Category Archives: A Writing Life

422. Little Bitty White Hunters

When he got back to his apartment, Neil dug around in his still packed boxes to find the few books he had kept as personal treasures from his childhood. The formula books had not worn well; they held little that the adult Neil McCrae could find worthwhile. But there were others that had kept their value, and he spent the next four hours accompanying the young Hunt brothers as they continued the expedition their father had had to abandon, collecting zoo animals while floating downriver on their Amazon Adventure.

That is a quote from Symphony In a Minor Key. It was the opening paragraph of Symphony 13, over in Serial.

Neil McCrae and I have a lot in common — duh — but I also kept him as a separate person. He has more patience than I do, for example. Another thing I did was give him an English class, while I was teaching science. This lets him read to kids and read their papers, and that gives me — through him — the chance to tease out what is going on in their minds.

More than any other subject, literature is about involvement and about demonstrating that involvement by writing. But please! Sixth grade papers are awful. You’ll see when you have to read some of them with Neil. I’ll be over here with my bunsen burner; call me when you are through.

I’ve done my share of teaching reading and literature, which aren’t quite the same thing. Neil encounters a ton of difficulties, and solves them, more or less. I encountered all the same problems in my first fifteen years of teaching, and the same good, bad, and ugly solutions, before science largely pushed reading out of my curriculum.

Teaching reading is tough in a school where the children have widely ranging skill levels. Teaching literature is relatively easy, if you have good literature to teach. Accepted literature is not the same as good literature. I don’t have the guts to teach Where The Red Fern Grows. If you had that piece of pornography of violence foisted on you as a child, you’ll get the pun. On the other hand, I loved teaching Fog Magic.

Truthfully, most of the children’s literature I know, I read as a teacher. There were no bookstores which featured children’s books where I grew up, and besides, most of the children’s books I read when I was a teacher hadn’t been written yet when I was a child.

Like most children who are given the choice, I read books for children, books for young adults, and books for adults, indiscriminately. I still do. Just a couple of years ago I made it half way through my childhood set of Rick Brant books before I ran out of time and steam. Any time I see a Howard Pease juvenile, I snatch it up. His popularity has waned and they are getting scarce.

So Neil looks back at his childhood (which was my childhood — Neil was born full grown on the Ides of March) and remembers the books he read. Willard Price wrote the “___ Adventure” books starting with Amazon Adventure in 1949, and continuing for an additional thirteen books, ending in 1980. I only read the first four; by the time he wrote the rest, I had outgrown them. They all followed the pattern Neil later recounts, someone young went somewhere interesting and did something exciting, without adult supervision. That isn’t much, but that is all it takes.

In some cursory research today, I ran across an interesting phenomenon. I don’t want to make too much stew out of one oyster, but the critics in the day when the “___ Adventure” books were written, said that they were full of cruelty to non-Western people and animals. That is a problem in anything written before books were sanitized in the name of political correctness. If I were a cynic, I could say that this makes the eligible to join the rest of Western literature. Fortunately, I’m not a cynic, but I did note that comments written recently by men who grew up reading the “___ Adventure” books, then became adult writers of today, praised those books. Hmmm.

The truth is, when I wrote Symphony originally, I wasn’t thinking of Amazon Adventure at all. I was thinking of Zane Grey’s Ken Ward in the Jungle, but I didn’t have a copy, and had no way to get one to cross-check my memory. Amazon Adventure was in the local library, so it was the one to be immortalized.

Today things are different. I went to the other Amazon and ordered an eBook containing all three Ken Ward stories. Kindle is my new favorite word beginning with a K. It lets me romp through my out-of-print childhood at a buck a pop, without ever leaving the chair in front of my computer.

The world has changed, and my tastes have changed as well, so I don’t have much hope, but I’m going to give Ken Ward another try.


421. Gobbles Returns

Those who have been with me for a while know that I often give you a glimpse of the life going on outside my door. It’s time for a new installment, because Gobbles came back recently, and I had missed him.

Gobbles is a wild turkey. As I’ve mentioned before, there is a flock of about thirty wild turkeys who come through our acreage about every three days and usually spend an afternoon. A little over a month ago, one of them stayed behind. He was crippled. He carried his left leg bent so that it never touched the ground. When we became aware of him, we were careful not to approach to closely and scare him into leaving.

He took up residence, primarily in our fenced back yard. At first I tried to keep a gate open so he would not be trapped, but then I saw him fly and there was nothing wrong with his wings. After that, we left him alone, talked softly when we were near him, and enjoyed his company.

We wondered where he slept, concerned that he would be vulnerable. We needn’t have worried. After about a week, we happened to be looking the right direction at sundown and saw him fly up into the giant oak tree above our garden. It took him two tries, first to a lower limb and then to a limb near the top. And he had to land carefully with only one functioning leg. Once there, he was as safe as any in the flock he had had to leave.

After a couple of weeks, he started putting his left foot on the ground, but without weight. Then he began to hobble and eventually he hobbled fairly well. Every few days, the flock would come back and he would be with them for a few hours until they left and he had to stay behind.

Then he disappeared. Three or four days later, the flock was back in our yard and one of the turkeys was limping. That pattern still continues. Later, we saw a flock in a neighbor’s yard a mile away, and one of them was limping. No doubt, it was Gobbles.

I grew up on a farm. I know all about animals as food, and animals as economic units. When we raised a new crop of heifers for the dairy herd, typically one of them would fail to get pregnant. No calf means no milk, and that means no money from that heifer. She would end up in the freezer as steaks and hamburger. That’s life on the farm.

I also know the flip side. I don’t want to tell you how many abandoned kittens I have bottle fed to save them. Both relationships are legitimate. Gobbles was somewhere in between. I never touched him, never fed him, never got closer than twenty feet from him. He remained a wild creature, but he came to trust me slightly, and I came to enjoy having him around. I miss him, but I am glad he is out in the wild, back with his flock, doing what wild turkeys are supposed to do.

And if, in a few months, the flock no longer has a turkey among them who limps, there will be two possible interpretations. Either he will have healed so completely that he can no longer be distinguished, or the coyotes will have gotten him. If that happens, my head will say coyotes, and my heart will say healed.

420. Created Equal, Not Likely

I made Neil McCrae an English teacher. This has quite a few advantages in that English teachers deal with emotions and hidden meanings. That works out well in writing about teaching.

Personally, I wouldn’t teach English for five times what they paid me. It is too hard. Any question you pose has fifty answers, and you have to read all of those awful student papers. I read my share one year when the English teacher, the History teacher, and I set up a cooperative teaching situation. Every student researched and wrote a paper on some nineteenth century scientific innovation.

In case you never thought about it, the nineteenth century is when science took over mankind. 1800 if far more different from 1900, than 1900 is from 2000. Look it up.

Our kids had to look it up. This was only ten years ago — we only did it one year — and for the first time our computer lab was fully connected to the internet. We gave them the time they needed to do the work in school, since many of our students were too poor to be connected at home. While they worked, we walked around to see that they weren’t playing the latest game or copying a student paper on their subject from half-way around the world.

When all was finished, all three teachers read the papers separately, with different criteria, and the papers got grades in all three classes. They got a grade for writing and grammar from the English teacher, a grade for how their innovation affected history from the History teacher, and a grade for scientific accuracy from me. That made for some odd moments.

On student, used to all As, bright, skillful, and cocky wrote a paper on a scientific innovation without doing any research. The paper was beautifully written, carefully printed, neatly bound, and grammatical, but she had faked it. I understand that; a good writer can fake his way out of a Federal prison, and it can become addictive.

All her scientific facts were dead wrong. The paper got an A in English, an A in History, and a D in Science, along with a half-page explanation of why, and a red circle around all her errors.

Does Middle School exist do teach you how to avoid getting caught in High School? Could be.

I taught everything my first year, and a little more science every year thereafter until I was finally down to just science. It’s surprising how many people don’t feel comfortable in science. The imposter syndrome is rampant. Personally, I loved it; it was my favorite subject from the first, and there were a lot of other teachers who were glad to let me do it.

The only other subject with more people who don’t want to teach it, is math. But even math has its advantages. “The answer to the problem is 9.72, Johnny. It doesn’t matter if you think it shouldn’t be. That’s what it is!”

Try saying that in a Civics class when you are discussing Republicans and Democrats.

PE teachers get a bad rap. I’m sure there are some lousy ones out there, but the ones in my school were excellent. Still, thirty years of playing Tate-ball (invented by our PE teacher Mr. Tate) seven hours a day can get to you. Adriana, my friend and the other PE teacher, enjoyed fifteen years of outdoor teaching, but all those early autumns and late springs in the blazing sun finally took their toll. She switched to science. There will be more on this Wednesday.

419. Airship Flamel

As I mentioned previously, I found To Rule the Skies: An Airship Flamel Adventure when its author, Michael Tierney, liked one of my posts and I went to visit his website. I bought it as an eBook, which is an adventure in itself. I read eBooks on my desktop Mac. Things that come through iBooks work fine, but the Kindle download is a piece of crap. As you read, it jumps to a new page every few seconds without any input from the user. The only way to successfully read is with your finger lightly on the mouse, and that only works part of the time. This is particularly irritating since the old Kindle download worked fine.

Let me say at the outset that I loved this book. It was a hoot. However, I’m not sure how many of you will feel the same. It probably depends on your vision of what steampunk should be.

To Rule the Skies reminded me of the books I read when I was a kid back in the fifties. Then books were straightforward, violence was muted, and nobody had any literary pretensions. Irony was unknown.

You couldn’t write a book like that if it were set in today’s world, or in the past as seen from today. You can do it in steampunk. As Perschon said of Oppel’s Airborne, it was a time “before the cynicism and doubt the Great War produced. This is the Gilded Age; this is the time of Victorian Optimism.”

That attitude may not be realistic, but it is a breath of fresh air.

The plot resembled an episode of The Wild Wild West, but the crew of the airship Flamel was pure Victorian British. Stiff, long winded, formal, but that was its charm. The tone was somewhere between innocent naiveté and tongue in cheek.

After all, True Grit isn’t Louis L’Amour, and that is its charm. The same thing works here.

I think its time for an example.

Sparks flew at every connection and disconnection. Montgomery was worried that the chamber was imbalanced and he made ready to pull the switch that would break the connection to the umbilical.  “She canna take it any more!” he cried, and just as he did, the shaking stopped suddenly, and the plasma inside the chamber settled down to a slowly pulsing orange glow.  He spun in his chair and checked the gauges.  “All normal, Mr. MacIver!  The luminous matter reaction has started!”  Montgomery slumped in his chair relieved.

MacIver? Say that one out loud. And engineer Montgomery shouting, “She canna take it any more!” as he performs a miraculous repair on a dying piece of high tech machinery. The pop culture references come thick and fast.

I hope Michael Tierney isn’t insulted if I say it isn’t literature, but, man, is it fun.

418. India by Dirigible

Today the British dirigible Henry V, nicknamed Harry, reached western India, then traveled south from Goa — still in Portuguese hands in 1887 in our world and theirs — to Mangalore (now called Mangaluru) where they will follow the Netravathi River in their crossing of the Western Ghats.

God, I love writing novels

This morning, so far (I’m writing this on Sept. 29), I have four views of various posts. Three are from the USA and one is from India. That is no surprise. As I reported in a previous post, India is the third most common country of origin for those who view my blog, after the USA and Canada. I don’t understand why, but I like it a lot. I have had a strong connection with India since 1967.

(This is in textual parentheses because it is a parenthetical event. I took a brief break to watch Well Read on my local PBS and found a rerun of an interview by Indian author Anuradha Roy. It was both another connection, and a caution that what I know about India is small compared to a writer who is a native.)

During my first year in college, I switched to Anthropology because Biology was going through a phase where, if a study didn’t require an electron microscope, it wasn’t worth doing. I was there to study ecology, and couldn’t see spending my life wearing a white coat in an air conditioned lab. Anthropology seemed a better bet, and I soon became enthralled with India. I even ended up taking a year of Hindi, but a language you don’t speak, goes away. I could still tell you how to get to the Ajmiri hotel, and that’s about it.

When I  was about to graduate from college, my wife and I volunteered for the Peace Corps and were assigned to a project in Mysore, the Indian state which is now called Karnataka. Between my draft number and Nixon’s cancellation of the Peace Corps deferment, we never got to go. Instead, I spent the next four years in the Navy, and then returned to college for an MA where my thesis was on Indian village economics.

Then I became a writer, and I never got to India.

India, however, always remained a part of my writing. In A Fond Farewell to Dying, a young scientist from post-apocalyptic America goes to India which, two hundred years from now, is the only refuge of civilization. In the steamunk novel I am now writing (still in search of a good title) Lieutenant Commander James of the dirigible Henry V is caught up in a conflict between Britain at her peak and her Indian possessions which are beginning their long fight for freedom.

Incidentally, at the other end of the Netravathi River which was mentioned in the first paragraph, is Mysore, the region I was assigned to almost fifty years ago. I never made it in the flesh, but I’m looking forward to going there by dirigible.

God, I love writing novels

417. Sturgeon and Steampunk

If I’ve learned anything in my ongoing study of steampunk, it is that Sturgeon’s Law does not apply. [Sturgeon’s Law: Ninety percent of everything is shit.]

Sturgeon’s rule applies to science fiction, fantasy, literature approved for the college curriculum, and the work of prominent philosophers. It applies to fields where there is some objective means of determining quality.

Steampunk, on the other hand, is so wide ranging that it would be hard to find any two fans who agree on precisely what it is, far less what constitutes good steampunk.

After I read and reviewed Steampunk by the Vandermeers (see 411. Steampunk I II III), I checked out how it fared in Goodreads. The reviews were all over the map. More notably, when reviewers told what stories they liked or hated, no one liked or hated the same stories.

So if Sturgeon is not useful, let’s try this: [Logsdon’s addendum: I don’t like ninety percent of what I try to read.] That is why I’ve read so many first-twenty-pages-of-novels, without finishing them. I’m referring to all novels, not just steampunk.

The Addendum is not just a matter of putting my name beside Sturgeon’s. You could call it Wilkes Addendum, if your name were Wilkes, or Jones Addendum if your name were Jones. I suspect it would still hold. Quality and liking are not the same thing. I frequently read works that are marvelously written, but I simply can’t find any interest in them. That often happens when I dip into the Classics. It happened in some of the stories in the Vandermeer anthology.

On the flip side, some stories are pure fun, even though I can’t claim that they are intrinsically good.

This like/dislike issue comes up all the time when people “like” one of my posts. I always visit their websites. A lot of them are very young or deeply wounded, and are baring their souls. Occasionally I say hello, but mostly I withdraw silently, just happy that the internet is there for them.

Frequently I find a writer who is displaying his work. I always read, but rarely comment, because, “Who am I to judge?” It was under those circumstances that I recently read the first chapter of Echo by Kent Wayne (very much not steampunk). It is a fine piece of fiction, powerfully written, and it will clearly have much to say in coming chapters. It is also quite violent, and the character at the center is not someone I could like — yet, although there are hints of coming change. I short, I rank it high for quality, but I won’t read it further because it takes me places I don’t want to go. My shortest honest response would be, fine work, but not for me.

On the other hand, I also found Michael Tierney through a “like”, bought his purely steampunk ebook To Rule the Skies, and am presently 77% of the way through it. That’s an ebook workaround for the lack of pagination. The novel reads like Tom Swift, the Steampunk Professor and I love it for that very reason. I’ll devote a post to it shortly.

Another thing I have tentatively concluded is that lots of steampunk fans must also love Downton Abbey and Fear of Flying. I’ve lost track of how many heroes and heroines are members of the Victorian upper crust, the heroines also being spunky and liberated.

Oh well, it’s a big tent, with room for everybody. Most of the people inside seem to be wearing top hats with gears on them, but it isn’t required.

416. Steampunk I II III

If you go to Amazon, select books, and type in Steampunk, you will get a supposed 100 pages of 16 entries each. No, I didn’t tap through all of them.

In the novel I am presently working on, I had cause to quote Samuel Johnson’s A man who is tired of London, is tired of life. I think I could paraphrase that as a man who is tired of steampunk is tired of reading. Steampunk seems to encompass everything, which makes it a little hard to throw a rope around.

I have been reading proto-steampunk all my life, but the genre (if it is a genre) has only been identified as such since about 1980. What is it, other than everything? I feel a little like a wild kid in a permissive household; how can I be a rebel if I can’t find any boundaries?

Following that train of thought, I recently got hold of the 2008 anthology Steampunk by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. There are also a Steampunk II and a Steampunk III, hence the post title, but I haven’t seen them. Let me start by quoting from their preface:

In this anthology, we’ve tried to provide a blend of the traditional and idiosyncratic, the new and the old, while remaining true to the idea of steampunk as dark pseudo-Victorian fun. You’ll find stories about mechanistic golems, infernal machines, the characters of Jules Verne, and, of course, airships

The anthology Steampunk consist of thirteen excerpts and short stories, and three essays tackling history and definition of steampunk. I read only bits and pieces of the thirteen, and that needs explaining. I generally don’t like short fiction. I read tons of it when I was growing up and some of it was superb, but generally it is long on the clever and short on humanity.

Perhaps if someone had held my feet to the fire and required that I finish them, I would have found more to like in these short stories. Probably not. I skipped Moorcock because I had read the novel from which the excerpt was taken. I skipped Blaylock because I am reading one of his novels now. Both authors are excellent.

Many of the other stories left me cold. They were strings of events happening to people I could not care about. Also, the stories seemed universally dark. That is a valid anthologist’s choice, but I don’t care for horror and I outgrew dystopias thirty years ago. Life is a mixture of light and dark, and literature has to mirror that if it is going to hold my attention.

Mind you, most of what I sampled was reasonably well written. It didn’t fail for lack of skill, but there did seem to be a lot of throwing ideas around without linking them together. Short stories can sometimes get away with that. The steampunk novels I am presently reading all seem far better structured.

However, there was one shining light. Jess Nevins’ introduction: The 19th-Century Roots of Steampunk was a superb explanation of steampunk’s precursors. I learned a lot from Nevins.