Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Dream of our Past: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014)

Toward the end of Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic, literary science fiction novel, Station Eleven, several characters contemplate whether or not to teach their children about the world before...the one that had electricity, planes, phones, computers, and convenience. They now live in a world of tiny, isolated towns hiding from feral children and insane prophets. Yet the old world remains all around them, silently watching as if the right word could spirit them back to life. But there is no word, and apparently, no way to conjure up the world that only twenty-odd years ago shaped their lives and dreams. Yet the children of ‘today’ are haunted by the shapes of yesteryear, which even their parents still inhabit in a haunted, hollowed fashion. As one of the characters remarks, “Does it still make sense to teach kids about the way things were?” (269).

Monday, July 17, 2017

Why College Matters--a Note to the Naysayers

There have been a lot of arguments lately about how college is bad for the US, how education is "dangerous," and how young people (and older people) feel betrayed by it. Many ask, why go to college if you're learning useless, old, irrelevant information that doesn't even guarantee you a job and drowns you in debt? Some even accuse colleges of 'brain washing' young minds with liberal dogma and trying to play Petruchio to their Kate (a Shakespeare reference--courtesy of your local English dept). Basically, in The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio 'tames' his prospective bride, Kate, by making her claim that the sun is the moon, that black is white, etc. So many detractors of higher education would say that we're doing much the same--teaching students that black lives matter, or that we live in a heliocentric system, or that Shakespeare had homoerotic tendencies and/or relationships (you know, things that everyone knows aren't true!) :)  But the bottom line for many critics is this: college simply doesn't pay off in the "real world" or break down into a tangible return investment for the time and money spent. 
To me, college is a lot like traveling to foreign countries: it doesn't magically make you cultured to visit France. You don't learn the language simply by eating a baguette--even from an authentic boulangerie. Going to Africa won't make you 'multicultural', and circumnavigating the world won't make you Magellan. It's what you do in your travels--what you see, experience, learn, and interact with that makes something happen. Blaming college for not 'working' is like blaming Spain for not making you a flamenco dancer after a two-night stay. In short, college is a lifelong investment, not something that 'pays off' in the weeks and months following graduation. 
Indeed, college is a beginning, not an end. It won't necessarily get you a job, but it will prepare you to get a job (and possibly, give you the skills to adapt to it--and thus, keep it). Yes, college is too expensive and yes, the curriculum has problems, but that's more an issue with how colleges are regulated by outside forces (which seem hellbent on making it toothless). All I can say is that college saved my life: I was a shiftless, unmotivated high school student with no plans to do anything but work at a local bookstore. College gave me ideas, purpose, resolution, and direction. It didn't magically give me a job or a paycheck, but it began to teach me why things mattered, and unveiled so many mysteries which I had simply taken for granted.
If you look at college and just see classes, fees, and requirements, then okay, maybe college is a roadblock. But if you look deeper and see that each class represents hundreds if not thousands of years of thought, discipline, and collaboration, you can never dismiss it so lightly or assume that it has nothing to teach you--or that it can do without you, either. College grows stronger by everyone contributing to it, so it gives more back to every single student. But if you sleepwalk through classes and expect to learn by osmosis, then you learn nothing, and the engine of higher education fails. It really is collaborative and requires active participation. It's not a 'pay to play' proposition (though yes, it should cost a lot less money--or ideally, be free). Giving up on higher education (and on education in general) is cultural suicide. No culture in history has abandoned its cultural wealth and knowledge and prospered. I doubt we'll be the first. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Mysterious, Intimate World of Vermeer

The Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer, bequeathed only 35 paintings to posterity, though some are undoubtedly lost, and others have been judged spurious. Still, in an age where painters needed to flatter the nobility to obtain a constant stream of commissions, Vermeer seems to have painted slowly and somewhat grudgingly. He remained in debt his entire life and left his family—including eleven children—harried with misfortune, his wife forced to peddle off his remaining canvases for paltry sums. We know almost nothing about his personal life or ideas except what trickles down to us from his paintings. What they seem to tell us is that Vermeer cared little for politics or history, much less current events; he painted a world untouched by turmoil or intrigue, where only love letters intruded on the shadows and solitude of domestic life. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Reading in the Moment: Terry Carr’s Cirque (1977)

Some books, even great books, are destined to elude your grasp. You will go your entire life without reading them or even hearing their name. A book that could conceivably change your life, or simply allow you to disappear into a haze of literary delight, will remain on the shelves. But every now and then, by luck or fate, one of these books swims into your life, and you realize how easily you might have missed it. Clicking too quickly through a web page or not stopping to linger on a dusty bookshelf, and the moment would disappear—as would the book in question. For me, that’s exactly what happened when I found Terry Carr’s little masterpiece, Cirque (1977): I was browsing a used bookstore’s out-of-the-way science fiction section with my son, and had actually already found what I was looking for. So while he continued to sort through the Star Trek novels, I killed time by scanning the spines, now and then pulling a volume I just as quickly pushed back. Until I found Cirque. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Astrologer's Portrait and The Count of the Living Death are FREE to download July 5-6th!

To test out my new covers for both novels, you can download them free this July 5th and 6th from Amazon (you can download a free Kindle app even if you don't own a Kindle). These novels have been out for a few years now, and I've tried to brush them up a bit, fixing minor details and of course, revamping the covers (though I might eventually go back to the old ones). Please leave a review--even a one sentence review--if you've read either one, since Amazon only 'sees' a book after it's garnered 20 or more reviews. 

Thanks for checking them out! The links for each book are below, and you can sample a few chapters by clicking on each cover:

The Count of the Living Death (2013):

The Astrologer's Portrait (2014):

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Disappearing Dwarves

In his 1987 book, Role-Playing Mastery, Gary Gygax (famed founder of Dungeons and Dragons) discusses what makes a good role-playing adventure—which, surprisingly, is the same thing that makes a good novel or story. Foremost for Gygax is a plot that contains a central mystery that gives a group of characters (each with his or her own motivations) something to solve, search, and discover. Every story in virtually every genre can be boiled down to a few basic plots, since the point of a story is to delight and amaze the reader, and to frustrate and challenge the characters. To illustrate this, Gygax took a single plot, called “The Disappearing Dwarf” and adapted it to numerous genre-specific scenarios, as seen below:

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Painting a Day: Barnet's Winter Afternoon (1981) & Others

Painting(s) of the day: I decided to offer a series of paintings today, since I just discovered a new painter, though sadly he was a very old and renowned one: Will Barnett, who died recently in 2012 at the age of 101. Read his obituary here:…/….
I ran into his painting, Winter Afternoon (1981) at the OKC Art Museum this Tuesday, and was instantly blown away. I took a picture of it so I could study it later, but foolishly forgot to make note of who painted it! Luckily, a quick e-mail to the museum clarified this omission. The museum also told me that the painting had just been installed this May, so I came at just the right time...I encourage others to check it out if you can, since it might not be there forever.
The painting is striking in its simplicity and silence: a young woman sits sewing with a cat watching over her--but also looking out the window at a winter landscape: a bare tree leafed by numerous crows. This painting exhibits many of his artistic trademarks: a two-dimensional perspective that evokes Japanese printmaking or art nouveau posters. His people and animals owe something to the cartoon abstraction of Rousseau, but also the iconic isolation of Edward Hopper's men and women. Like the latter, Barnett's men and women (but mostly women) are seen in isolation, caught in the act of waiting. They seem lost, puzzled, worried--but in many cases, content. This young woman seems comfortable in her self-exile, knowing that the lines of the window (and the couch) keep her hemmed in from the disasters of life. She might be alone, but at least it's a solitude of her own making.

Despite their quietness, all of Barnett's paintings have an epic quality. By capturing the small moments of life, those hours spent waiting, watching, thinking, he makes us realize that to know ourselves, we have to find ourselves here. We all wear many masks, but the self at work, or in company, might be our greatest illusion. Only when we're alone with no one to watch are we truly 'naked' to the world--and truly, starkly ourselves. All of these women are confronting themselves in these quiet hours, and while the revelation might not be consoling, it's still comforting to see yourself who who and what you are. Maybe no one else can truly see this side of you...unless a sneaky artist is painting you through the window.

And aside from all of this, they're simply beautiful paintings with sharp lines celebrating the relationships of men and women with themselves--and their favorite animals. Some of my favorite moments are those spent with my family and my dog and cats, alone, without the watchful eyes of the world. I think Barnett was comfortable there, too.