30 January, 2019

Dixie's Land 4.3

Previous    First

[Continuing chapter four]

"I've looked over your paper on denying the Yankees access to the Mississippi," General Magruder said.  "I'm a bit concerned about its effect on our own traffic.  How do you propose to allow us full access to the river while denying it to the Federals?  That could cause you a world of trouble.  As could your insistence that their blockade not apply to the mouth of the river."  There was a murmur of agreement from a mixed group of Confederate and Canadian officers, which surprised Stewart almost as much as the fact that an equal number of men from both sides of the table seemed to disagree.  Fellow-feeling between his comrades and their hosts was not something he wanted to see.  He had made no effort to accommodate himself to the views of people he considered to be English, rather than British and Canadian, and couldn't understand why his companions bothered.

29 January, 2019

A Time and a Place

In mid-month I wrote about the extreme unlikelihood of any writer being able to make a living at this craft. Now I want to explore some strategies for managing a part-time writing career, managing it in such a way as to allow you to make a decent living at something else—anything else, really—while still being productive as a writer.

The ideas that follow come out of a panel I moderated at When Words Collide 2018 in Calgary, featuring Carrie Mumford, Tyler Hellard and Matt Singleton. We talked tactics and strategies for an hour, so the suggestions I'm going to write here will almost certainly take up more than one post. But hey, at least this will give you something to look at besides Dixie's Land...

28 January, 2019

Dixie's Land 4.2

Previous     First

[Continuing chapter four]

“Here’s how I see it,” Benjamin said, smoke from a fresh cigar clouding his head.    “Fifty-odd years ago, when Napoleon was fighting England and the Holy Roman Empire at the same time, his hold on his North American colonies was about as strong as a baby’s.  It’s my belief that if those European wars had gone on, we could easily have taken the Louisiana territory for ourselves.  We might even have spared ourselves the need to fight for it, and just bought the place.

“Instead, Napoleon reaches too far and tries to invade Egypt.  Nelson chases him, eventually catches him, and off Alexandria Napoleon and all his horses and all his men are drowned.  The English and the Empire beat the French, demolish the Republic and roll back their revolution, and England takes Louisiana as spoils of war.  By the time we got around to deciding we wanted Louisiana, the place was full of English soldiers—serving and retired—and we got ourselves thrashed trying to take it.”

“Everyone knows about Jefferson’s War,” Stewart said.  “I never thought of Napoleon as anything but a general, though.”

Dixie's Land Chapter Four

Previous     First


"How are your meetings with the British and Canadian military men going, young man?"

Stewart turned to see that Mr. Benjamin had followed him out onto the porch—they called it a verandah here—and waited for the lawyer to join him.  Before beginning his journey to New Orleans, all Stewart had known of Judah P. Benjamin was that the man was a lawyer from Mobile, a thoroughly self-possessed Hebrew who had once challenged General Jefferson Davis to a duel.  After a week of talks, Stewart had reluctantly admitted to himself that Benjamin, who was now senior Confederate negotiator, was a very clever man.

"I suppose we're making progress, sir," Stewart said when Benjamin reached him.  Not so much himself, though.  Last night he’d snuck out a second time to watch Miss Martin—and had been caught on returning to the hotel.  General Magruder had left him in no doubt that Confederate gentlemen were not expected to frequent popular theaters.  The general hadn’t come right out and forbidden Stewart to see Miss Martin again, though, and Stewart, clinging to the strict letter of the law, intended to try to sneak out again tonight.

Benjamin looked at him with an expression Stewart had trouble deciphering.  "Ah.  And what do you think  of that, Captain Stewart?  Please speak freely."

27 January, 2019

Eat Your Vegetables

Fair-use image from Wikipedia
When I was a child, and lost (as children ought to lose) the battle with my parents about the sorts of foods one was expected to eat, I developed a strategy for dealing with unpleasant flavours or textures. That strategy was basically to get the worst of things out of the way quickly. Eat all of the bloody Swiss chard and all of the badly frozen, starchy corn, at the very beginning of the meal, as quickly as possible. Once that was out of the way, the rest of the meal could be enjoyed.

As mentioned previously, I am engaged in my annual re-reading of the historical novels of Georgette Heyer. And I have found myself following the strategy once again, albeit without intending it.

I decided, at the turn of the new year, that I would read all of the novels we have* in the order of publication. Previously, I have tended to begin with my favourites and then work my way through the shelves, until I end up staring owlishly at a handful of books I don't much care for. This time is different.

And this first month has, I'm afraid, been a challenge. Heyer is best-known for her social comedies set during the Georgian Regency. But she published her first novel in 1921 (at the age of nineteen!), and didn't publish her first Regency until 1935. By which time she had published seventeen other novels, many of them historical fiction but some in contemporary settings, including the first of her mysteries.

Many of these earlier books, I'm sorry to say, are not very good. Heyer herself suppressed a number of them, and I don't blame her. Simon the Coldheart, for instance, is nearly as melodramatic as is The Black Moth, but with the added disadvantage of a style of dialogue that can best be described as Forsoothly, ecod. As Jane Aiken Hodge put it so politely in her biography, The Private World of Georgette Heyer, "The speech of the Middle Ages always defeated Georgette Heyer." As did the speech of the Jacobethan period.

But with The Conqueror finally finished I am past the kale component of this project, and, with Devil's Cub, engaged with the best of her work. February's going to be a fun month.

*We have never owned the novels set in the 1920s, and we disposed of our copies of Royal Escape and My Lord John, for what I trust are obvious reasons. We have a very badly produced edition of The Great Roxhythe but it has defeated all my efforts to read it, and so alas, back to the basement it goes.

Prince of Thieves Cereal

Overall Rating: 86*
Life in the eleventh century was tough. You had to have stamina to survive. Likewise you’ll need stamina to survive this aggressively sweetened, texturally vicious cereal. Before you pour, make sure your medical insurance is paid up.

Guess they couldn't afford a pic of Costner
(image from the Institute collection)
Astonishing. Ignore the fact that another failed attempt at representationalism has resulted in cereal “arrows” that actually resemble phalluses in full erection, and concentrate on the remarkable green-coloured sugar crystals that have attached themselves to the aforementioned phalli. Serve this stuff as finger-food at a cocktail party and just listen to the rude jokes fly. (The green is an almost-perfect recreation of the colour of oxidizing bronze [not really - ed] so you can pretend that these are naughty bits whacked off inumerable heroic statues and then left to rust a little before being poured into your bowl. You have to love a cereal that encourages the imagination like this.) For the technically minded, this cereal is enhanced by no fewer than six different artificial colouring agents.

Texture and Taste, Dry
Dangerous. More crisp than crunch, but an authoritative crisp. Authoritative in the sense that Bad King John (or the Gestapo or Stasi, come to that) was authoritative. To the firm mouth feel you have to add a shape that is angular and somewhat sharp-edged, and the presence of sharper-edged sugar crystals. The result is is almost invariably contusions and/or lacerations of the soft tissues inside the mouth if this product is eaten dry in any quantity. This is a pity, as the cereal has a wonderful tangy flavour heightened by one of the more aggressive uses of sugar in a modern cereal. There are four different flavours in use here, but the sweetness and slightly fruity tang dominate when dry. A great snack food, then, but only for the foolishly macho. The warnings about overconsumption and its effects on potentially antisocial behaviour due to uncontrolled sugar psychosis apply equally if the product is consumed dry, though it doesn’t seem likely anyone is going to able to consume enough of this stuff to get seriously bent: the risk of personal injury is just too great.

Texture and Taste, With Milk
As you might expect, a product this pugnacious holds its edge for some time after the milk has been applied. “Edge” in this case is literally true: injury can still result from eating this stuff after 60 or even 90 seconds of immersion. In fact, it’s downright curious that this cereal retains its ability to injure even as it sogs. The interior of each arrow remains crisp even as the exterior sloughs away: call this the discarding-sabot round of breakfast cereals. Flavour mellows only a little with the application of milk: sugar still predominates, with a fruity finish that’s probably enhanced by mindless frenetic activity like running around the block after each bowlful. If you’re looking for a real sugar rush, this stuff is it. Just be warned that the Twinkie Defence may not be applicable to Canadian consumers should they be charged with criminal activity while under the influence of said sugar rush.

As with most gimmick cereals, this one probably has a short shelf-life. Sucrophile doesn’t see much likelihood of this product being available much after 1992†. Connoisseurs might consider laying some down, though: it would be worth stocking up. With its potential to do grievous harm to the inside of your mouth, a good supply of this product has the potential to pay dividends down the road, in the shape of a really substantial product-liability lawsuit. [June 1992]

*Really? After the gum damage this stuff inflicted we still gave it an 86? What the hell were we thinking?

†This turned out to be true. The cereal disappeared from shelves almost as soon as this review was released.

26 January, 2019

Dixie's Land 3.4

Previous     First

[Concluding chapter three]

Stewart kept alert for Patton as he made his way down and to the rear entrance of the hotel.  There was no sign of the younger man, to Stewart’s relief, and he was able to slip out of the hotel without, it seemed, anyone noticing him.

As he stepped across the street to the livery stable the Prince Arthur shared with the gigantic Custom House, Stewart felt a prickling at the back of his neck.  No one had chased after him from the hotel, though.  So presumably if his senses were trying to alert him about something, it was the mysterious shadow he and Patton had noticed their first morning in this city.  Whether the person following him was a criminal, a Federal spy, or an agent of the Canadian government didn’t matter nearly as much as the man’s constant near-presence bothered him.

24 January, 2019

Fiction Update

I keep forgetting to mention this* but I got some news on the weekend: my short story, "If There's a Goal," has been selected for Tesseracts 22, the latest in the long-running series of Canadian Speculative Fiction. The new anthology (subtitled Artifacts and Alchemy), edited by Susan MacGregor and Lorina Stephens†, will be published by Calgary's Edge Publishing.

It's going to be a brisk summer for your truly: Tess22 is expected in July, and A Tangled Weave in scheduled for 1 August. More on both subjects as we move from winter into spring and then into summer.

*How's that for modesty?
†Full disclosure: Lorina is publishing A Tangled Weave.

Dixie's Land 3.3

Previous     First

[Continuing chapter three]

Grant sipped the strong, rich coffee and stared at the well-dressed banker sitting across the table.  "What do you think?" he asked.  "Am I proposing treason?"  The French in this part of the world made damned fine coffee, he thought, however little else they may have contributed to civilization.  Supposedly the mellow flavor was courtesy of chicory.  "If you think that I am, I'll drop this right now and we'll pretend that we never discussed this."

Tecumseh Sherman shook his head, scratching absently at his short, rust-colored beard.  "I don't think there's any way to know if you're right or wrong, treasonous or not, until we see the thing through."  He smiled grimly.  "Not the answer you were looking for, I'll wager."

They were in a cafĂ© in the Vieux CarrĂ©, just a few steps uptown from the Cabildo, in which the Canadians, British, and Confederates were meeting to plan the upcoming treaty negotiations.  It was only by chance that he'd met Sherman.  He was grateful for the coincidence; subterfuge wasn't something Grant was comfortable with, but Cump Sherman had a mind sharp as a saber and a candor—really, an unwillingness to suffer fools or foolishness—that Grant found a tonic after a day cooped up with Colonel Van Doncken.  If anyone he knew could give him honest advice about subterfuge, it was Sherman.

22 January, 2019

Dixie's Land 3.2

Previous     First

[Continuing chapter three]

The U.S. legation occupied a large house on Prytania Street, in the neighborhood most called New Town.  St George New Town was part of what was called the British City, the newer suburbs up-river—which was to say, more or less south—of the original settlement.  The old quarter was usually called the French City, in spite of the fact that it had been as much Spanish as French.
Grant liked walking in New Town.  The air was better here than in his rooms; he lived above a warehouse at the foot of Julia Street, much too close to the river.  He occasionally wondered if his soul was punishing him by choosing to live on a street that bore his dead wife’s name.  Certainly he hadn’t set out to live on that street, much less deliberately chosen a place just on the landward side of the levee, which was what everyone called the broad, straggling earthen dike that protected New Orleans from the river.

Here in New Town he could smell flowers above the river’s stink.  The streets were—comparatively—clean, some of them even paved, with just the ripe tang of horse-shit occasionally getting in the way of the scent of magnolia, roses, or orange-blossom.  And he’d never minded any smell associated with horses.  To him horses were synonymous with the army life, the only life now that he really cared about.  He liked horses better than just about any people he knew.

Some Changes to Serialization

At the suggestion of a reader* I have made a couple of formatting changes to the serialization of fiction in this blog.

First, in order to get more posts above the fold, as it were, I'm using jump breaks after the first few paragraphs of each section of fiction. This way, those who don't wish to read the current novel† can skim past those posts; other posts will appear on the main page in their entirety.

Second, as an aid to navigation I am putting links at top and bottom of each fiction post. At the top are links to the previous post and to the current novel's first post. At the bottom are links to the first section of each previously published chapter.

My hope is that these changes will make the fiction posts easier to deal with. I reserve the right to make further changes to formatting if and when they are suggested to me.

*Yes, I do have a few. I'm as surprised at this as you are.
†And what is the matter with you people, anyway?

Dixie's Land Chapter Three

Previous     First


Grant set the pen down on his desk and blew across the surface of the page to dry the ink.  He noted, but ignored, the dribble of dark blue pooling on the stained wood of the desk beneath the pen.  He'd never been the sort to pay too much attention to appearances—which made the work he was forced to do in New Orleans all the more painful to him.

Sam Grant had lately begun to wonder just how much his country really wanted him.  He was sure enough of his own abilities to know that it needed him, but the two weren't, unfortunately, synonymous.

20 January, 2019

"Powder Blasted" Cap Badge UPDATED

From the author's collection; Photo by Do-Ming Lum, Tiger Mountain Studios
It turns out just about everything in this post is incorrect. I have posted a correction that tells a more accurate story and tries to explain how I got everything so wrong.

This image is of a First World War cap badge worn by my grandfather at some point between late 1914 and late 1918. The badge is that of the Royal Horse Artillery, and you will note considerable wear: only small amounts of the original polished-metal coating are still visible.

This wear was not caused by age: the badge looked this way while my grandfather wore it. Rather, the wear was caused by a tradition I believe to be peculiar to the RHA: powder blasting. According to a typewritten note that was pasted to the back of the frame in which I received this badge:
This was a custom in the R.H.A. when Batteries went into action many of the "Gunners" placed their badges in front of the firing guns and this caused a sand blasting effect which cannot be obtained in any other manner.
The badge is mounted on a piece of fabric from one of the sandbags used to protect gun emplacements in action. According to the same note, this fabric is now "very rare."

The badge is a bit of a family curiosity. The problem is, we have no verifiable evidence of my grandfather's ever having served in the RHA. We do know that he joined up (under-aged) in 1914, as a private in the Dorsetshire Regiment (I have a photo of him wearing a cap badge that is almost assuredly that of the Dorsets, and most definitely not of the RHA). He was mustered out, in 1918, from the Royal Army Service Corps, in which he worked with ammunition columns supplying shells to various Royal Artillery units. What happened between 1914 and 1918 is a mystery, at least outside of family stories.

There is only one existing record mentioning Private Sidney Skeet: the Medal Card on which were listed his enlistment and mustering-out details and the medals for which he was eligible (and which I also now possess; more on this later, perhaps). His service records, however, no longer exist.

In this he is not alone: in summer 1940 the Public Records Office held service records for 6.5 million people who had served in the British Army between 1914 and 1918. In September 1940 a Luftwaffe incendiary bomb exploded in the War Office Record Store in London's Arnside Street; by the time the resulting fire had been extinguished over 4 million of those records were gone (and the survivors were badly damaged by fire, smoke or water). So for any given British soldier of the first world war, the odds are 3-2 against a service record's existing.

As a writer, though, I can always come up with a plausible story describing my grandfather's war. His badges and medals are more tangible to me than any service record ever could be.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Cereal

Overall Rating: 73
A gimmick cereal that, by rights, out to stick around. It’s probably significant, though, that although Bill & Ted have been around as characters for several years, the cereal didn’t appear until the characters went into an animated TV show. This does not bode well for its staying power, so enjoy it while you can. And if you know what’s good for you, don’t read the ingredients list.

Image from the Institute collection
Excellent. For once, no pretense to representation. The cereal is rectangular, with roughly circular cutouts in each piece. It is carefully neutral in colour, a light brown that reminds one of the beige carpets so popular in suburban living rooms. The neutral cereal admirably sets off the wildly coloured marshmallows that permeate the product in a number of less-than-tasteful pastel shades. The overall effect is colourful without being shocking. You could wake up to something like this without doing retinal damage. (The marshmallows, by the way, are supposed to represent musical notes. They more or less succeed at this. Marshmallow is obviously easier to work with than the flour paste of which most cereal is made.)

Texture and Taste, Dry
Good initial crunch, but with little follow-through. This may be an advantage, as it likely prevents mouth-damage from all those sharp edges. Certainly one can consume this product with less fear of injury than is the case with Prince of Thieves (see previous Sucrophile). The marshmallows are very weird, and have to be experienced to be believed. Note that cereal marshmallows are not at all like their toast-it-over-the-campfire cousins. Cereal marshmallows are dessicated little shriveled lumps of almost pure sugar, and are the textural equivalent of the classic bully: they  put up a strong front but vanish when the crunch comes. B&T marshmallows have a very brief, very strong resistance and crunchy mouthfeel. The second their integrity is shattered and they encounter saliva, however, they essentially evaporate, leaving a slightly chemical tang and the overpowering sensation of pure sweetness. The flavours are not particularly complementary. The cereal is actually quite delicate, with a nice balance of sugar and cinnamon flavour, with a graham-cracker finish. This is strongly at odds with the heavily sweetened, floral finish of the marshmallows. The result is often confused taste buds and the nagging feeling that becoming physically ill might be preferable. If you must eat this dry, it’s best to pick and choose, separating the two components. This isn’t as hard to do as one might think, and it can prove a useful gauge of how the sugar level in your bloodstream is affecting your hand-eye coordination. And people complain that kiddyrot cereals have no socially redeeming values!

Texture and Taste, With Milk
Texturally, something of a muddle. Neither component makes its presence known clearly, and the result is a vaguely defined crunch that dissipates fairly quickly in milk. If you can isolate the marshmallows, though, you’re in for a treat. They become even more complex, texturally, when milk is added. There’s a bit of a softening of the outside, but the milk doesn’t penetrate far. The result is a sort of triple effect: a hint of soft marshmallow followed by a good stiff resistance to the bite, followed by that cataclysmic shattering into pure sugar rush. The admixture of texture and flavour is not a total loss, however. Where it disappoints in terms of texture, this product more than satisfies in terms of taste. (If you can develop a taste, that is, for heavily perfumed sugars. It’s no problem for Sucrophile, we assure you.) The sugar of the marshmallows is much more dominant in the moistened cereal than it is in the dry, and the result is a breakfast that’s almost schizophrenic: mild cinnamon flavour alternating quickly with hysterical bursts of sweetness. It’s easy to eat several bowls of this without thinking; afterward, even religious programs and infomercials are entertaining.


For a really good time, pick out the marshmallows from this and combine them with a box of Prince of Thieves cereal. Eat several bowls and listen to your blood-sugar compounding  like the Russian* inflation rate. Just be sure you’ve made out your will first. [June 1992]

*For contemporary readers, substitute "Venezuelan". Also, isn't an actual phone booth not, like, the greatest cereal-box prize evahr?

19 January, 2019

Dixie's Land 2.6

[Concluding chapter two]

“I know that you are frustrated, Charles.”  Uncle James handed him a glass of brandy, then poured another for himself.  After leaving the meeting they had retired to the rooms Uncle James used when he visited Richmond.  On the mantel, a small clock chimed once.  “But you can contribute to your country in many ways beyond fighting her enemies on a battlefield.”

“I could better contribute by serving with the Texans,” Stewart said, “if I’m not to be allowed to serve the Confederacy in the field.  I’ll be wasting my time in New Orleans.”

Uncle James shook his head.  The older man was in his early fifties, but still looked fit and trim.  Save for the gray hair at his temples, he could have been a man in his thirties.  Unlike too many wealthy planters, he had not allowed himself to soften through self-indulgence.  He drank in moderation; he did not lay his hands on the female slaves.  He remained devoted to his family and, if anything, he worked harder now than he had when Stewart was a child.

"You shouldn’t think of it as a waste," Uncle James said, getting to his feet.  He took a careful sip from his brandy glass.  "You should be thinking of how to turn this experience to your advantage.  Look at the long view, boy.  Armies are political creatures, almost as political as legislatures.  Do a good job in New Orleans, no matter how distasteful you may find it from a personal point of view, and there’s no telling how high you may rise."

18 January, 2019

Dixie's Land 2.5

[Continuing chapter two]

Sitting on the bed in his hotel room, Stewart gazed at the uniform hanging from the back of the door.  As the colors blurred, he asked himself—again—if he was doing the right thing by his country and that uniform.  Five weeks ago he had stood, feeling small and awkward as Uncle James had said, “Gentlemen, this is my nephew Captain Charles Stewart,” to a group of unsmiling men who stared at him with what looked like predatory hunger.  “This is the young man about whom you’ve heard so much.”

The very day Stewart had been told of his assignment to the treaty commission, Uncle James had summoned him to this dark, imposing mansion without saying a word as to why.  Worse, the men seemed to be meeting in secret: the mansion, on the hill just up the street from the Confederate White House, was mostly dark when he entered it, and Stewart had been convinced that he was not meant to know what transpired in this place.

"Charles,” said Uncle James, “I'd like you to meet your host, Senator Preston Brooks.  Congressmen John Floyd, William T. S. Barry and Charles Faulkner, Senior.  And you may already have met General Hugh Mercer."

Now more nervous, if that were possible, Charles shook the proffered hands and tried to project calm.  Senator Brooks, though young, was one of the nation's most influential politicians outside the cabinet; his temper was legendary.  And while Stewart hadn't in fact met General Mercer, he'd certainly heard of the general during the long months in which Stewart had appealed in vain to return to duty; Mercer was a high-ranker in the Quartermaster’s Department.

Dixie's Land 2.4

[Continuing chapter two]

It felt wonderful to be outside in the twilight.  Yes, the air still smelled of the river, and Stewart knew that the thin breeze blowing up St. Peter Street wasn't really going to cool him much, if at all.  He didn't care.  He was free of be-medaled mob in the Cabildo, and at the moment that was all that mattered.

A poster across the street caught his eye; it looked like a playbill.  He crossed over, enjoying the feel of stone under his feet.  In Richmond, he'd have been in mud up to his ankles.  The poster was indeed a playbill; what's more, the small, tasteful sign above it proclaimed this building to be a theatre.  Now that he saw it, though, there was something odd about the playbill.  In the second that it took him to realize what that oddness was, a feminine voice confirmed it for him:  "I'm afraid you won't find much to enjoy here, sir.  The St. Peter Street Theatre performs only in French."

"So I see," Stewart said.  He turned to face the speaker.  She was small, the top of her head perhaps reaching to just above his shoulder.  Slender, too; he thought he might be able to span her waist with his hands.  In the fading light he couldn't make out many details of her face, but he thought he saw an aquiline nose—could she be French?—and dark hair, the ringlets framing an oval face.  "And how could you tell that I wouldn't understand French?"

"You're in uniform, sir.  I have yet to meet a soldier who's interested in anything French, well though some of the officers may speak the language."  She came closer, examining him with a frankness that was a bit unsettling—as was the realization of just how young she looked.  "That's an interesting uniform.  You're one of the Confederates, aren't you?  The ones negotiating a treaty or something?"

"Guilty as charged.  Captain Charles Stewart, Virginia State Militia and Confederate States Army, at your service."

"I'm Pauline Martin," the woman said.  "Normally, I don't accost gentlemen in the street, but I thought you might be in search of theatrical entertainment.  I'm an actress, you see.  I'm appearing in the new show at Placide's Varieties on Gravier Street.  It’s a pretty good show, if you like to laugh.  I could probably get you a reduced admission tonight."

Stewart stared at her.  She seemed to be in earnest, and he had no idea of what to do about that.  Women didn't accost men in the street—ladies didn't, at any rate.  Women might, if they were what his aunt had once referred to (in a tone that had made the capital letters audible) as That Sort of Woman.  He hoped that wasn’t the case here.  Well, most of him hoped it wasn't.  The problem was those parts of him that didn't care, or, worse, were threatening full-fledged rebellion against propriety.

A sudden memory burst in his mind: as a boy, seeing Mrs. Poe on the stage.  Edgar Poe might be praised as one of the world’s great writers and actors, but it was his mother Stewart remembered.  To his nine-year-old self she had seemed the most beautiful person in the world.  She’d been in her late forties then, but some kind of magic had erased the years from her.

Eventually propriety won, but just.  "I'm sorry, Miss Martin," he said.  "Much as the theatre interests me"—I hope that wasn't too obvious—"I am expected back inside the Cabildo.  Perhaps I shall see you perform later."

"I’d like that," she said.  "A pleasure meeting you, Captain Stewart."

Stewart watched Miss Martin continue down the street and turn left into Nelson Square.  He walked back to the front of the Cabildo; from here he could see figures clustered in the gloom of the square, and he tried to spot the tiny form of Miss Martin among them.  Wishing now that he'd had the kind of courage Patton ascribed to him, Stewart took a last deep breath of river-soaked air, and went back to the reception.
* * * *

17 January, 2019

Herding Commas

I am reading a history text from Cambridge University Press, and even by British standards I'm finding the use of commas in this book frustrating if not infuriating.

I understand that the British approach to commas is, well, different. Those folks appear to be terrified of semicolons, as a result of which they go more than a little bit nuts with comma splices, creating sentences that in many cases don't just run on, they lurch and stagger about like a Universal Pictures mummy with a bad case of the jags.

It's worse than British norm with this book, making me seriously wonder about the editors who worked on it (the author's an academic and therefore past worrying about)*. We don't just have comma splices here; we have hordes of commas seemingly dropped in at random, apparently introducing parenthetical or subordinate clauses, only to run away giggling when we look for closure. In a text in which meaning is already difficult to discern because of the complexity of the subject, this punctuation madness is enough to cause sleeplessness in the reader.

The overwhelming impression I'm getting is of a population out of control. And last night, as I was drifting off to sleep, the following Public Service Announcement played in my head:

Ampersand Who's Who

The Comma

From the earliest days of written language, the comma has roamed the vast plains and woodlands of the English language. Once, this modest and unassuming animal served humankind well, providing the sort of break that makes written language approach the rhythm of speech and thus retain comprehensibility.

Of late, however, the comma population has exploded beyond the ability of humans to control it. Now hordes of commas compete with other, less-common forms of punctuation for sentence-space, resisting all efforts to reduce their numbers and increase readability.

It is believed that the explosion in the comma population is due to the near-extinction of the comma's only major predator, the colon. The colon and its near-relative, the semi-colon (excreted when a colon  kills and eats a comma) are being starved out by the refusal of modern writers to use them, and of writers and editors to even try to understand their place in the ecology of written English.

To learn more, or to help restore the balance of nature, please contact your local department of English studies.

*Either the author or the editor—or, most likely, everybody involved in the book—seems to have been under the impression that the US journalist Nellie Blye was a male person. The mind reels.

16 January, 2019

Dixie's Land 2.3

Previous    First

[Continuing chapter two]

The second-floor gallery of the Cabildo was crowded with uniformed men and be-gowned ladies.  As if it hadn't already been warm enough, a battalion of gas lamps had been lit in an attempt to cut the late-afternoon gloom.  Stewart surreptitiously raised a hand to wipe sweat from his forehead; since the hand was already soaked, all this did was shift the moisture so that it collected in his hair to join the trickle running along the line of his jaw and down his neck.

"Do you think we're going to be introduced to him?" Patton asked in a loud whisper.

Dixie's Land 2.2

Previous    First

[Continuing chapter two]

"This place is fantastic,” Patton said.  He waved at a seemingly unending sequence of warehouses, the stone buildings a pale grey, their wood counterparts painted oxblood or dark green.  They were walking at their leisure in the general direction of the Cabildo, the governor-general’s winter residence, where an official welcome that couldn’t be avoided was supposed to take place, in the presence of Governor-General Lord Byron himself.  “Look at these crates, Stewart –- there’s things here from just about everywhere in the world.”

"Including Mississippi and Alabama," Stewart said.  “I thought we’d been refusing trade with any country that hadn’t recognized our independence.”  As if to prove his point, they passed huge bales, clearly cotton, whose labels proclaimed them as having come from just upriver, in Mississippi.

“Don’t be so sour, Stewart,” Patton said.  “This just means you can’t keep a good businessman down.”

“Look out!” a voice shouted, just as someone drove a shoulder into Stewart’s side.  Cursing, Stewart slammed into Patton and they fell sideways into the unyielding wall of a warehouse.  A second later a huge bale smashed into the spot where he and Patton had been standing.

15 January, 2019

Don't Give Up Your Day Job

There's been some discussion lately about writers' incomes. A couple of months ago the Writer's Union of Canada released a survey claiming that their average writer's income was down 27 percent from what it was three years ago. (And the average they provided was under $10,000 Canadian, or horrifically under the minimum wage.) Earlier this month John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow both had pieces up concerning a recent US Authors Guild survey on the same subject.
"I could be happy as a writer, if I could just get over this
tremendous passion for money."

Both of these gents have pointed out that the US survey isn't very good (I haven't been able to find data on the Canadian survey, only news reports based on its press release), and I will add that there's more than a little bit of vested interest behind both surveys.

But the point I want to make about this (which of course Scalzi already has) is exemplified in the title of this post. Nobody should really be expecting to make a decent living—or any sort of living at all, really—from writing fiction. Unless they are John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow, of course.

I know a fair number of writers, and count many of them as friends. Of these friends, only Cory could be said to be supporting himself with his fiction—and Cory also derives income from Boing Boing and from speaking gigs (and all the more power to him).

And there is nothing wrong with this. Dr. Johnson may have been speaking the truth for the 18th century when he wrote "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money," but you'll note he did not specify how much money. We should not be basing our expectations on the performance of the top one percent of writers any more than we should base them on the top one percent of any field.

It always surprises me how many people don't seem to have absorbed this lesson. I suppose ambition is a good thing. But it's not so good when ambition leads you to self-imposed poverty, something I have seen all too much of. There can be a modus vivendi between ambition and comfort. In the next few days (amidst all the other goings-on here) I want to discuss that modus in a bit more detail.

14 January, 2019

Dixie's Land Chapter Two


From a distance, the city resembled a beach: a crescent of white, spreading back from the shore of a river wide enough to be an ocean.  As the steamboat Liberty drew closer, the white resolved itself into a series of pale-gray buildings, numbingly uniform in size and shape, set amidst a topography that was equally monotonous, with nary a hill in sight.  There was no single object to attract the eye, and as a result the city seemed to blur, to defy attempts to fix it in the mind.

“So much for New Orleans,” Stewart muttered.  Leaning on the rail, he sipped his coffee and watched, curiosity mingling with distaste, as the wharves of the Canadian winter capital drew nearer—and, with them, two assignments, neither of which he had asked for and one he already despised.

13 January, 2019


Overall Rating: 21
An early-morning disaster combining the colour sense of a Shriners parade with the delicate sweetness and good taste of Zsa Zsa Gabor. Feed this to children you really don’t like.

Image from the Institute collection
At last: a cereal that looks worse than Teenage Mutant Ninja Cereal. Oddly though, Kaboom makes the same mistake as TMNT does, attempting to form an oat-based cereal into what it purports are clown heads. These have the same unfortunate resemblance to cadavers as the mock-Turtles do, with the added disadvantage of a colour palette that seems to have been borrowed from an Iraqi army surplus store. Where the Turtles were satisfied with just a bilious green, Kaboom explodes in a whole bunch of muddy, murky colours that an extremely generous (or half-blind) consumer might mistake for purple, green, orange, yellow, etc. These colours appear to have been mixed with diesel oil to achieve that hard-to-get dull, appetite-suppressing finish.

Texture and Taste, Dry
Eurgh. There’s crunch galore here, but so what? You can get great resistance chewing a mouthful of raw oats. This stuff has all the excitement of cat-kibble (with none of the health benefits). And there’s no sweetness to distract you from the banality of the taste and texture, either. This is the least-sweetened breakfast cereal we’ve encountered since we stopped eating Corn Flakes. No, take that back: Corn Flakes are sweeter.

Texture and Taste, With Milk
Even worse. There’s no heightening of the bland flavour, and the absence of sugar is only made all the more obvious. The stuff just sits there, and since it’s made of oats and then apparently kiln-dried, it doesn’t even have the decency to sog once the milk goes on. Instead, these dead-and-rotting clown heads just float there, brainlessly grinning their rictus grin and making you wonder why you don’t just chuck it and go out for bacon and eggs.


General Mills has always been the Chrysler (FIAT-Chrysler? American Motors? Studebaker?) of the kids cereal business, but this stuff marks a nadir even for their halfhearted attempts. You’d be better off eating muesli―no, you’d be better off eating gravel. [August 1992]

12 January, 2019

Dixie's Land 1.4

Previous    First

[Concluding chapter one]

Sound returned to Stewart’s ears.  It wasn’t the cough, rattle and roar of battle, either.  He awoke to the murmur of water and the rustle of wind in the trees.

He also awoke to a pain so all-consuming that not even screaming could dull it.  He screamed anyway.

"Drink this, son.  Quickly."  Something cold pressed against his lips; after a second, Stewart recognized the mouth of a flask.  He drank.

Dixie's Land 1.3

Previous    First

[Continuing chapter one]

The men were shouting, but what shocked Grant into immobility wasn’t the vocal din.  It was the way their formation had been solid one second, and non-existent the next.  In their hundreds, in the pale blue of the line or the dark blue of officers, they poured into the woods out of which they’d attacked just minutes ago, flowing around him as if he were an insignificant rock in the river of their panic.  Most of the men were unarmed: they seemed to have thrown away everything they’d carried, so desperate were they to not be here.  Grant had stumbled into three Seminole ambushes in Florida in the first weeks of that Indian war, and he had never seen soldiers just give up and run like this.  “Follow me!” he shouted to his staff, and urged his reluctant horse into the woods.

“Where are we going?” shouted one of his aides.

“Back to our clearing.”  Grant had no trouble keeping his voice steady: in the earliest moments of the first ambush the Seminoles had laid for him, he’d been frightened.  Then his fear had just evaporated.  Ever since, he’d been mildly surprised at how little he was affected by things that seemed to make other men lose their senses.  “We have to stop these men,” he shouted to the aide, and to the adjutant, who’d appeared from out of the smoke and attached himself to the party on horseback.  “They’ll aim for that clearing, and it’s the best place to start a rally.”

10 January, 2019

"What the hell is this, and where did I get it?"

I'm currently reading a delightful book called What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories,  by Laura Shapiro (who turns out to be the author of an earlier book I loved, called Perfection Salad, about the origins of the Home Economics movement). And I think I'm in love with Barbara Pym. Not only did Ms Pym put food and drink into all her novels, she noted these subjects in wonderful detail in her journals and notebooks. And she seems to have had the same problem sourcing the items in her notebooks that I have: the title of this post comes from something Shapiro says Pym wrote into a notebook next to a bit of conversation she'd taken down someplace at some earlier date.

Equally important to any writers reading this: Pym spent nearly a decade and a half in the publishing wilderness, unable to sell her novels to anyone. She kept at it, though, and lived long enough not only to see her reputation revived, but to see it enhanced and to find herself on the short list for the Booker Prize.

The critic in me feels obligated to mention that the chapter on Eva Braun doesn't really belong in this book (or, to be honest, much of anyplace else) but I'm enjoying this book and that's what matters.

And I think I'm going to see what the library has in the way of Barbara Pym.

Dixie's Land 1.2

Previous    First

[Chapter 1, continued]

“Where the Hell is the Second Massachusetts?”  Grant had to shout in order that his aide be able to hear him.  The man was only a sword’s-length away from him, as close as their horses would get to one another, but the cannonade had steadily increased in volume until now the sound of it threatened to inflict pain.  “We’re supposed to be advancing!”

“I don’t know, sir!”  The young lieutenant was clearly upset, and his horse, aware of the man’s anxiety, shied nervously.  “I rode all the way back to our baggage train, and they’re just not there!  And they’re not anywhere on the way!”

08 January, 2019

Dixie's Land Chapter One



They were coming, and everyone knew it.  The whole company stirred, eighty restless and uncomfortable men, echoing a tension that worked its way down the regiment’s entire line.  For all Captain Charles Stewart knew, the tension originated on the ridge to the north, where the big guns in the heart of the Confederate position continued to fire at an enemy he could not see.
Stewart stared at the woods in which the enemy forces were hidden, and fought against the urge to loosen his collar.  It was unseasonably warm for May, and the heavy kersey of his jacket and trousers itched abominably as he tried to ignore the trickle of sweat making its way down his back.  He wanted to be busy, but until the day demanded more of him than watchfulness, there was little he could do.

"What do you think, sergeant?"  Stewart turned to Fitzgerald, the company sergeant and a man whose twenty years in the Old Army had left his face the same color and texture as his boots.  "When do you expect them?"

07 January, 2019

Now We Are Sixty-Four: II

The Internet Song

(The following is a work of doggerel. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, in the following lines is purely and embarrassingly coincidental. Really)

Some friends and I write
In the midst of the night
In a sort of a forum that only we read;
Though we may seem quite dense
Our enjoyment’s immense
And it’s clear that to publish ourselves fills a need.

In the comments we strive
To keep language alive,
By trashing each other with little remorse.
It’s a form of debate
That leaves some quite irate;
But we always indulge ‘cause that’s par for the course.

Though we know that it’s vicious,
Completely malicious;
Civilized folks wouldn’t do it;
The desire to take part
In the bloodletting art
Makes us all sing this song and get to it:

Keith is clouting Cory;
Pippa's stabbing Hugh
Helen R
Has gone to war
With Peter and with you.
Weiss is slagging Jairus;
Natalie’s incensed.
Sara growls;
Caitlin yowls
And now the fun’s commenced.

Not all have the strength
To survive this at length
And some have announced that they’re calling it quits.
But those who have stayed
Battle on, undismayed;
For the chance to call others “oblivious twits.”

If it’s quiet you seek,
Or your temperament’s weak,
Then I strongly advise you to pass on your way.
But if you’ve got the gall
To attack one and all,
By all means come join us and jump in the fray.

Sure, we know that it’s vicious,
Completely malicious;
Civilized folks would know better;
But our rabid convulsion
Gives ‘way to revulsion
Unless we cut loose and go get ‘er:

Corwin hassles Peter;
Cameron gets him back;
Lorna’s sting
Confounds Do-Ming
Who leaps to the attack.
Karen shows up cursing,
To join in all the fun;
The whole darned gang is sturm und drang,
And still we’re not quite done:

Sherry’s after Robin;
Karl unloads on me
With stealthy grin
Joins Janice on a spree.
Mark and Jill are snarling
Like a pair of stoats;
Chris and Dave begin to rave

― And Paige is taking notes.