Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Tale of the Tooth

Warning: This post is not for people with weak stomachs. So all of you who may be susceptible to nausea or slight queasiness... well, go have lunch first, or something. It'll make for an interesting experience while reading this.

When I woke up last Sunday morning, the first thing I felt was something rolling around near the back of my mouth. I reached in there, expecting to pull out a hair or a piece of lint or something like that, but I was amply rewarded with what looked like a tiny fragment of black stone. After I probed around the area a little more, I noted what felt like a gaping hole in one of my molars, and I was forced to conclude that one of my fillings had somehow shaken loose from its foundations.

This was bad news. I've been genetically blessed with weak teeth, to the point that my dentist constantly despairs over my condition. And, seeing that I had somehow degenerated to the point where my fillings were falling out, that pretty much indicated that something was rotten in the state of Dentistry.

So this afternoon, I left work early for an emergency appointment with my long-suffering dentist. She listened patiently to my story, critically inspected the fragment of filling that I had brought along (wrapped in Kleenex, for its luxurious benefit), and prodded at the gaping enamel hole with a variety of instruments.

It wasn't too bad, she said. I had apparently done what I could to keep it clean for the past two days, which included abstention from bite-worthy foods and a paranoid obsession towards chewing on my left side. The culprit was most likely a stone from a dinner long past, which shattered the filling and impacted certain shards into its own dental crevice. My estimate was that it had been a month or so before the largest piece -- which still sat in all its Kleenex-wrapped glory -- finally worked its way loose.

That, however, was where the good news ended. The filling was one of my oldest ones, from way back in 1992, and it had apparently shattered because the inside of the tooth had decayed significantly. In short, it had plugged its respective cavity for a good sixteen years... but nevertheless, the tooth had continued to rot away from the inside, which left a good-sized hole into which the pieces of the filling could get stuck.

Things took a turn for the worse when she asked if I could feel any pain. When I told her that I couldn't, she gave me a curious look and tapped the tooth about once or twice.

"Did you feel that?" she asked.

I shrugged. I hadn't felt a thing.

She tapped it again, and gave me the same questioning look.

I shook my head.

She played Jingle Bells on the enamel with one of her metal picks.

I still didn't feel anything.

That was bad, she said, because it meant that the dentine part had almost fully gone. This apparently severed the tooth's connection to its corresponding nerve, which was why I couldn't feel anything. This also brought about the possibility that every other piece of dental work in my mouth actually concealed a slew of dead teeth... and I had a lot of fillings in there.

Fifteen minutes later, though, she was breathing a sigh of relief at my x-ray results. It looked like the sole offending tooth was the only one of its kind, which got her to breathe easy. There was a huge gaping hole sitting to the left of that tooth, yes, but at least that was the only thing we could worry about for the moment.

She strongly recommended that I sit through a root canal for the tooth -- five consecutive sessions to take place over one or two months -- in order to restore the tooth to workable condition. That is to say, we both wanted to significantly arrest the possibility that the tooth itself would break apart the next time I used it. Moreover, she suggested that I look into the possibility of capping it with a porcelain crown, which would strengthen the tooth further. The catch with the latter option, though, was the fact that it would require regular maintenance for the rest of my natural life. (The fact that my teeth degenerate extremely fast did not sit comfortably with either of us.)

As for the gaping hole itself, she plugged it with a temporary filling and told me to make an appointment as soon as possible. I think I'm going to have to make some arrangements at work in order to go through with this.

So now I'm sitting here, typing about my little dental experience. The temporary filling feels a little strange, as though it were merely half-finished... but then again, my dentist will probably be drilling through it in a few days. It tastes a little like dried plaster, with a hint of whatever medicine she used to dull the (nonexistent) pain.

I asked to bring the fragment of filling home, and she gave me a strange look about the matter. Nevertheless, she did allow me to wrap it up in the Kleenex again, and drop it into my shirt pocket. It's sitting in my room now, perhaps waiting for the day when I'll have it bronzed and preserved to show my grandchildren.

Then again, maybe not. I suppose that the removable dentures will have to do...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Thus Spake Zarathusra...

Dean's notice finally arrived in the mail today, and it was actually a little heartening:

Dear Sean,

While Nikki and I enjoyed elements of “The Whispering” , we regretfully need to pass on it.

Ultimately, it was not a fit for this year’s anthology.

Though we’ve passed on your story, we encourage you to polish and submit it to other markets, such as the Philippines Free Press, Story Philippines and the Digest of Philippine Genre Stories.

Thank you for your interest in Philippine Speculative Fiction. We hope to read something from you next year.

Best regards,
Dean Francis Alfar
Nikki Alfar

The short story in question was a piece of almost three thousand words, written dangerously close to this year's deadline and featured on this little ditty of a blog post. I feared that I got some elements of the story right -- tone and atmosphere, if you must ask -- but that the plot and progression itself was a little sparse.

At first I felt a little defeated by seeing this e-mail message in my inbox. Then, just for reference, I went back to the rejection notice that I received last year for the same publication and noted a few interesting things that immediately piqued my interest (and generally woke me up better then the usually cup of coffee).

In an effort to replicate my thought processes, I'll break down Dean's letter below. Hopefully no one accuses me of being anal-retentive as a result.

Dear Sean,
No, this doesn't mean anything. Dean's rejection letters are simply a lot more personal than other publications', which means that his addressing me by name doesn't automatically imply that the story stood out for him. It probably just means that he knows my name, but that's it.

While Nikki and I enjoyed elements of “The Whispering” , we regretfully need to pass on it.
That's what the story is called, by the way -- "The Whispering". Mentioning that certain elements of the story were enjoyed doesn't imply that much; it could be anything from a sincere expression to a standard boilerplate.

The real find here, however, is the fact that the story got mentioned by name. I find this remarkable, assuming that the anthology gets at least a hundred submissions each year. This, I think, implies that the story must have been interesting in some way, or that Dean decided to become very detailed with at least some of his letters. :)

Ultimately, it was not a fit for this year’s anthology.
This I find interesting, however. Does this mean that there was a certain theme to this year's anthology that I somehow missed? Then again, it could just mean that there were already about twenty other far better stories in their estimation...

Though we’ve passed on your story, we encourage you to polish and submit it to other markets, such as the Philippines Free Press, Story Philippines and the Digest of Philippine Genre Stories.
Still very interesting, mind you. Did the story get their attention to the point where it could be a worthy contender for these publications after a little spit-and-polish? Or was this a standard template that just mentioned the other major venues for local spec fic? If it's the latter, then this was a great way to build awareness for the literary community -- sort of like a "hey, there are three other places to which I can send my works!" realization.

Thank you for your interest in Philippine Speculative Fiction. We hope to read something from you next year.

Just a standard template. The placement of implied timings indicates that Dean has recently resolved a few life-related concerns, though. The complete mention of the anthology's title notes that he is starting to settle back into work from these concerns, and the use of the word "we" punctuates a close spousal relationship at this point. Moreover, the curve of the capital "S" and the deliberate decimal spacing reveals that he likes steak (medium-rare), prefers vodka over gin, and patronizes the Dockers clothing label. :)

And who was Zarathusra, anyway?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fiction: Fortress

The little brick house was starting to feel a little stuffy towards late afternoon. Pieter woke from his traditional nap, stretched for a few minutes, and then decided that he would get an early start on the night's dinner.

He kicked his slippers out from underneath the bed, yawning as he slipped them on. All things considered, he was looking at a rather good lifestyle. The days were quiet and secluded, the lot provided almost everything that he and his brothers would have needed, and the security was top-notch.

He opened a dresser drawer, reached in among the tins of grease, and pulled out a clean white shirt. It was Hamnet's turn to make dinner tonight, he realized, and the thought left a sour expression on his face. His youngest brother was certainly the bright and inventive sort, especially in his pensive moments, but he couldn't boil water without leaving a burnt smell. Jolyon was probably the best cook of the three, and Pieter wasn't too far behind (if he could say so himself), but Hamnet... well, Hamnet was probably best left to his machines.

Pieter pulled on a pair of trousers and found a pair of suspenders after a good search; they were tangled among the telescopic sights he had cleaned the previous day. After a while, he decided that he looked presentable enough despite the fact that he was only half-dressed; what was he worrying about, really, when it was only him and his two brothers hanging around?

He made sure that the emergency handgun was still in its case, opened the door to his room, and began to descend the two flights of stairs that led to the ground floor. The fifth step down held a pressure-sensitive detonation trigger; he remembered to hop over that. Moreover, the second-floor landing concealed a trap door that opened to an acid vat in the basement; he disabled it with a hidden switch and re-armed it once he had safely crossed.

There was a bright green mat just in front of the first step; that meant that the external security system was on manual mode. Hamnet immediately came to mind -- Jolyon, after all, was not the sort who was given over to random perimeter checks. Given that his favorite rifle was sitting on top of the mantel at the moment, however, Hamnet was probably outside playing with bigger toys.

Pieter crossed into the kitchen and its checkerboard floor, carefully stepping on the black tiles so that he would not release the tranquilizer-tipped darts. He opened one oversized cabinet and felt among the items there -- crockery, wineglasses, flamethrower, cleaning solution -- before wondering exactly where he had left his gardening basket. After a long search, he eventually found it next to the gun rack -- apparently one of his brothers had seen fit to use it to hold a collection of shotgun shells. He sighed.

Despite how much he liked his current arrangements, there was something to be said about living in close quarters. Nevertheless, it was Hamnet's house -- his youngest brother had laid the foundations himself -- and Pieter figured that, the less ingredients that Hamnet would have to make dinner with, the lower the chances that he and Jolyon would end up with upset stomachs the next day.

He pushed back each of the five deadbolts on the front door, retracted the five-inch spikes, and made certain to avoid touching the doorknob, lest it burn his skin off. Instead, he pulled on a handle that Hamnet had screwed to the inside of the door for that very purpose, and emerged into the bright sunlight.

Jolyon waved at him from the rose bushes, and Pieter waved back. The flowers were coming in very nicely this year, and the blooms were so thick that Pieter could barely notice the machine-gun nests hidden behind them. He glanced around, noting the freshly-manicured lawn, the barbed-wire hedges, the vegetable garden, the double-layer titanium fencing, and his eldest brother's puzzled look, but didn't see what he was looking for.

Then the light bulb came on in Jolyon's head, and he pointed upwards. "He's on the roof," he said.

Pieter looked upwards, careful to screen his eyes, and nodded. "Hamnet!" he called.

His youngest brother leaned out from the cockpit of their anti-aircraft cannon. Hamnet almost never smiled; it was as though the gesture had never been built into his genes. Instead of saying anything, he grunted acknowledgment and returned to watching the horizon.

"It's your turn to make dinner," Pieter called.

Hamnet waved him away, almost irritably. This was to be expected, although Pieter did hope that he would be more conversational at the dinner table later.

"Got enough shells up there?" Jolyon asked, in jest.

Hamnet glared down at his eldest brother. "Got enough," he finally said.

Pieter took a few steps back, careful not to fall into any of the lawn's pit traps. "What are you doing up there, anyway? There's nothing around for miles!"

The weight of his youngest brother's gaze was suddenly upon him. "Had a hunch," Hamnet said. "You gotta feed hunches."

Pieter knew better than to argue. If he and Jolyon only had Hamnet's finely-tuned senses, their own homes would have still been intact. And yet, this was a fine arrangement regardless.

"What're you planning to make for dinner?" Pieter asked.

Hamnet merely grunted, which was not surprising. Hamnet barely cared about what he ate.

Beside him, Jolyon sighed. "Check if the tomatoes are ripe, will ya? I think that the potatoes should also be ready by now. And for goodness' sakes, don't bring in any cabbage -- you remember what happened the last time he decided to make a casserole."

Pieter agreed, and started walking down the little stone path in the direction of the backyard.

"And if the apples are ripe," Jolyon said, "let me know. We could do with a bit of pie this week."

Pieter nodded, skipping over the stone plug that would trigger the spring trap. Between his misappropriated basket and Jolyon's requests, he was finding it difficult to keep track of things. The tomato patch sat in the rear end of the garden, right next to the cache of automatic weapons, and it turned out that his eldest brother was right -- the tomatoes were good for the picking. There was only the question of how he was expected to trot them back to the house.

Above him, he could hear Hamnet announce that he was turning the automated system back on. Pieter selected a few ripe red specimens amidst the sound of whirring machinery, then proceeded to make his way back to Jolyon.

Between the living arrangements and the good-looking harvest, Pieter had to admit that life was better than he would have expected for himself. It was enough to get his tail wagging.

Hopefully, the big bad wolf would never come around. But until that happened, the three of them were going to make the best of things. Even with Hamnet's cooking.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

Remember those shoes that I mentioned in this blog post? The comfortable ones with the really thick soles that I mentioned would likely last for a really long time?

Well, five months after I picked them up at the local mega-market, the in-soles wore out on me. Such sweet irony.

I suppose that it was probably something about me that did it. I walk around a lot -- enough, I assume, for the sweat to collect in my socks and leech into the padding at the inside bottom of my shoes. Around Tuesday, I imagined that something felt wrong whenever I so much as took a step. On Wednesday morning, the in-sole of my right shoe finally wrenched free of the glue binding just as I was on my way to work... and I was in constant discomfort for the rest of the day.

Having only had the shoes for a few months (and unwilling to give up the thick soles), I elected to get them repaired. There's a leatherworker near my office, you see, so I figured that it would be convenient to bring them to work in a paper bag, drop them off during lunchtime, and pick them up in time for the weekend. Hypothetically, a good glue job would have fixed everything.

Unfortunately, the only other wearable pair of shoes that I owned were a pair of ratty five-year-old rubber shoes. They were ancient, crumbling, and practically falling apart themselves, but they were at least vaguely serviceable. Besides, my only other option was to trot out my fine leather shoes (the ones I reserve for weddings, golden anniversaries, champagne wishes and caviar dreams) and scuff them about for an entire day. The former option was infinitely preferable.

My co-workers, however, thought otherwise. First, the shoes looked as though wild mongrels had dragged them out of the local landfill. Second, I was wearing standard office casual, which most definitely did not go well with shoes that had been dragged by wild mongrels out of the local landfill. Third, the office dress code apparently did not like rubber shoes, landfills or otherwise.

Needless to say, I had to do a bit of explaining by the time I managed to drop off my shoes at the local leatherworker. The woman at the counter was quite helpful, at least -- she noted that my in-soles were actually multiple layers of cloth and leather all stuck to each other, suggested that I get another layer stitched on to make them last longer, and charged me P300 for the whole mess. By that time, I wished that I had just gotten some new shoes.

Of course, there was one thing that could have made the day any worse, and that was the possibility that my rubber shoes would finally, inexorably fall apart and die. But they saved me the embarrassment and decided to hold together for one more day, despite what more than a few readers may have possibly thought.

I still have to wear the ratty pair tomorrow, though, because I still have to pick up the repaired shoes sometime in the afternoon. I guess this means that I'll be sitting stationary for most of the day, hiding behind my desk lest the sight of my deteriorating footwear disgust anyone.

On the other hand, I did mention that I'd bend over backwards for good shoes. If this doesn't demonstrate that, then it's at least a good backache-inducer that'll keep me bedridden for weeks. Now if only that leatherworker would only do a good job...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Five Drafts

I just barely finished a story in time for Dean Alfar's deadline (for the 4th Spec Fic Anthology), so it's been a hard day. I'm beginning to suspect that, between my workload and my sister hogging the computer at night, I'm finding it more and more difficult to delve into fiction. I'll need to factor this into my calculations next time, I think.

What complicates matters every time I put together a new work is the fact that I will slog through multiple drafts before settling on one to develop. I'm a wastebasket kind of person -- if I feel that a draft doesn't seem to be working out, even for the slightest instant, I'm liable to crunch it up and toss it in the garbage. This wastes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and more than a few plots, but it usually ensures that my attention is riveted only to those stories that are capable of holding my interest.

So far, my record lies at eleven separate drafts (I think), waaaay back when the first Spec Fic Anthology was accepting submissions. This particular one clocks in at only five drafts, fortunately, although I'm not counting the occasional attempt at story from months in the past. I was all but willing to give up after the fourth draft, but sometime in the middle of the afternoon today, I decided to give it one final go.

Here, then, are the rakings from my wastebasket this year. In case this fails to satisfy morbid curiosity, I'm pretty sure that I'll have even more unsuccessful attempts before the month is out.

First draft, circa September 5th: I start writing out the foremost plot in my mind, which involves murder in a bookstore. It's written from a first-person point of view, with the main persona being a local criminal psychologist. Because I'm out of town without access to a computer during this time, I scrawl out the story in longhand. I get as far as eight or nine paragraphs before I decide to call it a night.

Two or three days later, I get to a computer and begin transcribing the story. Eight or nine paragraphs later, I'm ready to continue writing the plot... except that I don't seem to know what comes next. After half an hour's worth of thought, I conclude that the story doesn't seem to be as workable as I originally assumed, so into the wastebasket it goes.

Second draft, circa September 13th: With only two days to go before the deadline, I convince myself that the previous version of the story was actually workable, and that I was just taking the wrong approach. So I start writing the tale again, only from the point of view of a bookstore worker this time. I get as far as five hundred words before I start telling myself that the narrative is getting more and more implausible by the second. Three minutes later, I'm crumpling it up.

Third draft, circa September 14th: I start working on a plot that's been spinning in my head for the past year, which involves a rock guitarist and his deal with the devil. I particularly like the characterization -- the devil manifests in the form of an agent named Harvey with blow-dried hair and a clip-on tie -- but the narrative eventually starts to slow down with all the exposition. Soon enough, it begins wandering around while I struggle to inject some order into the chain of events, but it ends up a barely incomprehensible mess. I pull the plug on this effort shortly after it hits eight hundred words.

Fourth draft, circa September 14th: At around eleven in the evening, I decide to try the "white heat" approach. I write whatever description comes to mind at the time, which turns out to be a cosmopolitan sci-fi setting that involves deactivated robots and people in white lab coats. Thinking that I may just have something here, I invest in some definite names for the characters and begin plotting out a pattern of events for them. It's slow going, though, and at three in the morning, I'm too tired to continue. As a result, I zip up my results, e-mail it to my work address, and tell myself that I'll fix up the rest of it the next morning. I write a short blog entry to mark my current spot in this development phase, and drift off to sleep.

The next morning, I open up my plans for the story at work, and immediately hate whatever I've written. It's unfocused, it's derivative, and it's unoriginal. I trash it without further word, and resign myself to the fact that I won't make the deadline this year.

Fifth draft, circa September 15th: Sometime in the afternoon, I get the idea of combining elements from all four previous drafts into a single story. I have no idea what to write at this point, so I try the "white heat" approach again. Thirty minutes later, I have an even six hundred words, which is impressive for something that was only spun out of thin air. By the time I exit the office, I've got one thousand words under my arm, which puts me on the threshold to a workable story.

After dinner and some interesting conversation, I move back to the office by 9:00pm to try and hash out the rest of the piece within three hours. Progress is fairly quick this time; I'm racking up the wordcount due to the extensive metaphorical descriptions that the story needs. By 10:30pm, I'm on the last section of text, which I finish and put on cleanup by about 11:00pm.

By 11:10, I've got a document formatted and on its way to the editor via e-mail. He shoots, he scores. I still have yet to see if I get to win the game as well, but that'll just be an afterthought now. At least I managed to hit the deadline today.

Now if only the story were readable. I'll probably go over it within the next couple of days to see what I should expect from it. Either it'll get in the anthology and I can relax, or it won't get in and I'll have to fix it up for submission to other venues, or it'll stink up the joint so bad that I'll have to put it to sleep.

Such is the life of a writer / fictionist / corporate lackey. No one said it was easy, I suppose.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Backs to the Wall

Nope, no posts this weekend. I've been working on a couple of things.

First, the deadline for Dean Alfar's anthology happens to be at midnight on the 15th. I've got three drafts in the wastebasket so far, and I'm 700 words into a fourth draft at three in the morning. I'm going to get some sleep right now and see if I can sneak some further writing before the clock strikes twelve tomorrow night.

Second, I've had to make some edits to "Tech Support", which is expected to come out sometime within the next few months. The result involves what is hopefully a more streamlined story; I've had to add half a page worth of exposition in order to smooth out the plot, and I'm discussing a name change for one of the characters on top of that. But the story is coming out in print, and that's what's important. Let's hope that it lives up to the hype.

Third, there's the Fully Booked deadline on September 30th. But that's at least a couple more weeks away, and I'll worry about it after I finish worrying about the first two.

Yes, September is a bad month for us people who like to cram. Too bad this sort of thing only happens once a year.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Reading List

I'm stealing this from Ailee's blog. It's a meme, and I usually don't do memes, but I'm curious as to exactly how extensive my historical reading habits have been.

Basically, what you have down there is a list of one hundred books. Given these titles, I will do the following:
  • Any title in bold represents a book that I have read.
  • Any underlined title represents a book that I have read and loved.
  • Any title in italics represents a book that's "on my list", i.e. something that I aim to read in the future.
In addition to that, because this is still a blog, I'll be writing a few unbidden thoughts and side comments here and there. I will not make this a venue for formal criticism, so I'm likely to have propriety fly out the window at some point.

Ready? Set? Go.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien

I remember reading this, although I can't seem to remember most of the passages. I do recall that Tolkien had a tendency to drone, though.

3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte

4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
What, no middle ground? I've read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, but I haven't picked up any of the other volumes. I have no plans to do so, either -- it just doesn't strike me as my cup of tea just yet.

5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
I first read this in 1992 as part of a requirement for English class. Since then, I've read it at least two more times, and I've seen the Gregory Peck movie for good measure. This is very nice stuff -- I especially like how the book places its socially-relevant theme off to the side in favor of showing us a more personal side of the characters.

6 The Bible
Yes, I've read this from cover to cover. The version that I went through did not include the Apocryphal books, though, so I didn't technically complete this. While I do respect the lessons nestled within its pages, I confess that I'm still confused over how the ultra-religious will treat every word as though it were some fragile antique.

7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte

8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
I've started reading this, but I find it difficult to finish, for some reason.

9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman

10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott

12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy

13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
Obviously I haven't read every single Shakespearean work... but then again, who has? Again, I curse the lack of middle ground on this list, but not before pointing out that I've gone through Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice, with Hamlet racing desperately to catch up.

15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier

16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
That's odd... why would this book merit a separate entry from the Lord of the Rings trilogy? I mean, it's not like you would be motivated to read one without the other...

17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks

18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
It's quite an American novel. Every time I think of this book, however, I'm immediately reminded of Masamune Shirow. (One bonus point to anyone who can make the connection.)

19 The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch - George Eliot

21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell

22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald

23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens

24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy is another of those really long-winded authors. I prefer his short stories, to be honest.

25 The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
I've avoided the movie for the sole purpose of being able to read the book right.

26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh

27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I have a copy sitting somewhere in the pile of books at the back of my closet. Maybe someday I'll get back to reading this.

28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
I hear good things about this book. If anything, it might be an interesting shift to read about poverty in an American context.

29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
I read practically every Lewis Carroll work that I can find, which makes this one particularly strange. I haven't been able to track down a good copy of this yet; if I can find something with illustrations by Teniel, then I can probably die happy.

30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
I've read excerpts of this book, as well as the Disney condensed version. Regardless of what Grahame meant to write, I feel that Mr. Toad completely steals the show here.

31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens

33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
Another one with no middle ground. The only book that I really liked was The Last Battle, though. There's a marked difference between introducing a world to your readers and writing an end for it.

34 Emma - Jane Austen

35 Persuasion - Jane Austen

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
Didn't I see this a few numbers ago?

37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres

39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
I didn't have much of a good experience with James Clavell's Shogun, and as such, I tend to avoid Orient-centered novels written by Western writers. This one, unfortunately, is not an exception... although I did like the movie.

40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
As with others above, I've read excerpts. The cartoons have made this far more accessible to the modern audience, though, and I have good memories of the Disney movie and serial.

41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
Now this one, I love. Orwell crafts a story that starts out in a very subtle manner, then slowly scratches away at the very same subtlety until you can see the terrible reflection inside. There are so many good scenes in this book that I'm hard-pressed to enumerate them all.

42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
Just because it was popular doesn't mean that I'll want to read it.

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I think that Marquez uses magical realism very well here, but would it have killed him to divide the book into logical chapters, much less paragraphs, at some point?

44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving

45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins

46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery

47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy

48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
I've always thought of Piggy as an unjust -- though realistic -- metaphor. Poor Piggy.

50 Atonement - Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
I still have no idea what kind of story this book is trying to tell. Regardless, the idea of being stuck on a boat with a tiger is an odd hook.

52 Dune - Frank Herbert
Yes, I made a few promises that I'd read this at some point. Stop pestering me.

53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons

54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen

55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
I picked this up in Singapore a couple of years ago, and I liked it enough to finish it within two days. I thought that the narrative was genius, and that the chapter numbering was highly creative. The only complaint I had was that the discovery of the murderer was a bit of a letdown, but I felt that the book made up for it by its nasty, world-spanning twist.

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
I thought that the movie was good, which made me want to read the book.

62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt

64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold

65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
Dumas's plotline has been done a great many times since his novel, which I think testifies to the strength of the idea. Hopefully the characterization turns out to be as good as I expect.

66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac

67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy

68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding

69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville

71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
Dickens's character interaction is a little too "serendipitous" for me. You could slice the book into clumps of pages and make a soap opera out of the pieces.

72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
This book is a good mix of foreboding fear and subtle sexual themes, but I don't find it too memorable for some reason. Modern vampire tales have obviously played up either the angst or the erotica, and rather than suggest that they were better than this eminent patriarch, I would rather see something in between.

73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett

74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson

75 Ulysses - James Joyce

76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath

77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome

78 Germinal - Emile Zola

79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray

80 Possession - AS Byatt

81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
It's funny, how I can see variations on this story all the time, and never have any contact with the book at all.

82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker

84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert

86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte's Web - EB White
One thing I never really understood is how one can spare a pig merely for the web that is spun above its head. Maybe I need to read the book.

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
I must have something against popular novels, or something like that. I don't have any compulsion to read this at all.

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
More missing middle ground. I've read all the novels and a majority of the short stories, and Holmes never ceases to amaze me. If it weren't for their circumstances, they might make for a great comedy team-up.

90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
Ironically, I don't have this as a favorite because, frankly, I wanted to read more of the Little Prince.

93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks

94 Watership Down - Richard Adams

95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole

96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute

97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas

98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
More inconsistency. Weren't the works of Shakespeare further up the list?

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
I love Roald Dahl. He has a very distinct narrative style where he describes events and situations with an almost childlike glee. I suspect that this is why his line of books aimed at younger readers are so popular -- it makes a good combination with whatever his imagination can cook up.

100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
I like what I've seen of the story from movies and the stage, and I'd like to see how Hugo originally wrote this.

That's a grand total of fifteen books read, out of the one hundred on the list. I did mention that I wasn't much of a reader, mind you. That, and I probably consume a higher proportion of short stories than most.

One thing that I notice is the fact that I seem to go against the crowd. The modern bestsellers among the items above mostly don't seem to register with me; I suspect that I like reading whatever people aren't looking at, as opposed to whatever flies off the shelves. It's like a residual version of my "road less traveled" viewpoint.

There are, of course, some things not on this list that I feel should really have a place in there. Where's Neil Gaiman, for example? I also wouldn't mind Terry Pratchett, Stephen King or Isaac Asimov in there. For that matter, where's Love Story? Jonathan Livingston Seagull? Siddhartha? Fahrenheit 451? The God of Small Things? Watchmen?

Aw, heck... I'll just get back to work now. Better to try and write something that might someday make this list, than to complain about the selection itself.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Go Forth and Multiply

Most of the Blogger-based blogs that I read have been seeing fewer and fewer comments as of late. After a while I figured that this wasn't because those blogs were losing a certain degree of popularity; rather, these blogs had simply moved to an alternate presence in Multiply, and they were getting their comments there as a result.

So I began posting a few comments on Multiply. Nothing fancy, of course... just a few things here and there to involve myself in some public discussion. After a while, however, I started to get a little apprehensive about my site there. As it stood until a few days ago, if somebody wanted to look up who I was, they would have found an empty Multiply site with only a single link to this blog.

I mean, I've obviously resisted the urge to move this blog for a while now. I simply have too much history here (in the form of over six hundred posts, as well as a lot of custom sidebar links) for me to change at the drop of a hat. In addition, I don't take a lot of photographs, which doesn't give me much incentive for moving to the more distinctly image-based Multiply.com. However, I feel that if I'm to continue posting comments on the Multiply network, I've got to have some form of content waiting for people who pass by my site. It's embarrassing to have nothing but an empty profile to offer people -- in fact, it might even imply that I don't have any legitimate background behind me.

So as of tonight, I've started importing my blog articles onto my Multiply site. I've already run into issues with my six hundred blog posts (of which Multiply only seems to capture the last five hundred), and I've already spent a good thirty minutes clicking and unclicking article selections to make sure that some of the more frivolous articles wouldn't necessarily show up. As people are not likely to read my stuff from two or three whole years ago, I'll just leave the older articles where they lie.

I'll still be posting my entries here for the foreseeable future, of course; I'm just more comfortable with the Blogger interface right now. I'll need to double-check Multiply to make sure that my page layouts don't suddenly go all wonky on me, but I think I can take that. If anything, my biggest job probably involves "fixing" all those old posts that didn't take the transition very well. That, and I've got to find a better layout for the site -- the aesthetics over there aren't exactly the best in the world.

In the meantime, I've adjusted my welcome message on Multiply. Visitors should now know that my home over there is under renovation, and should hopefully look habitable after a couple of months.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Defending Player Wins All Ties

When I unpacked my box of Word Factory during the first evening of our company offsite, there was an understandable amount of consternation that went around. Word Factory, you see, is a variation of Parker Brothers' Boggle played on a 5-by-5 grid... and it's slightly more difficult than the original, by virtue of the fact that it disallows three-letter words. Seeing that I was both a wordsmith by trade (and the owner of the game, besides that), there was little in the way of encouragement for potential players.

I had come prepared for such a reaction, though: At that point, I offered to give myself a handicap. While everyone could busy themselves trying to find words of four or more letters within the three-minute time limit, I would hobble myself with a five-letter minimum. Fortunately, this sounded like a welcome enough prospect to people -- at least, enough so that four of us could play a tentative first round.

By the time we got back on the bus the next day, word of the strange handicap had spread. I was actually still winning a few games despite the vocabulary limitations, so much that my opponents had tacked on an extra five-point penalty to weigh me down further. In the meantime, I was having fun -- the heightened difficulty level made the game more interesting for me, and the fact that I wasn't rushing to write down a lot of four-letter words meant that I could hunt for eight-letter specimens across the grid.

It strikes me that a lot of board games can be handicapped in this way; in a sense, this can open the possibility of some very nice evenings between kids and adults. My Word Factory experience particularly noted that there are multiple ways to handicap stronger players. Apart from allowing more people to get into the game, it also made for a few spectators who cheered at every seven-letter word that I was able to find.

Any game that relies on winning a certain amount of points, for example, can be adjusted to give weaker players a head start. This could have involved, say, three "free" points to all my Word Factory opponents. Similarly, a two-on-two basketball game can easily start from a 5-0 score to benefit the weaker team, and novice Scrabble players would probably rejoice at a 20-point windfall. I can't imagine a better beneficiary than Texas Hold'em Poker here, though, seeing that its chips are actually a fixed number of points distributed across an even number of players. Anyone willing to grant the smaller people a few more chips at the expense of the card sharks should be able to adjust the game to their liking.

Alternatively, there's also the possibility of kneecapping the strongest player on the table. This was how we executed the Word Factory experiment, and we apparently went about it in two different ways. The first approach was to alter or restrict a gameplay rule for higher difficulty; the second was to force a starting penalty in points. "Kneecapping" probably works best in multiplayer games where one dominant player often faces down a group of weaker opponents, and prevents everybody from having to train their guns on him just to get a decent chance at winning.

I find resource denial to be one of the best ways to force a disadvantage. Many games use or track currency of some sort, and reducing this amount at the start of a game will force experienced players to think differently. An expert Monopoly player with only $1200 out of his expected $1500 would have to adjust her style of play, for example, while a Risk player who has five less armies may have to create a whole new strategy just to survive. While chess would normally be difficult to handicap in this regard, you can impose handicaps in competitive play by limiting the amount of time on a particular contestant's clock.

Finally, there's also the question of adding new rules or conditions to accommodate different skill levels. Quite a few Magic: the Gathering handicaps, for example, involve imposing additional "standards" on more powerful players during deck contruction. Maybe they can't play with cards beyond a certain rarity or expansion set. Maybe they can't play with more than one or two copies of each card. Maybe they maintain a reduced hand size or a larger deck. This, as you can imagine, is probably the only logical option for games with a high degree of customizability, or multiple ways to win -- it would normally be too complex to cover all the possible avenues of advantage otherwise.

This is not to say that any game can be handicapped, though. Tic-Tac-Toe is probably the simplest example that I can think of -- the closest we can get involves allowing weaker players to go first, and even then, that's not much of a handicap to the highly skilled people. Clue (Cluedo) is a more subtle example, seeing as any effort to grant weaker players an advantage might severely throw off the pace and balance of the game. I feel that games that reward personal skills without being based on points (endurance running and Pictionary, for example) are extremely difficult to handicap without compromising the skills involved -- a good handicap should play to the advantages of the stranger player/s.

On my side, I'll probably try to negotiate something for our Word Factory sessions. I'm thinking that the five-point penalty is a little restrictive -- three points may be just about right, considering that I should need only the equivalent of one or two more words in order to catch up. Maybe that way, I can convince them to offer me a three-point head start the next time we stop by the nearest badminton court. :)

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Disclaimer: September 2008

Men who work the nameless word
Seek to rise above the herd
Carving stone in precious rune
Silent by the stoic moon

Eyes that see the twists in time
Unveil songs in verse and rhyme
Struggled madness well too met
Blood and tears awash in sweat

Surveyed landscapes of the mind
Written here among their kind
Lost loves of creation's might
Guarded well by copyright

Making guests of other's ken
Questions of where, what and when
Spoken peace with godhead's hand
Patience lies in grains of sand

Taken words not left to bear
Granted names to drink and wear
Should their presence breed dislike
Swiftly falls the hammer's strike

Men whose cloaks hide thieves' intent
Greater falsehood's detriment
Seek to steal the breath from lungs
Watch these words with jealous tongues

Lies to scream and gladly speak
Chosen to incite the weak
Bring about the sordid next
Heedless of the right context

Grinning teeth of tainted charm
Scatters only fateful harm
Pray refuse temptation's tryst
Lest thou be a plagiarist

Wrath unchecked to howls of rage
Traps thee in a golden cage
Fires doused in ancient awe
Wither well at rule of law

Reason falls to one's own skill
Faced with strength and force of will
Should your greatest work be sought
By your hand must this be wrought