Sunday, January 29, 2017

Reading list for our new dystopia.

Occasionally, as folks have stopped to take a breath during this last chaotic week, some have recommended one or another (or more) novels that speak to a society sliding into authoritarianism. The one most often cited is George Orwell's 1984, and in fact, in the wake of Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway's coining of the term "alternative truth," it vaulted it to the number-one spot at Amazon (it's currently at number two).

While 1984 is significant for a number of Newspeak concepts it introduced to common usage, including the phrase Big Brother is watching you, it doesn't cover everything that's going on right now. So here's a short list of other dystopian books I've either read or had recommended to me over the years. The majority were written back in the 1930s and 1940s, when Communism was taking hold in Eastern Europe and authors were concerned about whether it could happen in their own countries.

1. Another book by Orwell, Animal Farm, is perhaps more relevant to the current political climate in the United States. I read this book when I was in the fourth grade (long story why) but didn't fully realize what it was about until many years later: a group of farm animals decide their farmer is a horrible dictator and overthrow him in order to gain their freedom. They agree on a set of rules to live by, which are painted on the roof of the barn. Pretty soon, though, the pigs -- who were given the farm's administrative role -- decide to take advantage of the other animals, and conditions become worse than they were when the farmer was in charge. And before long, the animals notice that their new society's number-one rule has been amended; to the original, "All animals are equal," has been added, "but some are more equal than others."

The book is a satire based on the Russian revolution in 1917 and the nation's subsequent descent into Communism. But it's a case study for what can happen when someone unscrupulous hides behind the banner of freedom.

2. Another title folks have been mentioning is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. In the novel's consumer's paradise, everyone is blissed out on a drug called soma. They all love their jobs and, in their spare time, pursue mindless activities cheerfully -- all except for Bernard Marx, a psychologist who knows too much about how society is kept in line. He and his girlfriend travel from London to visit a Savage Reservation in New Mexico, whereupon they discover a non-native woman and her son, whose name is John. The young man is the natural child of Bernard's boss, which is scandalous because sex is all for fun now and nobody has children the regular way anymore. Bernard and his girlfriend bring John and his mother back to London, and from there the novel is about John's inability to integrate into this new society.

Brave New World was prescient in its depiction of our consumer culture -- but we've yet to get to the point of mass hypnosis or mass medication, unless you count TV. Still, it's relevant. I remember liking it better than 1984 when I read both of them in high school.

3. I read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 earlier -- in junior high. The main character here is Guy Montag, a fireman somewhere in the American Midwest. His job is not to put out house fires, though, but to burn books. The novel's title is the temperature at which paper ignites. In the dystopian society of this novel, the government controls all information, and TV is the opiate of the masses. Guy begins to question the party line, and begins collecting books himself -- and that's when his life begins to unravel.

Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Brave New World are often mentioned together as the classic dystopian triumvirate. Bradbury's book is the newest of the three -- he wrote it during the McCarthy era in the 1950s -- and it ends on the most hopeful note. One character likens civilization to a phoenix that forever reinvents itself, ideally without the flaws that doomed the last go-round.

4. I'm going to add just one more to this reading list: It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. I have never read this one, but it's next on my list due to recommendations from a couple of people. Here's part of the description from Goodreads: "Written during the Great Depression when America was largely oblivious to Hitler's aggression, it juxtaposes sharp political satire with the chillingly realistic rise of a President who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, rampant promiscuity, crime, and a liberal press."

Sounds astonishingly relevant to what's going on today, doesn't it? I'll let you know what I think when I'm done.

I'm sure you all have suggestions to add to this list. Have at it.

These moments of dystopian blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Alternative facts and other lies.

Pixabay | Public Domain
As a sort of part 2 to last week's post on gaslighting, we now have a new concept to wrap our brains around: the alternative fact.

In case you've been out of touch, this all started when the media posted side-by-side photos of the crowd on the National Mall during Barack Obama's first presidential inauguration in 2009, and Donald Trump's inauguration this past Friday. Then, following the Women's March on Washington yesterday, further comparisons were made among the crowds at all three events.

By any objective measure, the crowd at the Trump inauguration came up short. I won't post the photos here (they're probably under copyright anyway). But the New York Times ran a story yesterday about a couple of British crowd-sizing experts who said the same thing: the Trump inauguration drew the smallest crowd of the three events. (I agree with those experts on the parameters of the Women's March; my daughters and I attended the march, and I am here to tell you that Independence Avenue was wall-to-wall people from the Capitol grounds to 14th Street. We had to keep ducking down side streets to get to a spot where we could see and hear what was going on.)

None of this sat well with our new President. White House press secretary Sean Spicer called a news conference yesterday to read a statement that said, basically, the Trump inauguration was not only huge -- it was the most-watched in history. Which is also not true, even if you count in television ratings. But Spicer took no questions from the press -- he just read the statement and left the room.

It was left up to Trump's counselor, Kellyanne Conway, to try to explain the whole thing away. In a heated exchange this morning with Chuck Todd on NBC's "Meet the Press," Conway claimed Spicer's comments were "alternative facts." Todd, to his credit, immediately responded, "Alternative facts are not facts. They're falsehoods."

I suppose Conway should get some credit, too, for keeping a straight face throughout the exchange. There's video of it at the link, if you care to watch it. Be sure to pay attention to the part where Conway threatens to cut off Todd's access to the White House if he keeps challenging her.

Alert hearth/myth readers have already drawn the correlation I'm driving at here. This whole thing, from denying the numbers, to discounting the photographic proof, to accusing those who challenge the official narrative as promulgating "fake news" -- my friends, this new administration is gaslighting us. And it's only day 3.

I'm not saying the news media always get the story right; they don't. But serious journalists don't willfully get things wrong, either, and certainly not something as easily disprovable as this. Anyone who tries to tell you they do is lying to you. Don't fall for it.

In more cheerful news: Other Realms Vol. II hit the virtual shelves at Amazon this week. The stories in this volume don't pretend to be anything but fantasy (unlike some of the news coming out of the White House...okay, I'll stop), and I'm pleased to have a short story -- an epic fantasy called "The Auguror's Apprentice" -- included in the collection. I continue to be impressed by the caliber of writing in our group of authors, and I think you will be, too.

These moments of provable bloggy facts have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

On gaslighting, chiefly.

Ingrid Bergman in "Gaslight" (1944) | Public Domain
This week, I'm going to continue my policy of no political posts -- even though we're about to swear in a new President whom only 37 percent of Americans approve of, and whose behavior toward the traditional media has earned him the nickname "Gaslighter-in-Chief," to go along with all the other unflattering nicknames he's picked up.

So what is gaslighting? Unless you're familiar with 1940s Hollywood movies -- or unless you've been unlucky enough to come into contact with a psychologically unstable individual who wanted to make you crazy -- you may never have heard the term before.

Gaslighting is a technique used by people with certain mental disorders, including Narcissistic Personality Disorder, to control their victims. The perpetrator uses a variety of tactics to isolate his victim, and then repeatedly calls into question facts and events that the victim knows to be true. The perpetrator's aim is to divorce the victim from reality. Eventually, the victim becomes filled with self-doubt and believes she's going crazy -- making her fertile soil for the perp's continued abuse.

The term comes from the 1944 movie "Gaslight." Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for her performance as Paula, the niece of a dead opera singer whose murderer was never found. Paula enters a whirlwind courtship with a man named Gregory, played by Charles Boyer. They marry within a few weeks of meeting, and move into the dead woman's London townhouse. Gregory then proceeds to isolate Paula, telling her it's for her own good because she's become a kleptomaniac -- and indeed, it appears she stole his watch and placed it in her handbag without remembering she had done it. She also hears footsteps in the attic where the dead aunt's things have been stored -- but the attic entrance has been sealed up. And she is sure that the gas light fixtures in the house periodically dim, but Gregory tells her it's all in her imagination. (Boys and girls, natural gas was used for home lighting before electricity became popular. My grandmother's house had wall sconces with both a light bulb socket and a gas nozzle.)

Spoiler alert: Paula is not crazy. Gregory is her aunt's murderer, and married her to gain access to the house to search for the dead woman's jewelry. He'd be okay with shipping Paula off to the nuthouse -- it would give him free rein to conduct his search.

As it does in the movie, gaslighting starts gradually. The perpetrator's behavior may seem a little weird to you, but you make excuses for him. Then you begin defending yourself as he criticizes things you do that you thought were normal. Eventually, you doubt your own perceptions and can't tell what's real any more.

So how do you cope with a gaslighter? The best advice I can find on the intarwebz is to get away from him as fast as you can. Unfortunately, the US will be stuck with this Gaslighter-in-Chief for four years. Just remember, folks -- no matter what he says, we're not crazy.

These moments of non-gaslit blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Knitting for winter.

January is the perfect time to get some knitting in, if you're so inclined. It's usually cold (in the Northern Hemisphere), so just stepping outside provides a vivid illustration of the worth of the craft -- as well as a reminder about the projects you should have gotten to before the mercury dropped so precipitously.

I did get one cold-weather thing done: this hat. (Sorry for the frowny face. I was trying to get a good shot of the button and kind of forgot to smile.) The yarn was an impulse buy at the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival last fall. It's by Shalimar Yarns and it's superwash merino, cashmere, and silk: cuddly and warm. It's also bulky weight, which is thicker than regular worsted weight yarn, which means the project knits up quicker. Anyway, the colorway, Skyline Drive, was created by Shalimar for the festival, and I liked it a lot. I also happened to have that big moon button, so I stuck it on the hat.

After I started wearing the heck out of the hat, I thought about how nice it would be to have a cowl in the same yarn. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough left. Fortunately, my daughter Amy had bought a skein, and she gifted it to me at Yule. (Thanks, Amy!)

This is where my poor planning comes in. I didn't cast on for the cowl until tonight. It's supposed to be really cold again tomorrow, and I won't have this done. But I've made progress, as you can see, and I'll definitely have it done for later in the winter. (That's Mr. Wommy in the background. People on Ravelry often post photos of their work together with their cats, and people who don't have cats sometimes ask why we get our cats to pose with our work. What they don't understand is that there's no coercion involved; the cats simply show up.)

Under the cowl, and to the right, you can see my other work-in-progress: a Wrought Iron shawl, which I referred to on Facebook yesterday as the Endless Colorwork Shawl of WTF Was I Thinking. It's a long rectangle -- 320 non-repeating rows -- and I'm almost half done. The "non-repeating" part is important; with a lot of knitting patterns, once you've done a few repeats, muscle memory takes over and you can watch TV or even have a conversation while you knit. With no repeats, you have to concentrate all the time. I can't tell you how many rows I've had to rip out when I've gotten to the end and realized I miscounted somewhere along the way. In other words, it's slow going.

It's also slow going because I'm doing both continental and English knitting in the same project. These terms refer to the way the stitch is made. Most people learn to knit English style, which is where you hold both the yarn and the working needle in your right hand; you stick the needle through the old stitch and wrap the yarn around the tip of the needle to form the new stitch. I, however, learned to knit continental style, in which you hold the working needle in your right hand, but the yarn in your left hand; you make a stitch by poking the needle through the old stitch and catching the yarn with its tip. I find that continental style gives me more control over the tension on my yarn. But I have a relatively new problem with English style: I'm flexing my right wrist a lot, and it's causing my carpal tunnel syndrome to flare up. Yesterday I did ten rows on the ECSofWTFWIT, and this morning I needed ibuprofen for my right hand.

And then, too, the directions call for knitting the shawl in a long tube; when the colorwork is done, I'm to cut the tube open and add a border all around. I've done the technique before, but it just adds another layer of complexity. Bottom line: It will be a while before this project is done, but it's going to be beautiful.

Compared to all that, the Oak Park was a piece of cake. The pattern is by Laura Aylor, and the design reminds me of the Eden Prairie shawl I made a few years ago -- although this one is more Mondrian than Frank Lloyd Wright. You can make it as either a scarf or a cowl; I opted for the cowl. It turned out well, as you can see, but it's wider than the other cowls I've made, and I need to figure out how best to arrange it when I wear it. The Mondrian-like blocks kind of lose their impact when they're all bunched up around my neck. But I may wear it tomorrow, even though it doesn't match my hat. It's going to be cold!

These moments of chilly knitting blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

New Year, same old clickbait arguments.

Envy by Josse le Court - National Museum, Krakow |
CC 1.0
Welcome to 2017, which a whole lot of us hope won't be as bad as we think it will.

The Huffington Post must have had a slow week last week -- wait. Of course they did. It was the week between Christmas and New Year's; barring some huge breaking news story, everybody's on vacation. So anyway, somebody at HuffPo reached into the blogger slush pile last week and decided to run this submission that retreads all the old complaints about indie publishing: indies are hacks, and self-publishing is only fit for the elderly who want to pass along their life histories to their kids and don't want to take the trouble to learn how to write properly, and so on. You know, the usual stuff.

Predictably, the comments section lit up with indies taking umbrage. The author of the piece, Laurie Gough, had the grace in her responses to retreat a little, and admit maybe she spoke a little hastily. Still, some folks felt compelled to mention that Gough's comments might have been spurred by sales envy, as many indie books sell better than hers. The responses included this blog post, which advanced the usual arguments against attitudes like Gough's with a supersized side of insults.

Maybe it's because I'm getting over the flu (thanks, 2016, for that parting shot), but the whole thing is making me tired.

Look, we've been fighting this stigma since -- what, 2009? 2010? And you know what? We don't hear much about it anymore. That's partly because the complaints are starting to sound like sour grapes, like Gough's does. But it's also partly because trad-pubbed midlist authors are pulling their backlists from their publishers and self-pubbing those older books, and making more money now than they did before.

To recap: yes, many indies employ professional-level editorial staffs (including beta readers) and cover artists, as well as more dedicated marketing managers than your average overworked PR person at name-a-trad-publisher; yes, many indies have more education and experience as writers and editors -- paid experience, even! -- than the politicians and starlets who get the big-ticket contracts these days; yes, some indie books are terrible, but then so are some trad-pubbed books; and yes, in today's publishing world, getting a contract is mostly about luck -- unless you're an indie who works your butt off to maneuver your way onto a bestseller list, at which point agents who know a golden ticket when they see one will begin pestering you to let them sell your work to a "real" publisher.

Can we just stipulate all that?

And then, the next time somebody decides to publish one of these tired, disproven rants, can we all just not react? Because I suspect that if articles like these stop getting clicks, publications like HuffPo will stop running them -- and then we can put this pointless conversation to bed, once and for all.

I'm actually feeling much better today. Thanks for asking.

Writing news: Editing will commence shortly on Maggie in the Dark. In addition, just today, I finished a short story (epic fantasy!) for the next Five59 anthology. I'll let you know how that goes.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

These moments of retreaded ranting blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.