Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

There is No Popular Vote

 Brandon issues his quadrennial roar: There is no "popular vote".

Every presidential election year I have to gear up to fight the entire army of the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass over the Electoral College, and endlessly explain to people that there is literally no popular vote in the United States; that we don't even have the mechanism required to ascertain the popular vote; that the number that the journalists report is not a popular vote number but consists of adding votes obtained in different elections structured by different laws and thus not actually capable of being added together; that in fact the United States holds not one but fifty-one elections for President, each a simulation of who would be President if the whole of the country were like a given state (or DC), and then partly weights these elections by population; that the President of the United States is literally the one who presides over the union of states; that it is more important in a country as large and diverse as the United States for the chief executive to have to appeal to people throughout the country than to appeal to sheer numbers of people, especially if the latter are heavily concentrated in only a few areas; that for level of interest and general understanding, the Electoral College is the only non-parliamentary system of election that simplifies the election in a way that makes it easy for everyone to follow; that anyone who uses the word 'gerrymandering' in connection with the Electoral College doesn't know what 'gerrymandering' is; that whether the Electoral College favors rural voters or urban voters depends entirely on how you define 'rural' and 'urban' (even Wyoming and Alaska have urban areas, and even California and New York have rural areas, by entirely reasonable definitions of both); that the Electoral College does not in fact structurally favor either Democrats or Republicans; etc., etc., etc. I am very much not looking forward to the iteration of this argument that this year is currently promising.


Friday, September 18, 2020

Prayers for the Cupp Family

 "You know neither the day nor the hour...." -- Matthew 25:13

Six months ago, no one could have imagined the chaos of pandemic and quarantine. Week by week, day by day, life alters, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in irreversible courses.

Longtime blog readers may remember Kyle Cupp, who used to blog. He wrote a book called "Living by Faith, Dwelling in Doubt," about his spiritual journey and the death of his daughter Vivian shortly after birth. Kyle is a college friend of Darwins, and we have fond memories of hanging out with him in his black trenchcoat days.

Last week Kyle had three living children. This week he has two.

Kyle's oldest son Jonathan, after a traumatic brain injury and two agonizing nights in the hospital, died yesterday morning. He was 14.

The costs associated with hospitalization and death are astronomical, and come on top of the shock of grief. Some college friends organized a fundraiser for the Cupp Family, and many loving friends have already donated. But please, if you have a few charitable dollars to spare, consider contributing to defray the costs for this family already staggered by sudden loss and grief.


Saturday, September 12, 2020

A History Buff Reads American Royals

 It is only fair at the outset to say that I'm a completely inappropriate person to review American Royals, a YA-ish novel pitched by the publisher as "Crazy Rich Asians meets The Crown."  I ran across it because I was researching advertising comps for my own novel, and American Royals and its just-released sequel Majesty are selling very, very well .  I was intrigued because the premise of the novel is fascinating to me from a historical point of view: After his victory at Yorktown, George Washington was offered the crown of a new American constitutional monarchy and now in an otherwise similar 2020 with smartphones and social media and WaWa milkshakes with extra M&Ms, America is still ruled by the House of Washington.  Without the fledgling republic in the New World to inspire other revolutions, the Bourbons are still ruling France, the Romanovs are on the throne of Russia, and the world is one big glitzy tabloid for those who just love reading about the latest doings of The Royals.  


Of course, my first big question, especially reading it during the long hot summer of 2020, was: What happened with slavery?  Was there a Civil War in this world?  Is slavery still around? Did a southern royal dynasty nonetheless abolish the greatest source of wealth in the 18th and 19th century South?  Beyond that, I had secondary order questions about how the presence of a monarchy would change the political and cultural nature of America.

So I borrowed a copy of American Royals from our local library.  And the answer is...  It doesn't really address those questions much at all.  The world of this monarchical America is little different from ours, aside being slightly more glitzy and woke than our own world.  (For instance, same sex marriage appears to have come about some time ago in this world, and one of the main characters is the daughter of a lesbian power-couple: mom is a dot-com millionaire and mama is a cabinet secretary in the royal administration.)

The early history of the monarchy is only hinted at.  In the first pages Princess Beatrice (who is slated to be the first ruling queen of the US) reflects on her history:

Beatrice could trace her ancestry back to the tenth century.  

It was really only through Queen Martha's side, though most people refrained from mentioning that.  After all, King George I had been nothing but an upstart planter from Virginia until he married well and then fought even better.  He fought so well that he helped win America's independence, and was then rewarded by its people with a crown.

But through Martha, at least, Beatrice could trace her lineage for more than forty generations. Among her forebears were kinds and queens and archdukes, scholars and soldiers, even a canonized saint.  We have much to learn by looking back, her father always reminded her.  Never forget where you come from.

This would seem to suggest that Beatrice's ancestors are descended from George and Martha Washington, which is a bit odd given that no one is descended form George and Martha: they had no children.  Martha had children from her first marriage.  Did they succeed to the crown?  Later in the book it's hinted that the George II who is mentioned as succeeding George I was actually his nephew (George Steptoe Washington) through George Washington's younger brother.  This would be a more traditional dynastic choice, though it's unclear then why Beatrice is sitting around reflecting on Martha's ancestry.

It's mentioned at one point that George I freed his slaves in his will (as the real George Washington did in real life) but that he had not acted to end slavery and that it was "another two generations" until this was dealt with, but we get no hints as to how it was dealt with.  

 Among the other things we don't learn much about are the development of the American monarchy as a system of government.  We get the impression that the monarchy is much more actively in power than in the modern UK.  For instance, "the king kept his Cabinet evenly divided between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans" whereas in our world the King of England hasn't had much power in picking the cabinet since...  Well, that's really kind of a tricky question, since the big contrast between the British constitution and ours is that it's unwritten.  The British George III (who was on the throne during the American Revolution) was in fact one of the transitional reigns in this regard from the era when kings clearly appointed ministers of their own choose but who had the confidence of parliament to the later era when parliament clearly chose the ministers and told the monarch who to choose.  Those better versed in British history than I could correct me, but my understanding is that after George III monarchs perhaps influenced the choice of ministers, but really didn't choose them, while before George III the monarch chose, and it was during the long reign of George III that the shift gradually happened.

It is clearly stated that the American monarchy has a written constitution, so perhaps one could imagine that the House of Washington has retained pre-George III British style prerogatives, but if you want this book to be a work of political and historical imagination (which it isn't) this seems like something you'd really want to figure out.

Another thing which is dropped out there but never dealt with is that the American monarchy apparently contains several independent duchies and earldoms.  Among these are noble titles and spheres of control granted to Native American nations.  We hear about a Duke of the Sioux and a Duke of the Iroquois.  There's also the Dukedom of Orange which covers much of the West Coast and is apparently ruled by a noble family that is Black.  All of these suggest some wild departures in history that should have some big impacts on culture, but we don't actually learn anything more about them except for what Princess Beatrice thinks of their various scions as her parents are pushing her to marry an eligible young man.  

One rather hard to swallow bit of world-building which is essential to the plot is that apparently written into the American constitution is a rule that the a monarch can only marry someone who is either from a royal house or a noble family.  America has many noble families who have been appointed to title by the monarchy over the years.  It's stated that early kings mostly married into the European royal houses, but in the book a key plot point is whether Princess Beatrice will marry the heir to the dukes of Boston or her hunky bodyguard with whom she has fallen in love.  Meanwhile, her younger sister Samantha is in love with the Boston heir whom the King and Queen want Beatrice to marry.  And young Prince Jefferson is in love with Nina, daughter of the afore-mentioned lesbian power couple, but of course Gina is a total "ordinary girl" who is totally out of place in the world of royal intrigue and fancy ball dresses, because although she's the daughter of a cabinet minister and the best friend of Princess Samantha since they were both little girls, she's also Hispanic which means that she's totally rooted and not used the high life.  Then throw in Daphne, Prince Jefferson's scheming ex-girlfriend who is sort of a Kate Middleton brought over from the Evil Star Trek mirror universe.

I am not the target market for an angsty love triangle story, but I have enjoyed some YA novels with angry love triangles so long as they're heavy on the interesting world building.  This, however, is pretty thin on the world building.  I could enjoy Crazy Rich Asians as a popcorn read that sketched a glitzy world that's utterly alien to me, but honestly I felt like I came away from Crazy Rich Asians with move of a sense of how elite Singapore society worked than I did the elite American monarchy circles of this world.  There characters in CRA, while not deep, also seemed more realistic and individual than these.  For instance, the best friend character in CRA played by Awkwafina in the movie clearly comes from a layer of society which is way richer than the main character, but at the same time not moving in the circles of the male lead's family.  Even within that topmost layer there are layers, and the characters are all conscious of them, how they got there, and in what senses they are and are not permeable.  It's not especially deep, and it may not be accurate, but it's much more layered than a world in which the daughter of a cabinet minister and a dot-com executive is an "ordinary girl" stand in because of her last name.  

Of course, the second half of the publisher's pitch for American Royals is "Perfect for fans of Red, White, and Royal Blue and The Royal We!"  I don't know these, but glancing at blurbs it looks like there's from a genre of outsiders falling in love with royalty.  So if that's your thing, maybe this is running the tropes you love.  But if you were hoping there'd be so interesting alternate history and culture mixed in with the love triangles, give this is a pass.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Self Publishing: A Man, A Plan, A Canal

 As I mentioned in the first post on self publishing, one of the first things I did when I started planning out this venture was to build a Google spreadsheet.  That spreadsheet is a break-even business plan for the venture.  It makes a huge number of assumptions, as it must because there are a huge number of things that I don't know.  So I don't expect this plan to be an accurate picture of what is to some, but I do need it to provide me with a way to model that dynamics of how things could go.  With this post, I'll explain how I made a business plan for this project and how you could go about making a plan for a similar project.

My overall goal with this plan is to determine what needs to happen, given certain parameters, for us to make back our money on this project.  When we think about making back the money invested in a project, it's important to keep in mind that there are two types of expenses I need to cover.

I have fixed expenses: the cost of getting the cover designed, the audiobook recorded, etc.  These expenses will be the same whether I sell 100 books or 10,000 books.  When I talk about making back those expenses, I mean that I need to make enough profit on selling the books that it will cover these fixed expenses.  So if I invested $2,500 in fixed expenses and I sold 2,500 books, I would need $1 in profit per book to cover my fixed expenses.

However, in addition to my fixed expenses, I also have variable expenses.  My main variable expense in selling self-published books is the expense of making people aware that the book is out there and they may want to buy it.  Some of this will be accomplished via word of mouth.  People I know read the book, enjoy it, tell other people they like the book, some of those people buy it and read it, they tell other people, etc.  It's like trying to get nuclear fission to occur, where readers are radioactive atoms and their enthusiasm about the book are the particles that those atoms emit which can go on to strike other atoms and cause them to break down.  If I have enough readers with enough enthusiasm, the book will eventually "sell itself".  



As with nuclear fission, there are two variables.  With fission, those variables are how quickly the atoms are decaying and how many atoms there are.  If the atoms decay and emit neutrons frequently, and there is a critical mass of other atoms around for those emitted neutrons to hit and breakdown, you get a chain reaction.  If the element is not radioactive enough, or there isn't enough of it together to reach critical mass, you don't get a chain reaction.

So too with readers and enthusiasm.  The more readers enjoy the book, the more likely they are to recommend it, leave positive reviews, buy it for friends, etc.  So the quality of the book and the enthusiasm it inspires in readers is one clear factor.  But the other factor necessary to start a chain reaction is to the number of readers.  If you don't have enough atoms, you can't get a chain reaction.  If you don't have enough readers, even if those who do read are enthusiastic their enthusiasm will not get a chain reaction going.  

I like this analogy because it makes it clear that quality matters.  If people really, really love your book, it can "go viral" as they say these days with relatively few initial readers.  If the book is moderately enjoyable, you'll need more readers to get things rolling.  If it's a dog, your readers will be like inert atoms and won't create any chain reaction at all.  

And how do you reach that critical mass of readers?  Well, one clear method is advertising.  There are lots of different ways to advertise a book, and I'll get into that in more detail in future posts, but for now we're talking about advertising as our main variable expense.  Let's say that on average I need to spend $2 in advertising for each copy of a book that I sell.  If that ratio holds, if I spend $200 I'll sell 100 books, and if I spend $2,000 I'll sell 1,000 books.  This variation is why it's called a "variable expense" it changes as the scale of my business changes.  

So think again about our two types of expenses: fixed and variable.  Let's work with that $2 in advertising per copy ratio that I suggested above, and let's assume that I had $1000 in fixed expenses.  To cover my fixed expenses, I need to make $1000 in profit after paying for the advertising that it takes to move my books.  If I sell a book for $5 and my profit is $3 on that book, then $2 goes to cover the advertising and there's $1 left in order to go to my fixed expenses.  At that rate, I need to sell 1,000 books to cover my fixed expenses, which means that I need to plan on spending $2,000 in advertising.  

Of course, I could increase my price.  If I sold for $6 instead of $5 my profit per book would be higher and I could pay off my fixed expenses faster.  But here's where the multi-factor model gets tricky: if I increase my price from $5 to $6, my book probably will become somewhat less attractive to customers.  This is called price elasticity: the rate at which people become less eager to buy something as the price goes up.  When I worked in pricing fast food, we used to joke that we'd only need to sell one hamburger a day if it sold for $10,000.  The only challenge is: How do you sell a $10,000 hamburger?

How indeed.

Of course, the price elasticity of a novel in this particular category is yet another thing that I do not yet know.  So in order to have a working model, I've assumed that I need to price this novel in line with the prices that I've seen for other holiday novels and novellas.  If it's basically credible in terms of price, then my remaining problem is to have a large enough advertising budget to make the whole thing work, and enough of a profit margin to pay off the fixed expenses.

What does that look like?

Right now it looks like this:


There's a fair amount of detail in there, and as I say the numbers are fluid because it's full of assumptions.  The overall model is:

Across all formats I'm budgeting to sell 3,400 copies over the course of 60 days.  This is a very aggressive number, it it includes a couple of discount windows including a week of $0.99 for the ebook which will be heavily marketed through discount newsletters.  The total advertising budget is $6,200.  Revenue from royalties is $8,713.  So take the advertising cost out of that revenue, and then the fixed expenses and the total profit is: -$37

All of that work is to break even.  If we're able to do better, we may some money.  If we can at least learn enough that we're covering fixed expenses and paying off a certain amount of our fixed expenses, I'll consider it a fairly successful experiment because next year we'll still have that book in print and we can add another one.  The new novel will have new fixed expenses, but the published novel will have now new fixed expenses and so if we can push both novels next year (and get people who buy like one novel to click through to buy the next) we'll become more efficient as we go along.  

So there's a rough overview of business plan thinking.  More information on the self publishing project to come.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Self Publishing: The Undiscovered Country

 You may have noticed, gentle reader, that I recently had a novel published.  (If you somehow missed out on this, today is your day to discover If You Can Get It out from Ignatius Press.)  It's been a fascinating experience helping to market the novel, but one of the things that I discovered as I dug into resources for authors promoting their novels is that many of them are written by and for self-published authors.  If you're curious to read on the topic, this site by Nicholas Erik is the most comprehensive by far.  Of course, the trick is that self-published authors can do things which traditionally published authors can't.  For example, they can adjust the price and run promotions.  They can insert a live "subscribe to my newsletter" link into the ebook's backmatter, etc.

Needless to say, there are things which a publisher does for you which represent a clear advantage versus self-publishing.  They pay you an advance on royalties, cover the expenses of cover design, copy-editing, typesetting, etc., and do a certain amount of marketing themselves.  But having just gone through the experience of launching a book while not being a publisher, I'll admit I was curious to try it as a publisher.  

One night, as I was looking at Amazon Sales Rank data and talking about things it would be interesting to be able to do, it clicked with us: We have multiple quality manuscripts sitting around, waiting to be revised and to find their way to readers; we have enough money to professionally package a novel and market it; and we now have spent a good deal of time researching novel marketing.  We could do this.

And so we are.

MrsDarwin's mashup of Hallmark Christmas genre and King Lear, now titled Unstable Felicity, will be coming out this fall for your Christmas reading pleasure.  It has been entirely revised from its original draft version of two years ago, and we'll be bringing it out in ebook, paperback, and professionally narrated audiobook.  

This endeavor, and potential future ones from either one of us, required a name.  Normally an author might create an email newsletter and gather a subscription list simply to promote his or her own writing.  However, since in our case we are both novelists and we believe that our writing shares enough essential characteristics that readers of the one might be interested in the other, we decided to create our own private little imprint.  Meet Oak & Linden Press.  And indeed, if you'd be interested in being kept up to date on these fiction endeavors via you inbox, go ahead and sign up for our newsletter.  We certainly won't spam you.  The newsletter will go out roughly once a month with occasional extra newsletters around novel releases, and it will feature book reviews and personal news as well as occasional tactful encouragement to buy our novels and get everyone else you know to do so as well.

But of course, we're also bloggers to the core.  So we'll also blog the self-publishing process as transparently as possible, including discussing the costs involved our what things worked and failed for us as we go along.  

Part 1: You've Got To Have Money to Make Money

I'll be blunt while hopefully not being jerky: this is not something we could have afforded ten years ago. The world of self publishing on Amazon is such that one could publish a book for next to nothing: make your own cover, be your own copy-editor, etc.  However, to put out a book which is going to look as good and be as well marketed as a professionally published book takes money.  In our case, we decided to plow money that I made form my advance for If You Can Get It into this new venture, along with the money that MrsDarwin makes for singing weddings and funerals and recently reselling some homeschooling supplies.  

When we decided to try this, I started out with a Google spreadsheet where I calculated the costs of putting the novel out, planned prices for different formats, tried to estimate the number of copies of each format we could sell from Nov 1 to Dec 31 and accounted for royalty rates and advertising costs.  

We'll be investing roughly $2,550 into getting this book out.  The breakdown for that is:

Cover Design: $800
Copy-editing: $500
Audiobook Production: ~$1000 (roughly $300 per finished hour, and this is quite a short book at just over three hours)
Book layout software (Vellum -- strongly recommended): $250

Obviously, some of these are choices.  There are places one could probably get a cover done cheaper, but we have a graphic designer we want to work with and really believe in.  Doing an audiobook is perhaps an extra complication (and clearly an extra cost) but we wanted to learn how to market an audiobook in connection with ebook and hard copy, and we had a narrator that we really wanted to work with.  

These expenses represent the sunk cost, money that we need to spend before the book is even available.  But of course, it's not true that "if you build it, they will come".  Any kind of internet sales (as Nicholas Erik notes in the novel marketing site that I linked to above) consists of three basic elements:

1) Drive traffic to a site where you hope to make a sale
2) Convert those visitors into actual sales
3) Calculate whether you made a net profit

Driving traffic usually costs money, though there are ways to drive traffic "organically" which do not necessary cost much.  Converting visitors into customers involves having a product that people still want to buy once they see more details about it and the price that you're charging.  And whether you made a net profit has to do with whether you are successfully charging a price to cover the expense of getting the customers there plus a portion of your original production costs.  

And thence the spreadsheets to try to balance all those factors and make the venture pay.  I'll discuss that business plan in the next installment.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

You Must Go To Hadestown

Last May Leah Libresco Sargent told me to listen to Hadestown, a New-Orleans inflected retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice.

A story of gods and men requires magic, and the show achieves its moments of transcendence by hanging onto a scrappy, small-budget sensibility, with an admirable restraint that is sometimes lacking in Broadway transfers. In “Wedding Song,” for instance, when Eurydice is won over by Orpheus’s courtship, his singing animates the set. There’s no wirework (which must be a relief to the actor playing Orpheus, Reeve Carney, previously star of the perilous Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). Instead, the five-person chorus moves tables and hoists chairs, giving shape to Orpheus’s promise that, despite his poverty, “The trees are gonna lay the wedding table.”

In another show, this might be part of the heightened tone of theater, unremarkable as the act of singing is in musicals. Orpheus seems to experience it that way, but Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) clearly experiences it as diegetic action. She turns in confusion to see the usually invisible extras and takes in Orpheus with new eyes. There is a real magic to his song, and the cynical Eurydice, focused purely on survival, begins to consider there might be something more to the world.

The gods have their power established through similarly simple effects. When Hades (Patrick Page) delivers his first lines, his subbasement basso profundo feels like a trick. Nearly every subsequent time he opens his mouth, the audience stopped breathing for a moment, awed.

To match him, Orpheus has an implausible falsetto in his signature song (“Epic”). The first time Carney arced into his high melody, I leaned forward, staring at his mouth, trying to figure out if he was still carrying the tune or if it had been passed off to another member of the cast. It was Carney every time.

His voice, in that register, is unearthly, not lovely. Orpheus hasn’t written this tune, he’s remembered it, and as he performs, it seems like something is singing through him. He isn’t a songwriter, it turns out, but he might be the last person who can hear this song—the original love song of Hades and Persephone, one that the lovers themselves have lost the tune of.

Last September Simcha Fisher echoed her.

The lyrics are real poetry, but also clear and clever, studded with allusions you can take or leave. Each song, lyrically and musically, was worthwhile in itself, and didn’t exist merely to move the plot along or to give equal time to every performer. Clara and I agreed that Orpheus’ song — the one that has so much power in the story– really did have that much power. You didn’t have to tell yourself, “Yeah, yeah, I’m sure this feels very magical if you’re part of that word.” The hairs standing up on your arm spoke for themselves. 

But I was busy with other things, and then I didn't feel I had time to get into a new show, and life got in the way, and I forgot.

I was wrong, and I beg you not to make the same mistake. You can hear the Original Broadway Cast Recording assembled in this Youtube playlist.

As I have been finishing up the final edits on my novel, I've been listening to this song on repeat -- not, perhaps the absolute best number in the show, but the strings melody at 2:48 is one of the most beautiful things I've heard.


***

In these days of shutdown, as theaters close indefinitely, the last words of Leah's review take on a bittersharp poignancy:

In the final moments of suspense, even knowing the original story, I watched with bated breath, waiting to see if the production was willing for Orpheus to fail. For him to turn back is predictable. To evade the ending is cheap. But the show has told us at the beginning (and will remind us at the end) that this is an old song, a sad song, and that “we’re going to sing it anyway.” But, in the conclusion, Hermes and the chorus admit that, even knowing and performing every night, they “begin to sing it again as if it might turn out this time.”

And for a moment, it’s imaginable that it could. That one day the marquee will be dark and the show will have suddenly closed, with the actors as surprised as the ticket holders for future performances, only able to offer in explanation, “Last night, he made it.”

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Unhovering

I, like all of you, have read about "helicopter parents", those crazy folk who hover about their children's lives, smoothing the rough paths, fighting the battles, fixing the problems. Ha ha! I have laughed, along with you. What's wrong with these nuts? Don't they know their children need independence to develop their own lives and mature into adults? 

Indeed, I've had no problem sending kids off for a week of summer camp or family visiting, without any desire to check the password-protected photo websites or call every day to make sure Junior is doing well. Kids, you gotta let 'em fly, right?

Hoo boy, I never sent a kid off to college.

Perhaps the difference is that when a child goes to camp, or on vacation, or to see cousins, that child is coming back home. It's no hardship to go a week without chatting when you know that on Saturday, you'll catch up and hear all the details and go back to normal. But now a piece of my heart lives three hours away, and I miss her. I want to hear all about how classes went, and what's the deal with auditions, and who she's meeting, and how she's getting settled. I can't shout upstairs anymore every time I see a dog meme or a stupid pun or a Harry Potter ranking article. We don't pass each other in the kitchen and exchange quotes. I like this human, and I miss being in contact with her daily.

On the other hand, I know that no college student wants Mom texting all day with links and photos and advice and chat. I wouldn't have wanted that at 18. I wanted to start my adult life, to be responsible for myself, to make friends without reference to my parents' community, to my childhood. I wanted to reinvent myself, and you can't do that with your parents watching over your shoulder, even lovingly.

But the savvy parent plays the long game. First, have a lot of children close together. Get them through the most trying age, until they're friends even though they all have different personalities. Then when one goes away, the siblings will text each other, and that's how Mom will find out that Saturday is karaoke night and the sisters are strategizing about which song to sing ("Satisfied", from Hamilton). 

And I'm not going to text and ask her to have someone video it and send it to us, no sir, because that would be hovering. But if the sisters get a video, you bet I'll be watching it over their shoulders.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

In Harm's Way

The New York Times has a good factual piece up tracing the movements of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who shot three people during rioting in Kenosha, WI. It's worth reading the whole thing, and there are of course more details which may become clear later (or may not -- how much clarity will come up even in court trying to interview a lot of highly involved people who were running around a chaotic scene late at night is questionable.) Something in it that will seem to confirm the instincts of many on the right is that in both shooting incidents, Rittenhouse fired only after fleeing first and being in attacked. 

But I think there's a wider point that people whose sense of basic civic order has been outraged by week after week of televised looting and arson and violence need to keep in mind: a key element of social order is that citizens have the right to defend their own property and neighborhoods and neighbors, and that civil authorities are supposed to fulfill their duties by doing this for citizens in a restrained, orderly, and well-trained fashion. For roving groups of self-appointed people to travel off to some other community where there's civil disorder, and try to impose their own order is not a help. It is putting themselves and others in harms way.

Even if it's true that Rittenhouse was defending himself in each case that he fired his rifle, he had no business being out in the streets thirty miles from home, across state lines, carrying a weapon. In times like these it's understandable and even virtuous for people to defend their own neighborhoods, but vigilante tourism is nearly as bad for society as riot tourism.

It's in the nature of a seventeen year old male to want to have a cause to go take action for. That's why societies throughout history have found it easy to use young men about that age as soldiers.

But even though it's good to want to guard civil order, civil order is not guarded when self appointed people arm themselves and go looking for trouble. Trouble should never be looked for. Just as George Zimmerman was wrong to follow and confront Trayvon Martin rather than leaving the civil authorities to follow up on his 911 call, armed citizens should not be setting off on their own to try to enforce order on the streets. Arming yourself and then actively putting yourself into a dangerous situation where you may think you need to use a weapon to defend yourself is not something citizens should be doing.  If your own neighborhood is under threat, then it's just to use force to protect your life and home or business. If your neighborhood is not under threat, then the best thing to do is stay home and be grateful that you are not facing that danger.  Going off to find somewhere where there is danger is the wrong thing to do.  

So however eager those of us on the right may have been to see someone bring some order back to riot-torn streets, Rittenhouse's actions are not ones that should be celebrated.  Freelance order from out of town vigilantes is not order at all, it's just a different kind of chaos.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

See Darwin on Ignatius Press Live

 Should you be so inclined, tune in (if that terminology from a past age may be used) to the Ignatius Press Facebook Page at 8:00PM EDT on Wednesday, August 26th to see me (Darwin) participate in a Facebook Live video interview with editor Thomas Jacobi.  We'll discuss my newly released novel, If You Can Get It, Catholic literature, and whatever else strikes our fancy for the space of thirty minutes or so.  And if you've found me an oddly faceless entity for the last fifteen odd years (some of them more odd than others) I can promise you that I will be appearing in actual human form, from the library of our house, not as a legged fish or a heavily bearded Victorian biologist.  (Though, it is true that I am more bearded now, if not more Victorian, than I was prior to the pandemic.)

And if you just can't make that particular time, the video will remain upon the Ignatius Press Facebook page for however long our current digital dispensation lasts, so you can always watch it after the fact.



UPDATE: If you missed seeing the interview live, you can now see the archived version here:

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Ready to Launch

 We spent the past week getting ready for our oldest to go to college on Thursday. I will say up front, I was not all right. Each day my anxiety built, to the point where Thursday morning, every time I had a moment alone I felt my heart pounding and my breathing get ragged.

"This is just anxiety," I would tell myself. "You are not having a heart attack. Every kind of change requires growth and stretching. You are stretching." 

But once we got on the road -- Mom, Dad, and Eldest -- I felt more at ease. It's not as if she's nervous about going. She's been half-gone for a month, chatting with her classmates online, developing a set, starting in-jokes, being on calls until all hours, creating a new social life. 

The night before she left, I heard her in my room (where she could get some peace from siblings) belting out a tune while on a call. 

"Were you singing with the Japesters?" I asked, surprised. (The Japesters are her freshman chums. The rest of us track them through her, as one follows a soap opera or a neighborhood group.)

"No," she said. "This was a call with the Discord fan group for that piano covers guy I watch on YouTube."

"You're in another Discord group?" I said. "You guys call each other? How can you sing over an internet call without the sound cutting out?" 

She shrugged it all off. "It all works out if you sing really loud."

This is probably sound life advice.

By the time we dropped her at college, all worry was gone. She ran into someone from her freshman chat group in the hall. We even met a few of the Japesters, who actually have real names instead of handles. The kids are all right. They are all ready to launch.

Life won't slow down here. Darwin and I talked all through the three-hour drive home. We're planning a launch of our own: we're self-publishing one of my NaNo Hallmark/Shakepeare mashups in time for Christmas sales, and it's all a great game of budgeting, marketing, and design choices. (More on this soon, for devoted readers.) And at home, nothing is static. The 6yo just lost his four front teeth. The almost-17yo is applying for jobs. The almost-12yo broke his arm two weeks ago, and has been brandishing his cast in a perpetual Dab to annoy his sisters. The 10yo is making plans to raise money to go to camp next summer. The 14yo is getting ready to paint her bedroom yellow, the hardest of all colors. The baby, who is actually a big 3yo, is chatting all the time. We miss the Eldest, but we can't sit around thinking about it or people will eat the food off our plates and take over our pillows. We hope we don't see her again for a good three months.



Thursday, August 20, 2020

School Reading Lists and Plans: Grades 6-8

 It's the season for thinking about education in the Darwin household.  Today we drive our eldest out to college -- we'll see how that goes in the time of coronavirus -- but it's also the time for getting people's school assignments ready for the coming year.  By the time, I of course mean "totally last minute".  There are some good and worthy people out there who plan their homeschool curriculum six to twelve months ahead of time.  We're more the "it's a week and a half till we start school, we better know if we need to order books" kind of household.  

If you too are in the middle of last minute school planning (or perhaps getting ready to jump ship from a "distance education" logjam and do something that involves less Zoom meetings, perhaps this will be of some use.

We break down homeschool planning according to age.  MrsDarwin deals with K-5 and I deal with 6-12.  The rationale for this is that from middle school on up the kids can be trusted to sit down and read a book on their own or do a set of math problems on their own in a fairly organized fashion.  The younger ones need someone to sit next to them or look over the shoulder and make sure they are doing work.  Since I'm mostly tied up with work during the day, it makes sense to have me deal with the older kids.  

Math is the most straightforward subject.  For these middle grades we use the Saxon books.  They're basic and perhaps a little repetitive, but they come in clear one-day assignments and the lessons in the book for these grades are at a level where kids can pretty reliably read the explanations to themselves, grasp the concepts, and then go on to do the work.  No crazy techniques that parents can't follow here if they're asked to help out.  We've used Saxon 7/6 for sixth grade and Saxon 8/7 for eight grade.  From there one faces a choice, you could do Saxon Algebra 1/2 (one half) as your eighth grade book, or you can do what we did which was switch over to the series we've used for high school Art of Problem Solving.  Last year, I had our eighth grader use Art of Problem Solving Pre-Algebra for eighth grade.  I like the art of problem solving books because the explanations of mathematical concepts make sense to me and are much more in depth and example-driven than the Saxon lessons.  However, the kids reaction has been... mixed.  And the books do not break down into simple one-lesson-per-day structures.  You need to look at the chapters and their sub-chapters and figure out a pace for yourself which usually involves 3-4 sub-chapters a week.  Also, the Art of Problem Solving books are, honestly, designed for kids who are deep into math and may want to participate in math competitions.  None of our kids so far fit that description.  I tell them they can skip the starred problems which are designed to be extra-challenging mind-bending problems to help you prepare for competition.  And we have not had a kid decide to tackle Calculus, so I can't speak to that book.  When I was homeschooled myself, I used Saxon straight up through Calculus in senior year of highschool.  It was workman-like, but I felt that in the last two years there were concepts that I wasn't grasping fully.

Science at this level is a bit tricky.  I haven't run into any middle grade textbooks that I'm particularly impressed with.  Science you encounter in 6th to 8th is not going to be the most in-depth science you'll ever read, and often textbooks rely on simplifications that verge on falsifications.  But you are at this point laying the groundwork for a lifetime's understanding of science, and I think it can be worth doing more than "go to the library and pick up what looks interesting to you.

In sixth grade last year I had our 11-year-old read a book I'd stumbled across called Astronomy 101.  I'd actually had our next eldest read it the year before in seventh grade, but I had her read it faster and I then had her read Jane Goodall's In The Shadow of Man about her pioneering anthropology work with chimpanzees.  Last year I had our eighth grader read Microbe Hunters and The Selfish Gene.  Some might ask why I had our Catholic kid read a Richard Dawkins book.  Selfish Gene is not primarily about Dawkins atheism, but he does definitely digress into discussing his philosophical views at times.  However, after reading several other books tackling evolution at this reading level, The Selfish Gene honestly did seem like the best and mostly clearly written.  So I told our eighth grader to be aware of his viewpoint and went ahead and assigned it.  This is an age when it's appropriate to start making those interpretive decisions as a student.

For Reading/Literature I'll just list off what we've had people read in the last few years. 

Sixth:

The Winged Watchman
The Borrowed House
Farmer Boy
Swiss Family Robinson
Children's Homer
D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths
Edith Hamilton's Mythology (maybe a stretch for a lot of kids, but this one really got into mythology)

Seventh:

Katie John
Hobberdy Dick
Alice in Wonderland
Through the Looking Glass
A Little Princess
The Good Master
Swallows and Amazons
Between the Sword and the Wall
The Revolution is not a Dinner Party

Eight:

One is One
Till We Have Face
The Great Divorce
The Great Gatsby
The Man Who Was Thursday
End of Track
The Last Days of Night

These lists are fairly personal.  I skipped books that the kids had already read, and tried to fit the books to their interests and to some extent to the periods they were covering in history.  I certainly wouldn't consider the lists normative, but they're all books worth reading if you are looking for ideas.

In history, choices are kind of tricky.  I had the sixth grader read the first half Gombrich's Little History of the World, and then supplemented that with individual books on Greece and Rome including the Oxford Children's History of the Ancient World.  In seventh grade, I want him to cover Medieval to Modern, and I'll use the second half of Grombrich, but I need to find something else as well.  Last time we did seventh grade, I used a number of stand alone books to cover industrial revolution to the present day:

Sally Wister's Journal
Patriot's Daughter (about Lafayette's daughter during the French Revolution)
Napoleon and the Napoloeonic Wars (by Albert Marrin)
Captains of Industry
Mill Girl
Inventive Wizard George Westinghouse
Garibaldi, Knight of Italy
The First World War by Hew Strachen (his concise volume, not the massive one)
World War Two: A Short History by Norman Stone

For eighth grade last year, I had out eighth grader read Land of Hope by Wilfred McClay

Our approach to grammar and composition has honestly been a weakness, probably because MrsDarwin and I write so much and thus the exercises in books mostly seem really tiresome.  We've used various books out of the Warriner's English Grammar & Composition series, which are solid, old school grammar, usage, and composition books.  

Religion is also a topic which is a bit scattered.  MrsDarwin does daily bible readings with all the kids as well as reading reflections on the readings, etc.  They're enrolled in the parish religious education program, which MrsDarwin teaches in.  And there's also usually a book, though I'm not as good as I should be about keeping up assignments.  

In eighth grade a year ago I assigned The How To Book of the Mass, St. Francis of Assisi by GK Chesterton, and Story of Soul by St. Therese.

A year before that I made use of an illustrated series on Church history and had her read The Church in Revolutionary Times, The Church and the Modern Nations, and The Church Today.  That series is quite good and evenhanded in its dealing with Catholicism and Protestantism, and it has a good world-wide viewpoint, but it's unfortunately long out of print.  With some searching, you can find decent copies used at reasonable prices, though.


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Reviewed: Fortnightly and Otherwise


Brandon Watson's fortnightly reads are, like his blog in general, wide ranging and erudite.  A philosophy professor with an ability to sound like an instant expert on anything from the post office to the politics of Alexandria in late antiquity to the various Scouting movements, Brandon is worth following in general if he's not on your regular read list he should be.

Given that many of the fortnightly reads are classic books which Brandon has had sitting around for a while and is reading or re-reading as he sorts through his library, I was exceedingly flattered when he picked If You Can Get It to read over the last two weeks, and his review did not disappoint.  

Jen's world is a world in which the most real things are brands, which are stable and familiar and often genuinely handy, and the story is filled with brands, both real and fictional: AppLogix, Aspire, Mercedes-Benz, Schneider and Sons, Starbucks, Coke, Jaguar, Home Depot, and more. Her life there is a busy life, a life full of things she likes. They are the usual building blocks of our modern world, in much the way that personal reputation and family name once were. But this brand-structured world in which we live, while it provides endless opportunities to fill your life full of useful things and interesting activities, creates a strange gap between a life filled full and a fulfilled life. What we like often falls short of what we want; we can and do distract ourselves from the lack, paper the gap over by filling our time with other things, many of which are often interesting but none of which are the right kind of thing for fulfillment. Busy-ness is not the business of life. But by filling up our time we can miss seeing how much we are missing until something shakes things up.

Moving to the new location, Jen and Katie buy a nice little Sears home, updating and redecorating which gives them an extra focus in their lives, and introduces them to the handyman, Paul Burke, whose world and life is in some ways very different from Jen's, quiet and local, Catholic and focused on productive craftsmanship. Her work continues to be important to her, but everything having been unsettled through such a short stretch of time leaves her much more open to seeing the ways in which her life, busy and satisfying as it might often be, is not covering all the bases.

It was a bit interesting coming to this book after The Screwtape Letters, because I think there's a sense in which one can say that if that work is about internal temptations, this one is about the external temptations of the World. One thing that's very nice about the story is that it takes no easy roads out. It's not that the brand-structured culture of global consumerism is all hollow, or unproductive, or even always unsatisfying. It's not that the world would be better if we were all farmers or craftsmen and there were no product managers with MBAs or the endless layers of middlemen that make up the modern corporation. There are reasons why we have these things, and some of them are tied to very genuine benefits. Nor is it the case that there is any position -- any position at all, no matter how true -- to which you can convert and magically all things will thereby align with the ideal. We are all seekers, always in need of more, in this life. But the world around us can distract us from the fact that we are, in fact, in need of more; it can fill our bellies without nourishing us, fill our minds without enlightening us, and fill our time without cultivating us. What it offers is often fine in itself; it's just not everything we need. Brands and endless choices and availability are often great. They just can't replace faith or family or friendship, or any number of other things. The danger is that we can get so filled up with what is offered that we fail to get what we need -- indeed, that we sometimes fail even to realize that we aren't getting what we need. Sometimes we need a new vantage point to see some of the gaps in our life. And then we need to make the choices that start to fill them.

Do, of course, go read the whole thing. And this coming fortnight, Brandon is back to older works with a read of The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Also a very erudite reader, Bruce McMenomy has a review up on Amazon:

This is being categorized in some contexts as a religious novel, and that’s probably unavoidable, given that it is published by Ignatius Press. That fact may recommend it to some who otherwise would not have noticed it; it will probably discourage others who either just don’t like religious fiction or have been fed up with heavy-handed fare one so often finds.

Yet insofar as this is a religious novel at all, it is not so much about proselytizing for anything as about unpacking the idea that people of faith (even of different faiths) incorporate their beliefs into their lives in ways that are not merely the superficial cultural identifiers one sees in pop-culture depictions of religion, but organic, personal, and hard-won. By itself, that is worth considering, absent the more tendentious baggage that typically accompanies it.

If You Can Get It, however, is not just narrative scaffolding to make that or any other point. It’s a modern comedy of manners, and it seems almost frothy until one begins to discover its thematic sinews. Some of those have to do with religious belief, but others, more persistently central, address the nature of human relationships, and especially the bittersweet tensions that beset families where the members, though they may all be of good will, are not always of like mind or disposition. The two sisters who are the principal characters of the story do not even share convergent narratives of their common past: one particularly telling piece of the plot turns on sharply inconsistent recollections of a childhood incident, and how those memories have shaped them differently.

The quietly encouraging implication of the story is that those relationships, and even the memories, are not immutable, but can, with care, continue to evolve — a process that will draw people together in some ways, and apart in others. Such evolution is part and parcel of the growth of the individuals themeselves. Hodge offers the reader no facile shortcuts: nothing obviates our need to address the each other’s humanity honestly and charitably.

The book wryly observes varied human interactions and behaviors, contradictory and absurd as they sometimes are; it also offers a somewhat dyspeptic and occasionally hilarious look at modern American and international corporate culture, and the decisions that it may lead people to make, while sparing us a gratuitous scold en route. It even quietly sketches an alternative model for how to think about our place as human agents in the economic landscape.

As a piece of storytelling, it never let me go or lost my interest: twists and turns along the way kept me engaged, and satisfied with the sense that even what I had not anticipated was, in retrospect, inevitable. With the economy of a stage play with a limited cast, it provided an amusing, thought-provoking, and generous reading experience, and left me wanting to see more. To have pulled that off in a slender premiere novel like this one is no mean achievement.
And lastly, a very brief review which appeared yesterday by a reader on Amazon, and which somehow really struck me:
[This] story is so well told, so peacefully, honestly, and morally told, that I'm inclined to believe that I'm as capable of writing of writing the sequel as is the author. I hope he does it. this is far more book than the excellent reviews led me to expect. I could have missed it -- you shouldn't.
Watching reviews and sales of the book as a data analyst must, one of the things that I've come to realize is that reviews and book sales act kind of like atoms in the lead up to a nuclear chain reaction.  When someone writes a positive review, some number of people read it.  Of those, some don't think it sounds like their kind of book, some mentally file it away as "I may want to look that up some day", some add it to a list to pick up later, some buy it right away.  Of those who buy it right away, some read it right away, and some read it later.  Of those who read it right away, some write reviews and some don't, and that new round of reviews begins the cycle again.  

With a novel like this which is difficult to classify by genre (and thus hard to advertise in a simple "If you like My Sister's Australopithecus, you'll love this moving novel of love and anthropology!" fashion) reviews are a key means of new readers finding the book, but it takes a lot of reviews (or very widely read reviews) and a lot of people telling their friends how much they enjoyed the novel to get a chain reaction going which sustains sales at a steady or growing level.

And of course, if you haven't got a copy of the book yet, but now feel like you'd like to have one, you can always pick one up yourself!

Thursday, August 13, 2020

2020, in emails

 Dear Dance Moms and Dads,

We're so excited to send out our catalog of classes for this coming semester! Please note that this year all students will be appropriately socially distanced. All students over the age of 18 months should wear masks. No parents will be allowed in the studio during classes, unless their student is under six. (Correction: we've just gotten word that parents will be allowed in the studio if they are wearing masks. If they are not wearing masks, they should not be on our grounds at all, even to let students out of the car, as per our CYA protocols.) Keep dancing, and let's stay healthy!

***

Dear Parents,

We are so excited to welcome your student to campus! Please note that you are not allowed in the dorms this year, and in fact we don't really want you on campus. It would be most convenient for us if you'd hire a helicopter and parachute your student in, along with all her belongings. There will be no fall break this year, as per our CYA protocol, so the first time students will leave campus will be at Thanksgiving. Please have your student pack up her whole dorm room and bring it home during Thanksgiving break, to avoid a repeat of spring semester, as kids who thought they were going home for ten days still don't have most of their possessions six months later. Reach for the stars, and let's stay healthy!

***

Dear Employees,

Thank you for your valuable contributions to the company during this stressful time, and your patience with our ever-changing situation. All employees will now be remote for the remainder of the fiscal year. Our new CYA protocols state that all participants in company-related Zoom meetings must be masked to avoid the negative publicity that would ensue if someone were to screenshot a meeting and share it with the implication that our employees don't wear masks at home. We're all in this together, and to help foster solidarity, everyone's pay will be cut by 10% until the earnings pick back up. Keep innovating, and let's stay healthy!

***

Dear Volunteers,

Thanks for all your dedication and hard work! We're so excited to get started on our planning for this year! Let's meet to exchange ideas. We can't actually gather on the grounds of the place you'll be volunteering, due to our CYA protocols, so how about everyone bring a folding chair to the picnic tables the parking area the empty lot behind the Piggly Wiggly? God bless, and let's stay healthy!


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Identity

A while back a friend shared an entertainment news story about actor James Roday deciding to go back to using his real last, Rodriguez.  The reason why he started using a made up last name is interesting: when people would see the name James Rodriguez applying for a role, they'd expect him to look very Mexican.  They'd invite him to try out for roles like gang members.  And then when Rodriguez, who is half Mexican, showed up looking like a fairly average white guy, they'd tell him he didn't look right for the part.  So since for an actor their name is part of their brand, he started working under the name of James Roday.  Now that he's established himself, he's decided to switch back to Rodriguez out of solidarity with his background.

Actor James Roday, who is now going back to his real name of James Rodriguez

This struck me as interesting because I live on the other side of that coin: like Roday/Rodriguez half my ancestry is Mexican but I don't look at all Mexican myself.  But since it's my mother's half of the ancestry that originates in Mexico, I also have a name from the Irish/English side of the family.  

None of which would be tricky if talking about coming from a Hispanic family was like talking about coming from an Irish family, a background which relates to foods you grew up with and bits of culture and memory which have carried over from the old country.  But in the US having a Mexican background is not just a piece of family culture or history, it's considered to be membership in a race and thus gets tied up in notions of racial politics.

This stood out to me as a teenager, when I decided that I'd deal with the fact that the PSAT and SAT didn't allow you to put your race down as "mixed" by listing myself as "Hispanic" on the PSAT and "white" on the SAT.  

I hadn't done any prep before taking the PSAT, and although I was generally good in school my scores were a "good but not great" 90th percentile.  This was not good enough to qualify me for any National Merit scholarships, but it did qualify me for a Hispanic honor role recognition, which was apparently only given to the top 1% of Hispanic students taking the test.  

I was kind of embarrassed to realize that the PSAT scores of Hispanic students were enough worse than the average that you could be 90th percentile overall but 99th percentile among Hispanics, but I showed the certificate to my maternal grandfather and he was proud of my achievement.  

Some colleges were also proud of my achievement, but in a less flattering way.  Harvard sent me a recruiting letter in Spanish.  This was difficult because I couldn't read Spanish.  My maternal grandparents had spoken it as children.  My mom had learned it as a foreign language in high school.  I had never learned it at all.  I got someone to translate the letter for me, and it turned out to explain that they had services which would help me with English if I applied there.  They never sent me any recruiting materials in English.  And indeed, I'm pretty sure they would not have admitted me as a white student.  When I took the SAT (after having got myself a book of sample tests and practiced) I got a 99th percentile score, but even so the only top ten college that I applied to only wait-listed me.  

I suppose I could have taken the Elizabeth Warren path and put myself down as a "person of color" but it seemed clear to me that when you checked the "Hispanic" box, a college expected you to have grown up poor in the bario, or struggle to speak English, or be able to write essays about how you worried that your parents would be deported.  I had grown up in the middle of the middle class, with a father who was a science educator and a mother who taught us at home and brought us up to share her love of books.  Claiming to be "Hispanic" according to the definition that colleges and employers had in mind seemed like it would be clearly dishonest.  And I didn't want to take benefits and considerations which were set aside for people who had truly grown up disadvantaged.

But there is a frustrating aspect to the fact that in the US these days, discussions of background are so frequently tied up with discussions of discrimination and oppression.  It means that someone like me, who doesn't look Hispanic enough to have someone making negative assumptions about me, and who doesn't have a Hispanic last name, ends up seeming like he'd be somehow faking to talk about coming from a Hispanic background.  

As racial problems go, being dismissed as "yet another white guy" by politically active online warriors is the most first world of problems, so I'm not exactly here to complain.  But it is a rather cut-off feeling at times.  I'm proud of the stories of my ancestors who walked across the US/Mexican boarder around 1900.  I'm proud of my grandfather who excelled at his studies despite having to go to the schools for Mexican kids rather than the ones for white kids in the little mining town in New Mexico where he grew up.  And I'm proud of the American identity that he built for himself and his children, through a career in the Navy starting in 1945 when he has seventeen.  I wish that the way that the US talked about race didn't mean that if you weren't oppressed because of your background, you can't claim it without seeming like a poser.

Monday, August 10, 2020

21 Days to Boldness

Need some strength going into the academic fray? Some intrepid Catholic high schoolers in the Columbus area, including our 16yo Julia, have created 21 Days to Boldness, an online retreat for anyone ramping up to the new school year, and today is Day One! You can sign up for daily emails, or follow along on the website. 

What is 21 Days to Boldness?

21 Days to Boldness is a do-it-yourself retreat made by high school students from around the Diocese of Columbus. 21 days before the start of the 2020-2021 school year, we will enter into a time of prayer and fasting as a community. Each day, this page will be updated with a reflection that should take ten to fifteen minutes to complete. Each day, we will pray for the holiness of a different group of people at and around our schools. There will be saint biographies, encouragement from people around the city, and even a challenge on a specific way to live with boldness that day. We truly desire to see our community set on fire with new love of Christ, we hope you’ll join us on this retreat to make it happen!

Who can participate?

Anyone! While certain parts of the retreat will be geared towards high school students, we are inviting anyone who wants to participate to join us. Parents, siblings, graduates, teachers, youth ministers, and even clergy are all more than welcome.

When does it start?

Our first day of prayer will be on August 10th and our last day will be on August 30th, the day before school is scheduled to begin. If the first day of school is changed for some reason, we will be sure to discuss our options and update this page accordingly.

For Day One, Julia roped in her grandpa, my own Pops, that man of scripture, to give a video reflection on humility. Check back on Monday to read Julia's own reflection on St. Thérèse.


Monday, August 03, 2020

Book Give Away Winners and Some Reviews

Thank you so much to everyone who participated in the blog giveaway to win a copy of If You Can Get It. We had so many sign-ups that we drew two names, and so readers Mike and Callie have inscribed books wending their way through the US mails to them.


But of course, if you didn't win but would still like to have a signed copy, drop me an email at brendan.m.hodge@gmail.com and I'll send you a signed bookplate which you can put into your own copy.

There have been some really wonderful reviews that people have written of If You Can Get It, and I wanted to share a few.

JulieD has a review up at HappyCatholic:
I couldn't put this book down, which is really surprising when you consider it is the sort of story that I usually avoid (2 sisters making their way in the modern world today).

These sisters are polar opposites who are 10 years apart, so there is a generation gap also. We follow Jen through career crises which shake her confidence in herself. Her experience in China made me laugh. I can easily believe the scenario is true to life. I really liked all the business experiences — they were well explained and I was on board. Meanwhile, Katie plays X-box all day until told to get a job. Which she breezily does at a Starbucks. I liked watching Katie find her levels of competence, none of which had to do with a job in the business world.
...
The publisher compares Jen and Katie to the sisters in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. (I'd say the book is more like Emma, actually, considering Jen's journey from having the perfect life to realizing others might have more on the ball than she thought.)

Thinking of that helped me see why I liked this book. Jane Austen talked about normal, ordinary life with regular people who were out of money, had lost their boyfriends, had silly parents, and who thought they were in control of their lives. This book is the same sort of story. It is not Jane Austen to be sure. But it doesn't try to be. In some senses it reminds me of the gentle novels by Elizabeth Caddell or Enchanted April or Miss Buncle's Book. Although it is not those novels either. They are hard to categorize and so is the appeal of this one....
Click through to read the whole hting. Her point about the novel being difficult to categorize is something that's been particularly striking me as I try to do my part to market the novel. A standard marketing approach is to identify readers who like a particular book or TV show and assure them that if they like that, they will find this to be more of the same. That works great with clear genre books, but less well with difficult to classify pieces. And this, apparently, is just such a difficult to classify novel.

Another reviewer who talked about the difficulty of classifying the novel is someone who reviewed it on Goodreads. I'm particularly gratified by this one because it's written by someone I didn't know and also someone who isn't Catholic and thus was addressing the novel with an outside perspective. As such, I couldn't be more happy than to see this kind of reaction:
This book is fantastic, but I'm having a really hard time characterizing it. It's not romance, though there's romance in it. It's not women's fiction/chick lit, though it has many elements of that genre. It's maybe something like faith literature (if such a thing exists), because frankly, this book is one of the best examples I've ever read of that (maybe made-up) type. But even saying that is unfortunately misleading because while faith is an important part of the story it is so naturally and thoroughly presented that it isn't at all didactic or pushy or any of what too many "faithful" authors fall into when they try to let their faith be the ends and means of a story.

The thing is, faith (or even religion) doesn't even show up until well past midway in the story. Hodge does an incredible job pulling me into Jen's life and making me care about her. She's so lonely and barely knows it, so seeing her navigate one big disruption after another and come into herself through those disruptions was brilliantly done. Building the connection with her much-younger sister is only the start of her reevaluation of her priorities and I loved being along as she stumbled and learned and grew.

And even more brilliantly well-done is Hodge's use of the specific to connect with and illustrate the universal. Jen's family was nominally Catholic growing up so we see lots of that variety of faith in the story as her parents and their community come on-scene later on. But we get a lot of variation within that specific community; from Paul, the deeply devout but thoroughly humble, to her parents who are enthusiastic with the simplicity of the newly re-converted, to her sister who we see go through a discovery and exploration journey. Jen's own journey is more complex and maybe that's the power of this story; for if the point is to show Catholicism as superior then it's interesting that our only viewpoint character explicitly doesn't end up following that path herself. She gains respect and understanding for it. And becomes an enthusiastic supporter of her newly-devout family. But it's clear that isn't going to be her path, or at least, not in that way.
...
A note about businessy things: Jen is a capable and high-performing manager/director and we see a lot of that on the page. Hodge obviously knows his stuff and gets literally all of the details right. This is a rare and powerful thing and one I deeply appreciated. Better still, he doesn't bog down on those details at all, instead putting them firmly in service to the story. I'll read more of him for this alone because, like action sequences, business details are really hard to translate into story without bogging down. So seeing someone do so seemingly effortlessly is a real treat.
...
A note about Faith: I already said most of what I wanted to about this topic above, but am adding this note to those it might reach who are Mormon (like me). Get this. Read it. It's fantastic and I think you'll really enjoy it.
You can read the full Goodreads review here.

I think the answer to the difficulty I mentioned, of marketing a hard-to-classify novel such as this, is that it really has to spread by word of mouth and reviews. As such, if you read it and enjoy it, do please post a review and tell others that you enjoyed it. I don't begrudge the world the chance to read Sassy-Talking Strong Woman Saves The World From Evil With The Help Of Scruffy Man VI, but I'd like to think there's a place in the literary world for endeavors such as this as well.  

Amazon reviews and ratings are also particularly helpful, so if you've read the novel (and especially if you've bought it from Amazon and would thus be a "verified buyer") do please take a moment to give it a star rating or write a review.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

No One Else

Darwin and I have been listening to the original Broadway cast recording of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, an artsy rendering of part of War and Peace by Tolstoy. (Spoiler alert: the great comet is as negligible an element of the show as it was in the novel. But I'm sure it looked spectacular on stage.)

This musical did a lot of avant-garde stuff, but I think one of the reasons it couldn't breach the mainstream consciousness like Hamilton is because it seems to actively eschew singable melodic lines for an emotional soundscape which relies heavy on recitative. I don't need all the fingers on one hand to count the songs that have a tune that you can hum. 

The best of these songs, however, is a beautiful aria by Natasha, alone and lonely, reflecting on how she met her absent fiancé, Prince Andrey. 

 


NATASHA: 

The moon—

First time I heard your voice
Moonlight burst into the room
And I saw your eyes
And I saw your smile
And the world opened wide
And the world was inside of me

And I catch my breath
And I laugh and blush
And I hear guitars 
You are so good for me

I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you

Oh the moon
Oh the snow in the moonlight
And your childlike eyes
And your distant smile
I’ll never be this happy again
You and I
And no one else

We’ve done this all before
We were angels once
Don’t you remember?
Joy and life 
Inside our souls
And nobody knows
Just you and me
It’s our secret

This winter sky
How can anyone sleep?
There was never such a night before!
I feel like putting my arms round my knees
And squeezing tight as possible
And flying away
Like this...

Oh the moon
Oh the snow in the moonlight
And your childlike eyes
And your distant smile
I’ll never be this happy again
You and I
You and I
You and I
And no one else

Maybe he’ll come today
Maybe he came already
And he’s sitting in the drawing room
And I simply forgot

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Do Not Bind Up Heavy Labels

Some of the same Catholics who believe that abortion is wrong but feel that "pro-life" is too freighted a term to want to use it without careful qualifiers about what they do and do not want to be seen as aligning with seem to be willing to say that the only reason why someone would be hesitant to identify with the phrase "Black Live Matter" is they're racist.

Maybe I'm just getting middle-aged and tired, or maybe it's that I've actually come to understand how a lot of people bridle at being told that they MUST endorse some particular phrase or else they are support a clear evil, but I don't think it's a good idea to go around telling people "if you don't rally behind the political movement that I think will solve Evil XYZ, then clearly you support Evil XYZ!" It's not actually a very persuasive argument, and if you do manage to persuade someone it may be in the opposite direction, causing them to conclude: "Fine. If all those people say I must endorse Evil XYZ, then I will."

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Would You Like A Signed Copy of my Novel?

If You Can Get It is now available. Perhaps it would be audacious to say "wherever books are sold", but it is available directly from Ignatius Press, from Amazon, from Barnes & Noble, and from any bookstore which stocks Ignatius novels. I'd also encourage anyone so inspired to ask their library to acquire it.



But as our blog readers have been a huge support to us in our novel writing, I'd like to give everyone the chance to have a signed copy of If You Can Get It, so I've got two ways for this to happen.

Signed Book Giveaway
I'll be giving away a signed copy of If You Can Get It via a drawing here on the blog. If you'd like to put your name in the virtual hat, email me at brendan.m.hodge@gmail.com and say you're like to be part of the book giveaway. I'll have the youngest Darwin draw names from the literal hat in one week, Saturday Aug. 1st, and notify the winner. If you already have a copy, you can still enter the drawing and either get a second copy or have me send a copy to the person of your choice.


Bookplate Giveaway: Turn Your Copy Into A Signed First Edition
If you already own a copy, or you aspire to get one, or you simply want a handsome sticker to decorate your laptop lid, I've acquired a set of bookplates which I can sign and send out. If you'd like a signed bookplate, email me at brendan.m.hodge@gmail.com and let me know:

1) the address you'd like me to mail the bookplate to

2) how you'd like the bookplate addressed, and any special message (example: "To Aunt Polly, Hoping this book will be some recompense for the hedgehog incident") Otherwise, I'll just write something non-controversial such as "I hope you enjoy the novel"


Thanks again for your support of our writing over the years. If you feel so inspired, it would be a huge help for readers to post reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, and if you have your own blog provide a review for your readers. With a hard-to-categorize novel such as this coming our from a small press, word of mouth is really the only way for this work to find its readership. If you have a blog or podcast or some such and would be willing to do a review or interview, feel free to email me.

UPDATE: Cliff reminds me down in the comments that although I've been living book promotion a lot lately, not all our readers are as familiar with it. So the quick pitch: If You Can Get It is a light, contemporary novel dealing with work, family, and the balance between the two.

The back cover blurb is:
Jen Nilsson has an MBA, a nice condo, and a fast-track job at a tech start-up in Silicon Valley. If her big product launch goes well next month, she may finally land the marketing director job she's been gunning for. But then her younger sister, Katie, just out of college and estranged from their newly devout parents, blows through the front door, dumping cardboard boxes and a lifetime of personal drama onto Jen's just-swept floor.

Family is family, and Jen lets her sister, the embodiment of all that annoys her, move in. Maybe she'll turn aimless Katie into a model adult. But when Jen's own well-laid career plans hurtle off the tracks--a corporate buyout, a layoff, and a disastrous business trip to China--she turns more and more to Katie for support and begins to reassess the place of family, and love, in her life.

If You Can Get It explores the quirks and the humanity of the twenty-first-century business world but finds its heart in the deepening relationship of two sisters as different as Elinor and Marianne of Sense and Sensibility.

Genre-wise, it's kind of hard to classify, and in this sense Ignatius really took a risk on a new author because it makes it much harder to market than a novel which fits neatly in a bucket such as SF, Fantasy, mystery, or romance. Addressing the difficulty of defining the genre, one reader said: "To me, it feels like you wrote it for humans who think the world is interesting and life has meaning, or for people who might be subtly convinced of the same by a novel."

Here's a review which I thought captured it pretty well and is somewhat longer.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

History After the Apocalypse

The title of this post is the title of a book I really want to read, a book that so far as I can tell does not exist, and yet a book which I'm probably not competent to write.


The story of that stretches from 1492 to perhaps the late 1800s (when the last of the American Indian tribes in what had become the US were confined to clearly defined reservations) is a story of clashing civilizations -- clashes that were often at least partly military in nature. We know, to some extent, these stories ranging from the conquistadors' attack on Tenochtitlan to the Battle of Little Bighorn. But in the background of those explicit clashes between colonial and native powers was a medical, technological, and civilizational apocalypse that was going on in slow motion from 1492 on.

As Europeans and colonists interacted with the native cultures, they brought with them (often unknowingly, sometimes knowingly) a set of diseases which were common in Europe but unknown in the Americas: smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, plague. The whole range. They also brought animals and technologies (horses, guns, etc.) which had not previously been available. And between these diseases, these technologies, and the pressures of the interacting civilizations, the native civilizations which confronted Europeans and later Americans were not the same cultures that would have existed in their absense.

To pick one example: when we read about Squanto, the member of the Patuxet Tribe who interacted with the Puritan settlers near Plymouth in the 1620s, there's a whole background history which is not that of friendly tribesmen meeting Europeans for the first time. Squanto had actually been tricked into boarding an English vessel back in 1614 and taken to Spain. In Gibraltar ship captain Thomas Hunt tried to sell his Native American prisoners into slavery, but a group of friars freed them and instructed them in the Christian faith. Squanto later lived for some period of time in England, traveled with English sailors to Newfoundland, and then sailed down the coast, also with Europeans, from Newfoundland back to Plymouth. In the meantime, the Patuxet tribe had been decimated by diseases caught from Europeans, and they were under military pressure from tribes further inland who were trying to move into their territory. In this context, we see the Patuxet tribe offering hospitality to the Puritan settlers.

Or to move forward a couple hundred years in history, the Plains Indians with whom the US Cavalry famously clashed in the mid 1800s were a set of civilizations which had already been significantly changed by European contact. The horses that they rode were not a species native to the Americas, but were the result of the introduction of horses into the Americas by the Spanish. They had adopted metal edged weapons (technology which had not existed in the Americas before) and firearms. So, for instance, the Comanche were a fairly peripheral Native nation until they became the masters of horse-based hunting and warfare, with which they proceeded to dominate a large swathe of the southern plains.

To the other Indian nations which the Comanche sometimes terrorized, the sudden power of this particular tribe must have seemed like yet another aspect of a growing apocalypse of disease, technological change, military incursions, and new upstart powers.

Obviously, every part of the world has its currents of change. When Europeans first came in contact with the Americas, Spain and Portugal were two of the greatest powers, England was a comparative upstart, Russia was dominated by the Mongols, and the Ottoman Empire was a major threat to European kingdoms. A lot changed over the following four hundred years, and only some of that was directly related to happenings in the Americas. Similarly, there would doubtless have been lots of change in the Americas even without the arrival of Europeans.

But because of the direction of disease, technology, and population flow, to many native cultures it must have seemed particularly apocalyptic: pandemics with fatality rates that Europe hadn't seen since the Black Death or before, radical new technologies, and the pressure of a seemingly endless stream of new people looking for land to live on in their very different ways.

There's a lot of fiction which attempts to imagine apocalyptic events befalling our modern culture (and in 2020 that seems a bit on point) but to my knowledge there's not a book which focuses on the apocalypse which played out on the other side of the cultural barrier from us during the centuries of Euro-American expansion at the expense of native cultures, and I'd really like to read a history written from that point of view.