War and Freedom: Centennial and Semicentennial

In 1914, one hundred years ago, World War I began.

This has been noted many times, in many media, over the last several months.  But I wanted to do a signal boost for two particularly noteworthy, and ongoing, radio drama series about World War I, the BBC Radio4's Tommies and Home Front.

Tommies is a weekly dramatization, based on private diaries and other records, of the experiences of British officer Mickey Bliss and his fellow signallers, from the Lahore Division of the British Indian Army, on the battlefields of France.  It gets pretty intense, both from a military-history viewpoint and in the clashes and interactions between the varied characters and personalities who took part. It's messy and chaotic and Things Going Wrong. There's even kind of an SF element to it, with Bliss and his men responsible for one of the first field radio units, an affair with equipment weighing hundreds of pounds, difficult to set up and maintain, and delicate and cranky enough to frequently fail to work without frantic MacGyvering with spit and tin foil.

Home Front is the same war, only, well, back on the Home Front in the British Isles itself.  There's the same messiness and sense of depth, deeper than usually presented in historical dramas in the period. The large cast of characters even includes a German national stranded in Britain at the war's outbreak. The plan for the series is to eventually provide a day-to-day drama covering the entire course of the war.

Both dramas provide a closer, more intimate eye on the issues and lives of participants in World War I, rather than the sweeping, epic, pieces-on-a-gameboard overview more commonly presented.

Episodes of Tommies can be listened to here, available until December 11th. Home Front, which is presented in shorter 15-minute episodes five times a week, can be found here; there are also "Omnibus" editions of Home Front, collecting an entire week's episodes in one bundle for download and podcasts, available here.  The Home Front episodes are available for listening "indefinitely", both directly online and via download; the Tommies episodes are only available until December 11th (no podcasts or downloads, alas).

- - - - -

The other anniversary of note happened fifty years ago, rather than a century. That was the founding of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB for short) in 1964.

The FSM  gets little note in most histories nowadays. It seems to be remembered more as a "wanting to be able to use dirty words" thing than anything else.  It was quite a bit more than that, and it was the originating point for later, larger, more widespread protests against the Vietnam War.

UCB had been the site for numerous advocacy committees and organizations setting up tables and passing out literature for various causes (anti-death penalty, pro-civil rights, and early anti-Vietnam activity, etc.). In November 1964, the UCB administration attempted to enforce a complete ban on such activity.

Mario Savio speaking
 from the top of the
 police car, Oct 1, 1964.
Credit: Steve Marcus, courtesy
of UC Berekeley,
 The Bancroft Library 
When several groups continued to post tables on UCB property, police attempted to arrest Jack Weinberg, who refused to produce ID. Student reaction was surprisingly strong and quick; the police car the man had been put into was surrounded by a large crowd, preventing the police from leaving with their arrestee. The standoff lasted for 32 hours, and was the beginning of months of confrontation, including a student occupation of a UCB building and an eventual large-scale raid by police that arrested 800 students.

The Free Speech Movement was the progenitor of a lot of later, more widespread social protest, including the anti-war movement protesting America's involvement in Vietnam. It was a strong influence on civil rights and feminist activity as well. Being primarily a reaction against attempts to quell political discussion and activity, it's kind of odd that it seems to be remembered as mostly a "pro-obscenity" movement, when it's remembered at all.  (I was about twelve when things blew up at UCB, not an age when I was paying much attention to current events, but even I remember the FSM's actions got quite a bit of news coverage at the time.)

Berkeley has produced a website about the FSM era that provides a lot of the history and background for those events and the persons involved in them.  A useful timeline can be found here.


A Trip To The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum [Photos]

Hilde and I go to TusCon, a small convention held in Tucson every year. Usually it's a Friday-Saturday trip, driving back to Phoenix Sunday afternoon. This year I wasn't able to get off work Friday night, so we made it a Saturday-Sunday trip, staying over until Monday morning, and using the opportunity to visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum out west of Tucson.

The ASDM presents both plant and animal life of the Sonoran Desert/Baja California area of the Southwest US and Mexico. I took a lot of cellphone pictures, with mixed success; a fair number of the animals were moving too quickly to catch a good shot with the cellphone's slow shutter speed. (The river otter was pretty much a blur.) What follows are some of the best of the batch.

The big handsome mountain lion over there was one of my best shots. The mountain lion habitat is two-sided, with one side having a wide moat and high walls separating viewers from the artifical cliff-side area where the big kitty resides. At the back of a cave up on the cliff, there's a wide and thick glass viewing window to a second path for visitors. Sometimes the mountain lion comes right up to the window to check out his visitors. This was one of those times, and I caught it at an angle that minimized reflections from the window.

More photos below the break.


Dia de los Muertos

Here's a spooky little video for your Halloween pleasure:

A Political Post

(I've been trying to avoid politics in this blog. But there are a few things I've been itching to say. So here you go.)

- - - - -

I've been a little more involved in this year's elections than usual. As in, some of the races are important enough to donate money to.  I don't, usually.  Bad citizen, Bruce, bad! [baps himself on nose with a rolled-up election ballot]

I've been contributing to the Congressional races for both Ann Kirkpatrick, who represents much of Northern Arizona, and Ron Barber, who represents Southern parts of Arizona. Both Democrats. It's been a while since I've voted for a Republican, as the Republican party has drifted, paddled and swiftboated itself further and further into extremism and extremist-enabling policies. Both Kirkpatrick and Barber are facing immense spending campaigns on behalf of their opponents, much of it from "dark money" contributors like the Koch Brothers. So the emails I receive from their campaigns contain constant pleas for more private contributions to their own campaigns.

Which I wouldn't mind all that much, if it weren't for the tone of those emails. (Barber and Kirkpatrick seem to have the same people in charge of writing their campaign emails.) But when the emails come with subject lines like "All Hope Is Lost" and "We Might As Well Go Home", when the contents are a constant parade of catastrophism and desperation and "If you don't contribute MORE, if you don't contribute NOW, we're DOOMED! DOOMED!!!", somehow I come away with an attitude of "Is it worth my bother to keep contributing to these campaigns?"

Look, you two, you knew going in that the Republicans had deeper pockets than you, you knew you were always going to be outspent by significant margins, you knew negative, misleading and dishonest ads were standard Republican practice.  They're spending eight-friggin'-million dollars to defeat you? If you matched that, they'd just reach back into those deep, dark pockets and pull out ten million, twelve million, fifteen million. They are always going to spend more than you; that's part of the Republican game plan.

So you need to run a better campaign. You need to encourage voters to not only vote against your opponents, but to vote for you.  And not just the casual voters who see your TV ads or read your mail flyers, but the people who've actually been supporting you. All those emails you send, sometimes several times a day? They don't increase my support; they discourage it.

I want to hear that contributing to your campaigns will not only defeat undesirable Republicans, but that returning you to another term in Congress will be good for me, good for Arizona, good for the USA. I want to hear that your re-election will give me flowers and chocolates and a pony the next morning. (Well, a pony may be a bit much., even when speaking metaphorically.)

It's a common saying that Democrats are able to "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory".  Anne, Ron, don't be those Democrats.

- - - - -

I've also made contributions to another Congressional race, the face-off between incumbent Republican Matt Salmon and his Democratic challenger James Woods.

Woods will lose, barring a miracle.  Which would be ironic, considering Woods is publicly and unapologetically atheist. He's also pro-choice, pro-feminist, pro-public-healthcare, pro-NetNeutrality, and proud to label himself a "Progressive". All this is one of the most conservative Congressional Districts in Arizona. Unless Matt Salmon gets caught, as the saying goes, in bed with a dead girl or a live boy, Salmon's reelection is pretty much a shoe-in.

But Woods is also open, honest, and frequently funny. (Here's a link to Woods' reaction to stupid questionnaires.) He eschews the common soundbites and cliches of most candidates.  He's the most likable candidate I've seen running in years.

He's also blind. This only happened to him in recent years, following serious medical issues that also required a kidney transplant and extensive hospitalization. And mostly before the Affordable Care Act, so he's had his finances wiped out and had to try and live on food stamps in addition to his medical issues. That's a major reason for his progressive values; he's been in those trenches.

This is a guy who's running a remarkably good, if unlikely, campaign. His Facebook site is here.

- - - - -

All the above races are outside my own Congressional district, which has been represented by Republican Trent Franks for a long time. And the candidate the Democrats are fielding against Franks is... nobody.

That's right. Nobody. Not even a long-shot candidate like James Woods.

This isn't the only office on my election ballot without a Democrat in the race. State Treasurer: Nobody. State Mine Inspector: Nobody. Maricopa County Board of Supervisors: Nobody. County Assessor: Nobody. Clerk of the Superior Court: Nobody. North Valley Justice of the Peace: Nobody. North Valley Constable: Nobody.

This pisses me off. The Republicans always put a candidate on the ballot, even for the most minor offices. Even if their candidate hails from Woo-Woo-Istan and get their political beliefs from the voices in their head.  It's discouraging enough when Democratic candidates campaign badly; it's worse when they can't be bothered to campaign at all.

- - - - -

In the Arizona gubernatorial race, the Republican candidate is Doug Ducey. Ducey's primarily running on his "business expertise", as founder of the Coldstone Creamery ice-cream-parlor franchise company. Doug Ducey became a millionaire from Coldstone.  Great businessman, right?

Well, maybe not so much. Ducey didn't make millions by selling ice cream. He made millions by selling franchises. Rather high-priced franchises, making it difficult for many franchisees to make much profit from their outlets. And he sold a lot of franchises, ending up with a lot of "four-walling" areas with Coldstone outlets, oversaturating the market area and causing franchisees to compete against each other.  The end result was that about a third of Coldstone franchises failed to stay in business; a lot of franchise owners had to declare bankruptcy.

Let me emphasize that: People selling ice cream in Arizona weren't able to stay in business. There is something seriously fucked-up about that osrt of business plan. Unless you're Doug Ducey, who walked away with millions in franchise fees, and then millions more when he sold Coldstone to new owners. (The new owners seem to have better business ideas, and have been spreading Coldstone outlets over a wider area, including more states and even internationally.)

But I have an additional reason to not want to vote for Ducey. Every time I see a photo or commercial of Ducey, I find myself staring at his hair. Or, rather, what's purported to be his hair. Because if that's real hair on Ducey's head, someone needs to tell him that Shinola is not a hair cream. No, I'm almost positive that's a bad toupee. And when you put "Arizona politician" and "bad toupee" together, you can't help remembering -- AIEEEEEE!!! -- Evan Mecham. (Worst. Arizona. Governor. Ever.)

Never trust a rich man with a cheap rug.


Through The Lit-Fic Jungle With Pen and Notepad

My fiction-writing efforts over the last several months have been mostly concentrated on what turned out to be a 17,000 word novella, quite a bit longer than I usually write. Those are harder to market than shorter work.

But the biggest problem with marketing the story is that it's non-genre.

With very rare exceptions (see "Lost Creatures"), the fiction I've written has been solidly in either the SF/Fantasy camp or the mystery/detective genre (with occasional combinations of the two). I know where to send those stories; those markets are familiar to me.

But the new story lies pretty solidly in the middle of the mainstream/literary river. It's a family drama set in 1944 Home Front America, shortly before D-Day, told by a 10-year old boy. Stuff happens; things get complicated. It might be one of the best things I've ever written.

But it's definitely not suitable for SF/Fantasy markets. There's a marginal chance at the mystery markets, since an attempted child-abduction is the instigating incident of the story, but the tone and emphasis isn't the type of storytelling one usually sees at those publications. It's pretty clear that I've managed to write a "normal" story. (How the hell did that happen?)

So my best bet seems to be to try and place the story with one of the various literary journals. But I've been only marginally aware of the literary fiction marketplace for a long time, so I've been researching, trying to get a better handle on which have the best reputations and largest audiences.

(Money? Not likely to get much, if any, writing for literary journals. A lot still have "pays in copies" policies. Let's not discuss how many try to finance themselves with writing contests that have a hefty entry fee.)

So what I did was get contents information for five years each of the annual BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES series and the similar PEN/O. HENRY PRIZE AWARDS series, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Anchor Books, respectively. The BASS data came from the 2009-2013 volumes, and the OHPA data from 2010-2014.  Here are the sources for the stories included in the ten best-of books, and how many stories were chosen from which publications.

41 -- New Yorker
18 -- Tin House
11 -- Granta
8 -- McSweeney's
7 -- Paris Review
6 -- Narrative
5 -- New England Review, Ploughshares, Public Space
4 -- Atlantic (5, if you count "Atlantic Fiction for Kindle" as part of Atlantic), Ecotone, Epoch, Harper's, Kenyon Review, One Story, Threepenny Review
3 -- American Short Fiction, collection, Hobart, Southern Review, Subtropics, Zoetrope
2 -- Agni, American Reader, American Scholar, Cincinnati Review, Glimmer Train, Harvard Review, Orion, Santa Monica Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review
1 -- Antioch Review, Atlantic Fiction for Kindle, Bellevue Literary Review, Black Warrior Review, Callaloo, commentary, Conjunctions, Electric Literature, Esquire, Fairy Tale Review, Fence, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Gettysburg Review, Indiana Review, Iowa Review, New Ohio Review, New Orleans Review, Oxford America, PEN America, Prairie Schooner, Sewanee Review, Southwest Review, TriQuarterly, Witness, Zyzzyva

The New Yorker is clearly the 800-pound gorilla of literary fiction markets. Also reportedly the hardest to break into. By one source, they receive 40,000 submissions a year, and only very (very) rarely do stories get picked from that Mount-Everest-scale slushpile.

The word "Review" in a literary journal's title is apparently code for "Here There Be Serious Lit-Fic".

While a lot of the journal titles are familiar (for descending values of "familiar"; roughly, the fewer stories selected for the best-of books, the less likely I've heard of it), there are very few I've actually read. (An occasional New Yorker, less occasionally McSweeney's and Narrative, and I think I've read one or two issues of Glimmer Train and Granta over the years. Everything else I only know -- vaguely -- through reputation.)

Checking websites and submission guidelines, a lot of the journals listed here don't accept novella-length fiction.  But there are a few. Ploughshares has a separate program, Ploughshares Solos, where they publish novellas in short-book format; I might give my story a shot there.

NOTE: Googling around, I found a writer named Clifford Garstang has been doing similar breakdowns of selections for the Pushcart Prize collections. The Pushcart Prize is for independent publishers, so the New Yorker isn't included in that database.  But Garstang's lists are yet more data for writers of literary fiction.


Stairs To Faunch For

Found via my niece's Twitter account. Thanks, Leah!  More decorated staircases here; some are "meh", but a lot are almost as cool as the one pictured here.


"Cyborg Dingoes" Is The Name Of My Next Rock Band

Over at Chuck Wendig's terrible minds blog, in a post on "Ten Things To Never Say To A Writer", one of Wendig's wonderful free-associational utterances had to do with cyborg dingoes attacking an Australian orphanage. (He does this sort of thing a lot. It's great stuff.) One of the commenters expressed a wish for an actual cyborg dingo story. Well, I wouldn't want to do that without an okay from Wendig, but I figured a short poem on the subject would be permissible:


Crazed cyborg dingoes, angry with rage,
slaughtered the kids at the orphanage.
Why did they raise such terrible hell? 
To make an occasion for bad doggerel.

 Some poets should come with warning labels.  I suspect I'm one of them.


"Peace, Love, Life" -- Darn Nice Song

This is a promotional commercial for Sedona, Arizona, getting frequent airplay recently.  I like the sweet, gentle song accompanying the views of the Sedona area, considered one of the most beautiful places in the US. I haven't been able to find any credits for the song's author or performer; I'm guessing that "Peace, Love, Life" may be the song's title..


METROPOLITAN For A Buck! Whoo-Hoo!


Until September 17th, the e-book of Walter Jon Williams' Nebula-nominated Metropolitan is available for only 99 cents at a variety of providers.

Walter's one of the best writers in science fiction, and Metropolitan is one of his best books. If you don't catch the 99-cents sale, pay full price; it's well worth it.

I also recommend his Dread Empire's Fall trilogy (The Praxis, The Sundering, and The Conventions of War), big-concept epic space opera at its best. And City On Fire, the sequel to Metropolitan.  And Hardwired. And Aristoi. And the short story collection Facets. And... well, just about anything he writes. (I haven't gotten to the Dagmar Shaw series -- This Is Not A Game and its sequels -- yet, but I'm looking forward to them.)


The Phoenix Flood of 2014

Early Monday morning, September 8th, the Phoenix Metro area was hit by record-breaking rainfall, with more than three inches falling (five inches in some areas; that's over half our usual annual rainfall) over the course of just a few hours.  Flooding, road closures, and stranded vehicles were widespread. The photo above, from Channel 15's local news report, is a few miles from our house, and shows the underpass where I usually get on or off the freeway. Other underpasses also flooded, and flooding on the I-17 freeway itself brought traffic to a standstill there for several hours.

I was at work when the heavy rain started about 3:00 AM. (There'd been a few brief showers earlier that morning and the previous evening.) That's about the time buildings and gates have to start being unlocked for employee access to the sports-equipment manufacturing site where I do security work, so I and the other security officer on duty had to go out into the very worst of it. We had umbrellas and slickers available, but got thoroughly drenched anyway.

Opening one of the parking lot gates, I had to splash around in about six inches of fast-running water, evoking memories of family vacations in the Sedona area as a kid, and wading around in Oak Creek. (I was very glad it was a relatively warm summer rain, and not a nasty, icky, cold winter rain.)

Quite a few employees were anywhere from a few minutes to an hour late getting to work that morning.

The rain had started to slack off by the time my shift ended a few hours later, but my fingertips were so prunified and wrinkled by then I had to spend several minutes drying and rubbing them before the time-clock's fingerprint-reader would recognize me. By then, the (flooded) freeway underpass I go through on the way home had recovered enough to have one lane available to traffic on one side; fortunately it was the side I needed. I stuck to streets' higher middle lanes driving home; most of the curbside lanes held several inches of water.

The downpour had been heavy enough the top inches of a lot of desert landscaping washed off yards, across sidewalks and into streets, leaving heavy deposits of dirt and gravel on the asphalt after the water had mostly drained away.

Shallow temporary lakes still remain in a lot of parking lots and other areas..  Many retention basins, meant to cache excess water during rainstorms, are full, so there's concern another storm in the next few days might cause them to overflow and produce even more flooding.

Our own house got through the storm fine; it's on a fairly elevated lot.  The back porch tends to get an inch or so of water built up during an actual storm, but it drains away pretty quickly after any rain stops.

I think this storm goes on the list with the ones from 1995 (80 mph winds, with gusts up to 115; we were the only house on our block that didn't require roof repairs, but had to replace the blown-over wooden fence with a stronger block fence) and 2010 (heavy hail that caused about a gazillion dollars of damage to roofs, windows and vehicles over much of the Phoenix area; we did end up with a new roof after that one).


Non-Performance Art, Centenarian Books, and the Survivors of 1914

Over on tor.com, there's a post about the Future Library "art project".  Scottish artist Katie Paterson plans to 1) plant 1,000 trees in Oslo, Norway, then 2) commission 100 stories from 100 writers, one per year over the next century, and not publish them until 3) in the year 2114, harvest those 1,000 trees and turn them into paper on which to finally print the 100 stories.  Margaret Atwood has signed on to write the first story. 

I suggested in comments that this  could be considered "non-performance art".

I figure that if I want to think about having to wait years and years and years to see a story published, I can get pretty much the same feeling just by looking at the submission-tracking spreadsheet for my own fiction. So I have a hard time taking Ms. Paterson's idea seriously.

I can't help wondering, considering the "Scottish artist" label, whether this might be yet another Scottish invention -- like golf, bagpipes, and haggis -- meant to cement Scotland's reputation as the world's greatest and most evil practical jokers.

Other commenters raised the question of whether writers of 2014 would still have a viable reputation after a century's passage of time. Commenter StrongDreams suggested comparing popular writers of a century ago, from 1914, to see how many have survived the passage  of time and would still be considered publication-worthy.

That sounded like a good idea. Googling ensued.

via Wikipedia, bestsellers of 1914:

The Eyes of the World by Harold Bell Wright
Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter
The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill
The Salamander by Owen Johnson
The Fortunate Youth by William J. Locke
T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Penrod by Booth Tarkington
Diane of the Green Van by Leona Dalrymple
The Devil's Garden by W. B. Maxwell
The Prince of Graustark by George Barr McCutcheon

Most of these writers would be unrecognized by much of today's audience, and even the recognizable names aren't represented here by their best work, with the possible exception of Tarkington's Penrod.

Blogger Linda Aragoni has recently reviewed all the 1914 bestsellers on her Great Penformances blog, a site dedicated to reviewing vintage books..

More pertinent might be this list from Goodreads for the 200 "Most Popular Books From 1914". The selection criteria is how many people have added a 1914 title to Goodreads, ranging from over 100,000 for James Joyce' Dubliners, to 23 for The Auxilia of the Roman Imperial Army by George Leonard Cheesman. (The Goodreads list mixes fiction and non-fiction.) 

Writers familiar to the SF/F/H community on the Goodreads list include Frank L. Baum, Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lord Dunsany, George Allan England, H. Rider Haggard, Franz Kafka, Arthur Machen, A.A. Milne, Sax Rohmer, Bram Stoker, and H.G. Wells.  A lot of that familiarity is because of their historical importance; stylistically, I suspect most wouldn't be able to sell original fiction in today's world.

I don't really see much point in the Future Library project.  Whatever Atwood writes will probably be better appreciated and more widely read if published today than by seeing print, finally, a hundred years in the future. The same applies, to a decreasing degree, to future writers commissioned for the project. Only the last, oh, dozen or so writers contributing to the project, from about 2099 on, will be writing in a style and about a society that won't be considered antiquated, quaint or obsolete by 2114. It strikes me as a "stunt" project, not a literary project.


Rusty, the Good Little Dalek

The most recent episode of Doctor Who, "Into The Dalek", leaves an opening for a tie-in series of books aimed at younger readers:


Rusty clearly needs a sidekick/companion by his side.  And who better than another veteran of Doctor Who, the robot dog K-9?

"K-9, I can't believe you abandoned me to pal around with a Dalek!"

Together, Rusty and K-9 will go around the universe doing good deeds -- "Mister Rusty, I'm being bullied at school!" "I WILL EXTERMINATE THEM!" -- and putting the "tin" back in Rin Tin Tin*.

*"Rusty" was the name of the boy who ran around with Rin Tin Tin in the 1954-1959 tv series RIN TIN TIN. It takes an old fart like me to come up with these far-fetched connections, you know.

(oh-so-suitable photo found on John Spade's Tumblr page.)


Joe Bethancourt

Joe Bethancourt passed away last Thursday, August 28th, 2014, at age 68. Joe had been a presence in fannish, SCA and especially folk music circles since the late 1960's.  In the SCA, he was known as Ioseph of Locksley, and was prominent in the founding of the Kingdom of Atenveldt (encompassing Arizona and bits of Utah and California).

But it was music that was his passion and profession. He was a master of many, many stringed instruments. He was a regular performer at the Funny Fellows club/restaurant for seventeen years, did work as a backup musician, and did numerous concerts and performances at various venues over the years, including a number of Phoenix-area SF conventions and some of the Glendale Public Library's "Live At The Library!" concerts. In recent years, he'd been passing on his skills as an instructor at Boogie Music in Phoenix.

Hilde and I had known Joe for a long time, caught a fair number of his performances over the years, and own most of the recordings he produced.  (Joe's various CD's and recordings are listed on his website, whitetreeaz.com. I'm assuming his family or friends will keep the website going for the foreseeable future. There are also quite a few videos of Joe on YouTube.)

We'll miss him.

This seems an appropriate video of Joe in performance:

(If the video doesn't play, here's the direct YouTube Link.)


Phrase of the Day: "Attack Eyebrows"

I usually refer to mine as "Hedgerow Eyebrows", but "attack eyebrows" is pretty cool, too.

("attack eyebrows" is from the first episode of the Peter Capaldi version of Doctor Who)

posted from Bloggeroid


Shadow On The Sky

Striking atmospheric effect this morning. Two levels of clouds, the lower thick and scattered, the higher thin but widespread.  The rising sun behind a knob on the lower clouds cast a long dark shadow over the bottom of the upper clouds.

posted from Bloggeroid


Book Review: USA Noir

USA noir, edited by Johnny Temple, Akashic Books, 2013

If you're at all a fan of noir fiction, you've probably seen at least one or two volumes of the City Noir anthologies published by Akashic Books. There have been over fifty by this point, so reading them all is a pretty daunting task. USA noir is a "Best Of" selection from the volumes set in USA cities and locales; the separate volumes have pretty good reputations for quality on their own, so USA noir is damn good.

There were a few stories included that left me cold, but almost all were enjoyable reads, with a good number outstanding, Highlights: Dennis LeHane's "Animal Rescue", George Pelecanos' "The Confidential Informant", Maggie Estep's "Alice Fantastic", Tim McCoughlin's "When All This Was Bay Ridge", Reed Farrell Coleman's "Mastermind", Domenic Stansberry's "The Prison", William Kent Krueger's "Bums", T. Jefferson Parker's "Vic Primeval", and Jeffrey Deaver's "A Nice Place To Visit".


AKA Wallace

Bill Thompson died a few days ago.  That wasn't the name most people of my generation, growing up in the Phoenix area in the 50's, 60's, 70's and even 80's, remembered him by.  To us, he was "Wallace", lead performer of (original title) "It's Wallace", though probably most widely known as "The Wallace and Ladmo Show."

Wallace & Ladmo was a locally produced kids' show that began in early 1950's Phoenix, Arizona. Like a lot of local kids' shows, cartoons were the bait to draw kids into watching.  Where Wallace & Ladmo differed, though, was in the material between those cartoons. Thompson was creative and inspired and, well, kinda goofy. He produced skits and other things far beyond what one would expect from a pocket-change budget and mid-century tech. (W&L was the first place where I saw stop-motion special effects made using Thompson and other living people in place of  Harryhausen-style manipulated models.)

With the introduction of the rubber-faced, even goofier Ladmo (Ladimir Kwiatkowski, previously a cameraman at station KPHO) a year or so into the show, the show's popularity grew even larger. In 1960,local radio personality Pat McMahon joined the cast, bringing an ensemble of outrageous characters (spoiled brat Gerald, superhero Captain Super, and others) with him. The three men were the linchpins for the show's remarkable 36-year run on tv.

Thompson, McMahon, and Kwiatkowski
in character as Wallace, Gerald, and Ladmo

Wallace & Ladmo could be silly, and goofy, and, yeah, sometimes dumb. But the skits and recurring characters could also be a bit subversive, poking holes in institutions and characters that took themselves too seriously. Sometimes they could be absurd to almost Beckett-like proportions. Sometimes, yeah, they fell flat.  Audiences tended to age and drift away (I was a daily watcher for the last half of the 1950's, and a frequent viewer through a lot of the 1960's, before things like college and the military drew my attention away as I got older.), but one reason for the show's longevity was that there was always a new audience coming up. By the show's final episode, there were a lot of second-generation and even third-generation watchers.

But thousands and thousands of kids, over nearly four decades, were kept amused and out of their parents' hair because of Thompson's love and dedication to his show and vision.

Thanks, Wallace.


Watching Gravity

Yeah, almost everyone else in the world watched Gravity on a big* screen in the theaters when it came out last year. Hilde and I finally got around to watching it from Netflix last night.  The early trailers I saw on TV actually made me reluctant to watch it on a big screen; the many vertiginous sequences of spinning and tumbling were dizzying enough on the small screen.

Great action movie.  One non-stop, barely-survivable crisis after another.  Sort of a gun-free Die Hard sans the human villainy of Alan Rickman.

Post-viewing, some of the presentation and science is questionable.  Here's a list. That "The cables are slipping!" scene gave me momentary pause while watching, but most of what was on the screen was stuff I willingly suspended any disbelief in until afterwards.

As an action movie, I'd give it about a 9 on a 1-to-10 scale.  On the space-geek scale, about a 7.

And I learned that Hilde really doesn't like George Clooney.  (Just because he's a smug jerk who tends to play smug jerks onscreen....) At least he disappears** from the story fairly early on.

*"big" has a flexible value here.  The screens in movie multiplexes are a lot smaller than they were in the standalone theaters I frequented in my youth and young adulthood (though the multiplex screens have gotten better in recent years; for a while, some of the multiplex screens weren't much bigger than the bigger flat-screen TVs found in "home theaters".)  Watching the opening scenes of the first Star Wars movie on the Cine Capri's humonguous screen (70' x 30') was the very definition of awesome.

**Twice, actually, if you want to be picky.


Opening A Vein

 'There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.'
-- attributed to various*           

Working on a story during my latest blood donation. (My 67th!)

*The quote at the top has primarily been credited to sportswriter Red Smith.  But an interesting article at Quote Investigator gives a number of variants, some predating Smith's 1949 version.  I think I prefer Paul Gallico's 1946 version best: "It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader."


An Editor's Life: The Glamour! Oh, The Glamour!

Molly Birnbaum shares an example of the work she does for Modern Farmer:

(Modern Farmer is very interesting to read, by the way, even if you're not a farmer or gardener.)

Desert Botanical Garden

More photos from our trip to the Desert Botanical Garden, of some of the permanent items and specimens there:

"St. Earth Walking" statue
at the Herb Garden entrance
Saguaros, but of course.

(More below break)

Chihuly at DBG

Last month, Hilde and I and our friend Meredith visited the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, to catch the exhibition of works by glass artist Dale Chihuly before it moved on to a new venue. I took a lot of photos, some of which are below:

(more below the break)


Stepping Away For A While

There are some ugly things happening elsewhere online that have me feeling more than a bit soured and disillusioned with the Internet and some of the people on it.  So I'm going to try and spend more time on my fiction writing for a while.  You might see an occasional book review or cat photo here, possibly all cat photos, but probably not much more than that.


When A Story Makes You Cry

In my "On Audio Fiction: Three Audiobooks and A Podcast" post, I admitted a particular story brought me to tears.

I've had a few people, over the years, tell me that my own "Death and The Ugly Woman" made them cry, so I thought perhaps I should share with you how writers feel when they hear someone say that:

photo from freeimages.com


On Audio Fiction: Three Audiobooks and A Podcast

I have, on a semi-regular basis over the years, been listening to audiobooks from the local library, either at work or while commuting to and from work. First on cassettes, then CDs, then -- starting about a year ago -- downloaded via the Overdrive app onto my smartphone.  I also use the Podkicker app to download short audio fiction from various SF/F/H podcasters and online magazines (Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, the EscapePod/PodCastle/PsuedoPod trio, and a few others).

Sitting in a chair and using all your attention and focus on listening to an audiobook isn't something most people do very often. Most of the time, and certainly in my own case, listening takes place while doing something routine and/or repetitive. (Walking, jogging, driving, housecleaning, and, oh, a big chunk of the hours at my workplace.)

But even routine tasks use part of your attention and brainpower. Leaving not-quite full attention and not-quite full brainpower to use to listen to an audiobook.

Most audiobooks I've listened to without problems. But there have been a few....

I'd like to discuss why these problems might arise, and how they might be avoided, citing a few examples of both good and bad. What makes an audiobook easy to listen to, and what makes it difficult?

To start, a few audiobook principles:
  • Structure matters
  • Characters matter.
  • Presentation matters.

By "Structure", I mean how simple or complex the plotline of a story is. Whether it progresses in straight chronological order, focusing on one or two primary characters, or if it's presented in a more complex manner with flashbacks, asides and sometimes even footnotes, and with multiple characters or viewpoints and changes of setting.

"Characters" can be problematic both numerically and in regard to how complex and deep their characterizations and interactions are.

And "Presentation" is that extra dimension a narrator brings to the written words; the pacing, the emotion, the acting. That extra dimension can be a positive or a negative part of the audiobook experience.

The audiobook of Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club presented some difficulties when I listened to it recently. There are a half-a-dozen members of the titular book club, and it wasn't clear at first which were going to be the primary characters of the ensemble. (None of the characters are unimportant, but some are more important than others.) Add in flashbacks to the characters' lives prior to the club's first meeting, and things got a little complicated, hard to follow, and I had some difficulty at first remembering which character was which and which backstory was theirs.

did, after a few chapters, get to where I could identify and follow the characters and plot without problems, and I ended up enjoying the novel very much. But if I'd been reading the print version, I could have swiftly flipped back to previous pages to refresh my memory of who was who and what they'd done. With an audiobook, it's very difficult to skim back through earlier sections.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker presented much less problem with structure and characters. Although there are numerous flashbacks to the Jinni-trapped-in-human-form's backstory, they were infrequent enough, and distinct enough, they did not disrupt or jar the main narrative. That main narrative, involving the unusual (to say the least) presence of both the Jinni and a masterless female Golem in 1899 New York City, both trying to pass as human, is very straightforward and chronological. Besides one heck of an interesting story, Wecker also paints a portrait of fin-de-siecle New York City, both it's privileged mansion residents and the less fortunate tenants of lower class neighborhoods.

The narrations for the Fowler and Wecker books are well done. No complaints there.

The audiobook for The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley, unfortunately didn't work well in regards to the narration. My wife Hilde read the print-version of The Rook several months ago, and enjoyed it without any serious problems. The audiobook version kicked me out of the story strongly enough that I didn't finish listening to it. (I rarely leave audiobooks unfinished, I think only once or twice before.)

The Rook starts out with the classic trope of a bad-ass amnesiac hero (heroine, in this instance) coming to awareness in a situation where people are trying to kill her. This story's a little different than most in that the protagonist had advance knowledge that she'd be losing her memory, and had left a folder of documents to instruct her forthcoming amnesiac self on how to pass as, well, herself. This shortly involves reporting to her workplace (a secret governmental agency of paranormals, of dubious purpose and morality, other members of which may be the very people who want to kill our heroine) and trying to get through the workday with her loss of memory undetected.

Unfortunately for our heroine, the files left for her instruction are: 1) not as comprehensive as they should be, and 2) she has to impersonate herself before she has time to thoroughly read or study the files. The results are, well, pretty stumble-footed.

Reading that same section in print, one can create their own mental narration, giving the words whatever individual tone or cast of voice that seems best. Readers, as a class, are pretty forgiving. We want to suspend our disbelief. We want to enjoy what we're reading. When we read, we're not the writers of a story, but sometimes we're the director of the mental movie those words evoke in our head. We choose the camera angles, we choose the lighting, we choose wide views or closeups, and we choose the tone and inflection of the words and voices we're working with.

With audiobooks, the narrator provides that tone and inflection. And in the case of The Rook, that tone and inflection didn't work. The scene where Myfanwy Thomas, the "Rook" of the title, tries to pass as herself is presented as so stumble-footed, so awkward, so obvious that, rather than passing, the first co-worker she spoke to should have pointed a gun at her and asked "Who are you and what have you done with the real Rook?" Reading a printed version, the reader can make allowances for the implausibilities of that same scene. (As Hilde apparently did when she read the actual book.) With the audiobook, I found that impossible, and that was the point where I stopped listening.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, an instance where the narration added to a story's impact, I recommend "The Mao Ghost" by Chen Quifan, translated by Ken Liu, originally published in the March 2014 issue of Lightspeed magazine. (There's a "Listen" button for the audio version on the webpage.)

There is a single word in "The Mao Ghost" which is omnipresent but left unwritten/unsaid. The story circles around that word, and circles around it, and circles around it in ever-tightening gyres. The reader becomes aware, with growing dread, of what that word is. And when the single word is said, only the one time, it is devastating.

I listened to the podcast version of "The Mao Ghost", narrated by Alex Hyde-White. I like to think of myself as a tough old guy, replete with manly macho manliness, but I have to admit to this: When that pivotal, essential word was spoken in "The Mao Ghost", I cried. I was just overcome with sadness and grief.

I later went to the Lightspeed website and read the print version of that story. I didn't cry that time. Maybe because I knew what was coming. But I think it was the audio element that made the difference. Alex Hyde-White's narration added an extra element of immediacy and involvement to what was already an outstanding story and made it something even more than that.

Summary reviews:

The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler -- Multiple characters and flashbacks caused some difficulty and confusion in early chapters. After becoming familiar with those characters, though, this was highly enjoyable. Recommended.

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker -- Supernatural creatures stranded in 1899 New York City. Fascinating concept, well executed, with interesting historical detail. Straightforward plotline, with occasional flashbacks to the Jinni's earlier life. Highly recommended.

The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley -- A scene that stretched the limits of believability in the print version has that believability snapped in audio by an inappropriate narrative voice. Print version may be acceptable. I did not finish the audio version; can't recommend it.

"The Mao Ghost" by Chen Quifan -- Very highly recommended, both in print and especially the audio version. I would expect this to show up on other recommendation lists and possibly as an award nominee.  If the audio version isn't nominated for a podcasting award, well, there just ain't no justice in this world.


New Cat - Myoshi

As it turns out, Bastet's former place in the household cat pantheon got filled sooner than expected or planned. The local Petsmart has an adoption section where the H.A.L.O. organization keeps adoptable cats on display (dogs are brought in on weekends), and the selection when I went there for cat food yesterday included a striking tortoise-point named Myoshi that caught my attention.  (Danger Point #1.)  So I asked the attendant for a closer look. (Danger Point #2.)  She turned out to be a very calm and sweet-tempered cat. (Danger Point #3.)

So when I went home I told Hilde about her and showed her phonecam pictures I'd taken (Danger Point #4), and we went back over today. Myoshi took well to sitting in Hilde's lap (Danger Point #5.) (Bingo!) So we filled out paperwork, paid the adoption fee, and brought her home.

She's four years old, and was turned in for adoption when her previous owners moved and couldn't keep her.  The adoption organization wasn't sure if she'd lived with other cats before, but she's been taking the presence of our other cats calmly so I suspect she probably did. Still a little nervous about the new household, and presently tucked into a cubbyhole at the back of our bedroom closet. (Mostly calm reactions from the other cats towards her so far, though Tyr has made some "WTF?" noises.)

For the record, yes, I do have the word "SUCKER" tattooed on my forehead in a color only cats can see.


Anniversary (Informal)

Hilde and I have both our wedding anniversary later this year and a more informal anniversary we celebrate on May 21st.

On this day in 1976, I was driving Hilde to the local SF club's meeting, and in the course of conversation on that drive... it came out that both of us had been thinking "What if?" about the other for the previous few months.

Welp, that sure changed the course of my life.  For the better. Definitely for the better.  I never expected to have joy in my life, and I've had thirty-eight years with someone who can give me that joy.  Not continuously, -- there have been uncomfortable moments in those years, but they never lasted -- but joy was something I never expected to have at all.

(I was talking to Hilde earlier today, and said, "I probably would have done okay if I'd ended up as a solitary unmarried bachelor. Except for the being lonely and miserable all the time part.") 

So thank you, Hilde, for all the past years and the ones to come.  You are the love of my life.


Steampulp For Oenophiles

Over on behance.net, where artists can post portfolios and projects, photographer Dean Bradshaw, in conjunction with Bulldog Drummond studio, posted a striking set of steampunkish/pulp-hero-ish/mad-scientisty images for the Stark Raving wine brand. Here's the set of labels:

For individual images, without the typography, see the set here.


Slow Words: Book Titles

Besides having a good cover, a striking and/or memorable title is one of the best ways to get people to take a further look at your book, maybe even the actual words inside. Past titles that have caught my attention in such a manner include THE DIRTY PARTS OF THE BIBLE and DEATH BLIMPS OF DOOM!

Here's the newest one to catch my eye: DIE YOU DOUGHNUT BASTARDS by Cameron Pierce. This falls into the "Bizarro" genre, which is kind of anything-goes, weird, weirder, weirdest combination of magic realism minus the realism, mixed with the brown acid from Woodstock and frequently with a large dose of tastelessness as well. (Pierce is also the author of ASS GOBLINS OF AUSCHWITZ, frequently cited as an exemplar of Bizarro fiction.) Not really to my taste, so I probably won't ever read the book, but I do love DYDB's title; I get a smile on my face every time I read it.

And I note from the latest LOCUS magazine that a fellow named Sam Munson has a book titled THE WAR AGAINST ASSHOLES coming out from Saga Press next year. Another great title, but, dammit!, now I have to come up with a different title for the autobiography I thought I might write someday.

So what are your favorite book titles?


Next Best Thing To A Unicorn Chaser

After the previous post, maybe it's time for an "Awwww..." moment:

posted from Bloggeroid


My Unexpected Career As A Boing Boing Troll

Popular website Boing Boing just put into effect a major redesign.  A lot of Boing Boing readers, including me, are not happy with it, and have been saying so in the comment thread on the subject.

I was about to post a new comment a few minutes ago, and found that I have been "Suspended For Trolling" and blocked from commenting for the next week.


I'm going to copy, for the record, all my posts on that thread.

Whoa! Major deja vu! Didn't you guys learn anything from the LAST time you tried a major redesign for the home page? This reminds me a lot of that not-quite-Epic Fail. I've always assumed that the return to a more vintage design was because of all the negative reaction to that earlier attempt at redesign.
The "Classic" Boing Boing design works, and works well.  There was no need to "fix" it.
"eye-ping-pong" [quoting from a comment by ghostly1, describing the effect of the new BB design]
Yes. This. Exactly.
And there was one more comment I posted, but... it's been deleted from the BB thread.   Hmmph, I guess that was the post that was supposed to be me trolling. 

Then I saw Rob Beschizza, who's moderating the comment thread, had posted this comment:
Disclosure: I just gave a temp ban to a poster -- the only ban or even comment moderation in this lengthy thread so far. Criticism is cool, even a little hostility. But don't make it smarmy and personal, because you'll lose that fight instantly.
Among the many other complaints about the redesign, many people pointed out that the abbreviated teaser text on new posts (only a sentence or two, as opposed to the old design which featured a paragraph or more of teaser text before providing a link to more) sometimes came across as typical of  "clickbait".  The example cited multiple times was a post by Maggie Koerth-Baker about water, with the headline IT CAME FROM THE FAUCET, a microphotograph of bacteria, and the teaser text "There's something nasty in the water, but Maggie Koerth-Baker has you covered."  It had the alarming implications and lack of real content of "clickbait".  Rob Beschizza, the moderator for that discussion thread, kept responding to those complaints by saying that the full article was worthwhile, so there shouldn't be any problem clicking thru to the full piece. He kept ignoring, pointedly ignoring, that the complaints were about the article's front-end presentation, not the article itself.

The deleted comment added my own remarks to those previous complaints, stating that if something looked liked clickbait, smell like clickbait, and walked like clickbait, I was NOT going to click on that link. Even with reassurances that it wasn't actual clickbait.

But I think what got Beschizza riled up, and resulted in my suspension and the deletion of that comment from the BB thread was that I started out the comment with these words:
"Rob, you are coming across as deliberately obtuse..."
That was it?  "Obtuse" is "smarmy"?  "Obtuse" is "personal"?

Jeezus Fucking Christ, I thought I was being nice.  Because if Beschizza wasn't letting defensiveness over the new design keep him from acknowledging legitimate and clearly stated criticisms of the redesign, then he wasn't being obtuse, he was Just Plain Fucking Stupid.

I don't think Rob Beschizza is stupid.

What I think now is that Rob Beschizza is a Special Little Snowflake and a fucking crybaby.   And willing to delete any evidence that might show the "smarmy and personal" words that so upset him weren't so smarmy and personal as he pretends them to have been.


For the record, here's the comment I was trying to post when I found out my BB account was suspended:
I'm going to show my age, and mention that Orson Scott Card might approve of the change. 
Back in the mid-1980's, OSC published a magazine/fanzine titled SHORT FORM, dedicated to reviewing short fiction in the SF/F genre.  Some nice writing there, both by OSC and others.  (He had some very nice things to say about one of my first published short stories.) 
But a lot of people complained about the design.  Because for some reason OSC decided to run with a two-column format, with a different article/column running in each column.
Unfortunately, there was very little in the way of design to distinguish the text of one column from the other.  
The way it was SUPPOSED to work was that you'd read the left-hand column, *then go to the next page* and read the left-hand column there.  Likewise, you were supposed to move from right-hand column to right-hand column. 
But that wasn't how people were used to reading.  Readers would reach the bottom of a left-hand column, and automatically track back up to the top of the right-hand column.   They'd reach the bottom of a right-hand column, and automatically start at the top of the next page's left-hand column.  So, repeatedly, a reader would keep finding themselves *in the middle of a completely different article* than the one they'd been reading. 
It was the in-print equivalent of the "eye-ping-pong" ghostly1 so eloquently coined to describe the BB redesign.  It was difficult, it was frustrating, and to a lot of people it was simply "unreadable". 
And OSC's response to the complaints were along the lines of "I think this is an *interesting* way to do things."  Or "You'll get used to it after awhile."  Or "You're not giving the format a fair chance." 
What the SHORT FORM format did was **get in the way of the content**.  And that's pretty much my complaint about the BB redesign. 
(Plus the discussion here is pretty much a retread of the response to the previous big redesign about, what?, seven or eight years ago.  Which eventually resulted in a return to a mostly "classic" BB format.  Really, I'm flabbergasted that we're going thru all this again.) 
But the BB team might want to pause a moment to consider the fact that Orson Scott Card is their role model.

Update: Rob Bescizza has responded in comments.

Crusie on Story Evolution and the Writer's Mind

On Jennifer Crusie's Argh Ink blog, she had a recent post, "The Wanderer's Guild To Story Evolution" , about the thought processes involved in plotting out a story. Great stuff, as is often the case with Crusie. She goes into very amusing depth about a potential project and the various choices and thoughts she's had so far.

I resemble a lot of the things she mentions, in my own writing, especially when I'm trying to write at longer length. Usually start with an image: Who are these people? Why are they there? Why are they doing what they're doing? All very fuzzy and loose at first, a mystery even to the author.

Build from there. Trying out different possibilities and ideas. Keeping some, discarding others, keeping others in on a provisional basis "for a reason to be named later", or not. That initial fuzzy view gets a little clearer, a little more focused, a little more sensible each time you go back in to give it more thought. Do the new ideas work? Are the characters consistent? Do their new actions make sense with what's already written? If not, revise the old writing or discard the new?

And particularly, that sometimes you have to walk away for a bit, let the story perk away in your subconscious for a while. In Crusie's parlance, let the dough rise before you go back to punch it down and work it some more.

This last is why I'll probably never participate in Nanowrimo. For me, I seem to get better (if slower) results by not forcing myself to write X number of words per day, or to plot according to a strict structure, or by making myself finish one story before starting another.

(It's easier to get away with this when you're only a part-time writer. For Crusie, a professional, it means keeping multiple projects in the air, some at the point of contracts and advances, some not.)

I've been working on... I hesitate to use the N-word, because I've never finished a novel, but... "a longer work", and progress on that has been more a process of punctuated equilibrium than steady evolution. I've taken breaks from that longer work, and written several short stories instead, in recent months. And I think that's been useful. I started out with a fairly strong idea of the backstory and several main characters, what kind of story I wanted it to be, a fairly solid opening image, a rough idea of what the ending would be, and a *B*I*G* *F*U*Z*Z*Y* of everything in between. Those breaks let the story perk in my backbrain, and I think the results have been better than if I'd tried to force the wordcount up in a quicker manner. That *B*I*G* *F*U*Z*Z*Y* is now more of a *M*E*D*I*U*M*-*S*I*Z*E* *F*U*Z*Z*Y* and the choices -- choices that feel like the right choices -- of what needs to happen in the story are coming more quickly and easily.

(It's kind of like working on a jigsaw puzzle after only hearing a brief description of the box illustration. Start with the easier edge pieces. Study the confusing jumble of interior pieces. Find colors and patterns that are similar. Group them together. Twist and turn the pieces, seeing which match and which don't. The more pieces that are fitted in, the fewer left, and the easier it becomes to match and fit those until the puzzle is finally complete.)

Check Crusie's piece out; it's one of the best descriptions of "Writer's Mind" I've seen.