Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Truth in Fairy Tales

There is an old Aesop fable "The Crow and the Pitcher," where a crow comes across a half empty pitcher, and begins to drop in pebbles until the water rises high enough for the crow to drink. The moral or lesson being that necessity is the mother of invention.

Well, that old child's tale may turn out to have been more fact than fiction.

The following was reported in the Independent on Sunday, about an experiment carried out by faculty from Cambridge and the University of London:
Scientists have found that rooks – a member of the crow family – were able to figure out how to raise the water level in a laboratory container by dropping stones inside to retrieve a tasty worm floating on the surface.
Four different rooks, called Cook, Fry, Connelly and Monroe, quickly discovered that they could raise the water level in a transparent container by adding stones, just like the mythical crow in the fable, which illustrates the virtue of ingenuity and how necessity is the mother of invention.
P.S. I thought this was a humorous side note - one of the experimenter's names is Jonathan Bird.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The History of History

It appears that historians and archaeologists are going to have to re-evaluate everything they know about pre-historical man. A 35,000 year old bone flute has been discovered. As Bruce Sterling comments:
I’d be betting good money that this Neanderthal-contemporary flute music not only existed: it had accompanying oral poetry, and it had *genres.*

The guy who buil[t] this flute was accompanying people singing, and they were singing something that, even to them, was very, very old.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The 100 Most Beautiful Words

alphaDiction claims to have identified the 100 most beautiful words in the English language.

I dunno. Seems like beauty is correlated with sibilance. Quite an ethnocentric view of beauty in my opinion.

"Mellifluous" I can see. But "Onomatopoeia?" Dunno about that one.

And what is is with all those sibilant sounds? If we truly do find them beautiful, then no bloody wonder the serpent got those two fools in the garden to eat that apple!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Book is a Book, No Matter the Form

That's the question that Ann Kirschner poses in her article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The gist of the question is whether reading is important, the story or the ideas, or the format in which those stories or ideas come. Ten years ago this question would have been patently ridiculous, but today it is entirely pertinent.

It struck Kirschner, when she reached up for her old Penguin paperback copy of Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, that there were other ways she could experience the story. Were those ways better, or worse? That, she didn't know, so in the true spirit of scientific inquiry, she decided to try an experiment.

As Kirschner states, she "decided to read Little Dorrit four ways: paperback, audiobook, Kindle, and iPhone."

With the paperback version, Kirschner felt that flood of returning memories, a la Ratatouille, when something tangible comes into contact with the senses and sparks a cascade of old memories, locked away for so long. It brought her back to her graduate days, where she first fell in love with, as she says, "the Victorian novel."

To each their own, I guess.

But something she hints at, but doesn't directly state, is that the nostalgia fueled state actually distracts from the story itself. Those memories, those tactile reminders make reading in that manner as much about the reader as the story.

So it was on to the audiobook. I felt much the same way as she, though one particular insight struck me -
Audiobooks also impose a certain discipline. I think of this as real-time reading: The author and narrator control your pace, and it is impractical to skim ahead or thumb back to another section. For Dickens, so naturally cinematic and plot-driven, that can have a breathtaking effect.
By golly, what she is describing is the experience of the story as human beings had known it from the dawn of time. Sure we mostly read now, but I bet you that somewhere deep inside ourselves, programmed into our DNA over countless millenia, is a predisposition for engaging stories in this manner.

Kirschner loved the audiobook format so much that it was all she could to do force herself to the last half of the experiment. And this is where it really gets interesting.
I abandoned the Kindle edition of Little Dorrit almost as soon as I read one chapter on my iPhone. Kindle, shmindle. It does almost nothing that an iPhone can't do better — and most important, the iPhone is always with me. Woody Allen had it right: Seventy percent of success in life is showing up. Yes, the Kindle's reasonable imitation of a book is an advantage, but not enough to outweigh the necessity to carry an extra object and its power plugs

The only time I relied on my Kindle was on vacation last year. All the grown-ups on beach chairs seemed to have one, as if we all had obeyed some secret command to buy Kindles and wear sunscreen. In fact, readers 50 or older are the largest group of Kindle buyers. Therein lies the clue to Kindle's short life. Middle-aged readers think that the dimension of the screen is critical. It's not: The members of the generation that grew up playing Game Boys and telling time on their cellphones will have absolutely no problem reading from a small screen.
In the end, Kirschner's key observation was that while she loved books, she loves reading even more. As she says, it is "the sustained and individual encounter with ideas and stories that is so bewitching. If new formats allow us to have more of those, let us welcome and learn from them."

I couldn't agree more.

You know, while I am an unabashed technophile, I am also a cash strapped technophile. I love the idea of the Kindle, but have no experience with one myself, especially since they don't sell them in this part of the world. I'd love to try reading on an iPhone, but they do cost a pretty penny, and I am afraid to buy one if only because I have a tendency to regularly and forcefully drop my phones on hard surfaces. So I've forgone the pleasure and status bump that owning an iPhone brings, (but I did the second best thing and get an iPod Touch.)

Lack of cool gadgets aside, there are still ways to try out Kirschner's experiment. My own version included the normal book, the audiobook, the e-book in the form of a laser printed sheaf of paper, and the e-book on the computer screen.

Overall, when executed right, I love the audiobook format more than anything. But more often than not the execution is not right, the reading voice or cadence is off, and it is simply impossible to get through a longish short story, let alone a full on novel.

The book itself is still great. Hardcover, paperback, or trade paper back, all have their advantages and disadvantages. When you read massive books like I do, the hardcovers can be hard to read in bed, and hard to carry around. The trade paperbacks don't fit in a pocket easily, and are quite conspicuous when read in public. The paperbacks are my preferred option, but again, when reading those massive epics I face problems. Instead of heft, I have to deal with print size, tilting the book to catch the light since the pages flow into a dark canyon in the center of the book, and doing anything about that only ends up snapping the spine or creating myriad creases that scream "abuse!" This makes the paperback version ultimately disposable, since there is little point in keeping a broken and damaged book laying around for everyone to look at.

Then there is the laser printed sheaf of papers. I got to buying e-books from Baen, or downloading them from Gutenberg.org, and not wanting to lug around my laptop, stuck to a power outlet since the battery only lasts two hours, I would print them out. At first I printed them out one-sided, but quickly found that to be a waste of paper. Even double sided wasn't much better. But when I got to printing them two to a side of paper, I had hit the sweet spot. The text was the same size as that in a paperback novel, but there was more page area, and no dark crevasse in the center. Best of all, a 600 page novel ended up as a 150 page stack of paper, which cost, after ink and paper are added together, only a few bucks, really. Far less than the average $12 to $15 plus tax I was used to spending years ago. And, best of all, you can recycle the paper, which you cannot do for paperbacks.

But that's not all. I found that, when reading a sheaf of papers in public, it looks more like I'm reading a lawyerly brief than a work of fiction. Even at work, I can seem to be "working" when actually I am just kicking back and enjoying myself. To all and sundry it seems like I am reading for work and not for fun, which is an important distinction.

Though I know many avid readers where I work, they all forgo the pleasure of reading as to the many avid non-readers there, opening up a novel smacks of goofing off, and being seen to do so, on the job, can lead to expressions of concern from management. So the avid readers keep their books at home, and spend their time looking busy, and reading, where else, on the computer.

Of the colleagues I have spoken with, I am about the only one who actually does read novels and short stories on the computer. Of course I have a daily diet of gads of web pages, as the constant stream from news sites and blogs lands in my Google Reader account every moment of the day. Due to this, most of the reading I do on the computer is of short, to medium length articles, with a few magazine pieces, though I tend to print out the magazine pieces at home, later, if they go beyond 15 or so pages. There is something about staring, in a concentrated manner, into a constant light source that unnerves me. And while I have read many, many novels on this beat up old Dell, I've never felt physically good afterward. I've always felt a little queasy, with a bit of a headache on the side. Reading a novel is not like reading a blog post. With fiction, if you fall into a state of deep reading, your eyes are basically fixed on the screen for up to hours at a time. It's the visual equivalent cranking the cranking the volume on your iPod every time you wear it. Slowly, but surely, it causes irreparable damage.

So reading novels on the computer really is not something I prefer. Hardcovers are far to expensive and wasteful, since I don;t like rereading books, and I long ago lost my compulsion to display chunks of dead tree to guests who are not in the least interested. Trade paperbacks are the best from a tactile standpoint, but too conspicuous, and paperbacks, long the main for of book I bought, are wasteful. They are eminently disposable, and the only way I have to alleviate the waste that attends after I finish a paperback is to donate the book to my school library. Considering how much less it costs just to print the book off at home, it's like writing a big fat cheque to the library, and my bank account does not currently condone this practice.

So what's the best method I've found to enjoy e-books?

A stack of papers it is. Held together by a butterfly clip, with pages quietly placed disappearing as the story progresses. Until, with a page left, and one page in the hand, it is as if the story itself, now played out, has faded away into the mists.

Or... reading off my new iPod Touch, which is turning out to be a sublime experience in itself.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Perversity of Copyright

Cory Doctorow has gone and made some more sense in The Guardian a while back with an article where the title really tells us the whole story - When love is harder to show than hate.
[O]ne of the most perverse elements of copyright law [is] the reality that loving something doesn't confer any right to make it a part of your creative life.
And there's the rub, eh. Like those little kids who loved all things Harry Potter, who probably bought every book, paid full admission for every theatre ticket, and even paid for official Harry Potter (TM) merchandise, who were then treated like base thieves for writing about what they love and trying to be more a part of that universe themselves.

How sick is that?

I myself have paid some $250 on the books, and close to that on theatre admission, and then I paid a further $200 for the DVDs. All told, Rowling Enterprises has pulled a good $600 out of my pocket. I can pay that for a Playstation 3 and go online and go hog wild writing about how great the system is, designing my perfect imaginary game, and no one would blink. I could buy $600 worth of Coca-Cola, give it to all and sundry, write Coca-Cola themed stories and blog about Coca-Cola themed recipes, and all that would happen is the company giving me a thumbs up for helping out brand awareness. Yet were I to wax rhapsodic on Harry and 'is chums, and maybe pen a little piece about the place they put that thing that time, and 'ol J.K's pitbulls would be feasting on my kneecaps in no time.

That's some seriously messed up stuff.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Better Book Titles

Have you ever thought that a book's title could be re-written to better evoke the story?

I'm sure a few of you have seen this already, but in case you haven't, check out Better Book Titles.

Here are a few of my favorites.

John Milton: Paradise Lost

Richard Ford: The Sportswriter

Herman Melville: Moby Dick

William Shakespeare: Hamlet

J.K Rowling: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

And, perhaps my favorite...Not from the Better Book Titles site, but was mentioned in reference to the site on Language Log

Strunk & White: The Elements of Style

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Uncomfortable Plot Summaries

Postmodernbarney has written a longish list of re-evaluated plot summaries of iconic movies and television shows.

My favorite, thus far, are the ones for Titanic and Deadwood.

Has anyone done this for iconic novels?

Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let You Go "Cloned children learn about life, love, and donating all their organs to their owners."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On Found Poetry

I really like found poetry. Perhaps that is because I find myself more able as an editor than as a writer.

My old Prof, Richard Telecky, told me I'd make a great editor. As an aspiring writer, I took it as a backhanded compliment at the time (which it probably was, he was just that sort of guy...), but have come to see that in a different light.

When writing a found poem, you should cite the source first, to clearly establish where the material came from.

I'd also add one rule.... for poems that are put online, it would be prudent to add hyperlinks to the source material.

Anyhow... my found poem of the day, discovered while reading the paper on the pot after work this afternoon.

One caveat (my big mouth) the link I have is a link to the online article, which seems to have been changed and differs from the print article (which I could link to on the ePaper version... but first I'd have to sign up, and oh, it's too much bother now! ). This poem is based on the print version.

The article:

Cook turned burglar lands in police net
The Gulf News
December 1, 2010

The found poem I took from the article:

Cultural Niceties

An Asian cook
attacked housewives
with a knife
to rape them
before robbing their houses

He stalked his victims for days
to make sure they were alone
in the house when he struck

Once the victim opened the door
he would attack her
to rape her and
rob the house before leaving

Monday, May 23, 2011

How podcasting works

For the listener:

For listeners, podcasts are like radio shows recorded on a DVR. They don't have to listen to them when they happen, but download them to listen to them later, at their own convenience.

For the maker:

Everyday entertainment used to be entirely broadcast, but due to technology, broadcasting is being replaced by podcasting. The reason, simply put, is cost. It costs a ton to have a studio, to create content, and to broadcast it either through the air, or via cable. But podcasting doesn't have this capital heavy drawback.

It costs nothing for the software to make podcasts, there are many places where you can upload your files for free, and you can distribute them at no cost through iTunes, or various feed readers.

Making a podcast is super. You can do it in bits and pieces and stitch it together. For example, you might record your poems, and send the audio file to me. I might record an interview, and someone else sends me a recording of heir short story. I take these files, pop them into the show template in my audio program, then I write a little monologue to go with the bits, record that, and voila! A podcast is done.

Podcasts are actually perfect for people who are creative and engaged, but have busy, disparate schedules that would make ever meeting in the same time and place impossible.

My New Podcast

Recently I started up a podcast for my Masters program at UBC. I am working towards an MFA in Creative Writing (so eminently useful and practical, I know...), and there had been a discussion going on in the program for some time about starting a journal, or a magazine, and while there had been slight mention about podcasting, it wasn't until this year when a couple of students got going on the discussion boards, with some serious intent, about really starting a podcast.

Well, I had spent a few years in radio, and had been podcasting as far back as 2001, before the term podcasting had been coined, and before, in fact, the iPod had even been introduced!

I'd taken a hiatus for a couple of years from 2007 to 2009, but in 2010, at the request of my boss, I got back into podcasting in a serious way.

So when the call came for starting a podcast, I was ready to go. I contact the principals in that discussion, all full of vim and vigor, and immediately got back a response, which in essence was - "I appreciate your enthusiasm, but we need to form a committee, discuss what a podcast might be like, form an editorial board, gather a larger group of people to take part in the communal decision making..." and it went on.

Nothing, nothing like a podcast ever happens by committee. There always needs to be a driving force. A center. A focus. Other people are brought in, encouraged to contribute, but you always need someone with their foot on the gas.

So after few more e-mails where I tried to persuade them to just start the ball rolling, at least, I got nowhere. Why, these folks even felt the need to go on the boards and obliquely mock me ("We need to build something that will last...not just be some guy who will flame out").

You know, that's cool. That's fine. I let them know that I was sorry they felt this way, and that I'd be going ahead and getting a show going, and that I was looking forward to listening to their podcast when it got rolling. But, that said, I wanted to get a move on, and I did.

That same week, the podcast was up and running.

I made a website, a comments wall, an email address, set up the online storage, and produced the first episode. I've recently submitted the podcast to iTunes for consideration, and I am waiting to hear back from them. From what I read, I may have jumped the gun, because they like to see at least three episodes in the can before they consider it.

Episode 2 came out last week, and I am working on number three as we speak. So maybe I'll just have to resubmit it later!

It's a funny thing when you tell people you are going to do something, then you go do it. More often than not, those same people are "caught off guard" or "surprised." I got word from my program administrator that a few people were upset. Luckily, there were far, far more people who were eager and enthusiastic about taking part.

So now it's "On with the Show!"

Thoughts on Copyright

I you look at the origins of copyright, and go back to the Statute of Ann, the actual purpose of this first copyright law was in the title of the statute - An Act for the Encouragement of Learning.

The idea was to compensate content creators enough that they had reason to continued to add new work to the commons. The intent and purpose being the overall education and enrichment of culture and society. That is, it was about helping to preserve and extend a public good.

Today copyright has gone far beyond that. It has drifted away from it's roots as something which seeks to create a balance between interests in order to create a public good, and has become a way to entrench the economic interests of creators and distributors at the expense of consumers.

Take the provisions regarding photographers, at least in Canada... right now if you commission a photographer to take pictures of your wedding or bar mitzvah, those pictures are yours, as in, you have the copyright to them. You can take them, put them online, make copies, whatever you want. But under the proposed new act, those pictures no longer belong to you. If you put them up on your Facebook page, the photographer has the legal right to then sue you for copyright infringement, unless you pay him a fee for the right to share "your" photos with others.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Avoiding Trouble

Following up on yesterday's story about how a UAE Naval Officer ended up in the Uncle Slammer in Rhode Island, The National has an article out today about an awareness campaign aimed at helping Emiratis navigate the laws of other countries, to avoid getting in trouble.

I find this somewhat refreshing, as generally the articles I have read are about how foreigners should know and respect the laws of the UAE. Which they should. No argument there. But reciprocity is always a good thing.

The article, however, seems to be rife with subtext that is as humorous as it is enlightening. Why, for example, did Ambassador Issa Masoud, the director of Emirati affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs feel the need to say this? -
And when you treat people, you have to not be arrogant, especially at the borders and at government buildings," he said. "Don't forget you are not in your country."

Is this an issue that has come up in the past? Like with the Italians at the World Cup in Japan in 2003?

It's a prudent warning. Don't be an Ugly American, or British Yob. Be humble. Be respectful. I think this is a necessary caution not just for Emiratis, but for anybody, anywhere.

Like I said, it's good advice, but it's not what the article is about. The article wasn't written to address courtesy in general, but to address a more specific point. The core of the article is what comes next, and it directly relates to yesterday's story. The Ambassador goes on to say:

Families travelling with a housemaid should also exercise caution, he said.

The ministry advises employers to pay their maids salaries in line with the host country's minimum wage while abroad, particularly when travelling in Europe. This would "avoid trouble from them running away to human rights".

In light of the current climate, I will forgo any and all comment on this beyond that of a wry smile.

It is always best to avoid trouble.

E-book or Not to E-book

I got this from a professor in my program - Zsuzsi Gartner. It's sort of a survey writers.

1.) Let's say you have a finished manuscript (any genre) and a publisher makes you the following offer for an advance against royalties:
-$15,000 for hardcover (or top quality tradepaper with french flaps) original and e-book.
-$20,000 is only published as e-book.

Industry standard royalty rates apply after the advance has been paid off.

Which would you accept?

My response...

Let's do a rundown on the economics of publishing.


Physical Books

Take an average Trade Paperback and set the price at $20. The cost of printing accounts for 10% of the price ($2) leaving the remainder for the Distributor (10%... $2), the Retailer (40% - $8), the Publisher (45% - $9) and YOU (15% - $3).*


The average e-Book costs $10 a copy. There is no print cost or distribution cost. The costs are Retailer (30% - $3), Publisher (55% - $5.50) and YOU (15% - $1.50)**

The goal line I'll establish is a modest yearly salary - $30,000.***

For TP and eBook simultaneous release ($20 per copy - most publishers match these prices for the initial sales period)

TP/eB - 10,000 copies
HC - 5,000 copies

For e-Book only

eB - 20,000 copies

What to do? The easy, quick money is to do the e-Book. You need sales of 3300 copies (HC) or 6600 (TP) to earn the $20,000 the e-Book deal gets you. But will that many copies of your books fly off the shelves? Sales of 3300 hardcovers is a lot more than most Canadian authors usually achieve.

However, if you knock it out of the park, and your book starts going an extra print run or two, and you hit 10,000 copies sold, your earnings will hit $60,000. To do the same with an e-Book, sales would have to hit 40,000 copies.

10,000 is a lot easier to hit than 40,000.****

What would you do? Before you decide, here is a little background info...

In Canada, sales of 5,000 copies makes a book a "bestseller", but it can takes months or even years to reach that amount.

Also, the key issue for e-books is the date at which an author regains control of their back list. Control of titles allows for control of price point, which is where authors can really start to reap financial rewards. But publishers are very reluctant to give this to authors.

*Industry standard is between 8% - 15%, so you could be getting as little as $1.60 per book. Even less if the publisher has to slash prices at the request of the distributor or the merchant.

**If your publisher is a jerk, and gave you 8%, if you foolishly accepted the offer instead spitting in his face and self-publishing with a full 70% royalty, you'd get $0.80 a copy.

***15% of your earning go to your agent (Can't forget them!), so you would need to increase your sales figures by that amount to hit $30,000.

****This is the true crux of the issue. Do you take the lower advance in order to have a hardcover or two, and legit author creds before going it alone, or do you just go it alone form the get go. Earning $30,000 only requires sales of 4,285 copies at $10 each if you are getting the full 70% royalty. When you add in the agent fees to hardcover sales, to get $60,000, you would only need to sell 8,570 copies of e-Books, compared to the 11,764 hardcovers you would need to sell. It is a LOT easier to sell a $10 book than a $40 book.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

It's Not Really About the Money

In The National today, there is a story about a UAE Naval Officer in court in the US over a civil and criminal matter. The charge is that he held an unpaid Filipina worker in the United States.

At some point the maid escaped, reached the authorities, and brought a civil suit against her former employer. At the same time, US authorities have levied a criminal charge of lying to government authorities, and visa fraud.

What is interesting about this case is the perception of it on both sides of the cultural divide.

The maid in question had worked for the family for three years, and when they went to the US, her employer took her passport and forbid her from leaving the house without an escort.

In the Middle East they call that a sensible precaution to keep the maid from running away. In the US they call that imprisonment and (if the charges of not being paid are true) enslavement.

Here is the key part of the article:

Prosecutors said he brought a woman from the Philippines to the United States to work as a maid, then took her passport and did not pay her or allow her to leave the home without an escort.

Mr Corrente said Mr al Ali employed the woman as a babysitter in Abu Dhabi for more than three years before moving the family to the United States last July.

They had entered into an employment contract before the move and the woman was paid $19,000 (Dh69,700) in full for the year, he said. But, he said, the woman disappeared after three months and "now claims she never received any of the money".

Though the situation is not all that funny for those involved, for third parties like myself, the hilarious thing here is that the defendant and lawyer think this issue is only about the money, that resolving the money issue would make it all go away.

But the issue is not really the money at all. The issue is freedom. To the Americans, this officer basically imprisoned a free human being in his house, making them a slave, and denied them their human rights as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. That's the way the Americans see it.

Not paying wages? That's a civil matter. Unlawful imprisonment? That's a much bigger deal.

According the US customs law, the officer can legally bring a domestic employee with him, and there is a special visa for that, but there are also special rules, namely that in the United States, the employer has to pay at least the prevailing minimum wage for the state they are visiting.

The officer in question stated that he paid $19,000 up front, before coming to the US. But the maid claims to have received none of that. Whatever the case may be, the prevailing minimum wage in Rhode Island is $7.40 an hour, and the custom for domestic labour in the Middle East is that they are on duty 24 hours a day, with a day off every two weeks (if they are lucky). Using this as a guide, then the officer would have to have paid his maid over $60,000 to comply with state and federal laws.

Thus the visa fraud charge.

But even though that is the actual criminal charge, what motivates it is in fact the breach of rights committed, and this is where the culture clash can cause difficulty.

In the Middle East, many families keep a tight rein on their domestic employees not because they are mean or evil, but because they are legally responsible for what their employee does. If that employee breaks laws, the employer's neck is on the line as well. In many countries in the Middle East, where sex outside of marriage is a criminal offense, there is indeed a powerful incentive for employers to ensure that their employees do not have the chance to get entangled in some sort of romantic dalliance.

In the US, however, the situation is different. There are no laws like those in the Middle East, and if an employee committed a crime, the employer is not liable.

The naval officer was really only acting as he felt was right and proper, and being in the land of opportunity where there is a much stronger chance that his maid would run off to find work elsewhere, I am sure he felt he was acting in a prudent, and responsible manner. They signed a contract, he needed her services, end of story on his part.

But Americans see it differently. They see a woman trapped, unpaid, and with the seizure of her passport, almost literally chained.

That's the real issue. Not the money.

Transforming Libraries

Recently I've been coming across stories about famous authors trying to save libraries, or just whingeing about how libraries are fading away.

But what is happening to libraries... perhaps it is inevitable in some respects.

What function do libraries really serve anymore? If Armageddon hit tomorrow, and all electronic communications were wiped out... libraries sure would come in handy. But outside of that?

Yes, libraries have served their purpose for centuries. Our modern civil society would not have been possible without libraries standing as the backbone, supporting education and the common good.

But the time has come to ask a simple question - why would people go to a library today?

To take out books? Okay, but books are quite cheap, and millions of titles are freely available online. What else? To use the internet? In some rural communities, libraries still serve as useful access points for the internet. But beyond that, what?

I think a revolution in thought about what constitutes a library is needed.

For an analogy, I'll use mobile phones. Today when you buy a mobile, it is not just a phone, it is also a camera, a voice recorder, and a basic to advanced computer. Phone manufacturers would never dream of trying to sell us on plain old "no bells and whistles, only makes calls" phones today, because they probably would not sell.

In his grumpy rant, Phillip Pullman unintentionally hints at a way libraries could be saved - by transforming.

The cost of a stand-alone library is huge. But what if the library was also a day-care? What if it was also a place where meeting rooms could be rented out for presentations or night classes? What if they had tutoring businesses attached to them?

The problem with libraries is not a problem of funding. It is a problem of imagination.

There is just something so odd in how our society takes this view that certain institutions, like libraries, or schools, have to be a certain way. The average classroom looks no different than classrooms of two hundred years ago. Students sitting at desks, in rows, looking at a teacher who will "fill them" with knowledge.

It's garbage.

It was fine for the time, but times have changed. The economic underpinnings of our society (developed, western) has completely changed several times over the past two hundred years. We went from agrarian to industrial to information to service and creativity.

Everything about our society has changed and evolved continuously, except for those institutions that are the bedrock of our common good. Police departments have changed and evolved. Fire departments have changed and evolved. But our schools and libraries are sinking rocks in a sea of change.

It's time for them to smarten up.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Reflections in the Half-Sleep Before Waking

the beer and your hockey sweater, as you drank in anger
and let out rage
because the toys had been left in the hallway again
but I can never seem to remember what came after

the sound of a footstep at the door
inside the locked bathroom, I explored
and your chilling words
"what are you doing in there?"

laughing, looking left, right,
then down at your back tire my front one touched it
I never knew, never thought, blood
could flow so freely

the party, near midnight, the ball on TV
you, everyone, were drinking, laughing, arguing
and I sat on the couch, reading
because only the books would talk to me

the look of pure rage, hate
baseball bat in hand as you hollered and chased me
the egg still visible on your bay window through the bushes
as I got away

a beloved cousin, trusted, looked up to
inviting me up a hill pointing to the distance
then pissing on my leg as I turned to look
and seeing the multitude of fists seeking my company

becoming a super-hero one summer aboard ship
running to the wheelhouse, not seeing the hole in the deck
and becoming "Captain Gravity"
down-to-Earth kind of guy

a picture of my Australian great-grandfather
surrounded by his fourteen children, fifty-three great grandchildren
great great grandchildren, and their children as well
he was 95, successful in a way I can only dream of being

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Breaking the Pattern

The spine is mathematic.
A hand touched the cleft of her chin,
a glacial train moving across the face,
to escape along a sinuous path,
adrenalin courses
as fingertips slide
along an undulating funhouse,
advancing ever downward.

Escape is mathematic.
Trapped, in a funhouse frenzy,
face west, east, north, south, up, down,
adrenalin rises with every move,
every shift, but with a show of spine
the moment cleft,
a train of motion stops.

Her glacial gaze stares back with purpose.
She would be touched no more.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Teachable Moment

I'm a teacher, an instructor,
but I can't instruct my wife.
God love her, I love her,
but as for teaching,
well, I'm her husband.

She's usually the one instructing me.

I told her, one night, and another, and another,
on course nights, please don't cook,
please just be with the children,
relax, watch TV, call a friend,
let me order a pizza for us all.

Above all, most importantly, don't cook.

You see, when Indians cook, they cook.
They cut, they grind, they fry, they stir, they mix,
and then the cooking starts.
This is not food you pop in a microwave oven,
or heat up in a pan on the stove.

This, you see, is real, good, wife cooked food.

Tonight, course night, the smell entices me,
mutton, frying onions, garam masala.
So lost in a poem, and thoughts of dinner later,
I failed to notice two sets of naked legs, and naked arms
walk up to my chair, ready for their bath.

I could hear the sound of the grinder in the kitchen.
I could smell the roasting meat, and stewing potatoes.
I could see the end of poetry, for now, at least.

My wife just spoke to me a moment ago.
Pizza, it seems, will be a good idea next week.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Crowdsourced Villanelle

Vision blurs amidst the sounds and life of night
moods lift and bear us somewhere we can't foretell
take what comes, be alert, be ready, forthright

Rein down the moon. Bring sanity to the light
in the darkest hour, our eyes lift up from Hell
vision blurs amidst the sounds and life of night

we walk city blocks and hope to share our plight
with nameless strangers whose gazes repel
take what comes, be alert, be ready, forthright

when strangers press, foreswear the urge to flight
let inner focus, memory cast their spell
Vision blurs amidst the sounds and life of night

While those memories wrap and hold us tight,
we can feel our confidence pulse and swell.
take what comes, be alert, be ready, forthright

The ship keens in the wind, the waves froth white,
and long and loud, rings the deep throated bell
Vision blurs amidst the sounds and life of night
take what comes, be alert, be ready, forthright.

* This villanelle was constructed line by line, by different poets in a UBC Creative Writing workshop - thus the "crowdsourced" in the title.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Found Poem

This is prose, but it is so poetic...It hit me as a found poem.

Tony Woodlief remembers the birthday of a daughter who died 12 years ago, at the age of three

I suppose we all of us have shadowed places in our lives,
places where reside only the ill-formed shapes of what might have been,
never clear and untouchable and framed only by their absence of light.

But we have what has yielded those shadows as well,
or at least the memories of them. I can’t know
how her voice would sound today, but I can
recall her singing ABCs; I can’t know
what it’s like for her head to reach my shoulder, but I can
remember carrying her on my shoulders.

In every life there are the things we have
and the shadows that haunt us,
and which we call
could have been.

Maybe part of enduring is
looking where the light is,
rather than where it is


When I read this, and the story behind it. I sobbed for days.

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Eff the TO-Leafs - A Canadian Ghazal

It’s just a bunch of bullspit Cherry said last night, eh?
Keep Kaberle? Someone’s had a puck in the head, eh?

I frickin' can’t stand it down at the ACC these days
It’s not like the old Leaf Gardens up on Carlton, eh?

Only people who can afford to buy seats wear suits
I took the last tie I bought off after I got married, eh

Even down at the beer store, it’s like fifty bucks a case
Beer is starting to cost more than one of those lattes, eh

Then the HST bullspit? At least I can still go to Timmies
eh, somewhere my coffee won’t need an effin’ loan, eh

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What Small Thing is Man

Teardrop in the lake, our insignificance to the divine.
As darkness falls, your intentions, Lord, I can’t divine.

I used to flee the world, my place, my life, my fate
My only faith, my hope, was in redemption divine

As her heartbeat fades, her life ripped from my arms
I raged, unbelieving, anymore, that YOU were divine

Then the fires came, ripping through my soul, my life
what was left, gone, destroyed, by vengeance divine

See, it’s the wrath of Lord thy God, old testament style
Jimmy - rage, hate, hope and love are equally divine

Friday, May 13, 2011

My Poetry Prof vs. The Sonnet Form

Her sonnet presentation was today
It’s a pleasant beginning to term 2
She used to think sonnets were just okay
But now, she knows, they’re really fun to do

The form is characterized by a turn
Or volta, a change of perspective, tone
But, as Professor says, with some concern
Good sonnets fall within a certain zone

What’s good about sonnets, says Stephen Fry
Is that they’re just right – the Goldilocks form
Size enough for a thought, flexible, spry
Sonnets can both entertain and inform

The difficulty in sonnets is not
in the writing, but in how they are wrought

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Of Cures, Fixes, and Multi-Billion Dollar Ideas

In Ottawa, they recently held the National Research Council's 2011 Biotalent Challenge Awards. In essence, it's an ordinary high school science competition, but the competitors in this particular competition were anything but ordinary.

Here's what the top 5 competitors did:

1st Place - Found a cure for cystic fibrosis. Did this on his off time after finishing homework, by logging in to the SCINET supercomputer to run simulations. Even tested the cure on real cell cultures. What do you know! It worked.

2nd Place - Developed a food additive that will be worth billions of dollars. They found a way to take gelatin out of sorbet, replacing it with a compound that is a) cheaper, and b) opens the up the market for sorbet to vegetarians around the world who avoid gelatin as it is derived from animals.

3rd Place - Discovered a bacteria that inhibits the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Basically, it boils down to a way of helping the prevent the death of millions when our antibiotics start failing to deal with super-bacteria that laughs at our paltry medicine.

4th Place - Discovered how pregnancy hormones can help prevent multiple sclerosis. It seems these hormones protect neurons from iron accumulation.

5th Place - Discovered a better way to treat cancers like leukemia. So... basically this high school student found a better cancer cure. I guess they needed something to do while waiting for the next Twilight movie to come out.

All of this, from high schoolers in Canada. High schoolers. You know, the twitter-headed computer addicts who are supposedly the leading edge in the dumbing down of the human race.

Workshopping Long Form Fiction

I think long form fiction can be workshopped successfully, but it depends on the nature of the workshop and the structure of the class. In an opt-res program, where people have jobs, this may not work so well. But in a normal residency program, why not? I used to have to read a novel a week for some of my lit classes, and when I sit down to read, 300 pages is the work of an afternoon at a coffee shop, really.

In a full workshop setting, it may be a bit much to go novel by novel, week after week. But if you broke a 20 person workshop into five groups of four, you could workshop five pieces simultaneously, and what's more, you could do task oriented editing sessions. Say one month is spent on overall structure, or plot. The next month on characterization. The next on dialogue. The next... etc...

By the time the year is over, each long form work has had five or six close reads, with all the editing and polishing that comes along with that.

You can keep the groups the same, or change them up. There are pluses and minuses to both. By keeping groups together, they become intimately familiar with each others work, and can better comment on each. By switching up the groups, you keep things fresh, and prevent small-group-think from setting in.

All that is required is that students have a long form work already prepared before the workshop begins, which can be ascertained at the time of registration. Call it a pre-requisite, if you will.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Damascene Conversion

Lee Goldberg is a prolific blogger, TV Writer, and author. In Sara Graefe's TV Writing class, his work and thoughts on TV writing are (or were...are they still?) part of the syllabus.

Tiring of the TV writing game, Goldberg fell into novelizations, continuing his work on shows like Monk and Diagnosis Murder by writing novels that carried on the stories after the shows had ended.

He does modestly well. No blockbusters, but enough to pay the bills. And he has also been a known, vociferous critic of the concept of self-publishing.

Until now.

Before June 5, 2009, he'd earned a grand total of $0 on his out-of-print work, Then he published them on the Kindle. As he states:

...out-of-print books that I wrote years ago [] were earning me nothing before June 2009.

If those sales hold for the rest of the year, I will earn $77,615 in Kindle royalties, and that’s not counting the far less substantial royalties coming in from Amazon UK, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace.

Even if my sales plummet tomorrow by fifty percent, I’ll still earn about $38,000 in royalties this year…and I’d be very, very happy with that.

My most profitable title, in terms of hours worked and pages written, is THREE WAYS TO DIE, a collection of three previously published short stories. In print, it’s a mere fifty-six pages long, but it’s selling 24 copies-a-day on the Kindle, earning me about $1500-a-month. That means I could potentially earn $18,000 this year just from those three short stories alone.

That is insane.

So far, so sensible, but then he drinks the Kool-Aid with a smile.

But what would be more insane is if I took my next, standalone, non-MONK book to a publisher instead of “publishing” it myself on the Kindle.

That’s right. I’d rather self-publish. This from a guy who for years has been an out-spoken, and much-reviled, critic of self-publishing. But that was before the Kindle came along and changed everything. I was absolutely right then…but I’d be wrong now.

The Kindle offers mid-list writers a real option to consider before they sign their next, shitty contract extension with their publisher…and it has given new opportunity to every mid-list author who has been dropped…and it has dramatically re-energized the earnings potential of every published author’s out-of-print back-list.

That’s incredibly exciting. I believe that any midlist author who isn’t self-publishing, either their back list or new work, is making a costly mistake.

And then there's a caveat for new authors.

If you’ve never been in print before, I believe you’d be a fool not to take a mid-list paperback or a hardcover deal…even a terrible one…over self-publishing on the Kindle. Financially, you might make less (either in failure or modest success)...but the difference will be more than made up for in editing, marketing, wider readership, wider name recognition, and professional prestige (and that prestige does mean something, whether you want to admit it or not).

You can always go back to self-publishing... and when you do, you will be bring that wider readership, name recognition, and professional prestige with you. But a book deal doesn't come along every day, and that's still going to mean something for a long time yet...and I suspect it still will even if half the bookstores in America close tomorrow.

Read the whole post here.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Game Over, Paper Books!

You know, there's an irony floating about out there, or maybe "cognitive dissonance" might be the better term, if you will, but what it is is that it seems to me that of the people I meet, chat, or message with, the ones who are the hottest and botheredest about the environment, who grit their teeth every time a Ford Explorer drives by, and who have (or totally-would-have-if-they-could-have) chained themselves to a majestic redwood to face down armies of ravenous bulldozers intent on raping mother nature, are the very same people who feel that it is far far better to fill their homes with paper books, which are essentially lumps of dead tree - that had to be cut, transported, processed, bleached, shipped, packaged, shipped, printed on, bound, shipped, stocked, bought, and then transported into a home library - than to download an e-book and read it on something non-organic.

Odd, that.

But no fear, the end of dead tree media is here!

A few months ago, the NY Times finally, belatedly bowed to plain common sense, and is factoring in sales of e-books into their lists.

I think the picture below illustrates the effect pretty clearly.

Now I've heard a few objections to my hypothesis over the past few months, which I'll list out below.

#1 - Promoting e-books only serves to promote e-readers which are often made from "conflict minerals" and from other materials that are both non-biodegradable and toxic to the environment. E-books, then hurt Mother Earth.

It's tru that e-readers aren't made of air, hope, rainbows, or flowers. But the thing is that you only need one.

Every single book that is bought has to go through that long production and distribution chain. If one the making of one book has less of an impact on the environment than the making of one e-reader, the making of ten, fifty, one hundred books does not.

As for electricity, if you were in a mind to be green, the amount of electricity it takes to transfer and read an e-book would take about 10 minutes of turning a hand crank to generate. But if you wanted to make your own hardcover... well that process is s little more involved! :-)

#2 - People prefer the physicality of books. There is no substitute to the feel of the page.

Well, when Armageddon, or the singularity arrive, they will either help us rebuild civilization, or defeat the army of robots attempting to rule the earth.

But seriously...

I used to think I would never stop loving the feel of paper beneath my fingertips, or the heft of a good novel as I lay on my side on the couch, elbow propped up, my thumb nimbly flicking pages in rapid succession.

But like any marriage or partnership that has grown too close, with too little space, for too long, I started noticing the little things - the tiny paper cuts, the unending weekly dusting, the fatigue in the arm and wrist, the social stigma of reading in the workplace (oh, and just forget about bringing one along to the relatives, friends), and to top it all off, when the book was done, it became dead weight in my hand, it's part over, offering no further solace, consolation, intimacy, or joy. It...it just lays there! Ugh! Like it doesn't even know I'm there any more!

So I knew it was time for a divorce, to send 1.0 packing, and ring up 2.0 - bringing in the shiny and the new.

I tell you, my sweet little iPod Touch 4G and I, we shall be together forever.

#3 - Using e-books in schools is difficult because the expense factor prevents widespread adoption of e-readers. Ordinary folk just can't afford to lose an e-reader.

I live in a part of the world where the poorest Canadian would seem almost middle class by comparison, yet somehow even the poorest of the poor here have access to mobiles.

This is an older article (2008) but it illuminates the trajectory in the developing world, and the impact that mobiles are having on everything from commerce, to education, to entertainment.

As the OLPC initiative has shown, where there is a will, there is a way. That said, from a school perspective, schools that issue out e-readers to their students, or laptops in 1-to-1 Districts (New Brunswick has a big program along these lines) can send students their allotment of textbooks wirelessly as they are added or connected to courses they are registered in.

No more textbook shortage, no more "I forgot my book" excuses, no more ratty outdated texts, no more torn or vandalized pages. All of these can be romanticized, but as a teacher who has been on both sides of this issue, I am so very glad I don't have to deal with the headaches that hardcopy school texts bring along with them.

Plus, the advantages for teachers are enormous. Instead of literally cutting, pasting, photocopying, and distributing supplementary materials in class (all of which takes enormous amounts of time), in a soft-copy system, all you need to do is insert excerpts from the textbook into a Word document, add in your exercises, save and send as an attachment (or upload, or put in a public folder, etc).

I've reduced my prep time by 80% by abandoning paper, and I have been able to ensure (literally, and measurably) more engagement with texts, including objective assessments of comprehension. One thing a textbook cannot do is record video of a student reading a text or doing an oral exercise. But in a 1-to-1 environment, you can record and store every stage of a student's progress, over years if need be, that can be instantly accessed when consulting with students, parents, or school admin.

All of this is to the benefit of students, especially those of fewer means.

#4 - Fewer paper books means fewer future yard sales where you can stumble across an old, forgotten treasure. You can't sell e-books at a yard sale.

Well I sure didn't find the entire archive of Chekov's short stories in a garage sale.

I am a lover of garage sales, and nothing draws me like a sale of used books. I used to line up at every library sale in the area. Every year I made a trip to Kemptville to see my grandad and go to "Hey! Day" where there would be a massive three day sale of used books (and everything else) in support of the local hospital.

But more often than not, I notice that, table after table of used books I pass by (and still do, if only out of sheer stubborn habit) there is little I would want to read there.

I remember when my neighbour invited me to go through her basement, through the many boxes of books, and take whatever I wanted. She wanted to clean out her old books. But out of the endless boxes and stacks, I think I found six books I wanted to read. The rest were throwaway romances or Danielle Steele type hardcovers. This kindly old lady was not an atypical member of the general public.

Honestly, I'd prefer not to wade through a sea of Dan Browns or James Pattersons anymore.

To sum it up, I'd say there are certainly books that I will keep, and not give away... My hardcover special edition of Lord of the Rings, my Norton Anthologies, the rare school texts I dug up in the bins of used books stores that date from the turn of the century, etc. These are books that I value for reasons beyond just wanting to read them - they are objets d'art, windows into the past.

Personally, I love digging up old science fiction, pulp paper backs from the forties and fifties that you can still find floating around, with the cheap yellowed paper and the smell of countless sweaty hands all over them. But once I've read them, the moment has gone, the little one night stand is done, and few people I know would really want to pick up my old copy of Olaf Stapeldon or E.E. Doc Smith. On a whim, I decided to read some old Heinlein in e-Book form and I found myself drawn in and absorbed in the same way I had with the old yellowing paperbacks. It turned out that it wasn't the book - the object - that was the needed thing, it was the story itself.

Perhaps I flog the e-book thing because when it comes to paper books, I'm like a recovering heroin junkie, and when I walk into a bookstore all I can see is sweet fine China in every direction, just filling my ear with promises of ecstasy, and all I need do is swipe the credit card one more time to keep on chasing that dragon.

That siren song seduced me every time, until I realized, at a later date, that my addiction to books, my compulsion to hit an Indigo, or Chapters, or Bakka, or any of the innumerable used bookstores I would frequent a couple times a week, and leave with yet another pile of paperbacks or trade paperbacks had put me in a deep financial hole.

I think that writers, especially, reserve a special place for books, a place they do not, and perhaps can not question. It's hard to see books as things, as objects. To us they are invested with a tiny spark of the divine, and thus beyond question or reproach.

But like Po learned at the end of Kung Fu Panda, it's not the dragon scroll that matters, it's the lesson the scroll represents.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Magic and the Fantastic

First published by the New Yorker in 1998, and subsequently included in the collection Pastoralia, “Sea Oak” is a tale of the bottom rung of contemporary American life, but with a twist.

There is a story that when Ben Stiller read “Sea Oak”, he laughed his ass off, and wanted to secure the rights to the story for a film treatment. Indeed, the humour, subtle and otherwise, in this story is one the most praised elements of the tale. A number of reviewers, having taken to “Sea Oak”, saw within it a biting satire of contemporary American life, especially in the way that Saunders takes on and mocks corporate brands. At times it felt that Sea Oak was placed alongside Dawn of the Dead in it’s attack on consumerist society.

Or so they say. Personally, I didn’t really read it the same way. For me, “Sea Oak” represents a different message, a different ethos which can only be properly summed up by the decrepit, dissolving Bernie – to succeed in life, you have to show your cock.

Now, before we get too carried away here, and before you get to wondering why I seem to be reviewing one short story rather than getting on with the presentation, I want you to know that there is a point, and though the road may be long and winding, there is a destination.

So, where were we?... Ah yes, that’s right. Show your cock.

In “Sea Oak”, Saunders creates a world that is just different enough from our own that we readers can effectively step outside the fictive universe and look down on the events as spectators who recognize the symbols, but are otherwise removed from the world of the story. A key reason for creating this distinct environment is that it better facilitates what the author needs for the story to function – the smooth and willing suspension of disbelief. As readers, when reading stories set in our own, known reality, we tend to notice and unfairly focus on the smallest details that intrude upon our sense of veritas, and in the real world, characters as breathtakingly stupid as Jade and Min would come across as caricatures (or as a misogynist projection), which would make the reader’s ability to understand and assimilate the author’s message much more difficult.

But in a world that is not our world, a world that is just slightly off enough to seem somewhat like our own, but clearly distinct and different, then the author has far more leeway to establish norms of behaviour and the rules of the environment, and, conversely, the reader has more leeway to accept those norms and rules.*

A very powerful and literarily awarded example of this is Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let You Go,” where the unreality of the world is enough to keep the reader from being frightened off by the concept, yet enough like our world that the pathos and tragedy can flow through the soul.

All this is well and good, but the question still begs – why? Why would a writer dip into magic and the fantastic? Generally, or at least the reason I have found, is that they do so because they got something to say. That is, they have a message.

All stories contain themes or overarching messages. The difference is the focus. Where in literature a story might address broader themes such as “growing up gay in southwestern Wisconsin”, or “nostalgia, loss, and sisterhood,” stories that delve into magic and the fantastic tend to have far more focused themes. In the case of “Sea Oak” the message is not “corporate/consumerist America sucks, dude” but “dude, corporate/consumerist America sucks, so what are you going to do about it?”

In “Sea Oak”, Saunders elicits the fantastic by slightly caricaturizing every aspect of the story. The characters are extreme (a bit too stupid, a bit too passive, a bit too timid), and the actions and events likewise. At the beginning of the story, in the club “Joysticks”, a worker, with a family and limited prospects, is summarily fired with a callousness that is rare in the western world. In the real world there would be labour laws, or even a sense of decency to draw upon. By opening up with this symbolic summary execution, Saunders is able to illustrate that we’re not in Kansas City anymore, Chief.

Saunders peppers the text with brand names that are clearly made up, but generic enough that what they represent is recognizable. This adds depth to the slight feeling of otherness the text evokes as the story progresses. At first glance, the message that seems to be developing is that this world (which is a lot like our world) traps the people in it (as, I suppose, our world is supposed to also do). Jade and Min are uneducated and stuck at home, too ignorant to care for their kids, too unskilled to have any hope of bettering their lives. Bernice is a caregiver and a doormat, she takes things as they come, and has let life just piss all over her, and did it with a smile. Then there is the narrator, who’s very timidity traps him in perpetual mediocrity. But then something changes.

So far we have the fantastic, the otherness that sets the scene. In “Sea Oak” the fantastic manifests in the oddness of the world. But the other factor, which is what will drive the story forward and the point home, is magic. In stories of magic and the fantastic, magic is the deus ex machina, the big dumb object, the macguffin. In every fairy tale or folk tale with a magical element, magic is what brings about the resolution, it is what allows for the change needed for the story to resolve, or for the point to be made. In “Sea Oak,” Bernie coming home for one last weekend is the magic that drives the story to its conclusion. Bernie’s rage and shame at letting life walk all over her has propelled her from the grave and briefly into the arms of her family, her poor, useless, stupid, deluded family, with a singular purpose in mind – to tell them to get off their asses and get a move on.

The message that Bernie so colorfully and emphatically communicates is that the world is as it is, and nothing is going to change that. But how you take on the world can, and must, change. This very Ayn Randish exhortation is accompanied by decisive action. She shows them how their inaction will directly result in the death of Troy, and in their slow living death in the Sea Oak tenements.

When Bernie sends her thumbprints onto patrons ho would be willing to pay for “extra services” from the narrator at his job at Joysticks, the intent is to show the narrator that the world is full of all kinds, and that there is no upside to being timid when you are stuck on the bottom.

Though the narrator does not follow Bernie’s instructions, by the time Bernie crumbles into mush pushed into a hefty bag and dumped into the back of a K-car, the narrator has his epiphany and finally understands.

Had this story been set in our real, known world, it would have come off like an after school special, or a Sunday sermon - something you would nod your head to, but otherwise not listen to. However, by anchoring this story in magic and the fantastic, Saunders is able to pull us up close and whisper something in our ear -

The moral, the message in this tale of magic and the fantastic is that in life, even if you don’t have much, you have to use what you have. Or, as Bernie would say, you have to show your cock.

* It is a very common, and very effective technique that is most often employed by literary writers who want to go slumming in the genre district, yet be able to hold their heads up high and claim they have done no such thing.