29th Street South – a story with a heart

“God damn the man who shot President Kennedy!” Robbie Doyle said out loud without thinking.
The class turned as one and stared at Robbie. Miss Rodgers actually dropped the book she was holding.
From 29th Street South by Nicholas Rogers.

It seems that an entire generation can recall what they were doing when they heard about Kennedy’s assassination, but Robbie’s response drew me to read on. The sheer absurdity of being sent to the principal by the teacher, the conversations and the people Robbie met that day, created an illusion that I was there, watching and listening to real people. This uncanny immersion continued as the story progressed, and news headlines entwined with Robbie’s private life. I cannot say that I liked everything I read – the hatred during the civil rights demonstrations, Robbie’s friend almost raped – but the bad things did not spoil the story. It has dark moments in a rich canvas with many bright episodes.

Alas, Robbie’s high-school days passed too soon. I wished I could continue reading about his amazing friendship with Nick and Sam, his crush on Christie, his struggles to become “someone” in high-school. But in the summer of 1967, normalcy was increasingly overshadowed by the danger of being drafted and sent to Vietnam.

I rarely read about wars, but at this point, I was immersed in Robbie’s life and had to know the rest of his story. It was worth reading, even the gory descriptions that I normally skip (there are a few, but they are powerful). I had to read it all, the beautiful and heartwarming along with the horrifying and the ugly, because the entire story is larger than each part. It is much more than a piece of life combined with social commentary. To me, the story seemed to beat like a heart.

“For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield has a special meaning in the book. For the song’s 50th anniversary, Rolling Stone has an article about the origins of the song. And this is the song on youtube.

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Muse Delusion – first ever promotion

For the first time, my book is free on Kindle. Promotion lasts from April 5 to April 9, 2021.

eBook: Amazon.com | Amazon.uk | Amazon.ca | Amazon.au

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A clever cat, two unusual kids and a clan of intelligent rats

“You pretend that rats can think, and I’ll promise to pretend that humans can think, too.”
A rat to a man, from The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Sir Terry Pratchett

The Changelings – a clan of educated rats – know a lot about people. People know little about rats except that they steal food and cause plagues. When the Changelings arrive to a town that suffers from a shortage of food, they find, as expected, townspeople who hate rats and want to see them gone, by whatever means that takes. But no one is prepared for what else they’ll find in the town.

On one level, “The Pied Piper of … Discworld” is a humorous take on famous fairy-tales. Both sides assume that their opponents will react like they do in fairy-tales, and the “fun” is that nothing happens as prescribed. On another level, the story deals with animal cruelty and its consequences. Survival is tricky when the bad guys do more than getting rid of rats with poison and traps.

Maurice is a wily adviser with a lot of personality. It’s impossible not to root for the cat who is grappling with his guilty conscience:

“Maurice tried to tell his thoughts to shut up. What a time to get a conscience! What good was a cat with a conscience? A cat with a conscience was a … a hamster, or something.”

His sidekick is a kid who is happy to be left alone with his music. Keith in his own words:

“I may be stupid-looking,” Keith added, “but I’m not stupid. I have time to think about things because I don’t keep on talking all the time. I listen. I try to learn….”

While it’s easy to like Maurice and Keith from the start, it took me a while to warm up to the other (mostly female) characters. At first impression, Malicia isn’t an endearing girl.

“It seemed to Maurice, while he was watching Malicia make up her mind, that her mind worked in a different way from other people’s minds. She understood all the hard things without even thinking. Magical rats? Yeah, yeah. Talking cats? Been there, done that. It was the simple things that were hard.”

A young rat named Nourishing makes an awful first impression when she ventures to ask a question during a briefing by the leader of trap disposal team. His response:

“Are you new in this platoon, Nourishing?” said Darktan.
“Yes, sir! Transferred out of the Light Widdlers, sir!”
“Ah, they thought you’d be good at trap disposal, did they?”
Nourishing looked uneasy, but there was no going back now. “Er … not really, sir. They said I couldn’t be any worse than I am at widdling, sir.”

It’s almost needless to say that by the end of the book, Malicia and Nourishing are not the same as they were in the beginning. Other protagonists may not change much, but they are interesting and each has unique personality (and none as hilarious as the tap dancing Sardines). As a group, the “educated rodents” have a strong sense of community, and their dreams are shared by many persecuted people. Together with one amazing cat and a pair of unusual kids, they must outwit unscrupulous rat-catchers, escape from cellars, traps, and poisons, and survive something sinister and evil that lurks in the dark.

The humor, the unexpected turns and twists, and most of all the characters combine into an amazing story I intend to reread. Highly recommended!

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A woman who believed she was a muse

“I’m a muse, not a NASA engineer.”
Lisa to Jack, in Muse Delusion by T.K. Flor

Finally, the long anticipated novel, Muse Delusion, is published!!!
(OK, long-anticipated, and written, by me).

The initial idea for the novel emerged during a family vacation in the spring break of 2015. I could practically see in my mind’s eye the members of the Hopeville Murder Club finding an unresponsive woman in an empty house, what they dreaded, and how they responded. The guy this novel is dedicated to liked the idea. He suggested that I write a lighthearted story. I wanted it to be a love story about two people who seemingly have nothing in common, a contemporary tale with a touch of Greek mythology. Five years later, the story can be distilled to this:

Continue reading

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How to get AI’s attention

“This approach of Visibility Marketing is not a new way of reaching readers per se, but a way of positioning yourself and your books for maximum impact.”
David Gaughran, Amazon Decoded: A Marketing Guide to the Kindle Store

Theoretically, anyone who writes a book can publish it on Amazon. Practically, it’s much easier (and cheaper) to send a copy to those who want to read the book than to go through the process of publishing it. Even if one doesn’t intend to make any money off of it (e.g. by offering it for free), when an author makes their book available for the public, they probably want to it be read. Amazon’s Kindle store, with its millions of readers, sounds like the ideal venue. But with millions of books available, the odds that strangers will find a book by an unknown writer (indie or not) are dishearteningly small.

The book Amazon Decoded tackles this problem and provides indie authors with tools which increase the odds that their books will be discovered by readers. A hint – getting the “giant recommendation engine powering the Kindle Store” (the AI, for short) to put one’s book in front of potential readers is neither simple nor cheap. Nevertheless, David Gaughran argues that this is possible, and shows the pieces of puzzle involved in the process. Continue reading

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Perseverance and stamina – a lesson 40 years after The Empire Strikes Back

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
-Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

One of the things that distinguishes a classic from a random highly successful book or movie is that one can return to a classic decades after it was created and still find it engaging and relevant. The Empire Strikes Back (TESB) was a huge success when it was released in May 1980. According to Wikipedia, “The Empire Strikes Back had a significant impact on filmmaking and popular culture, being regarded as a rare example of a sequel that transcends the original. The climax, in which Vader reveals to Luke that he is his father, is often cited as one of the greatest plot twists in cinematic history.”
In retrospect, TESB turned out to be a classic. Continue reading

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Moving the needle – 200 years since Ørsted experiment

The first connection between electricity and magnetism was found by Ørsted on 21 April 1820. Hans Christian Ørsted (14 August 1777 – 9 March 1851) was a Danish scientist. He became a professor at the University of Copenhagen in 1806. His famous discovery, known as Ørsted’s law, states that an electric current creates a magnetic field.

An illustrated demonstration of the experiment:

Opinions vary on whether the discovery was accidental or not. Continue reading

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Becoming Superman

Style was the clothes; voice was the body.
The instant I hit that realization I felt a circuit close inside me, switching on an engine in my brain. Suddenly all the little unrelated things I knew about writing (or brashly thought I knew) arranged themselves into a pattern so clear and precise that it knocked the breath out of me.”
J. Michael Straczynski, Becoming Superman

Becoming Superman is an autobiography of a science fiction and comics writer, J. Michael Straczynski. It is also a page turner, a powerful story that amazingly enough, is real. As Neil Gaiman concluded in his introduction: “We follow him through several careers, and in each career he learns how to do it, how to set out and make something happen that ought, by any stretch of imagination, to have been impossible. It’s his willingness to learn, his quiet persistence, and his willingness to do the work that are his superpowers. He has become a diamond.”

Reading the book during a weekend, I found there another “superpower”: hate. Hatred for a father he describes as a monster formed the author’s worldview, sustained him physically at times he might otherwise crumble, and shaped his character when the closest he had to a “role-model” were comic book heroes like Superman. This is not, however, a hateful book. The author’s hate does not drip from every page. It is used like lampposts placed to illuminate bends on a road, so a passerby would see what he had experienced as a boy and while growing up, what he overcame, and what he still has to cope with.

A master storyteller, JMS uses his father’s dark secrets from WWII to show how destructive hate and self-pity could be, but Becoming Superman is NOT a simplistic, feel-good story about the American Dream and redemption. The author shows that hate and anger don’t always lead to the Dark Side; that a strong and determined mind can denounce evil and discipline these destructive powers. On one level, the book follows the advertised “Journey From Poverty to Hollywood” – the same page shows a photo of the author’s first check ($15) and his first check for one million dollars. But the book is more than a “rags to riches” tale. It offers a gripping view on how JMS harnessed and funneled his hate, using it to withstand his violent and abusive family, disciplining it to become an engine and fuel to his creativity.

During a long career, JMS faced many forks on the road, encountering temptations to take the less controversial course, to compromise and let go. He did not choose what most people would do. His energies and frustrations were directed into worldbuilding, screenwriting, directing, and writing comics. Not being a Superman, his achievements came with a price – a marriage that dissolved, never raising children, being estranged even from those family members he did not despise.

I’m not a fan of comic books and Sci-fi TV, but I could not put down this autobiography until I reached the last page at 2am. A writer who invented and reshaped worlds, contributed to “Murder She Wrote” and gave a new flavor to old superheroes, had an interesting story to tell. He spent years crafting it, entwining his family’s dark history with personal experiences, many of which no child should have had. He prevailed and succeeded, crafting a life with much more to it than simmering hate. From an emotionally stunted boy, whose compassion is mostly bestowed on stray cats, he became a creator of stories that touched and shaped kids’ imagination. His account how that happened is a fascinating, thought provoking, occasionally dark and disturbing, and sometimes inspiring read.

More about JMS work can be found on TVtropes.

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Jane Austen and the institution of Marriage

“…I am not romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.”
Charlotte Lucas to Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice.

A book cover using Thomas Lawrence’s
The Children of Sir Samuel Fludyer (1806).

One day a “lost” Jane Austen novel might be “rediscovered” in some attic. The news will spread across the world long before experts will have a chance to study the manuscript, and the few known facts will soon be drowned by speculations about its authenticity. Would it be deemed a forgery, even if the handwriting, the style and word usage are comparable with these found in Austen’s letters and previous works, but the story as a whole lacks the qualities that endeared Jane Austen’s novels to so many readers for such a long period?

One thing we can be sure about this hypothetical manuscript is that it will involve romantic relations and treat the institution of Marriage. Expectations from this institution have evolved considerably in the last couple of hundreds of years, and yet Austen’s treatment of the subject still appeals to modern readers. Or or at least so I thought until I read a recent article in The Atlantic that challenges this assumption. In a piece titled “What Jane Austen Thought Marriage Couldn’t Do”, S. Chamberlain makes claims based on evidence from Austen’s novels. In the following I will address some of those points.

Age of the heroines

“…novels like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility focus too much on younger women at the expense of making older ones either irrelevant or ridiculous.”

Facts first: Jane Austen made her debut into Hampshire society at the age of seventeen, she was nineteen when she wrote the first draft of Sense and Sensibility, and twenty/twenty-one when she worked on the first version of Pride and Prejudice. Even in these early works Austen created true-to-life, memorable older women, like the sensible conformist Charlotte Lucas and the vulgar, irritable Mrs. Bennet. The ability to create women much older than herself doesn’t mean that the author wanted to contemplate them as her heroines. Simply put, why would a nineteen or twenty year old woman do so, when her pen conjured the lively Marianne Dashwood and immortal Elizabeth Bennet?
In later novels, Austen’s heroines grew older. In Persuasion, the twenty-seven year old Anne Elliot is accomplished, compassionate, and clear-sighted. Not only is she not “irrelevant”, but the discerning Mr. Elliot wants her as his bride, and captain Wentworth prefers her over the much younger and livelier Louisa Musgrove.

Matrimony as a questionable goal

“Miserable married lives in fact abound in Austen, from the badly matched Bennets at one particularly noxious end of the spectrum to the more ordinary, harried type of married parents who seem appallingly familiar to us moderns.”

Most of Austen’s heroines are romantic and intelligent young women, who despite all the matrimonial misery they had witnessed while growing up, feel rapturous joy at the prospect of entwining their future with the hero’s. Are they all delusional in believing that they would fare better than their parents? Or maybe, as the article questions, Austen was “slyly slapping down the institution with one hand even while she seemed to be raising it up onto its contemporary pedestal with the other?”
Based on the fact that Jane Austen never married (although she had the opportunity) and considering the unflattering portrayal of some couples in her novels, I will speculate that she did not see marriage as a woman’s highest goal, but rather as an option as appealing as the partners who make the marriage. The Bennets were ill-suited, and their match resulted in misery. Mrs. Bennet’s brother, “Mr. Gardiner, was a sensible, gentleman-like man, greatly superior to his sister as well by nature as education…Mrs. Gardiner, who was several years younger than Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Philips, was an amiable, intelligent, elegant woman, and a great favorite with all her Longbourn nieces. Between the two eldest and herself especially there subsisted a very particular regard.”
Mrs. Gardiner is not a main character, but she is a mentor to her nieces, a role model who finds time to write them lengthy letters without neglecting her own four children, a wife who is a companion to her husband, a woman who has interests beside her household.

Chamberlain speculates that “Elizabeth’s marriage might turn out fine despite her lack of loving guidance and a model to follow.” I think that one should not worry about the fate of a marriage based on a solid foundation of love and mutual respect. Austen doesn’t elaborate about Elizabeth and Darcy’s relations after their wedding, yet we learn that “with the Gardiners they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them;” And Elizabeth becomes a role model for her younger, motherless sister-in-law:
“Georgina had the highest opinion in the world of Elizabeth; though at first she often listened with an astonishment bordering on alarm at her lively, sportive manner of talking to her brother…By Elizabeth’s instructions she began to comprehend that a woman may take liberties with her husband, which a brother will not always allow in a sister more than ten years younger than himself.”

Focus on children

“What Austen offers—and what her critics often disparage—is a focus on the temperaments of the individuals entering into a partnership, to the exclusion of her own century’s focus on future generations’ partnerships as the reason for why it is formed in the first place. If she’s more interested in the “happily” than the “ever after,” perhaps it’s because—in a time before reliable birth control—she resisted the new child-centered focus of marriage.”

Children of various ages inhabited both Jane Austen’s real and fictional worlds. She grew up in a large family (she was the seventh child out of eight). Her brother Edward married when she was sixteen and had eleven children. Other brothers also provided her with nephews and nieces. While the article brings up arguments by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau “that all good parenting began with a companionate marriage of equals who shared compatible child-rearing philosophies,” and follows with ideas about parents’ role in guiding their children, I doubt that philosophical musings had any bearing on how Austen’s family reared children. Her novels, with the exception of Mansfield Park, do not dwell on “right” or “wrong” parenting. Child-centered issues were usually an afterthought, an illustration of the relations between a couple, or within a family.

That said, I strongly disagree with the article’s claim that “her most content and companionate marriage — that of the Crofts, in her final novel, Persuasion — is notably childless. Admiral and Mrs. Croft spend their days helping each other drive around the countryside in a carriage that Austen rather firmly describes as meant for only two.” The Crofts are not the only “content” couple in Persuasion. The Musgrove and Harville families have children, and consequently child-related obligations. Unlike the Crofts, they cannot always be together, and yet their relations are wholesome and happy. And so are their children:

“Such excellent parents as Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove,” exclaimed Anne, “should be happy in their children’s marriages. They do everything to confer happiness, I am sure. What a blessing to young people to be in such hands! Your father and mother seem so totally free from all these ambitious feelings which have led to so much misconduct and misery, both in young and old!”

Much more could be argued about the complexity of Jane Austen’s worldview, but that goes beyond the scope of a blog post or an article in The Atlantic. Both cherry-picked examples that support their respective point of view. Or, to use the author’s own words from Persuasion:
“How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!”

Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Hugh Thomson, 1894

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William Blake in the twenty first century

Reader! lover of books! lover of heaven,
And of that God from whom all books are given,
Who in mysterious Sinai’s awful cave
To Man the wondrous art of writing gave,
Again he speaks in thunder and in fire!
Thunder of Thought, & flames of fierce desire:
Even from the depths of Hell his voice I hear,
Within the unfathomed caverns of my Ear.
Therefore I print; nor vain my types shall be:
Heaven, Earth & Hell, henceforth shall live in harmony.

from the preface to Chapter I, Jerusalem, by William Blake

Twenty one decades separate between William Blake’s only solo exhibition and the retrospective exhibition, titled “William Blake”, that has recently opened at Tate Britain.
The first exhibition was at Blake’s brother’s hosiery shop in Soho. Sixteen pictures were displayed for show and sale, including “The Ancient Britons”, the largest picture Blake ever made. The price for admission was one shilling, the same as the much larger and more prestigious exhibitions at the Royal Academy and at the British Institution. Blake’s exhibition was attended by few, and the only review it received was from The Examiner. It was published anonymously in the issue for 17 September 1809:

“…When the ebullitions of a distempered brain are mistaken for the sallies of genius by those whose have exhibited the soundest thinking in art, the malady has indeed attained a pernicious height, and it becomes a duty to endeavour to arrest its progress. Such is the case with the productions and admirers of WILLIAM BLAKE, an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement, and, consequently, of whom no public notice would have been taken, if he was not forced on the notice and animadversion of the EXAMINER, in having been held up to public admiration by many esteemed amateurs and professors as a genius in some respect original and legitimate.”
(from G. E. Bentley Jr’s biography of William Blake)

The admission price to the exhibition at Tate Britain (one of the most visited museums in the UK) is 18 pounds, but it includes over 300 of Blake’s watercolours, paintings and prints, as well as “an immersive recreation of the small domestic room in which Blake showed his art in 1809”, and a promise that one will be able to experience “the impact these works had when they were shown for the first time. In another room, Blake’s dream of showing his works at enormous scale will be made reality using digital technology.”
Those of us who live faraway and cannot see the exhibition, get a glimpse of what to expect in a video trailer.

Modern critics’ reviews are more civilized:

  • BBC Culture calls William Blake “The greatest visionary in 200 years” and notes that “Blake’s ability, granularly, to narrow his focus to a single speck of the material world and to perceive eternal poignancies in it, is instructive for how best to appreciate the intensities and achievement of his own work.”
  • Five stars from the Guardian William Blake review, which starts with “This stupendous show opens with a starburst: the naked figure of Albion rising in glory, rainbows exploding around his outstretched arms. It is a curtain-raiser, a full frontal performance: the beautiful dancer in mid-sashay on the edge of a cliff, bringing light to dispel the darkness. And Albion’s arms are holding out for more – welcoming this new dawn, inviting us all to rise up with him. It is the great wake-up call of British art.”
  • The Economist’s is more reserved, with a title: “A blockbuster show at Tate Britain gives William Blake his due.” The exhibition’s description is somewhat laconic, politely calling Blake “a challenging artist” who was “reading between the lines of this exhibition, a difficult man who delighted in many antipathies…Perhaps the best and most constant relationship Blake enjoyed was with his wife, Catherine. A talented engraver and colourist in her own right, she had a hand in many of his creations. It was only from the stability of their marriage that he was able to give a full expression to his talent, expressiveness and unique vision.”
  • The Telegraph, however, gives the exhibition two out of five stars. The title, “William Blake review, Tate Britain: an incandescent imagination smothered by dull curating”, suggests that the problem is with the exhibition, which “re-positions Blake – presumably for publicity purposes – as an ‘artist for the 21stcentury’”. But the reviewer doesn’t spare Blake. He start’s with his poetry,
    “Have you ever tried reading the poetry of William Blake (1757-1827)? Not the good stuff, such as The Tyger, which is mercifully short. No, I’m talking about Blake’s bizarre epics: obscure, fire-and-brimstone mythologies of his own devising, starring allegorical figures with made-up names, like Urizen, the bearded embodiment of reason and law.”
    And follows with his paintings. “Visually, Blake was forever reshuffling the same old deck of cards. His figures are either exaggeratedly musclebound (check out Eve’s abs in his illustrations to Paradise Lost), or preternaturally elongated and clad in swoopy, vaguely neoclassical gowns. They all have smooth, pretty, child-like faces, with streaming hair and strangely shining eyes. And most behave like drama queens, waving about their arms. Blake’s compositions, meanwhile, are sometimes symmetrical, and often frontal and flat – like designs for the theatre. As a result, his supernatural subjects have an unwelcome, at times borderline comic, staginess.”
    Anything positive to account for the two stars? Catherine, Blake’s long-suffering wife, is praised for her role in sustaining Blake’s career, and there is a bit of redemption towards the end. Despite Blake’s and the curator’s shortcomings, the exhibition is worth revisiting, because “in one dominion of art – the ability to invent – he reigns supreme.”

    Unable to visit the exhibition, one can still wonder what would the critics say if Blake was not one of the most famous British artists. But then, the question would be superfluous, because what would be the chances that his work would be exhibited at Tate?

    William Blake,
    Age Teaching Youth, c.1785–90

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