Review: Hint Fiction

During my vacation last week, I read Hint Fiction, Robert Swartwood’s collection of ficlets.  All sorts of authors contributed to it, each writing a particular sort of story: a composition of 25 words, or fewer, which does not simply tell a story but hints at a larger picture.

For example, the very first: Joe Lansdale’s “The Return.”

They buried him deep.  Again.

5 words that imply a man or masculine creature, one who apparently died and certainly was buried, who was buried deep the first time but nonetheless was exhumed (or dug his own way out), and who They, once again, buried…for all the good it will do, which may not be much.  A brief respite?  A century of rest?  We don’t know!  But we’Hint Fictionre left to imagine it.

It’s a strong entry to lead the anthology.  That sort of compression, almost a prose poem, takes a lot of thought and the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, for every hint that grabbed me, making me pause to ruminate on the larger picture implied by it, there were four that let me pass on by.  Fortunately, in a book of 125 hint-fics, that’s 25 stories that left some impression.  The finer specimens make the most of their title, or use allusions to other stories (Penelope, “Not Waving But Drowning,” Shark Week) as a shortcut.

In the interest of moderating my judgment, I tried writing a few; to try and focus my thoughts, these hint fics are summaries of longer books I’ve read somewhat recently, though that’s not necessarily the best method to achieve this sort of iceberg-writing.

Where dreams come true, so do nightmares.

Suffering the rough buffs away our raggedness until we shine. 

Curiosity, puzzle-solving, and loving the 1980s enough could make you a billionaire.  Bonus girlfriend, if the evil corporation doesn’t kill you first.

They shared what beauty they could find like war rations, to multiplicative effect.  Friendship does not destroy death, but it does discourage suicide.

I wouldn’t call Hint Fiction a must-read, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a must-buy.  But it’s a fun read, and beneficial to writers who don’t otherwise weigh out their words.  Certainly these droplets of story prove that a lot of horror fits in a small space; it’s harder to fit a great deal of glory into that same small space.

 

Variation on a Theme

“I’m back.”

“Oh, good.  …good Lord.”

“What?”

“Nothing, just – I’m sorry, how many bags of books do you have there?  I thought you said you were going off to read, not raid a bookstore.”

“It wasn’t a bookstore.  It was the library.”

And there wasn't a book sale. I didn't even get that many new requests. This was just me cleaning out my car.

And there wasn’t a book sale. I didn’t even get that many new requests. This was just me cleaning out my car.

“Oh.  I’d thought maybe a coffee shop…?”

“No, coffee shops are full of people buying coffee and chatting over their tea and – and then there’s the pressure to earn your seat by buying more coffee, which I don’t need.  Bookstores have no BYOB policy and in fact discourage bringing your own book….whereas the library has a fine parking lot, and a quiet table inside.”

“Sorry – what, exactly, does the parking lot have to do with anything?”

“Oh!  Well, on a fine evening like this, you can read in your car.  More airflow than indoors, and there was at least an hour of light.  And then inside for another hour and change.  I almost finished off that volume of Milosz, finally.”

“Seems a shame to read so fast instead of lingering over the words.  You can’t get as much out of it.”

Quirk of a bemused eyebrow.  “Is that how you always read?  Lingeringly?”

“Well, yeah.  More or less, depending on the book.”

“Tell me: do you always sip daintily at every glass of water?”  A blank look in response.  “Do you always, always let your beer or wine set for five whole seconds on your tongue before you swallow it?”  Sheepish shifting of feet, eyes drifting to the floor.  “Yeah, that’s what I thought.  Sure, maybe I don’t remember as much of it as you do, or as much as I’d like to recall – but good God, man, sometimes it’s sweltering out and you’re sweating too hard to do anything but gulp.  Sometimes you’re too caught up in conversation to attend so studiously to your beverage.  And that’s all for the best, honestly – drinks go with your food and conversation, not the other way ’round.”

“But contemplating words makes a good deal more sense than contemplating wine.”

“Not all words.  And, for that matter, not all wines, either.”

The Ships – A Prose Poem by CP Cavafy

From Imagination to the Blank Page.  A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous.  At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is, and how injurious sometimes for the ships that undertake it.

The first injury derives from the highly fragile nature of the merchandise that the ships transport. In the marketplaces of Imagination most of the best things are made of fine glass and diaphanous tiles, and despite all the care in the world, many break on the way, and many break when unloaded on the shore. Moreover, any such injury is irreversible, because it is out of the question for the ship to turn back and take delivery of things equal in quality. There is no chance of finding the same shop that sold them. In the marketplaces of Imagination, the shops are large and luxurious but not long-lasting. Their transactions are short-lived, they dispose of their merchandise quickly and immediately liquidate. It is very rare for a returning ship to find the same exporters with the same goods.

Another injury derives from the capacity of the ships. They leave the harbors of the opulent continents fully loaded, and then, when they reach the open sea, they are forced to throw out a part of the load in order to save the whole. Thus, almost no ship manages to carry intact as many treasures as it took on. The discarded goods are of course those of the least value, but it happens sometimes that the sailors, in their great haste, make mistakes and throw precious things overboard.

And upon reaching the white paper port, additional sacrifices are necessary. The customs officials arrive and inspect a product and consider whether they should allow it to be unloaded; some other product is not permitted ashore; and some goods they admit only in small quantities. A country has its laws. Not all merchandise has free entry, and contraband is strictly forbidden. The importation of wine is restricted, because the continents from which the ships come produce wines and spirits from grapes that grow and mature in more generous temperatures. The customs officials do not want these alcoholic products in the least. They are highly intoxicating. They are not appropriate for all palates. Besides, there is a local company that has the monopoly in wine. It produces a beverage that has the color of wine and the taste of water, and this you can drink the day long without being affected at all. It is an old company. It is held in great esteem, and its stock is always overpriced.

Still, let us be pleased when the ships enter the harbor, even with all these sacrifices. Because, after all, with vigilance and great care, the number of broken or discarded goods can be reduced during the course of the voyage. Also, the laws of the country and the customs regulations, though oppressive in large measure, are not entirely prohibitive, and a good part of the cargo gets unloaded. Furthermore, the customs officials are not infallible: some of the merchandise gets through in mislabeled boxes that say one thing on the outside and contain something else; and, after all, some choice wines are imported for select symposia.

Something else is sad, very sad. That is when certain huge ships go by with coral decorations and ebony masts, with great white and red flags unfurled, full of treasures, ships that do not even approach the harbor either because all of their cargo is forbidden or because the harbor is not deep enough to receive them. So they continue on their way. A favorable wind fills their silk sails, the sun burnishes the glory of their golden prows, and they sail out of sight calmly, majestically, distancing themselves forever from us and our cramped harbor.

Fortunately, these ships are very scarce. During our lifetime we see two or three of them at most. And we forget them quickly. Equal to the radiance of the vision is the swiftness of its passing. And after a few years have gone by, if—as we sit passively gazing at the light or listening to the silence—if someday certain inspiring verses return by chance to our mind’s hearing, we do not recognize them at first and we torment our memory trying to recollect where we heard them before. With great effort the old remembrance is awakened, and we recall that those verses are from the song chanted by the sailors, handsome as the heroes of the Iliad, when the great, the exquisite ships would go by on their way—who knows where.

Review: Technopoly

As in my post of last week, I am in the position of reviewing a book long after I first read it.  However, after reading Neil Postman’s Technopoly last March, I reread it in May, took copious notes on it in June, and still have it to hand for further consideration, because this book gave me so very much to ruminate upon.

Having stumbled over the book’s prologue while idly Googling the story of King Thamus and the Egyptian god of invention Theuth, I wondered how I had never heard of this author before.  Postman wrote at least seventeen books about the nature of education, how various technologies and media can contribute to (or interfere with) it, and the effect this all has on humans, particularly children.  The bulk of his work and writing occurred between 1960 and 1990, and Technopoly was published in 1992.Technopoly

All of this is to say that, though Postman analyzes a technological landscape over twenty years old, so much of it still rings true that the man seems somehow prophetic.

His thesis: technology appears to be a friend, but does not give us time for reflection on potential losses before it changes the world.  As scientists and inventors strive to make life easier, healthier, and longer…technology begins to usurp the place of our critical thinking and our consciences.  It is so intertwined with modern life that most of us have difficulty finding a distant enough vantage point to see what consequences, secretly intended or unintentional, may follow.  As King Thamus tells Theuth (or Thoth), “the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it.”  The king referred to writing, distinguishing memory and wisdom themselves from the recollection and appearance of wisdom which writing would make possible.

Basically, technology can be used for good or ill – but once the tool is in the culture, it will change it: not just here or there, but throughout.  For example, a culture that can produce written records can – eventually will – shift away from having an oral tradition.  Hurrying toward what is ahead, the inventor does not necessarily examine all these implications, all the ways his invention will change the world – nor do those using it ask, typically.  Instead, everyone emphasizes their hope for all the good this invention will bring.  The culture thus conspires against itself: the onlookers cannot know how this novelty will change their existence, nor that they might well end up on “the losing side” of a technology.

Maintaining that technologies reflect and create the ways people perceive reality, Postman sets out his definitions (by description) of tool-using cultures, technocracy, and technopoly.  Tool-using cultures use tools – many or few, simple or sophisticated, beloved or held in contempt – to solve problems of physical life, or to serve the symbolic world (e.g., art, politics, myth, ritual, religion).  The tools are determined and directed by the culture, thus they generally do not attack the dignity or integrity of it.  Rather, the culture is unified in belief (possibly theocratic), which provides order and meaning for the people within it.

He does list some tools which can intrude on cultural beliefs – the stirrup, the clock, mills, matches, and rifles – so I think those can be tied to the rise of Technocracy.  Here, tools are central to the world of thought.  Technocracy disdains and subordinates, but does not destroy, social or symbolic traditions (partly because it’s too new to change venerable phenomena like elder wisdom, regional pride, or social structure; partly because it’s busy doing other things).  Postman notes that Western technocracies were rooted in the clock, the printing press, and the telescope: three tools which changed the fabric of how society organized time, disseminated many new ideas to all sorts of new readers, and how men viewed the cosmos and their place in it. Listing off various natural philosophers-become-scientists, Postman avers that the precision of man’s knowledge of the cosmos “collapsed [the] moral center of gravity,” causing “the psychic desolation of an unfathomable universe.”  Even so, the believing scientists remained faithful, concerning themselves with learning and truth, not power or progress…until Francis Bacon came along.  Thereafter, people came to believe that knowledge was power and continuing progress was possible, while their belief in God was shaken if not obliterated.

More inventions, more factories, more production, faster communication…generally, people learned how to make this all happen, but didn’t spend as much time asking why.  And so western society approached Technopoly: a totalitarian technocracy, wherein efficiency, objective data, and unambiguous calculation is valued more highly than human judgment, human dignity, or the complexity of the unmeasurable.  “Lacking a lucid set of ethics and having rejected tradition, Technopoly searches for a source of authority and finds it in the idea of statistical objectivity.”  Thus ideas are reduced to objects, abstractions are ranked, and realities which were never meant to be reduced to numbers – human intelligence, a student’s understanding of a subject, beauty, ability, how people regard political candidates, etc. – are flattened and simplified until they fit into such boxes.

Postman acknowledges that a certain amount of generalization or oversimplification is necessary for everyone, given that we are awash in information: the sorcerer’s apprentice, with only a broom against the flood.  But in the past, some institution (familial society, religion, etc.) provided the framework for belief and understanding, dictating what was of greater or lesser importance.  Technocracy unraveled that moral and intellectual coherence, and now such institutions, and such overarching structures of belief, are held in suspicion by the Technopoly-addled.  What do they have instead?  An incomprehensible universe, and an unending river of data sans context.  Data management becomes the driving concern – again, not asking why this information or that must be preserved, but only caring how.  “Information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.”

So.  Having been alarmed by the way in which society regards the universe as incoherent, the vicious cycle of bureaucracy, and blatant reductionism, what can we do?

Postman’s response – he admits that it’s not really a solution – is that, at an individual level, we must cling fast to the narratives and symbols which quicken us and organize our thought.

At a societal level, schools are probably the best arena for improvement. The curriculum therein tends to have some coherence and connectedness, and presents ideas or attitudes that can permeate “a person with no commitment, no point of view, but plenty of marketable skills.” Or so we hope. Since it’s unlikely that religion, love of country, or emotional health would be used to provide structure for students’ knowledge, something else must do so.  Postman suggests “the ascent of man” – the idea that “humanity’s destiny is the discovery of knowledge.” The arts and humanities can be joined with science “to gain a unified understanding of nature and our place in it.” Instead of excising anything religious, a study of religious systems can (apparently) help tell “the story of humanity’s creativeness in trying to conquer loneliness, ignorance, and disorder.”

The sudden influx of quotations probably displays my feelings toward this approach: I can’t actually summarize it and keep a straight face. I agree that it’s valuable for our culture to have a nontechnical or noncommercial concept of education, but I don’t know that this approach to learning would be able to overwrite society’s years of emphasis on education as the means to achieve material or financial success; after so many years of people asking “How?” I don’t know how to convince everyone to ask “Why?” instead.

Postman also recommends teaching as much history as possible – not only the history of political events, or of each school subject, but of history itself. This, he hopes, can help illuminate why we know the things we know, whence our ideas and sensibilities issue, and how cultures change. He urges that different theories be propounded if not endorsed or established: “To teach the past simply as a chronicle of indisputable, fragmented, and concrete events is to replicate the bias of Technopoly, which largely denies our youth access to concepts/theories, providing only a stream of meaningless events.”  Which has always been my problem with understanding history: why bother remembering distinct events if I don’t understand the point of them?  Postman agrees with that: “The worst thing we can do is present [facts] devoid of coherence.” Rather, we should go beyond the event into larger concepts, theories and hypotheses, comparisons and evaluations.

For my own part, stuck in my unfashionable Christian beliefs and morality system, it’s clear that human-centered solutions cannot fill a spiritual pit.  Technology cannot cure its own disease.  Practical decisions cannot solve moral quandaries.  There can be no experts in child-rearing and lovemaking and friend-making, because individual people are not problems to be solved.  If the great danger is to become Adolf Eichmann – the Holocaust organizer who was indifferent to the fact that the timetables and logistics he oversaw were part of the deportation and killing of millions of people – then our defense is to care more about our actions and their consequences, especially the effects on our fellow man.

This is similar to Postman’s final conclusion: that to resist Technopoly, we must be loving resistance fighters.  We must understand that technology is a product of a particular economic and political context; that all technology carries with it “a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing;” and that all technology demands examination, judgment, and control.”

My corollary: Keeping an “a epistemological and psychic distance from any technology” requires an understanding of, and respect for, the dignity of the human soul.  Distrust of technology will not change our society, our culture, our world so much as love for our fellow man.

Review: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin

Last August, T. Everett recommended I read The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, saying “Have you ever wondered what Harry Potter would be like if it were about Hermione instead?”

I hadn’t wondered this, because of Ann Margaret’s excellent stories on that very premise – except that, okay, I had, because those still revolve around Harry and his path as the Chosen One.  So the question becomes, “What would Hogwarts – and Hermione – be like without Harry’s shenanigans?”

If we took Rachel Griffin’s Enlightenment as the answer, it would be “Largely the same; other shenanigans would arise to fill the gap.”  There are, in fact, so many shenanigans springing up that the whole 360 pages or so comprise five days, assuming I counted properly.

However, Rachel and Hermione, and their respective worlds, are dissimilar enough that the question of Granger-sans-Potter remains unanswered.  Rather, we are presented with a whole lot of other questions, answers, and characters, including:

– Rachel, a wizard girl of Noble Blood, with an eidetic memory, a strong work ethic, an unyielding compulsion to obey adults (until she tries really really hard and breaks said compulsion), a devotion to her father which must eventually be transferred elsewhere, and complete religious ignorance…but I’m getting ahead of things.  By dint of memory and effort, she flies very well. She remembers everything she looks at, though there were too many instances of Let Me Stop And Review The Picture In My Head for my taste (though I must concede their purpose: to help her see past magical obfuscation). She is super concerned with Who Likes Whom.

– Siegfried, an orphaned dragon slayer who often exclaims “Ace!” while hoarding his gold and food (so much so that he doesn’t know to buy an extra set of clothes), and whose quixotic ideas move the narrative forward, if haltingly.

– Nastasia, a Russian princess…of Magical Australia, for whatever reason.  She has a Bag of Holding, a violin, several skills which I have forgotten, a deeper commitment to the rules than even Rachel has, and the blessing/curse of having Visions when she touches certain people.

Many other figures crop up, though their development is flimsy.  Honestly, a lot of it reads as flimsy: the number of talents every single character has, the fact that a “girl reporter” is under threat of death, the amount of improbable things figured out by a bunch of 13-year-olds, the rapid escalation of threats interspersed with a lot of concern over dating.  The names – Gaius Valiant, Salome Iscariot, Dr. Mordeau, to name a few – are either super-literal or the reddest of herrings; I’m betting on the former.

Still, a few subtler details await development by the margins.  For one, individual takes on magic and magical worlds are generally diverting, and this world is no exception.  The American wizarding school, the Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts, explains how the colony of Roanoke went missing: the school’s founder turned it into a floating island, safe from the eyes of the Unwary (this world’s Muggles).  Magical familiar animals, music, and particular materials (including wands of metal and jewels) contribute to one’s magical abilities.

One of the most intriguing facts is that Rachel Griffin, Devourer of Library Books, is ignorant of all religious information – to the point where she doesn’t understand why a broom would be branded a “steeplechaser,” or what a friar is, or what the winged statue in the forest might be.  The dramatic irony involved might carry on through another book; given the visions, Morningstar references, and discussions between a prophetic raven and a miniature lion, I expect some kind of celestial showdown in the end.  Hopefully it doesn’t get too preachy.

Altogether, it’s a story that’s mostly drawn in Crayola colors – but here and there are shades in between, shadows implying that something deeper may come.  The concept is better than the execution; by the end of the narrative, I wasn’t certain what Rachel’s “unexpected enlightenment” actually consisted of.  Hopefully the next three installments can answer the questions this book left hanging, and further illuminate the reality (and history) of the Wise.

Yogh and Ash and Thorn

Last week Back in May, I shared Peter Bellamy’s setting of Rudyard Kipling, noting that I’d stumbled over it thanks to the glory and munificence of the internet.

More specifically, I was contemplating Anglo-Saxon words that start with an ash or a thorn, and came across this parody by Catherine Faber:

Yogh and Ash and Thorn

Some time between the year fourteen-ought-five and -fifty-one
There was a strange and radical change in spoken English done.
These letters all but past recall should not be held in scorn;
The rose in May must go the way of yogh and ash and thorn.

Yogh and ash and thorn good sirs, mouldering vellum adorn;
Here do we see mortality in yogh and ash and thorn.

Yogh to me resembles a three a little bit flattened above
And sound denotes so low in the throat as only the Dutch could love
Yet now is found both letter and sound discarded and forlorn;
Remember you are mortal too, like yogh and ash and thorn.

A “b” with a tail, thorn didn’t prevail, but though it lost the race
It takes a pair of letters to wear the shoes to take its place,
And a and e an ash will be when back to back they are bourne;
Into dark the passing mark of yogh and ash and thorn.

“Vowel shift” said somebody miffed, “It’s more like a hey or a bransle
“Letter and sound keep swapping around and ‘hands about go all!'”
Some were stored and some ignored and some were mangled and torn,
Caught up in the rout as vowels fell out with yogh and ash and thorn.

Time must be an enemy that ever ending brings–
Even word-fame cannot be heard when words are mortal things.
Some clever cuss in studying us some distant future morn
Will find us surely strange to her as yogh and ash and thorn.

Rich and strangely words will change in warpage under use
But why in past it happened so fast Gude Godde only knoos.**
We work the sum of what we become from where and how we are born.
And hold these three in memory: yogh and ash and thorn!

Alphabooks: Z is for Zzz-snatcher

Z: Zzz-Snatcher

I hate to end this series of prompt posts on a weak note.  Perhaps I’ll come up with something splendid and impressive on the morrow, like a new letter beginning a secret word which is relevant to more interesting books that I haven’t talked about yet.

But for today, the question is “What book is so good that you didn’t go to sleep until you’d finished it?”

The thing is, I am rather good at staying awake most of the time, which is to say that lately it’s taken more effort to go to bed than to stay up past 1 or 2 AM.

So the last books I stayed up to finish, more because I was determined to finish reading them than because they were so gripping, were BJ Novak’s One More Thing and CS Lewis’s Spirits in Bondage.  Both are interesting enough; Spirits in Bondage was Jack’s first published book and represents his pre-conversion regard for Nature, red in tooth and claw.  One More Thing is also a first book, though Novak has years of writing for television under his belt.  The “stories and other stories” vary in length and in theme, though they all have something of the same tone: light-hearted, verbally playful, taking things to their logical conclusion, and touched with the same edge of despair that ended up taking Douglas Adams off my “favorite authors everrr!” list.

Taken together, these books could also have been Zzz-snatchers in another sense: they could fill one’s head with the unsettling threat of quiet doubts.  Maybe.  I didn’t quite ruminate on them long enough to let the doubts creep in, though.

What book or books have snatched your sleep?

Alphabooks: Y is for Your

Y: Your Latest Book Purchase

Since leaving college, there’s been less call for me to buy books: they aren’t needed for a class, I can typically borrow them from the library, and if it’s something I really love, I probably already own it.

This sums it up neatly.

This sums it up neatly.

But there are occasions when I can’t resist.  The last few things I’ve bought include:

Lingua Latina per se illustrata. Pars I: Familia Romana, Lingua LatinaGrammatica Latina. This was actually for an immersive Latin class I took last Labor Day weekend.  Instead of translating English to Latin and vice versa, it presents a number of pictures, graphs, and simple sentences to build one’s understanding entirely in Latin.

Hyperbole and a HalfHyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened. I love me some Allie Brosh, especially ~secret things~ that weren’t shared on her website. A lot of it is visible there, but hey, nice to not rely on an internet connection to look at it if I don’t want to. The book is of course hilarious, and (near the end) a bit deeper of an examination of human nature than I had expected.

The Blood of the Lamb: a novel. I totally bought this with one-click Blood of the Lambby mistake, and then didn’t cancel it. It looks interesting enough, though.

What book(s) have you bought lately?