Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present by Brendan Simms

Incredibly well-written. Covers nearly 600 years of European (and world) history without oversimplifying or tipping over into names-and-dates territory. Digs deep into the conflicts of those years to show how the Holy Roman Empire, and then Germany, was at the heart of most of them.

This was a serious corrective for me, since when I was growing up Germany meant Nazis and Nazis were the Last Great Bad Guys (the Soviets were more sympathetic when I was little) so Germany was the country we didn’t talk about much in history class, save to point out all the ways in which Germany had effed things up for the rest of the world.

But leaving Germany out meant a lot of European history and strategy didn’t make sense to me. Why would Britain want to defend Belgian neutrality in WWI? Why did Germany talk so much about encirclement? Why did anyone care that Charles V held both the crowns of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire?

Simms’ book finally filled those gaps in my understanding, and also taught me:

  • During World War I, sauerkraut was renamed “victory cabbage” in the U.S.
  • Spain, as the last fascist power left in Europe at the end of WWII, was singled out as being banned from the UN until it had become a democracy, and was hated by both the US and the Soviets.
  • The experiences of Germany and Poland with weak central governments were used as examples in the Federalist Papers for why the new United States needed a stronger central government.

Final thought: In describing so many historical instances of reform and liberal freedoms granted so the state could raise money and wage war more effectively, Simms ends up making a better argument for war’s utility with just the sidelines of his narrative than Ian Morris did in his book that had that explicit goal.

Genre vs Literary Fiction

How can we tell genre fiction from literary fiction? It’s not enough to add some spaceships and call it science fiction. Nor does putting it in a medieval setting automatically make it fantasy.

I think one part of the difference is that genre fiction seems mainly concerned with jobs, and exciting things happening while people are working those jobs: noble, soldier, scientist, private eye.

Literary fiction is less concerned with jobs, and more concerned with life outside of work: families, holidays, dating. Work is implicitly boring, an obstacle to be overcome.

It’s two polar views of the human condition. In one, work is a calling, and the moral questions revolve around what kind of people get called and how they respond to their calling. In the other, work is background. It’s something that may create conflict, but it’s not usually central to the story.

In other words, fiction written in genre circumstances that doesn’t revolve around work as a calling feels literary, even if it’s set in a far-off alien landscape.

Hence Ian McEwan’s novel Solar, which could have been written as genre fiction, following the career of a scientist toward a breakthrough in cheap solar power, but instead is written in a literary style, more concerned with his life outside of his work and what that says about him.

There’s also Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth, which is sold as literary fiction but to me reads like genre: the central plot-line is the construction of the cathedral, and those called to build it. Characters move in and out of the narrative according to their impact on the cathedral’s construction, and there’s a lot of science-fiction-style description of building techniques.

Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior by John Man

An uneven but interesting short book about the history of ninjas. I like that he spends time dispelling most of the myths about ninjas and tries to get back to their real historical role in Japanese warfare. Towards the end, though, he stretches to try to attach the ninja ethos to the Japanese Intelligence officers of World War II, and ends up sounding like an apologist for actions that all too recently propped up a racist, genocidal regime.

Still, I did learn a few things:

  • Ninjas were basically mercenaries, and they could be samurai or peasants.
  • Ninjas were mostly used as scouts or spies (to find/count enemy troops, discover the weaknesses in a castle, etc) and occasionally hired as a strike force to sneak into a castle and raise hell (or the gate).
  • When ninjas did fight regular troops, it was usually as locals defending their homes from marauding armies.

Reflections: On the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones

An amazingly good book on writing, being a writer, and what it means to write fantasy in general (and children’s fantasy, in particular). Her voice is so strong, it sounds like she’s sitting next to you on the train, telling you these stories about her life and her writing process to while away the time.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Care about all your characters, even the very minor ones with hardly any speaking role at all
  • It’s ok to start the journey without knowing where you’re going, so long as you see it through
  • Don’t let yourself be boxed in by others expectations. Write the best story you can, while you can, that you yourself enjoy.

The Longest Story I’ve Ever Written

…is the novel I started for NaNoWriMo this year.

I say started because while I reached the 50,000-word goal for the month (despite illness, and traveling for two weeks), the novel isn’t done. It’s over 50,000 words long, the longest thing I’ve ever written in my life (my previous attempt at a novel was only 40K), and I’m only a third of the way through the story.

So, I’m going to keep working on it through December (and probably January). My goal is to get through 1,000 words a day, or 30K for each month. Hopefully by Feb 1st I’ll have the first draft of my second novel wrapped up and done.

Incidentally, this is why I didn’t post anything through November. Writing the novel soaked up all my free time, and then some (I was churning out 3,000 words a day toward the end to make up for the time I lost while traveling). Things should settle out now that I’m back to a more sustainable pace, and I’ll get back to the regular M-W-F posting schedule.

Flash Fiction Friday: Oct 31, 2014

In honor of Halloween, three personal ads with a horror twist:

Missed connection: Saw you making dinner last night, that blouse really brought out your eyes. I’m a secret Billy Joel fan, too. If you can tell me which album you were listening to, drop me a line, let me watch you have coffee?

DWF seeks M for night of debauchery followed by dinner. Must have nicely-shaped head. No beards.

Where are you, my sweet Rose? We danced while Nero played fiddle, we smuggled rats to Constantinople, we kissed by the light of Giodarno Bruno’s torch. We had a date for five years later, November 5th, but you never showed. Have you forgotten me? Hope to see you in Chicago next year.

NaNoWriMo 2014

I’ve wanted to finish a second novel for a few years now, and never found the time to do it.

This year, I’m forcing myself to find the time by doing NaNoWriMo. I’m going to start something new, and push every day until I reach the 50K word mark (or beyond).

The novel itself is going to be my take on a sword-and-sorcery fantasy, with a working title of The Hungry Cold.

Here’s the synopsis:

When a sudden blizzard closes the mountain road out of Skallfast, Siobhan and Alastair settle in for days of boredom. But the storm brought something else with it: something that starts killing the townsfolk, one by one, leaving nothing but their bones behind. Can they discover what’s behind the killings, and how to stop it, before the hungry cold claims them as well?

Wish me luck!