My Writing

14 March, 2021

Update, in a Minor Key

The knee injury I wrote about last month turned out to be rather worse than I (or my GP) had anticipated. I hadn't just torn cartilage, it turned out: I had both a medial meniscus tear and a partial tear of my anterior cruciate ligament.

Worse, though, was the damage done by a couple of decades of osteoarthritis. Whatever abilities I might have developed for dealing with chronic pain, they weren't going to be enough to help me deal with this. Nor, said the surgeon, was there any point in trying to repair the cartilage, since the joint was so damaged there was hardly any cartilage left to repair.*

So he junked the entire knee and replaced it with an implant.

Everything you've ever read or heard about the pain following on a total knee replacement turns out to be absolutely true. My surgery was on 3 March and a week and a half later I was still pretty much bed-bound, taking massive amounts of opiates, and not capable of doing much of anything. To my surprise I haven't even been able to read for more than a few minutes at a time.

On the other hand, the idea that I could go from diagnosis to surgery in the space of a month is pretty remarkable. So I'm trying to keep my whining and complaining to a minimum. Which is why you're unlikely, Gentle Reader, to be seeing anything from me on this blog for the next several weeks. Or months. Certainly creative is the last word I'm going to be applying to myself for some time yet.

*His exact words were "Your tires are bald. [Referring to the destruction of the lubricating cartilage.] We aren't going to be able to deal with this just by changing your oil." Might not have been the best analogy but I got his point nevertheless.

09 February, 2021

We Interrupt This Broadcast...

 ...To announce, with some regret, that this blog will be on a bit of a hiatus for a period yet to be determined. Somehow, in the midst of a pandemic in which we've been urged to stay at home and I have been doing a whole lot of very little...

...I have somehow managed to tear the cartilage in a knee.*

The injury happened, readers will be astonished to learn, about a week before the time of the previous post here. For the past three weeks I have been waiting, per my GP's instructions, to see if this injury wasn't just a ligament strain. It wasn't a ligament strain.

Some people, my GP assures me, can tear cartilage and go on to lead perfectly normal lives. Some, apparently, don't even know they've injured themselves.

I am not one of those lucky people.

Instead I am experiencing pain sufficient to make me nauseated. I am in sufficient pain that even mild exercise isn't possible at the moment. And more to the point where this blog is concerned, I haven't been able to think clearly enough to write anything of use for posting here. Or to write anything at all, really. It took a couple of hours to write this. Oh, and did I mention that pain-killers don't work very well for me?

I'm supposed to be having an MRI at some point in the immediate future. I suspect the best outcome of that procedure will be surgery and rehab. Wish me luck.

*As near as I can tell, I inflicted this on myself while making the bed. Doesn't make for a very exciting story, I'm afraid.

24 January, 2021

More Words (And What One Does with Them)

The second book I mentioned in my previous post about words is Ring Shout, the latest from P. Djèlí Clark. This book was actually stranger to me than the first book I wrote about, despite Reynard the Fox being populated pretty much exclusively by talking animals.

Image ganked from

The weirdness of Ring Shout wasn’t anything to do with its horror nature, either—yes, there were strong hints of Lovecraft, and in fact Lovecraft himself is called out at the end of the book as being some sort of dark evil presence, but I wasn’t really all that creeped-out by it—so much as it was the Black 1920s culture in which the story is set. Talk about being alien to me. Pretty sure I know less about Black culture in the 1920s US South than I do about early modern Flemish culture.

And full credit to Clark, because he got me inside that culture anyway, and even the Gullah dialect used by one of the supporting characters was perfectly comprehensible in context, in the same way that Avery's use of old French, English, and Flemish words in her book is comprehensible. (Clark's narrative voice and protagonist’s character are great.) One of the things that impressed me about the book—and impressed me a lot, in the context of this and the previous post—was the way Clark manages to convey a unique way of speaking (and communicating, if you think of narrative voice as non-speech) without having to resort to dialect or misspelled words, the way this sort of thing used to be handled in the Bad Old Days. 

The conceit of the story—turning the real-life horror of the second Ku Klux Klan (via The Birth of a Nation) into a metaphorical horror as well—worked out really well, I thought. And if the presence of at least four groups of ghod-like creatures was occasionally a bit too much for me, the book was short enough (fifty to sixty thousand words, like one of the golden-age novels I've been discovering during lockdown) that I wasn’t kicked out of the story before it ended. Good stuff, all in all.

23 January, 2021

Words Words Words (and Words)

The ongoing lockdown and overall pandemic plague depression mean I'm still not doing any writing.*

I am managing to keep myself busy, though, because while I seem to be unable to focus on many things, reading remains not only a possibility for me but an active pleasure. So allow me to recommend a couple of books I've read this month.† Both books stand out for me because of the way they're written more than the stories themselves (though I'll add the stories are pretty good).

Image ganked from the bookshop
of the Bodleian Library, Oxford 
First is Reynard the Fox, by Anne Louise Avery. I read this because Lorna follows Avery on Twitter and loves the miniature stories Avery posts there. Reynard is not a miniature. It is, rather, a semi-modern retelling of a series of trickster tales from early modern Flanders. It's a big book (about 450 pages) but I found myself pulled through it, and read the whole thing in about a day and a half.

This impressed me, because I had really expected it to take me most of a weekend to finish. Perhaps I read through it more quickly through the second half simply because I’d got accustomed to Avery’s rhythm and prose style. And her words: the real reason for reading this book, I concluded, was for the vocabulary and the way Avery uses it.

In structure it’s basically a retelling of the fox legends as first printed in English in the mid-fifteenth century (Caxton was both the translator and the printer, I believe). And perhaps because of the episodic nature of the original stories there is something of a repetitive quality to the contents of the book. Ah, but the words! The book is written in English (duh) but it’s a very nicely formed English, with more than a hint of poetry to its rhythm. And, most importantly to me, pretty much every sentence includes a wonderful word I’d not encountered before. Some are English, some are French, some are Flemish or Dutch. All are the sort of thing that makes a reader smile.

Avery provides a glossary at the back, but I was pleased at how clear most of the strange words were simply through their context. (Believe me, when Reynard grabs his lupine enemy, Isengrim, by the balls, we are in no doubt as to what's happened even if the word Avery uses is one I'd never come across before.) Really, I can't praise the writing highly enough. Or as well as it deserves, simply because my own skills seem so thoroughly to have deserted me lately.

And as a physical object this is one of the nicest books I've encountered in years, if not decades. This isn't just a book for reading; it's a book for holding onto and possibly passing on.

(I am going to stop now. The second book I alluded to above I will try to post about on another day, possibly the very next day.)

*Or much of anything else you might call creative. I'm not even watching much in the way of television, once you get past football.

†Yes, I'm keeping track of the year's reading again. And yes, I'm on track for another 250+ year. Possibly more, if I manage to indulge in some book-hunting road trips later in the year.

18 January, 2021

What I Read in 2020: An Analysis

As if I hadn't already droned on at great length on this subject...

Somebody asked me how much of my 2020 reading was science fiction or fantasy, and at the time of asking I didn't know. I'd been keeping track of the titles, but I hadn't done anything beyond that. The question made me curious, though. So I went back through my list (314 titles, you may recall) with a sticky-note file and calculator open, and this is what I emerged with.

Books read 2020 breakdown

Of the 314 books I read, 248 were new to me, or 79 percent of the total. The re-reads totaled 65, or 21 percent. (The number of re-reads surprised me a bit; evidently I spent considerable chunks of 2020 in need of some sort of reassurance, as would be provided by re-reading comfort books. For what it's worth, the ratio of re-reads to new reads in January 2021 was much lower.)

In terms of categorization, the breakdown is:

Biography or autobiography = 22 (7%)
Essays = 12 (4%)
Fiction = 58 (18%)
Graphics = 29 (9%)*
Humour = 13 (4%)
History = 107 (34%)
SF/F = 61 (19%)
Other? =12 (4%)

I would like to think this list argues for a fairly broad taste when it comes to reading material. Note that I separated the SF/F from the rest of the fiction; add them together and fiction comes to over a third of the books read last year. For me that's very high. I'm reading more fiction these days mostly because I haven't been capable of writing any.

*The Graphics category includes both fiction and non-fiction, and fiction includes novellas as well as "graphic novels," whatever those are defined to be.

17 January, 2021

Le Guin's Children

One of this week's books-to-be-read was Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire (winner of the 2020 Best Novel Hugo). It reminded me, in a number of respects, of Ann Leckie's similarly Hugo-winning (2014 Best Novel) Ancillary Justice. (Apparently I wasn't the only one to come to this conclusion. Well, I no longer claim to be original in anything.)

Cover art by way of the
Wikipedia article

The thing about those books that stood out for me was their focus on culture, and on conflict arising out of cultural confusion or variation. Martine's protagonist, for instance, is considered a "barbarian" by her host culture simply because her culture is different (an attitude with a long and very human history, of course). For some reason the thing that stands out most in my memory about Leckie's first novel is the gloves. (Again, I'm by no means the only one here.)

Anyway, the point here is culture. And when I think about SF that's about culture I think of Ursula Le Guin. (Don't you? Doesn't everybody?) The US Postal Service seems to have followed this way of thinking: the upcoming postage-stamp tribute to Le Guin features an illustration drawn from her The Left Hand of Darkness, which seems to me to be an ur-text of cultural SF.

Ursula le Guin tribute stamp; image ganked from USPS press

What I hadn't known about Le Guin (and I freely admit there's a lot I don't know about a lot of people and things) was that she came by her cultural approach to fiction honestly, as the saying has it. One could almost say she came by it genetically.

Because not only was Le Guin's father one of the pioneering scholars in the field of relativistic cultural anthropology, he was a student of the legendary Franz Boas, and a contemporary of the writer/scholars portrayed in Gods of the Upper Air, a history of the first generation of Boas's students I read at the end of 2019. In other words, Ursula Le Guin grew up in a household influenced by the works of Boas, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ruth Benedict.

This article provides the background, but I recommend going to the King book in order to get a deeper understanding of the concepts behind cultural relativism and so perhaps make your own connections between cultural attitudes to sex and gender as described by Margaret Mead and in The Left Hand of Darkness.

14 January, 2021

How Long Have You Had Your Earliest Book?

Was having a long (and most interesting) chat the other day with a friend who happens to be an internationally respected book collector and subject-matter expert, and the conversation shifted to the age of our personal collections.

First book I bought for myself that I still own; the whole series
is great, and I re-read these every 18 months or so...

Which made me think about how old the oldest of my books are. I'm not talking absolute age here (I have a handful of books that are over a century old, and at least a couple that are approaching their 200th birthdays) but rather how long they've been mine. This made me think—or at least try to think—back to my early reading years, and to how I bought books for myself.

The earliest books I bought for myself I bought through the Scholastic Book Club (still a thing; who knew?); their titles have faded into the mist, but as a child and adolescent most of my reading was done courtesy the Calgary Public Library and the libraries of my elementary, junior high and high schools.*

Which means the first books I purchased that I still own I bought when I was in my late teens and early twenties. So I've had one or two of these for about half a century. (That's a sobering thought, as if we were in need of any of those right now.) None of these oldest books is fiction, by the way. My guess is that the earliest fiction still in my collection was acquired in the mid-1970s; the first purchase date I can confirm is 1979.

For what it's worth, all of these first books are connected in terms of subject matter: the oldest of my non-fiction is a set of reference books (from Blandford Press) about military aircraft of (and between) the two world wars, with a close second belonging to a group of glossy reference books about movies (mostly musicals). And the oldest-purchased fiction I still own is by Donald Jack, featuring that most Canadian of protagonists, Bartholomew Bandy, in both war and peace and the movie business.

Lorna and I have sold off a lot of our mutual collection over the past decade, but there are some things we will never get rid of. And in terms of age of acquisition, there's nothing in my collection as comes close to the book Lorna gave me to read last month: her copy of Andre Norton's The Stars Are Ours! is the original Ace paperback, obtained by her from her grandmother...

...back in 1958. She was a precocious child, all right.

*And all praise to my parents, who very early on inculcated in me the habit of regular trips to the library, from which I always emerged with stacks of books. I continue this behaviour today, and the majority of the 314 books I read in 2021 came from the Toronto Public Library.

05 January, 2021

"Who Knew They Were French?"

Okay, the title of the post bears only the most tangential relationship to the subject matter. I just like the quote. And the post is about an SF subject, so there.

One of the ways in which I've sought to occupy my time during this second plague lockdown is by watching video. Mostly movies, it's true (and most of the movies animated, because it's not searing realism I'm wanting right now), but thanks to friends we have also had the opportunity to watch some of "The Mandalorian."

And I was struck by the amazing awfulness of the industrial design of the protagonist's ship. (And I mean this in a good way.)

Razor Crest image
Image ganked from Wookipedia, the Star Wars wiki
I'm sure plenty has been written about the role industrial design plays in SF storytelling, but one thing about this series that impresses me (at least a little) is the way design choices don't always reflect what I might call contemporary "good" taste.

The Razor Crest (stupid name, btw) is a strangely impressive example of this. Because the first thing that popped into my mind when I saw this ship was how much it reminded me of this...