Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Current Reading Status

At the beginning of the year, I set a reading goal of 50 books. This seems like a low bar considering how many I read last year (65). When setting the goal for this year, I realized that I wanted to focus on diversifying my efforts a bit, to pursue some of my other interests with more gusto.

To that end, I managed to finish the first revision of my NaNoWriMo book earlier this month, and I'd like to keep writing more consistently (look for a future blog entry on my experimentation with fountain pens). I've started running again, and have kept up the habit fairly well so far. I also have a goal of necessity: I want to become more flexible. My muscles and joints tend to ache more now than they used to, and I think that increasing my flexibility (or at least focusing on stretching/warming down properly) will help mitigate that.

The good news is that I'm making progress along all of the above fronts, and am enjoying doing them as well. But reading... Reading might have been a catalyst to help me figure out that I needed to spend a little more time doing things that expand my mind and make me happy, especially in light of so much that might cause distress day-to-day. (insert politics/economics/other miscellaneous worries here)

It's the last day of February, and I have managed to finish reading eight books so far this year. They are:

  1. The Backwards Mask, by Matt Carson
  2. The Heart of What Was Lost, by Tad Williams
  3. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
  4. The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
  5. The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth
  6. Tales of Pirx the Pilot, by Stanislaw Lem
  7. Side Jobs: Stories From the Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher
  8. Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, by Robert Reich
I liked all of the above very well, and encourage you to pick them up if you haven't. 

I think it's interesting to see the distribution as well. Two of these are non-fiction (one philosophy, one political economics), two are sci-fi, four are fantasy (with two urban and one alternate history). Additionally, two of them are collections of short stories (Side Jobs and Pirx the Pilot).

Strangely, my to-read list never seems to decrease, despite a consumption rate of one book a week. My long-lost love for reading has definitely been rediscovered, and is being pursued passionately.

Whatever inspires you, I hope you get a chance make the time to do more of it in the days to come. :-)

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Checks and Balances

Given the current political goings-on, I decided to refresh my memory concerning what the branches of our federal government are actually supposed to be doing. Here’s a quick overview of what I learned/relearned, without (much) commentary. I hope you find this as refreshing and enlightening as I did!

Our federal government’s powers are separated into three branches: the legislative, the executive, and judiciary. They are listed in this order in the Constitution because the framers considered them to be in this order of importance.

The legislative branch is described in Article 1 of the Constitution. It is embodied by Congress, which itself is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Its main job is to make laws.

The executive branch, described in Article 2 of the Constitution, is supposed to execute the laws created by the legislature. It is embodied principally by the President of the United States.

The judiciary is described in Article 3 of the Constitution. It is made up of the Supreme Court as well as the federal courts. Its job is to interpret the laws created by the Congress and executed by the President.

Given that the powers are separated into these three branches, each branch also has the ability to limit (or check) the other two branches to some degree. This ability is what helps create and maintain the balance of power between the branches.

The legislature has the greatest number of checks against the other two branches. The framers of the Constitution were concerned with the possibility of the President becoming a dictator in the manner of King George III (their former sovereign).

To check the executive branch, the legislature can:

  • Impeach the President (House of Representatives)
  • Remove the President (Senate: if 2/3 vote for impeachment)
  • Reject appointment of officials
  • Override vetoes (2/3 vote in both houses required)
  • Refuse to pass laws the President wants
  • Refuse to appropriate funds for Presidential programs

To check the judiciary, the legislature can:

  • Impeach and remove judges
  • Reject judicial nominees
  • Change the court system by adding or removing federal courts
  • Change the jurisdiction of federal courts
  • Pass new laws that override Supreme Court decisions (as long as the decisions weren’t based on the Constitution)
  • Propose amendments to the Constitution

The executive branch has the next highest sets of checks. To check the legislative branch, the executive can:

  • Veto Congress’s laws
  • Call Congress into special session (but can’t force them to pass new laws)
  • Carry out laws in ways that are contrary to the intent of the Congress
  • Break ties in the Senate

To check the judiciary, the executive can:

  • Nominate Supreme and federal court justices
  • Pardon people convicted by the courts
  • Refuse to carry out court decisions

Finally, the judiciary has really limited checking power. To check the legislative branch, the judiciary can:

  • Declare laws unconstitutional
  • Preside over impeachment trials (remember, they’re carried out in the Congress)

To check the executive branch, the judiciary can:

  • Declare executive actions unconstitutional
  • Issue warrants in federal crime cases

(I'm sure there's a pretty picture that lays all this out at a glance, but I'd already typed it out before I began searching for images...)

These concepts are described in greater detail in The Federalist Papers, No. 51, written by James Madison. Read through it when you can — it’s worth a gander.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Book Review: "The Heart of What Was Lost" by Tad Williams

It's been more than twenty years since I've been to Osten Ard, so I wasn't sure how I'd feel stepping back into the world that turned fantasy literature on its head for me. Up until that point, contemporary fantasy for me flowed from the wellsprings of people with names like Weis and Hickman, Feist, and Brooks. Then Tad Williams shoved me straight through a darkened doorway into a world that was darker, more menacing, grittier.

I discovered that I loved it. It resonated with a part of me that I didn't pay much attention to at that point -- the truly human part of me. It was the part of me that realized that things aren't as nice and neat and crisply defined as would make the world an easy and understandable place to be. And for that reason, it felt more real to me than most other fantasy worlds in which I'd immersed myself.

Given all of that, I was slightly trepidatious about re-entering that world. Would I still feel the same? Would it bind me the way it had all those years ago?

Yes. Oh yes. A hundred times yes!

"The Heart of What Was Lost" is a short novel that serves as an epilogue to "To Green Angel Tower" and a prologue(?) to Tad Williams' series (in progress) "The Last King of Osten Ard." It tells the story of the disorganized retreat of the Norn to their northern stronghold and their pursuit by Rimmersmen forces under the command of Duke Isgrimnur. The Duke is accompanied by a Sithi, as enigmatic as ever, and in his ranks are two soldiers from the south that didn't expect to be there at all.

We're treated to three main viewpoints: Duke Isgrimnur, Porto (one of the southern soldiers), and Viyeki, a Norn Builder (similar to a civil engineer). I found the Norn viewpoint particularly compelling, as I was originally drawn to the enigmatic nature of the Sithi, and we are reminded about how closely related the Sithi and Norn really are via his story.

The book is remarkably thoughtful and considerate of the reader as well. I've always loved when an author has the ability to make art from both the story and wordsmithing. Tad Williams consistently does this, making it a pleasure to actually read the sentences as well as follow the story. Secondly, he knows that it's been a long time since many readers have read "Of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn," so he's includes a short essay labeld "An Explanation" in the appendices and points the reader to it in the author's notes at the beginning of the book. The essay serves to warm you up and reintroduce you to some of the events and concepts from Osten Ard. I found this to be well crafted and immensely helpful.

Finally, I said it was short. I meant it. And yes, I'm as surprised as you are about that. The whole thing, including appendices is 210 pages. This is the shortest Tad Williams book I've read, by far. To be fair, I'm just getting into the Bobby Dollar books, but even those are 400 pagers in paperback. This book was just the right size for the start of the year.

Thank you, Tad, for letting us back into this world. I'm looking forward to at least one more long adventure there!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Year-end Statistics (according to Goodreads)

I didn't intend for this to be the first post of the new year, but you have to start somewhere, right? I'll try to get my thoughts about the past and new year organized and published in short order, so stay tuned for that.

2016 marked my first participation in the annual Goodreads Reading Challenge. Using the second half of my statistics from 2015, I settled on a goal of reading 50 books in 2016. It felt like this would, in fact, be a challenge, that I would have to dedicate some time and effort into actually meeting the challenge. I felt that, should I succeed, I would feel a sense of accomplishment in addition to reaping the rewards of expanding my mind by sharing in the knowledge and artistry expressed in at least 50 books.

Goodreads does a splendid job of tracking your progress, and presented a nice summary page of the results. Since I'd already planned to post this blog entry, I've decided to snip images from the Goodreads summary instead of linking directly to it. Without further adieu...

I finished reading 65 books this year. I not only met my goal, but exceeded it by 15 books. Some of those books were short stories, but even without those few, the number of full-sized novels was still over 50. For those of you that don't want to do the math yourself, the mean book length was 378 pages. For further reference, the median length was 352 pages.

This shortest book was actually just a short story; I probably shouldn't have tracked it on Goodreads. The next two smallest books I read were The Sleeper and the Spindle (by Neil Gaiman, 72 pages) and The Road Not Taken and Other Poems (by Robert Frost, 81 pages). On the longer side, I finished three books that were over 700 pages and four more that were 600+ pages.

This was an interesting statistic offered by Goodreads. I, along with almost 1.9 million other people, read The Alchemist this year. By the way, if you haven't read it, you should. It's a quick read (under 200 pages), and let's face it: 1.9 million people can't all be wrong, can they? The least popular book I read was The Original: The Trials of Sarah Larkin, by Claudia Christian. I actually picked it up a couple of years ago from her website, with the proceeds from the sale going to the Three C Foundation. It was an interesting glimpse into the process of making films as well as a fanciful adventures of a superhuman heroine. You should pick up a copy if that sounds like it might float your boat.

Now for the things that Goodreads didn't surface. You know what that means -- orange graphs!

This graph surprised me a bit. I finished fewer books over the summer than any other season. Next year, I think I'll include page counts instead of just book counts here. For example, I read 3055 pages in October, then followed that up with 2007 pages in November while writing 50,000 words of my own for NaNoWriMo. I must not have slept much in November. The shortest months on the graph were 1121 and 1328 pages for January and June, respectively.

My most popular author this year was Brandon SandersonJim Butcher was second, with honorable mentions for Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and Charles Dickens (although, again, only one Dickens novel this year, along with two short stories). The big surprise in this list is Berkeley Breathed. Bloom County is a thing again, and with that came some collections for his other work. I procured two of them (one reviewed here). I hope more of these are forthcoming, because they are fantastic!

I didn't do a genre breakdown this year, but you can guess from the authors above that most of it was sci fi and fantasy, with some thriller and classic fiction thrown in for good measure. If you're really interested, here's the link to the Goodreads summary.

And to answer the question I posed in my 2015 review: yes, I broke down and wrote a book this year. Or at least, I wrote a thing that's at least 50,000 words long that might someday be consumable to someone other than me. And yes, I intend to revise and edit it, starting today. I'm not setting a deadline for that, but have a vague goal of having something worth reading by summertime. More on that in the old/new year post...

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Christmas Eve Anniversary, Part 8

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

Christmas Day


He awoke with a start, Bree shaking his shoulder. He’d fallen asleep in the chair near the fire, which burned very low. Bree was excitedly pointing at the Christmas tree in the corner.

“Merry Christmas, Fin! Look! We have gifts!”

“Wha… where’s Maryam?” Fin asked, still trying to shake the sleep from his head.

“She left us a note that said that she’d gotten news of a big storm heading this way, and she’s gone to take care of some other things and that we should try to get out of here as soon as possible after breakfast, else we’ll be snowed in for at least a week. I’ve left your clothes on the bed. Hurry and change! I want to see what’s in the presents!”

Fin hurried upstairs, changed, and brought their luggage down with him. Bree was sitting at the table, eating a warm breakfast of eggs sunny side up, bacon, wheat toast, strawberry jam, and coffee. Fin wondered how it stayed warm, then recalled the conversation with Maryam of the night before. He accepted that the breakfast simply was warm, and began eating as well.

“C’mon! C’mon! I wanna open the gifts!” Bree was just like a kid when it came to Christmas.

“OK, good grief, Bree. I’ll eat. You open yours.”

Bree clapped, jumped up, grabbed both gifts, looked at the tags, and slid one over to Fin. She ripped the wrapping paper off of the other one and opened the box underneath.

“Oohh… wow…” Bree said, her breath catching in her throat. She pulled an ornament from the box, in the shape of a miniature open sleigh. Two horses were attached to the front, and three people were on the driver’s bench. They looked remarkably like Maryam, Bree, and Fin. The sleigh contained three large bags. Shaking the ornament gently caused a faint jingling sound, like a hundred tiny bells were inside the ornament.

Bree admired it for a few more moments, her face split with an ear-to-ear grin, tears of happiness collecting at the corners of her eyes. She dabbed at them quickly, sniffed and little, and laughed. “I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this.” She seemed to have forgotten about Finley’s present, which he was glad of. It gave him time to get a few more mouthfuls of food down before she remembered.

“OK, your turn. What’d you get?”

Finley took the paper off of his box more delicately and deliberately than Bree. Bree laughed at him, knowing he was partly teasing her, but also partly unwilling to shred the wrapping that someone had put so much work into. A couple of minutes later, he opened the box and looked inside. It appeared to be a snow globe of some kind. He took it out. It was a view of a cottage against a forest. You could just make out someone sitting in a rocker on the front porch. He shook it a little, causing the snow to swirl, and the scene changed to the old crone, who looked a little straighter and far friendlier than she had the day before. Another shake, and the snow was like the mist on the river, revealing a steamboat with a captain in red in the bow. The next shake caused the scene to change to the giant’s house set against the foothill, with the giant himself standing out front, his face set in what must’ve been a large and loud laugh. The next shake shifted to the small version of the cottage with three boys standing arm in arm in arm, beaming looks on their faces. A final shake returned it to the original scene.

Holding the globe, Fin felt something on the bottom, an etching of some kind. Turning it over, he saw the following engraved letters.


Fin smiled through his own set of tears, finally understanding. And he knew that he would remember the story, and pass it on to all that were ready and willing to listen.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas Eve Anniversary, Part 7

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

Late Night Chat

Around midnight, they gave up waiting for Maryam to return. They wished each other Happy Anniversary one more time at 11:59, then Merry Christmas at 12:00, and went to sleep.

Fin was awoken by something moving around downstairs at about 4:00 a.m. He’d always been a light sleeper, especially in strange places. Quietly, he crept out of their room and peered into the darkness of the main floor. He could see the outline of someone rummaging around in the living area around the Christmas tree there. A moment later, the figure stepped into the light of the dim fire, stoking it back to life. It was Maryam.

She flopped into one of the rustic chairs and plopped her feet up on the coffee table there. Fin heard and saw a match being struck, then saw the flame dip downwards. A few audible inhales later, and Fin caught the faint scent of a sweetish tobacco being smoked, undoubtedly from Maryam’s pipe.

“Come on down, Finley. Let’s get on with the chat you’re so keen to have.”

Fin made his way slowly down the stairs and took the seat opposite Maryam. She looked both relaxed and tired, puffing her pipe and gazing into the fire. She turned to face him and smiled warmly.

“Go ahead, ask the question.”

“What happened today?”

Maryam took a long drag on her pipe and exhaled it slowly. “What do you think happened?”

“A bunch of very strange stuff, most of which made no sense at all.”

Maryam nodded her head as she took another drag. “That sounds about right.”

“So? Did I miss something?”

“No,” said Maryam, and Fin thought she looked a little sad. That sadness had an unexpectedly powerful impact on Fin, and he found himself tearing up for not apparently reason. “How about I tell you a story?” Fin nodded, blinking his eyes to clear them, and settled back into the chair. It was more comfortable that he’d expected, especially considering it’s ancient construction. Maryam began.

“Once upon a time, when the world was young, magic was everywhere and in everything. People were kind and loving to each other because they didn’t know any other way to be, and there was peace and harmony and warmth and light. Then, as they grew older and more mature, mankind began to learn about jealousy, and greed, and fear, and hate. Things grew darker and colder as these new emotions began driving out the magic that had originally existed. In an effort to maintain a balance, the powers that were began to struggle against that powers that were becoming. In the eons since, the balance has gone back and forth. Recently, balance has swung to the darkness, and the remnants of the powers that were have banded together. At this time of year, they make a special effort to see happiness and joy spread throughout the world. We all do our parts, and hope that, given enough opportunity, mankind will find the hope they once had, and decide to simply love each other and treat each other with kindness again.”

“Wait… ‘we?’” Fin asked.

Maryam’s eyes twinkled merrily. “And very occasionally, there are a couple of otherwise normal people that stumble into our tale, and we sincerely hope that they take the message back to the rest of mankind, insofar as they’re able, and continue to hold the wonder and joy they felt during their adventure as they continue their journey.”

“So… who are you? You aren’t… Santa Claus… are you?”

Maryam smiled at Fin as he asked, knocked the ash from her pipe into the fire, then got up and stretched and yawned. “It’s been a long night. I think I’ll turn in. Goodnight, Finley.”

She left him there to stare after her.

Christmas Eve Anniversary, Part 6

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Last Stop

The sun had just finished setting by the time they stopped again. This time, they were in front of a smart looking if small house, resembling nothing more than Maryam’s cottage in four-fifth’s scale. When juxtaposed with the house they’d left behind, this house looked positively tiny. Three boys dressed almost identically to each other were doing things outside the house: one was chopping wood, another sweeping the porch, and a third cleaning the windows. As the sleigh came to a stop at the end of their sidewalk, the three waved in unison to Maryam, who returned the wave. They then fell into a marching formation and went into the house, single file.

The evening was getting colder by the moment, so Bree and Fin took the stop as an opportunity to stretch their legs and warm up a bit. The driver’s bench was perfectly comfortable, but sitting for too long made Fin fidgety. As they stood stamping their feet and blowing into their hands, the three boys appeared from the side of the house, carrying yet another large bag above their collective heads.

Fin took one look at it, then said, “Let me guess: it’ll fit, no problem.” Maryam’s only reply was a quick wink. Bree and Fin helped the three boys push the bag into the back of the sleigh, as the boys could barely see over the edge. Maryam had wandered into the house’s front yard, and the boys joined her there as soon as the bag was in the sleigh. Bree and Fin were about to join them when Maryam turned abruptly toward them and hurried back to the sleigh.

“We’ve no time to lose,” Maryam said, her voice sounding strained for the first time since they’d arrived. “It’s later than I thought. Up you go! Hurry!”

Bree and Fin got back onto the driver’s bench as fast as they could while Maryam went to check on the horse’s harness. She took a moment to whisper to the horses and stroke their manes and necks, then dashed around the side and onto the bench herself. The horses were off before she could even grab the reigns. They immediately accelerated to what Fin considered an unsafe pace, then poured on more speed. It was dark and no one was holding the reigns. Fin was beginning to actually feel a little scared when Maryam reached behind Bree’s back to touch his shoulder. “Everything is still fine, Fin. We just need to get back to the cottage.” Maryam’s hand was warm and comforting, and her eyes seemed to twinkle a bit in the twilight. Fin calmed down a little as Maryam finally grabbed the reigns and handed them to Bree.

“Let them have their head,” Maryam told Bree. “They’ll get us back the fastest way possible. I need to organize a little.”

With that, Maryam vaulted over the back of the bench and into the sleigh bed. She opened all three bags and began rummaging through each, occasionally moving something from one to another or shifting items around within each.

It was snowing again, more heavily this time than earlier in the day. The darkness deepened as they raced along the landscape. The scenery seemed blurry to Fin, as if they moved too quickly for his eyes to focus on any particular thing. Bree stared steadily forward, a determined smile on her face. Steam rose from the horses in steady streams. The bells on the sleigh rang in a hurriedly jolly manner, their din louder than it should have been at that speed.

In what seemed to be only a few minutes, they were pulling onto the open fields where they had first entered the woods. The horses continued their frenetic pace until they came to a stop in the field adjacent to the cottage.

Maryam hopped back onto the driver’s bench. “Alright, here’s where you two get off for now. I want to thank you for your excellent help and company this afternoon and evening. Inside the house, you’ll find a romantic dinner for two set on the smaller table near the fireplace. I’m going to go drop these off,” she said, thumbing toward the bags in the back of the sleigh, “but it’ll be a few hours before I actually get back to the house. Please enjoy yourselves, and I’ll see you in the morning!”

“Wait, Maryam—“ Bree began.

“Can’t wait! Must fly! I’ll answer questions in the morning, depend upon it!”

Fin had already climbed down and helped Bree out of the seat. They stood back and watched the sleigh streak off again, picking up more and more speed until it seemed to fade from view. Even then, they thought they could still hear the sleigh bells jingling merrily, but eventually that, too, faded.

They made their way back inside the house and found everything as Maryam had described — a romantic, candlelit dinner for two was laid out for them. The lights in the house were low as well, just light enough to see the way through. When they took their seats, the lights seemed to dim of their own accord, so that only the candles and firelight illuminated the couple.

“This has been… odd,” began Fin, taking a sip of his wine.

“It’s been wonderful!” Bree said, hardly able to contain herself. “What a fantastic day! Maryam, and the horses, and the sleigh, and the woods, and the old lady, and the steamboat, and—“

“Bree, do you know how nutty all of that sounds?”

“Well… I suppose so, but—“

“No buts! We’re going to wait up for Maryam to get back and get to the bottom of this. All I wanted was a nice, relaxing, romantic get-away with you for our anniversary for once in our lives. Instead, we got this insanity!”

Bree put her glass down, walked around the table, and pulled Fin out of his chair by the hand. She put his arms around her, then her arms around him, and leaned into him, swaying slowly back and forth.

“Fin, today has been magical. I don’t have a better way to describe it. We rode over the river and through the woods and wound up at grandmother’s house. We were in a two-horse open sleigh with jingle bells attached. We helped gather handmade gifts for kids in need. Even if it was a bit… strange… we were together. I loved every minute of it.”

Fin hugged her tightly. “Alright, alright. It was definitely as unique an experience as we’re likely to have, and we’re no worse for the wear. I still want to know what that was all about. Why the rush there at the end? Where is she dropping those packages off so late in the evening where they can still be delivered?”

Bree shrugged slightly in his arms, apparently not caring about the answers to any questions Fin had. He sighed, swayed with her a few more moments, then Bree said, “Let’s eat. I’m starving!”