What I’ve Been Reading, November 2017

I’ve been reading all kinds of Toni Morrison and all kinds of mystery books, because those are the two English classes I’m in this semester. So you can expect more Morrison and more mystery in the next What I’ve Been Reading post—but that’s actually What I‘ll Be Reading. Let’s get into the ‘ve Been.

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley — This was one of the books in my Mystery/Detective Fiction class, and one of my two favorites that we’ve read so far. My other favorite is Big Little Lies, which I’ll discuss below—the two are sort of tied. Devil in a Blue Dress is Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins mystery, and damn if it doesn’t make me want to read the rest of them. In this book, Easy isn’t yet a PI—he’s just a working-class African-American man who’s moved to Los Angeles in the Second Great Migration, after serving in World War II. A day after being fired from his job, a man approaches him offering money for him to find Daphne Monet, a white woman who often visits black jazz clubs. After some reluctance, Easy takes the job—and spends the remainder of the book trying to work his way out of the dangerous web he’s put himself in.

It doesn’t really have the precision and clarity of a detective story, mainly because at various points Easy doesn’t give a shit about solving any kind of mystery. It’s more like what would happen if an ordinary person wandered into the middle of a hard-boiled detective world, bumping into various rackets and intrigues, but not doggedly pursuing any hidden truth. Easy does end up solving some mysteries, and does so well enough that by the end he decides to become a professional PI, but the plot of the book is really about him trying to survive. To that end, it’s a great book. Well-paced, fun characters painted in many different shades of sinister, and a first-person narrator with lots of attitude.

What makes it stand out is the multitude of broader issues it manages to touch on. Obviously, being a crime novel with a black protagonist in 1940s L.A., the book addresses race and police brutality, but more unexpectedly, it also delves into masculinity, the effects of war on veterans, and, principally, money. Here’s one quote that should give you an idea of what I mean:

“Mr. Todd Carter was so rich that he didn’t even consider me in human terms. … It was the worst kind of racism. The fact that he didn’t even recognize our difference showed that he didn’t care one damn about me.”

And later on in that chapter,

“I got the idea, somehow, that if I got enough money then maybe I could buy my own life back.”

The book is full of these little observations, and scenes which prove the truth in them. They bring a level of grit to the book beyond just the aesthetic grit of the hard-boiled genre, a grating toughness that penetrates beyond the world of the book and into our own world. It’s a quick read, and well worth it.

Displacement by Lucy Knisley — Displacement is a graphic novel memoir which describes a cruise trip Lucy Knisley went on with her grandparents. As Knisley sets up, her paternal grandparents have dementia to varying degrees, so if she doesn’t accompany them, they can’t go on the trip. While the trip, and the various snafus that arise from the combination of travel and alzheimer’s, form the main body of the story, Knisley weaves in memories of her grandparents from her childhood, and excerpts from her grandfather’s own memoir, describing his experiences in WWII.

Knisley is unflinching in her portrayal of mortality and senescence, and at the same time finds the humor in the stressful situations which arise throughout the book. What could’ve been a simple travelogue, transporting the reader onto a caribbean ocean liner, is instead a multi-layered story of family expectations, quarter-life-crisis, and end-of-life care.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty — Another book I read for my mystery fiction class, another book which is positively fantastic. In the first chapter of Big Little Lies we learn that a student’s parent has died at a school trivia night, and a murder investigation has been launched into the death. Then the book jumps back “Six Months Before the Trivia Night,” and spends the majority of its length working up to that point. And throughout, we get snippets of witness statements from tertiary characters who were at the trivia night—though nothing from the main and secondary characters.

There are three main characters—Madeline, Celeste, and Jane—three mothers who have children entering kindergarten at the same time. Jane is a young single mother with one boy, Ziggy, whose father is alluded to as being some dark, troubling element in Jane’s past. Madeline has two kids, one the daughter of her ex-husband, once an absentee-father, now remarried and trying to be a good dad, with joint custody over their daughter, the other the daughter of Madeline’s new husband. And Celeste has an apparently perfect life, with two lovely twin boys and a fabulously wealthy husband—though she too has some initially unknown trouble hanging over her. Madeline and Celeste, already friends, quickly befriend Jane, and try to help her navigate the school politics of Pirriwee—a small coastal town, so small that children and parents of all backgrounds are pushed together into the same single school.

More than a mystery, this book is a spectacular drama. Each of the three main characters has some fundamental source of struggle in her life—Madeline’s strained relationship with her ex, and their daughter, for example—upon which more and more conflicts are heaped throughout the story. The knowledge that the book is heading toward a fatality provides this tension early on, but pretty soon the suspense and anxiety of the book is being perfectly sustained on its own. The last third or so of the book, Piriwee becomes a pressure cooker, and when I got to this point in the audiobook, every free second I got I would be listening to it. With these three characters, Moriarty is able to explore the enormous pressures placed on mothers and on women, describing stories of abuse, self-esteem, sexuality, family, money. Not that this book has a thesis statement—it is primarily a riveting symphony of interpersonal struggles, but it does a masterful job of putting the reader in these no-win situations that are, to varying degrees of severity, experienced ubiquitously among women.

I’m about to start watching the HBO miniseries adaptation, and I’m so excited to re-experience all the twists and turns, all the lovable and hatable and bothable characters. I highly recommend this book, and I can highly recommend the audiobook of it read by Caroline Lee.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison — Of the three Morrison books I’ve read so far (The Bluest Eye and Sula being the other two), Song of Solomon is easily my favorite. Morrison’s complexity and nuance, her simultaneous poetic and concrete voice, are present in all three novels, but in Song of Solomon her characters get a chance to breathe.  In Sula and the Bluest Eye, it seems like characters and themes only ever get one scene—that is, if we’re to understand that a character is a conformist, there will be only one scene where that conformism is strongly showcased. This makes for a faster read, but not as much weight and heft to the themes and characters, with only one or two really substantial characters in a whole book. In Song of Solomon, Morrison takes the time to rework themes and characters, developing a rich portrait of the black experience, family life, and wealth.

The book follows Macon Dead III, known by all as Milkman, the son of a property manager in an unnamed city in Michigan. Milkman seems to be plagued by people who “want his life”—his friend Guitar wants him to care more about racism, his dad wants him to work for him and eventually take over the business, his ex-girlfriend literally wants to take his life—but Milkman just wants to cruise through life without trouble. The first part of the novel steadily develops the characters surrounding Milkman, their backstories, their current entanglements—a typical Morrisonian cast, from all different social backgrounds with all different lifestyles, each person complicated, each person more than one thing. The second part of the book really begins when Milkman learns that his aunt Pilate has some gold that she and Milk’s father found when they were kids, and Milkman, Macon Dead II, and Guitar plan to steal it. Getting the gold is not a straightforward proposition, and Milkman eventually has to travel south, retracing his father’s migration in reverse, to try and find the treasure—believing that in some way, this gold will set him free from all the people trying to own him.

Morrison’s understanding of human nature, of interpersonal conflict, is impeccable. Every character is overflowing with insightful details about how people contend with social status, with capitalism, with racism, with love—and by the end of the book, you have a wonderful sense of the landscape that Milkman inhabits. I think it’s the mark of a terrific novel that I could, with ease, list off a dozen or more characters from it, and discuss their desires and flaws in depth. I highly recommend it.

The War of Paraguay: Chapter III, The Abolition of Privateering

Note: This chapter is hardly relevant to the Paraguayan War, but it’s incredibly short, so why not translate it? It’s so short in fact, I also translated the footnote included with it. I don’t normally include translated footnotes in this online version of the book, but I figured I’d do so for some of the shorter chapters that would be just a few paragraphs without them. Maybe you can get an idea of what the footnotes-and-all version of the book is like from this. To be clear: The “Footnotes” are from Nabuco, the original author. “Translator’s Notes” are my own.

In the time of the Paraná ministry Brazil adhered to the four principles of maritime law proclaimed in the Congress of Paris of 1856 (1)—namely, abolition of privateering; inviolability of enemy merchandise under a neutral flag, except contraband of war; inviolability of neutral merchandise even under an enemy flag; and requirement that a blockade be effective to be respected (2).

Congrès_de_Paris,_1856
1856 Épinal print of European sovereigns at the Treaty of Paris.

Brazil’s adherence was harshly derided as entailing the abandonment of the only resource at our disposal in case of a war with any naval power, but it is true that the principles sanctioned in the Congress of Paris mainly benefited weak nations without armadas. That same behavior of the United States was only a diplomatic strategy to obtain what they wanted: complete immunity of private property on the sea (3) (i).

The foreign policy of the ministry also touches on the issue, or better said, as we will see further on, the various issues of the trafficking of Africans, a constant motive for the English legation for interference. (5)

Footnotes

i. In the congressional session of 1857 (15 June) Paranhos defended his ministry’s act in this manner: “The United States did not adhere to the new maxims approved by the Congress of Paris, because they wanted to take the principle of inviolability of non-offensive property to its logical conclusion, and (in the same way that privateering was abolished) for the safety of property belonging to one of the belligerents to stay guaranteed against enemy ships at sea. The United States did not maintain that privateering was a strategy to which one could resort in the current state of civilization, nor did they deny that it could seem a kind of organized and legal piracy … According to the signatory powers of the Paris Declaration, the four principles should be considered inseparable. A partial adherence is unacceptable; one must accept all or none; the power that doesn’t accept this accord will remain excepted from its application. (Doctor Nabuco: “Seconded.”) So that if we had not accepted it, in case of a war in which any of the powers that signed the treaty of 30 March 1856, or any of those that later adopted those same principles, took part, Brazilian merchandise would be easy prey under an enemy flag, and enemy merchandise would not be protected by the Brazilian flag. Now, should we sacrifice peacetime advantages to an expedient in war? Would this be an agreeable policy for the Empire, which in all its foreign relations, as a rule, practices justice and moderation? (Senhor Jacintho de Mendonça: “And it doesn’t even have any standing as a convenience to the Empire. The history of the war in the South could tell you that.” (4) Senhor J. Otaviano: “Seconded.”)
“Would such conduct suit the Empire that has a navy still very reduced and whose exports are made almost totally through foreign ships? I believe not … Senhores, steamships have reduced the services that privateers can lend down to a very little thing, and the nations that have a great maritime force also have a large merchant marine; if they wish to take advantage of that resource, they will surely surpass those nations of lesser naval power.”

Translator’s Notes

1. A post-Crimean-War meeting of European powers.
2. Here’s the full text of the provisions, courtesy of the International Committee of the Red Cross: “1. Privateering is, and remains, abolished; 2. The neutral flag covers enemy’s goods, with the exception of contraband of war; 3. Neutral goods, with the exception of contraband of war, are not liable to capture under enemy’s flag; 4. Blockades, in order to be binding, must be effective, that is to say, maintained by a force sufficient really to prevent access to the coast of the enemy.”
3. The US wanted all non-military merchandise to be protected during wartime, even enemy goods under an enemy flag, and they proposed this as a provision at the Congress of Paris. The provision was rejected, so the US did not formally adhere to the declaration, because it did not go far enough.
4. “War in the South” likely refers to the Cisplatine War, a war Brazil fought against Argentina and the nascent state of Uruguay. During this conflict, Argentinian privateers wreaked havoc on Brazilian merchant ships.
5. We will not see this later on. Nabuco here refers to the next section of Um Estadista do Imperio, titled “Trafficking and Slavery,” which was not included in the excerpt La Guerra del Paraguay, because it has nothing to do with the war. There will be later discussion of slavery in this book, as it relates to the Paraguayan War, but not about its relation to trafficking or the Paraná ministry.

The War of Paraguay: Chapter II, Montevideo

Note: This chapter deals with an incident which occurred in the aftermath of the Uruguayan Civil War, which I just wrote a whole supplementary post about. I recommend reading it before reading this chapter, if you have not already.

The situation in the Eastern State at the end of 1853 also appeared full of difficulties. In February 1854 the Uruguayan government requested the Empire’s intervention, invoking the 12 October 1851 treaty of alliance (1). Not without much hesitation, our government decided to send to Montevideo a division under the command of General Francisco Félix. No unpleasant event, fortunately, resulted from the presence of that Brazilian force in our neighbor’s capital; but in August 1855 the republic again entered a period of crisis, seeing the president, General Flores, forced to abandon the capital, where immediately a de facto government was formed (2). In this way, the danger of a civil war arose, in which we could see ourselves entangled, along with the Argentine Republic and Buenos Aires. Through all the time of the Paraná ministry the Argentine Republic was divided into two governments: that of the Confederation, whose capital was Paraná, under the presidency of Urquiza, which the thirteen provinces obeyed; and that of Buenos Aires, reduced to the province of Buenos Aires.

Brazil did what was most prudent, given the circumstances: Limpo de Abreu, who shortly before had left the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was sent to the Plata on a special mission. But before arriving at his destination, the rift—the cause of his departure—was fixed, General Flores having resigned from the presidency, and having been replaced by Bustamente, president of the senate, in accordance with the Constitution.

To this episode Nabuco (3) refers in the following congratulatory message to his colleague from Foreign Affairs: “Y.E., deign to accept my congratulations for the agreeable solution that before your arrival had had the political contention that caused your appointment. Fortune not only accompanies you, but it precedes Y.E.’s steps.”

The following paragraph from an intimate letter to Boa-Vista proves completely the sincerity of the Empire’s politics and the selfless thoughts that animated it. “The policy that we pursued in the Eastern State was not one of balance, but rather one of observation. It was fit, senhor barón, to judge whether the casus fæderis, or cause to comply with our obligation to lend aid to the legitimate government, had arrived; it was fit to know from which part the beginnings of stability would be; it was fit that we would not, beguiled by sympathy, identify ourselves with a foreign party, going along with it—to the detriment of Brazilian relations—in its fortune and adversity, or imposing its will upon the Republic; it was fit to not have the ambitions of the Blancos nor those of the Colorados, a rivalry that was born and appeared after the victory (4); it was fit that Brazil’s intervention was not seen as an imposition, as complicity in the revolutionary movement, as partiality in favor of the Colorados, but rather as a necessity, a desire of all, Blancos and Colorados, as a principle of security for Brazil itself and for the Eastern State. Time, and only time, will show the true character of Brazil’s conduct. Time already vindicates us, and you vindicate us when you say: ‘It is essential that Brazil not be at the mercy of the ambitious of Uruguay.’”

Translator’s Notes

1. Refers to the treaty ending the Uruguayan Civil War, which granted Brazil the right to intervene in future conflicts in the country. In 1854, there was conflict brewing within the Colorado party.
2. This refers to the Rebelión de los Conservadores, a revolt against the Colorado president Venancio Flores by dissidents within his own party.
3. That is, José Tomás Nabuco Jr., the father of Joaquim Nabuco, and a Brazilian politician.
4. The two major political parties that emerged from the Uruguayan Civil War.

The War of Paraguay: Supplement 1, The Uruguayan Civil War

Next week’s chapter will deal somewhat with the aftermath of the Uruguayan Civil War, a conflict in Uruguay which lasted from 1838 to 1851, and which eventually pulled in Brazil. So, this post should provide the background information necessary to make sense of that chapter.

The War in Uruguay

Fructuoso_Rivera.jpg
Portrait of Fructuoso Rivera by Baldassare Verazzi

In July 1836, the forces of Fructuoso Rivera clashed with those of Manuel Oribe at theBattle of Carpintería. To distinguish themselves, the two sides wore divisas, colored bands of fabric. Oribe’s were white, blanco, Rivera’s red, colorado. With this clash, and the ensuing war, the two political parties that would dominate Uruguay for the remainder of the century were formed. The nation had experienced frequent rebellions and insurrections by caudillos—military leaders with spheres of influence in different parts of the country—but the caudillos were quickly being absorbed by these two groups.

Let’s rewind a few years. Rivera, one such caudillo, was the first constitutional president of Uruguay. His presidency was plagued with insurrections, especially by the old revolutionary Juan Lavalleja. (Actually, Lavalleja, Rivera, and Oribe were all old revolutionaries, who had fought first Spain and later Brazil to secure Uruguay’s independence.) Fearing that Lavalleja would win the presidential election of 1835, Rivera decided not to run, instead throwing his full support behind Manuel Oribe. Oribe won the election, but before Rivera left office, Rivera assigned himself the position of Commander General of the Interior.

Oribe inherited a depleted treasury and a corrupt bureaucracy, into which he appointed a commission to investigate. Oribe also dismissed Rivera as Commander General after Rivera had decided to lend military support to the Riograndense Republic, a newly independent state formed from the Brazilian province of Rio Grande do Sul. Oribe, not wanting to anger the Empire of Brazil, replaced Rivera with his brother, Ignacio Oribe. Naturally, this did not sit well with Rivera—nor did Oribe’s pardoning of old supporters of Juan Lavalleja. In 1836, Rivera launched a revolution, whose first major battle was the Battle of Carpintería.Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Chapter the First, Pedro Ferreira’s Mission

Strategic_Situation_1865
Map of the Río de la Plata region, from George Thompson’s 1869 book The War in Paraguay

A delicate task in the Río de la Plata was fitted to the Paraná ministry (1), the task of guaranteeing the results of the Battle of Caseros (2), and of the ministry of 29 September’s policies (3). Of Uruguay, whose independence we had contributed to saving, of the Argentine Confederation, and of Buenos Aires, whom we had helped liberate from an overwhelming tyranny, we only wanted to be good and loyal neighbors (4); but it was no easy matter, to live in peace with any of them, since the so-called balance of the Plata threatened at every moment to unite them all against us. Peace could only be the fruit of a continuous vigilance and a consummate prudence. And even so, it was in an instant threatened.

López I (5) had given the Brazilian minister Leal his cards (6), accusing him in a note of “being dedicated to scheming and imposture in contempt of the Supreme Government of the State,” and of raising atrocious calumnies against him. With this note arose an issue from which war between both countries could come, and if events had proceeded in another way it is certain that war would have developed.

In demand of reparations for the offense done by the president of Paraguay to the Brazilian minister, the government of Brazil sent to Asunción (7) a fleet lead by Commander Pedro Ferreira, who was made plenipotentiary. At the Paraguayan government’s command, the fleet stopped at the mouth of the Paraguay River (8), Ferreira advancing on the steamer Amazonas, which ran aground before arriving at Asunción. Then began a singular correspondence between the Brazilian envoy and the Paraguayan government, which wound up with Fereira agreeing to board smaller steamers to escape the Amazonas. Such bad beginnings seemed to herald the failure of the mission.

Commander Ferreira’s behavior was quite criticized then, but it seems likely that abstaining from forcing the Paraguay River, at López’s order, was the most prudent and discrete resolution that he could adopt. “Our negotiator and admiral’s instructions,” wrote Paranhos (9) shortly after, “authorized him, in certain cases, to proceed in an energetic and military manner. If this wasn’t so, he would not have shown such determination to justify, with so much deliberation, the conduct that he observed from Tres Bocas … Denied the reparations, and with it the passage of his ships to Mato Grosso, not only was he authorized to force the way, he had orders to do it, and to send two or three of the ships that comprised his expedition to the Brazilian waters of alto Paraguay, and, in this way, await new orders from the imperial government.”

Fragata_a_Vapor_Amazonas
The steamship Amazonas, circa 1880

Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Foreword

39E.jpg
Watercolor by José Ignacio Garmendia, depicting Paraguayan soldiers ambushed while pillaging the allied camp’s commissary in the Second Battle of Tuyutí

I’m very excited to write that tomorrow, I will post the first chapter of The War of Paraguay. Before I do, I want to establish what exactly this thing is, what you should know before reading it, why I think its cool, and what my ultimate plans with it are. But before any of that,

Francis, what’s up with the title?

The title is a near literal translation of the Spanish, La guerra del Paraguay. It should be translated as The Paraguayan War, because that’s the English name for the war—and that’s how I translate it whenever it appears in the text. But for the title, I’m using The War of Paraguay because there is already a book titled The Paraguayan War, and there could well be more books with that title. I don’t think its that important since the title isn’t even the original author’s invention, as I’ll explain right now:

What is this book?

This book is an excerpt from Joaquim Nabuco’s Um estadista do Imperio (A Statesman of the Empire), which is a massive work chronicling the political scene in the Empire of Brazil, from 1813 to 1878 (pretty much the whole life of the Empire), with a special focus on Nabuco’s father, the eponymous estadista, José Nabuco. This excerpt is not a contiguous section of the book—it is pieced together from a few different “books” within Um estadista, which together describe the political, diplomatic, and military events surrounding the Paraguayan War. Each of these books contains multiple chapters, and nothing has been cut from them in the excerpting process, aside from a few footnotes. So each chapter, each book of chapters, is whole, although some of the books have gaps in between them, where Nabuco’s original work had more chapters on matters unrelated to the war.Read More »

New Publication: A Clash at Grozny Airfield

Remember almost exactly two years ago when I wrote a post about Chechnya, based on my research for a story? Well, that story is now available on Smashwords and Amazon!

cover-5In Grozny, the first ever all-robot military unit fights an integrated army of humans and robots. The clash is viewed by five American travelers in an airport café—a veteran, a journalist, two young sisters, and a barista—as the events unfold on TV. Each traveler has a different connection to the distant battle, and they all watch with more and more rapt attention as the integrated forces close in.

Also included is a brief afterword about how I came to choose the setting of the story and write that Chechnya post, and the meaning of the acronym ITF.

What I’ve Been Reading, September 2017

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell – March is a trilogy of graphic novels co-written by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell, detailing Lewis’s involvement in the African-American civil rights movement, up to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Powell’s art is gorgeous and expressive. It captures the weight of small interpersonal moments as well as enormous, historical turning points. To borrow a word from Martin Luther King, it dramatizes the movement in a way that is visceral and inspiring.

For the most part, the books do a good job of interweaving narrative and history—partly because John Lewis’s personal narrative is so wrapped up in the historical events of that time. The mixing of scene and summary is effective, not bogging the reader down in prose, nor abandoning the reader without any through-line to grasp onto. Book two may be the weak link of the trilogy, with long sections of historical events in which Lewis didn’t personally play any part. These passages feel a bit dry and distant, without the narrative thrust or intriguing insights that Lewis offers in the other sections. However, I only really noticed this in book two, because the fact is, John Lewis truly was involved in so many important events at the time.

And that’s what’s terrific about these books—they aren’t just a third-person, documentarian presentation of history—they’re the story of a man who was at the heart of the movement, and who ended up straddling the lines of multiple factions within it. What I found most fascinating was not just the external conflict against people like Alabama Governor George Wallace or Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, but the internal conflict of the civil rights movement. Lewis was one of the earliest members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and over the course of the books, we see it change, growing much larger, becoming more impatient, and we see Lewis pushed further and further out of it. There’s also the internal conflict of the Democratic and Republican parties, as they struggle to reconstruct their agendas around the civil rights movement, and make massive shifts toward becoming the parties we see today.Read More »

Recommendation Dump September 2017

Oh, Hello On Broadway — Oh, Hello is a comedy act created by Nick Kroll and John Mulaney—two comedians who are terrific on their own, and dynamite together. Kroll plays the child-like Gil Faizon, and Mulaney plays the near-psychotic George St. Geegland—two seventy-something New Yorkers who are tantalizingly delusional, pretentious, and mean-spirited. The two have a terrific dynamic that doesn’t smack of the usual straight-man funny-man schtick, since they’re both ludicrous caricatures of elderly Upper West Side residents. Mulaney and Kroll have been refining these characters for over a decade, on Kroll Show, on podcasts, at live shows, and countless other places. Don’t take my word for it—you can watch them on youtube here here here and here, and actually a bunch more places if you like, but those are just a primer.

So, the show itself. The show is part stand-up routine, part parody, and part variety show. The conceit is that Gil and George are performing one of the many plays that George has written, though there is constant fourth-wall breaking throughout, including a long opening segment in which the two introduce themselves, and send-up various Broadway tropes. The play within the play is essentially autobiographical for George and Gil, although the characters in it are much more successful versions of themselves. In the middle of the show is a segment where, embedded as a prank show within the play-within-the-play, the two interview some celebrity—during the run of the show, it was a different person each night, but for the Netflix special it’s Steve Martin. It’s a nice little breather in the middle of the non-stop barrage of jokes and gaffes, where Kroll and Mulaney get to exercise their (practiced) improv chops, and the audience gets to see a different person making jokes on stage.Read More »

Food Waste: Part 2 – Consumption and Solutions

Here’s the second, concluding part of my notes on food waste.

During Consumption

When thinking about food waste, it’s easy to just peg it to the value of the food. This past year was the first time I really had to buy my own groceries. Multiple times, I messed up and didn’t store food properly, or bought too much of it and didn’t eat it fast enough before it got moldy. So when I was throwing away half a bag of green-splotched bagels, my thought was, crap, that’s like two bucks just gone. However when I realize that the faucet has been running all day, I think, crap, that’s a waste of water and energy for water treatment, because I’ve internalized that as the framework to understand water usage. Food waste isn’t a problem because of the dollar value, it’s a bunch of energy expended for no reason at all. So, to throw another analogy at you, it’s not like buying a sword in a video game, and then losing that sword when you die, and having to buy it again. It’s like buying a sword in a video game, and then losing it when you die, and then having all of the assets and coding for that sword deleted from the game, so that the developer has to redesign it and release a patch so you can buy the sword again. I don’t participate in the production of food, so it didn’t hit home to me all the labor that I was throwing in the trash with those bagels—I only knew the value of it as a consumer.

It shouldn’t be surprising that in developed countries, about 30-40% of food waste occurs at the consumption level, which is everything from household meals to restaurants. In restaurants, there are the same problems as at supermarkets re: over-stocking and expiration dates. In households, most cases of food waste can be broken down into a few categories, as outlined in a study of 14 lower-middle income Brazillian families: “(1) excessive purchasing, (2) over-preparation, (3) caring for a pet, (4) avoidance of leftovers and (5) inappropriate food conservation. Several subcategories were also found, including impulse buying, lack of planning and preference for large packages.” So let’s break these down.

“Excessive purchasing” is exactly what it sounds like—buying more food than is need, and more food than can be consumed before it goes bad. Ironically, this over-purchasing is often the result of buying in bulk in an effort to save money, or taking advantage of sales or BOGO bargains even when the family already has enough of the product at home. So the savings may be negated by the amount of food wasted. Excessive purchasing is also linked to unplanned shopping excursions—going to the store without a list, as “Only two of the 14 families studied prepare shopping lists.” In a 2012 study on national shopping trends in the US, the Hartman Group found that 69% of women make a list before shopping at a grocery store, and only 52% of men do the same.Read More »

Food Waste: Part 1 – Production and Retail

And now, the synthesis of some notes I took on food waste while doing research for a story I’m writing.

Intro.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines food waste as “uneaten food and food preparation wastes from residences and commercial establishments such as grocery stores, restaurants, and produce stands, institutional cafeterias and kitchens, and industrial sources like employee lunchrooms.” Food waste can occur all throughout the life cycle of a food product, from before the harvest all the way to the dining room table. With the waste that happens at all these different stages taken into account, the percentage of wastage in the US is a pretty big chunk of overall food production. A 2009 study published in PLOS ONE estimates that 40% of food produced in America is wasted, and a 2014 report from the USDA Economic Research Service pegs the number at 31%. In terms of calories, that’s either 1,400 calories per person per day, or 1,249 calories per person per day, respectively.

Obviously, this is a problem. Food production is the dynamo that powers all of human civilization. If that dynamo is inefficient and losing 1.3 billion tons of fuel per year, that’s a problem. If that dynamo is inefficient and losing 1.3 billion blah blah blah, and all of those 1.3 billion tons of fuel took additional fuel and water usage to produce, that’s a really big problem.

To put it another way, the situation isn’t as simple as walking to the store, and taking a wrong turn, and wasting an hour of time being lost before you make it to the store. The situation is driving a gas guzzler/steam engine beast of a vehicle, and taking a wrong turn, and wasting an hour of time and of gas and water and whatever else powers this thing you’re driving before making it to the store. Sustainable farming practices are kind of another kettle of fish, but it’s important to note here that a wasted potato is not just a wasted potato. It’s also a waste of all the resources that went into making that potato, which, depending on what point of the process the potato is wasted at, could be pretty hefty. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that, for the year of 2011, the carbon footprint of global food loss—the amount of energy put into food that ended up wasted—was 4.4 GtCO2, “or about 8% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions [EC, JRC/PBL, 2012 Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research, version 4.2]. This means that the contribution of food wastage emissions to global warming is almost equivalent (87%) to global road transport emissions [IPCC, 2014 Fifth Assessment Report. Chapter 8: Transportation].”

How do we arrive at such an enormous amount of wastage? That’s what most of this two-part series of posts will address.Read More »

New Publications: 19, and 19

19stories-c-1

These aren’t really new—but the format is! Now you can get all the plays I’ve published this past year, or all the short stories I’ve published this past year, in one collection. The plan is to do this every year, with the titles corresponding to my age when I published the stories. Like a Complete Works series, but being put together contemporaneously.

19; A collection of short stories includes “Just Dig,” “The War on Hormones,” “De.mocra.cy,” “Grumbles,” “Boom Town,” and “Calamcity,” as well as all the afterwords I wrote for those stories. As always, you can get it on Smashwords and Amazon.

19plays-c-319; A collection of plays contains Beach Realty of Sandcastle IsleHe Molested KidsMonastery, and We’ll Tell Happy Stories, and the afterwords I wrote for those plays. Available on Smashwords and Amazon.

Play Time: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a classic contemporary play by Tom Stoppard, which follows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters, courtiers in Hamlet, as they are called to the palace to find out what’s wrong with the Prince, and then sent to deliver a message to the king of England. As they are led from one task to another, they catch glimpses of the great Shakespearean tragedy unfolding around them, and wonder at what is going on.

The play explores time in two ways, both of which are fundamentally tied into the medium of theatre—theatrical fatalism, and the conflict between finite time and eternal time.

Now . . . And Now . . . And Now . . .

Life and theatre are eternal and finite.

Life is eternal (or appears so), because it is impossible for a person to really grasp the fact that they have an end, the way they can grasp that a day or a season has an end. As Rosencrantz puts it, “Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on for ever. … And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all.” (71-72)

And life is finite because people are born and they die.

Theatre is eternal because every play can be performed an infinite number of times. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is about two characters invented by a writer that died dozens of generations ago, and the play is still being performed (in fact, it’s currently being revived at the theatre at which it premiered exactly fifty years ago.) It’s also a very immediate medium, not something you can put down and stop like a book. The play is continuing, going from one line to the next, without end. And, especially in a play like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which languishes in long scenes of dialogue and moments of silence, this can give the impression that the thing is boundless. “One is, after all, having [a future] all the time . . . now . . . and now . . . and now . . .” (70).

And theatre is finite because, some exceptions aside, most plays last just a few hours or less.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern addresses this dissonant experience, the simultaneous feeling that we are immortal and knowledge that we are not, both through dialogue and through the form of the play. Of course, it being a play alone emphasizes the themes discussed by the characters, but there are some other formalistic aspects peculiar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that reinforce the concept. To start, there’s the title—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It’s a quote from one of the last lines of Hamlet, and as a title it seems paradoxical. For the majority of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not dead. Those final lines are another formal quirk to the play, and to Hamlet as well, because they’re recursive. The ambassador from England tells Horatio that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,” (Hamlet 5.2.371) and Horatio, surrounded by the corpses of the royal family, tells the ambassador that he will “speak to the yet unknowing world / how these things came about” (5.2.380-381). The end of the play could be the beginning, and the whole thing could circle around on itself endlessly as Horatio tells the story over and over again—but the title, which comes from that same scene, declares how finite these characters are.Read More »

Play Time: An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley

An Inspector Calls is the most famous of J.B. Priestley’s time plays, as well as one of his best-known works in general. The play contains elements of all the other plays, starting with the setting—similar to that of Time and the Conways—of the estate of an upper-class family, the Birlings, in 1912. Unlike Time and the Conways, this play takes place entirely over the course of one night. A police inspector shows up to ask some questions about Mr. Birling’s interactions with a young woman who has just committed suicide—a former employee of Mr. Birling. It soon becomes apparent that all of the Birlings, as well as Gerald Croft, the fiancé of Sheila Birling, had some negative impact on this girl that lead to her demise, which Inspector Goole will extract from them and bring to light. In this way, the play is similar to Dangerous Corner, in the way that every character shares some blame in this girl’s death, and Inspector Goole is piece-by-piece constructing a timeline of events that leads to her suicide. The big “trick” (to use one of Priestley’s words in describing these plays) in An Inspector Calls is that the girl, Eva Smith, has not yet died, until the very end of the play, when the Birlings receive a call from the police station, informing them that Eva Smith has been found dead, and the real police inspector has been sent to question them.

Time and the Conways

Aside from this little trick at the end, the time discontinuity is mostly felt by the audience. Put it this way—the whole play is like the third act of Time and the Conways, in which the audience knows exactly what has happened in the future of the characters, but the characters don’t. There’s even a moment in which Mr. Birling bloviates optimistically about the prosperous future they will all live in. It’s different from the moment where Madge does the same in Time and the Conways though, because Mr. Birling’s is a capitalist dream of the future, in which “the interests of Capital—are properly protected,” (6) and everyone will “have forgotten all these Capital versus Labour agitations and all these silly little war scares.” (7) Birling’s optimism reaches its pinnacle of absurdity (from the audience’s perspective) when he mentions the Titanic—the “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable” ship which seems to embody the pompous optimism of the pre-war period, as well as the promise of industrialism. This ship was a modern marvel, one of whose features was its inability to fail, that almost instantly failed catastrophically.Read More »

Happy Birthday to the Blog!

Four years ago, I wrote the first post of this blog. And then a few weeks later I stopped writing blog posts. Almost two years ago, I restarted this blog, and it’s been going strong (more or less) ever since. So I want to take this anniversary to discuss the past and future of this blog.

The Past

This blog started out (or re-started out) with a very explicit purpose: I wanted to have a place for new readers to land if they’d read me somewhere else, and a place to announce new publications to old readers. A “platform.” And just as importantly, I wanted to get in the habit of writing posts. I wanted to get good at regularly producing content, so that by the time that I actually started pulling in lots of readers, I wouldn’t “be fumbling around with weird disorganized posts like this one, or slacking off and going through long hiatuses.”

Mission accomplished! For the past seven months, I have been publishing one post a week, with the only exception being the week of January 30 – February 5. And, with over a hundred posts published on this site, I’d say I have a platform. It’s a multicolored, wildly erratic platform, with topics ranging from political analysis to theatre to uhhhhh this?, but a platform nonetheless.

So, now that I have achieved this, and this is the new status quo, what is the future of the blog?

The Future

First, something that’s already happened: the blog’s URL is now just “francisbass.com”! Yay! “francisbass.wordpress.com” still redirects to here, but if you have it bookmarked maybe change it anyway, just in case? Anyway, that’s fun.

Second, and more importantly, I definitely want to continue posting every week—specifically every Friday, because that’s the day of the week I’ve been posting on for the past four months. I like blogs / youtube channels / webcomics that update regularly, and I like the way doing this forces me to steadily add to this growing body of work that is the blog as a whole. However, I might have to have occasional hiatuses. I’ve had posts queued up all this summer, but now I’m quickly approaching the end of that queue. I have ideas for other stuff to write for the blog, which I’ll get to in a moment, but it’s pretty involved, meaning that it may take awhile to produce—and I’m heading into a heck of a year, in which I’ll be kept very busy with college, especially Spring of 2018. So rather than slowly squeeze out posts at irregular intervals, if I can’t update weekly I’ll just go on a planned hiatus, which I’ll make sure to announce on this site in some way—probably with a planned date of return as well. Because I appreciate regularity. Be the change you want to see in content creators, right?

Now, here’s the thing about posting weekly, regardless of whether I’m busy or not: the reason I’ve been able to do it for the past six months is that I’ve been putting out two very long series of posts—the Rereading ASOUE series, and the Play Time series. Writing these longer series is a lot easier than writing several stand alone posts, because writing a series, it’s easy to develop a specific format and style that can be used in every post, instead of having to figure that stuff out fresh, as I do with each one-off post. So that’s essentially how I plan to run the blog from here on out, writing multi-part series of posts. Still, I don’t want the blog to be totally overtaken by one topic for months at a time, or to eschew one-off topics that can’t be stretched into whole series, so I’ll try and throw a couple stand-alone posts into the middle of the series as well (as I’ve been trying to do, with some success, these past seven months.)

As for the actual content of those series, I have a few different things I’m mucking about with, which I’m still not certain have enough substance or are interesting enough to make into a series—but one thing I know for sure will be going up on this blog is La Guerra del Paraguay! It’s a Spanish translation of an excerpt of a work written in Portuguese, Um Estadista do Império, and I am currently translating the Spanish excerpt (which is book-length in its own right) into English. The excerpt covers the Paraguayan War, mostly through the lens of the Brazilian parliamentarians and diplomats. I plan to post my translation chapter-by-chapter on this blog, and publish a version of it with translations of appendix material and footnotes as well—though I’ve been working on it all summer, and only just now got to the point where I can start writing the english translation, so who knows when that’ll be. Hopefully starting this fall.

So, that’s the state of the blog, 2017. If there’s any type of post you’d like to see more of, or some preference for frequency of posts you have, or if you think this type of post where I’m just writing about the blog itself is boring, leave me a comment. I feel like it’d be nice to have one of these types of self-reflective posts every year, or maybe every two years like the Olypmics, but who knows. Here’s to finding out!

Play Time: I Have Been Here Before by J.B. Priestley

I Have Been Here Before is the third of J.B. Prietsley’s time plays, written the same year as Time and the Conways. The play explores P.D. Ouspensky’s theory of eternal recurrence, that everyone lives their life over and over again, and déjà vu and precognitive dreams are the result of remembering past lives. Unlike Time and the Conways or Dangerous Corner, Priestley doesn’t develop this idea through any formalistic techniques. The acts occur in chronological order, and it all takes place in the same timeline. The fact that it’s a work of theatre is in itself a formalistic technique, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but otherwise Priestley’s pretty straightforward, and presents the theory in a science fictional style.

The story unfolds over the weekend before Whitsuntide, a week-long holiday celebrated after Pentecost in parts of England. Three interconnected groups meet in the Black Bull Inn: Sam and Sally, father and daughter and the managers of the inn. Mr. Farrant, a teacher at the boarding school which Sally’s son attends. And Mr. and Mrs. Ormund, Mr. Ormund being one of the governors and funders of Mr. Farrant’s boarding school. Ouspensky’s theory comes in with Dr. Görtler, an exiled German scientist who seems to know exactly what everyone is going to do before they do it. The major conflict of the play, which ends up affecting everyone because of how entangled their lives are, is an affair between Janet Ormund and Mr. Farrant. Dr. Görtler attempts to defuse the situation by explaining a dream he had, in which he met Janet at a later time in her life, and learned that she and Mr. Farrant had run off together, causing Mr. Ormund to commit suicide, and the boarding school to collapse. This play seems the most hopeful of the three time plays I’ve so far read, because Dr. Görtler explains that everyone actually is capable of making small changes in their lives—their existence is not circular, they “move along a spiral track … [They] must set out each time on the same road but along that road [they] have a choice of adventures.” (264) Görtler convinces Ormund to let his wife divorce him and start a life with Farrant, and to not kill himself, and so, Ormund escapes the memories of self-destruction in past lives which have always haunted him.Read More »

Game Review: Burrito Bison; Launcha Libre

Originally this was going to be part of a recommendation dump post, but as I wrote about this game, I realized I just have a lot to say about it. Enough to be a post in itself. So, here we go:

Burrito Bison: Launcha Libre is a launcher game from Juicy Beast. You play as a luchador who’s fighting various candy-people (primarily gummy bears) and trying to get a recipe book? I think? It’s been awhile since I’ve watched that opening cutscene, but it hasn’t been any time at all since I last played this game. I’ve been playing it, off and on, for about three months. It’s been my go-to game when I want to listen to music or a podcast or just totally zone-out.

The perfect, addictive core of this game is one that Juicy Beast had been doing a great job with since the first Burrito Bison game (Launcha Libre is the third in a series, and the first two are considerably smaller in scale, but still a lot of fun)—the balance between player input and the flow of the game. If the game relied too much on player input, or relied on more complex player input, it wouldn’t really be a launcher game, and it would be impossible to zone out to it. If the game eschewed player input too much, it would be a lot like most bad launcher games, with too much relying on variance and some lucky bounces to get you far. Some launcher games you can look away from and really not change the experience. Some launcher games it feels like you’re better off not using any of your power-ups or controls, and just hoping to land on a bomb or a bouncy mushroom or whatever it is that will keep you in the air. Burrito Bison is right at the crest of this wave, riding it perfectly, just between falling forward into boredom or falling backward into over-taxation of the brain.

pricklypear-BB
Burrito Bison riding a popped Prickly Pair

Read More »

Play Time: Time and the Conways by J.B. Priestley

Time and the Conways is the second of J.B. Priestley’s Time Plays—six plays (the first being Dangerous Corner) dealing with different theories of time, and how time is experienced. This play focuses on the Conways, a wealthy family living in a prosperous suburb of the fictitious manufacturing town Newlingham, and their declining fortunes between 1919 and 1937. The first act takes place during Kay Conway’s twenty-first birthday in 1919. Aside from Mrs. Conway, the Conways are all in their early twenties or younger, and have their whole lives ahead of them. The boys of the family have just returned from war. Mrs. Conway, the widowed mother of all of them, owns lots of valuable real estate in Newlingham. The future appears bright.

The second act jumps ahead twenty years to the present when the play was written—1937. Most of the Conways have scattered from Newlingham and fallen out of touch with one another, but they are reconvening (coincidentally on Kay’s fortieth birthday) to discuss Mrs. Conway’s finances, which have significantly deteriorated to the point of near bankruptcy. Everyone is disillusioned with their lives, where they ended up, and this point is driven home with Act III, which returns to that birthday party in 1919. We see the Conways interacting with the family friends that will end up being their spouses, and expressing their desires for the future—all of which, we know from the second act, will not come to pass.

Future

Priestley basically analyzed his play for me:

“KAY: But, Alan, we can’t be anything but what we are now.
“ALAN: No . . . it’s hard to explain . . . suddenly like this . . . there’s a book I’ll lend you—read it in the train. But the point is, now, at this moment, or any moment, we’re only a cross-section of our real selves. What we really are is the whole stretch of ourselves, all our time, and when we come to the end of this life, all those selves, all our time, will be us—the real you, the real me.” (177)

The book that Alan, the oldest of the Conways, is going to lend Kay is almost certainly J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time. Priestley was continually interested in Dunne’s theory of time, exploring it in plays and essays throughout his career. An Experiment with Time posits exactly what Alan explains to Kay, with the additional claim that in dreams, our consciousness is able to experience the whole stretch of our existence, delivering precognitive visions of the future. Kay has this experience in Act III, apparently seeing some vision of Act II while Mrs. Conway is talking about how wonderful the future will be for the Conways. Of course, this is also the experience of the audience, throughout all of Act III. Having just come from the grim, shabby household of 1937, the jubilance of all the characters in 1919 rings false and discordant.Read More »

New Publication: Play Time, and Smashwords Sale

EDIT: A PREVIOUS VERSION OF THE PICTURE FOR THIS POST SAID MY ALL MY EBOOKS WOULD BE 75% OFF. PICTURE HAS BEEN UPDATED TO THE CORRECT DISCOUNT, 25% OFF.

If you’ve been reading my Play Time posts, you can now get all of them—plus the next four which won’t all be online until a month from now—in one convenient place, on Smashwords or Amazon. And if you haven’t been reading them, here’s what they’re all about:

playtime-c-2-alt4-NOTEfavoriteThis past spring semester I needed to fulfill my university honors requirements, so I “contracted” a creative writing class focused on time, by designing an additional curriculum of nine plays that I would read and respond to—all of them dealing with time in some way. Thus, Play Time—nine essays analyzing specific plays, pulling apart the ways the playwrights are using the medium of theatre to manipulate or comment on or distort or theorize about time. The idea wasn’t so much to definitively state What X Play is About, but more to point out what I find interesting in each play, and figure out how the artist—or how theatre as a medium—achieved it.

And if you get Play Time on Smashwords, you’ll get it for 25% off! For the month of July I’m participating in the Smashwords Northern Summer/Southern Winter sale, so all my ebooks there are 25% off, and Beach Realty of Sandcastle Isle and “Calamcity” are 50% off. Because those two pieces are about beaches, and Florida, and summer, and it’s summer in Florida right now. So, you can have some cheap beach reading, or some escapist reading if you’re in the southern hemisphere and you need to remember what sunshine is like.