Aug 31, 2016

Etymology Expeditions: Nadsat Slang

Did you know that Wiktionary has a dictionary of Nadsat slang? You can click on the link to check it out, but here are a few of my favourites:

Appy polly loggy, apology. A highly exaggerated way of pronouncing 'apology.'

Bezoomny, crazy. Origins in Russian. I think this sounds like a word for crazy should. 

Cancers, cigarettes. Obvious,right?

Eggiweg, egg. Juvenile mutation of 'egg.'

Horrorshow, good, excellent. This just fits the novel so well. It's not just made up by sticking horror+show together, but taken from Russian хорошоxorošó, "well", "good."

Oddy knocky, on one's ownодинокий odinókij, lit. "lonesome"

Pretty cool, right? What's your favourite?

Aug 29, 2016

Science Fiction Classics: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Clockwork orange.jpg
Image from

I picked this book up with some trepidation. It was on my Science Fiction Classics list, and I knew I'd have to read it sooner or later, so I decided to get it over with. I've seen the movie, once, and while I'll concede that it's a work of art, I never want to see it again. The same with the book. This was a hard book to read, in the sense that it made me feel physically sick at times. (Some spoilers ahead, in case you haven't read the book.)

The main character, Alex, a total psycho who has no empathy whatsoever, goes on to commit horrible acts of violence with joy in his heart. Later he goes to prison and is subjected to more violence, just as hard to witness. Talk about unlikeable characters! But there is a difference in medium: to me, the book was easier to stomach And somehow you do want to read on, because Alex's voice is so unique, and his love for classical music creates a nice dissonance in the character, makes him interesting. Even though he's a horrible person, I did feel sorry for him when he was strapped to the chair for the behaviour modification treatments.

The edition I read had a foreword from Burgess, where he said that the meaning of the title was widely misinterpreted. Many people thought "clockwork orange" was a metaphor for a hand grenade, but it isn't: it means a fake orange with clockwork inside, a toy, I guess. It's a metaphor for Alex. The book is about the idea of choice. Can you really be good if the choice is taken away from you? If you're forced into acting like a good man without truly repenting and making a choice to be good, are you just a hollow thing, like that wind-up toy?

The question becomes, is Alex choosing to go through with the treatment a choice to be good? Probably not, considering how the book turns out. Another interesting thing I learned was that when the book was published in America, the publisher left out the last chapter in which Alex is shown growing bored of the violence and dreaming about a family of his own. So that's a different book, and that's the book Kubrick based his movie on.

Another thing that divides opinions is the Nadsat slang, a fictional teenage lingo that's a mix of Russian, Cockney rhyming slang, and Shakespearian English. If you've been reading the blog for a while, you might have noticed that I'm a language freak, so it's no surprise I loved it. It's so cleverly done: you can work out what the words mean from context, and Burgess is careful not to introduce too many new words at a time. I only know a few words of Russian, but I had no trouble following the story. The slang's function is to distance the reader from the violence, and I think it did help a bit.

Okay, writer trick time: one thing that jumped out at me was that Alex addresses the readers as "Oh, my brothers," which is kind of disturbing, like it makes the reader a part of the atrocities he commits. Burgess also used the phrase "What's it going to be then" repeatedly; first, when Alex is at the milk bar with his gang, thinking about what they're going to do that night; then when he's in prison being subjected to the treatment; and, finally, in the last chapter, which mirrors the first, except in Alex's attitude. Very cool.

 I do find the idea that people just grow out of teenage violence a bit unbelievable. Alex isn't a normal person; normal people don't do the things he does. There's something very wrong in his brain. When we feel empathy, what's happening to someone is reflected in our brain. That's how you can feel someone else's pain and empathise. Empathy's probably been a useful trait when people banded together for survival in humanity's early days. Nowadays we know that some people don't have normal responses to distress cues and don't feel empathy, even get pleasure from extreme stimulus, like hurting someone. That's one explanation for psychopaths. That's what Alex seems to be. So no matter what he wants, he probably wouldn't be able to have a normal life without serious therapy.

I can't really say I liked this book, but I can see why it's a classic. Be warned, you need to have a strong stomach to get through this one, but right now I feel that it was worth the nausea.

Science Fiction Classics read 43/193

Aug 28, 2016

At the Circus

Sirkus Finlandia is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and the show was even more amazing than usual.

Here are a few pics from the show. 

I couldn't get a very good shot of this act, but this was my favourite. They kept jumping up and running through the windows in the middle.

This lady was amazing, also. I think she dislocated both shoulders at one point. I've never seen anyone stand on their own shoulders before. 

And you gotta love a guy who can shoot a rose off its stem from thirty paces with a crossbow.

If you're in Finland, you should definitely go. 

Aug 26, 2016

Umbrella Cuteness

I love the Japanese Lolita style, especially Gothic Lolita, but it's really hard to get a hold of pieces in the West, especially if you don't know Japanese. Imagine my delight when Baby, the Stars Shine Bright opened a shop in New York, with a webshop, with international shipping! I'll never fit into those tiny dresses, but the accessories. . . those, I'm excited about.

Here's my first purchase: these umbrellas I've been admiring for years. Cute, but practical.

Let autumn come, I'm ready!

P.S. If any of you readers are lucky enough to live in New York City and want to check it out, the shop's address is 158 Allen St. They share the space with Tokyo Rebel, another shop that specialises in edgy Japanese fashion.

Aug 25, 2016

Curiousthings heart Spotify

Finally got Spotify.

Found the Dance of the Vampires soundtrack in German.


(It's Tanz Der Vampire if you want to google it. The English version is on Youtube, if you prefer.)

Aug 24, 2016

Whitman's Civil War: Writing and Imagining Loss, Death, and Disaster week 6

Here are more of my notes from the Whitman class. Bear with me, Just one week left after this! This week's theme was elegy and memorial, and we looked at Whitman's texts that he wrote after the assassination of President Lincoln.

Whitman heard the news of the death while staying at his mother's house in Washington. The lilacs were in bloom early that year, and the scent of the lilacs fused with the sorrow he felt at the news, and so came into being "When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom'd," Whitman's elegy to Lincoln. He never names Lincoln, though, making the poem feel universal. Our professors also pointed out that the poem is composed of fragments, which reflects the world fallen to pieces. Whitman also uses a lot of participles, (-ing-words, the verbs that indicate ongoing action), maybe to indicate that the world goes on. Spring in itself is a hopeful time: everything is born again. Every year, spring comes. Does it bring us hope even in tragedy? Another interesting thing Professor Folsom pointed out was how Whitman uses the sprig of lilac, a broken fragment in itself, in a poem of fragments. That sprig is spring without the letter "n" is no accident.

We also read Whitman's newspaper piece on the assassination, which is powerful in a different way.

All this reading on loss can be wearying, so this little poem, so hopeful, is a welcome interlude:

I Heard You, Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ

I HEARD you, solemn-sweet pipes of the organ, as last
Sunday morn I pass'd the church;
Winds of autumn!—as I walk'd the woods at dusk, I
heard your long-stretch'd sighs, up above, so
I heard the perfect Italian tenor, singing at the opera—I
heard the soprano in the midst of the quartet singing;
…Heart of my love!—you too I heard, murmuring low,
through one of the wrists around my head;
Heard the pulse of you, when all was still, ringing little
bells last night under my ear.
           -- Walt Whitman, Drum-taps.

A beautiful way to end the lesson.

This week's assignment was to write a piece on a trauma or conflict that encompasses two or three central sensations.

Aug 22, 2016

Writerly Progress Report

Time for another progress report: what I did this summer, the writing edition. 

I wrote a story in Finnish for the Gothic Fiction anthology and another in English, a bonkers science fiction adventure story that's so out there that I'm not sure I'll ever submit it anywhere. I'll send it to Critters, though. I've got another story outlined and a few more that are in the idea stage. There's another Finnish anthology coming up that's all about crossed genres, so I'll probably try to get something done for that one. Deadline's the end of October. It might mean shoving the English stories on a back burner for a while, which is too bad. 

I also edited the Finnish story I tried to write for the hard science fiction anthology and sent it to the Portti competition. Because, let's face it, it's not hard science fiction. To thine own self be true, I guess. Speaking of competitions, one of my stories made the second round of the Nova writing competition, yay! The winners will be announced in October, but just getting this far shows progress, so I'm pretty happy however it turns out.

I'm also sending out a few English stories, and waiting to hear about those.

I sold some drabbles to SpeckLit, and all of those came out in July. 

On the self-improvement front, I completed K. M. Weiland's course on character arcs and I'm actively participating in the MOOC from University of Iowa on writing about death and disaster. I also read a few writing books and learned about deep point of view. And I managed to read a few more books on my Science Fiction Classics reading list. The Classics list is stalling, because Proust. The first few hundred pages of Sodom and Gomorrah feel like being at a dull dinner party where you don't know anyone and just sit there, listening to mean people gossip about strangers.

I'm also beta-reading a fellow Critter's novel, which is very interesting. I'm learning a lot from doing it, and getting to read a cool story, too. I'm trying to do one critique per week in addition to that, just to keep my ratio up, in case I want to submit something before I finish the book. (Because you get the credit at the end for RFDRs, "Request For Dedicated Readers.") Oh, and I'm also still in the Finnish critique group, of course.

That's all for now. More later. This writing thing's a marathon, not a race, as Chuck Wendig is fond of pointing out.  

Aug 21, 2016

2016 Hugo Award Winners

. . . have been announced! Check them out here.

I haven't read The Fifth Season, but I'll have to check it out. Naomi Kritzer's "Cat Pictures Please" won best short story. It's really fun. You can read it on the Clarkesworld site if you haven't yet.

Aug 19, 2016

Svartå Manor

I visited Svartå manor (Mustion linna in Finnish) a few weeks ago. It's about a one-and-a-half hour drive from Turku, and even closer to Helsinki. The manor was one of the grandest stately homes in Finland, but is now open to the public as a museum. Built between 1783 and 1792, its architecture is a mix of Rococo and Neoclassical styles, while the interior is mostly Gustavian. It's surrounded by beautiful gardens complete with fake ruins and a tiny castle built when the romantic Neo-Gothic craze swept over Europe.      

You can take a tour of the manor and hear all the fascinating anecdotes about the illuminaries that stayed there over the years, including Tzars Alexander I and Alexander II of Russia, King Gustav III of Sweden, and Sibelius.

The real glory days of Svartå manor happened in the early 1900s during the reign of Hjalmar Linder, a business magnate who was the richest man in Finland in his time. He held extravagant balls, took his friends on luxurious hunting trips to Russia, and owned the second car in Finland, having outbid the King of Belgium for it.  In addition to this, he was a compassionate and modern employer, instituting an eight hour workday, setting up a system to pay for the workers' medical costs, and letting the workers stay at housing he built near the ironworks for free. 

But then came World War I. Linder escaped to Sweden for the duration of the Finnish Civil War in 1918. When he returned, he found his property intact, but many of his workers had been taken to prison camps for the Reds, and their families begged him to help. He visited the camps and was appalled at the conditions and the mass executions, so he wrote a piece to a major newspaper, the Hufvudstadsbladet, in protest. He wrote it in good faith, thinking he'd be taken seriously and that he could help end the madness, but it turned out differently. He started receiving death threats and his friends abandoned him. In the end he was forced to sell his property and go into voluntary exile. He tried to continue his business ventures abroad, but lost his great fortune over three years, because the world is a cruel place for do-gooders and idealists. Ruined and penniless, he took his own life in Marseilles in 1921. 

As with all old houses, Svartå manor also has ghost stories associated with it. Some say Hjalmar Linder haunts his old house, and there's two ghostly ladies there too, the White Lady and the Grey Lady. The White Lady is though to be a woman who stayed at Svartå manor for a time. She had some kind of nervous disorder and had to be locked into a small room on the second floor at times. One of these times she had some kind of stroke and was found dead in the room, hence the haunting. Some even claim that King Gustav III haunts the manor. 

I highly recommend the tour, because the guide was very knowledgeable and a good entertainer, too.

There's even a tragic love affair associated with Svartå manor:  Finnish military leader and statesman Carl Gustav Mannerheim fell in love with Hjalmar Linder's half-sister Kitty, who turned him down"because he wasn't exciting enough." Mannerheim was also twenty years her senior, so it might have had something to do with that...  He did send her a picture of himself as a young man, and you can see it at the manor. Kitty did value Mannerheim's friendship a lot, in spite of what happened. Apparently she took flowers to his grave every year. Kitty's story doesn't end well, though. She never married and lost her fortune over the years. She died in Helsinki, a bitter old woman living off the kindness of friends. 

Here are some of the fake ruins from the garden and the tiny faux-medieval castle.

Nowadays the manor is once again owned by the Linder family, and they've set up a hotel and an award-winning restaurant, Linnankrouvi (Slottskrogen in Swedish), there. 

The rooms are located in historical buildings. We sprang for the suite, Merlin's Tower. (C'mon, how could you pass up the opportunity to sleep in Merlin's tower?)

As nice as the room was, I recommend getting one of the normal rooms. I don't know if it was the proximity to the river or if the building's suffered water damage over the years, but there was a noticeable smell of rot in the room. 

Even if you don't stay at the hotel, do to try the restaurant. Trust me, you need to. It's very popular, so pre-booking is advised. The food is amazing, and the space is open to the garden, so it's very atmospheric. 

That's the cocktail I had. 

Look at that dessert! Just beautiful. And the best part was that those staying at the hotel got to have breakfast at the restaurant. One of the best breakfasts I've ever had. 

On the way back we stopped at Fiskars village for some Finnish design and chocolate cake. It's less than a half hour from Svartå Manor, and they host lots of interesting events there. Even if you don't like shopping that much, PetriS Chocolate Room makes fantastic salted caramel chocolates to take home with you.

Aug 17, 2016

Whitman's Civil War: Writing and Imagining Loss, Death, and Disaster week 5

This week's themes were silence and absence. The poems and writings we discussed this week had to do with the end of the war and where to go from there.

In "Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice" Whitman describes men from the warring sides coming together. Whitman also advocated love between men. According to Professor Ed Folsom's introduction, he felt that women were allowed to express affection towards each other, but boys were taught to compete with each other and physical expressions of affection, as well as homosexual love, were taboo. When he saw the wounded soldiers express deep affection towards each other, he wanted to believe that affection would survive the war and help re-unite the nation.

 Whitman wrote many letters for soldiers who were wounded or otherwise incapable of writing to their families. Many times the soldier in question was dead by the time the family got the letter. In  "Come Up from the Fields Father" Whitman incorporated that shock of receiving a letter from a loved one written in someone else's hand into the poem. The setting of a farm in Ohio at harvest-time makes the poem feel even more poignant.

Whitman also wrote about PTSD long before the disorder was recognised. In "The Veteran's Vision" he describes a peaceful night, the former soldier lying in bed next to his wife with their infant asleep nearby and how the sounds and visions of battle, unwelcome, fill the veteran's mind. Also here the contrast is startling, and Professor Folsom pointed out how the events of ordinary life and war come together, like the child crawling and soldiers crawling, for example. Another "writer trick" to note: here, again, Whitman reverses two words, making the war long over into the war over long, overlong, still haunting the veteran.

We also studied a letter Whitman wrote to his mother in the final year of the war, and you can see how exhausted and heartbroken he is. He talks about a young soldier who arrived with hundreds more, shivering under rain-soaked blankets, and died before he could tell anyone who he was. That unknown soldier represents so many others, dying alone and their fate unknown to their families. It feels like Whitman is about to crack under the weight of it all.

The last poem we studied, "Pioneers, O Pioneers" looks into the future. After the war ended, the energy of the nation had to be directed towards some common goal, and colonising the West was it. The idea feels a bit cringe-worthy now, because we know what it led to, but if you look at it from the point of view of a nation tired of war, it must have felt like a call to adventure, a new beginning, something worth believing in.

For our assignment we wrote about the "phantom limb" left  behind after trauma or traumas, how they can still haunt us for years after the fact.

Aug 15, 2016

Reading the Classics: The Odyssey by Homer


I finally finished reading The Odyssey, and I loved it. I picked the Fitzgerald translation because I had heard good things about it, but this particular edition doesn't have an introduction or any notes included, so if you're new to the Greeks, another edition might help provide more context. That said, I don't think you need to read a bunch of analyses to enjoy Odysseus' adventures. (That's Ulysses to those that prefer the Latin name). 

If Iliad is an Ancient Greek action movie, The Odyssey is an adventure flick. It's surprisingly captivating, especially the first half that tells of Odysseus' journey home. I might not be entirely unbiased in this, because I grew up with these stories; I had an edition that retold the story for children, and I also loved "Tales of Sinbad the Sailor" from One Thousand and One Nights, which were influenced by Homer's works. The Lotus Eaters and the Cyclops feel quite familiar, for instance.

I didn't love the part in Ithaca as much. Does anybody else think that massacring the suitors, even those begging for mercy, and the women of the household who had slept with them was a bit overkill? The rules of hospitality (and the suitors' abusing of them) is explored a lot in the book, so maybe that's why? And the constant testing of Telemachus, Penelope, and even Laertes, his father? I get that Odysseus is a cautious man, but that just seems cruel. Okay, testing is also a major theme, as you can see even from the cover of the book. That's Odysseus' bow, the one that none of the suitors are strong enough to string and shoot, and in the end Odysseus, in disguise, strings it and shoots the arrow through the hoops as indicated, then goes on a rampage, unleashing his fury on the suitors. So the story is also about vengeance. But is this justice, or only revenge? 

Telemachus almost manages to string the bow after a few tries, but desists after Odysseus gives him a warning look. Does this mean that even if Odysseus hadn't come home, Telemachus could have thrown the suitors out eventually? Maybe he wasn't there yet, but would have been, soon? The idea that this proves that he'll never be the man his father is feels quite depressing. 

Loyalty is another important theme. Penelope is the main example, but there's also the old swineherd  Eumaeus. The bit about Penelope feels unsettling, because I get the feeling Odysseus would kill her without remorse if she didn't pass the tests. And there's also the old double standard at work here. For women, sleeping around is a deadly offence, while Odysseus jumps in the sack with practically any nymph/temptress he happens to come across on his journey home and doesn't even feel bad about it.  

That said, the storytelling is surprisingly modern: a lot of the story is told in flashbacks. The description is vibrant and full of detail, and you can practically see what's happening. I also liked the way Agamemnon's story is used to mirror Odysseus'. Agamemnon fought in the Trojan War just like Odysseus, but when he came home he was murdered by his deceitful wife Clytemnestra and her lover. So a dark mirror, then. 

All in all, a fantastic read. Even if you think you know all about The Odyssey from pop culture references, it's very different to actually read it. 

Aug 13, 2016

Suicide Squad: As Bad as the Reviews Say?

This summer has been frustrating, movie-wise. Every time I wanted to see something, it got crushing reviews and I decided to wait for the next one. I'd been looking forwards to Suicide Squad for months, and I liked the trailers. Then the reviews started coming in.

Oh boy. Not another one.

My first reaction was disbelief: how could anyone screw up such a great premise? In the end I decided to see the movie anyway, because I really wanted to see Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn. She didn't disappoint: Harley was the best thing about the movie for me. I also liked Will Smith as Deadshot. I know people haven't loved Leto's Joker, but he actually didn't bother me. But yeah, the movie, while not the unwatchable train wreck some reviews would have you believe, was a mess.

I actually liked the origin stories, but they felt all too brief; there just wasn't enough movie to give them the time they deserved. Each of them could have been a movie of its own. On a related note,  the movie had way too many characters. It would have been much better if they had dropped the boring ones (rope-guy, boomerang-guy, and Katana come to mind) and focused on five or six main characters. Another problem was the villain. Just a cardboard-cutout Evil Temptress out to destroy the world, just because. I also hated her alter ego, the spineless archeologist who mostly just had crying fits and waited for Big Strong Soldierboy to save her. And the plot! So by-the-numbers, like they didn't put any thought into it. They completely wasted Joker as a character, none of the character motivations felt real, most of the time we had no idea about character goals or what was at stake. Waller as a character feels inconsistent, and even her plan to assemble the suicide squad isn't really explained. Why did she decide to go for the criminals when there are heroes available? And where were Batman and Wonder Woman and the Flash while the Enchantress was doing her thing?

This could have been a great movie, if they had given it half a chance. So much potential, wasted.

My verdict? If you really like Harley, maybe check this movie out, but otherwise just go watch Deadpool again.

What would I like to see next?  What about a buddy movie where Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy paint the town red? Okay, Deadshot can come; I liked Deadshot. Maybe they could flip around that scene where everyone is ogling Harley while she's changing? For the record, I didn't have a problem with Harley's costume. Let her wear glitter hot pants if she wants, I think she totally would, but maybe subvert audience expectations once in a while?

Aug 12, 2016

Book Recommendation: The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

I bought this book after reading Neil Gaiman's introduction of it in A View from the Cheap Seats. (A dangerous book, if you're running out of shelf space: I bought five new books as I read it, and only one was a kindle edition.)  With The 13 Clocks, I'm actually glad I got the physical copy, because this is a gorgeous book. Just look at the artwork:  

When I opened the book, the first thing I saw was Gaiman's introduction; a fun coincidence that I ended up with that edition. I can't believe I've never come across this book before. It was love at first page. Just consider the opening:

Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn't go, there lived a cold, aggressive duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart.

And the descriptions! Here are a few of my favourites: 

His voice sounded like iron dropped on velvet.

She wore serenity brightly like the rainbow.

"The Todal looks like a blob of gulp,"he said. "It makes a sound like rabbits screaming, and smells of old, unopened rooms."

If you like dark fairytales, you need to hunt down this book and devour it in one reading, preferably in a dark room with the wind howling outside. 

Aug 10, 2016

Whitman's Civil War: Writing and Imagining Loss, Death, and Disaster week 4

This week's class focused on language and theme. I'm constantly amazed by the subtlety of Whitman's poems, and how much he conveys with a simple reversal of words or use of parenthetical pauses. I'm starting to look at his work as a puzzle: every time something odd appears, you can bet it's not just coincidence. Maybe you'll find a puzzle  piece you didn't know was missing, a piece that makes you see the poem at another level. It's fascinating. Here are a few things our instructors, professors Ed Folsom and Christopher Merrill,  pointed out:

In "Vigil Strange I kept on the Field One Night," a poem about a soldier keeping vigil for his dying comrade, the placement of the word "strange" is, well, strange. Why not "a strange vigil"? With Whitman's choice of syntax, "strange" attaches itself to both "vigil" and "I," indicating that the "I" is off-balance, strange, as well as the situation. Cool, huh? And Whitman also uses homonyms to great effect, like the pair son/sun:

And there and then, and bathed by the rising sun, my
son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I de-posited;

 It's also curious that in Drum-Taps, the poem that preceded this is "Mother and Babe," so there's a juxtaposition of life and death, the babe sleeping in his mother's arms and the dead soldier in his comrade's. Whitman encountered many dying soldiers when he volunteered at the hospitals and comforted them as best he could, sometimes taking the role of mother (and father, lover, nurse, etc. for that matter) for those dying alone and far from family. That experience probably affected this poem. You can see a similar juxtaposition in the pairing of “A Sight in Camp in the Day-Break Grey and Dim” and “A Farm Picture,” the image of the dead soldiers, about to be buried in the field that was a farm field (and will be again) and the image of a farm, cattle feeding on the grass nourished by dead soldiers and the survivors of the war getting nourishment from the cattle.

Another poem, "A March in the Ranks, Hard-Pressed," was inspired by a soldier's story of a church turned hospital, where he saw a young, mortally wounded soldier dying on the altar. Because the notebook Whitman used at the time survived, we get a fascinating glimpse into how he turned the story into a poem. Some of the phrases the soldier used make it into the poem unaltered. The poem is also one long sentence, enforcing the idea of a march, but it's broken by two parenthetical phrases, which turn out to be the most important bits in the poem.

The first phrase is "he is shot in the abdomen," a decidedly unpoetic phrase, a clinical description, and the other is the only metaphorical description in the poem, "the youngster's face is white as a lily," almost too sentimental for Whitman. When you connect the two, that's when the magic happens. The soldier was shot in the abdomen, a fatal wound, he's bleeding out. That's why his face is white as a lily. Why a lily? The boy is cut down in his prime, like a cut lily; you can see its beauty, but it will soon start to fade. We're in a church, so the lily also symbolises the funeral lily, and the Easter lily, a symbol of resurrection. The instructors also pointed out the word "temporarily," and how awkward it is in a poem. But that's precisely why Whitman put it there: the narrator can only staunch the flow of blood temporarily, not stop it, just like the word slows the reader down but doesn't stop the flow of the poem.

At my feet more distinctly, a soldier, a mere lad, in
danger of bleeding to death, (he is shot in the abdomen;)
I staunch the blood temporarily, (the youngster's face is
white as a lily;)

There's also another inversion: 

But first I bend to the dying lad—his eyes open—a 
half-smile gives he me; 

He me. It brings the narrator and the soldier together, perfect to illustrate that intimate moment.

Our assignment this week was to write about some event or experience that evoked a contradiction in us, like in Whitman's "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun." How can you both hate and love the same thing, find it beautiful and horrifying?

Aug 8, 2016

Writing Book: Deep Point of View by Rayne Hall

I'd been trying to improve my character development skills for a while and wondering why it's sometimes so hard to get up close and personal with my protag, when I came across the concept of deep point of view. Basically it's the same thing all the books on description try to teach you: show, don't tell.

What deep point of view comes down to is cutting any distancing words and just stating what the protagonist feels, thinks, and experiences. Mostly the culprits are words like "felt," "thought," "wondered," and sense words like "saw," "smelled, and "tasted." Using active verbs and avoiding author intrusions is also a part of this. The idea is to make it feel like the reader is living the story, not reading it. Writing deep point of view requires changing the way you think and write: you have to become the character, separate your own attitudes and reactions from the character's, almost like you're acting. At first it's hard, but when you've been doing it long enough, it becomes second nature.

The book says that it's not for beginners, but I found it easy enough to follow. It's a fast read with clear examples and useful exercises, so no technical stuff, if that scares you. Hall discusses using different points of view,  picking the right POV character and avoiding head-hopping, filtering observations through the character's experiences and interests, giving the full sensory experience, the difference between male and female POV, using situation and mood as filters, writing character thoughts and emotions, the importance of keeping trigger and response in the right order, using similes for expressing backstory, how to describe your protagonist's appearance in deep POV, and the importance of body language. We also get a few sample stories. If you've read a few writing books, you probably know most of this already, but it's useful to have it all collected in one volume.

I found this book useful, but if all the things I listed in the last paragraph seem like kiddie stuff to you, might be that you're already writing deep point of view without knowing it. If you're a newbie like me, you might want to check it out. And it's worth noting that this book is part of a series. You can explore the other volumes on the writer's website.

Aug 5, 2016

Raven's Wing

Aren't these gorgeous? I got them as souvenirs on my trip to Iceland and was a bit sad I couldn't fit more into my suitcase, but I did some googling and found a webshop that ships to Europe, USA, and Canada. The art is by Sveinbjörg Hallgrímsdóttir, and her company is called Sveinbjörg.  I like the ravens the best (yeah, big shock), but the Garden Party series looks nice, too. 

Aug 4, 2016

In the Forest of Memory

. . . is up on the SpeckLit site, along with the rest of my new drabbles.

This one is my favourite so far. Check it out here, if you want. And there's lots of cool stuff by other writers, too. It's amazing what people manage to express in a hundred words!

Aug 3, 2016

Whitman's Civil War: Writing and Imagining Loss, Death, and Disaster week 3

This week our instructors, Professors Ed Folsom and Christopher Merrill, talked about how Whitman's voice changed with what he was writing, like when he wrote letters to the family of wounded soldiers, he wrote in the voice of the soldier. I've never thought that in writing a letter for someone, the writer's voice comes through, because I've imagined it to be more like taking dictation, but that's not the whole truth. These letters were written for a specific audience, the loved one of the soldier, but they were also passed around and helped with fundraising. The more effective the letter, the more people it got passed to. The poem "Cavalry Crossing a Ford" is also interesting in its abstraction: you can't tell who the soldiers were or even which side they were fighting for.

 When reading "Opening of the Secession War," I noticed how different names were used for the war, and both sides used names that fit their ideologies The South called it “The War Between the States” or “The War for Southern Independence,” while the North had “The War of the Rebellion,” “The Great Rebellion,” or “The War for the Union.” Freed slaves named it “The Slaveholders’ Rebellion” and "The Freedom War.” The names say a lot about what the war meant to people. It's also easy to forget that while we know how long the war lasted from reading history books, the people experiencing it didn't. Whitman thought this was a rebellion that would be over and done with in a couple of weeks. Those four years  (1861-1865) of uncertainty and horror must have felt like a lifetime.

One of the poems we studied  this week was "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer" from Drum Taps. You can read it below:

WHEN I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns
before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add,
divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he
lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
          Walt Whitman/Drum Taps

It's a strange poem to find in the middle of poetry about the war, but it's a moment of reflection. When things are really bad, you can look at the stars and think of the immense distances in space and time and how small a war or a human lifetime is in the great scheme of things. There is a future, even if it seems like the end of the world now. It helps put things in perspective, looking from "time to time." Some people read this poem as Whitman rejecting the science, but as the instructors explained, he only understands that he's looking into the past, that the light he is seeing has come a long way, because of the lecture he attended. It's a beautiful moment. This is something that is useful to remember as a writer: a little light in the darkness can bring everything into sharper focus.

For this week's assignment, we wrote about a conflict or trauma viewed from an unexpected place that might reveal something unexpected about the conflict. Very challenging.

Aug 1, 2016

Science Fiction Classics: The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

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Images from

John Wyndham Parker Lucas Beynon Harris (1903-1969), or John Wyndham, as he was more widely known, was an English science fiction writer. He's famous for his "cosy catastrophes," disaster stories that take place in the English countryside. Three of his works are on my Science Fiction Classics list, so I decided to lump these two together. The Chrysalids, which some consider his finest work, is the third one, but I left that for later.

Triffids is a fun read, but the plot feels quite familiar. That's not surprising, because almost every zombie flick ever made owes it a lot. 28 Days Later has whole scenes that feel like they were taken almost straight from the book, and the opening of The Walking Dead probably has its roots here, also. The premise is interesting: what if almost everyone in the world went blind overnight? How long would it take for society to degenerate into savagery? Add to that the flesh-eating and walking plants, the triffids, and you have a recipe for disaster with all the fixings.

Cuckoos was a bit of a let-down for me, because I enjoyed Triffids so much. It explores another disturbing idea: everyone in the small village of Midwich loses a day and all the women find themselves mysteriously pregnant afterwards. They then give birth to strange, alien children, and creepiness ensues. For me, the execution felt a bit boring, and I didn't like the point-of-view shifts between the first person narrator and an omniscient view. There are also a lot of long conversations about morality and society and evolution, which slowed up the pace. The plot gets going when the children start to grow up, but it's still a bit slow. It was okay, but I probably wouldn't read it again. 

With both books, you can see the phantom of the Cold War in the distance: the triffids were genetically engineered by the Russians, and we also find out that the Russians had Cuckoos of their own, whom they kept alive in case the children would be an advantage in the arms race.

I think these books are considered classics more because of the ideas they explore than any literary merits. Wyndham's characters are a bit on the thin side and his style is clear and readable, but not very distinctive. That's the problem with the older science fiction classics: they tend to feel a bit cliché, because the idea has been recycled so many times since the classic was written. But you have to remember which was the original.   

All of the books mentioned above were published in the 1950s, so you have to take that into account while reading them. The attitudes towards women feel quite outdated. It didn't really bother me that much with Triffids, but considering the subject matter of The Midwich Cuckoos, I felt the full horror of what was done to the women went unexplored. I'd be curious to see what a woman writer would do with the same subject matter; it would be a very different book. While the "mansplaining" and how the women act can feel cringeworthy to the modern reader, I think Wyndham's attitudes might have been considered outlandish in the 50s, even progressive: women studying engineering, working outside the home, thinking for themselves; it's all there. It's like Wyndham's frustrated with how women won't help themselves and prefer to stay at home and have babies and mooch off their husbands. You have to remember Wyndham was born in 1903, so he was in his fifties when he wrote these books. I think that if he had been born later, all of this would have been handled differently.

So, I recommend Triffids for its fun B-movie high jinks, but maybe skip Cuckoos if you're not passionate about understanding the history of science fiction.

Science Fiction Classics read: 42/193