Monday, December 1, 2014

Bring Up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel's sequel to the incredible Wolf Hall is called Bring up the Bodies, and it continues the terse and sparse storytelling around Henry VIII's dissolving marriages (the second one, this time). The novel continues to be told in a non-chronological, extremely limited third person, and almost every detail of characterization and tone must be interpolated by the reader, or understood from the reactions of other characters in each scene.

I loved this book.

I love Thomas Cromwell (Mantel's version) more than ever, but of course the portrayal is shamelessly Cromwell-positive: he is even-handed, polite, deferential to women, pro-education (for all!) and anti-magical thinking. He understands systems of finance and government, and understands systems of personal interaction with an incredible finesse, especially given how quiet and withdrawn he is; it is surprising to hear other characters shout at him about his overbearing nature, his ceaseless talking, since the world --- as understood from inside his head --- doesn't really contain him at all; he is a silent blank at the center of the book, and the incredible balancing act of spinning plates and juggling fire and turning lead to gold are taking place around a quiet eye of the storm, an absence which has more weighty presence than the king himself.

I recommend this book, though I enjoyed Wolf Hall more and you should (obviously) start there. I also recommend the audiobook versions, as I read this book (and Wolf Hall) several times each, then also listened to them. Simon Slater's narration of Wolf Hall is particularly effective; he does the accents, he does subtle intonations, he adds a sarcastic but mild depth to the book which really enhances it. (Although, having re-listened and re-read several times, I can say that there are 2 scenes where he mixes up which voice goes with which speaker; this is understandable, since the dialog happens without attribution, and everyone is "him" anyway.) Simon Vance's Bring Up the Bodies is also very good, although his version of Cromwell's inner monologue is a bit more spiteful in tone. Still, both are good.

This book highlights some interesting features of a monarchy; forgive me if, having grown up with no monarch, these are obvious. Firstly, it seems astonishing that we still have monarchs today, and that their personal connections and personalities and day-to-day comportment still influence national politics (e.g. "What kind of King will Charles III be?"), since the monarch is no longer directing the entire government out of their own brain. It also seems frankly incredible that any monarch ever ran a country without being supremely literate, but there I think I am only betraying my own hyper-literate upbringing in a world where the written word is widely used and understood. Huzzah for reading and writing, which enabled you to comprehend this sentence!

Thus endeth my sparse and idiosyncratic review of Bring Up the Bodies.

This post's theme word is calumniate (v tr), "to make false statements about someone maliciously." Is it possible to self-calumniate, like self-incriminating?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel's fictional take on the life of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, is a novel unlike any other I have ever read. It is told in a limited third person, and intersperses the normal progression of events in the timeline with jumps backwards and forwards, sometimes Cromwell's memories resonating with a current scene, sometimes... no clear connection, just a jump in time. Certain phrases or emotions or thoughts echo across the book, in a way which is eerie and also entrancing. And an incredible show of authorial finesse and expertise. I stand in awe of Mantel, and I am in the queue to borrow her other works from the library.

Wolf Hall perfectly captures the feeling of living life in the first person. This is difficult to explain, but let's take it as granted that I, and probably also you the reader, are living a life in the first person, by which I mean that your viewpoint is limited to your actual viewpoint, you only hear what your body's ears can hear, you only see what your body's eyes can see, you only imagine what your brain can imagine, you only go where your body goes. Your experience of life is intimately personal, and intimately first-personal. I am always "I" to myself.

Mantel's limited third-person is a precisely wielded scalpel which removes all of the extraneous details cluttering up usual novels --- the descriptions of scenery, or clothes, or weather. What is left is very much like a diary, personal notes meant only for the first-person: simply the most important details. And often Cromwell's lines and actions are left out, undescribed (because of course the first-person experience has no need to describe its owns actions), and so only his interlocutors speak. Only they move, only they react, only they have clothes and emotions. This makes Cromwell come across as cold and reserved, although sometimes his interlocutors' speech makes it clear he has told a joke, or made a threatening gesture, or moved his face in some way that conveyed information. But we the readers must piece this together, we are not told.

This perfectly captures the feeling of being a first-person mover and shaker in a story --- simply making decisions, saying words, doing things that go unremarked... and somehow it is always surprising to hear how others have assembled them into the description of a character. Cromwell is occasionally described back to himself, and the likeness is always surprising and never the same. To some people he appears cruel, to others, kind; to some people he appears haughty and powerful, to others humble, lovable, human. His attributes run the full gamut of descriptors, and the book somehow manages to sketch his character in absences, by delineating his outlines and the reactions he invokes. It's an incredible piece of writing.

As a side note, I realize that this is a fictionalized account of history. At some points it is clear that Mantel's Cromwell is recast in a particularly friendly light, given modern politics. He actively works against violence and abuse; he treats women as equals of men; he opposes serfdom and values people for their intelligence and merit, not their pedigrees. He is unerringly loyal and clever. All these things make him a hero figure, make me love him even more than I did for his beautiful portrayal by James Frain in The Tudors. But they're probably not historically accurate. But still, I love this version of Thomas Cromwell.

This post's theme word is yob, "a rude, rowdy youth." Mantel's Cromwell grows from a yob to the most powerful politician in England.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Chocolate exposition

A chocolate exhibit, you say? How could I stay away.
Ramparts built of chocolate-covered marshmallow logs.
The purpose of the exhibition seems twofold: one, sell a lot of chocolate. The giant billboards celebrating this exhibition hall full of chocolate-themed content served as bait, to attract the most chocolate-susceptible crowd. Once inside the hall, the aerosolized chocolate alone could induce drool.
Dalí-inspired chocolate sculpture.
The second purpose was to demonstrate all the non-edible uses of chocolate. These seemed to primarily consist of sculpture.
Ornately dressed chocolate couple. Life sized. Detailed.
Ironically, many of the chocolate sculptures were of food. But no touching, please, and certainly no eating.
A table of sculptures and feast --- all made of chocolate, of course: the gourds, the fish, the plates, the silverware, the owl.
Finally, just a general celebration of chocolate's history and trivia. Again, the audience was exactly right for such a display of information.
Lady Godiva, naked in her fully-chocolatey glory.

This post's theme word is uxorious, "excessively devoted or submissive towards one's wife." If Godiva had been more uxorious, the legend may never have happened.

Monday, October 27, 2014

When clouds touch down

Even Parisian natives tell me that the view from my apartment is picturesque.
This cloud came down to visit, and blocked my view of the two windmills uphill. It almost looks like the stereotyped rooftops with their chimney-clusters continue on forever.

This post's theme word is etiolate, "to make pale by preventing exposure to sunlight" or "to make weak by stunting the growth of" or "to become pale, weak, or stunted". The fog etiolated the ground-dwelling plants.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Acorn legs?

This window display looks like a strange, associative word puzzle.
Disembodied legs and acorns?  I don't get it. Ankle scales? Acorn knee? My brain keeps trying to
solve the puzzle, even though I know it's not a puzzle.

This post's theme word is lignify, "to convert into wood," or "to become wood or woody." The baby oak window display lignified my mind.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Honestly, Skyrim

I swear, I was on my way to see the jarl when I got distracted by these window-boxes of that one herb I'm collecting for a side-quest.
I keep trying to visit the wizard enchanter in his tower, but I can't figure out the right combination of riddle-answering, pick-pocketing keys, and outsneaking the guards, in order to gain access to the uppermost tower-chamber. 
In the meantime, I walk the flower-bridge and finish side-quests.

This post's theme word is cacique, "a local political boss." After claiming the eminently defensible river-centered tower as his headquarters, the cacique strengthened his political grip on the surrounding waterfront properties.

Mortal danger

Yep. This warning infographic is completely clear:
Possible interpretation: "do not use front crawl to race powered watercraft!" or maybe "boats hereabouts occasionally gain sentience and attack lone swimmers." Perhaps it means "there is a strong wind near the ground, which will push you into the spanking robot!"

In either case, the language barrier provides a completely clear and unimpeded avenue for comprehension. ("Lebensgefahr" means mortal danger. Clearly.)

This post's theme word is sitzfleisch, "the ability to sit through or tolerate something boring," or "the ability to endure or persist in a task." Strong selective forces ensure that all fully-matured, adult Swiss residents have super sitzfleisch and singular serenity.

Frame of reference

The framing suggests one direction of gravity; the framed, another.
Dark silhouettes in the foreground give no additional hints. Overhead dangling backpack-straps give light context. Distant lake suggests. The sound, if you could hear it, would give away the whole game: giant gears, grinding in track-inset teeth. We climb a mountain.
The view is well worth the auditory attack of the train experience. A clear sky, clouded only distantly and intermittently by sports more active than mountaintop viewing: paragliding, helicopter tours, gliding. (A glider buzzed our lookout point, profiting from the mountain's updraft.)
My instinct, looking out over such a well-curated landscape of diverse blue, light green, dark green, road, city, and house-tiles, is to figure out the ruleset and try to optimally manage my resources. Because this view, if nothing else, makes it clear that all of Switzerland is a giant (German-style) resource management game. Sheep for wood?
Frames of reference affect perception. The general approach adopted by tourists is this: seeing something is good, seeing more things is better; higher vantage points see more things; higher vantage points are better. The flow of tourists led here, to this sky-scrapingly high cablecar over a cliffside and down to the village below. Higher is better. But lower has cows, and those cows are wearing cowbells, and those bells are ringing. Audible from a distance (thought: "is that a cowbell?"), from an approaching street ("who's ringing those cowbells? is it a parade?"), and in the pasture itself ("oh, cows are ringing the bells.").

This post's theme word is fangast, fangast, "fit for marriage." Mostly gone are the days where fangast denominated a certain number of cows.

Skyrim or Switzerland?

Skyrim or Switzerland?
Ok, the child with glasses is a giveaway. Yes, that's right: Skyrim*! (*modded)

What you can't feel in this lens-flared photo ("this card is mostly blue") is this: the cold wind off the frigid lake, the warm sun pooling on your skin, the ferry schedule so well-implemented that we left with zero seconds of delay/advance, the multilingual chatter of tourists and locals filling the boat.

This post's theme word is incurvariid, "of or relating to a small family of minute moths." I need three incurvariid samples for my next potion; may I borrow your butteryfly net?

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Visible Man

Habits change over time, let's start with that. It is unusual of me to bail on reading a physical book, but this is partly because of the inertia --- literally --- that the book possesses. Ebooks are different. For one, they are not physically present, so there is no cluttery pile accumulating at my bedside; discarded ebooks just get pushed to the bottom of the stack. And reading an ebook requires a physical device (in my case, the fantastic Kobo mini, sadly discontinued), which is easily loaded with thousands of other books, so it is easy to put down one book and switch to another.  Plus, ebooks are plentiful in my desired reading language no matter where I am physically located; the same is not true of physical books.

But finally. The New York Public Library has most strongly enabled me to be a book-quitter. There is a huge selection of books available, free, so many that my queue is hundreds of books long, and every single one in the queue looks really interesting.

So when I start reading a book (take, for instance, The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman) and it's a little weird, I can keep reading it, through distasteful scenes and flat writing and poor characterizations. And when the interesting plot is finally, irretrievably poisoned by the continued lack of choices or actions by the narrator, and becomes a boring chore of moving my eyes across the words, I can easily bail on the book, put it down, and clease my palate with some of my bookmarked favorites, chapters from Neal Stephenson and Stanislaw Lem and Jasper Fforde.

And I never need to look back.

I didn't (at least, the last 60% of it). Skimming some reviews on goodreads suggests that even Klosterman's fans prefer his non-fiction writing to his fiction. Maybe one day I'll have worked through my giant queue and be curious enough to try his writing again. It was intriguing and technical (the story-within-a-story framing raises a lot of questions), so maybe after acquainting myself with some non-fiction I'll revisit this one.

Or maybe not.

Summary: don't bother reading this one.

This post's theme word is desultory, "marked by absence of a plan; disconnected; jumping from one thing to another," or "digressing from the main subject; random." The desultory anecdotes did not advance the plot, although they constituted the entirety of the text.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Cookie tree

It seems that cookies do grow on trees! At least, macarons do:
Yet another fantastic Parisian window-display. It seems a shame to waste so many sweets on (1) gluing them to a giant hemisphere, (2) letting them dry out while on display for weeks, and (3) ultimately discarding them as inedible lumps of colored sugar. I wonder about the logistics of taking down such a display: who does it? how long does it take? do the cookies all get composted?

This post's theme word is succuss, "to shake vigorously" (esp. a patient or homeopathic medicine). Do not succuss the macaron tree! --- the fruits will fall when they are ripe.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Further idylls

Quaint and picturesque, with vines growing over the trellised arch above the entrance. Yes, that's right:
It's the sapeuprs-pompiers!

Hip, hip, hooray! The shortest tiny little matching shorts live in this building.

This post's theme word is concupiscent, "lustful; libidinous." The defendent offered no explanation of earlier concupiscent remarks.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Reasoning about information transmission

Every so often, I am struck with the realization that other people do not think the way I think. (This recurs, so perhaps it is a rerealization?) Of course this is obvious, but it is also too difficult to simulate everyone's unknown mental process all the time, and so I slouch into the lazy thinking of assuming everyone thinks the way I do. Everyone does this. (Don't they? I don't know, but I assume so... because I do...)

Here is a simple fact: probabilities are often unintuitive. Probably. Unless you are a technical person who thinks about them all the time.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Seine view

If the weather is just right, and I take the time to walk home across the entire city, many visual delights are available. 
... and if framed correctly, the visual delights can look serene and peaceful. Notice that I cropped out: tourists, cars, buses, trains, the police, vagrants, and garbage; plus the photographic medium innately removes all sound and atmospheric pollution.

You're really getting the best of this shot.

This post's theme word is apophoret, "a gift given on New Year's Eve." This retroblog averages to be an approximately-scheduled apophoret.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Fire Monument

Yet another real-life experience which is heavily tinged by Stephenson's words.
London very quickly became a smouldering membrane, a reeking tarpaulin flung over the hill and not smoothed out. The only features of consequence were the Fire Monument, the Bridge, the Tower, and St. Paul’s. The Bridge, as always, seemed like a Bad Idea, a city on stilts, and a very old, slumping, inflammable Tudor city at that. Not far from its northern end was the Fire Monument, of which Daniel was now getting his first clear view. It was an immense solitary column put up by Hooke but universally attributed to Wren. During Daniel’s recent movements about London he had been startled, from time to time, to spy the lantern at its top peering down at him from over the top of a building—just as he had often felt, when he was a younger man, that the living Hooke was watching him through a microscope. (The System of the World)
Here is how thoroughly The Baroque Cycle has permeated my brain: when walking across London Bridge, I thought, "hey, the Fire Monument must be nearby! let's find it!" And then I located it by using St. Paul's and the Tower, based entirely on the above quote. If Stephenson had included a fictionalized London in his works, I would have wandered around, looking for unicorns and rainbows in the real world. Compelling writing induces credibility.

This post's theme word is quire, "a quantity of 24 or 25 sheets of paper; one twentieth of a ream." May I inquire how many quires your reading notes required?

The blue Eye

The river is blue. The Eye is blue.
The color-highlighting feature of my camera is set to "blue." Reflections and lights are very pretty in this photo, which only barely captures the visual experience in person. Sensing these photons bouncing off those things, yes, but also the wind blowing on my face, the war memorial at my back, the tiredness at the end of a day of sightseeing, food satiation, and of course the balance of assorted hormones and neurotransmitters.

You know, normal life experience things. Maybe some future photographic technique (waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay beyond measly 3D) will be able to duplicate these experiences.

This post's theme word is benthic, "of or relating to the bottom of a sea or lake." They Eye's strange, eerie light draws uncanny (Lovecraftian) energy from the benthic depths via the Thames.

Architectural juxtaposition

This juxtaposition of shiny metal curves with squat stone fortress... it tickles my fancy.
Future novels set in "historical" (present day) London will have to romanticize this weird combination of architectural approaches.

On the one hand, the stone fortress has stood for longer and against a wider variety of situations, weather, and hordes. On the other hand, I imagine that the Dread Lord of the Wobbly Glass Superstructure has some pretty puissant powers (perhaps blasting lightning bolts from the roof?).

This post's theme word is procumbent, "lying face down; prone; prostrate." or "of a plant: growing along the ground without putting new roots." The Tower of London looks procumbent in the highrise-dotted skyline of the city.

Tower of London Poppies

The Tower of London has an enormous art installation in remembrance of World War I. It is dramatic and impresses on me the image of a torrent of blood overflowing the bridge to fill the moat.
The site of so many deaths, hosting this grim display, forces contemplation. And, of course, inappropriately-smiling selfies. (I spared you.)

This post's theme word is dun, "to make persistent demands for payment, especially for a debt" (transitive verb), or "someone who duns" (noun), or "a demand for payment" (noun) or "a dull, grayish, brown color" (noun), or "a horse in dun color" (noun), or of course "of dun color" (adjective). The dun weather dimmed the demeanor of the dun dun as he rode a dun to deliver a dun.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A London evening

The sunset over London is purple tonight.
What keeps running through my mind is lines from Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, in which he describes London many times, at length, and with his usual authorial flair.
It was impossible for so much uncovered dirt to exist in a city like London without becoming a breeding-ground for Crime or Commerce, and Daniel spied instances of both as soon as he got out of Wren’s carriage. (The System of the World)
Christopher Wren (and many other actual historical persons) appear throughout the trilogy; here's another quote on Wren and London:

Wren had put up so many churches so quickly that he’d not had time to plant steeples on them. They all looked splendid on the inside. But steeples were essential to his vision of how London ought to look from the outside, and so now, in semi-retirement, he was going round to his old projects and banging out majestic yet tasteful steeples one after the other. (The System of the World)
These books have reinforced a certain attitude and set of historical facts (or authorial imaginings, now gelled in my brain conflated with historical facts) about Europe. So much action takes place in London, though, that the experience of walking through the city brought back all these reading-memories, and wry jokes, and ridiculous costumes, and hapless alchemical experiments. Having read (and re-read several times) The Baroque Cycle enhanced my actual visit to sites of the books' scenes in a multimedia-flavored sort of way. I experienced more than I would usually; emotions were invoked.
A view of London bridge (about which I could find no pithy quotes).
There is a sickness of the mind that comes over those who bide too long in London, which causes otherwise rational men to put forced and absurd meanings on events that are accidental. (The System of the World)
I tried to avoid this "sickness of mind" by lingering in London only a few days at a time.

This post's theme word is nodus, "a complicated situation or problem." The novels' plots form an insidious nodus, much like the worldwide history they visit, excerpt, and creatively restructure.

An example of the verbose, winkingly snide, and lengthy descriptions which fill the Daniel Waterhouse sections of the novels:
For the London in which he had grown up had been a congeries of estates, parks, and compounds, thrown up over centuries by builders who shared a common dream of what a bit of English landscape ought to look like: it should be a generous expanse of open ground with a house planted in it. Or, in a pinch, a house and wall built around the perimeter of a not-so-generous patch of ground. At any rate, there had been, in Daniel’s London, views of sky and of water, and little parks and farmlets scattered everywhere, not by royal decree but by some sort of mute, subliminal consensus. In particular, the stretch of riverbank Daniel could see from this garret had been a chain of estates, great houses, palaces, courts, temples, and churches put up by whatever powerful knights or monks had got there first and defended them longest. During Daniel’s lifetime, every one of these, with the exceptions of the Temple (directly across from the outlet of Crane Court) and Somerset House (far off to his right, towards where Whitehall Palace had stood, before it had burned down), had been demolished. Some had been fuel for the Fire and others had fallen victim to the hardly less destructive energies of Real Estate Developers. Which was to say that with the exception of the large open green of the Temple, every inch of that ground now seemed to be covered by Street or Building. (The System of the World)

Friday, September 12, 2014


Lattices and lines, lattices and lines. It's all about the intersecting planes.

This post's theme word is ruck, "a crease or wrinkle." The Louvre's absence of rucks would come in handy during a particularly cold game of I-spy-with-my-little-eye in December... hint: starts with 'L', located by a physicist, included in the title of this post. You have 60 minutes to guess while fending off frostbite!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Parisian rain

The weather has been beautiful since I moved into my new apartment, but every streak will end, so here we are:
It remains not unpleasant. (Litotes! If you doubt my sincerity or enjoyment, look out again at the Parisiant rooftops and the moulin in the distance! I'm one or two scenes away from my meet-cute with the romantic hero.)

Even when rainy, the many giant windows and my top-floor status mean that my apartment is luminous and delightful. I can look out on the umbrella-huddled tourist masses below, inevitably cowering over a map because they are lost in these tiny streets on their way to Montmartre's Sacre-Coeur basilica, and cackle my evil (Ursula-sea-witch) cackle, and be happy.

This post's theme word is micawber, "an eternal optimist." There are many stairs and raindrops, but in Paris one must remain a micawber about the weather and pedestrian accessibility.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


Horror and tension do not appeal to me as fun leisure-time sensations. I don't like to be scared, and tense cliffhangers are unpleasant.

Nevertheless, I enjoy Mira Grant's books. I don't especially seek them out, but when they stray across my path, I consume them --- usually as quickly as possible, using the Band-Aid-removal strategy --- and enjoy them. Grant's Parasite begins her latest trilogy, this time on the topic of medical-science-advancing-enough-to-implant-beneficial-tapeworms-but-something-goes-wrong. My experience with the previous one (Feed / Deadline / Blackout --- medical-science-advancing-enough-etc-flu-etc-zombies) was positive, but tense. I read Feed over a few weeks; I read Deadline and Blackout in a single weekend. Immediately. Perhaps my lack of exposure makes me susceptible to the stress of cliffhangers, or the reasonably plausible zombies and well-used varieties of format drew me in.

I liked Parasite. Perhaps I am building up a resistance to Grant's authorial magic. She is consistently good, dependable for a cliffhanger at the end of every few chapters, and enticing "excerpts" from in-universe documents at the beginning of each chapter, a trail of misleading breadcrumbs which deepens and intensifies the unfolding novel.

There were certain structural clues, though, and parallels to the previous trilogy (in an unrelated modern-day universe). So many things did not catch me by surprise. Secret medical agencies? Check. Government-organized disease researchers? Check. A confluence of events (intentional? accidental?) which results in the protagonist, a young adult woman, being chased by zombies? Check. Cell phones, secret interpersonal codes, the feeling that an all-powerful Big Brother is somewhere manipulating things and shaping destiny/leaving a trail of clues, lots of scenes with tense emotional showdowns over trust and information-disclosure? Yep. And the book-ending climax? I saw it coming in the first chapter, it's hinted at everywhere. I can only imagine that books 2 and 3 must reverse this climactic reveal, otherwise it's... too straightforward, I think.

But to be clear: I liked it. I like Mira Grant's writing; it is unlike anything else in my experience.

You should read this book if you are hard to gross out, and not prone to medical nightmares or formication.

This post's theme word is curettage, "scraping", usually in a medical sense and applied especially to the uterus. The recommended removal procedure for tapeworms does not involve curettage.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Accents on blogspot

Weirdly, crashes every time I try to publish a post which includes accented characters.

How is this possible? The language has accents.

I wanted you to know that it's not me, it's the software.

This post's theme word is micawber, "an eternal optimist." The micawber believes that this issue will be resolved.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Cultural acclimatization

Apartment searching in Paris is demoralizing. I thought I had reached a low when I discovered an "apartment" of 10 square meters for 750 Euros/month, but then I compared it with an "apartment" of 2 square meters (two!), seventh floor (no elevator), slanted roof ceiling, plus a shared toilet on the landing, for 550 Euros/month. This former servant's quarters started looking good, though, after long enough perusing rental listings, agency websites, sabbatical vacancies, and craigslist.

I am coming to understand why all Parisian residents recoil slightly and emit pitying moans when I ask them for advice finding an apartment. I have been encouraged, with an appropriate cringe of social awkwardness, to ask everyone I know: are you moving soon? do you know anyone who has moved? or died?


I have spent several days now, in sequence, where every face-to-face interaction was entirely in French. I visited an apartment showing, I walked across maybe 80% of Paris without a map (tl&dr, geography version), I read legal and immigration paperwork, I was asked for directions to somewhere I didn't recognize, I interacted with shopkeepers, I verified my temporary housing situation, I was asked for directions which I was able to give competently.  This last one feels like a milestone in cultural acclimatization. It indicates many things. I am in a demographic sweet spot to ask for directions: woman, white, healthy, not obviously homeless. I am walking purposefully. Until I open my mouth, I can pass as local. Perhaps I have improved my passive scowl. Huzzah!

I am suffering a bad case of l'esprit d'escalier, basically continuously, because my ability to cohere my thoughts into sentences in French suffers a lag.  I know enough words to say the thing I want to say, but my thoughts in English are verbal and sophisticated, while my expressibility in French is simplified and riddled with pauses. If this post seems verbose but oddly curt, blame my attempts to improve my French. Also blame my isolation from English-language conversation. I need to find an expat chatting club.

There is a fascinating mental adjustment necessary. (Il faut que je change... see? sentence structures bleed across my brain barriers between languages. I'm lucky I didn't give directions in Japanese, I aced that chapter and practiced speed directions.)  Every time a child or homeless person speaks French in earshot, my brain does this: wow! that kid/beggar is so erudite! s/he speaks French! ---oh, wait, everyone speaks French here, it's not the marker of some cultural or educational achievment. I obviously understand that there are native French speakers at an intellectual level. But somewhere deep in my brain sits the belief that humans fundamentally speak English, and all other languages are awkward additions, the result of work and study.  So a handful of times a day, I mentally kick myself for my English-centric worldview.

Of course, kids and homeless people probably do speak English, too, and likely German and Italian and a handful of other languages. Because this is Europe and such things are useful, and no one here buys into the kind of cultural/linguistic/national isolationism to which I have become accustomed.

One final thought on cultural acclimatization: I have not yet seen a single Irish pub. Amazing. I thought they were a worldwide phenomenon, a sort of screen saver adopted by any underutilized commercial food site. Apparently here they default to cafes with little black wire tables and smoking waiters.

This post's theme word is ambage (AM-bij, not ahm-bahZH), "ambiguity, circumlocution." I am not fluent enough to commit ambage.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Ink Readers of Doi Saket

"The Ink Readers of Doi Saket" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt is a delightful gem of a story. You can read it here or listen to it here. It is about wishing, and community, and coincidence; it begins and ends with a murder, but nevertheless maintains a playful air that makes the story uplifting and fun. The writing is clean and clear, straightforward and easy to read, with the tone of a fairytale and occasional winks of cleverness to the audience.

Read it, it's quick and fun, and pleasantly outside the Western fairytale setting.

This post's theme word is terrene, "relating to the earth; earthly, mundane." The granting of terrene wishes leads to enlightenment and elevation to a higher plane of existence.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Ramen results

Early results are in for the 2014 Experiments in European Poverty Living (while I wait for my salary to begin).

This morning the experimental subject awoke with abdominal pain, likely from spasms of the stomach and other digestive tract muscles. Subject could not decide if the nerves were reporting hunger or imminent vomit. Nausea and digestive confusion continued for a period of time. After some [details redacted] incidents and a cup of plain yogurt, subject reported abatement of symptoms of sickness and restoration of normal operating condition.

These results strongly suggest that the brand of ramen noodles available in France should not be eaten. Perhaps it is suitable as fertilizer, an unscientific hypothesis shamelessly offered alongside an equally unscientific refusal to repeat the experiment.

Subject reports delight at writing in the third person.

This post's theme word is merdurinous, meaning "composed of dung and urine." A sample sentence is mercifully omitted.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Hugo awards 2014

The 2014 Hugo ballot has been announced. I am going to try to read and consider each of the nominees in the main categories. I'll link to my posts below. I've never read any of The Wheel of Time, so it may be awhile before I can review the entire series.

Best novel:
Best novella:
  • The Butcher of Khardov by Dan Wells
  • "The Chaplain's Legacy" by Brad Torgersen
  • "Equoid" by Charles Stross
  • Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
  • "Waklla Springs" by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages
Best novelette:
  • "The Exchange Officers" by Brad Torgersen
  • "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • "Opera Vita Aeterna" by Vox Day
  • "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" by Ted Chiang
  • "The Waiting Stars" by Aliette de Bodard
Best short story:
I have no systematic way to review the other categories ("best related work", "best graphic story", "best dramatic presentation" (long and short forms), "best editor" (long and short forms), "best professional artist", "best semiprozine", "best fanzine", "best fancast", "best fan writer", "best fan artist"). Some of them are formats or content I don't find interesting; others, I sampled and wasn't grabbed enough to consume further. I'll stick to the Drabblecast and Escape Pod for my zine/podcast story needs, and simplify my life by not worrying about all the rest.

This post's theme word is eschaton, "judgement day." (I thought DFW made up this word; now that I know it's real, Eschaton is even funnier.) The Hugo eschaton approaches!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ancillary Justice

Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice is a magnificent dollop of science fiction. It is ɛ-close to the Platonic ideal of a space opera --- I have zero complaints, but I reserve the final ɛ of my opinion for the piece of entertainment (perhaps Infinite Jest V?) so engaging that it induces willing dehydration and starvation.

You should read it.

The novel achieves magnificent things on many axes, simultaneously (and impressively).

On the surface, it is an easy read, quick and engaging, emotional and intellectual in good proportion. The structure of the universe also lets the reader tweak the experience; the story is so rich with details that it is possible to be entirely absorbed in wondering about the emotional states of sentient spaceships (HT to Iain M. Banks, whose sentient spaceships are similarly clever, funny, inhuman but interested in and interesting to humanity, and surely influenced this book). The more technical daydreamers can wonder about the AI technology, the biological interfaces with ancillaries, the Stargate-style gates in space, the scientific abilities of the just-offstage aliens waiting in the wings.

The meat of the story has a fascinating POV character. Other narrators who I find similarly engaging are all unreliable; this one is reliable, and even fallible, but the narrative line between being one character and an amalgam of several bodies, with knowledge of other characters' biological states but not direct access to their thoughts, is fascinatingly navigated. Ann Leckie performs masterfully, and like all masters, the performance seems effortless. The imbricated timelines of different branches of the story are handled superbly, with coordinated unfurling of recounted history and current action building in synchrony up to the book's climax. All with a light, intelligent touch.

As a literary work, too, the novel has merit. It raises questions of identity, personal intention and actions, and fate. Religion is an available theme, if you're interested. So is the question of empire-building, and utilitarianism: is some barbarism permitted, in the interests of uniting everyone under a single overarching government of fairness and justice? (Reminiscent of the philosophical point made by the beautiful action movie Hero, or the histories of China and Rome.)

One of the nice takeaways (for me) from the novel was a similar tone and subtle message: do good work. This is a lot like Ursula K. Le Guin's Hainish and Earthsea novels: no matter the character's personal scope of power or influence, it is possible to better the universe by exerting that small influence in a responsible manner. For the greater good. Just do what you can, with the power you have, whether you are an omnipotent, all-skills-endowed superprotagonist (my pet peeve), or an unempowered, unevenly-systematically oppressed, unimportant body on the slush-pile of history. A secret and heartwarming message that, with enough decent people performing good (not necessarily coordinated) works for justice and kindness (and dignity and propriety), these small pieces can aggregate to form an overall society with a generous spirit and positive outcome.

Anyway, read this book. It is a gratifying experience on every level.

This post's theme word is helot, "a serf or slave." There are citizens, non-citizens, aliens, and ancillaries; no one is a helot, although ancillaries' movements and thoughts are subordinated to a centralized AI brain.