Saturday, September 27, 2014

Books read in 2014: No. 48 -- Inventing the Enemy: Essays

by Umberto Eco
translated by Richard Dixon

Started: Sept. 23
Finished: Sept. 27

Notes: These essays are actually based upon various lectures the author has given during the last decade or thereabouts. I loved reading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, and I keep meaning to read more of his material; to that end, but also to expand my horizons somewhat, I decided to step into this non-fiction collection. I can't remember from where, but it seems some site highly suggested this book, so there's also that.

Mini review: Having the same title as the book, the first essay/lecture focuses upon the tendency for organizations (of any human type, from governments to nations to religions to cultures, sub-cultures, etc.) to create enemies for themselves, even when there is no enemy present. The author seems to be saying that this notion of creating enemies is a natural one, even among the most peace-loving among us (who create enemies not necessarily of other human groups, but of causes -- such as global warming, saving animals, etc.). For the most part I was familiar with the ideas expressed here, though I'll admit there were a few new to me.

The next essay is Eco's thoughts on the Absolute vs. the Relative within philosophy. For me this was a snoozefest hearkening back to the more boring and, in my opinion, less useful of my undergrad philosophy classes. When particular philosophical notions have little or no practical use and/or are unprovable and thus truly undefendable, I tire quickly of them. Like Aquinas on the question of whether or not the Earth is round or flat, what difference does it make if it's not a question of Salvation (though I don't necessarily mean that in a Christian sense, but Aquinas obviously did)?

The third essay is a lengthy one on the symbolism of fire through the ages, which is about as exciting as you want it to be. For me, not overly exciting.

The fourth essay takes a look at treasures of Europe, with a strong focus upon religious artifacts. All of this I found quite interesting, though I knew some of it, but the article gets bogged down with a long list of artifacts without many details. This would be a good jumping off point for anyone interested in the subject matter, but there's not in depth history here.

Now we come to a lecture on a late author and contemporary to Eco. Here Eco compares the writer's treatment of food, mainly cheese, with the writer's writings dealing with excrement and the like. Short and somewhat entertaining, even slightly funny, to tell the truth.

In the next lecture/essay, Eco takes a look at abortion and related material from a historical point of view, mainly that of antiquity with more than a little talk of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who on the subject matter would be considered quite the heretic today. This piece drew me in because of the historical angle, especially as too often we seem to consider abortion a modern dilemma.

Next the author gives us a fairly extensive study of the writings of Victor Hugo, especially Hugo's treatment of the grotesque vs. the beautiful and how Hugo kind of turns Romanticism upon its head. Quite the interesting read for Hugo fans and for writers drawn to the period.

From here Eco veers over into censorship, mainly from a modern Italian viewpoint, which is understandable considering the author and his audience for the lecture. Some interesting stuff here, especially about different types of censorship, some that are not so easily recognizable.

Eco then takes a look at geography and astronomy from a historical, mostly European angle with a touch of nostalgia on his part, especially for ancient maps which were either outright wrong in their interpretation or were meant to be fantastical, of imaginary places. Eco also paints a picture of the Middle Ages as not being as backward as is generally believed today, especially when it came to travel and general astronomy, that the world wasn't believed to be flat, at least not by those with knowledge.

Then we come to a mildly humorous piece in which the author gives an overview of a fictional nation that tried to live only by the wisdom found in old sayings, proverbs. One can expect things don't turn out very well for the country.

The next essay is a bold diatribe against James Joyce. The language here is so strong as to be comical, my thinking at first being that Eco was surely jesting. But then the author veers over into anti-Semitism and becomes quite ugly. I have to say, I was taken back by the anti-Semitism, but it didn't stop me from finishing the book as I was so near the end.

Veering over to less sensitive material, the author concerns himself with islands, real and fictional. I had never thought of it until reading this essay, but islands have played a lot of important roles in many a story, and real islands have of course had an influence upon the real world, from geography to politics, economy, etc.

Eco winds down his book with a look at the WikiLeaks scandal from a year or two back. His opinion seems to be that the actual information leaked was no big deal, stuff most people "in the know" already knew anyway, but that the important thing here is that Big Brother is no longer in total control but has a watchman of sorts through hackers and the like.

Overall, the historical aspects of this book were intriguing. There is no doubting Umberto Eco is a genius of ancient, Medieval and Renaissance history of Europe. However, in my opinion, his thoughts on the modern world have a major fault, a sense of the over importance of his homeland, Italy. I do not mean to disparage Italy or Italians, but to be frank, I don't think that nation plays as large or as an important a role in current world politics and economics as Eco seems to believe. But I've never been there, so I freely admit I could be talking out of my ass.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

My newest writing tool -- the Alphasmart Neo

Ooo, aaah, it's like the 1980s all over again.

What you see above is my Alphasmart Neo, basically a portable word processor. You can plug it in for use, but there's little need since the three AA batteries in the back will last up to 700 hours. Yes, you read that correctly -- 700 hours. It is about the size of the smallest netbooks though lighter than any laptop I've yet to run across, and it doesn't bother with the clumsy configuration of tablets with connecting keyboards. There is no Internet access, which means no distractions. When I want to transfer my files over to a PC or Mac, all I have to do is connect them with a cord and the story moves over. It offers a simple word count and spell check and calculator, along with a few other things which I can't name right now because I never use them.

Not quite flat.
More importantly, it has doubled my writing speed. I can now tap out about 2,000 words an hour.

There are other versions of the Alphasmart which offer more bells and whistles, including some Internet access, faster transfer of files, teaching tools, etc.

Originally the various versions of the Alphasmart were marketed to the education community, specifically to grade schools through high schools. Unfortunately, the sales must not have been there since the company which made the Alphasmarts ceased doing so about a year ago. Maybe they should have tried marketing to writers, because there is a growing number of writers over at the kboards who are now using one Alphasmart or another (and sometimes more than one) for their daily writing, like me.

For some time I had been looking at word processors, but I had not found one which fit my needs. My Neo does everything I want it to and nothing more, which is perfect. I don't want extra bells and whistles or Internet access. I want to be able to carry this little gadget wherever I want and to be able to write with absolutely no distractions. I have found it perfect for that.

Actually, no, that is not from a story of mine,  though the
character menioned is. I just made up the text to show an
example of the screen and font.
One downside is file transfer is fairly slow, but apparently there is software that allows for faster movement of files. I've simply yet to try it.

Also, the screen might appear small to some, but the font size and the number of lines that can be viewed can be adjusted. Also, though it took some getting used to, I believe being able to see less of the story, and not being able to jump around in the story so easily, is what has increased my word count.

I did have an HP netbook which I quite liked, but I gave it to a family member who's computer went blooey on them.

If you're interested, you can usually find an Alphasmart or ten for sale on eBay or at Amazon. But I suggest studying the different versions first to find out which fits your needs. For me, it's the Neo.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Books read in 2014: No. 47 -- I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

by Harlan Ellison

Started: Sept. 23
Finished: Sept. 23

Notes: I'm pretty familiar with Ellison's screen work, but I've never read any of his prose fiction, so a good while back I picked up this piece over at Fictionwise before the site went belly up. This post-apocalyptic tale was originally published in 1967.

Mini review: In a post-apocalyptic world, a group of humans are kept prisoner by an AI computer gone mad. There are certain stories that have to be read either during their time, or during the right time for the reader. This was one such story for me, which is a shame. If I had read this tale during my teen years, I probably would have loved it, but as things stand, I wasn't all that impressed having read probably dozens of stories or novels or seen plenty of TV shows or movies with related material. That is not to say this was a bad story, because it is not, but that I would have been better served reading it far earlier in my life. Which is too bad. Over the years I've run across a number of stories and novels that have struck me this way, and I never blame it on the author but upon myself, since I should've been reading better material back in the day. But what ya gonna do?

Books read in 2014: No. 46 -- Hobo Zombie

by Karen Lofgren

Started: Sept. 22
Finished: Sept. 23

Notes: I have an admission to make. I picked up this e-book because of the title alone. A while back I was uploading an e-book of mine over at Smashwords, and once my e-book was up I noticed Hobo Zombie had also appeared, having been uploaded right before my own title. And with a title like Hobo Zombie, I just knew I had to check this e-book out.

Mini review: An interesting mixing of voodo zombies with undead zombies. In Wyoming. Hey, he's a hobo zombie, so he gets around. The story revolves around two zombie lords vying against one another for power. I won't say anything more, as it would give away too much, but if you are a fan of talking zombies who can think some, then this could be right up your alley.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Books read in 2014: No. 45 -- The Legacy Inheritance

by Patrick Donnell

Started: Sept. 20
Finished: Sept. 22

Notes: Every so often I'll receive an e-mail from an indie author asking me to take part in a survey or an experiment of some kind, usually with an offer of a free copy of one of their e-books. This is such a case here, though I can't remember the specifics. The story focuses on a man who loses his job and faces other financial hardships, but suddenly he is called upon to write a eulogy for someone he did not know, with an inheritance possibly in the works. So, let us see where this story takes us.

Mini review: This novel uses an almost journalistic style which is not common, though it worked well here for what is mainly a Christian allegorical tale somewhat reminiscent of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. I admit to being pleasantly surprised at the subject matter as the main character goes along interviewing people for this eulogy he has to deliver, each person he meets being a reflection of either one of the seven deadly sins or one of the seven saintly virtues. The first half of this book I enjoyed quite a bit, but then I felt it became bogged down with its own weighty goals and ended bordering on becoming preachy. The real flaw here, in my opinion, is that the novel starts off showing examples of the various sins and virtues, but then it slowly gives that up and eventually makes a full shift to telling. That doesn't work. Not only from a storytelling perspective, but as a philosophical and spiritual instructive method. Simply telling people that certain things are good or bad for them will not make a difference to them, nor will someone else trying to explain it to them if that someone remains vague and doesn't focus upon the concrete, which is the fault of the protagonist here, in my opinion. All this being said, I think the novel was a good idea and that it started fairly strong, though it went off the rails at one point.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Books read in 2014: No. 44 -- Sidnye (Queen of the Universe)

by Scott Fitzgerald Gray

Started: Sept. 16
Finished: Sept. 19

Notes: A fellow member of the Monumental Works Group, Scott has never let me down as a writer. Since it's been a while since I've read anything of his, I thought it was time to get back on the saddle.

Mini review: Scott does this amazing thing with his writing that makes me jealous. He creates a mixture of characterization with story events and even background that melds together so well it's difficult to tell where one ends and the others begin. Even flashbacks don't feel like flashbacks. I've seen a handful of authors who can pull this off, such as Stephen King (when in top form), Mario Puzo (though he didn't always use such a strategy in his writing), Joe Hill (sometimes), Anne Rice (on occasion), and Chuck Palahniuk (though in his own unique, quirky way ... as he does everything). I really, really, really, really, really, really like this book. But. Isn't there always a "but?" Well, maybe not always, but often enough there is, and there's a "but" here for me. After all of this amazing story, I felt the payoff fell short. It's not a bad ending, and it's not messy, but ... there's that "but" ... for me, I felt like there was too much left unsaid. There were certain details I felt were necessary to end this novel, and they're not there. A young lady living as an orphan in a school has odd things going on around the edges of her life (think sci-fi, not supernatural ... I think), and while much is eventually shown, I felt the explanation was not there, which left me feeling a little cheated as a reader. It's kind of like watching an episode of the TV show "Lost." You're left wanting more, which is a good thing, but you also feel as if a little more should have been given in that particular episode. Bah. I'm whining. This is a damn good book, but be prepared to feel the need to read more to find out the whys and the whats. This is a minimum 4.5 stars book, and in my opinion would have been a full 5 stars if only a paragraph or two had been included to offer a little explanation of a few things. Perfect plotting, fantastic characters. If only every novel was written this well, including my own.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Believe it or not, yes, I'm writing

I've not written much about the work I've been doing of late, and I won't go into a lot of detail here, but I did want to let others know that I am indeed writing. I've finished the first draft of one novel, half of a second novel, and I've done quite a bit of work for my pen name.

Of the novels, I'm hoping to complete and have edited three of them by mid-December, to be released all at once as a trilogy. Why all at once? Why not? It's an experiment. If I can't manage to finish all three, the first one almost definitely should be ready, and perhaps the second, but I might yet hold them off until the third is complete.

As for a hint of the work I'm doing, at the right you will see the cover for the first novel. That cover is not set in stone, but it's the one I like the best of all I've done so far. It might yet change.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Books read in 2014: No. 43 -- A Grief Observed

by C.S. Lewis

Started: Sept. 15
Finished: Sept. 15

Notes: As I've already read this author's The Problem of Pain, it is time for A Grief Observed, a more personal look at suffering after Lewis lost his wife.

Mini review: Each individual's grief is different. I cannot with clear conscious say even to another widower, "I know what you're going through," because it's not true. I know what I've gone through, what I continue to go through, but I can't say the same of someone else. Even here. From what I know of this book and other information I've gathered about Lewis, his wife's death and their lives together were similar in a lot of ways to mine with my wife, though we never had children. But my grief experiences have been quite a bit different than those Lewis experienced. Or, at least, mine have been so far, and with my wife having passed away a little more than four months ago, it seems Lewis was writing during about the same period with his own grief. Lewis suffered something of existential turmoil, while for the most part I have not; if anything, I generally feel stronger spiritually instead of questioning the futility of everything. Maybe it was because I was and am generally a more skeptical and cynical person than Lewis happened to be, that I had already faced the darker elements of life while he had not. But that is mere speculation. In all his writings, Lewis seems fairly forthright, so I don't want to speak for him. As I said, each person's grief is different. On the flip side of this, he did eventually come out of his "funk" and came to something of a spiritual awakening, not completely unlike my own, though also not exactly the same. In this book I saw a lot that was familiar, other things not so familiar but which I could relate, and a few smatterings of things which were quite alien to me. That's to be expected with grief. All that being said, I would not necessarily suggest this book for everyone who is going through a grief process, especially those who have lost a spouse or child. I would, however, suggest this book for those who are Christian or have Judeo-Christian inclinations; others might not find comfort here, but actually might find details which could frustrate or even anger them. To each their own, as I'm not here to judge anyone's beliefs or lack of, but I do wish success to anyone dealing with grief and I believe this book could be helpful to some and of interest to even others.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Books read in 2014: No. 42 -- The Problem of Pain

by C.S. Lewis

Started: Sept. 11
Finished: Sept. 14

Notes: Continuing my readings on grief and Christian apologetics, this book is a natural, combining both to some extent. Lewis famously (at least within certain literary and Christian circles) wrote two books on this subject matter, the first one being this one, The Problem of Pain, in which he discusses why God would allowing suffering in the universe. The second book, titled A Grief Observed, Lewis wrote after the passing of his wife (which I can relate to), and personalizes his look into suffering. I'm starting here with the first of these books, but I'll get to the second soon enough.

Mini review: There is much here to reflect upon, and not all of it is easy material. I tend to think of Lewis as one of the better theological and philosophical writers when it comes to explaining his points, but even here there were a few places where my eyes glazed over and he kind of lost me; not that I had lost interest, but that his explanations were sometimes a little overly complicated for my preference. But that was not often the case. Most of the time Lewis is fairly straight forward, and in some ways and on some topics he is more succinct here than he is elsewhere, such as in Mere Christianity. The chapters here are broken up into reflections upon human pain, Hell, animal pain and notions of Heaven. I won't go into detail as I feel such material is worthy of the reader experiencing firsthand, but I will say Lewis does not shy away from a number of tough and touchy topics. For the most part I can go along with his thinking, but I found myself shying away from a few of his notions, specifically in his writings about animals and pain (not that I necessarily disagree with his viewpoints, or not all of them, but some I found overly speculative ... and to be honest, he might agree with me about that). For those who have an interest in religion and philosophy, and especially for those who call themselves Christian or those who wish to study Christianity, I can recommend this one.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Books read in 2014: No. 41 -- Healing Meditations for Surviving Grief and Loss

by Sibel Hodge

Started: Sept. 11
Finished: Sept. 11

Notes: Since the loss of my wife and my father a few months ago, I've been dealing with my own grief in my own manners. I'm still grieving, and probably always will to some extent, and I've spent plenty of time studying my own grieving process. Now I feel there's been enough time for me to have a bit more of an objective viewpoint, and I've been wanting to study grief from the viewpoint of others, which is one of the reasons I picked up this e-book. Who knows? It might even do me some good myself.

Mini review: Roughly the first third of this e-book is made up of letters from people who have or are suffering from one level of grief or other, sometimes concerning the loss of a loved one, a pet, or a miscarriage. The rest of the e-book are sort of sayings or affirmations for meditation. A little new-agey for my taste, but there was definitely plenty here to think about, even forms of grief which had not occurred to me.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Books read in 2014: No. 40 -- Eight Hour Fiction #3

by Travis Hill

Started: Sept. 10
Finished: Sept. 10

Notes: About a year ago, J.A. Konrath threw out a challenge to indie writers to write, edit and publish a story in digital form all within 8 hours. The author also has to come up with the cover. Fortunately, Amazon's (or wherever's) loading time isn't included in that 8 hours. Since then, a number of indies have kept up the practice over at the kboards, and there is even a monthly challenge though there's not really a prize or anything. Obviously the stories won't be very long, probably somewhere between 2,000 and 12,000 words, depending upon the writer's speed, but it can be done. I've tackled it myself a few times under a pen name, and honestly, I've like the results; though not great art by any means, it's still fun and has made me a little money while bringing a few good reviews. So, it seems there are at least some readers who are also interested in this challenge, or at least this type of rushed, short fiction. Studying it more myself, I was intrigued by Travis Hill's third publication for this challenge, in part because it includes two stories, not just one, but also the stories sounded appealing.

Mini review: The first tale is a sad, almost depressing look at one couple's way of dealing with what is basically a zombie apocalypse. The second is more of a fun tale about a quirky inventor who creates technology that allows him to experiences his cat's dreams. Yes, you read that correctly, his cat's dreams. Of the two stories, I think I liked the second better as it worked well as flash fiction. There was nothing really wrong with the first story, but I wanted more, to know more about the couple about their world, etc.

Books read in 2014: No. 39 -- The Awakened

edited by Hal Greenberg and Neil Levin

Started: Sept. 5
Finished: Sept. 10

Notes: This is a shared-world epic fantasy anthology. Based in the world of Grimaton, these tales surround one of the quirks of this world, that a small percentage of the population upon turning 19 years of age suddenly gain magical powers. These powers manifest themselves differently in each individual, and at least in appearance have less to do with traditional wizards and spellcasting but are more akin to something out of a comic book. Sort of an X-men meets Thieves' World in scope. My short story "Assassins of Opportunity" appears here, and I am anxious to read this one because I have yet to peruse all the other tales.

Mini review: For those who love a good sword-swinging tale, there's plenty to be found here. There were so many good ones, it's a difficult matter to choose a favorite. One nice detail about this collection is that it's different from many fantasy worlds in that the magic isn't your traditional spellcasting wizards, so there are a multitude of effects and types of magic, not just your typical fireballs and lightning bolts, though there is a bit of that, too. If I had one complaint about this book, it would be that I felt too many of the tales focused upon one element of the world's dynamics, basically that of King Stewart's constant attempts to kidnap Awakened characters from their own lands, but this wasn't really a bother for me, just an observation, and it didn't hurt the storytelling itself. I can recommend this one for lover's of action-oriented fantasy, and within its pages you will find stories by:

Ed Greenwood
Colin McComb
Erik Scott de Bie
Rosemary Jones
Hal Greenberg
Rai Smith
Jaleigh Johnson
Richard Redman
Doug Herring
Kevin Kulp
Darrin Drader
Torah Cottrill
Steven Creech
Darren W. Pearce
Clinton Boomer
and myself (of course)

Friday, September 05, 2014

Books read in 2014: No. 38 -- Pavane

by Keith Roberts

Started: August 31
Finished: Sept. 5

Notes: It is the 20th Century, but not the 20th Century we knew. Long ago, Elizabeth I was slain by an assassin, leading to the Spanish defeating the English Armada and eventually returning to the Catholic Church the entire political domination of Europe. Of course this power also bled over into the New World and continues into the 20th Century. Now there are hints of revolution. This is the backdrop for this classic speculative novel published in the late 1960s. I've had a copy for a while now and had forgotten all about it until recently when John O'Neil over at Black Gate did a post about it, so I have John to thank for the reminder.

Mini review: This book is a great study in characters and world building. The writing is quite good for the most part, though there are short sections in which I felt the author allowed his pen to meander, to become too literary and oblique. Truth to tell, this is more a collection of related short stories than a novel, though it kind of works that way as well. At first there does not seem to be much relationship between the stories, but eventually more becomes clear and those relationships shine through. Besides being alternative history, this book has its fantasy elements, specifically with fairy, and there's almost a steampunk feel to some parts of it as the technology is roughly equal to that of the middle 19th Century. I can recommend this one.