Friday, January 12, 2018

January's Book: Coraline

More pop culture to open 2018! I swear, I'll read another academic history book soon. This is just too fun.


Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Fantasy (2002 – 163 pp.)

Coraline is a fun, is-it-for-children-or-isn’t-it book that also, probably coincidentally, ended up being Neil Gaiman’s follow-up to the lauded American Gods (2001). The closest comparison for Coraline thematically is either of Lewis Carroll’s classics Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass, or the oft-cited Chronicles of Narnia comparison. Coraline has fewer characters, settings and plots.

Coraline Jones and her family have moved into a new house, but it contains a portal to a not-so-nice reflection of her world.

Although there are two mothers and two fathers, we only ever see them in their own worlds, connected, of course, by a door in Coraline’s house that only she ever opens. In her family’s new house, the normal side of the door is exactly as one would expect. The other side is one where everyone has buttons for eyes and the other mother wants Coraline to stay forever – with the small details that Coraline will have buttons sewn onto her own eyes and will never see her normal parents again.

Although Coraline is written in third person, the story focuses entirely on Coraline. Her movements, curiosities, emotions and foibles dominate the story to the point that the only times we hear from anyone else are when they speak directly to her. The other mother, who controls the evil make-believe world behind the door, is only evil because Coraline tells us she’s evil. The other father, who at first instance appears to be an accomplice of the other mother, turns out to be another captive when he tells Coraline that. The other world only exists as the other mother requires it to exist in order to ensnare Coraline: “There isn’t anywhere else. This is all she made: the house, the grounds, and the people in the house. She made it and she waited.” (71)

The other house is a bizarre place. Dogs eat chocolate there, (44) even though this is a horrible idea in real life. The cat that trails Coraline in the real world talks in the other world, and becomes a sort of guardian figure for her.  The other house flattens "like a photograph" and Coraline needs the ever-sensing cat to warn her. (124) Coraline embarrassedly eats the breakfast the other mother has made for her, (93) showing that the setting has some control as in the iconic feast scene in Pan's Labyrinth.  Coraline is always the most comfortable when the other mother has a location; when Coraline doesn't know where the other mother is, that's when the other mother's scariest. (95)

Then there's one of my favourite quotations from the whole book, one that calls to mind everything from the scariest Saw scene to Black Mirror's idea of seeing your own fears: “...mirrors are never to be trusted.” (77) It's literal - the other mother - and figurative - Coraline doesn't know what to think of herself after all this.

I enjoyed Coraline, but this was one of those rare cases when the book isn’t as good as the movie. The vivid imagery Gaiman uses fit the 3D glasses era of the movie’s 2009 release perfectly, starting with the sewing needle flying at the viewers’ eyes during the opening credits. The mouse circus also doesn’t conjure up the movie’s grandeur. Coraline succeeds as a story. Gaiman’s images don’t sink into the mind as well in print as they do on the screen, is all.

Fun bonus: Is this one of the few books that can rightfully assume a genre label of Children’s Horror?

Ease of Reading: 10

Educational Content: 1

Sunday, December 31, 2017

December's Book: All Our Wrong Todays

2017's been a great year for reading! Here's hoping 2018's books are just as exciting. I have a feeling they will be.


All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
Science Fiction (2017 - 369 pp.)

In All Our Wrong Todays, Elan Mastai confronts a fun, quirky question with seemingly no real-world application: what if our world were a shimmering utopia, but then someone from that utopia came to our world? The protagonist, Tom Barren, is an unremarkable son of a great scientist, who becomes involved in his father's time travel experiments. Naturally, Tom ends up rocketing back from 2016 to 1965, when the universe diverged, and then boomeranging back to our 2016 as famous architect John Barren. Our world appears as a dystopia, of course, including the fact that we use doorknobs. (They spread germs!) Adding to the fun is that both the utopia and the normal world are set in Toronto.

Tom consistently sells himself short. He passes through the laboratory basement where Lionel Gottreider invented the Gottreider Engine, a device that creates the boundless energy required to create the utopian world. Tom later discovers that he and John were connected all along, and that John's forward-looking architectural designs were channeled by seeing utopia through Tom's eyes. Tom/John's slow realization of how great he can be when combining Tom's magnanimity with John's ambition is the crux of the book, character-wise. On the other hand, Tom obsesses about sex, which takes up far too much of the book's content. The details of Gottreider's personal life stretch the book out too far at the end, so the final product could have been 20-30 pages shorter, but my enjoyment wasn't impaired.

Then, I always like seeing how the settings resolve themselves. I liked the utopian setting more than the real setting. Whether that says anything about me, I'm not sure, but I would have loved to have seen more travel between the two worlds. For Tom to have been surprised by his own utopia at some point would have been fun. The characters are realer in the real world setting, though, including a mother and sister who help bring the Barren family to life.

Mastai is a screenwriter by trade, which shows in the writing style - everything is crisp and conversational. P.D. James-style examination of an entire room is not to be found here, which is good (it moves the story along faster) and bad (the science fiction-y stuff in the alternate world would have been really cool to see in more description). Mastai's style sets the tone from the first page. Whereas a more traditional science fiction writer might have used a opening to set the scene, or to present the cube that reveals itself to be a tesseract, All Our Wrong Todays starts out as cold as possible: "So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have." (1) That sentence immediately makes the reader curious while also not at all revealing that the world we were supposed to have involves space suits.

All Our Wrong Todays has 137 chapters, some as short as a page. This has the psychological impact of helping the reader stick around longer, as it's easy to say "just one more chapter before bed" when that chapter is only a couple pages. Others, like Chapter 43 ("Summary - Chapters 1 to 42") are narrator inserts. Mastai's use of formatting to move along the plot is one of the most fun parts of the book. This is one of 2017's page turners: science fiction enough to stir the imagination, popular enough to read quickly, and with new content constantly on the reader's plate.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 2

Thursday, November 30, 2017

November's Book: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
Science Fantasy (2000 - 623 pp.)

Perdido Street Station is a massive, twisting, fun ride through China Mieville's literary inventions. The darkened city of New Crobuzon hosts terrifying creatures, horrifying lines of work, and even the namesake subway station. The protagonist, the scientist Isaac dan der Grimnebulin, promises to build new wings for a bird-like creature (garuda) named Yagharek who has lost his wings as a criminal sentence. Isaac's girlfriend Lin, who is partially bug thanks to a parasite on her head, uses her artistic talents in the service of Remade mob boss Mr. Motley. Mr. Motley commands a team of other Remade, who have animal parts grafted onto them for various reasons, although there are many more Remade in New Crobuzon. During Isaac's research, he accidentally discovers a slake-moth, which feeds by consuming hallucinogens and then sucking out peoples' consciousnesses. Mr. Motley uses the slake-moths to produce more hallucinogens. Yes, that's the simplest I could explain this plot.

Perdido Street Station's strongest points are the rich, imaginative ways China Mieville draws us into his world, while never sacrificing his characters or plot. The italicized portions, narrated by Yagharek, are disjointed rambles that led credence to the notion that a creature like a garuda would think so much differently from a human, and also show how bizarre New Crobuzon is. Yagharek meant to arrive there from his homeland, but it still feels like he should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque. As a wingless outsider, Yagharek doesn't have anywhere else to go.

Who lives in such a place? Our protagonist, of course.

The only greater-than-minuscule problem I have with Perdido Street Station is its length. I'm not against long fantasy books in general - I loved Wizard's First Rule, and still love the A Song of Ice and Fire books that have actually been released - but Perdido Street Station at times feels like a first draft. There are mountains of adverbs and entire paragraphs of 6-plus-letter words. A shorter passage describes a group of quasi-robots who come to the good guys' aid: "In extreme contrast to the anarchic viral flurry that had spawned it, the Construct Council thought with chill exactitude." (552) Much of the writing is extremely flowery. The book is 220,100 words, and it gets exhausting. I could probably edit it down to below 200,000 easily. The length combined with the era and the bleakness make Perdido Street Station into fantasy fiction's Antichrist Superstar: "There's so much life in this dungeon, you'll never want to leave." The upshot of the book's length is the sheer number of fight scenes, against a surprisingly high number of characters. Perdido Street Station feels endless at times, but the plot is never boring.

If there's any part of Perdido Street Station that's realistic, it's this charming line: "Isaac found that trying to explain his work to Yagharek helped him. Not the big theoretical stuff, of course, but the applied science with furthered the half-hidden theory." (191) Even in fantasy worlds, people learn by teaching. China Mieville was a PhD candidate in political science when Perdido Street Station was released, and Mieville has gone to write extensively since then in both fiction and non-fiction. The PhD lends credence to Mieville's fictitious city the same way critics love to cite that Robert Heinlein was an engineer. Perdido Street Station is a dystopia where characters have to apply their learning, whether they are scientists, artists, or Mafiosi. The reader learns with them.

One final question I had while reading Perdido Street Station is whether it would make for a good movie. My first thought was that it would because of the action, the diversity of characters, and the way the book's length could be mitigated by, to use a stock movie phrase, making a picture be worth a thousand words. My next thought was that mob boss Mr. Motley, who is so Remade he is unrecognizable as human, is personified nausea fuel, as are many of the other Remade. It would take CGI far greater than what was available in the Avatar era to make a realistic portrayal of the Remade without grossing out the audience. The story would translate to the big screen great, though.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 3

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Some Pictures from the Guns N' Roses Concert at the Air Canada Centre (October 29, 2017)

I had no idea what to expect, considering Guns N' Roses had their prime 25-30 years ago, they'd broken up and reunited since then, and I am now thinner than Axl Rose. It was incredible, though. I went with a good friend who'd managed to get comped tickets. We were in the lower bowl with a great view. The animations were of a quality I don't think was fathomable in the '80s. (Especially for "Coma" - picture below.)

Axl was on point. Slash had tons of solos. Duff frequently came over to my side of the stage for photo ops, and sang "Attitude" great. Live addition Melissa Reese was sensational. The band played almost all the songs I hoped they would, which I suppose happens when you have relatively few albums that made it big. "It's So Easy" was a surprising opener, but got the crowd's energy up early. "I Used to Love Her" was a nice break from the intensity that peaked with "Rocket Queen", "Coma" and the closer "Paradise City".

For three hours, I stood, jumped around, and took pictures. In true counterculture fashion, I wore my bright blue Carolina Panthers hoodie, which would have looked more fitting at a Rage Against the Machine concert but also made me stand out among all the black shirts. One inebriated patron even gave me a foam middle finger, free of charge.

The opening animation before the show.

Pictorial proof that I was there. Not my finest picture - I blame the lighting.

Slash at my side of the stage. Still just as plaid as in the Use Your Illusion era.

Axl was singing to me here. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Axl and Slash onstage together had been a long time coming.

The light show demanded the use of such a great venue. I... think this one was "Rocket Queen"? One of these pictures was.

Duff took the top of the stage during "Coma", one of the band's most challenging songs, and also an opportunity for a great heart monitor animation.
I've had their set list stuck in my head ever since.

Fun fact: This was not my first time seeing Slash. I went to the Air Canada Centre to see AC/DC with my dad and uncle back in 2000, and the opener was Slash's Snakepit. Weird fact: I am now closer in age to Slash at that 2000 show than Slash when Appetite for Destruction came out. I don't know whether that makes me feel old or not.

Promoting the Toronto Writers' Co-Operative

I've discussed the Toronto Writers' Co-Operative on here before, whether it's because one of our authors is releasing a book, or whether it's because I'm releasing a story.

Well, now we're listed on the Toronto Public Library website. (Featured in picture, from left: me, group founder John Miller, crime novelist Laura Kuhlmann)

In a typical session, two writers from any combination of genres and forms have their writing critiqued by the group. Sometimes, we have guest authors who discuss their work.

Upcoming dates are on the site linked above.

We're also apparently "in partnership with" ourselves. That's when you know your membership numbers are good.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

October's Book: The Handmaid's Tale

Caught up! It feels good. I credit finally reading a short book one of these months.

And now we're back to the 20th century... or are we?

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Speculative Fiction (1985 - 358 pp.)

The Handmaid's Tale is the story of Gilead, a revolutionary post-United States taken over by a cult called the Sons of Jacob that divides everyone into classes. The men are Commanders, Eyes, Angels and Guardians, mostly; the women are Wives, Handmaids, Marthas and Econowives, mostly. Each commander's household has a wife (self-explanatory), a handmaid (for bearing children) and 1-2 Marthas (for housework). Everyone's role is circumscribed, with surveillance and secret police to catch and get rid of dissenters. Any further plot synopsis is located in the thousands of reviews already out there. Any typical review of The Handmaid's Tale can be found in the equally numerous sources confirming that yes, Gilead is a horrible place to live. Offred, our narrator, is a handmaid. She wears red but is a potential dissenter (Off Red), and is in the household of a commander named Fred (Of Fred).

The most striking parts of Atwood's dystopia are the overarching cultural norms that could happen anywhere. At Atwood has said, everything in The Handmaid's Tale is something that has already happened."* The execution of doctors and scientists is eerily reminiscent of WWII-era military occupations. (37) All the surveillance, suffering, and surveillance-induced suffering Offred experiences are directly caused by her upper-class, solid-red-wearing obviousness. In Gilead, living unnoticed is the ultimate prize. Gilead's mantra may well be Nick's warning to Offred late in the book, which could just as easily be advice to a driver with a suspended license or to a stark opposition of technological progress: "Keep on doing everything exactly the way you were before, Nick says. Don't change anything. Otherwise they'll know." (311)

For all the handmaid's internal life is developed, the reader never grasps Gilead's economy or the handmaid's role in it. Offred goes shopping early on, which is performed through tokens stamped with products rather than through any normal currency. (12) Non-pregnant handmaids are shuffled between commanders every two years. For all the purpose of being a handmaid is to bear children via "Ceremony",** though, Offred's commander doesn't appear to be trying very hard to impregnate her:*** "When the night for the Ceremony came round again, two or three weeks later..." (184) No mention is ever made as to what jobs the commanders have, how handmaids are supported financially, why a commander would agree to subsidize a handmaid for the two-year lease, or what Gilead could possibly export. The only conclusion I can make is that handmaids are wards of the state. As a result, the state appears to be draining funds on them^ without giving them any benefit in return: they can't work, they have no means to express themselves, and efforts to get them to bear children appear half-hearted at best.

The best off of any of the women in The Handmaid's Tale are the little-mentioned econowives. They perform the duties of wives, handmaids, and Marthas, and therefore they wear blue, red and green as a result. (48) They wear their colours all at once, in stripes; the stripes aren't mentioned in any further detail, so the reader can only imagine the varieties the econowives can choose. Functioning almost exclusively as a companion, mother and homemaker is similar to being an early 20th-century housewife. They are the only women in Gilead with remotely normal lives and with the ability to wear multiple colours at once. Sadly, they only appear in any prominence on one page, and the reader never gets to feel their experiences. The Handmaid's Tale came out 22 years ago, and The Econowife's Tale just doesn't have much of a ring to it, so I'm not crossing my fingers for a sequel.

Atwood's writing reminded me within the first few pages of how rarely I read books published between 1960 and 1990. The Handmaid's Tale reads somewhat like my dad's old spy novels, which I hadn't expected, but helps it read extremely quickly. The only time this fast pace lets up is during Professor Pieixoto's lecture at the very end. I love fictitious internal reporting, like The Navidson Record in House of Leaves, so the 10+ pages of metafictional academic journal entries make me smile. I would have liked to have known more about Late Gilead, though; the early^^ and middle periods are covered in detail, but we never know how Gilead ends.^^^ We know it's over because the Professor Pieixoto lecture, set in 2195, discusses Gilead as a historical country.

One minor mishap I noticed was the sheer repetition of the phrase "as if" for similes. It generally occurs in the form "<subject><predicate>, as if <comparator>." At one point, it occurs thrice in 3.5 pages. (96, 97, 99) This is why one of the greatest boons of the post-1985 editing world is Ctrl+F. As much as repeating a character's commonly used phrases helps to establish that character's tendencies, when it distracts from the story, it's problematic.

The words Offred makes in Scrabble are also completely improbable: Larynx, Valance, Quince and Zygote all in the same game, or even the same night, for starters. (161) Then Quartz and Quandary appear in rapid succession, in either the same game or two consecutive, when there is only one Q in the entire 100-letter game. (178) Far more often, the Q and Z are used to make the two-letter words Qi and Za on triple letter scores, leading to profanity from the opponent. That said, I'm just glad to see one of my favourite board games mentioned in a book at all.

Given how terrifying living in Gilead must be, and how I've mused on Gilead's lack of exports more than I've mentioned the book's horror, I leave you with the ultimate fridge horror thought: What if Gilead funds itself by exporting handmaids?`

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 3

*Except mandatory red-blue-green Trinitron-style striped clothing. (see the econowives paragraph)

**The Ceremony is described in detail at pages 106-111.

***The Handmaid's role in the Ceremony is so passive that this grammatical structure works fine.

^Who are the taxpayers in this system? Or have these revolutionary United States seized Fort Knox and melted all its gold supplies into the food voucher tokens?

^^For reference, the main part of the book takes place during the early period.

^^^There is one journal entry on civil war in Gilead, but the reader never gets to know when this civil war happens, why it happens, or whether it leads to Gilead's demise. (344)

`Even this is contemplated by ISIS's human trafficking economy.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

September's Book: Collaborating with the Enemy

Almost caught up! Unlike these past couple months, which have looked back to the 20th century, this time it's a really current book on display.

Collaborating with the Enemy by Adam Kahane
Organizational Theory (2017 - 109 pp.)

Adam Kahane's Collaborating with the Enemy rests on a very sound premise: that to work through conflict, we must seek out and embrace it, and then be experimental in how we solve our problems. The premise harkens back to post-World War II industrial pluralism, which encouraged management-union cooperation, and to the problems I looked at when I wrote a master’s paper on the psychological and economic pitfalls negotiators face in hostile collective bargaining. Expanded further, much like Freakonomics doesn’t just apply to economists, Collaborating with the Enemy becomes part of a series of books on how to industrial relations-ize your life.

At only 109 pages, Collaborating with the Enemy still feels overly long. Realistically, it contains a 25-page article’s worth of material. Most of the rest of the book is Kahane repeating himself, and sometimes telling personal anecdotes that don’t feel connected to the underlying premise. Reading about the political conferences in South Africa and Colombia was interesting, but those conferences needed to be tied into conflict resolution theme more. A 55-page book on conflict resolution and a 54-page book on political conferences Kahane has attended would be a compelling 2-in-1 bookstore purchase, but I doubt it’d sell as well. The how-to guide at the end of the book can be removed.

Kahane’s most effective argument is his four methods of coping with conflict, presented as a decision tree: force, collaborate, adapt, and exit. (19) He then expands them to five by opening collaboration up into traditional collaboration, which works when the situation is well understood, and stretch collaboration, which is necessary when the situation is not well understood. (47) Stretch collaboration is what Kahane needed to understand the problems in South Africa and Colombia: a willingness to work together even within relationships had previously been adversarial, and a willingness to try something new.

These decision trees are also effective because they recognize force and exit as valid options. Not every situation lends itself to accommodation or horse-trading. The decision trees also unpack collaboration based on whether the conflict can be controlled, which starts readers thinking about whether they can control the situations they face.

What really makes the decision trees special, though, is that they attack the problem like a first-entry deterrence game* rather than like a Myers-Briggs test.** There’s no Thomas-Kilmann conflict type. There’s no imputed personality. Anyone can use any combination of the five methods, and Kahane frequently emphasizes that everyone should.

Much like with Difficult Conversations, which came out of the Harvard Negotiation Project in 1994 but is written in a tone that is more popular than academic, Collaborating with the Enemy gets non-academics talking about the kinds of issues faced in the social science classroom, and the business and political worlds.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 4

*For example, the second game tree in this overview from Vanderbilt Business School.

**I'm an ENTJ and proud.