Monthly Archives: August 2013

An Explanation For Midnight Soul Tea Parties

It’s time I came clean regarding my midnight soul tea parties with long dead historical figures. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, (1623-1673) started it. The Duchess, although an actual historical figure, defines for me the archetype of the Crazy Female Intellectual (CFI). The men have their lunatic geniuses; so do we women. As a prolific writer and a natural philosopher, the Duchess read, responded to, and heavily critiqued the scientists of her day. After all, she was more of a stoic than an Aristotelian and leaned toward a materialistic rather than a mechanical philosophy. Mechanical philosophy was all the rage in her day, which meant it was begging to be criticized by none other than this CFI. She was also known for her fanciful dress, and I have a lasting image imprinted in my mind of her wearing an exuberant costume while visiting the Royal Society. Of course, her purpose there was to confound the male scientists and philosophers into speechlessness at her–what would the men call it?–irrational behavior. What better activity could there be for a CFI who sought fame and, hence, achieved it? To be fair, she established her fame through her writing, which confounds scholars to this day.

Now I return to my soul tea parties. In the tradition of the Duchess’s The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666), I pretend to become a platonic soul that can readily leap inside another soul for the purpose of understanding others and drinking tea. The Blazing World is a proto science-fiction/fantasy story, clearly influenced by the likes of Galilean astronomy (Newton didn’t invent his telescope for another two years), as well as Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), which had been published a year earlier. In it, a kidnapped woman escapes to a Blazing World through the North Pole:

For they were not only driven to the very end of point of the Pole of that world, but even to another Pole of another world, which joined close to it; so that the cold having a double strength at the conjunction of those two Poles, was unsupportable; at least, the boat still passing on, was forced into another world, for it is impossible to round this world’s globe from Pole to Pole, so as we do from East to West; because the Poles of the other world, joining to the Poles of this, do not allow any further passage to surround the world that way; but if any one arrives to either of these Poles, he is either forced to return, or to enter into another world…

After marrying the Emperor, the former victim of kidnapping becomes Empress of this new world and is known by this title throughout the rest of the tale. There isn’t much of a storyline beyond this; mostly, it’s the tale of an Empress who is questioning politics, religion, and science. She gives special critiques to the scientists with their telescopes and microscopes because their varying interpretations cause much dissent in the world. She orders that their telescopes be destroyed, but the men who use them, the Bear Men, claim the telescopes aren’t to blame for their infighting. Instead, the fighting is owing to the limits of their eyes, the sensitivities of their sight or lack thereof, and their differing judgments of objects viewed through the telescopes. Being that this story was written by a CFI, the Empress still demands that the men break their telescopes so that they can return to a “natural” philosophy. The men, as one would expect, protest, and so she concedes that they can keep their telescopes as long as they don’t disturb the government, i.e. her, with their schisms and wars.

At some point, the Duchess enters her own story, which eventually leads to both the Empress and Duchess entering the Duchess’s world for examination (the reader is left to assume that there are three worlds at this point: the Empress’s former world, the Duchess’s, and the Blazing One). This leads to more philosophical digressions, except this time about England rather than the Blazing World, which further leads to the Duchess longing for her husband’s soul. Merry England plus philosophy do tend to equal one Duke Soul when a CFI is adding up numbers with theoretical maths. And what do you think they do when one of them misses her noble Duke of a husband? Well, they both jump inside his soul for a party, naturally, and conduct a menage a trois of philisophical proportions, which gives rise to the Duchess’s jealousy over the Empress’s instant oneness with the Duke, until she remembers they are, essentially, platonic soul creatures at that point. However, I’ve long thought the woman doth protest too much with her stance of Oh, that’s right! Platonic lovers can’t commit adultery! Silly me!

There you have it. I hope that explains why I conduct midnight soul tea parties with long-dead historical figures.

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The Star of Justice in Christian Fantasy

I don’t often review books on my blog. This is because I read a lot of books, and I’m as lazy as I want to be with book reviews. Therefore, I must have a compelling reason for reviewing books in my very own space of the internet where I am dictator. For example, a book might feed my obsession for the Enlightenment period of history, or it might intrigue my sense of the Gothic, or it might contain a heroic journey of Jungian proportions (most Gothic texts will do this). Or it might fuel my sense of curiosity and/or absurdity. The last book I reviewed here, Vox Day’s A Throne of Bones, fit the last category, owing to the oddness of the Hinterlands marketing strategy. Of course, now that Vox Day has been excommunicated from SFWA in a farcical way, I would probably read his book and review it for that reason alone: I enjoy eating my dinner with absurdity a la mode. However, I’ve already done so and can’t repeat myself.

I only bring this up because it is somehow relevant. Oh, yes, it is relevant. When I clicked over to the Vox Popoli blog, I noticed he and his readers had compiled a list of the twenty best epic fantasy novels. Some I would agree with; others I do not. Some I haven’t read at all. But the list itself left me feeling a little wistful after having finished Robynn Tolbert’s fantasy, Star of Justice at one this morning. Her book wouldn’t have fit Vox Day’s criteria for best epic fantasy, anyway, because it’s only just over 400 pages in length. Yet, it is a surprisingly good book that isn’t getting the acclaim it deserves. It deserves to be on a best-of list somewhere. If I had read it prior to voting for the Clive Staples award, I would have voted for it. Why didn’t others?!

I know why. It’s published by a small indie press that also doesn’t get the acclaim it deserves due to the clamoring fans of Gerke and his Marcher Lord Press. Don’t mistake me; I have nothing against Gerke or MLP (or Hinterlands, the offshoot). Gerke filled an important niche in Christian publishing, and I don’t blame fantasy fans for loving him. He gave their favored genre a fighting chance within Christian circles. At the same time, though, Tolbert’s publisher, Splashdown, publishes worthy fantasy novels that are often overlooked. Splashdown deserves a prominent place at the epic feast table of Christian fantasy, too, and will probably make it there in a couple of years (MLP has been around a couple of years longer). And hands down, Star of Justice is the best Splashdown book I’ve devoured thus far. In fact, it has made it to my private top-books list for 2013 (yeah, it was published in 2012, but I’m a little slow).

Star of Justice gets five stars from me. I love the world-building. I love the cerebral female protagonist, Caissa. I love the goofy male protagonist, Merritt, even though he annoyed me at times. He’s witty; the book is full of dirty humor and double entendre and phallic symbols. Well, it is! This isn’t a criticism. The female protagonist, a scholar, finds herself on a heroic journey to “save” the world, and part of this journey is becoming one with the masculine principle in order to fight dragons, which, of course, represent her shadow self. *Oh, there goes Jill with her symbolism again!* Ahem, without giving spoilers, that is what happens in this book. At one point, she literally becomes one with a giant tree. In case I just gave you the impression that this is a silly book with sexual humor, it really isn’t. It is beautifully written, filled with sensory details, and is classic mythos in the making.

I’m trying REALLY hard to write shorter blog posts due to excessive, pending busyness. Let me wrap this up: If you like fantasy that verges on science fiction with a little non-gratuitous romance and plenty of humor, you’ll love this book. I encourage you to buy it (it’s only $2.99!), read it, and tell others what a good book it is.

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Patron Saint of Engineers

flask
I have a crappy phone camera and a shaky hand. No, it’s not shaky from what’s in the flask, but, rather, from a general lack of sleep. Therefore, I asked my daughter to take this picture with her favorite in-hand device. This flask, my friends, is what comes about when you meet the kid with the coolest toys–in this case, Peter DeSimone. That should be his You Tube channel, in which he demonstrates his cool toys and inventions.

A while back, he suggested I design something–anything, really–and check out his laser cutter. Goofy person that I am, I decided I needed a patron-saint-of-engineering light switch cover. Obviously, I immediately did a search on Google for information on the patron saint of engineering, to discover that he is none other than St. Patrick, who is fond of clutching books or scrolls in iconography. It made sense to me that Patrick should, instead, be busy punching numbers into a calculator. I never did buy a light switch cover, so Peter offered one of his stainless steel flasks. The process, here, is laser bonding rather than etching. The radiant energy bonds the “ink” that you paint on the stainless steel, and the markings of the design become permanent. The leftover, non-bonded ink product can be washed off.

From design to completion, this project took about an hour. Before our family left (he and his wife had kindly made dinner for the entire Domschot crew), Peter filled the flask from his bottle of Johnny Walker’s. As you can see, the flask is quite magical. Watching the image appear on the steel reminded me of the days I’d discovered the magic of photography back in the high school dark room, of watching the images I’d burned into the paper appear while immersed in the chemical bath. Artists, scientists, inventors of technology–these people are all magicians. Sometimes, if you’re in the know, you’ll recognize the tricks. Otherwise, you might want to just sit back and enjoy the show. And don’t forget to take a swig.

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I’m not a library, book marm type–really I’m not! Yet even so…

My physical book stack.

My physical book stack.

I threw myself into a reading binge recently. I read so many books that I honestly can’t remember all of the titles. With four children, homeschool, my own education pursuits, writing books, and working, reading has become a luxury. I read steadily, but I rarely binge on books these days. I have to admit it’s been a pleasant revelry. Now that my binge is mellowing, I’ve begun reading an epic fantasy novel. Epic fantasy takes a lot out of me because I tend to become immersed in the book world. Therefore, I hesitate to crack the covers of epic fantasy novels. This epic fantasy is rather incredible, and I’ve realized this by chapter 10. I will become immersed. It will take over my mind. It already has. Resistance is somewhat, though not altogether, futile. For balance, I’m reading a comedy and two works of nonfiction.

This is what’s left on my virtual stack now that I’ve gone the way of temperance:

Star of Justice by Robynn Tolbert
I have a thing for Splashdown books, although I haven’t quite put my finger on what the appealing aesthetic is. When Grace Bridges of Splashdown (very kindly) reviewed my book, she said she liked it for its dark whimsy. I think that may be at least one aesthetic she looks for in her authors’ work, which is likewise appealing to me. In any case, Tolbert’s book has it in spades.

Writing Down the Dragon by Tom Simon
Due to my hesitancy for reading epic fantasy, I haven’t read any of Tom Simon’s fiction. I like his blog, though and, consequently, I bought a book of his essays. He has an 18th C aesthetic to his thinking. No, it isn’t difficult for me to spot that unambiguous aesthetic, considering I spend my sleepless nights having platonic tea parties with Samuel Johnson.

The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely
Despite my protestations against pop science books, I can’t stop reading them. I’m doomed. I even stoop to reading Scientific American, which is, as far as I’m concerned, the last refuge for pretend intellectuals. This book isn’t half bad, so far.

There Goes the Galaxy by Jenn Thorson
I haven’t decided anything about this book, yet, because I haven’t read far enough into it. I bought it because I wanted an absurd comedy to read. Seeing as how the author seems to have invoked P.J. Wodehouse as well as Douglas Adams in the first few pages, she has a lot to live up to. I’ll report back on it later.

To my fellow non-book-marm library types: What’s on your book stack? I don’t usually ask friendly questions in my posts because my blog is a self-centered cult of one, but I’ve decided to be friendly just this once and open up an honest and stimulating dialogue.

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Saga of a Mechanical Engineering Student

Al-jazari_elephant_clock

Al-jazari’s Elephant Clock

As you can see, I’ve called this a saga rather than a memoir. An ongoing saga is how I view my sudden desire to become an engineer instead of a writer. It’s a current force of drama in my life because, although three of my children will be grown up or practically grown up by the time I finish, I still have many family responsibilities at this moment. In short, life is very different now from the days when I finished my first degree. For a start, I have no desire to join in the educational bubble, thereby putting my family into further debt, so I’ve decided to pay for school myself. Yesterday, when I posted, I didn’t have a job. Today I (probably) do. This is good. This means I can work part time and save money for spring semester and, hopefully, manage to keep my job throughout so I can continue paying for classes.

But why did I choose mechanical engineering? Many people have asked me that, and my usual answer is that it is a very broad engineering discipline, allowing for a range of job opportunities (never mind that I secretly just want to build robots). What if I could design something useful, though? What if I could design medical equipment for disabled people, for example? I like that idea. But, honestly, mechanical engineering runs the gamut of new and inventive designs from bicycles and mechanized body parts to spacecraft. The sky’s not even the limit, really, as long as my creativity knows no bounds. I’m teaching myself to be a more creative person. Is that possible? Yes, I think it is.

In any case, mechanics are fascinating. Rube Goldberg understood very deeply just how fascinating they are, in and of themselves. Although based off rather simple physical properties, they can be incredibly complex for the most basic results. Al-jazari’s elephant clock (pictured above) is a medieval example of simple physical properties, complex parts, with the basic result of telling time. It’s very much an artistic, Goldberg-like invention. To save me from an in-depth explanation of its working parts, here’s the Wiki description:

The timing mechanism is based on a water-filled bucket hidden inside the elephant(underneath the head). In the bucket is a deep bowl floating in the water, but with a small hole in the centre. The bowl takes half an hour to fill through this hole. In the process of sinking, the bowl pulls a string attached to a see-saw mechanism in the tower on top of the elephant. This releases a ball that drops into the mouth of a Serpent, causing the serpent to tip forward, which pulls the sunken bowl out of the water via strings. At the same time, a system of strings causes a figure in the tower to raise either the left or right hand and the mahout (elephant driver at the front) to hit a drum. This indicates a half or full hour. Next the snake tips back. The cycle then repeats, as long as balls remain in the upper reservoir to power the emptying of the bowl.

Engineers, in general, often have a bizarre artistic streak. They seem to be in touch with the universal notion of absurdity. Perhaps, there is an absurdist muse who reaches out and touches their souls. Well, I’ve certainly been touched with that muse my entire life. So has my dad, who, by the way, is a retired engineer. Study my dad’s rhino painting below and try to figure that one out. If you want to see more, go here.

A. Leon Miler's Two Rhinos are breaking into a new dimension.

A. Leon Miler’s Two Rhinos are breaking into a new dimension.

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