Tag Archives: writing

Accidental time capsule: the internet in 2003

I unearthed some ancient backup CDs in a box today. Last time I moved house, I threw out a huge number of old pirated Linkin Park albums and ancient, third-hand copies of Call of Duty 2. But these CDs… they held some promise. Could be anything on there, you know? What was I doing in 2003? That’s ten years ago. I was online ten years ago, but I was also 15. These discs could be the bomb. They could also be a horrifying glimpse into a past best left forgotten. Naturally, I needed to check.

In the end, only one of the six discs actually worked. The rest had been scratched or bent or otherwise degraded. An indication of the transience of data storage, I suppose. I remember a story about how the Army has got warehouses full of vital, secret records. But the machines used to read those tapes, or cartridges or whatever they are, weren’t similarly preserved. So there’s acres of data and no way to ever access it. I suppose someone could reverse-engineer a machine from the tapes themselves, but… it’s obviously not a priority.

Anyway. The contents of these CDs were clearly not state secrets, but could be interesting nonetheless.

What I found was dull, for the most part. Grade 10 maths assignments. Webcomics. Cool robot illustrations. Images saved (from Internet Explorer) or sent (via MSN Messenger). I was clearly very interested in Natalie Portman and Angelina Jolie back then. There’s also a semi-hidden folder containing some relatively tasteful, massively airbrushed photos of Carmen Electra. Poor old 15-year old me. His head would explode if he saw the internet these days.

Along with Warhammer fanart and plastic breasts, I also found a cache of saved Messenger conversations. If you have any of your own similar records saved anywhere, I would heartily recommend deleting them. Don’t look. It’s not worth it. I remember, when I first began using the internet (it was capitalised back then, a proper noun, not yet inextricably meshed with our very beings), that I point-blank refused to use acronyms like ‘LOL’ or ‘ROFL’. In the arrogance of youth, I believed myself a bastion of the English language, a stalwart bastion against the degradation of speech.

As you can imagine, I was a hit at parties.

Jump forward a few years, and it’s clear that my stoicism didn’t last long. Those chat logs are poorly punctuated and emoticon-filled (of course), but there’s also plenty of work that makes me cringe now. Sentences like ‘hwo r u feelin’ abound. It’s not even saving any time! The word ‘you’ is already short enough!

Cut to now, when I’m (ostensibly) a trained and practicing editor. My lady friend has asked me more than once how I can bear to have uncapitalised initial words and other grammatical horrors in my tweets. Obviously it’s in deference to the medium, or maybe I’m just lazy. The jury’s still out.

These days, though, it’s not uncommon to hear ‘lol’ being said out loud, in real life, by otherwise normal human beings. That was one of the many lines I drew over the years regarding ‘net-speak’ or whatever, but it’s obviously folded into the language now. And that’s fine! This is how languages evolve. Of course a whole lot of new words came out of the internet – they come with the ideas. It’s only been ten years since I discovered the wonders of broadband internet, and the next generation along have had smartphones for most of their lives. Terrifying.

“The evolution of language” is no excuse for the current trend of shortening words. Australia’s always done this. Every Dave is a Davo, every smoke break is a smoko. But it’s getting out of hand, and it’s already wearing away my defences. I started with a blanket refusal to brook the word ‘devo’ for “devastated”. Then we got ‘bevvies’, short for beverages, even though it has more syllables than drinks. Now we have ‘gatho’ for gathering, otherwise known as a party (count the syllables).

This is getting absurd, but in the nature of changing language, it’s also nestling deep within the language centres of my brain. Already I catch myself saying “obvs” only semi-ironically. It’s a slippery slope and I’m no longer convinced it’s worth fighting the slide.

Anyway, everyone loves my abbrevs.

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Return to regularly scheduled service

Hello! I have not updated this blog since March, but let’s not worry about that now.

I’ve been reading! Some new stuff, some old stuff, some stuff from the Literary Exploration Challenge (it turns out that I don’t have a lot of experience with actually sticking with anything for a year, so it feels good to chip away at that).

I’m splitting this up into a few chunks. Here’s the first one!

Ragemoor cover

Auto/biography. David Sedaris. Me Talk Pretty One Day.

It’s been a while now, but after reading this, I remember thinking “I get why people like this guy now”. I felt like I understand Sedaris’s schtick, and that maybe I won’t go out of my way to read any more of him in the future. It’s like Woody Allen or weird ice cream flavours: it’s good! I get why people like it! But I get it. Now I don’t have to worry about it anymore.

Chick lit. Ben Schrank. Love is a Canoe.

Predictable. Stock characters and tropes. Occasional weird (stiff? robotic?) writing (“Yes, totally. I touched his shoulder this morning and we got into this intense sex. We’re doing it constantly”). But it’s relatable, realistic (ish) and fun to read. I read it in a day without putting it down, and I guess that’s my review.

Classics. Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Crime and Punishment.

This took me a month to read, which I think is the longest any book has taken me in my life. I finished it at the beginning of March, which is stupid long ago, and I don’t remember how I felt about it. It’s a classic, so it must be good, you know? But I’m always wondering about translated work. There’s always a clunky sentence or odd construction that takes you out of it; that reminds you that this isn’t the work’s original form. I wonder what Crime and Punishment is like in Russian?

Espionage. John le Carré. Call for the Dead.

Another one I read at the beginning of the year. The “call” in the title is literally a wake-up call from the telephone exchange. So it’s definitely aged somewhat.  I love the old-school 60s “tradecraft”, and the names are brilliant (protagonist George Smiley; nemesis “Blondie”; the British Intelligence Service being known as the Circus). I love Smiley.  I’m going to read more of him some day.

Fantasy. Brandon Sanderson. The Way of Kings.

The first in a ten(!!!)-part series from known psychotic/unstoppable force of writing Brandon Sanderson. I enjoyed this because it’s so firmly based in video game ideals. Money can also be used as a source of light; there’s epic/unique armour and weapons; gravity-defying assassins; even class levels. I can’t help but think I would have enjoyed it more if it wasn’t so clearly the first tenth of some ridiculous epic. Lots and lots of worldbuilding and ideas, but could have used a little bit more interesting character interaction.

Graphic novel. Jan Strnad & Richard Corben. Ragemoor.

I was so disappointed by this. Look at that dang cover. This book is stylish as hell, and I absolutely love the pulpy concept, tone, and blurb writing. “Ragemoor! Born of the stars, nurtured on pagan blood… Those who oppose it, it kills! Those it would enslave, it drives insane!” Ridiculous. Too bad the story inside is kind of boring.

 

Come back tomorrow for some more!

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The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, by Chloe Hooper

2008; Penguin Books

278 pages; $24.95

I read The Tall Man for the ‘true crime’ genre in the Literary Exploration reading challenge. I don’t read much crime, true or otherwise, and wasn’t sure what to expect. I was blown away.

Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man has won countless awards since its publication in 2008, but I would take that further and say that it should be required reading for every Australian. I knew embarrassingly little about the case before I read this book.

The 2004 death of Cameron Doomadgee, in custody on Palm Island, the subsequent riot on the island, and the inquest into his death – allegedly at the hands of Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley – are explored by Hooper, who followed the case for nearly three years. She interviewed many of the major players on the island, and even traveled to the remote Queensland outback to speak to Doomadgee’s family. 

The book drew inevitable comparisons to Truman Capote’s true-crime masterpiece In Cold Blood, though the approaches are quite different. The Tall Man is gritty and rather depressing, but has a more journalistic voice than Capote’s. The text is spotted with evocative, and at times beautiful, turns of phrase, however. Of the accused, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, and his history of requesting remote posts: ‘Perhaps these communities drew him with their power – the proximity to sex and death and beauty and horror; to songlines that are badly frayed but still give off some charge; to what is ancient, our deepest fear that good and evil spirits make sport with us.

Systematic racism in the Queensland police force is something that almost every Queenslander is aware of to some degree. Even more so is the novel’s setting – the scene of the crime. Mention the name ‘Palm Island’ to anyone over the age of twenty-four and you’ll get knowing, but perhaps dismissive, nods. The inquest into Doomadgee’s death was marred by racism, corruption, and a general lack of interest from the rest of the country. From Hooper’s account, it’s clear – despite the inquest’s findings – that Cameron Doomadgee was killed by Chris Hurley.

The triumph of The Tall Man is not in the suspense of waiting to see what happens – the reality of the story can be found in the news or Wikipedia articles. What draws you in here, and what holds you there, is the weaving of the myriad threads – most of them frustratingly unresolved – into a cohesive whole. Particularly affecting is the story of the local evil spirits – the Tall Man – who ‘will bash you, but they won’t kill you. That’s all they do to you.‘ The reference to Chris Hurley – who is two meters tall – is clear. Hurley may not have meant to kill anybody – but he did.

This is an engrossing and affecting read. The story is almost ten years old, but sadly remains as timely as when it was published. It would be suitable for anyone with an interest in Queensland politics, police racism, or general true crime.

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“I know what you can do, I’ve seen it. You hold no mysteries, Thaddeus Blaklok.” Kultus, by Richard Ford

2011; Solaris Books

288 pages; ~$9.99.

A friend bought Kultus from the estimable Pulp Fiction Books based purely on its ridiculous cover and blurb (its ridiculosity). I borrowed it afterwards and read it as part of the Literary Exploration 2013 challenge for my Steampunk genre selection.

Needless to say, neither of us were disappointed with Kultus‘s ridiculosity.

Protagonist Thaddeus Blaklok is an occultist mercenary and all-round badass who operates in the grimy steampunk city of Manufactory. The story starts with a gory demonic murder and pretty much stays on that level for the rest of the book. During his quest to get a hold of the Key of Lunos, Blaklok punches and shouts his way through waves of cultists, street rats, and demons. There’s a few hints at some kind of backstory for Blaklok; he seems to have been an important member of ‘the Community’ of occultists in Manufactory, and there are a few references to a tortured past. For the most part, though, Thaddeus is a one-trick pony. He sees no avenues of social interaction beyond hitting and shouting; to him, everyone is either a hapless authority figure (who get in the way, and so must be avoided) or an idiot (who can safely be hit until they stop moving).

So, in all, it’s dumb fun. Dumb – because the characters are one-dimensional at best – but fun nevertheless. There’s demons, “snappy” one-liners, and plenty of steam-powered violence. Manufactory is a pretty standard dirty, zeppelin-dotted steampunk city, although there are a few nods to imagination (the Spires, certain radioactive wastelands). I’m led to believe that demons are fairly standard in steampunk, but Kultus adds angels as well, which stirred things up a little. There’s also the requisite cast of simpering gutter-dwellers, cowardly slumlords, and even a team of hilariously-named superpowered assassins.

The writing itself is… dreadful. I know I’m used to literary fiction (whatever that is); I know I’m a snob when it comes to this kind of thing. In genre fiction, the writing doesn’t have to be groundbreaking. It’s the strength of the ideas which can carry the story. However, not only is Kultus pretty bog-standard in its ideas, the writing is really, really bad. As in ‘I’m not sure how this got published’ bad. I counted three – three! – instances of confused pairs (peel/peal; brake/break; breech/breach), any one of which would be painful enough, but three? Anyway. I think the best way to demonstrate the quality of writing is with a quote.

“Any advantage he could get might give him the edge he needed, and he was sorely in need of an edge.”

Says it all, really.

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“Your life’s going to go a lot of exciting ways before you’re dead.” Canada, by Richard Ford

2012; Bloomsbury.

432 pages; $29.99.

 

First, a note: this is the second book I’ve read for the Literary Exploration 2013 challenge. It’s under the category of ‘literary fiction’. I already read a lot of that, so it’s not exactly exploration, but anyway:

 

First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later.”

That’s the first couple of sentences of Richard Ford’s Canada, and it hooked me right away. Impossible to resist.

That opening sets quite a scene, doesn’t it? We’ll hear about a robbery, then some murders – sounds like a thriller.

Well… not really.

Our protagonist is Dell Parsons, fifteen years old at the time of most of the story. He’s nerdy, interested in chess and bees, but it’s his parents who define him. His father is a cheerful ex-Air Force bombardier. His mother is a tightly-wound Jewish schoolteacher. As we learn right away, they robbed a bank, and that’s what the first half of Canada looks at.

Robbing the bank, for Dell’s parents, is suicide. It makes perfect sense at the time (even to his usually-sensible mother); it ends the lives of those who carry it out (their free lives, anyway). Much is made of the sense of weightless freedom the parents feel after deciding to rob the bank. It’s the last decision they’ll ever have to make. Of Dell’s father: “He always believed he wasn’t the kind of man to rob a bank. This was his great misunderstanding.” There’s a sense that they unconsciously know what they’re getting into – looking for a way out of their lives – but going about it in an indirect, roundabout way. It’s obvious from the narrator’s fifty-year distance, but too huge for anyone to see at the time.

The pace of this section is slow but incredibly deliberate. Chunks of information are interspersed throughout Dell’s reflections on his parents’ natures, the workings of the world, and other metaphysical quandaries of interest to a teenager in 1954. Those chunks, though, often have a huge impact on the story being told, and are mentioned only in passing. Every time something pops up – such as a chapter ending with, ‘I was never there again.’ – it requires a quick rearranging of the reader’s beliefs and expectations.

Something like that, anyway.

At first, I didn’t like the second half of Canada. It felt peaceful, dreamlike – nothing like the burning build of the first half. Eventually I decided that it’s supposed to. The second part, which takes place in Canada (finally) represents Dell’s quiet acceptance of his new position in life. After spending the first part reminding readers how aware children can be of their parents’ true intentions, and how readily they adapt to difficult situations, Dell proves it in the second. It’s a big gear change, from theory and introspection to practice and consequence – but it works.

The third part is a coda, which rejoins Dell in the present day, fifty years later. It’s used to wrap up the few lingering loose ends – most notably, for me, the question of what happened to the narrator’s disappearing twin sister. But I found it unsatisfying because, earlier in the book, so much information is presented in asides and digressions. From the first lines, the reader begins to build an idea of what happened and what’s going to. Part three wraps up the story a little too neatly, though it’s still masterfully told. With the theme that life is messy, that you can’t always predict what will happen – “no matter the evidence of your life, or who you believe you are, or what you’re willing to take credit for or draw your vital strength and pride from – anything at all can follow anything at all.” –  I found it a little jarring to be simply told what happened to everybody. (The last few sentences, though, are wonderful.)

As in many American novels, the setting is integral. Canada reminded me of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories (though not quite as desolate as all that). The scenery – Montana’s prairies, Canada just to the north, the small towns of North Dakota – all push Dell’s father into the bank robbery scheme. In the end, Dell’s parents’ personalities, history, and location make such a scheme all but inevitable.

Here in Australia we don’t really have anything like the US-Canada border, especially in 1954 when the border was not so tightly controlled. It’s just a step away. With the wide-open spaces of Montana pressing down, making people feel lost and invisible, and that huge unknowable country resting gently to the north, is it any wonder that Americans felt isolated, yet somehow beseiged? Is it any wonder that Dell’s parents feel the unconscious need to escape, to be away, no matter the consequences?

Well – I don’t know. I’m young, poorly traveled; a naive child, really, at this scale. But it’s a testament to Ford’s writing that I have these ideas at all. I was transported slowly but seamlessly. I got a glimpse of the small-town life I’ve never experienced, and I got a flash of how that life can exert silent, grinding pressure on people.

That’s the joy and the melancholy of this book. You’re swallowed up by the wide-open spaces of the prairie and the disintegrating ghost towns of the Saskatchewan wilds.

That’s the reason I read so much American literary fiction, I think. Wide spaces. Woods. Colleges. Highways. The long, slow burn of lives, in four hundred pages. If you liked the feeling you got from Bad Dirt, or you just like really good fiction, I think you’ll like Canada too.

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Weather Above Ground, or, the importance of knowing one’s ancestry

There was a heaving, brass-plated furnace in her ancestry; a people, as you know, who are unusual but not unlovable.

This oddity popped up in stories of her line. A burnished great-grandfather who spontaneously combusted. An aunt who could light stoves with a touch.

She had little to mark her burning past except, perhaps, hot skin, and a mental warmth (which could be ascribed to other things).

And so, little was thought of it, until she met a man who had some waterspout or lake djinn among his ancestors. They met and lived in steam.

Of course, we know now that furnace is a dominant trait, which explained the searing winds and bright, cloudless days that followed her everywhere.

When she left on a holiday, the rain clouds, indignant at their exclusion, returned. They sulked over the city until she came back, and burned them away.

 

(please forgive this unscheduled interruption. Normal programming will return in the next few days)

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thon thinks thon’s just great, or, gender-neutral pronouns

Ever since the use of inclusive language became an important element of writing in English – that is, in the last thirty years or so – there has been a huge number of ideas for gender-neutral pronouns.

Originally, a writer could refer to man and mankind with impunity. He (and, invariably, he was referred to as he) was safe in the knowledge that nobody could complain about that generalisation. The late Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind’ is possibly the most famous usage.

As using inclusive language came into style, a number of awkward constructions arose. Replacing man and mankind with human and humankind was simple enough. But then the writer must come to talk about… himself. Or herself. How to proceed? How to refer to the human writer without assuming their gender? Or, at the very least, how to include the possibility that the person being referred to could be another gender?

And so we come to the rather clumsy constructions of he/shehis/hers, or the especially awkward s/he. These are cumbersome in written language, and even more so when spoken.

But wait! one exclaims. Can one not simply use one as a pronoun, rendering all of one’s problems moot? Certainly. But as one sees, the use of one as a pronoun can rapidly get out of one’s control. This is not to mention the archaic tone which arises from its use, certainly not suitable for one’s academic or corporate documents.

In Australia, the Style manual for authors, editors and printers suggests that it may be suitable to use the ‘singular they’. This simply refers to replacing the cumbersome he/she (or similar) construction with they, allowing that word to function as a neutral pronoun, as in ‘When someone is happy, they laugh’.

The use of the singular they is not embraced by all writers of English, however, and so we arrive back at the usual problem in this language: competing standards. The United States, which produces a great deal of the language we read each day, generally prefers the use of he or she or similar.

A huge number of pronouns have been invented in an attempt to fill the gap. A few have entered common knowledge, including zheco, and my personal favourite, thon – though none have actually reached common usage. As before, each attempt to create a standard gender-neutral pronoun simply adds to the long list of alternatives. Illinois English professor Dennis Baron has compiled a (long, long) list of such failures.

Most recently, news of an organically-generated gender-neutral pronoun surfaced in the US. According to the article, linguistic researchers in Baltimore investigated claims that children of the area were using the word yo to refer to themselves and each other, regardless of gender. After performing a battery of tests, the researchers concluded that young people indeed used the word in that sense.

Whether invented specifically, like thon, or evolving naturally, like yo, gender-neutral pronouns are an interesting case of speakers and writers trying to adapt their language for modern needs. It remains to be seen whether any of these useful, inclusive pronouns catch on in any significant sense.

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