ignore the aggression. And would Putin push his luck and try it?

I think Kasparov is answering this question in his book. Yes, Putin would try it and now is the time to stop him.

So all this makes Putin even more interesting. If Putin is the richest man in the world and he is already leading a superpower like Russia, what motivates a man to keep going? I mean, isn’t that enough? Why endeavor to enlarge an empire? What’s the motivation? Why doesn’t he rest on his laurels and enjoy the perks of his power?

Now I have to know more.

I hope that Winter is not coming, but I sense that it is. The world is a messy place and humans have a long history of violence. The horrors of World Wars I and II have been forgotten and U.S. citizens are lulled into a stupor by too much work, too many things, too much sugar, and too much television. Obviously many of us are completely ignorant of history—a fact made painfully evident by the popularity of a man like Donald Trump for president.

1984

By George Orwell

I first read 1984 back in 1983 because my mother wanted me to read the book before the year named actually occurred. Since then, it’s remained one of my favorite books. Not only is Orwell a master when it comes to crafting prose and plot, he is also an intellectual master, a master of “great ideas.” Also, the idea of a dystopia captivated me like nothing else ever had.

Now many years later as part of my quest to teach myself about good writing, I decided to revisit 1984. Is it still one of my favorite books? And if so, why?

I think humans inherently enjoy struggling against something. It’s the reason stories remain popular with us. We gather round the television (or campfire) to learn about how to overcome obstacles. We learn about how others have behaved in certain situations in order to steel ourselves against challenges we too will surely face.

This, I think, is the appeal of 1984. Its the “us against them” mentality that resonates to our core. Human tribes surely must have had this kind of thought process, as do countries today, and social groups. How often is it that we form bonds of friendship by participating in pointing out the weaknesses of others? We like to have something in common, and one easy thing to have in common is hate.

I know I mention the “unhistorian” Dan Carlin a lot in my posts, but it is because my world seems bereft of “thought leaders” and Dan, for me, fits this bill. From listening to Dan’s accounts of warfare, the idea of strangers following and dying for a leader they have never met and would never meet in order to fight strangers that they might even like and have much in common with, seems increasingly bizarre. The fact that I find this bizarre may be my own personal thought crime.

As I revisit 1984, I am flooded with memories of Russia. I lived in Russia briefly in the 1990s and found it to be a magical place. The onion-dome churches had survived (many had), the communist party as had the faith of so many of the Russia people. In the days of the party, believers were heretics.

That strange pairing of words and ideas, where they initially seem at odds with each other but upon deeper thought ring true, is one of the great ideas of Orwell’s book.

“War is peace.”

“Freedom is slavery.”

“Ignorance is strength.”

Over the years, I have wondered if slipping into Russian culture would be similar to slipping into the pages of 1984? And, have we in the U.S., already embraced such a life?

After meeting many Russians as well as people from other surrounding republics, the idea of hating them and warring against them became ridiculous. I saw strangers help each other on the streets in Moscow. And yes, people did smile.

But we have our own problems with this 1984 lifestyle in the United States. Glued to our televisions, computers, and phones, we let a barrage of “programming” speak to us, and after my own experiences in listening to hate radio during Hurricane Katrina, I see how I myself could be influenced. “Why didn’t those people just leave when they heard the storm was coming?” This was the cry of the Republican right. I believe we are very easily influenced, even though most of us are certain that we personally are in complete control. It is my shame to this day that I listened and accepted even 5 percent of the “logic” spewed by hate radio in the fall of 2005. The lesson was an important one.

Other big ideas in the book are sex and love. Julia passes a note to Winston that reads: “I love you.” As a skeptical female, I am sent reeling. Of course she doesn’t love Winston. They don’t even know each other. The note should have said something else. Something more direct. Or, is it far better to imply what you mean?

So then, when does love start? And when does it end? How can it be created? And, how can it be destroyed? To what extent is love based on dependence? How much decision is involved? These are more questions the book raises.

1984 is a book that captures so much in a relatively small space. It leaves you thinking and reminds you that thinking doesn’t always feel good. So why do it? Why think? Why ponder? Why ruminate?

More good questions. Although after reading 1984, I’m not convinced that thinking is bad.

 

Once you’re convinced that someone doesn’t care for you, you can let go.

That’s where love ends.

And when it does, without all that craving and infatuation, we can return to an unnatural state of bliss.

Ignorance is power.

Bliss is ignorance.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
By Marie Kondo
Tantor Media, Inc.
@2015

The Konmari method is an organizational and decluttering method devised by Marie Kondo. Marie’s central claim is that “tidying can transform your life.”

And I believe it!

“When you put your house in order,” she says, “you put your affairs and your past in order too.”

I find that listening to the audiobook version of this work is very inspirational. I’ve been doing this while I take shortcuts here and there with Marie’s method. She would not be happy.

That said. I do like her method and think it’s a good one. I just don’t think it works when clutter has gotten so very out of hand, as my case was. I also have to have a way of clearing the mess away while I get back to my work week. Advise such as take all your books off their shelves and put them on the floor, just doesn’t work for me. I would have no floor space left!

I do like her advice to touch each book to see if it brings you joy. This helped me get rid of about 50 books last weekend. And I feel so much better! Just admitting that I am not going to read those books and if I really want to, I can check them out of a library made me feel so much better.

Marie lives in Japan. A web search reveals that the average size house in Japan is about 1,310 square feet. Apartments average at around 250 square feet. My house is 545 square feet. This seems so small. I can’t imagine living in less. But as I clear out the things I don’t love and don’t use, I’m finding that I really don’t need to hold onto all of these things. I would much rather have the space than to have the objects.

“Surround yourself only by things you love.”

This is a great way to live too. I’m not quite there yet, but with Marie’s help, I am getting closer.

“Tidying must start with discarding.”

I like her advice to sort by category, not by location. And you can subcategorize if you need to. The idea is to gather every item in the category you are working on and put them in one place, such as the living room floor. That’s where you start work. What to keep? What to discard?

Marie says that for people who have problems being tidy, there are three types: The can’t throw it away type. The can’t put it back type. And the can’t throw it away/can’t put it back type.

I am in the “can’t throw it away type.” But over the last six months, I have been throwing plenty away. Maybe I’ll conquer that soon.

Tidying consists of two essential actions: discarding and deciding where to put things. Marie says to not put anything away until you’ve decided what to keep.

Tidying should only be done once.

What?

Once an for all—within a specific period of time. Quickly, where “quickly” means about half a year. (I am a little behind schedule.)

Do not put your things away until you have finished the work of discarding (for half a year???). Once you get rid of everything you don’t need, then you can put things away.

Touch each thing to figure out how you feel. “Does this spark joy?”

Some categories are harder than others. Things that bring back memories, such as photos are not a good place to start. Start with the easy stuff.

Things have value in terms of function, information, emotional attachment, rarity.

The correct order for tidying?

  1. Clothes.
  2. Books.
  3. Papers.
  4. Komodo.
  5. Misc.
  6. Momentos.

My favorite tip: “Don’t let your family see.”

It hurts people to see you throwing out stuff they gave you or to see you throwing out things that are still useful. It’s just better to make these personal decisions by yourself.

I loved this book. But like I said, I live in such a small space that I have to have a large chunk of time available to throw it all on the floor at one time. Maybe Marie’s right, but so far I can’t do it. I have given away books, but I might be able to give away more books. I have given away clothes, but I could give away more there too. Right now I am working on papers. Her advice on papers? Throw them all away.

I just love Marie!

Alphabet Short

“Abra-ca-dabra!”

“Bossy, isn’t she?”

“Casually causing trouble.”

“Do you think he’ll notice?”

“Eventually, they all figure it out.”

“Fortunately, we’ll be long gone.”

“God forbid, we would stay this time.”

“Hell! Do you mean to say you want to stay?”

“I’d like to see what happens.”

“Jeez.”

“Keep quiet. I think he’s coming to.”

“Larry, can you hear me?”

“Mommy!”

“No, I’m not your mommy.”

“Oh, my head.”

“Purple!”

“Quit moving around.”

“Right and why do I have a tail?”

“Stay still.”

“Tell me why my hands are purple.”

“Usually, the tail turns purple first.”

“Vikings, I see Vikings!”

“What?”

“Xanadu.”

“You see, Larry’s starting to see a different landscape.”

“Zeke’s a better name than Larry for a dragon.”

Grain Brain

The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar—Your Brain’s Silent Killers
By David Perlmutter, MD with Kristin Loberg
Little, Brown and Company
New York, Boston, London
@ 2013

If the assertions that Dr. Perlmutter makes in this book are true, then we have all been deceived—and at a very dangerous level. Grain Brain turns the world on its head when it comes to diet and nutrition.

And since we all have brains, this is a book for everyone. Even though neuroscience seems like a weighty subject to tackle, this book is so well written that I found all of the scientific discussions easy to consume and understand.

In a nutshell: Inflammation is at the bottom of just about all human illness. Anything that causes inflammation should be avoided as if your life depends on it, because it does.

Continuing along this line, fat is good for us and is especially good for our brains. Fat does not make us fat, quite the opposite. Saturated fat is good and good for the heart. The only bad fat is a trans-fat. We need these fats to absorb all kinds of brain-healthy and body-healthy vitamins. Cholesterol is also good, and necessary. Yes, eat the yolk of your egg!

You can probably see this coming…carbs are bad. Carbs make us hungry even when we shouldn’t be. They spike our blood sugar, make us insulin resistant, and screw up our biochemistry in all kinds of terrible ways. Not all calories are the same.

The best diet: high fat, low calorie. Say what?

You’ll have to read the book. I found it convincing.

Green veggies are good, very very good. Broccoli, cabbage, asparagus, celery, miscellaneous herbs, spinach, arugula, etc., etc.

And don’t forget to exercise; figure out how to sweat every day.

I remember when I was a kid. Whenever I was thirsty, no one gave me water. They gave me coke. I think from a young age, my body has been battling this deluge of carbs to where normal weight loss became impossible. I always had a sneaking suspicion that the math wasn’t on my side. I would count calories until I was obsessive-compulsive crazy and increase my exercise, but only Herculean efforts could take the weight off. Finally, my goal was to plateau. If I just didn’t gain any more, I could hang on. And the cravings never ceased.

After trying Dr. Perlmutter’s advice, I am not driven crazy by cravings. After normal meals, I am satisfied and go do something else. I don’t know if he’s right about everything, but from my own experience, he’s right, at least for me, about eliminating flour and sugar, completely.

I have an issue with the non vegetarian diet, mainly because of the cruelty of CAFOs. Dr. Perlmutter advises us to eat humanely treated, grass-fed animals. This diet can, however, be applied to a vegetarian diet with the addition of coconut oil and olive oil. If you aren’t a strict vegetarian, I think you’ll get better results because you’ll also add fish oil and eggs.

I’m not going to argue Dr. Perlmutter’s points for him, he does an excellent job in his book, and he provides a list of references at the end. As you might suspect, this book is about brain health, and as it turns out the worst thing you can do for your brain is get type II diabetes.

Gluten also comes up as a real villan here. Perlmutter refers to gluten as a silent germ that we are all sensitive to. Gluten does damage before we ever know it. And once we progress down that path to Alzheimer’s disease, there’s no certainty we’ll find our way back.

Getting rid of gluten can help us will all kinds of seemingly impossible afflictions from cancer to depression to MS.

Dr. Perlmutter is the only neurologist/nutritionist in the United States. This simple fact baffles and amazes me. Why?

Why don’t Western doctors understand that the body is a complex system and that everything is connected? It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that what you eat matters.

Grain Brain is a truly fascinating read.

 

 

 

Stop the Clutter From Stealing Your Life

002By Mike Nelson
Read by David Elias
@2006
3 hours, 30 minutes

This year I moved from an 1800-square-foot house with a large shop into a 545-square-foot house with two small sheds. This required the wrapping, packing, hauling, storing, moving, re-storing, unpacking, unwrapping, and shelving of all of my worldly possessions. In the process, I sold some things and I gave many things away. And still, I was drowning in stuff. Since my mother, grandmother, grandfather, and great uncle have all passed away, I also have their stuff, everything that I have not already thrown out or given away. I have my souvenirs from Russia that for some reason are impossible to part with. And then there are the books.

015In the face of all of this, I still have the audacity to say that I don’t have a problem. I’m not a hoarder. I can walk through my house. My kitchen is clean. And yet, the 30 remaining boxes out in my white shed tell a different story, that after nearly five months of spending every weekend unpacking and recycling, I am not done. If it’s not my problem, whose is it?

My grandmother lived through the Great Depression and afterwards, she knew to hold onto everything. When she and my grandfather became rather affluent and in her old age, she decided to “invest” in collectors plates. And invest, she surely did. She also “invested” in butterflies and even though she was a conservationist at heart, she helped to drive many species of butterflies into extinction in South America.

My mother was a hoarder. That’s hard to say, but it’s true. They say that one can be genetically predisposed to be a hoarder, so then I have to ask myself: do I suffer from the same affliction? I want to say: no, certainly not! This isn’t me. I’m simply straightening up, for five months. And I’m tired of doing it. I’m so tired of stuff.

I checked out the audiobook, Stop the Clutter From Stealing Your Life, free using the Hoopla app. I listened to it as I worked on meeting my weekly quota of unpacking boxes and figuring out what to do with the stuff inside. Keep it? Throw it out? Give it away? As I listened, the book transported me back to my mother’s life and my grandmother’s life. As I listened to it, I was touching the things that used to be theirs before they died, things that were important to them, so they should be important to me too, shouldn’t they?

Does it bring me joy? So many things don’t, and yet I hold on to them. Does it bring me joy? No. Let it go.

And then in my denial, it occurred to me yesterday that this year, in fact last Monday, my mother has been gone for ten years. The stuff in my hands is mine. This clutter is my clutter. This mess is my mess. There’s no more blaming my family. These things are my things. And I can let them go if I want to. I don’t have to have a garage sale. I don’t have to recuperate the money. Time is money. Time is life. I can give these things away. I don’t need a porcelain statue of a cockatoo!

The books, of course, are harder. And the audiobook says that. Do the easy stuff first and do it fast. Do not sit down to read a thousand books and say you’ll throw each one away after reading them and clear the clutter that way. How long would that take?

Tonight as I write this, I have two boxes ready to go to Good Will and four boxes in my living room marked “documents.” And I think, how could this be? I have already shredded so many documents.

My strategy seems to be a good one. I am strict about my weekly quota. And I remind myself that it is a mathematical certainty—eventually I have to run out of stuff.

If you or someone you love has a problem with clutter, this audiobook is a great help in getting your mind around the problem and learning some strategies to make it better. It will also help you understand their thinking.

Pareidolia

Thanks to Steven Novella and The Great Courses, I have recently learned a new word: pareidolia.

Pareidolia is a tendency (a very human tendency) to see a pattern in random noise. One example of this is seeing faces in random shapes like clouds.

In Dr. Steven Novella’s lecture series, “Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills,” Dr. Novella tells how a particular memory is a construction that is re-constructed every time we recall it. Our memories are not recorded and played back for us the same way every time we access them—like a movie or a song. Instead, we assemble our memories again and again each time we recall them, with the effect of changing them every time.

Reality is also a construction. We take in sensory input and mash it all together to form a picture, a view or opinion, of what reality is. We have a system of “reality checking” to verify that we have done an adequate job at this. Some people have better reality checking systems than others. Some people have very poor reality checking systems. Those people may have schizophrenia.

Reality testing is switched down when we dream. That’s why we don’t question the odd things we see in our dreams. I recently listened to a TED Talk by a woman with schizophrenia who said that her reality was like living with a dream going on.

Novella echos this when he says that psychosis is the lack or decreased ability to test reality.

People can contaminate each other’s memories. I was suspicious of this after my husband fell in the shower and the guys from the hotel asked him: “You felt dizzy didn’t you and then you fell?” (Rather than, did you slip and fall?) Liability speaking, that probably makes a difference. Medically speaking, it definitely makes a difference.

I also learned a new definition for emotional intelligence: “the relationship between our motivations and our decisions; the tendency to relieve cognitive dissonance with rationalization.”

Dr. Novella tells us that we are awash in misinformation.

Our brain, approximately 3 pounds of grey jelly, is a tool for thinking, but it’s also a “believing machine.” Novella tells us that our brains are deceptive. Humans possess logic, but we are not inherently logical creatures. And, our thoughts follow the path of least resistance.

The brain consists of 100 billion neurons “and a lot of other cells that support those neurons by modifying and modulating function.”

What (who) are these other cells? We must make friends with them.

It seems that humans are plagued with a brain that can be logical but that evolved to easily accept logical fallacies.

There is so much in this course of thinking about thinking that I can’t even scratch the surface here. This course goes a long way to explain scientific skepticism and how to arrive at conclusions that are likely to be true and to have a sense of how reliable our conclusions are.

When faced with built-in deceptive thinking (even in the healthy brain), the barrage of information we have thrown at us, outside forces that seek to influence us for a buck (or lots of bucks), Dr. Novella gives us some strategies for examining conclusions. He urges us to invest the in process of thinking critically rather than the conclusions we arrive at.

He tells us that we tend to remember emotional events, so want to remember something? Tie an emotion to it.

Narratives are important to us, and we tend to make up the details as needed to make our memory narrative work. This means our memories are terribly flawed.

Reality seems to be a construct that we all need to agree upon. We need to collectively agree on which patterns have significance and which ones are meaningless.

I think that pareidolia must help us with language. Once you speak a language fluently, you can understand a variety of accents without a problem. However, the language learner has trouble understanding a variety of accents because they actually hear and analyze each sound. Fluent speakers rely on this innate pattern finding ability to approximate (and predict) words or phrases to decide quickly what they “must” mean.

Stay with the course to learn about statistics, the scientific method, and how logic works. I found the section on non sequiturs very engaging.

How should we cope with the urge to impose meaning on the patterns that we see? How can we not become emotionally attached to our conclusions?

Novella tells us that humans have an innate desire for control. Feeling a lack of control increases our pattern recognition or pareidolia. Magical thinking gives us the illusion that we can exert some control over otherwise random events. Superstitions are a result of this desire for control.

Novella tells us that “reality is always more complicated than you think.”

If you’re interested in hearing more of what Dr. Novella has to say, you can follow his blog, Science-Based Medicine.

Who v. Whom

This is one of the elements of English grammar that has always thrown me. I usually say “Who” regardless, because I think constructions like “To whom have you been speaking” sound ridiculous.

But now my Oxford Seminar course has given me a great test, so at least I’ll know if I’m incorrect, and then I can just be brazen about it.

While whom is sometimes disregarded as antiquated British English, it is actually the object case for the pronoun who. Although native English speakers often use who for both the subject and object cases of the pronoun, this is not strictly correct.

Consider the following question:

Who opened the door? or Whom opened the door?

An appropriate response to the question is “He opened the door.” As a subject-case pronoun was used in the response, the question should be posed “Who opened the door?”.

So, did you get that?

If I have a question like “Who opened the door?”, to test my “who/whom” choice, I would think about the answer. In this case “Him opened the door” would not work. The correct statement would be “He opened the door.”

He –> Who

Him –> Whom (notice that “m” ending)

So here’s a test:

Who/Whom did I give my letter to?

Hint: The answer is “her.” I gave my letter to her. So “Whom” would be correct for my question—although I would never say this outside of an English class because it sounds ridiculous to my commoner’s ear.

“To whom did I give the letter?”

Nope, I’m still going to say: Who did I give the letter to?

Yes, you can end a sentence with a preposition!

I’m taking the Oxford Seminar TEFL course, and yesterday I learned about the proper use of prepositions.

Some grammar sticklers have cat fits when you end a sentence with a preposition, but I’ve noticed that there are just times when the language becomes stilted and archaic not to do so.

Enter the phrasal verb. This little guy is causing all the trouble. He is at the root of many a bad argument between editors and writers, and not a few hurt feelings!

My training manual explains:

In English grammar, a phrasal verb is a group of words that consists of a verb plus an adverbial or prepositional participle. If you eliminate any component of the phrasal verb, you cannot interpret the intended meaning.

I like their examples too:

Most bullies back down if confronted. (This works!)
Most bullies back. (This does not work.)
Most bullies down. (This does not work.)
Must bullies back down. (Yep, there’s that preposition, and it works!)

There are many, many, many phrasal verbs in English.

Here are a few:

act up
ask out
bring up
back off
check out
chip in
drop off
drop out
eat out
egg on
face up to
find out
give up
grow up

You get the idea. And I bet you can think of many instances where we would use these at the end of our sentences.

The only time it is incorrect to use a preposition at the end of your sentence is when you leave the thought unfinished.

Their example is:

“She is going to come with.”

This is incorrect because the thought has been left unfinished.

When I was growing up in Texas, I always heard constructions like this:

Where are you going to be at?

Here the “at” is unnecessary. The correct version is: “Where are you going to be?”

But “Your raft is on fire; you should jump off!” is perfectly acceptable.

Oxford Seminars advises:

If you’re in doubt about whether or not a sentence is grammatically correct with a preposition at the end, try to rewrite the sentence and change the preposition. If the result is grammatically incorrect or is incomprehensible, then it is generally acceptable to revert to your original phrasing and end the sentence with a preposition.

 

At the Heart of Personal Narrative

These lines were given to me (us) by a grad school professor. I don’t have any attribution to go with them. All I can say is I didn’t write them. They do such a good job of explaining what’s going on when people write memoirs that I’m recording them here.

In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve a dynamic. Inevitably, the piece builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation, the kind that means to provide motion, purpose, and dramatic tension. Here, it is self-implication that is required. To see one’s own part in the situation—that is, one’s own frightened or cowardly or self-deceived part—is to create the dynamic.

 

Short stories I read in grad school

Having recently moved from an 1800-square-foot house to a 545-square-foot-house, I am still desperately trying to clear my clutter. The key to not going crazy in a small space is to get rid of EVERYTHING you don’t need. I once read somewhere that if you don’t use it in a certain amount of time and it doesn’t bring you joy, throw it out.

Paper clutter is a big problem for me. Right now I have a desk that I can’t use because it’s covered in papers. Many of these are copies of stories that I was assigned to read in grad school. Some of it consists of notes I’ve made over the years for starting stories of my own. I could probably blindly throw all of it in the trash and it wouldn’t make any difference.

It occurs to me that it’s been more than seven years since I read these stories. Are they so exemplary that I cannot simply record their names and look them up again—if I ever need to? I haven’t needed them in seven years. Do I really need them now? Or, should I go back through them and reanalyze them?

Go back through them and reanalyze them?

Ok, even to me that sounds insane.

No. I should just say no. I have a life. I’m going to be taking weekend classes soon. I’m learning to meditate. I’m trying to work out. I’m on a diet for crying out loud. Who has time to redo assignments from grad school?

So here is my compromise. I’m going to simply write down their names and toss them aside.

About this Life by Barry Lopez (Chapter 5 Flight).
Ah man, this is harder than I thought.  The writing is really good. And my notes in the margin, well, exceptional if I do say so myself. Hmm, I see this one going back into the sheet protector and back into the three-ring binder, where it will sit on my shelf for another seven years. Or, perhaps, I’ll buy the book. Is this what I want my writing to me like? Maybe.

Waiting for Salmon by Barry Lopez
I remember liking this piece and Barry for his ecological thought. Shoot.

Pecked by Heather Caldwell (From Salon.com)
“Dale Peck’s scathing review of Rick Moody and a dozen other writers of ‘postmodern drivel’ has the literary world buzzing about what makes for good — and bad — criticism.” Oh dear. Well, I can’t toss this one out either. I have to read about what the literary community is buzzing about. I’m not going to even bother to take this out of the sheet protector. Wonder when I’m going to read all of these?

The Moody Blues by Dale Peck
This must be the review that was so scathing. Well, this one has to be kept as well then.

Critical Condition: Reading, Writing and Reviewing: An Old-Schooler Looks Back by Sven Birkerts
Well, this looked a bit dull at first, but this is another author complaining about Dale Peck, so I guess it stays in the pile.

A Pondered Life by Lorrie Moore
I recognize the author. She wrote a collection of short stories that an old boss gave me and that I never read. My notes on the page say: Use this to think about structure. Moore plants seeds so she can open them up along the way. Keep.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace.
Well, this one I have to keep. After all, I agree with Wallace, the lobster should be considered. In fact after reading this, I can’t eat lobster any more.

Einstein and Newton: Genius Compared by Alan Lightman
I obviously have no self control. Keep.

The Messages of Nature and Nurture by Gregory Bateson
Ditto.

Religion and Science by Alfred North Whitehead
And ditto.

Climate Change is Playing Havoc With Rare Species and a Proud Way of Life by Charles W. Petit
Ditto.

Raising Hell: A Citizen’s Guide to the Fine Art of Investigation by Dan Noyes
I don’t remember much about this at all. So…keep.

Unusual Properties of Space by George Gamow
And why not. Keep.

Civilian by Tobias Wolff
Same.

Vibes by Lewis Thomas
My notes says: The Lives of a Cell. How does he hold interest: many good examples.

The Obligation to Endure by Rachel Carson
My note says: Word choices; combinations of ideas.

Weighing Science by John G. Bryan
Seems like it could be helpful. Keep.

What is Geomorphology? by Keith Tinkler
I almost tossed this. The first line was a bit dry. The world “geomorphology” is completely dry—that is, until you break it down by its roots and think about its meaning. Geo = earth; Morph = shape. So this is an article about the shape of the Earth, or more exactly, the Earth’s surface. What, the Earth’s surface is changing? Now that’s interesting. Why didn’t he just say so? Keep for translating.

Scientific Writing and Editing: Problems, Pitfalls, and Pratfalls by Elaine R Firestone
Skimming this article, this is so closely related to what I do now. I don’t edit scientific papers, although many of my associates do. I edit marketing materials which are written for the most part by electrical engineers. Now, electrical engineering is fascinating! To be sure. I do a lot of thinking about how to make very complicated material digestible by a wide and busy audience. So I’ll keep this one. It’s certainly food for thought.

The Uniformity of Biochemistry by Francis Crick
My note says: Good article. Pay attention to how he explains things. Use of description. Voice. Tone. Use of humor.

E=mc2 by Albert Einstein
My note says: Pay attention to how he uses details to describe things. How he communicates with a popular audience. It’s striking me suddenly that I am an serious nerd. Keep.

A copy of a page from Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
I kept this because I was enthralled with the idea of telling a story with only pictures. No words. As I look at this page, I realize that I am not smart enough to understand this. I may go check out Jimmy Corrigan, but I’m not keeping this page.

The Mendelian Laws by George and Muriel Beadle
This looks like a huge snooze, but since I’m keeping practically everything else…

An excerpt from Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
My note says: Short, tight sentences, interesting, verbs are alive, no fluff; description has to matter. I may want to get this book.

An excerpt from Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia by Tom Bissell
This was a book I wanted to read but never did. My note says: Study how he handles time. Cultural and personal stakes woven together. Participant. Self deprecation builds credibility. All seeds have to be planted in first chapter.

Sister Cities: The Cooper’s Tale
This was an article in the New Yorker. Doesn’t look amazing, but like the others, maybe I should keep it.

The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett
I dunno. Keep.

The Science of Scientific Writing by George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan.
This is so close to what I actually do for a living that I’ll keep it and read it again.

The Man Who Shouted Teresa by Italo Calvino
Keep. Amazing short short storyteller.

Orientalism by Edward W. Said
This was given to me by a professor in the Graduate School of Social Work where I worked for about two years. I tried reading it. I swear I did, but it was so far over my head, I just didn’t get it. I think I’ll try again now and see what happens.

On Being the Right Size by J. B. S. Haldane
Keep.

Science and Ultimate Truth by H. G. Wells
Keep.

The Barbarism of “Specialization” by Jose Ortega y Gasset
Of note, the book by this author: Revolt of the Masses

On Keeping a Notebook by Joan Didion
Keep.

A Time of Gifts by Stephen Jay Gould
Keep.

She Had Some Horses by Joy Harjo
Keep.

Twenty Titles for the Writer by Richard Leahy
Keep.

The Essentials of Micro-Fiction by Camille Renshaw
Keep.

Excerpts from Quick Fiction.
Keep.

Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us by Bill Joy
This is an article I picked up before grad school; it was published in Wired, April 2000. Incredible. That was 15 years ago. This article had so much buzz around it at the time that it even permeated my little bubble. I thought it was amazing at the time. Guess I should read it again.

Caught by Jonathan Franzen
Keep.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking by E. J. Levy
Some of these require a little detective work. I’m still not sure what Salmagundi is, but I guess it’s related to this story in some way. Except for the grey, I like this author’s webpage.

Civilian by Tobias Wolff
I thought this author was very interesting and I wanted to read more at the time. Other books, says my note, are This Boy’s Life and In Pharoh’s Army.

Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist
My note says: Like a 12-Step program, Wonderful. Awful. Keep.

Except from Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
I was a little upset when I read this. I was writing a short story called “Running With Scissors.” It wasn’t good, but still, my title was taken by this guy.

Mama Gone by Jane Yolen
I remember it was interesting. Keep.

When God Laughs: A Piece of Steak by Jack London.
I remember thinking this was a great piece of writing. Keep.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
I have the book, but in this copy, I have circled some words in a strange fashion. Intrigued. Why did I do this? Keep.

Working with Archetypes
From my business class. I wasn’t really impressed, but I’ll have another look before tossing it.

History of Writing Class Notes.
Keep.

The Dynamics of Building and Resolving Tension. Music as a Metaphor for Organizational Change.
Again, from my business class.

In Bed by Joan Didion
Not what you might think. Keep.

The Waking (Villanelle) by Theodore Roethke
Of course keep. I love villanelles.

Type Tools.
Keep.

Not Wise by George Packer
Keep.

My Father’s Life by Raymond Carver
Keep.

Fathers, Sons, Blood by Harry Crews
Keep.

Excerpt from A Death in the Family by James Agee
My notes: Age, authority, conflict, tone; has released himself from bonds of time. Passive voice slows everything down; gives sense of the summer evenings that he’s talking about; repetitive in structure. Keep.

The Unwanted Child by Mary Clearman Blew
Keep.

Vessels by Daniel Raeburn
Keep.

Four More Shots by Kevin Sampsell
Keep.

Ok, that’s just about it. Now I’m just looking at piles of my own writing and some old Russian notes. I didn’t throw a whole bunch out, but I did organize it. It’s no longer cluttering up my desk keeping me from working. And doing this gave me a chance to think things though. I found a memoir I had started 7 years ago. And, I eeked out a tiny bit of inspiration to get started again.

The Girl on the Train

By Paula Hawkins
232 pages
@ 2015
Riverhead Books, A member of the Penguin Group, New York

 

A New York Times bestseller and published in 2015, The Girl on the Train is more recent and popular than the books I usually read. But rather than read from the pile of books I already have, I felt like something fun.

Set in England not too far from London, Rachel our unreliable drunken narrator, takes the same commuter train into London every day, even though she has lost her job several months ago. While on the train, she passes the house where she used to live with her ex-husband. Now he lives there with his new wife, Anna. Rachel also watches a young couple in another house not far from where she used to live. They are the perfect couple, completely in love, who she has even made up names for. Rachel wishes that she had their life. That is until something happens that sets something off in Rachel, something she can’t turn away from. Rachel suddenly turns into a modern day Miss Marple, who will cross multiple lines of social decency in order to figure out who done it.

The structure of this book is interesting. It is told in the first person present tense, and slips into past tense to give background information. It bounces its first-person perspective around between the key female characters in the novel, Rachel, Anna, and Megan. It’s interesting that the author chooses to never give us the male voice or perspective, but the females do a good job of holding our interest.

This book is a great example of how curiosity sometimes gets the better of us and how that curiosity, innocently enough, intrudes into other’s lives. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, or so it seems.

As I read this book, I’m confronted with my own questions about “bestsellers” versus “great literature.” I think great literature has at least two components. The first one is met by this book; great literature gives us an honest glimpse into human relationships or into the human condition. The other component that I’m not sure is met by this book is that great literature gives us a poetic insight that is so revealing that we are astounded by our connection to it. When I have this kind of connection to a book, I find myself uncontrollably taking notes. I don’t want to miss anything of what the author is telling me.

I third component that I really really want in my reading is a driving force that keeps me interested and keeps me reading. The Girl on the Train certainly has that. Rachel, our protagonist, is sort of a train wreck herself. Some of the other characters think she’s weak, but she isn’t and she isn’t timid either. Her driving passion to know the truth to really truly know makes her a strong character.

This is a masterful work. It feels authentic and reads well. Seeing the protagonist reclaiming her own strength is uplifting and believable. It’s a book certainly worthy of a bit of study.

Slaughterhouse Five

Or The Children’s Crusade
A Duty-Dance With Death
By Kurt Vonnegut
275 pages
Dial Press Trade Paperback
@ 1969

I’ve said it before: I like Vonnegut. But, he gets a bit too vulgar for my tastes. I suppose it could be argued that war is vulgar, so a book about war must be vulgar. I suppose.

Vonnegut’s main character, Billy Pilgrim (William Pilgrim), has gotten unstuck in time and has traveled to another planet where he has learned not to fear death. Because death is only one moment of many moments; the other moments were, for the most part, happy. So you die in one moment, but there are plenty more when you are alive. Why not focus on those?

I like Vonnegut’s big ideas. Sort of like Robert Heinlein’s big ideas. Fleshing them out is tricky.

Vonnegut fought in World War II, and much of what happened in the book really happened. He says he was trying to write the book for a long time. After all, how could he not write about the fire bombing of Dresden? You’d think there would be a lot to write about, laments Vonnegut. Airplanes flew over that city and dropped incendiary material on the whole city. People were burned alive. Everything burned. All the buildings were destroyed. Only those who were able to shelter underground survived. Not many people survived.

“The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. And he’s given a regular trial, and then he’s shot by a firing squad.”

Someone at work was pestering me about irony. OK, that’s irony. The guy didn’t get burned alive during the firebombing. He took a teapot out of the rubble after it was all over. Probably, he thought no one wanted it because everyone was dead. And a cup of tea sounded nice. Something warm. Some kind of comfort after all that misery. But after all that, someone decided the soldier was stealing. And then decided to shoot him. For a teapot. The guy survived something that he was not likely to survive to be shot for something that he was not likely to be shot for. Ironic.

I like the way Vonnegut describes himself as a writer:

“A trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations…”

World War II was bad. Shockingly bad. But people have been doing bad things for ages. Vonnegut subtitles his book the Children’s Crusade. According to Vonnegut, the Children’s Crusade started in 1213, “when two monks got the idea of raising armies of children in Germany and France and selling them in North Africa as slaves. Thirty thousand children volunteered…about half of them drowned in shipwrecks…”

The book is jumbled. Vonnegut explains this:

“…there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.”

“I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.”

People are not supposed to look back says Vonnegut:

“…Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”

“Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.”

Dresden, fire bombings, Children’s Crusades, birds.

I’ve gotta read something less depressing.

Female authors reading list

I recently read an article lamenting the absence of female authors on reading lists. The woman who wrote the article cited two lists by prominent men of our day (I won’t say who), but these men had not included any women authors on their suggested reading lists. That prompted me to think about my own list of female authors, and there are many.

Here’s my list. I am sure I have made some embarrassing omissions.

  • Rachel Carson
  • Daphne du Maurier
  • Susan Sontag
  • J. K. Rowling
  • Harper Lee
  • Amy Tan
  • Toni Morrison
  • Ursula LeGuin
  • George Elliott
  • Isabel Allende
  • Agatha Christi
  • Jane Austen
  • Pearl S. Buck
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Cheryl Strayed
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Kathleen Alcala
  • Doris Lessing
  • Ahunrati Roy
  • Emily Bronte
  • Joan Didion
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • Charlotte Bronte
  • Octavia E Butler
  • Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Edith Wharton
  • Iris Murdoch
  • Nichole Krauss
  • Nein Cheng
  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • Barbara Tuckman
  • Barbara Kinsolver
  • Ayn Rand
  • Christina Rosetti
  • Donna Tartt
  • Chimamanda Adichie
  • Eleanor Catton
  • Edwidge Danticat
  • Emma Donoghue
  • Sheila Heti
  • A M Holmes
  • Gillian Flynn
  • Elliott Holt
  • Rachel Kushner
  • Claire Messud
  • Margaret Wrinkle
  • Lorrie Moore
  • Zadie Smith
  • Alice Munroe
  • Karen Russell
  • Taiye Selasi
  • Jeanette Walls
  • Maya Angelou
  • Louisa May Alcott
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley
  • Sara Gruen
  • Veronica Roth

Compulsive book buying in Vegas

Timothy Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Workweek, advises me to limit my reading.

I can’t do that, Mr. Ferriss. But, I do like your book.

The advice is interesting on how to save time and keep interruptions to a minimum, but organizations are made up of people, not machines. Having been on the receiving end of some of Ferriss’s tactics, I don’t think they inspire loyalty.

More Than 5: Using Other Senses in Your Writing

Great post!

Charnell Peters

For this post, we’ll give the fab five (sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell) a break. They’re a trusty bunch, and we know they’re important to creating believable worlds for our characters and immersive experiences for our readers, but we can use other senses to make our fiction great, too.

What about thermoception?

Our sense of heat and cold. Do your characters live in Antarctica or Indiana in January? (Basically the same thing.) If so, this sense will be important in your writing. Actually, it’s important, whether the temperatures are extreme or not.

Every time we walk into a room, step outside, turn on a fan, put on a jacket, don a hat, remove our gloves, or change our environment in any way our bodies sense changes in temperature. Think about all of the changes of settings your characters experience and the changes in temperature that come along with them.

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Pat’s Place in Neah Bay, WA


So you’ve come all the way to the northwest corner of Washington State and you’ve seen the stunningly beautiful sights of Cape Flattery; now you’re ready for some good food and fun conversation. Maybe you want to discuss the issues of the day or ask a few questions about the fascinating Makah culture. From 12:00 to 5:00 pm, your best bet is Pat’s Place, named for the beautiful and talented Neah Bay native, Pat, and manned by her adoring and witty husband Julio. Pass an interesting afternoon with fry bread and oh so delicious pie. Watch for eagles and whales while you get to know the other diners. This is an experience you won’t want to miss as part of your Neah Bay and Cape Flattery adventure! As you enter town, just follow the signs.

A lie over the fireplace

It’s got to be the technical editor in me, but the answer to the following question bugs me. Is this Roosevelt elk male or female? The answer is both! Turns out the taxidermist attached antlers to a female’s head—because who wants a female head over the fireplace. Disturbing on so many levels!

The gingerbread men were chased around the kitchen.

Passive Voice: It can be done!

The gingerbread men were chased around the kitchen.

The gingerbread men were chased around the kitchen.

Rules are comforting. With them, you don’t have to consider your actions. You don’t have to think. And while, generally, rules are good, not thinking is bad—Bad, bad, bad.

Strunk and White’s Rule 14 is an excellent example. This rule simply states: “Use the active voice.”

Overall, this is good advice. It is good to use the active voice. It is good to attribute action. But, the skimmers among us—I am guilty of this too—sometimes take the rule at face value and decide from here on out to strike down passive voice.

Thou shalt not be passive!

Had they—had I—read but 2 inches down the page, they (I) would have found the following caveat:

This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.

Strunk and White fail to inform us when exactly the passive voice is necessary.

The Gregg Reference Manual of Style comes to our aid:

The passive form of a verb is appropriate (1) when you want to emphasize the receiver of the action (by making it the subject) or (2) when the doer or the action is not important or is deliberately not mentioned.

Too much active voice can seem machine-like or monotonous. Mixing active with passive gives the writing variety and interest. The use of active voice when the actor is obvious also has the effect of placing special emphasis on the actor, almost to the point of being boastful and definitely gives a sense of assertiveness. These things are ok as long as it is the intention of the writer.

But please don’t think I am calling for the use of passive voice. I am merely not calling for its complete eradication. Here’s a quote that sums up my feelings. It is from my grandmother’s style book The Century Handbook of Writing by Garland Greever and Easley S. Jones @1932:

The passive voice is especially objectionable when, by failing to indicate the agent of the verb, it unnecessarily mystifies the reader.

Word Wabbit’s Rule #1 (which all too frequently is broken): Do not mystify the reader!

Example of Futhorc.

Latin alphabet: timeline of influences and developments

3700 B.C.—Sumerians developed the idea of systemic phoneticism; used cuneiform which would be widely borrowed and adapted.

Systemic phoneticism—a tool for specifying isolated particles of information, such as transcribing foreign words or phonetically sounding out hard to identify signs that held several possible meanings. (History of Writing by Steven Roger Fischer)

Cunieform

Sumerian cunieform

 

3100 B.C.—Egyptian hieroglyphics emerged when the Egyptians borrowed the idea of writing, logography, phonography, and linearity with sequencing from the Sumerians.

Egyptian hieroglyphics

Egyptian hieroglyphics

2500 B.C.—Mesopotamian cuneiform script was complete; capable of conveying any and all thought.

Letter sent by the high-priest Lu’enna to the king of Lagash (maybe Urukagina), informing him of his son's death in combat. w:Clay tablet, c. 2400 BC, found in Telloh (ancient Girsu).

Letter sent by the high-priest Lu’enna to the king of Lagash (maybe Urukagina), informing him of his son’s death in combat. w:Clay tablet, c. 2400 BC, found in Telloh (ancient Girsu).

2000 B.C.—Egyptian scribes developed a 26 uniconsonantal sign alphabet which spread quickly among Egypt’s Semitic vassals, present in Egypt as slaves, mercenaries, and resident aliens.

1500 B.C.—Proto-Sinaitic derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics and was used in Caanan to write Caananite, the ancestral script of Phoenician and Hebrew. (BAS Library)

cuneiform tablet

Reverse of clay cuneiform tablet

1000 B.C.—The Phoenicians converted the Proto-Sinaitic pictorial Caananite alphabet to a simplified nonpictorial, Phoenician consonantal alphabet. All Western alphabets derive from this script.

"Pyrgi tablets". Laminated sheets of gold with a treatise both in Etruscan and Phoenician languages. From Etruscan Museum in Rome.

“Pyrgi tablets.”Laminated sheets of gold with a treatise both in Etruscan and Phoenician languages. From Etruscan Museum in Rome.

850 B.C.—The Greeks borrowed the Phoenician’s consonantal alphabet, finding it to be a faster and easier way for accountancy than syllabic writing; and added vowels.

Early Greek writing

Early Greek writiing

 

775 B.C.—The Etruscans were settled by the Greeks and borrowed the Greek alphabet to create the Euboean-Etruscan alphabet, which was Italy’s prevalent writing system until 200 B.C. when Etruria was assimilated into the Roman Empire.

650 B.C.—The Romans borrowed the Euboean-Etruscan alphabet to write Latin and spread a modified version, the Latin alphabet, throughout the Roman Empire.

55 B.C.—The first British exposure to the Roman alphabet took place when Julius Caesar first invaded Great Britain.

300 A.D.—The Romans developed uncial writing, a modification of square capital writing and the origin of present day lower-case letters.

600 A.D.—Christian missionaries from Ireland and Europe took the Latin alphabet to England where it replaced the Etruscan-influenced Germanic runic alphabet, Futhorc.

Example of Futhorc.

Front panel of the 7th century Frank’s casket.

100–1100 A.D.—Reign of Old English alphabet, a.k.a. Anglo-Saxon, and transition away from runic Futhorc alphabet. Beowulf is written in Old English.

Beowulf in Old English.

Beowulf in Old English.

1100–1450 A.D.—Reign of Middle English alphabet, the alphabet used to write Canterbury Tales.

Canterbury Tales

Canterbury Tales

1450 A.D.—Modern English alphabet emerges, the alphabet of Shakespeare and the Internet.

1927 A.D.—Television is first broadcast.

1950 A.D.—Emergence of Visual Language.

1961 A.D.—MIT develops Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) which allows up to 30 users to log in at the same time and share messages.

1980 A.D.—CompuServe’s CB Simulator simulates citizen’s band radio through text-based messages and user handles.

1982 A.D.—Emoticons were started by Scott Fahlman, a Carnegie Mellon University professor; Commodore 64 PC is released and includes Internet service.

1990s—U.S. schools begin to drop cursive writing from their curriculums.

1995 A.D.—Texting was introduced as a way for phone networks to communicate important messages to their subscribers.

1996 A.D.— Mirabulus launched ICQ; text-based messenger that reached broad online audience.

1997 A.D.—AOL launched AIM allows users to send messages to each other and create profiles, included away messages and icons.

1998—Yahoo Messenger, chat room service.

1999 A.D.—Microsoft releases MSN Messenger, which tells users when friends are online and enables them to exchange messages.

2000 A.D.—Jabber, a multiprotocol instant messenger allows users to users to chat with friends.

2003 A.D.—Skype, users can communicate with each other via video, voice, and instant messaging.

2004 A.D.—Facebook is founded.

2005 A.D.—Google Talk (Google Chat), appears in Gmail user’s window, allowing real-time communication with email contacts as long as they are online with Gmail.

2006 A.D.—MySpaceIM, users and instant message with each other on their desktops.

2008 A.D.—Facebook Chat, users can instant message with one or multiple people.

2011 A.D.—Facebook Messenger, a mobile app is released; users can message each other from their handheld devices; Apple announces iMessage.

2013 A.D.—Common Core ceases to require U.S. public schools to teach cursive handwriting. At least 41 U.S. states do not teach cursive reading or writing.

A great post about the history of our alphabet is on I Love Topography.

Strunk and White

The book was originally written in 1919 by Professor William Strunk Jr. and was self-published by the author. It was professionally published in 1935, then again in 1957, 1972, and 2000. It’s fair to say this book has stood the test of time.

Strunk and White Elements of Style consists of:

  • 11 Rules of Usage
  • 11 Principles of Composition
  • 21 Style Guidelines
  • Commonly Misused Words and Expressions
  • Glossary

From the introduction:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. (page xvi)

Professor Strunk, although one of the most inflexible and choosy of men, was quick to acknowledge the fallacy of inflexibility and the danger of doctrine. (page xvii)

 

Where I work we argue a bit about how relevant Strunk and White remains, with some taking the position of fully committed fans and other wanting more freedom (translate wanting to be lazy and not understand/follow the rules of grammar or of good writing style.) I guess you can figure out where I fall on this controversy.

[Written on September 2016: I’m very sorry to do this. I realize this was a popular post and provides a comprehensive summary of the book. However, it occurs to me that my review may have gone too far. I have have revealed too much of the book and instead of mere commenting on the book and giving examples, I gave far too many examples and very few comments. For this reason, today I have chosen to delete much of this post. I recommend that you buy the book. It is a great resource for any writer.]

 

 

Dan Carlin’s Excellent Podcasts

Check out Dan Carlin's blog and surf to Amazon to buy books from his reading list.

Check out Dan Carlin’s blog and surf to Amazon to buy books from his reading list. You’ll have to scroll down on Dan’s page to see the book list.

Today I successfully, (I think), linked my Word Wabbit Facebook account to the Word Wabbit blog, so if you prefer to get your blog notifications via Facebook, this should now be working. This is a test to see if it does.

Today, as I read Countdown to Zero Day by Kim Zetter, I can’t help but think about a recent podcast done by Dan Carlin called “Show 42 Logical Insanity,” which shows up in his Hardcore History series. In this podcast, Dan talks about how humans can shift our perspectives in evaluating war crimes, atrocities, and crimes against humanity to make them seem logical and necessary. That’s a pretty impressive mental trick if you ask me and I wanted to learn more.

Dan discusses the firestorms and bombing of civilians in World War II. After listening, I find myself baffled by two things. One is I’m baffled that I never heard anything about this in my history classes. And two, I’m baffled that it happened at all.

And maybe I’ve been listening to too much Dan, but hearing about World War II and what led to the U.S. leadership justifying the need to drop the atomic bomb, I’m becoming worried about what’s in store for us in our next world war.

This makes the storyline of Countdown to Zero Day much more compelling as I gain a greater understanding of the importance of tracking who in the world is enriching uranium. And I’m replaying the Bush (II) years in my mind, which I still don’t have a handle on.

So that’s my weekly plug for Dan Carlin. Dan—you’re welcome. 🙂

Stay tuned for the upcoming post on Countdown to Zero Day. And check out Dan’s reading list, shown in the graphic above. A larger, more legible version is on his website.

Getting the Words Right: How to Revise, Edit, and Rewrite

Getting the Words RightBy Theodore A. Rees Cheney, @ 1983, Writer’s Digest Books, 215 pages.

This is a book my grandmother gave me, which has turned out to be quite handy. The following are great tips for writing and editing. The looming question is how do these tips apply to advertising copy, and do they? Are these tips universal in their value? Well, regardless, I like them.

Purpose of Writing—to communicate with the reader

Purpose of Revision—to get the ideas and the words that express them as clear, accurate, and attractive as possible

Purpose of Reduction—to increase clarity and ease of reading

Types of Revision

  • Revision by Reduction—Eliminate words that don’t add meaning
  • Revision by Microreduction—replace a longer word with a shorter word where reasonable; use the simplest word that will make your point

Places to Revise

  • Redundancy—repetitiveness, superfluity, and excess
  • Tautology—saying the same thing that’s already been said; she wrote her own autobiography.
  • Pleonasm—having extra words that may be deleted without changing the meaning or the structure of the sentence
  • Verbosity—containing an excessive number of words
  • Prolixity—a form of verbosity; the mention of things not worth mentioning
  • Circumlocution—a form of verbosity; saying things the long way around, to talk around the subject; evasion
  • Repetition—when unwarranted, redundant

Emphasizers

  • Proportion—the relative proportion (of words, space) given to various points
  • Position—(put important ideas or words near the end, next best place is near the beginning of the sentence, paragraph, article, story); put the emphasized word in the last position of the sentence and proceed it by a comma
  • Repetition—(of ideas, words, phrases, letter sounds—alliteration)
  • Diction—choice of words and phrases in speaking and writing; (Sentence, paragraph, and chapter length—contrast for emphasis)
  • Word Order—putting the adjective after the noun (normally occurs before)
  • Pauses—create by putting the idea in the middle of the sentence and surrounding it by commas; “however,” “for example”
  • Humor—establishes a report with the reader; brings topic to their attention
  • Irony—a figure of speech used for humor and for emphasis, achieving its effect by saying just the opposite of what is true

De-Emphasizers

  • Exclamation Point—do not use; inappropriate for formal writing
  • Passive Voice—when you can’t identify who is performing the action of the sentence. Mistakes were made. Who made them?
  • Abstraction—opposite of concrete; stated without reference to a specific substance; impersonal
  • Euphemism—obscures reality; substituting a mild, indirect, or vague term for one considered harsh, blunt, or offensive
  • Intensives—overuse of adverbs and adjectives; means nouns and verbs are not strong enough
  • Worn Words—clichĂ©s, catchwords, hackneyed expressions, trite words and expressions, slang, colloquialisms, and obscenities
  • Hyperbole—a figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis: “This book weighs a ton.” Easily overused.

Examples of Deadwood

  • a type of
  • in nature
  • appears to
  • like a
  • seems to
  • as though
  • seemed like
  • seemed as though

Examples of Pleonasm

  • The reason is because —>because
  • Based on the fact that —>because
  • Due to the fact that —> because
  • In as much as —> because
  • In the neighborhood of —> about
  • With reference to —> about
  • Of the order of magnitude of —> about
  • Despite the fact that —> although
  • In the very near future —> soon
  • At this time —> now
  • Disappear from sight —> disappear
  • For the purpose of providing —> provide
  • Perform an analysis of —> analyze

Often Idle Nonworking Words

  • Adverbs
  • Adjectives
  • Of (when an adverb)
  • There (often promotes the use of the passive voice)
  • Weak verbs of being

Rhetoric: Elocutio (Part 2): Ornament

Today’s post is about the part of Elocutio called Ornament (which is my favorite part). And it just happens to fall on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which is fitting because Martin Luther King, Jr. was quite eloquent.

In honor of him, I am including a link to his “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the most eloquent speeches of all time.

Here’s the text of the speech.

The category of Ornament can be broken down into two categories: Schemes and Tropes.

Schemes are a figures of speech that change the ordinary arrangement of words in the sentence’s structure.

Tropes are words, phrases, even images used for artistic effect; a change in the general meaning of words.

Schemes

accumulation: Accumulating arguments in a concise forceful manner.
adnomination: Repetition of words with the same root word.
alliteration: Series of words that begin with the same consonant.
adynaton: hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths insinuating a complete impossibility.
anacoluthon: Transposition of clauses to achieve an unnatural order of a sentence.
anadiplosis: Repetition of a word at the end of a clause and then at the beginning of its succeeding clause.
anaphora: Repetition of the same word or group of words in a paragraph.
anastrophe: Changing the object, subject and verb order in a clause.
anticlimax: An abrupt descent (either deliberate or unintended) on the part of a speaker or writer from the dignity of idea which he appeared to be aiming at.
antanaclasis: Repetition of a single word, but with different meanings.
anthimeria: Transformation of a word of a certain word class to another word class.
antimetabole: A sentence consisting of the repetition of words in successive clauses, in reverse order.
antirrhesis: Disproving an opponents argument.
antistrophe: Repetition of the same word or group of words in a paragraph in the end of sentences.
antithesis: Juxtaposition of opposing or contrasting ideas.
aphorismus: Statement that calls into question the definition of a word.
aposiopesis: Breaking off or pausing speech for dramatic or emotional effect.
apposition: Placing of two statements side by side, in which the second defines the first.
assonance: Repetition of vowel sounds.
asteismus: Mocking answer or humorous answer that plays on a word.
asterismos: Beginning a segment of speech with an exclamation of a word.
asyndeton: Omission of conjunctions between related clauses.
cacophony: Words producing a harsh sound.
cataphora: Co-reference of one expression with another expression which follows it, in which the latter defines the first. (example: If you need one, there’s a towel in the top drawer.)
classification: Linking a proper noun and a common noun with an article
chiasmus: Two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversal of structures in order to make a larger point
climax: Arrangement of words in order of increasing importance
commoratio: Repetition of an idea, re-worded
conduplicatio: Repetition of a key word
conversion (word formation): An unaltered transformation of a word of one word class into another word class
consonance: Repetition of consonant sounds, most commonly within a short passage of verse
dubitatio: Expressing doubt and uncertainty about oneself
dystmesis: A synonym for tmesis
ellipsis: Omission of words
elision: Exclusion of a letter from a word or phrase
enallage: Wording ignoring grammatical rules or conventions
enjambment: Incomplete syntax at the end of lines in poetry
enthymeme: An informal syllogism
epanalepsis: Ending sentences with how they begin. “Book ends”
epanodos: Word repetition.
epistrophe: (also known as antistrophe) Repetition of the same word or group of words at the end of successive clauses. The counterpart of anaphora
epizeuxis: Repetition of a single word, with no other words in between
euphony: Opposite of cacophony, i.e. pleasant sounding
half rhyme: Partially rhyming words
hendiadys: Use of two nouns to express an idea when it normally would consist of an adjective and a noun
hendiatris: Use of three nouns to express one idea
homeoptoton: ending the last parts of words with the same syllable or letter.
homographs: Words we write identically but which have a differing meaning
homoioteleuton: Multiple words with the same ending
homonyms: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation and spelling, but different in meaning
homophones: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation, but different in meaning
homeoteleuton: Words with the same ending
hypallage: A transferred epitaph from a conventional choice of wording.
hyperbaton: Two ordinary associated words are detached. The term may also be used more generally for all different figures of speech which transpose natural word order in sentences.
hyperbole: Exaggeration of a statement
hypozeuxis: Every clause having its own independent subject and predicate
hysteron proteron: The inversion of the usual temporal or causal order between two elements
isocolon: Use of parallel structures of the same length in successive clauses
internal rhyme: Using two or more rhyming words in the same sentence
kenning: Using a compound word neologism to form a metonym
merism: Referring to a whole by enumerating some of its parts
mimesis: Imitation of a person’s speech or writing
onomatopoeia: Word that imitates a real sound (e.g. tick-tock or boom)
paradiastole: Repetition of the disjunctive pair “neither” and “nor”
parallelism: The use of similar structures in two or more clauses
paraprosdokian: Unexpected ending or truncation of a clause
parenthesis: A parenthetical entry
paroemion: Alliteration in which every word in a sentence or phrase begins with the same letter
parrhesia: Speaking openly or boldly, in a situation where it is unexpected (i.e. politics)
pleonasm: The use of additional words than are needed to express meaning
polyptoton: Repetition of words derived from the same root
polysyndeton: Close repetition of conjunctions
pun: When a word or phrase is used in two(or more) different senses
rhythm: A synonym for parallelism
sibilance: Repetition of letter ‘s’, it is a form of alliteration
sine dicendo: An inherently superfluous statement, the truth-value of which can easily be taken for granted (e.g. ‘It’s always in the last place you look.’)
solecism: Trespassing grammatical and syntactical rules
spoonerism: Switching place of syllables within two words in a sentence yielding amusement
superlative: Declaring something the best within its class i.e. the ugliest, the most precious
synathroesmus: Agglomeration of adjectives to describe something or someone
syncope: Omission of parts of a word or phrase
symploce: Simultaneous use of anaphora and epistrophe: the repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning and the end of successive clauses
synchysis: Words that are intentionally scattered to create perplexment
synesis: Agreement of words according to the sense, and not the grammatical form
synecdoche: Referring to a part by its whole or vice versa
synonymia: Use of two or more synonyms in the same clause or sentence
tautology: Redundancy due to superfluous qualification; saying the same thing twice
tmesis: Insertions of content within a compound word
zeugma: The using of one verb for two or more actions

Tropes

accismus: expressing the want of something by denying it
allegory: Extended metaphor in which a symbolic story is told
allusion: Covert reference to another work of literature or art
ambiguity: Phrasing which can have two meanings
anacoenosis: Posing a question to an audience, often with the implication that it shares a common interest with the speaker
analogy: A comparison
anapodoton: Leaving a common known saying unfinished
antanaclasis: A form of pun in which a word is repeated in two different senses
anthimeria: Transformating a word’s word class
anthropomorphism: Ascribing human characteristics to something that is not human, such as an animal or a god (see zoomorphism)
antimetabole: Repetition of words in successive clauses, but in switched order
antiphrasis: A name or a phrase used ironically.
antistasis: Repetition of a word in a different sense.
antonomasia: Substitution of a proper name for a phrase or vice versa
aphorism: Briefly phrased, easily memorable statement of a truth or opinion, an adage
apologia: Justifying one’s actions
aporia: Faked or sincere puzzled questioning
apophasis: (Invoking) an idea by denying its (invocation)
appositive: Insertion of a parenthetical entry
apostrophe: Directing the attention away from the audience to an absent third party, often in the form of a personified abstraction or inanimate object.
archaism: Use of an obsolete, archaic, word (a word used in olden language, e.g. Shakespeare’s language)
auxesis: Form of hyperbole, in which a more important sounding word is used in place of a more descriptive term
bathos: Pompous speech with a ludicrously mundane worded anti-climax
burlesque metaphor: An amusing, overstated or grotesque comparison or examplification.
catachresis: Blatant misuse of words or phrases.
categoria: Candidly revealing an opponent’s weakness
cliché: Overused phrase or theme
circumlocution: Talking around a topic by substituting or adding words, as in euphemism or periphrasis
commiseration: Evoking pity in the audience
congeries: Accumulation of synonymous or different words or phrases together forming a single message
correctio: Linguistic device used for correcting one’s mistakes, a form of which is epanorthosis
dehortatio: discouraging advice given with seeming sagacity
denominatio: Another word for metonymy
diatyposis: The act of giving counsel
double negative: Grammar construction that can be used as an expression and it is the repetition of negative words
dirimens copulatio: Juxtaposition of two ideas with a similar message
distinctio: Defining or specifying the meaning of a word or phrase you use
dysphemism: Substitution of a harsher, more offensive, or more disagreeable term for another. Opposite of euphemism
dubitatio: Expressing doubt over one’s ability to hold speeches, or doubt over other ability
ekphrasis: Lively describing something you see, often a painting
epanorthosis: Immediate and emphatic self-correction, often following a slip of the tongue
encomium: A speech consisting of praise; a eulogy
enumeratio: A sort of amplification and accumulation in which specific aspects are added up to make a point
epicrisis: Mentioning a saying and then commenting on it
epiplexis: Rhetorical question displaying disapproval or debunks
epitrope: Initially pretending to agree with an opposing debater or invite one to do something
erotema: Synonym for rhetorical question
erotesis: Rhetorical question expressing approvement or refusal of belief in
euphemism: Substitution of a less offensive or more agreeable term for another
grandiloquence: Pompous speech
exclamation: A loud calling or crying out
humor: Provoking laughter and providing amusement
hyperbaton: Words that naturally belong together are separated from each other for emphasis or effect
hyperbole: Use of exaggerated terms for emphasis
hypocatastasis: An implication or declaration of resemblance that does not directly name both terms
hypophora: Answering one’s own rhetorical question at length
hysteron proteron: Reversal of anticipated order of events; a form of hyperbaton
innuendo: Having a hidden meaning in a sentence that makes sense whether it is detected or not
invective: The act of insulting
inversion: A reversal of normal word order, especially the placement of a verb ahead of the subject (subject-verb inversion).
imperative sentence: The urging to do something
irony: Use of word in a way that conveys a meaning opposite to its usual meaning
kataphora: Repetition of a cohesive device at the end
litotes: Emphasizing the magnitude of a statement by denying its opposite
malapropism: Using a word through confusion with a word that sounds similar
meiosis: Use of understatement, usually to diminish the importance of something
merism: Referring to a whole by enumerating some of its parts
metalepsis: Figurative speech is used in a new context
metaphor: Figurative language
metonymy: A thing or concept is called not by its own name but rather by the name of something associated in meaning with that thing or concept
neologism: The use of a word or term that has recently been created, or has been in use for a short time. Opposite of archaism
non sequitur: Statement that bears no relationship to the context preceding
occupatio: Mentioning something by reportedly not mentioning it
onomatopoeia: Words that sound like their meaning
oxymoron: Using two terms together, that normally contradict each other
par’hyponoian: Replacing in a phrase or text a second part, that would have been logically expected.
parable: Extended metaphor told as an anecdote to illustrate or teach a moral lesson
paradiastole: Making a euphemism out of what usually is considered adversive
paradox: Use of apparently contradictory ideas to point out some underlying truth
paradiastole: Extenuating a vice in order to flatter or soothe
paraprosdokian: Phrase in which the latter part causes a rethinking or reframing of the beginning
paralipsis: Drawing attention to something while pretending to pass it over
parody: Humoristic imitation
paronomasia: Pun, in which similar sounding words but words having a different meaning are used
pathetic fallacy: Ascribing human conduct and feelings to nature
periphrasis: A synonym for circumlocution
personification/prosopopoeia/anthropomorphism: Attributing or applying human qualities to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena
pleonasm: The use of more words than is necessary for clear expression
praeteritio: Another word for paralipsis
procatalepsis: Refuting anticipated objections as part of the main argument
proslepsis: Extreme form of paralipsis in which the speaker provides great detail while feigning to pass over a topic
prothesis: Adding a syllable to the beginning of a word
proverb: Succinct or pithy, often metaphorical, expression of wisdom commonly believed to be true
pun: Play on words that will have two meanings
rhetorical question: Asking a question as a way of asserting something. Asking a question which already has the answer hidden in it. Or asking a question not for the sake of getting an answer but for asserting something (or as in a poem for creating a poetic effect)
satire: Humoristic criticism of society
sensory detail imagery: sight, sound, taste, touch, smell
sesquipedalianism: use of long and obscure words
simile: Comparison between two things using like or as
snowclone: Alteration of cliché or phrasal template
style: how information is presented
superlative: Saying that something is the best of something or has the most of some quality, e.g. the ugliest, the most precious etc.
syllepsis: The use of a word in its figurative and literal sense at the same time or where a single word is used in relation to two other parts of a sentence although the word grammatically or logically applies to only one
syncatabasis (condescension, accommodation): adaptation of style to the level of the audience
synchoresis: A concession made for the purpose of retorting with greater force.
synecdoche: Form of metonymy, referring to a part by its whole, or a whole by its part
synesthesia: Description of one kind of sense impression by using words that normally describe another.
tautology: Superfluous repetition of the same sense in different words Example: The children gathered in a round circle
transferred epithet: A synonym for hypallage.
truism: a self-evident statement
tricolon diminuens: Combination of three elements, each decreasing in size
tricolon crescens: Combination of three elements, each increasing in size
verbal paradox: Paradox specified to language
zeugma: Use of a single verb to describe two or more actions
zoomorphism: Applying animal characteristics to humans or gods

Many thanks to YouTube and to Wikipedia for supplying the content that has made this post possible. I will be modifying and linking to this post over the next few so stay tuned!

Rhetoric: Elocutio (Part 1)

OrnamentElocutio, or ornament,  is the canon of rhetoric concerned with the correct deployment and usage of words.

There are three traditional levels of style:

  • Plain (attenuata or subtile)
  • Middle (mediocris or robusta)
  • High (florida or gravis)

The four elements necessary to achieve good style are:

  • Correctness (purity)—words are current and adhere to grammatical rules
  • Clearness—words are used in their ordinary, everyday senses (meaning “shines through” like light through a window)
  • Appropriateness—the writing fits the given situation
  • Elocutio (Ornament)—extraordinary or unusual use of language; divided into three broad categories

Elocutio is broken down into three categories:

  1. Figures of speech—any artful patterning or arrangement of language; four fundamental categories of change govern the formation of all figures of speech: addition, omission, transposition, and permutation; there are over 184 different figures of speech; the aim is to use language inventively to accentuate the effect of what is being said; figures of speech are divided into two main categories: schemes (shape; change the ordinary of expected pattern of words) and tropes (turn; change the general meaning of words)
  2. Figures of thought—artful presentations of ideas, feelings, and concepts, thought that departs from ordinary patterns of argument
  3. Tropes—artful substitution of one term for another

 

Commonly misused words

Lie LayThere are a lot of commonly misused words. I’m only going to share the ones that I have trouble with, or that I have trouble explaining. 🙂

Allusion / Illusion—An “allusion” is an indirect reference. (The speaker made an allusion to the scary movie.)
An “illusion” is something that misleads or deceives. (The ghost turned out to be an illusion.)

Among / Between—Use “among” when comparing more than two elements. (The food was divided among the people.) “Between” is used with two elements. (She had to choose between the dog and the cat.)

Can / May—”Can” indicates an ability to do something. (I can do it if you show me how.)
“May” means to be allowed. (You may do it after I’m finished.)

Connotation / Denotation—”Connotation” refers to the implied meaning of something. It is the baggage that comes with the word. “Denotation” is the actual meaning of the word.

Emigrate / Immigrate—”Emigrate” is used with the country that someone is moving from. (I emigrated from Japan.) “Immigrate” is used with the country that someone is moving to. (I immigrated to Australia.)

Fewer / Less—”Fewer” means smaller in number and is used with countable items. (My yard has fewer orange trees than yours.) “Less” indicates a reduction in matters of degree, value, or amount. (I can pick my oranges in less time than you.)

Lay / Lie—”Lay” means to put something down. (He lays the place mat on the table.) “Lie” means to recline. (She lies down on the sofa to relax.)

Passed / Past—”Passed” is the past tense of the verb “pass.” (Grandma passed the corn to Billy.)
“Past” should be used when referring to time or distance. (The corn flew past Billy and landed on my lap.)

 

 

 

The 5 canons of rhetoric

rhetoric

Inventio (invention)—method used for the discovery of the proper arguments to use; thought process to form an effective argument; the first direction of invention aims at deriving heuristic procedures to aid in discovering and generating ideas to write about; the second direction is how writers establish “voice” in writing.

Disposito (arrangement)—the system used for the organization of arguments into an effective discourse: introduction, the statement of the case, outline of the major points in the argument, the proof of the case, refutation of possible opposing arguments, and conclusion.

Elocutio (style) the mastery of stylistic elements to craft speeches and writing; the four ingredients necessary in order to achieve good style included correctness, clearness, appropriateness, and ornament. 

Memori (memory)—the discipline of recalling the arguments of a discourse; the orator has to have at his/her command a wide body of knowledge to permit improvisation, to respond to questions, and to refute opposing arguments

Pronuntiatio or actio (delivery)—the discipline of delivering speeches; the use of voice and gestures to deliver speeches; instructions on the proper modulation of the voice (volume and pitch), as well as the phrasing, pace, and emphasis of speech; the physical aspects of oration: stance, gestures, posture, and facial expressions.

Word of the Day: Heuristic

 

To me, heuristic is a $50 word. It’s a word I hear bandied about from time to time by “educated” people, people who I must acquiesce are much smarter than I—people who are not satisfied to just study engineering, but they also have to study law. Those people. The types who fix supercolliders for a living.

Heuristic—it’s a scary word—no Latin root here. Telling you that it’s of Greek origin might give you a clue to its meaning.

Heuristic is a word that comes up around the topic of problem solving. I get this image in my mind of the ancient Greeks, sitting around, marveling at the universe, coming up with ideas like democracy and atoms. No computers. Wars aplenty.

So what are you going to do when you want to solve a problem? Well, I suppose you’d get together some techniques. Me, personally, I would overthink it to death and then give up, but not so with the Greeks. The Greeks are going to get it done, even if they have to give you something that is “good enough.” It might not be the ultimate truth, but it will do in a pinch. That’s where the connection to engineering comes in. In engineering, you have limits: budget, tools, brainpower, time, whatever. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got. You need to find a solution—yesterday.

I am guessing that heuristics might not be the choice tool of the perfectionist, to whom “good enough” is never the correct solution. Idealism, perfectionism, pish posh.

Heuristic methods speed up your search; they help you discover; they are mental shortcuts that lessen the mental load.

If someone threatens your livelihood, demanding that you solve a problem yesterday and thus causing your brain to freeze up with stress, causing you to listen to Rodrigo y Gabriela for hours on end to calm the terrifying prospect of failure, you pull out some heuristic methods to get the job done.

Here are some examples of heuristics:

  • Trial and error
  • Rule of thumb
  • Making an educated guess
  • Stereotyping
  • Profiling
  • Common sense

Or, some more concrete techniques:

  • Drawing a picture when you can’t understand a problem
  • Working backward
  • Examining a concrete example to tackle an abstract problem

Moving away from engineering into the realm of psychology, the term “heuristics” refers to simple, efficient rules which are learned or instinctual that shed insight into how people make decisions (come to judgments and solve complex problems or when faced with incomplete information).

In a nutshell, heuristics are the bane of my existence. Those using heuristics are satisfied with the solution that is good enough; this, of course, offends my inner core of idealism. They allow you to side step incomplete information. How many times have I felt that people have made inaccurate judgments about me because they were satisfied with working with incomplete information, instead of just talking with me directly. Ah! Curses! Heuristics!

To be fair, I use heuristics all the time. Sometimes you just don’t have access to your expert and you need to get the work done, so you make the educated guess. You toss that guess out into the universe to see if it gets shot down—80% of the time, it flies.

Heuristics. (experience-based techniques for problem solving that help you find an OK solution.)

 

Clarity Tips

  1. Be concise; delete needless words. Inversion
  2. Choose the right word carefully; favor the short word over the long.
  3. Do not needlessly repeat words, phrases, or ideas; do not repeat what is needed for clarity.
  4. Favor the active voice over the passive.
  5. Be specific, use concrete terms, and avoid abstract nouns (shun “-tion”).
  6. Avoid dangling modifiers; place modifiers as near as possible to what they modify. 
  7. Take care in the placement of parenthetical phrases.
  8. Avoid shifts in subject, number, tense, voice, or viewpoint.
  9. Express parallel thoughts through parallel construction.
  10. Arrange thoughts logically; work from the simple to the more complex.

Source: Hansen (1991). Random piece of paper collected from the pile of graduate school notes that have been residing on the floor of my home office.

Some Classics to Explore

Thermopylae—(480 B.C.)

Persians by Aeschylus (472 B.C.)

Histories by Herodotus (450 to 420 B.C.)

Herodotus—The Histories

Antigone by Sophocles (441 B.C.)

Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (YouTube version) (431 B.C.)

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles (429 B.C.)

Hippolytus by Euripides (428 B.C.)

Clouds, Lysistrata by Aristophanes (423 B.C., 411 B.C.)

Bacchae by Euripides (MIT version) (405 B.C.)

Education of Cyrus, Cyropaedia by Xenophon (430 B.C. to 354 B.C.)

Pro Cluentio, On Old Age, On Friendship by Cicero (106 B.C. to 43 B.C.)

On the Nature of Things by Lucretius (somewhere between 99 B.C. and 55 B.C.)

Letters by Seneca (possibly a better version on WikiSource) (65 A.D.)

History of Rome by (Titus Livius) Livy (64 B.C. to 17 A.D.)

Eunichus by Terence (died 159 B.C.)

Annals by Tacitus (56 to 117 A.D.)

Discourses by Epictetus (55 to 135 A.D.)

 

A Reading List

Bunch of booksBelow is a reading list I received upon entering high school. Uh hem, looks like I still have some reading to do.

It is strongly recommended that all Freshman begin individual reading programs that will lead to the completion of the following works by the time of graduation from high school. This will give you a basis upon which to begin your reflections on the history of Western Civilization.

[BTW, I have hardly read any of these, but who knows, maybe I will now.]

  1. Iliad by Homer
  2. Odyssey by Homer
  3. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
  4. Antigone by Sophocles
  5. Persians by Aeschylus
  6. Bacchae by Euripides (MIT version)
  7. Hippolytus by Euripides
  8. Clouds, Lysistrata by Aristophanes
  9. Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (YouTube version) (431 B.C.)
  10. Histories by Herodotus
  11. Education of Cyrus, Cyropaedia by Xenophon
  12. Apology, Symposium by Plato
  13. Nicomacean Ethics by Aristotle (340 B.C.)
  14. On the Nature of Things by Lucretius
  15. Letters by Seneca
  16. Aeneid by Vergil
  17. Eunichus by Terence
  18. Discourses by Epictetus
  19. History of Rome by (Titus Livius) Livy
  20. Annals by Tacitus
  21. Pro Cluentio, On Old Age, On Friendship by Cicero
  22. Metamorphosis by Ovid
  23. Golden Ass by Apuleius
  24. New Testament
  25. Life of Charlemagne
  26. Beowulf
  27. Ecclestical History by Bede
  28. Divine Comedy by Dante
  29. Confessions by Augustine
  30. Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
  31. 2nd Shepards Play by Wakefield Poet
  32. Autobiography by Celleni
  33. Discourses by Machiavelli
  34. Macbeth by Shakespeare
  35. Hamlet by Shakespeare
  36. Midsummer’s Night Dream by Shakespeare
  37. Tempest by Shakespeare
  38. Don Quixote by Cervantes
  39. Discourse on Method by Descartes
  40. Confessions by Rosseau
  41. Essays by Montaigne
  42. Fables by La Fontaine
  43. Pensees by Pascal
  44. Misanthrope by Moliere
  45. Faust by Goethe
  46. Tom Jones by Fielding
  47. Moll Flanders by Defoe
  48. Humphrey Clinker by Smollett
  49. Sense and Sensibility by Austen
  50. Gryll Grange by Peacock
  51. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon
  52. War and Peace by Tolstoy
  53. Pickwick Papers by Dickens
  54. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  55. Marius, the Epicurean by Pater
  56. Conclusion to the Renaissance by Pater
  57. Culture and Anarchy by Arnold
  58. Pere Goriot by Balzac
  59. Salammbo by Flaubert
  60. Swann’s Way by Proust
  61. Death in Venice by Mann
  62. Turn of the Screw by James
  63. Billy Budd by Melville
  64. Huckleberry Finn by Twain
  65. Essays by Emerson
  66. Walden by Thoreau
  67. Double Helix by Watson and Crick
  68. Metamorphosis by Kafka
  69. Gravity’s Rainbow by Pyncheon
  70. Jitterbug Perfume by Robbins
  71. Alexandria Quartet by Durrell

 

So where did I go to high school, right? Not a New Year’s resolution, but definitely something to ponder.

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

6 + 1 Writing Traits: Presentation

PresentationIt’s almost the new year and we have arrived at the seventh trait: Presentation. You’ve done all that work. Now you think you’re ready to share it with your audience—maybe with the world. Careful! Not so fast…

Presentation combines both visual and verbal elements—it is the way we ‘exhibit’ our message on paper. Even if our ideas, words, and sentences are vivid, precise, and well constructed, our paper will not be inviting to read unless the guidelines of presentation are observed. Think about examples of text and presentation in your environment. Which signs and billboards attract your attention? Why do you reach for one CD over another? All great writers are aware of the necessity of presentation; particularly technical writers who must include graphs, maps, and visual instructions with their text.
—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

They say “the clothes make the man,” and so it is with Presentation. Writers are at a bit of a disadvantage here. We’ve done all this work, but the whole thing will completely fall apart without a good presentation. In my world, it all comes down to graphic design. I can do “the small stuff” like ensure that conventions are followed, but in the end, how my work is received depends greatly on the alignment/combination of text with graphic design. If it looks good, people will pay attention to it, and if it doesn’t, they won’t.

This concludes this series on the 6 + 1 Analytical Model for Assessing Writing. Thanks for reading!

Soon, I will posting a longer series on rhetoric. Up until I attended the university, I had a very narrow view of what rhetoric was. But I soon came to learn that the field of rhetoric is vast, complex, and interesting. Do these “old-fashioned” word puzzles have real power we can apply today?

 

6 + 1 Writing Traits: Conventions

suit unconventionalOutside of graduate school, I’ve never heard it called “conventions,” but I do sometimes catch myself explaining concepts to people in this way. I’ll say: we do this because it’s our convention. What I mean is: we do this because it’s our chosen style. “We” have all agreed to do it this way. It isn’t necessarily “right” or “wrong,” but the group has decided how the group wants the particular issue of style to be done. It comes down to expectations. What is expected and how far can (should) you push to make a difference?

Conventions are the mechanical correctness of the piece—spelling, grammar and usage, paragraphing (indenting at the appropriate spots), use of capitals, and punctuation. Writing that is strong in conventions has usually been proofread and edited with care. Handwriting and neatness are not part of this trait. The key is this: How much work would a copy editor need to do to prepare the piece for publication?”—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

My job is all about knowing and enforcing conventions. I strive to be consistent and achieve consistency in all of our written publications. Observing conventions weighs heavily into the next topic, which is Presentation.

I think of the importance of conventions like this. Say you have a $300 business suit. The fit is perfect. You look like a million bucks when you wear it. Your handsomeness knows no bounds. The girls are beside themselves. You are powerful indeed.

Now, instead of hanging your suit up after you’ve worn it, you’ve tossed it in the corner of your bedroom and the cat has spent the night on it. You’re in a hurry the next day, so you quickly brush off the cat hair and put it on.

A little cologne will mask that smell. Nevermind that the suit is terribly wrinkled.

This, my friend, is the value of conventions. Why would you do that? To a beautiful suit? To yourself? To your career? Why would you craft the best piece of writing ever and then not punctuate it correctly, not spell words correctly, use random capital letters willy nilly, or allow bad grammar?

Oh, the horror.

6 + 1 Writing Traits: Sentence Fluency

rhythmThere is a rhythm to fluent language. There is an evenness. But, while excellent sentence fluency may be your goal, don’t disregard the power of interruption. Of silence.

Sentence Fluency is the rhythm and flow of the language, the sound of word patterns, the way in which the writing plays to the ear—not just to the eye. How does it sound when read aloud? That’s the test. Fluent writing has cadence, power, rhythm, and movement. It is free of awkward word patterns that slow the reader’s progress. Sentences vary in length and style, and are so well crafted that reading aloud is a pleasure.
—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

Just like everything else related to writing and to art, there is a great deal of subjectivity involved. Where I find “sentence fluency,” you may not. But here are some examples that I particularly like:

At times I believed that the last page of my book and the last page of my life were one and the same, that when my book ended I’d end, a great wind would sweep through my rooms carrying the pages away, and when the air cleared of all those fluttering white sheets the room would be silent, the chair where I sat would be empty.”—The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Once upon a time there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, in a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered and everything was possible. A stick could be a sword. A pebble could be a diamond. A tree a castle.”—The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Prince Andrey turned his scornful gaze on the endless, chaotic mass of detachments, wagons, supply vehicles, artillery and more wagons, wagons, wagons of every size and shape, overtaking one another and blocking the muddy road three and four abreast. On all sides, right up front and way behind, as far as the ear could strain in every direction, you could hear wheels rumbling, carts rattling, wagons creaking, gun-carriages groaning, horses trampling, whips cracking, drivers shouting and everybody swearing, soldiers, orderlies, and officers. The roadsides were littered everywhere with fallen horses, flayed and unflayed, broken-down wagons with solitary soldiers sitting by them just waiting, other soldiers separated from their units, heading in little groups for the next village or carrying loot from the last one—chickens, sheep, hay, or sackfuls of something or other. When the road went uphill or downhill, the crowds squashed together even closer, and there was an endless hubbub of shouts and groans. Soldiers floundering knee-deep in mud heaved guns and wagons along with their bare hands while the whips cracked, hoofs slithered, traces snapped and the air rang with the most heart-rending cries.—War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy translated into English by Anthony Briggs

You aren’t alive anywhere like you’re alive at fight club. When it’s you and one other guy under that one light in the middle of all those watching. Fight club isn’t about winning or losing fights. Fight club isn’t about words. You see a guy come to fight club for the first time, and his ass is a loaf of white bread. You see this guy here six months later, and he looks carved out of wood. This guy trusts himself to handle anything. There’s grunting and noise at fight club like at the gym, but fight club isn’t about looking good. There’s hysterical shouting in tongues like at church, and when you wake up Sunday afternoon you feel saved.”—Fight Club by Chuck Palaniuk

 

There’s something so wonderful and inspiring about writing. It casts a spell. You enter the realm of the mind where images appear and disappear, and language, so central to it all, seems to be irrelevant.

Assessing Sentence Fluency

  • Sentence structure and length are varied. (Not robotic, not monotonous, not the same)
  • Sentences have rhythm and grace. When you read them out loud, you don’t stumble.

 

 

6 + 1 Writing Traits: Word Choice

word choice matters

<Do I sense your anger, or do I sense my own?>

Just like all the other traits, word choice is important.

So the questions above. Do they make sense? There’s missing context right? So while word choice may not give you context, the specific words you choose are still important.

My pet peeve is when people don’t use the correct word for what they are talking about. They use some lazy word like “thing.” Here’s an example:

“Hey Word Wabbit, I’ve got this thing around six, could you work on that thing we were talking about, you know, with what’s-her-name, and then tell me, you know, how you’re feeling about it tomorrow.”

Too much of this and I’m driven up the wall. Seriously. We all do it. I’m guilty of it too, but in professional writing (as opposed to spoken word), there’s no place for laziness. We need to say exactly what we mean. Don’t ask the reader to do any work.

Word Choice is the use of rich, colorful, precise language that communicates not just in a functional way, but in a way that moves and enlightens the reader. In good descriptive writing, strong word choice clarifies and expands ideas. In persuasive writing, careful word choice moves the reader to a new vision of things. Strong word choice is characterized not so much as exceptional vocabulary that impresses the reader, but more by the skill to use everyday words well [emphasis is mine].
—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

People will tell you not to use adverbs. (Examples: quickly, heatedly, slowly, loudly, mercilessly, etc.) Here’s why. If you need to tack on a word to help convey the meaning of your verb, your verb isn’t strong enough. Try looking for another verb.

People will say: use active verbs. (The terminology I was taught was “action” verbs.) This means, when possible, try to not use the “to be” verb. People will call this the “Be” verb. I like to say “to be” because I’m in the habit of referring to the verb by its infinitive, which includes the “to.” (To buy, to walk, to talk, to eat, to sit, to read, to learn, etc.)

It’s good to know when your “to” is part of an infinitive or is acting as a preposition.

Here’s an example:
I went to the store to buy some peppers.

  • In the sentence above, the first “to” is a preposition. Its object is “store.”
  • The second “to” is part of the verb infinitive “to buy.” It is not a preposition and has no object.

But back to the “to be” verb. This is an irregular verb in English, so if you want to use stronger “action” verbs, it’s good to know what you’re thinking about avoiding. (I’m not telling you to avoid the “to be” verb. I’m just saying that sometimes, maybe often, there is a better, more exact verb you could use instead.)

To Be (present tense) To Be (simple past tense)
I am I was
You (singular) are You (singular) were
He/She/It is He/She/It was
We are We were
You (plural) are You (plural) were
They are They were

People will also tell you not to use the “to be” verb because it is a sign that you are using passive voice. This is not true! You might be using passive voice, but you are not necessarily using passive voice when you use the “to be” verb!!!

Ugh!

There’s passive voice and there’s active voice. When you’re using passive voice, you know because you’ve been able to get your message across without implicating anyone:

  • Mistakes were made. (Who made them? Gee, I dunno. This must be in passive voice. Oh, if only the writer had been more specific. Fire the writers!!!!)
  • Harold made mistakes. (Now we’re getting somewhere. This is in active voice. Fire Harold!!!!)

Notice that in the first example the word “were” appears. This is a form of the “to be” verb. And in this instance, we have passive voice. But, as I said, a form of the “to be” verb does not always indicate passive voice:

The girls were intelligent.

Here, “were” is a perfectly legitimate linking verb. It links the subject “The girls” with the predicate adjective “intelligent.

People will tell me: This verb isn’t active enough.

Ahhhhhh! (Fire the English teacher!)

Ok, this is like being a little bit pregnant. Either you are or you aren’t. Either you have an “action” verb or you do not. Don’t confuse action verbs with “active and passive voice.”

  1. So, do they mean that the verb isn’t “specific” enough?
  2. Are they looking for “movement“? (The verb isn’t active enough?)
  3. Or, do they simply have the “to be” verb phobia that seems to be going around?

Well, those are my main issues when it comes to word choice. The important thing is to use the most accurate word to represent what you’re talking about. Call things by their names. Don’t dumb things down for your reader. Give your reader some credit. On the other hand, remember your audience. If your audience isn’t highly technical, don’t burden your reader with technical jargon.

This can be a dilemma and create a tug-of-war between using the “correct” word and using the word that your reader will understand. I would err on the side of greater clarity because if I don’t call things by their correct names, the reader (who might be more knowledgeable than I predicted) might think I don’t know what I’m talking about. Then I lose credibility. And the whole thing is shot. So use the correct word, and provide a brief explanation if you think you need to.

Assessing Word Choice

  • Words are specific, precise, and appropriate. (Words evoke images. You see what’s going on.)
  • Powerful words provide energy. (You have a feeling of action, activity.)
  • Words are not abstract, clichĂ©, or include jargon.

 

 

 

6 + 1 Writing Traits: Voice

In a nutshell, “Voice” is what you have when you get a sense of the writer’s personality from reading his/her words. You can’t see the writer’s face, but you get a sense of who they are from their voice.

The Voice is the writer coming through the words, the sense that a real person is speaking to us and cares about the message. It is the heart and soul of the writing, the magic, the wit, the feeling, the life and breath. When the writer is engaged personally with the topic, he/she imparts a personal tone and flavor to the piece that is unmistakably his/hers alone. And it is that individual something—different from the mark of all other writers—that we call voice.
—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

People often have a characteristic rhythm to their speech and an overall perspective. The voice of a company comes across as the sense of perspective you get from reading the company’s literature. What kind of “person” are we? Are we intelligent? Coddling? Liberal? Wild? Direct? Indirect? That all comes across in voice.

Literature provides some great examples of voice:

Dr. Strauss says I should rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me. I hope they use me becaus Miss Kinnian says maybe they can make me smart. I want to be smart.
—Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.
—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Sergey Ulasen is not the sort of person you’d expect to find at the center of an international incident. The thirty-one-year-old Belarusian has close-cropped blond hair, a lean boyish frame, and the open face and affable demeanor of someone who goes through life attracting few enemies and even fewer controversies.
—Countdown to Zero Day by Kim Zetter

But after a month or so I began to hesitate again. It struck me that it was playing it a bit low-down on the poor chap, avoiding him like this just when he probably wanted his pals to surge round him most. I pictured him sitting in his lonely studio with no company but his bitter thoughts, and the pathos of it got me to such an extent that I bounded straight into a taxi and told the driver to go all out for the studio.
—Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Once these preparations were completed, he was anxious to wait no longer before putting his ideas into effect, impelled to this by the thought of the loss the world suffered by his delay, seeing the grievances there were to redress, the wrongs to right, the injuries to amend, the abuses to correct, and the debts to discharge.
—Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

With each passing year she looked more like a human being. (I can’t say as much for most of my friends.) I felt embarrassed changing my clothes in front of her. My friend Sevostyanov used to say, ‘She’s the only normal member of your family.’
—Ours: A Russian Family Album by Sergei Dovlatov

‘You are surrounded by loving machines, hating machines, greedy machines, unselfish machines, brave machines, cowardly machines, truthful machines, lying machines, funny machines, solemn machines,’ he read. ‘Their only purpose is to stir you up in every conceivable way, so the Creator of the Universe can watch your reactions. They can no more feel or reason than grandfather clocks.’
—Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

These are a few examples of Voice and there are many, many others, of course. From the examples above, test yourself. Who is the speaker? What kind of person are they? Why do you think so? Are they reliable? Do you trust them? Do you want to hang out with them? Are they interesting? Entertaining? Honest? Smart? Dependable? Exhausting? Someone you’d trust with your money? Or, your wife?

The question I encounter is how do you write as though you were someone else? And this is how I break it down:

If I’m a smart person, I’m going to give you some facts. I’m not going to hedge. I can prove it and I will.

If I’m an honest person, I’m going to take a stand on an issue. You might not like where I stand, but I’m going to let you decide. I’m not going to take that away from you. You’ll know who I am. You know you can trust me because I’ve trusted you with something you might not like about me. Something that might make you decide to walk away. I’ve taken that risk even though I want you to stay—maybe more than anything.

If I’m reliable, I’m going to keep my word. I’ll do what I say. How does this come across in voice? I’m not sure, but I won’t be doing a lot of talking. My reliability is so much a part of me that I don’t have to prove it. I don’t have to rely on cunning or an excess of words and explanation. I am straightforward; I use direct speech with little embellishment.

If I’m an innovative person, an inventor, a leading edge thought leader, I’m going to be excited about that. I’m going to have a passion for discovery. I might talk a little more quickly and display a little more energy. There’s an inner happiness that stems from my joy of discovery that I’m going to share with you. I want you to come along with me. I want you to see the cool things that I see.

Well, anyway, that’s how I perceive Voice.

Assessing Voice

  • Does the reader feel a strong interaction with the writer? Do you sense a person/personality behind the words?
  • Writer reveals who they are, their attitudes, opinions. They take a risk.
  • You find yourself thinking about and reacting to the writer’s point of view.

 

 

6 + 1 Writing Traits: Organization

organizeTell-tale signs that you might be having problems with organization are when you hear people say: “I don’t think this flows well.” Or: “It seems disjointed.”

The reader is always right. So, as hard as it is to hear, I try to listen when people say these things.

Organization is the internal structure of a piece of writing, the thread of central meaning, the pattern, so long as it fits the central idea well. Organizational structure can be based on comparison-contrast, deductive logic, point-by-point analysis, development of a central theme, chronological history of an event, or any of a dozen other identifiable patterns. When the organization is strong, the piece begins meaningfully and creates in the writer a sense of anticipation that is ultimately, systematically fulfilled. Events proceed logically: information is given to the reader in the right doses at the right times so that the reader never loses interest and never the ‘big picture’—the overriding sense of what the writer is driving at. Connections are strong, which is another way of saying that bridges from one idea to the next hold up. The piece closes with a sense of resolution, tying up loose ends, bringing things to closure, answering important questions while still leaving the reader something to think about.
—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

After you explain what organization is, then you may have to explain how your piece is organized. This is hard for people who “just feel it.” They feel a piece of writing; they feel a piece of art. It works or it doesn’t, but they can’t tell you why. They are unable to deconstruct it. For them, doing that is equivalent to “showing the man behind the curtain”—at which point, the writing looses its magic.

Assessing Organization

  • Have you introduced your topic to your reader in an interesting way?
  • Have you concluded your point in a way that gives a sense of resolution?
  • Do transitions between ideas and sentences and paragraphs exist? Are they smooth? Do they follow logically?
  • Is the separation between elements, ideas, paragraphs natural and appropriate?

 

Whether it hurts your brain or not, if you care about your writing, you’ll put some thought into how its organized. Maybe the lights will come on, and you’ll see places for improvement. At the very least, you’ll be able to explain your thinking.

 

 

6 + 1 Analytical Model for Assessing Writing: Ideas

notebook for ideasToday, I’m continuing the post I started a few days ago about the seven qualities that define strong writing.

So to review, those qualities were: ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions, and presentation.

For this post, I’ll give you what I’ve got on ideas:

The ideas are the heart of the message, the content of the piece, the main theme, together with all the details that enrich and develop that theme. The ideas are strong when the message is clear…. The writer chooses details that are interesting, important, and informative—often the kinds of details the reader would not normally anticipate or predict. Successful writers do not tell readers things they already know [emphasis is mine]….They notice what others overlook, seek out the extraordinary, the unusual, the bits and pieces of life that others might not see.
—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

I often review writing where the author has not been able to narrow the scope of what he/she wants to talk about. Everything is important. I have nick-named it Kitchen Sink Syndrome. One tell-tale sign of Kitchen Sink Syndrome is the use of a series for the subject and a series for the predicate. I also find series of verbs.

For example:
The cats, dogs, and fish made their way to the national park by running, hitching a ride, and swimming along the narrow inlet where golden-headed otters looked for mates that were sleek, beautiful, and well-informed.

What does my writer want me to care about? Help me! Don’t make me choose.

It’s important to figure out the most important thing, or three—but, but please, no more than three. And one important thing with several supporting points is ideal. Remember, you want to lead your reader. Don’t make him do the work. Control his thoughts. Focus his attention. Show him exactly what you want him to see.

So where do you get ideas?

I get ideas from reading, from the Internet, from the news, and from talking to some really smart people. It’s helpful for me to jot down my ideas right when I have them; otherwise, I may forget them forever. Once when I was taking a poetry class, I would get the best ideas right as I was drifting off to sleep. It was very painful to drag myself out of bed and write them down. I definitely felt like I was a slave to my muse. This is the primary reason why I don’t write poetry anymore. When I write poetry these days, it’s because some invisible force has made me sit down and write.

As a general practice, the more you know and the more you learn about the world and your topic, the more ideas will naturally come to you. Having ideas is not writing. Everyone can have ideas, and everyone can have good ideas. The more you know, the more likely it is that your ideas will be splendid. So keep learning; keep researching. I find that one idea will lead to another and another.

Assessing Ideas

  1. Is your main point clear and concise? (What exactly are we talking about?)
  2. Do your details support the point you’re trying to make? Have you done a good job integrating these details into your piece?
  3. Are your details engaging? Are you bringing up points no one has thought about before? Have you added anything that might surprise your reader?

 

So good luck! And keep that notepad handy.

 

6 + 1 Trait Analytical Model for Assessing and Teaching Writing

Uniontown Night Sept 2014 field sittingToday I am beginning a series of posts about the craft of writing. This is information I got while studying writing as a graduate student at Portland State University. I have internalized some of these points, but many are concepts that I am still working on. I’m posting them here to get them off the floor of my home-office and into a handy place where I can refer back to them.

First of all, maybe it goes without saying but writing is very personal to us all. Even with the driest of material, writing is still a form of self expression, so when you work with writing and with writers, it’s helpful to always be aware of this fact. The gruffest of us seem to be the most sensitive, and anyone who tells me they have thick skin is immediately suspect.

My personal strategy is to try to keep it separated. My creative writing is writing I do on my own time. As Bob Ross would say: “It’s my own little world.” I can do anything I want to with it.

My work writing is for work. I don’t own it. They do. I’m there as a facilitator, cheerleader, project manager, researcher, idea bringer, collaborator, and doctor. It’s important to have a good “bedside manner.” Critical, in fact. Organized flexibility is key. An ego impervious to those who will thoughtlessly walk all over it is paramount. So, as sensitive as I can often be, I am fortunate to have an ego that takes it on the chin, for the most part.

There is competition to do the writing. From engineer to assembler, everyone seems to want to do it. Very few know how to qualify good writing, and many of us fall into that awful trap of subjectivity when we try to pass judgement. That means that sometimes good writing is overlooked, and sometimes bad writing is preferred.

The 6 + 1 Trait Analytical Model for assessing and teaching writing consists of seven qualities. (This is what I got from my “technical” writing courses. No fluffiness here.)

I’ll go into each of these more in later posts, but briefly, the key qualities are:

  1. Ideas—the heart of the message
  2. Organization—the internal structure of the piece
  3. Voice—the personal tone and flavor of the author’s message
  4. Word Choice—the vocabulary a writer chooses to convey meaning
  5. Sentence Fluency—the rhythm and flow of the language
  6. Conventions—the mechanical correctness
  7. Presentation—how the writing actually looks on the page

Michael Faraday and Other Musings

FaradayWhen asked about heroes, who comes to mind?

My grandfather loved Einstein. My grandmother never quite got on board. I’m not sure why. It could have been the womanizing thing. Or, maybe it was the bomb.

Me, I sometimes wonder who my heroes are. I don’t spend a lot of time looking. For some reason, I want my heroes to just show up and knock on my door. But for a long time, I was in my grandfather’s camp. Einstein is (was) kind of cool.

I’ve been spending the whole year clearing clutter, going through old papers and throwing out as much as possible. I had this crazy idea of leaving. Running away. I often joke that I’m a flight risk.

As I was doing this, I came across some Internet printouts on Thomas Edison, Edith Clarke, Michael Faraday, and Nicola Tesla. I had been hoarding them as is my nature. I couldn’t bear to throw them out until I had read them. So I’ve been holding onto them, for years.

Reading through this stack of papers, I discovered that these were some impressive people. At first glance, you’d think I’d like Edison, but no. He lost me with the experiments on dogs. I don’t care how much the guy perspired. Although the sudden windfall that sent him from rags to riches did capture my imagination, he came across as kind of, well, stuffy and gruff. So no, I am no Edison girl.

Edith Clarke—a female engineer, a human computer. She had the Texas connection. She and I walked on the same 40 acres. She traveled to Turkey to teach for a couple of years and then wound up retiring from the University of Texas. There must still be some Texas loyalty in my blood because I was left unimpressed to learn that upon her retirement she didn’t stay in Texas. She returned home to wherever it was she was from. So no, kudos to Edith, but no, it’s not her.

Tesla, the man who stood up to Edison. The guy who turned out to be right. AC is better. I have to admit; he was in the running. But no. It wasn’t him either.

Who was it? Michael Faraday, of course. The poor boy who divided up his loaf of bread into 14 equal pieces to ensure that he would have something to eat every day of the week. The boy who went to a chemistry lecture, took copious notes, returned to his bookbinding job, bound those notes, and sent them to the lecturer along with a letter begging for employment, begging to be taken away from the drudgery that was his life. Sounds like something I would do. I like this guy. And for Faraday, it worked.

Faraday was interested in all the things I’m interested in: light, magnets, electricity, force fields, strain, tension. He seemed to be onto how all of these things are connected. Light: particle or wave? Both? That’s what I grew up wondering about. It’s all connected. Chemistry is in there too, somewhere.

Faraday figured out induction which led to the generator, and the production of electricity. My life. It would seem.

I’m notorious for connecting things that should not be connected. But upon reading about Faraday, I thought of a conversation I had not so long ago with someone I admire. He was telling me that sometimes tension is good. Bah humbug, I wanted to say. And then I read about Faraday and about waves, the tension that is caught up in a wave, drawn oh so tight until its release and the wave that washes back in the other direction. The ocean. The moon. Tension. Stress.

“Unlike his contemporaries, Faraday was not convinced that electricity was a material fluid that flowed through wires like water through a pipe. Instead, he thought of it as a vibration or force that was somehow transmitted as the result of tensions created in the conductor.”

“When he opened the circuit, however, he was astonished to see the galvanometer jump in the opposite direction. Somehow, turning off the current also created an induced current in the secondary circuit, equal and opposite to the original current. This phenomenon led Faraday to propose what he called the ‘electronic’ state of particles in the wire, which he considered to be in a state of tension. A current thus appeared to be the setting up of such a state of tension or the collapse of such a state.”

He never found the experimental evidence to support this theory, but I like it. Sounds pretty darn good to me.

Unfortunately, I’m way out of my league when I try to talk about these things. But they fascinate me. Gosh, sit me down with a particle physicist any day, and I would be in heaven.

 

 

Random Russian Reading List

Russian reading listLeonid Andreev, The Abyss (1902)
Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967)
Anna Akhmatova, Requiem (1963)
Vasily Aksenov, Generations of Winter (1994)

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (written between 1928 and 1940; published in 1967)
Andrei Bitov, Pushkin House (1978)
Boris Bugayev, Andrey Bely (1880),  The Silver Dove (1910)
Ivan Bunin, The Village (1909)

Anton Chekhov, Ward No 6 (1892)
Anton Chekhov, The Darling (1899)
Anton Chekhov, Duel (1892)
Anton Chekhov, My Life (1896)
Anton Chekhov, Peasants (1897)
Anton Chekhov, In the Ravine (1900)
Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Dog (1899)

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Double (1846)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Idiot (1869)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground (1864)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Possessed (1872)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights (1848)
Sergei Dovlatov, Affiliate (1990)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Compromise (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Craft: A Story in Two Parts (1985)
Sergei Dovlatov, Demarche of Enthusiasts (1985)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Foreign Branch (1989)
Sergei Dovlatov, A Foreign Woman (1986)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Invisible Book (1977)
Sergei Dovlatov, March of the Single People (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Notebooks (1990)
Sergei Dovlatov, Ours: A Russian Family Album (1989)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Performance (1987)
Sergei Dovlatov, Pushkin Hills (2014)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Reserve (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Solo on Underwood: Notebooks (1980)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Suitcase (1986)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Zone:A Prison Camp Guard’s Story (1982)

Vsevolod Garsin, Red Flower (1883)
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls (1842)
Nikolai Gogol, The Night Before Christmas (1832)
Nikolai Gogol, The Nose (1836)
Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat (1842)
Nikolai Gogol, Taras Bulba (1842)
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov (1859)
Ivan Goncharov, Same Old Story (1847)

Aleksander Herzen, Whose Fault (1846)

Vladislav Khodasevich, Heavy Lyre (1922)
Vladislav Khodasevich, European Night (1927)
Vladimir Korolenko, Makar’s Dream (1885)
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Quadraturin (1926)
Andrei Kurkov, Death and the Penguin (1996)

Ivan Lazhechnikov, The Ice Palace (1835)
Leonid Leonov, Russian Forest (1953)
Leonid Leonov, The Thief (1927)
Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time (1841)
Nikolai Leskov, The Enchanted Wanderer (1873)
Nikolai Leskov, The Cathedral Folk (1872)
Nikolai Leskov, The Sealed Angel
Kotik Letayev, The Memoirs of a Crank (1923)

Vladimir Nabokov, Glory (1832)
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

Vladimir Odoevskij, Russian Nights (1844)
Yuri Olesha, Envy (1927)

Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (1957)
Liudmila Petrushevskaia, The Time: Night (1994)
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (2009)
Aleksei Pisemsky, One Thousand Souls (1858)
Andrei Platonov, Foundation Pit (1951)
Andrei Platonov, Chevengur (1951)
Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1825)
Aleksander Pushkin, The Queen of Spades (1834)

Valentin Rasputin, Final Term (1971)

Aleksei Remizov, Pond (1903)
Aleksei Remizov, Olja (1927)

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Gospoda Golovlevy/ The Golovlyov Family (1876)
Mikhail Sholokhov, Quiet Flows the Don (1934)
Vasily Sleptsov, Hard Times (1865)
Sasha Sokolov, School for Fools (1977)
Sasha Sokolov, Palisandriia/ Astrophobia (1985)
Sasha Sokolov, Between Dog and Wolf (1980)
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward (1968)
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
Vladimir Sorokin, The Queue (1985)
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic (1971)

Aleksei Tolstoj, Peter the First (1945)
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886)
Leo Tolstoy, Kreitserova Sonata (1890)
Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection (1899)
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869)

Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862)
Ivan Turgenev, Home of the Gentry (1859)
Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve (1860)
Yuri Trifonov, Time and Place (1981)

Lyudmila Ulitskaya, The Kukotsky Case (2001)
Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Little Sonya (1995)

Aleksander Veltman, Wanderer (1832)
Aleksander Veltman, The Deathless (1832)
Vladimir Voinovich, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1975)

Evgeny Zamyatin, We (1924)

 

Random Interesting Quotes:

Evgeny Grishkovets: “I insist that what I write is literature based not on observation, but on emotional experience.”

Eduard Limonov: “These are reports from a hot spot – my life.”

Victor Pelevin: “Reality is any hallucination you believe in one hundred percent.”

 

Dan Carlin—A new find for me

Dan Carlin Hardcore HistoryI am an editor and proofreader by day, and that means that often when I get home, my eyes hurt. My eyes hurt so bad lately that even watching TV is painful.

This is partially how I wandered upon Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast.

I’ve been listening to Blueprint for Armageddon, which is the story of World War I, how it began, why, and then how the battles went. I found it hard to believe. I didn’t learn any of this in school. I didn’t quite believe Dan. Was he a crackpot? So I Googled the battle of Verdun. The photos are there, but hearing Carlin describe the scene makes it more real, makes you realize all of the contents of those photos.

You would think after World War I, no one would have wanted a sequel. You would think that everyone would have lost interest, in even getting out of bed, much less going off to fight. But we humans, I guess that’s a large part of who we are.

So, World War III, it’s what I grew up fearing. The Russians were sure to bomb us. And then I met some Russians, and I really liked them. They were very friendly, kind, warm, helpful, sincere, thoughtful, and intelligent. They were real. They had substance.

Anyway, check out Dan Carlin. My grandmother was eight when WWI started. Oddly, you get the feeling that people were nicer back then. So if nice people could do that…

(There are reading lists all throughout Dan’s blog. Here’s one. Scroll to the bottom of the page.)

Pushkin Hills

Pushkin HillsBy Sergei Dovlatov, translated by Katherine Dovlatov, Counterpoint Berkeley, @1983, translation@2013, 163 pages.

So it’s like this. I started reading this book a few months ago and it didn’t reach me. I wasn’t feeling it. I was about 50 pages in and not tremendously impressed. I wasn’t hearing Sergei’s voice in my head like the books that were translated by Anne Friedman, and I started to think maybe it was the new translator’s fault, Katherine, Sergei’s daughter. Maybe, well maybe, she just wasn’t capturing his voice. This depressed me. So I was already a little depressed, and this didn’t help—and my Russian, while it is good enough to get me food, shelter and a bus ticket, is not good enough to allow me to read Dovlatov in the original, though this is sort of an emerging goal.

Well, I was kind of giving myself a hard time about, well, was it Katherine’s translation, or maybe was it that I didn’t like Dovlatov as much as I thought? Was I possibly influenced by whomever it was who first gave me his name? Maybe my love of Dovlatov was a passing thing, you know, not real.

So I was just sitting around today, waiting for my rice to get done and not doing anything in particular but being stuck in the kitchen, and I picked up Pushkin Hills again. And there he was, Sergei, his voice, everything—and then he made me laugh—again and again and again. And I decided that I do really like him after all, and that Katherine did a fine job in translating him into English, and that it was just me. Just me being depressed and unreachable—before.

Lines like: “…I am simply horrified. You called Pushkin a crazed ape…”

and the story about Mitrofanov, p. 46, and what a complete genius he was and how he was completely lazy too. I hate to say it, but it reminded me of someone very close to me. “His tours were twice longer than the average. At times, tourists fainted from the strain.”

I also liked the story about Stasik Pototsky, the man who decided to become a writer of literary best sellers after reading 12. “A reliable armour of literary conventionality protected them from censorship.” And I started to think, hmmm, how far away is capitalism from communism?

Things changed when Pototsky left the provinces and went to Leningrad: “A complete absence of talent did not pay, while its presence made people nervous….What was forgiven in a provencial novice affronted in a cosmopolitan writer.” Well, anyway, Stasik came to a bad end. And knowing Dovlatov’s difficulties getting published in the USSR, you get why.

But best of all was this: “The more I got to know Pushkin, the less I felt like talking about him.” This is said by a Dovlatov’s character, as a tour guide at Pushkin Hills. And you get the significance of this if you understand how revered Pushkin is. And that’s when I knew. Yes, I do really like Sergei, and I’ve missed him.

NaNoWriMo: My characters are calling

In an interview, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, said that there are all these stories wandering around up in the Ether that are just waiting to be written, and if you don’t write them, if you don’t act as a conduit to help them enter the world, they’ll find someone who will. Don’t let someone else write your story, she warns.

Last November, I participated in NaNoWriMo. I didn’t “win.”  Well, that’s not exactly right. I didn’t “win” in the sense that I didn’t write 50,000  words. I wrote something like 33,000, which was 33,000 more than I had ever written before. I considered it a win. My story was bizarre. It evolved rapidly. My main character was modeled loosely after someone who fascinated me. But then something odd happened. Another character emerged. One who hadn’t existed in my imagination before, and well, he demanded to be written. He wanted to exist. And then, he wanted to take over the whole bloody novel.

It was quite unsettling.

Maybe I’ve been rebelling. My novel’s not about you, I think to this character. I don’t even know who you are. Where did you come from? Why are you here? And now you want to take over everything?

Several months have gone by. Almost a full year. Things have happened. But now, scenes from my story are bubbling up in my consciousness. What happens next? What did I leave out? There seems to be new inspiration. A character wants to be written. Or developed. A nagging has begun. I haven’t looked at the story since November of last year, and now out of nowhere, it’s begun to call me back. There’s a depth of feeling that I must still have. Write us, they are clamoring. We want to live.

 

Fathers and Sons

By Ivan Turgenev, Modern Library New York, @ 1961 for the English translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney; first published in 1862, 281 pages.

I don’t know what it is, but if someone tells me to read a book or an author, I automatically resist. The more they rave, the more I resist. So way back when, I asked someone to make a list of must-read Russian authors, and Turgenev was on this list. So, some 20 years later, I am picking up Fathers and Sons.

Turgenev_Oxford

Ivan Turgenev

Or Fathers and “Children”—but maybe this is just me overly concerned with the correct translation—and accuracy. The topic is nihilism (am I a nihilist?) and this is what I should be concerned about. As explained in the novel, a nihilist is “a man who does not accede to authority, who does not accept a single principle on faith, no matter how great the aura of respect which surrounds that principle”), but my mind is struck more with the situation the father is in. Nicholai Petrovich Kirsanov (aged 40 ish) has taken up with his servant girl (Theodosia or Feodosya or Phenechka aged 20 ish) and fathered a child. This sends my mind into a tailspin and derails me from any sophisticated discussion of nihilism to come.

The story begins on May 20, 1959 as Nicholai Petrovich awaits his son’s (Arcadii’s) return from Saint Petersburg as a university graduate. Arcadii has brought home a friend, Evgenii Vaselivich Bazarov, a medical student and a nihilist.

Since Bazarov isn’t too taken with Arcadii’s uncle Pavel, Arcadii explains his uncle’s early life and heartache. It’s a sad tale and told well by Turgenev—sad, because love hasn’t changed over time. Pavel is brokenhearted—I won’t rob you of the story, but Bazarov, our nihilist, remains unmoved:

“…I would say that a fellow who has staked his entire life on the card of woman’s love and who, when that card is trumped, goes all to pieces and sinks to such an extent that he’s not fit for anything—a fellow like that is no man, no male.”

I saw this in my mother (for my father), and it makes me sad to read it here. She would say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. But is it love to have loved a phantom? One’s own illusion, someone with no more basis in reality than a character in a book?

I found Turgenev’s insight on aging interesting:

“Pavel…was…on the threshold of that troubled, twilight time, a time of regrets that resemble hopes and of hopes that resemble regrets, when youth has gone by while old age has not yet arrived.”

It’s a hot night as I write this. The television has been off. All the windows are open. A light cool breeze blows gently through. It’s summer here, like in the story. The crickets are chirping and once in a while a car goes by. It’s quiet as I read about Bazarov’s family. I feel I have met this family before. I have met his mother before. I wax nostalgic about this for a while. Tonight, after walking around town, appreciating the rolling hills and the setting sun, feeling the cooling of the night, I’m not so very sad. I wish for this lifestyle every night. This routine of coming home, eating dinner, studying Spanish, walking around town, and sitting down to read.

Authors love to torture their characters, so of course, Bazarov has to fall in love. He is quite wretched, probably more so because he thought he was immune to such things. It’s interesting for the reader to watch him squirm. We know that having love in his life would be good for him and we want to see him get it, but he’s in his own way. Oddly, he declares his love to the woman he cares for because he gets so worked up about it. She doesn’t respond, yeah or neah. And this given all of his pride and self conceit is difficult for him to take.

Turgenev captures youthful restlessness well. When Bazarov cuts his visit to his parents short, his father and mother are very sad. Children can’t help but mistreat their parents, without meaning to. And a long married couple who weathers the various storms of life ends up rather like this:

“It was then that Arina Vlassievna drew near to him [her husband] and, placing her gray head against his gray head, told him: ‘What can a body do, Vassya! A son is a slice cut off the loaf. He’s the same as a falcon: he felt like it, and he winged back to the nest; he felt like it, and he winged away. But you and I are like brown autumn mushrooms that grow on a hollow tree: stuck there side by side and never budging from our places. I alone will remain unchanged for you through all time, just as you will for me.”

This is a beautiful and apt way of putting marriage, I think.

[SPOILER ALERT]

But who is this guy Bazarov? Is Turgenev trying to tell us that he’s bizarre? And his first name, Evgenii (Eugene), a reference to Eugene Onegin, the bad boy of Russian literature? (Although for bad boys, I like Pucharin.)

But that’s just it. Bazarov isn’t bad. He’s just lost. And when he finally is lost, we feel sad. It was a waste, ridiculous, preventable, but a good thing for frogs, no doubt.

 

 

 

 

Penguin Lost

062By Andrey Kurkov, Translated by George Bird, Melville International Crime, Melville House, Brooklyn, New York, @2002, 255 pages.

Penguin Lost is the sequel to Death and the Penguin. The story begins with a betrayal and ends with redemption. Along the way, we journey from Kiev to Moscow and into Chechnya. I thought the last line was the best.

What I like so much about these penguin books, besides their bizarre nature, is that Kurkov has set up the scenario where there is interspecies friendship. I haven’t seen that done before, and I appreciate it. Misha, the penguin, is our protagonist’s (Victor’s) friend. But, Kurkov doesn’t make Misha cutesy or try to make him human. Misha remains a true penguin, with the heart of child, which still seems odd, but so be it.

It’s an interesting take on friendship, betrayal, and redemption, not exceptionally deep, but it does provide an interesting excursion elsewhere.

I would love to see these penguin books on the big screen. This morning I was thinking that I’d sure like to write that screenplay. I could see Victor as a Slavic James Bond with everything that might mean.

 

Fallen Swan

Like an apple on toothpicks,
the elderly ballerina
tiptoes across the yard.

Finding the pond,
she asks
the dark waters
for their old reflections.

Like a duck,
she submerges her head,
draining away
the makeup
and the years.

Emerging as swan,
she swims the shadows—
Echappe, pas ballonne, glissade.

Remembering
across the years,
across the algean floor,
freeing dreams
of Barishnikov.

NaPoWriMo Day 5 (Villanelle): Running for the Train

I think I see you running for the train
The shock of recognition stops me still
Our love’s been lost for years, so I refrain.

Your form remains a blur in all this rain
I start to lift my hand and yet I’m still
I think I see you running for the train.

I see your happy eyes and I’m all pain
Sensations long forsaken prompt me still
Our love’s been lost for years, so I refrain.

You’re soaring with a girl down this wide lane
You’re thinner and your clothes are different, still
I think I see you running for the train.

I’m wrong, it isn’t you, my eyes complain
The need to know consumes me ’till I’m ill
Our love’s been lost for years, so I refrain.

It’s too late now, I know it’s all in vain,
I shut my eyes but see your image still
I think I see you running for the train
Our love’s been lost for years, so I remain.

 

NaPoWriMo Day 3 (Palindrome): It stopped with you

lightningIt stopped
amazingly
one day
when there was biology everywhere
air became love
alive again
bees buzzing
birds singing
clouds flowing
rain falling
finally there was
electricity with

—You—

with electricity finally
was there
falling rain
flowing clouds
singing birds
buzzing bees
again alive
beating hearts
love became air
everywhere biology was there when
day one
amazingly
stopped
it.

War and Peace Book Review: Part II

War and Peace Russian 1By Leo Tolstoy, originally published in 1869, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 1408 pages.

I can’t seem to move on without finishing up my thoughts on War and Peace. There is so much in this book, so many quotes that provoke thought that I wanted to record some of them here. But first, a few general comments.

The members of my book club complained that there were too many character and plot loose ends. I think that is because throughout the work, Tolstoy was trying to imitate life, real life. And in real life people form new relationships and move on. There isn’t always closure and there is often disappointment.

Because of this, War and Peace can be read in several ways. It can be read merely for its story. It can be read for Tolstoy’s philosophy regarding historical science. Or, it can be read for the many details of human nature and interaction that Tolstoy provides. Clearly Tolstoy understood the Russian aristocracy and the politics of the drawing room. I think it’s interesting to ponder how the drawing room of the 1800s and the social norms observed there can still be found to some extent, though somewhat altered, in places of social interaction today—such as the office. If you think about it, for many of the aristocrats of the 1800s who did not have to work and therefore did not have the cubical madness we embrace today, the drawing room very well may have been their equivalent of our office.

Another thing that makes this book so interesting is that it was written approximately 150 years ago about events that happened approximately 200 years ago. The details that we get transport us back in time. I have to say that I am so sorry for the poor horses. Taken into battle, wounded, killed, starved, eaten. War itself is a suffering, blind mess, and Tolstoy provides vivid details:

“Prince Andrey turned his scornful gaze on the endless, chaotic mass of detachments, wagons, supply vehicles, artillery and more wagons, wagons, wagons of every size and shape, overtaking one another and blocking the muddy road three and four abreast. On all sides, right up front and way behind, as far as the ear could strain in every direction, you could hear wheels rumbling, carts rattling, wagons creaking, gun-carriages groaning, horses trampling, whips cracking, drivers shouting and everybody swearing, soldiers, orderlies, and officers. The roadsides were littered everywhere with fallen horses, flayed and unflayed, broken-down wagons with solitary soldiers sitting by them just waiting, other soldiers separated from their units, heading in little groups for the next village or carrying loot from the last one—chickens, sheep, hay, or sackfuls of something or other. When the road went uphill or downhill, the crowds squashed together even closer, and there was an endless hubbub of shouts and groans. Soldiers floundering knee-deep in mud heaved guns and wagons along with their bare hands while the whips cracked, hoofs slithered, traces snapped and the air rang with the most heart-rending cries.”

Do I like Tolstoy? Well, yes and no. I don’t like that Tolstoy is trying to push his agenda on me. Every writer does this, of course, but Tolstoy has a heavier hand than I like. One book club member said that after Tolstoy, she didn’t think she would read any more Russian authors. I was stunned. What a statement and from a world traveler no less. Are all Russians the same? Everyone of them? Now, yesterday, and forever? What?????

Sorry, I’m going to have to digress here. These are the kinds of statements I’m having to make lately: Not all Russians are the same. The USSR is no longer in existence. The USSR consisted of 15 republics that dissolved in 1991, not in 1989 when the Wall fell. The Wall was in Germany. Russia was one of those republics. Russians are not all atheists! There are many deeply religious Russians. Notice the incredible eastern Orthodox churches. Russians do smile, and they do smile in public. Yes, yes, I know. We were all victims of Cold War propaganda, but we don’t have to continue to be victims. We can open our eyes! There are good and bad people everywhere. We are all a mix.

Ok, well that said. I like (love) Tolstoy—in parts. I love the way he captures little bits of human nature that ring so true to us that they remain relevant after more than 100 years and across thousands of miles. The following are some examples of what I’m talking about.

A severe criticism of society:

“Just as a skilful head waiter can pass off as a supreme delicacy a cut of beef that would be inedible if you’d seen it in the filthy kitchen, Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests that evening first the viscount and then the abbĂ© as if they were supreme delicacies.”

On the way some men talk to women:

“His face changed instantly and assumed the sickly sweet, patronizing air which he obviously reserved for conversations with women.”

On women who forget themselves:

“She had obviously forgotten her age, and habit had told her to let go with all her ancient womanly wiles.”

The sometimes painful sincerity of Pierre:

“His smile was not like theirs—theirs were no real smiles.”

First thoughts of Napoleon:

“If I were fighting for freedom I’d understand it. I’d be the first to enlist, but helping England and Austria against the greatest man in the world—that’s not right.”—Pierre

Makes you say, hmmm:

“‘If everybody fought for nothing but his own convictions, there wouldn’t be any wars,’ he said.”

On marriage:

“‘Never, never get married, my dear fellow…But tie yourself to a woman and you’ll lose all your freedom, like convict in fetters. And all the hope and strength there is in you just drags you down and tortures you with regret…If you only knew what these fine women are, or let’s say women in general…Selfish, vain, stupid, totally vacuous—that’s what women are when they show themselves in their true colors.”—Prince Andrey

Social graces:

“Even in the very warmest, friendlist and simplest of relationships you need either flattery or praise in the way that you need grease to keep the wheels turning.”

Before Pierre received his inheritance he was received “like a corpse or a plague victim.”

On Prince Andrey’s father:

“…the prince was brusque and always demanding so that without actually being cruel he inspired the kind of fear and respect that the cruelest of men would have found it difficult to achieve.”

The Way a Man Can Shame a Woman:

“On the way to his sister’s room, in the gallery connecting the two parts of the house, Prince Andrey came across Mademoiselle Bourienne who smiled sweetly at him. It was the third time that day that she had happened on him in out-of-the-way passages, always with a nice beaming smile on her face.

“‘Oh, I thought you were in your room,’ she said, blushing for some reason and looking down. Prince Andrey glanced at her sharply, and a look of bitter displeasure came over his face. He glared at her in silence, not at her eyes but at her forehead and hair, with such contempt that she turned bright red and walked off without another word.”

On Crossing Lines:

“The enemy held their fire, increasing the sense of that dark menacing, mysterious, and intangible dividing line that exists between two warring armies. One step across that dividing line, so like the one between the living and the dead, and you enter an unknown world of suffering and death.”

Later when Pierre is trying to ask Helene to marry him, he mentions a line that he must cross and his inability to cross it.

On Fear in War:

“He grabbed his pistol, and instead of firing he hurled it at the Frenchman and dashed towards the bushes as fast as his legs would carry him.”

Well anyway, I could go on and on, and maybe I will at some point later. The book is a hefty tome, no doubt about that. I can’t believe it would ever be assigned to a high school student. That seems preposterous and a way to kill a love of literature in anyone. But if read without a deadline and for pure interest in the subject, War and Peace has a lot to offer.

War and Peace: Book Review Part I

War and Peace Russian 2By Leo Tolstoy; first published in 1869; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; 1408 pages (Notes begin on page 1359).

Around page 1350, I began to wonder, just what is Tolstoy trying to do here? Obviously an intelligent guy, definitely no radical, what is going on with the structure of this book????

[Spoiler Alert]

It seems odd to put a spoiler alert on a book that was published more than 100 years ago, but still, I realize many people haven’t read it and I don’t want to interfere with Tolstoy’s intent by saying: hey watch out for this, especially for those puritans out there who want to experience the work as it was meant to be experienced.

If, however, you are one of those “walk on the wild side” kind of people, here’s what I think is going on.

The whole work is a demonstration of two types of historical thought:

  1. Stories of individuals, descriptions of the lives of people (the drama experienced by specific characters, Pierre, et. al.)
  2. Historical movements of peoples and humanity (the French invading Russia and the Russians chasing them back into Europe)

Tolstoy’s point is that you can look at history in these two ways and these two ways lead to conclusions that are at odds with each other. In the first way, when examining history as though it depends on individual leaders and the multitude of causes performed by individuals, the concept of free will comes under examination. Individuals have free will, they choose their actions, and history results. In the second way, when you look at humanity in more general terms as a unit and think that we are all affected by the natural environment in which we live. We are all affected by space and by time, by our environments, etc. And all of these situational constraints keep us from ever truly being free. For example, we have to eat; therefore, we may be compelled to do things to satisfy this need. The more needs we have to fulfill, the less free we are.

So let’s look at the two points again:

  1. Stories of individuals (the plot) is used to illustrate the concept of free will
  2. Mass migration of armies east and then west (the historical backdrop of Napoleon invading Russia) is used to illustrate the concept of historical laws (in this case the law of necessity)

Tolstoy seems to be saying that historians of his time hesitate to examine this phenomenon of historical laws, in this case the struggle between the law of necessity and that of free will.

“And now…a hard struggle is being conducted between old and new attitudes to history, and in just the same way theology, guardian of the old, calls the new attitude an offense against revelation.”

“…it now seems that once we accept the law of necessity we destroy all concepts of the soul, or good and evil, and all the towering political and ecclesiastical institutions founded on them….the law of necessity in history, far from destroying the foundations on which political and ecclesiastical institutions are constructed, actually strengthens them.”

If you read Part II of the Epilogue, you’ll find this discussion. Reading this before reading the whole book from the beginning is what I suggest to get the most out of Tolstoy’s argument. It won’t ruin the plot for you at all. But it may rob you of that “ah ha” moment—which if you think about it, I am robbing you of right now.

It is very interesting. Perhaps more interesting than any of the preceding pages. I think Tolstoy was trying to prove his point throughout his novel. By the time we get to the Epilogue, we see him pulling these strands together.

In the final analysis, I believe that Tolstoy was saying that we are never completely free. We believe we are free, but by virtue of being alive and all the necessities that state of being brings about, we do not have the free will we think we do.

I got the feeling he was saying freedom and necessity are in constant flux. And some people have their lives set up so that they have fewer needs and greater freedom, whereas others don’t.

Very interesting concepts, indeed.

The treason of the artist

I was trying to think of something to post today, and I saw that someone had searched and found my blog using this question: What does “the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain” mean?

This quote is from the short story by Ursula Le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

I thought I’d take a stab at answering this question. Alternatively, whoever asked the question might try contacting Ursula. Who knows, she might answer you. Some authors are quite friendly and happy to expound on the topics that interest them. But, sometimes I find questions in stories to be opportunities to do a little soul searching, a little probing to see what I can make of their significance.  So here is my take.

The quote that I put on my blog was this:

“They [the citizens of Omelas] were no less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pendants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

Le Guin is contrasting the citizens of Omelas with us—the world she has created (a utopian world where everyone is happy) and the real world (where there is much hardship and pain).

The quote goes on to say:

“If you can’t lick ’em join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy…”

To me, Ursula is saying that the treason of the artist is that artists regard evil as supremely interesting. Artists value pain and despair. These things drive creativity behind art; they are at its core. Artists don’t recognize the commonplace or ordinary nature of evil. Artists see evil as unique, worth writing about, worth centering stories around, worth painting and showing off. Evil fuels the news. We fight evil in our games. In a way, all this attention to evil elevates evil as though it were extraordinary, as though it were unique, as though it could be categorized as new and different.

But, argues Ursula, there is nothing new about evil, or pain. They are quite ordinary to our world and to our condition in the world. The treason of the artist, therefore, is to refuse to see evil this way. Artists idolize our world. Artists see the world as a place that should not have evil and pain, and therefore they continue their treason, that of regarding evil and pain as interesting above happiness, as extraordinary, as something worth examining in every creation. Evil and pain are the points of interest. Our resistance to them, how and why we resist, consumes our imagination as we obsessively and compulsively ruminate over these fundamental elements of our existence.

As for the terrible boredom of pain, I struggle with this idea. When someone is in pain, their pain fascinates them. Nothing else can absorb their interest. If someone, as in Ursula’s story, was condemned to a life of pain, I suppose there could be a terrible boredom in that. Would there come a horrible point when the pain became boring? And would that point result only from a hideous pain and psychological struggle hard for us to even imagine? I don’t know.

In the end, I think Ursula is saying that artists betray our trust. They commit “treason” against us by continuing to demonstrate that evil is unique/extraordinary and that pain is interesting.

But are artists by nature of our world and the very nature of our existence condemned to be treasonous? Writing exists (art) only when there is conflict. Art arises out of resistance to conflict. We regard our world as “creation.” Could “creation” exist without conflict? Is it even possible to have a world, “creation,” without pain?

In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” Ursula has tried to not commit this treason; she has tried to create art, a utopian world, where pain is unique and not banal, not commonplace. This becomes a horrible world where everyone is in on inflicting the pain so that they don’t have to personally experience it. If there were such a world, asks Ursula, would you want to be part of it? Would you want to live in a world where evil is unique because wouldn’t that mean that if you yourself did not experience the pain of evil, wouldn’t you then be the one who inflicts the evil? To not rescue someone in pain makes you a party to inflicting the pain.

Ursula also tell us that the victim of this pain and evil can never be truly rescued, can never be healed, can never recover. They are permanently damaged by all this pain and degradation beyond all repair. There is nothing you can do to help them. Even if they were released from their bondage, they are forever imprisoned psychologically. You can’t fix this.

And so, some people, a limited few, upon realizing their powerlessness to affect change in Omelas refuse to be a part of that society and they walk away. They leave a world where their happiness is ensured and enter a dark world where they will know suffering and despair. They chose to take on their part of the burden of the world’s suffering.

So in the end, do artists commit treason? Are artists by the very nature of the creation we all live in compelled to commit treason? Is it possible to create an interesting story without evil or pain?

War and Peace: Tips for Reading

War and Peace Russian Poster

I’m still in the process of reading War and Peace, but since I had such a hard time breaking into this novel and because my friends have had the same experience, I thought I would share some dos and don’ts that I have discovered.

Don’t:

  • Be lazy like me and buy an Audible book version of this masterpiece. I tried that thinking that I could multitask while listening to the book. This was a big mistake. The tone and inflection of the reader put me off to such an extent that I started to hate the book and all of its characters.
  • Give up…until you’ve reached page 250. If you don’t like the book by page 250, you probably won’t, so it’s safe to stop at this point. As for myself, I was very interested in the book by page 100. I enjoy Tolstoy’s observations and interpretations of his character’s innermost thoughts and feelings.

Do:

  • Go online and find a summary of the five families of this book, their members, and their relationships to each other. This is not cheating. Figuring out who’s who is the central challenge of this novel. It takes about 100 pages to nail it down.
  • Make notes in the margins of your book. This could be hard with an eReader. Since my debacle with the Audiobook, I went back to the old style paper version. Whenever something interesting happens, I make a mark in the margin or underline the text. When I notice that one part of the book relates to another, I write the associated page numbers in the margins. This has helped immensely.
  • Pay attention to when and what characters are speaking French versus Russian. I found it very interesting that while Russia is under attack by the French, its upper class snobbishly prefers to speak French—at home. Why wasn’t Russian good enough for them? Tolstoy even goes so far as to give one of his main Russian characters a French name: Pierre.
  • Read this in the wintertime when it’s cold outside but there’s no snow and no snow sports.
  • Accept that this is a really long work and pace yourself. I set myself a goal of reading 100 pages per week. Sometimes I read more, but I don’t allow myself to read fewer than 100 pages. That comes to 10 pages a day (on workdays) and 50 pages over the weekend.
  • Read Part II of the Epilogue before reading anything else. This will set you up nicely for what is to come.

Happy Reading!

The Lizzy Bennet Diaries

OK, so this is some hilarious stuff. Enjoy…

“Wear the old coat and buy the new book.”

So, if you love Pride and Prejudice, or even if you think it’s silly and like to see people poking fun at the ridiculousness of it all, I think you’ll enjoy this video.

Check it out! And if you fall in love with it, don’t worry. There’s plenty of episodes to keep you busy!

View original post

Reading List for 2015

Here are my goal books for 2014. My must reads:

First off, I really want to read something in Spanish. This one is pretty short, and the author is well respected:

050

This one is one of those “guilty books.” This was my mother’s favorite book. I didn’t read it while she was alive. She really wanted me to, but I never got around to it. It is Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R.D. Blackmore.

052

Just one I’ve been wanting to read for a long time.

054

This one sounds interesting and is by an author I’ve never read before:

056

This is one that I carried back from Russia and have been carrying around with me for many years. Time to read it:

057

The latest from Andrey Kurkov, an interesting Ukrainian author, and author of Death and the Penguin:

060

The sequel to Death and the Penguin. Should be interesting to find out what happens to Misha:

062

A fellow blogger recommended this one to me:

063

Heard so much about this one:

065

Striking another one off the classics list. Seems like I should read it before visiting Spain, which I would like to do asap:

068

And another one by Gary Jennings. Excited and scared to read it:

069

War and Peace: Reader Preparation

War and Peace 1

By Leo Tolstoy; Translated by Anthony Briggs; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; @ 2005; originally published in 1869; first appeared in 1865–66; 1408 pages.

War and Peace is known for its massiveness. At 1,408 pages, reading War and Peace is like reading five novels. I don’t think Americans are typically required to read it. I wasn’t, not even at The University of Texas where I majored in Russian and East European Studies. So why read War and Peace now—since I’ve already escaped it once?

It’s a common question. The members of my book club are asking themselves this too. What have we gotten ourselves into? Is this book still relevant? Is it worth it? Might this a book be better put off until old age when we have absolutely nothing better to do?

Well, we say, it’s got to be a classic for a reason. It’s got to be good. Otherwise, it wouldn’t still be around. Right?

Were it not for my persistent feelings of inadequacy which spring largely from possessing a Russian Studies degree and never having read this book, I might have been able to worm myself away. But, there it is. My personal and psychological makeup require that I drag my eyes over these 500,000 words.

There is some solace. The introduction promises me that:

“Above all, War and Peace will move readers by virtue of its beauty as a work of art. It is a triumphant affirmation of human life in all its richness and complexity. That is why one can return to it and always find new meanings and new truths in it.”

In 1865 War and Peace was released serially in the magazine The Russian Messenger and was titled The Year 1805. It wasn’t until 1869 that it was first published as a single unit. So the first readers weren’t handed a tome that resembles an attractive door stop. Instead, they were spoon fed bits of story. War and Peace must have been like a soap opera or a telenovella.

Lots of pressing issues had to be on the Russian mind at this time. Twenty three million serfs had just been liberated (1861). This was a big change for Russian aristocracy. The price for labor had just gone up—way, way up! In effect 23 million people now had the full rights of free citizens, could finally marry without having to gain consent, could own property, and could create and own a business. And, they could buy land. Shocking. Simply shocking!

So perhaps, part of the contemporaneous appeal of War and Peace was a nostalgia for the past. The time when the power and significance of Russian society was unshakable. There were ways one had to act. A foreign language one needed to know (French). People one needed to know. Connections one had to establish or face the consequences of a harsh life, or worse.

And at the time of the book’s publication, we are 52 years from the 1917 revolution, which would change everything. Revolution seems to weak a term for what happened in 1917. But its the word we’ve got.

So picture yourself on a cold night in 1865. Downton Abbey has yet to be written. Television has yet to be invented. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’re not living with electricity, and there’s no Facebook. The latest issue of The Russian Messenger has just arrived. Thank goodness for this Leo Tolstoy chap, you think to yourself in French. Wonder what ol’ Pierre has gotten up to now. How is Prince Andrey?

Settle back into your easy chair and prepare to be transported back to an earlier time. You’re in the drawing room of the wealthy 40-year-old Anna Scherer in 1805. She goes by Annette. The year 1812 is still a ways off. There’s a prince who is having trouble with one of his sons, Anatole. The solution is simple. Marry the boy off. Annette will see that it’s done.

A Hero of Our Time

English: A portrait of Mikhail Yurievich Lermo...

English: A portrait of Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov by Pyotr Zabolotsky, painted in 1837. This reproduction is in color. РуссĐșĐžĐč: М. Đź. Đ›Đ”Ń€ĐŒĐŸĐœŃ‚ĐŸĐČ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Mihail Lermontov, @ 1839, 141 pages.

There’s nothing like being required to read a particular book that makes you want to read something else. I am supposed to be reading War and Peace, but I am compelled to read A Hero of Our Time. So finally, I gave in.  Besides, I had to read the book after I found out that Lermontov’s early poetry was too explicit for young ladies to read.

A Hero of Our Time is written as a travel journal and takes place in the Caucasus. It concerns the anti-hero, Grigori Alexsandrovich Pechorin. My translation was done by J. H. Wisdom and Marr Murray in 1854 and was verified and corrected by Alexander Vassiliev in 2010.

The view from Elbruz West Summit 5642m

The view from Elbruz West Summit 5642m (Photo credit: twiga269 à„ FEMEN)

A Hero of Our Time is a very interesting read. I felt transported to the Caucasus. I could almost see the landscape. I marveled at the strange cultural traditions. And the character Pechorin is a man at his worst—a character I have encountered in various forms in my life. I can’t believe this guy is still around:

Mine is an unfortunate disposition; whether it is the result of my upbringing or whether God created me so—I know not. I only know this, that if I am the cause of unhappiness in others I myself am no less unhappy. Of course, that is a poor consolation to them—only the fact  remains that such is the case. In my early youth, from the moment I ceased to be under the guardianship of my relations, I began madly to enjoy all the pleasures which money could buy—and, of course, such pleasures became irksome to me. then I launched out into the high society—and that, too, soon palled upon me. I fell in love with fashionable beauties and was loved by them, but my imagination and egoism alone were aroused by their love; my heart remained empty….Then I grew bored…Soon afterwards I was transferred to the Caucasus; and that was the happiest time of my life. I hoped that under the bullets of the Chechens boredom could not exist—a vain hope…”

We learn about Pechorin through his friend Maksim Maksimych, who is treated heartlessly by Pechorin upon an unexpected reunion. Maxim is quite hurt by Pechorin’s lack of enthusiasm upon seeing him again:

“Of course we were friends—well, but what are friends nowadays?…What could I be to him? I’m not rich; I’ve no rank; and, moreover, I’m not at all his match in years!…See what a dandy he has become since he has been staying in Petersburg again!”

and

“I’ve always said that there is no good to be got out of a man who forgets his old friends!…”

It is sad when one’s memories of old friends are not supported by reality.

This novel employs two different devices. The first device is a travelogue in which we hear about Pechorin from someone who has known him. Then our narrator is able to get hold of Pechorin’s diary. From that point on, we hear about Pechorin’s innermost thoughts and feelings as well as his exploits from his point of view.

Pechorin seems at times almost like a sociopath and yet I felt sorry for him. I also recognized his sad ideas and was surprised that so little has changed with the stereotypical bad boy, even across cultures and more than a hundred years.

Here is Pechorin’s view on friendship:

“Of two friends, one is always the slave of the other, although frequently neither acknowledges the fact to himself. Now, the slave I could not be; and to be the master would be a wearisome trouble, because, at the same time deception would be required.”

Throughout the novel, Lermontov pays attention to and appreciates nature:

“Whatever grief oppresses my heart, whatever disquietude tortures my thoughts—everything is dispersed in a moment; my soul becomes at ease; the fatigue of the body vanquishes the disturbance of the mind. There is not a woman’s glance which I would not forget at the sight of the tufted mountains, illumined by the southern sun; at the sight of the blue sky, or in hearkening to the roar of the torrent as it falls from cliff to cliff.”

Always smug:

“On making a woman’s acquaintance I have always unerringly guessed whether she would fall in love with me or not…”

And all games:

“To arouse a feeling of love, devotion and fear towards oneself—is not that the main sign, and the greatest triumph, of power? To be the cause of suffering and joy to another—without in the least possessing any definite right to be so—is not that the sweetest food for our pride? And what is happiness? Satisfied pride.”

He goes on to say that passion never lasts forever.

Some people are just better talkers than others:

“You are a dangerous man!” she said to me. “I would rather find myself in the woods under a knife of an assassin than under your tongue…In all earnestness I beg of you: when it comes into your mind to speak evil of me, take a knife instead and cut my throat. I think you would not find that very difficult.”

Harsh words from a princess. And even though she was on the right track, Pechorin later observes her weakening:

“Compassion—a feeling to which all women yield so easily, had dug its talons into her inexperienced heart.”

Before I dare to wonder too much about Lermontov and this book, here is what he has to say about his intent in writing it:

“The Hero of Our Time, gentlemen, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man only; it is a portrait composed of the vices of our whole generation in their full-grown development. You will tell me again that no man can be as bad as this; and I shall tell you that since you have believed that all the villains of tragedy and romance could exist, why can you not believe in the reality of Pechorin?…This must not, however, be taken to mean that the author of this book has ever proudly dreamed of becoming a reformer of human vices….He has simply found it entertaining to depict a man, such as he considers to be typical of the present day and such as he has met—too often, unfortunately for the author himself and for you. Suffice it that the disease has been pointed out: how it is to be cured—God alone knows!”

I really enjoyed this book and definitely recommend it—and I especially recommend it to young women.

Russian literature always seems to dig deep.

(This post is also available on my portfolio blog.)

The Night Before Christmas

Night before Christmas GogolBy Nikolai Gogol, New Directions Books, 73 pages.

Nikolai Gogol was born in Ukraine in 1809. He died of starvation (and possibly depression) when he was nearly 43 years old. Gogol is best known for his book Dead Souls and for his short stories, “The Overcoat,” “The Nose,” and “Diary of a Madman.” He also wrote Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, which I would now like very much to read.

I have long heard of Gogol but until recently had never read anything written by him. I am excited to discover him because he is so very very different and refreshing.

The Night Before Christmas was a fun read. It begins as a witch flies into the sky and fills her sleeves with stars. The devil has a plan to get back at a blacksmith/painter for an unflattering painting the blacksmith has done of him. The blacksmith is in love with the most beautiful (and spoiled) girl in the village and travels all the way to Petersburg to ask Catherine the Great for her slippers.

Here is a quote from early in the story:

“Meanwhile the devil stole silently up to the moon and stretched his hand out to seize it, but drew it back quickly as though he were scorched, sucked his fingers and danced about, then ran up from the other side and again skipped away and drew back his hand. But in spite of all his failures, the sly devil did not give up his tricks. Running up, he suddenly seized the moon with both hands; grimacing and blowing, he kept flinging it from one hand to the other, like a peasant who has picked up an ember for his pipe with bare fingers; at last, he hurriedly put it in his pocket and ran on as though nothing had happened.”

The book also has some very funny parts regarding the witch’s suitors hiding in coal sacks. All in all, The Night Before Christmas is a fun entertaining read with some insights on what it was like to live in Ukraine in the early 1800s.

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, @ 1973, 295 pages.

So while I was supposed to be reading War and Peace, I started reading Vonnegut. There’s this whole Vonnegut/Dovlatov connection I keep trying to make, but to read more Dovlatov, I either have to wait until April for the release of Pushkin Hills in English OR I have to learn Russian. Ok, so I know some Russian. I know enough to eat and travel. And to get some quizzical looks. Rosetta Stone, BTW, is turning out to be great for Russian pronunciation.

Anyway, I read Breakfast of Champions a very long time ago. I’m reading it again because I remembered how intensely creative Vonnegut was with his structure and storytelling. On this read, Vonnegut pummels me over the head with foul language and imagery. Apparently, I used to be immune to this. Now, not so much.

Breakfast of Champions—wow—what to say about this book. It is all over the place and perfectly organized at the same time. It has characters you don’t want to get to know, and yet, like the train wrecks they all are, you can’t stop reading about them. Hmm.

And speaking of trains, I found Vonnegut’s ideas about machines to be very interesting. Vonnegut really develops this, but here is the kernel:

‘You are surrounded by loving machines, hating machines, greedy machines, unselfish machines, brave machines, cowardly machines, truthful machines, lying machines, funny machines, solemn machines,’ he read. ‘Their only purpose is to stir you up in every conceivable way, so the Creator of the Universe can watch your reactions. They can no more feel or reason than grandfather clocks.’

Breakfast of Champions is the kind of book that I think I want to read again, maybe in 20 years. Maybe then, I’ll be able to digest it fully. And Vonnegut, like Dovlatov, is one of those guys you wish was still around so you could say stuff like: hey, what do you think about the 2045 project? What do you think about immortality for humanity? Isn’t that a really bad idea?

I’d love to put those guys in a room, ohh and add in George Carlin, who is also now in the club, introduce the topic, and let them go. What I wouldn’t give to hear that conversation. I wonder if D wouldn’t be too polite for these two rambunctious Americans. Would he sit there with a thin smile on his lips, thinking how uncivilized George and Kurt were? Or, would he, after almost coming to blows on certain subjects finally let loose with some raucous laughter, teeter on his chair, and nearly fall over?

To Room Nineteen

Cover of "To Room Nineteen"

Cover of To Room Nineteen

By Doris Lessing, @ 28 pages, (1963).

[Spoiler alert] When I see a short story over 20 pages long, I shudder. Will it be that interesting? Will I like it? Or, will it be a trudge?

To Room Nineteen did not disappoint. It held my interest all the way through, and the pages flew by. This, even though I felt myself arguing with the viewpoint of the protagonist, Susan Rawlings, pretty much the whole way through.

One of my problems, I suppose, is that I don’t have four children. I don’t fully know how draining that can be. But I can imagine. She did have help. She had a cook and later a nanny.

And granted, the personality type of the protagonist Susan Rawlings is not my personality type. I can’t imagine having no interests in life. If I had free time at my disposal, I would write, draw, paint, play music, compose, and hike. But I don’t, and I’m envious of those who do. It’s hard for me to understand those who have time on their hands and waste it.

Susan was restless. It seemed she had the dream in her grasp, and then it disappeared. Some of the uglier parts of marriage materialized and although everyone involved thought they were so intelligent, no one had the common sense to say “no.”

With four children, Susan couldn’t go to the parties any more. She had to stay home with the children. Why did her husband go? They were his children too.

There seemed to be this unspoken idea in the story that it was better to be unfaithful than to be insane. I don’t agree. Being unfaithful is a choice. Being insane is not.

I must have missed the point of this story somewhere. Was it that all marriages are farces? Was it that having four kids and a husband leads to insanity? Was it that people who think they are intelligent can make some pretty stupid decisions? Was it about a woman’s need for privacy?

But what about the man? He worked all day. When was he supposed to have any privacy? When was he supposed to have his own life?

So he cheated? So she went insane?

I’m not agreeing with all of these premises. How could Susan’s life have been so empty? Why did she not have any art in her life? Music? Something of her own? What about the children?

Maybe the story is about the traps people can fall into while trying to do everything right. Everything that society wants and expects. Then when you do those things, you’re in a trap, and society has no sympathy. And you have no life. 

But, all my complaining aside, the story kept me turning pages without agony.

Rules of the Game

Amy Tan, author

Amy Tan, author (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Amy Tan, @ 10 pages (1989).

Rules of the Game is a story about how a young Chinese girl living in San Francisco’s Chinatown discovers something she can take pride in and how to temper that pride.

This story is a breeze to read. It flows and carries you along with it. Its theme and promise are contained in the first sentence: “I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength.”

All of a sudden, I want to learn more. What is invisible strength? What is its art? The mother must be very wise. We know that this is a story about a mother-daughter relationship. What a great first line.

Later, we see the protagonist, the daughter, learning how to get what she wants, tapping into invisible strength:

A man who watched me play in the park suggested that my mother allow me to play in local chess tournaments. My mother smiled graciously, an answer that meant nothing. I desperately wanted to go, but I bit back my tongue. I knew she would not let me play among strangers. So as we walked home I said in a small voice that I didn’t want to play in the local tournament. They would have American rules. If I lost, I would bring shame on my family.

‘Is shame you fall down nobody push you,’ said my mother.

During my first tournament…”

I love Amy Tan. Must read more! 🙂

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything That Rises Must Converge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Flannery O’Connor, @ 14 pages (1965) .

Ok, quick. Flannery O’Connor: male or female? Well, I didn’t know. Female. Her first name was Mary. This short story was published after her death.

Everything That Rises Must Converge is a story that illustrates the old degrading habits of racism and the self-delusion that comes hand-in-hand with racist beliefs. Human ugliness, anger, degradation, violence, and what’s up with the ending? What is Flannery telling us? What does she want us to think? Are we to be utterly confused? We rejoice at and despise the hateful narrator son. We hate and despise his hateful mother. We get the feeling that they hate each other too. It’s all very hateful.

There is the interesting twist with hats. But I even found that annoying.

I disliked the story for purely personal reasons, not because of its merits as a story. I’m sure it meets all the criteria for success. I am caught up on the content; I have met people like these. I grew up with people like these. What callous hateful ignorance. How do people not recognize the evil that lurks behind it. I don’t understand.

Death by Landscape

By Margaret Atwood, @ 15 pages (1989).

This story took a little while to get going for me. The action of the present is bookended around the actual story. An event from the protagonist’s past is at the core of the story, so it makes sense that the author started a little farther away from the action than what we typically experience in contemporary short stories.

After I got to the action, I was glued to the page. The suspense was incredible. The following paragraph was especially suspenseful for me:

“She has gone over and over it in her mind since, so many times that the first, real shout has been obliterated, like a footprint trampled by other footprints. But she is sure (she is almost positive, she is nearly certain) that it was not a shout of fear. Not a scream. More like a cry of surprise, cut off too soon. Short, like a dog’s bark.”

And a couple of pages back there is foreshadowing:

“Out on the lake there were two loons, calling to each other in their insane, mournful voices. At the time it did not sound like grief. It was just background.”

I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone who hasn’t read it, but this story basically gives us an important event from the protagonist’s past and invites us to think about how it may have shaped her whole life.

An interesting story that raises interesting questions.

The Salesman

Talking Walls and CigarettesBy Kelli Beck @ 2013, from the short story collection Talking Walls and Cigarettes and Other Dark Tales.

I am still very interested in the short story form, so when I saw that fellow blogger Kelli Beck had just released a collection of short stories written by herself and Erin Beck, I had to get it.

The first story of the collection is “The Salesman.” I don’t want to give away the story, so I’ll just point out a few things that I especially appreciated. This story did a great job of setting a tone and a mood. I was transported into the scene. I had a sense that I was there.

When she was in front of the window a slight breeze slipped up her neck, caressing the small hairs that had fallen from her loose ponytail. She shivered, turned and faced the night. Fog started to wash its way across the street heavy like smoke creeping in from all directions, swallowing up first the hardware store and the small defunct movie theatre, moving in to the center until the entire parking lot was invisible behind the shroud of fog. A childish fear built up in her and she closed the window, securing it in place with the locks. She watched the haze, then, afraid of what might appear out of the mist, closed the shades, and turned her back on it.”

I thought the part where the protagonist turned her back on this scene was wonderfully creepy. It captured my attention and built suspense.

I think it’s important for stories to have a big idea. One of the big ideas of this story has to do with messes and responsibility. The protagonist ruminates over this and comes to the conclusion:

“Whatever mess you cleaned up, it always ended up somewhere else.”

I could identify with the protagonist and the guilt she felt at being put into a difficult situation and having to make some hard choices.

The pacing of the story is very effective, and I enjoyed the surprises that the author threw my way. These really added interest to the story.

“The Salesman” was a great diversion. I’m excited to read the rest of the collection.

 

 

 

The Overcoat

English: A frock overcoat (front and back view)

English: A frock overcoat (front and back view) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Nikolai Gogol (1842)

Silly me. Nikolai Gogol is not to be confused with Maxim Gorky. I have a collection of stories by Gorky, so when I decided to read Gogol, I went to that collection, only to find a Soviet writer! Bah. No Gogol wrote many years before the revolution; he lived from 1809 to 1852 and was of Ukrainian/Polish decent.  Wikipedia says he was a surrealist and I agree. I’m thinking I like this guy Gogol! [slight spoiler alert below]

Gogol’s Overcoat, to my great amusement and surprise, was a  zombie story? Wow!

Ok, yes, I am being a little extreme. It wasn’t a zombie story the way you and I think of zombie stories, but still. Are the roots of zombie stories here? I don’t know. Hmm.

I thought “The Overcoat” was a great read, and Gogol is definitely on my list of authors to read more of. I don’t want to be an extreme spoiler, so I won’t comment on which parts nearly tore my heart apart, but I was especially gratified and surprised by the ending.

I learned several things too. I learned what a marten was. I was thinking of martins, the birds I grew up with, which are not the same at all. Martens are cute little mammals with beautiful fur, which trappers collect and sell to be contribute to the fur on coats. In the story, an adequate marten substitute is a cat. Gasp.

Our protagonist is Akaky Akakievich. The note says that this is a play on the on the word “kaka,” which means defecator. I thought this was interesting given the translation of the Spanish word, caca. Is this a sign (pardon the pun) of a Latin influence on Russian? Or, the other way around?

Another thing I found interesting was the smell of the stairs that led up to the tailor’s apartment. They were ammonia soaked.Why would they be ammonia soaked? I am almost afraid to ask—or ponder this.

And, I learned that serfs were called only by their first names. Only when they were freed, were they called by first name and patronymic. I had always wondered about that.

Lastly, I found an insight into the “name day.” But I’m still not sure how this works. It seems that the name day is the day on which the mother (or family) decides on the name of their newborn child and the child is Christened. In this story, a calendar was taken out and several dates were examined to see what names were associated with them. When Akaky’s mother didn’t like any of the proposed names (from the calendar), she decided to simply name Akaky after his father, and hence he was Akaky Akakievich.

This was an interesting story. I enjoyed it. And I especially liked the weirdness at the end.

The End of Nature

English: Bill McKibben speaks at Rochester Ins...

English: Bill McKibben speaks at Rochester Institute of Technology about global warming, consumerism, the economy, and his organizations, 350.org and Step It Up. McKibben’s book, Deep Economy, was the common reading for all incoming freshman for the fall 2008 quarter at RIT. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Bill McKibben, Random House, @ 1989, 195 pages.

This book has been sitting on the shelf for a long time. I don’t remember when I bought it. It was published in 1989, which means much of the information is out-of-date, but it’s still an interesting read. McKibben’s central theme is that man’s activities have gone so far now [1989] that we are seeing a permanent end of nature—nature being defined as a force independent of man.

“An  idea, a relationship, can go extinct, just like an animal or a plant. The idea in this case is ‘nature,’ the separate and wild province, the word apart from man to which he adapted, under whose rules he was born and died. In the past, we spoiled and polluted parts of that nature, inflicted environmental ‘damage.’ But that was like stabbing a man with a toothpick; though it hurt, annoyed, degraded, it did not touch vital organs, block the path of the lymph or blood. We never thought we had wrecked nature. Deep down, we never really thought we could: it was too big and too old; its forces—the wind, the rain, the sun—were too strong, too elemental.”

This book contained several new ideas for me. One was that an explosion in the numbers of termites could occur from rising global temperatures. The logic goes like this. As temperatures rise, trees will be caught out of their climate zones and die. Termites will then move in and feast. Termites emit methane, like cows. So, global warming will be further fueled by methane from termites.

Also, methane ices are also expected to melt, releasing more methane.

And another reason not to engage in nuclear war: it would damage 30 to 70% of the ozone layer. (The ozone layer is what keeps us from being fried like toast.) And here, I was just worried about radiation poisoning.

McKibben also delivers the not so cheerful message that it is already too late:

“…scientists agree that we have already pumped enough gas into the air so that a significant rise in temperature and a subsequent shift in weather are inevitable.”

This 1989 book is dated. I found myself wishing I had a revised edition. One thing that did strike me as being very interesting primarily because I have a corn sensitivity and “corn” is one of those words that makes me stop and take notice was the following:

“Last fall, when American farmers finally harvested what corn crop there was and took it to the grain elevators, United States Department of Agriculture officials began to find a new trouble: corn samples from at least seven states—including Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, which grow close to have the nation’s crop—where found to be contaminated with aflatoxin, a fungus commonly found in topsoil. When overheated corn kernels crack, the mold rushes in. Aflatoxin is a potent carcinogen, known to cause liver cancer, and corn for human consumption can’t contain more than twenty parts per billion, while immature hogs are limited to a hundred parts per billion and mature cattle to three hundred.”

My dog had liver cancer. Dog food, like human food, is processed and has lots of corn in it. The animals we eat are fed high quantities of corn. I have to wonder if there is any connection, and also have to wonder if my dog was a canary in the coal mine, of sorts.

This book really picked up around the end when McKibben discusses genetic engineering. I have not kept up with the news items of this science even though I find them fascinating. And judging by what had already been accomplished by 1989, I am sure that my knowledge of what’s going on now is woefully out of date.

This is one of those areas where people are apt to say: This is complicated, you need to leave all this to the scientists. And to that I reply, since it has moral implications that can affect my family and me, I’m unwilling to do that. I believe that I have just as much right to think about and discuss these developments as I have a right to discuss rain and snow—and I’m not meteorologist. I am interested in the big picture. The picture of which I am a part. And it’s a gruesome picture indeed.

My tolerance for gruesomeness is kind of low, so I won’t get into vivid detail. Don’t get me wrong. McKibben doesn’t write anything that makes me want to close the book and walk away. This fairly long quote does a good job of explaining his point:

There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there. We like to imagine that we’ve already crossed a bridge or not yet come to it. Some people tend not to worry much about genetic engineering, for instance, because they think it’s an extension of traditional practices, such as selective breeding. But nature put definite limits on such activity: Mendel could cross two peas, but he couldn’t cross a pea with a pine, much less with pig, much less with a person. We could pen up chickens in atrocious batteries, but they still had heads. There were restraints, in other words—limits. And our understanding of what those limits were helped define nature in our minds. Such notions will quickly become quaint. The idea that nature—that anything—could be defined will soon be outdated. Because anything can be changed. A rabbit may be a rabbit for the moment, but tomorrow ‘rabbit’ will have no meaning. ‘Rabbit’ will be a few lines of code, no more important that a set of plans for a 1940 Ford…”

An this makes be think of the 2045 project:

“‘Eventually,’ says Stableford, ‘there may well be a complete breakdown in the distinction between living and nonliving—the boundaries between the two will be blurred and filled in by systems which involve both the machinery of life and the machinery of metal, plastic, and glass.'”

“It is the logical outcome of our defiant belief that we must forever dominate the world to our advantage as we have dominated it in the last hundred years.”

“The idea that the rest of creation might count for as much as we do is spectacularly foreign, even to most environmentalists.”

“Many of those who take the biocentric view are, of course, oddballs, the sort who would walk two thousand miles instead of flying.”

I’m not sure I see things quite the way that McKibben does. I am less likely to be so completely at odds with minor tweaks of our natural environment. But I too, would also hate to see an end of nature. Surrounded by mass plantings of monocultures and hiding from the cold in either my house or my car, I feel very disconnected from nature. Much more than I have in years. I am hesitant to say that nature does not exist any more in an unaltered form. I believe it still does in Idaho. But at least where I live, except for some raptors, coyotes, song birds, and deer, my view of nature seems largely diminished from where I grew up.

Cathedral

Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Raymond Carver, 13 pages.

In the short story, Cathedral, the narrator is not too happy about his wife’s friend, who is blind, coming to visit. It seems to bother him quite a bit that the man is blind. The narrator doesn’t seem jealous, I don’t think, except perhaps at the sharing of thoughts that his wife has been doing with this other man over the years. That might have him upset. But instead of mentioning anything about that, he focuses on the man’s blindness. As he does this, all of his stereotypical and weird biases emerge, making him less sympathetic to us.

This story is wonderfully crafted. The opposing ideas of blindness and sight are woven throughout.

I really liked this part. It gave us information not only about the narrator’s wife and her past, but also about the narrator himself:

“…where one night she got to feeling lonely and cut off from people she kept losing in that moving-around life. She got to feeling she couldn’t go it another step. She went in and swallowed all the pills and capsules in the medicine chest and washed them down with a bottle of gin. Then she got into a hot bath and passed out. But instead of dying, she got sick. She threw up. Her officer—why should he have a name? he was the childhood sweetheart, and what more does he want?—came home from somewhere, found her, and called the ambulance.”

This made me chuckle. You really get the narrator’s voice here. And yeah, any guy who holds the title of first love, doesn’t deserve a name. He’s already gotten enough.

By the end of the story, the protagonist undergoes a change, as he should. The way that Carver shows this change is beautiful and subtle.

This is definitely a story to come back to.

American Vampire

American VampireBy Scott Snyder and Stephen King; Artist: Rafael Albuquerque; Colorist: Dave McCaig; Letterer: Steve Wands; @2010, DC Comics.

Like most of my books, this one has a guilty tinge to it. I’ve been interested in the graphic novel form for a few years now, and when I saw the artwork in this book, I had to buy it. It wasn’t in the budget. I didn’t need it, but there I was, buying it. It’s taken me only a month to get around to reading it.

This is actually the first in a series that sets out to examine American culture through the decades. The timespan covered in this first book is 1880 up to 1926. Two stories are developed at the same time with a bit of jumping around in time. The 1880-1909 story takes place in Sidewinder and Lakeview, Colorado, while the 1925-26 story takes place in the Los Angeles area. In Stephen King’s introduction, he complains about the sissification of vampires in our popular culture. He says they are too beautiful, too pale, and too sexy.

King was drawn to this story because it lets the vampires be what they truly are: monsters. Artist Rafael Albuquerque does a beautiful job illustrating this book, but it is gory and gruesome in places. A couple of times I thought: I didn’t know two-dimensional art could do that. The story is OK, but didn’t blow me away. Skinner Sweet, the vampire villain, has been created very nicely with backstory and intrigue. I like the characters of Pearl and Hattie, but I’m a little upset about how their relationship evolved. I didn’t have enough backstory to buy into it. I don’t want to be a spoiler here, so I’ll leave it at that.

As a form, I like the graphic novel because it’s like holding a movie in your hands. I don’t like that my tendency is to read the words fast and flip through the pages fast. I have to try very hard to remember to slow down and enjoy the images. That’s why I’m drawn to the idea of writing a graphic novel with as few words as possible, maybe none.

Anyway, nice work. If you don’t like vampires or horror as a genre, don’t read it.

Skins on the Earth

By Primus St. John; @1976, Copper Canyon Press.

Primus St. John was born in New York City and now lives in Portland, Oregon. He is an African American poet and a faculty member in the English Department at Portland State University. Skins on the Earth is his first collection of poems.

St. John is well known for his poem, “Dreamer,” which isn’t in this collection. I bought this book around 2004 when I was thinking about studying poetry at Portland State University. Life started happening around that time, and I never read it.

In Skins on the Earth, you can really see St. John’s development as a poet. The second section is so much more attainable than the first. While his imagery is vivid, his poems are often difficult to penetrate. Colors and images reappear and weave throughout the lines: white, black, red, light, darkness, water, skins, God. Often I am almost there before I’m lost. I’m not always sure I know what he’s saying.

Something about race and inequality. Of those things, I am sure, but more? There seems to be a code here that I can’t understand. Perhaps a language or a culture that I am not part of. What does it mean: “I’ve left home and leaned so far I’m almost zero”? I feel like I need to read them a second and third time.

Then there are lines which are powerful in their clarity:
“In a dark town, light is like a ragged scar.”

and

“It is our innocence that makes us vicious.”

The poems in this collection that really spoke to me were:
All the Way Home
The Fountain
Southern Comfort
Field
Westward Expansion

St John’s poetry makes me work and stretch. I suppose that’s not a bad thing.