A Final LJ Review

I did a quick write-up last spring on a book called The Science of Miracles — in fact, this was the last title I covered before resigning from the Library Journal due to my over-committed writing schedule. I missed its publication, however, until now. It’s reprinted in full on the book’s Barnes and Noble page, and elsewhere. On the B&N page you’ll find it as the first editorial review.

Another Literary Year in Review

The Winnipeg Free Press has another favourite books of the year list, which includes my own pick: A Tale for the Time Being by American/Canadian writer, Ruth Ozeki.

It really is quite excellent and deserves to be on a year’s favourites list (my editor was careful to explain that this is not a “year’s best” list; we’re not jurying a prize, here and having made an exhaustive survey). Along with his caveat, I’ll add two of my own: not every book I’ve read is for FP review, and not every book I read is for review, period. Many of the books I read are not even recent releases.

So if I expand the list to include anything and everything I’ve read this year, what was my absolute favourite?

I dunno. The older I get the harder it is to pick favourites. Let’s just say it was a good reading year and leave it at that.

The Tyranny of the Exclamation Mark

This post has been sponsored (and checked) by Grammarly.com. I use the grammar and plagiarism checker at Grammarly.com because misplaced interrobangs get good men killed.

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I’m not a tremendous fan of exclamation marks. The old ! has its place, of course. Floating disembodied over surprised comic strip characters, denoting a factorial in mathematics. But I feel it’s dug out an undeserved niche in certain types of correspondence in such a way as to force itself upon those of us who feel exhausted by its enthusiasm.

An example: in any type of semi-formal business correspondence, from email to the lowly sticky-note, where one is either requesting a favour or acknowledging one, isn’t it the most natural thing in the world to end with “Thanks a lot! -Cathy”? Of course it is. Who could blame you? Certainly not me. In moments that will be forever tinged with the taint of shame and weakness, I’ve done it myself.

But I haven’t done so unthinkingly. In fact, each time has been a struggle: the better, truer part of me striving to end on a (completely appropriate) period. But the ubiquity of the exclamation mark has conspired to make the lack of it seem an intentional slight. The context of modern standard practice may cause readers to assume disinterest or even sarcasm when your thank you comes bearing a mere period. In the end, it’s simpler just to cave and add that painful vertical line.

Why does it matter? Simple honesty. I’ve long harboured the suspicion that many individuals of my acquaintance “laugh out loud” less frequently than their use of this phrase suggests, and I, at least, have no wish to misrepresent myself via disingenuous punctuational emphasis.

(Indeed, this particular acronym has almost forgotten what it stands for, apropos of nothing compulsively, it has become a new type of punctuation: one with absolutely no modifying effect; the Metamucil of the written word, a tasteless fibre to pad your messages while adding zero meaning. “Lets go 2 teh mall lol!!1″ indeed.)

But the ! cannot be denied. It is the LOL of the adult world. So many have come to expect it, its absence is more significant than its presence. A period is a slap in the face. You might as well sign off with a string of expletives.

So, I submit. I wait and bide my time. Perhaps the tide will shift. Perhaps, one day, it will be possible to be less than manically enthusiastic in text, and this will be a life choice others can accept. In the meantime, I won’t swim upstream.

Thanks for reading. I mean, thanks for reading!

*Tumbleweed*

It’s been a bit quiet here of late. Few updates. As it happens I have been writing a bit, but most of it’s been content development for a private educational company so it’s nothing I can link to here. But it’s also true that I’ve been limiting my work intake for most of the fall season. No real reason other than that I felt like slowing down a little bit and the easiest way to accomplish that is to accept less writing assignments.

Meanwhile I’ve made it a goal to make a small dent in the pile of non-review books I’ve been wanting to read. I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction on social science topics which have all had more overlap than I had expected. I’ve just been working on an audiobook of Slavery by Another Name, which is all about the post-Civil War Southern United States.

It’s not a metaphor for racism or something vague like that. It turns out that after Lincoln freed the slaves, a huge number of them actually continued as slaves through corrupt economic and legal apparatuses that basically allowed small town sheriffs to arrest the United States’ newest citizens on phoney charges, whereby they’d be sentenced to hard labour, which was then contracted out to railroads, plantation owners, mines, etc. Often the paperwork would get lost and their “sentence” would never end. Yes, slavery actually continued well into the twentieth century, and no, it wasn’t a rare thing but actually extremely widespread in those regions.

I also just finished Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, which talked a lot about debt peonage, which works the same way, except it’s a fine or debt that has to be worked off, and which can never be repaid because the indebted person is only paid a pittance. So debt peons too are basically slaves, but it’s justified by an account book instead of racial ideology or archaic customs of war.

On the heels of wrapping up 1491, about North American society before (and, to some extent, also immediately after) Europeans arrived, I picked up Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, subtitled An Indian History of the United States. It tells the tales of Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and other leaders of indigenous nations set against or attempting to make peace with the United States during the same period discussed in Slavery (about the time of the Civil War until the end of the nineteenth century.

It’s an incredibly infuriating and sometimes hard to read story. Many indigenous groups experienced horrors a par with the Jewish Holocaust or African American slavery. In fact, in some parts of the country, huge numbers of indigenous people were kidnapped and sold into slavery, often in Mexico. And in many parts of the country (most, perhaps), American military and government groups sought no less than the complete genocide of all indigenous peoples, to the extent of slaughtering entire villages of unarmed women and children, begging for mercy (look up the Sand Creek massacre).

It’s easy to forget how recent all this has been. Yes, some of the Nazis who murdered Jews are still alive today. But some of the people who murdered indigenous people unconscionably (or who continued to keep African slaves in defiance of the 14th amendment) were still alive when Auschwitz was up and running, so it’s just one generation further back. All of this horrible stuff happened very recently, but maybe it’s easier to learn about the terrible things that happened across the Atlantic rather than what happened much closer to home.

Besides all this heavy stuff, I read Gateway, one of Frederik Pohl’s best-known novels, which I got at the used bookstore a few months ago. Coincidentally, I decided to read it just before hearing that he’d passed away, which made reading it a little bit, funereal, I suppose.

It’s quite good. Some of the old guard of SF have a reputation for not really getting character development or dialogue or other things of that sort. But Pohl’s pretty good in that department. The conceit that has almost the whole novel be told in a series of flashbacks during a man’s therapy sessions with a robot psychiatrist — I thought it would just be a gimmick but the novel has a psychological payoff that really worked for me.

Mr. Pohl, you will be missed.

So, what should I read next? (No, don’t tell me. My bookshelf is quite full.)

On Mathematics and Fiction

But there are stories where the math is simultaneously central to the story, while also speculative enough to count as genre. . . . [Like] Robert Heinlein’s “—And He Built a Crooked House,” where a design based on a 3D projection of a four-dimensional shape actually shifts to an upper dimension during a minor earthquake.

Mathematical fiction! For a math geek who is also a literature geek, this is the sensation of geek squared. Read my full essay at AE.