Friday, January 31, 2014

Seeds - original short fiction

 I have randomly and suddenly decided to write a short story every day from the last day of January until the first day of March - this will give me a good, round month of short story writing. All of these will be original works, all of them by me, none of them with anything intentionally in common. This isn't a planned project, just 30 days of trying to get better at writing. All of these will be rough and unedited by anyone but me. If any of them are worthwhile at the end of my experiment, I'll polish them up and consider putting together a collection. I hope you enjoy reading these stories, I'll try to enjoy writing them.

by Alli Kirkham

It was a cloudy day in winter when the vendor went door-to-door, wheezing out the prices of his goods and trudging, getting more refusals than buyers the farther he went.

He carried his boxes of berries up each front path, displaying them at each front door. They got uglier as the day went on, bruised from the vendor's jouncing walk and leaking sticky juice through skin broken by their weight on the green plastic ribs of the pint bins they were carried in. Each door closed faster, each face seemed colder, and the berries seemed heavier the longer he scraped along.

He sat down on a bench in a park, pulling a mangled sandwich out of his pocket for lunch and enjoying an unexpected patch of sunshine. He looked around, chewing. There was a girl standing near him. Looking at him. He swallowed the lump of bread in is mouth and tried to smile; feeling crumbs stuck to his teeth he decided to nod instead.

The girl nodded back. She was youngish, tallish, and girlish but wasn't really a girl. Probably in her thirties, she only looked little and young because of her painfully obvious nervousness. Her hands shook. Her chin jutted at an odd angle. She held her weight on one leg and looked ready to scamper away like a startled squirrel if he moved too quickly.

"How much?" she croaked at him.


"Um. Cuánto. Por las fresas?"

"Cuarenta para todas. Forty."

"Solemente tengo cinco," she replied, holding up one hand with straight fingers pointed in all directions like a starfish.

"Is three for a little box. But I give you two for five."

"Okay. They smell good."

"Yes. Very fresh."


She sat in the plastic jungle gym with her legs crossed around the baskets. She could almost hear the static electricity surrounding her, and could feel its pressure on her face when she leaned closer to the slide. It made her hair stand up in an absurd halo as she picked through the strawberries.

Anything that was too squishy or had dark, slimy bruises or was lacerated by its box was put onto a white square of tissue by her left knee. Healthier-looking berries had their leaves removed and added the pile of softly rotting fruit before getting popped into her mouth. Her teeth caught seeds and started to take on a red tinge. The warming plastic capsule around her was packed with the juicy, tangy scent from the bitten-off stems.

She finished one bin and transferred the detritus back into the empty basket, bleeding berries and all, and started picking through the second box. She discarded two squashed berries and one with spots of mold . It was getting hot in the jungle gym. It was too hot for winter. The clouds had evaporated away and left bleak, blinding sunlight behind turning the hollow walls around her into a blinding primary blaze. The static electricity hummed only in her right ear. Very fresh. The strawberries tasted too sweet. Rotten. She uncrossed her legs and bounced her knees as circulation was pricklingly restored. She couldn't remember why she chose to eat her lunch in the park. She wondered where the children who should have been playing were. She found a strawberry that was white at the end and curled like a fist, a washed-out mutant. And ate it. And pulled another one out of the basket.

It was enormous. The size of an apple, red and perfect and disturbingly huge. She looked at it, then squinted at the sky through the monkey bars. The clouds were coming back and the sky didn't hurt to look at any more. She couldn't eat a berry that size. Someone needed to see it. She worried that it was a freak and it would make her sick. Strawberries in January - they were all freaks anyway. She fished a seed out from between her teeth with the end of her tongue then wrapped the absurd berry in two clean new tissues and a brown paper bag. She climbed out of the warm plastic box. She carried the bag in one hand and her trash in another.


She hadn't found anyone to look at her strawberry, so it sat on the quiet counter of her kitchen and stared at her. She didn't want to put it in the refrigerator but thought that baking a pie for a single berry was too much work. She folded a napkin in front of it and placed a knife and fork on either side. She put the knife and fork away and folded the napkin into a crane which she placed on top of the berry. She took a shower and before stepping into the water saw in the mirror that her mouth was rimmed with red and her teeth were filled with seeds that looked like spider eggs. When she got out of the shower her crane was gone.


She showed it to her roommate when he came home.

"I have to eat it before it eats me. Or you could have it," she said.

He laughed. "That is the biggest, reddest strawberry I have ever seen. You know, in stories fruit like that will either kill you or grant wishes."

"Good," she said, "because I wish I was dead. Works either way."

He laughed again, and fixed a flat stare on her. He decided that she was joking. "Then I guess you got lucky when you found it."


The next morning she knew the strawberry was going bad. When she picked it up she could feel the skin shifting slightly over the liquefying insides. It left a faint stain on the counter. She thought about freezing it in a bowl of hot water - it would be so clear and pretty and she could take it out and look at it forever. She didn't want to put her strawberry in the freezer, where the cold would harden and crystallize it and the flavor would dissolve into a tart memory. She looked for a sharp knife and prepared to cut into it, wanting to carve it into infinitely thin slices that would disintegrate on her tongue one by one so that she could eat the spoiling berry for hours, but lost interest in the fantasy before she could raise the knife out of the drawer. She considered twisting it in half like she had seen some people twist apples, but figured it would just turn into a messy pulp in her hands. She stuck out her tongue and licked the very end of the fruit. It tasted like summer, but it was always summer here so that didn't matter.

In the end she let it rot. When it was more liquid than solid she buried it in the loose soil next to her front step and hoped that more would come. It gave her something to look forward to, at least.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

It's just not cricket

 Punch Magazine understands that women don't care 
about sports - they just want to secure a good husband.

A few weeks ago I went out to lunch with my husband when we were both bemused to find cricket on television at the restaurant. We got through our meal somehow, though we were both looking over the other's shoulder at big-screen TVs and trying to make sense of cricket; there was so much discussion of bowling and padding and wickets going on between the two of us that it's surprising we managed to put any food in our mouths.

My knowledge of cricket is limited to a vague recollection of a few pages from In a Sunburned Country where Bryson narrates the surreal discovery of Australian Cricket Radio. I struggled to remember anything other than tea-breaks and ovals to explain the odd things happening on the TV (the broadcast was in a language that I couldn't identify, let alone understand).

After this strange, awkward lunch I devised a kind of personal challenge. I want to see if I can figure out cricket without looking it up on Wikipedia or watching English broadcasts. To this end, I decided that the second book I would read on my Kindle was to be Mr. Punch's Book of Sports: The Humors of Cricket, Football, Tennis, Polo, Croquet, Hockey, Racing, &c. so that, through the humor of Punch, I might better understand cricket while also getting a laugh or two in at the society that produced the sport.

Unfortunately, now that I've read it, cricket makes less sense than it did before and I'm pissed at the Victorians.

About half of the book is directed at making fun of athletes and the sports obsessed; the remainder of the book was devoted to making fun of women who had the poor manners to pretend to be athletes in order to find a husband, who just don't understand sports, or who had the gall to actually be competent athletes.

I know that this book is supposed to be humor from another time. I know that it is compiled from a 19th century men's magazine. I know that I'm a woman in a different century looking behind the curtain into the boy's club and I shouldn't be surprised to find that it's rather a mess. But holy shit, the "battle of the sexes" jokes got old fast in this book. And what's even SADDER is that some of these jokes are still bandied about and thought of as having a basis in reality.

Let's get real for a second here - I'm something of a jock, even though I didn't realize it until my mid-twenties. I like to do push-ups, I like to hike, I like to lift very heavy things and intimidate the living hell out of my male co-workers with my badass biceps. I have a uterus, but that is IN NO WAY going to stop me from tackling you.

My little sister, who is cute and girly as hell, who wears pretty nail polish and who is obsessed with cupcakes, is the biggest football fan that I know. I've seen her jumping up and down on furniture during a grueling drive, screaming like a champ to support her team, and, oh yeah, being in the marching band for 3 years at USC (where she played a tenor sax that was about a third her size, and was a jock in her own right).

I may not like baseball, I may actively dislike basketball, and I may not understand the appeal of soccer, but I'm still a hell of a lot more into watching them than my gigantic, bearded, manly husband is, and I'm probably better at playing them too.

Yet, in spite of the fact that women play, watch, and enjoy sports on a daily basis, we STILL have to deal with condescending "don't worry your pretty little head about it, I'll explain it in small words with martinis and dancing" women's sports clinics offered as a service to us so that we have something to do other than worry about cocktail weenies on game day. And condescending bosses who didn't think you would want to be included in a lunch because it was a "sports thing". And condescending male friends who ditch you because they think of watching the game as "a guy thing" and didn't want you to be bored. And any dude who has ever been a condescending prick about sports because "girls don't like sports." We get to experience the dual joy of being excluded from an activity we appreciate as well as from all the nice socialization that surrounds that activity because we have vaginas that might be offended at the sight of cleats or something. It's idiotic.

So I guess the humor in a 114 year old book fell flat because a lot of it is based on sexist jokes that are still being told, and are still not funny or true, today. What I'm trying to say here is don't be sexist, sports people. It's just not cricket.

Ed. Hammerton, J.A. Mr. Punch's Book of Sports. The Educational Book Co. Ltd.
     London: England. 1910.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Do you ever read a book and just go "what the fuck?"

 Showed up from nowhere, impossible to photograph well; must be full of horror stories.

Borderlands 4 is one of those rare books that I own but have no idea how I came to own it. It's part of a series of horror anthologies that I've never read before, I have no other books in the series, I've never heard of the editors, and I'm not much into genre fiction. One way or another, I probably picked it up because it had a Peter Straub story in it and, because I'm a huge fan of The Talisman and Black House, I wanted to read some stuff that he'd written without Stephen King. So, ignoring the aphorism, I bought a book because it had "Peter Straub" in fine print and a positive review by Harlan Ellison on its cover.

Two things about Harlan Ellison: 1) It sort of seems like every story in this anthology was written by someone who read "I have no mouth and I must scream" and decided "Yes, this is what I want to do forever." and 2) the quote on the cover is "This series puts every other anthology and its editor to shame," to which I say "Hahahahaha, fucking SERIOUSLY" and have to admire as either a wonderful sense of humor or balls so big that they're the cause of the flyby anomaly.

But Ellison has nothing to do with this collection other than his review. The book is a collection of horror stories (this was a surprise to me) which seem to have nothing in common except that most of them raise the question "why is this happening to this person?"; in none of the stories is that question answered, which I guess is fairly standard in the horror genre but is a bit unsatisfying over the course of a dozen or so stories.

I enjoyed reading the book, but I feel like there are only a couple of stories that I'll revisit in the future - those stories, though, I think that I'll be revisiting often, if only to banish them from my dreams.

"A Wind from the South" - Dennis Etchison
A woman alone confronts youth and possibility while wondering about the shifting realities around her. Spooky and distant, this story suggests wonderful things of the novel it's excerpted from.

"House of Cool Air" - William F. Wu
This story makes me want more and more and more of it to flesh out the world that Wu offers only a tantalizing glimpse of. Reminiscent of The Handmaid's Tale in its tone and character, the story raises more questions than it answers and allows the reader to fill in their own blanks.

"Morning Terrors" - Peter Crowther
What the actual fuck? I really wanted to fall into the world of this short, and by the end I just couldn't manage it. And again: what the actual fuck?

"Circle of Lias" - Lawrence C. Connolly
Feels like a horror story as told by Phillip K. Dick - a fascinating exploration of onrushing madness brought about by stress and a random encounter with a cult.

"Misadventure in the Skin Trade" - Don D'Ammassa
I really like it when someone gets a look inside of a crazy person's head right; the obsession and suspicion that fill the pages of this short do a pretty good job of making you feel just as crazy as the narrator.

"Watching the Soldiers" - Dirk Strasser
A very interesting modern fable that makes a wonderful commentary about the allure of war, the reasons we fight, questioning authority, and exploring deeper reasons for peace. I'm not sure how this fits in the horror genre, but I really enjoyed finding this little gem.

"The Ocean and all its Devices" - William Browning Spencer
This feels like Spencer's ode to Lovecraft and if it is it's a wonderful one. Creepy, dark, and sad with just the right overtones of overwhelming, incomprehensible horrors hiding under the surface of the world.

"One in the A.M." - Rachel Drummond
I hated this story. The anthology editors make note that part of the problem with short-short stories is that the surprise is predictable. The problem in THIS story is that I didn't care about the surprise. I just wanted to finish it and be done with it. Fuck second person voice. The only person who I have ever read who has done second person voice well was Italo Calvino in the prologue to If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, and that was largely because he was making a wry commentary on second person voice in particular and literature in general. Seriously. Fuck second person.

"A Side of the Sea" - Ramsey Campbell
I'm not sure where this story wanted to go, and I didn't particularly enjoy the route it took to get there. The language was nice, but it didn't make up for the lack of a plot or a motive.

"Painted Faces" - Gerard Daniel Houarner
Houarner's short was a page turner, but mostly because I wanted to find out what was going on so I could figure out who in the story I hated and who in the story I pitied. Interestingly he managed to write it in such a way that I ended up hating everyone.

"Monotone" - Lawrence Greenberg
I really enjoyed this story for the story, but couldn't stand the way that it was being told. This feels like an authorial experiment to write to the title, but the staccato sentences distracted from and were less interesting than the fascinating subject.

"Dead Leaves" - James C. Dobbs
This was a WONDERFUL story about how different people react to impending death. I didn't really like the (rather sexist) portrayal of female reproductive drive, but I liked everything else - the nature, the embalming procedures, and the remembrance of a life not quite over yet. And the dog. It's hard for a story to go too far afoul when the dog is okay.

"From the Mouths of Babes" - Bentley Little
Icky, surprising, and fun this story made me cringe and it made me curious. Good stuff and bad feelings all around.

"The Long Holiday" - William Ellis
An interesting little piece with a "shocker" that I might have enjoyed more if I hadn't seen it done better in a Neal Gaiman super-short a few years ago. I suppose it's not really fair to compare anyone to Gaiman, but the concept is tired even if it hadn't already been done by the best.

"The Late Mr. Havel's Apartment" - David Herter
There is something REALLY COOL going on here that unfortunately isn't given any legs - this could be the core of a great novel, or even a really good short story, but I feel like too much attention is paid to minor details and the best possibilities go unexplored.

"Union Dues" - Gary A. Braunbeck
What makes "factory men" out of generations of people who should know better, who have lived through the sufferings of their fathers? Some really creepy shit, is what. I had a lot of fun reading this short; it did exactly what it needed to in the space that it had, and managed to be surprisingly heart-wrenching at the same time. Some of the dialogue felt a little surrealistically slick, and sucked me out of the story for a couple of minutes, but what are you going to do? I got sucked back in, so the story worked overall.

"Earshot" - Glenn Isaacson
An appealing mechanism that left me cold. Maybe dehumanizing women holds some appeal for some horror readers, but I guess it works better when you don't already feel objectified by random people in your life. Upsetting because it could have worked in a million other ways, but objectifying a woman was the direction the story went.

As a side note, just a general tip for authors: about 50% of your potential audience is made up of women, most of whom have been told at some point in their life to "just sit there and look pretty" or "not to worry your pretty little head about it" or to "ignore it, it's just guy stuff" - we're used to the idea that some people think of us as subhuman: we don't find it shocking or horrifying, we just find it exhausting and boring. Find another trope.

Fee - Peter Straub
If I wanted to know what Peter Straub writes like when he isn't teaming up with Stephen King, I found out. It is awesome.

Fee was a surprisingly long novella tucked away at the end of this collection, just waiting for you to march through the preceding pages so that it could arrest your attention and drop your jaw. It tells the story of a little boy living with a terrifying father, an incapacitated mother, and the slowly creeping insanity that grows in the back of his mind as you follow him through truly horrifying situations. On top the great sense oh-my-god-that's-awful that pervades the novella there is a wonderful, surreal, and sickening story-within-a-story that seems to concentrate and focus the horror - so much of the rest of the story is dream-like, as it's written in a child's voice; the story-within-the-story is disturbingly plausible in contrast while still capturing elements of wonder and magic (these elements are subsequently debased and abused, which seems to crystallize the whole novella into an inescapable nightmare). I enjoyed the hell out of this story, and I'll be keeping an eye out for more opportunities to read Straub in the future.

Ed. Elizabeth Montelcone and Thomas F. Montelcone. Borderlands 4.
     White Wolf Publishing. Clarkson: Georgia. 1995.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The De-Textbook; maybe not all it's Cracked up to be

First of all, I'm so sorry for that pun.

I love Cracked. I read the website almost daily, I cite their articles in conversation all the time, and I think it's a great way to fill time and learn more about all kinds of things. However reading this book has made me realize that there's one huge difference between reading the website and swallowing the same factoids that are presented here in book form. That difference is the internet and the wide, wonderful world of hyperlinks.

When you see BS on the web, especially if it's got a link to the cited study right there in the text, it's pretty easy to jump up and go "BULLSHIT!" and then proceed to be an asshole in the comments section. When you're reading the same BS in a book, you've got to remember that you've seen this bullshit before, where you've seen it, hope that you're able to fight your human nature enough to argue against something that you want to believe, and be contentious and pedantic enough to make the effort to write a blog that no one will read just for the sake of proving your point (this is sort of my deal, in case you couldn't tell yet.)

Two things in The De-Textbook jumped out at me right away as problematic for a book that's supposed to break down myths and replace them with totally awesome facts.

The first one comes early in the book, when talking about your body and how you don't know shit about it because all of your teachers lied (or were at least very misinformed). A lot of the information in the chapter is pretty spot-on, but when you get to the end of the Discussion Questions section and the questions turn to medicine, you are given this gem: "Sugar pills and other forms of fake medication have been found to help and even cure everything from warts to heart disease to asthma if the patients just believe that they're taking real medicine."(The De-Textbook, p. 15) Asthma is what really caught my attention here, because the holistic medicine industry is doing its best to convince asthmatics that they don't need inhalers, they just need homeopathy. The problem is that the article that this came from (click on "warts" to see it) links to a Wikipedia page of disorders treated by placebo, which in turn links to a psychological study done on asthmatics (please note, that's a psych study, not a medical study) that proved that placebo worked to treat asthma! Cool! Except that the study was done on 12 people. In 1986. And that recent similar studies have shown that patients may feel better, but their lungs aren't actually performing any better with placebo. Which, if you have asthma, is not really comforting because now you know that you can feel just fine and still end up straight-up dead. And Cracked should know better than to promote this kind of bullshit because just two days ago they published an article that discussed how the majority of medical studies are critically flawed - you know, like the ones they just used to justify telling you that no one knows how medicine works on page 15 of their book.

The second thing that really jumped out at me probably wouldn't have if I hadn't just finished reading a Pulitzer Prize nominated biography of Benjamin Franklin. It's in the American History section of The De-Textbook, and much of it is based on this article about how the founding fathers were dicks - which, while often true, is not really true based on the reasons that the article gives. There is SO MUCH that's wrong, or misleading, or purposefully obfuscated in the book and the article that I'd have to write a few thousand words to explain exactly the ways that it's wrong in, so let's focus on the analogy they use in the book, that England is a patient father with a rebellious son who causes him problems and costs him money.

In the book, the son is rebellious and starts the French and Indian war because he wants to grab Ohio. In the real story, France and Canada are also father and son, and England and France have been at war for a few centuries, and France has encouraged his son Canada to stab the Colonies' in the junk as frequently as possible. Because of this, the Colonies decide to beat the living shit out of Canada, eventually getting the support of his loving Father to stop getting stabbed in the junk (by which I mean seeing hordes of farmers and families slaughtered by Native Americans encouraged by the French at the borders of the Colonies). When it's all done and the son's junk is starting to heal, though one testicle will never be the same, the father says "Dude, I had to come all this way and I hurt my shoulder. You should pay my medical bills." Meanwhile, the son is cradling his swollen, stabbed testicles, which are bandaged with dirty gauze and washed with the sweat of war, and saying "maybe I'd pay for your poor shoulder if I hadn't gotten stabbed in the balls for a year and STILL been the one on the front lines." The father gets pissy and essentially sends his son to a re-education camp, sending in royal governors to take charge of the people who had no political voice and forcing them to pay for the room and board (so mansions and feasts) of the hated re-education governors and generals. All of this is going on while the son's hands are broken and he can't earn a real income because the father broke his hands and took his clothes so that he wouldn't get too independent (the British didn't allow the Colonies to do things like build foundries or make hats because it might allow the Colonies to make their own shit and thus hurt trade in England, so things like beaver fur came from the Colonies, were shipped to England where they were made into hats, and were then shipped back to the Colonies where they not only had to pay the fur-to-hat markup, they also had to pay the two trans-Atlantic crossings markup in spite of the fact that there were perfectly able haberdashers in the colonies). So long story short, portraying England as an indulgent father and the Colonies as a crazy, rebellious, expensive son is more than a little disingenuous.

So these are two big problems that I found in The De-Textbook. Can anyone guess the bigger issue that they raise?

 If this book is supposed to be factual it helps to be, you know, actually factual. There are some things that I know it got right; Longfellow's Paul Revere poem was totally propaganda, the tongue map is stupid, Victorians were into some freaky shit, and Kellogg's Corn Flakes were created by a madman. There's a lot of stuff in the book that is provably true and well documented, but the inclusion of stuff that is provably false and supported only by 30 year old studies on tiny groups of people puts a whole lot of sweet, sweet facts under the suspicion of being bitter filthy lies.

Again, I love Cracked. I think the site is fantastic and there is a lot of information on the site that is well worth reading - some of that ended up in the book (almost verbatim, in a few places) and is good information to have. You SHOULD learn how to poop the right way, and that Einstein was a freak, but you shouldn't have to question every single page because there's no way to verify the information that you're being handed. There isn't even an index, which there REALLY should be because a) the entire construction and marketing of the book is built on it being a TRUE textbook, and I dare you to find a textbook without an index and b) because it would be SO FREAKING EASY to cite your sources in an index or footnotes or something because you are the people who run and curate the website where all of these facts are compiled, though maybe you need a fact-checker and I will selflessly volunteer to be paid for that job if you really don't have enough fact-checkers on your staff.

Also? I know that Cracked is used to having to rely on advertisers and so they edit photos on the site, but pixelating the nipples off the Venus de Milo is a confusing editorial decision. Especially when you DON'T bother to censor cartoon boner drawings photoshopped behind Einstein, or to blur out the side-boob and butt-crack off of the lady who you've added Ulysses S. Grant's head to (and by the way, when you call him a fancy lady instead of an antisocial nutbag because he won't shower with his troops during the war, it comes off as kind of sexist, as does the whole cartoon dicks vs. ancient artwork tits thing).

Oh, there's another reason to have an index instead of just a picture credits page - I couldn't find the uncensored drawing from page 69 (heh). That would be useful. And one of the great things about not having advertisers: here is the results of my search for that drawing, the greatest Wikipedia page I never knew about (NSFW).

For all the issues of fact, the book is funny. And it ends with a great message that the staff is totally right about: the world is incredible and you should go explore it because holy shit, is there a lot of awesome stuff out there.

ED. O'Brien, Jack. The De-Textbook. Plume Books. New York: New York. 2013.

(This post is for Skoolstah, my awesome brother-in-dick-jokes, who sent me The De-Textbook as a gift that I was happy to criticize, but even happier to read. Thanks man!)

America History F.

I am a Franklin buff. It's something that's relatively easy to be since so much of Franklin's writings survived, he met so many people in his life who wrote about him, and he invented approximately 30% of everything we associate with America. Franklin is the person that people who are lazy about history study - and I am lazy as hell about history.

I had two fantastic Early American Lit classes when I was at Cal Poly, one was a 200 level and one was a 400 level. Both classes required that I read at least part of Franklin's Autobiography, as well as the writings of Cabeza de Vaca, Anne Bradstreet, Roger Williams and a whole host of people who were responsible for exploring, settling, and building America. Franklin was the first part of American history that really stuck with me, and it stuck with me by way of American Lit.

I bought this book as something to cite in a paper I was writing for my 400 level American Lit class about Franklin's Autobiography. At the time I just used the skills our professor had taught us (thanks, Dr. Corley!) and scanned the index and table of contents for material that might confirm or contradict my thesis; once that was done I used a few paragraphs and read one or two chapters pretty well and then proceeded to forget that I owned it for the next four years.

Autobiography is charming and interesting, and like all autobiographies, highly unreliable. Franklin was writing for an audience - he was writing to his newly-estranged son as well as to posterity, and he was well aware that history would be interested in his story, especially in his words.

Brands treats his subject gently (probably more gently than most critics of Franklin can stand to see) but he doesn't tip-toe around the fact that Franklin was a man - even though he was also a savant and a statesman - first and everything else later. Explorations of the founder's sex life are made, questions about his loyalties are raised (and thoroughly examined), flaws are admitted to and explored. Franklin comes out looking good, but human - touchingly so.

What is really fascinating about the book is the perspective that it gives on the conflict between the Colonies and Great Britain and the role that Franklin played in moderating that conflict - Brands seems to have done a uniquely good job of of looking at the motivations of all the players involved and looking at what, from our perspective of 200 years later, appears to have been an inevitable dispute that happened to be marshaled into a revolution by some of the most (and in Franklin maybe the single most) competent humans who ever lived.

The downside of all of this is that it tends to make us look at the "characters" as just that and forget that, while we're getting perspective on Franklin's flaws, Washington, Jefferson and the other super-human-seeming founders were also prone to walking on earth, not above it. One founder does draw significant (and distracting) ire from Brands - Adams' treatment is sometimes funny, but serves to show the statesman as a kind of comic-relief antagonist instead of the very important contributor to history that he was.

In spite of these slight problems, which are maybe more accurately seen as limitations of scope, I enjoyed The First American a great deal. It's a rich and heady read, a deeply immersive and compelling book that is not only a great portrait of a great man, but a delightfully complete landscape of the world he lived in. And it certainly did a better job of explaining the history of the Revolutionary War to me than 20 years of schooling ever did.

Brands, H.W., The First American. Anchor Books. New York: New York. 2002.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The gentleman's guide to beating the crap out of people with sticks

The reason I downloaded Broad-Sword and Single-Stick with Chapters on Quarter-Staff, Bayonet, Cudgel, Shillalah, Walking Stick, Umbrella, and Other Weapons of Self-Defense is because the subtitle suggested that it would show me how to injure people with umbrellas.

This is mostly a book about fencing, though, and the author makes a point to repeat over and over that before you attempt to beat the ever loving crap out of people with an umbrella or a stick or a dulled broadsword you should have a firm grounding in some kind of point-based swordsmanship.

If you know nothing about any kind of sword fighting this book is largely useless, though still entertaining because it is full of rather politically incorrect and dated anecdotes about the way that Irishmen fight and the way that gentlemen must defend themselves against the roughs of the lower classes.

There is some interesting history, and the diagrams provided throughout are actually a decent foundation for anyone in the modern world who wants to learn how to fence a little bit without having to go to a very specific and expensive gym. The image below in particular is a pretty decent drill routine if you're looking for a basic set of aerobic exercises to do with some open space and a long dowel (as I have been since I read the chapter - it's an amazing for your thighs).

I'm glad that I read Broad-Sword and Single-Stick, but I might be a weirdo and that it's probably not going to be as fun a read for most people out there as it was for me. If, however, you'd like to have a chuckle at old-timey notions of sports and honor and maybe learn how to give someone a smart whack with a walking stick, this book is a pretty good way to waste an afternoon.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank my Mother- and Father-in-Law for the Kindle they got me for Christmas - I plan on using it to read a terrifying number of books.

Allanson-Winn, R.G., C. Phillipps-Wolley. Broad-Sword and Single-Stick. William Clowes
     and Sons. London: England. 1911.