Free-for-all Friday

Let’s try an experiment. I’m going to give $100 to you, a loyal reader of this blog. But there’s a catch. (Isn’t there always?) You have to share it with another blog reader. He or she will decide how to split the money. If you accept the deal, you both get to keep the money. If you refuse, neither of you gets to keep the money.

Do you accept 50/50? Or do you insist on the larger share? (I am giving the money to you, after all.) Will you take 80/20? 99/1?

I’ve been reading Richard Thaler’s Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics — a very interesting read, despite the title. This thought experiment has a lot to say about human nature. (Writers: think characterization!)

What do you decide? Let us know in comments.

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Nature Calls: Albatrosses

At first glance and from a distance, you may confuse an albatross with a gull. It’s an easy mistake. They’re both seabirds with long, narrow wings. They both have mostly white feathers and stout bodies.

But, no offense to the gulls, albatrosses are way cooler, though it’s likely you’ve never seen one up close. They live on the wing, primarily over the waters of the Southern Hemisphere and throughout the Pacific Ocean, and only visit land to raise their chicks.

Ready for Takeoff 

Albatrosses are the largest seabirds, and the largest of all— the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans)— soars on wings of nearly 11 feet long. They put those long wings to good use. They are experts at using the wind currents to travel hundreds of miles without flapping once.

Waved Albatross in flight

Waved albatross in flight over the Galapagos Islands. (Photo credit: Sara Yeomans https://www.flickr.com/photos/yeomans/)

 

As graceful and majestic as they are in the air, they are incredibly awkward on land, waddling about like penguins. When the wind is calm, they have to run for a good long way to build up enough speed to take off.

What nose? 

Tubenose. Albatrosses are part of the group of seabirds known as tubenoses. They have a neat feature on their bills that can filter salt, which  allows them to drink seawater.

It takes a village

Albatrosses build their nests on the ground in colonies. Both parents have to bring food for the chick every 3-4 days in order for it to gain the necessary weight. (Full-grown albatrosses are a hefty 22 pounds!) Occasionally the parents are gone for a week or more, traveling hundreds of miles to collect enough squid and fish, leaving the chick behind in the care of its “aunties.”

Albatross nesting

Laysan albatrosses nesting on Midway Atoll Wildlife Refuge. The birds with the dark heads are juveniles. (Photo credit: David Patte/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

It takes the chicks an average of six months to gain enough strength in their wings to leave the nest, after which time they will stay at sea for the next five to ten years, until they are ready to mate. Sometimes young albatrosses will come ashore during mating season to “practice.”

The dance

Speaking of mating, albatrosses have a very unique way of selecting their partner: they dance. I could describe it, but I’ll just let you watch this clip. It’s sure to put a smile on your face. These young birds are practicing as they haven’t reached maturity. The female (on the right) looks like she’s putting in a bit more effort, wouldn’t you agree?

 

After mating the pair will stay together for several years or, in many cases, for the rest of their lives. But the pair isn’t always male-female. A few years ago, scientists discovered that 31 percent of the Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) pairs on the Hawaiian island of Oahu are female-female.

Laysan Albatross chick

This Laysan albatross chick is one month old. Over the next year or so, he will grow to look like this… (Photo from the Cornell University Bird Lab)

Laysan Albatross

A handsome adult Laysan albatross. Photo taken on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo credit: David Patte/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Why is this?  Each year an estimated 100,000 albatrosses drown by becoming ensnared in fishing line set by long-line trawlers. There is also the growing problem of plastic. (The Audubon Society cites a study that 90 percent of seabirds have ingested plastic.)  Of the 22 species of albatross, 15 are threatened with extinction. Legislation has been introduced to the US Congress making it possible for the US to join an international treaty to advance protection of these birds.

Have you seen an albatross in person? Have a great weekend, everyone! 

Authorial Intrusion: Experiments

Most writers and artists share a common goal —they want the audience to connect with their work. Some also want to push the envelope.

I’m not talking about pushing personal boundaries. That deserves a whole post in itself. I’m talking about doing something new that expands the genre (steampunk, anyone?) or breaks new ground in form.

It’s important for writers to take these risks. It can broaden our scope and offer us more ways to achieve our common goal. I can imagine a small group of writers around the turn of the last century who decided to break from the omniscient pack to write their novels in third person limited or (gasp!) first person. The critics might have called them hacks and used the pages to line bird cages.

Between you and me, because we’re friends, I’ll tell you that I’ve realized there is a line between pushing the boundaries and being self-indulgent. Writers pretend to be magnanimous and call their stories “experimental,” but sometimes they’re just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. The prose calls attention to itself.

I recently encountered a three-part essay about the phenomena of lightning strikes. It was formatted into angular bolts that swept across four pages. The essay might have been as interesting as the form, but I don’t know. I gave up after trying to move back and forth across the pages to track the continuation of a single sentence. At the end of the day, just let me connect with the story. Story is king.

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As Linda in Berlin would say, “Nein!”

And so I come to my recent read—Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff. This novel received a lot (I mean a lot) of buzz. Critics were gushing. Even President Obama named it his favorite book of 2015. At its essence, Fates and Furies is about how a marriage evolves. He becomes the much admired playwright and she is the secret of his success. The novel is told in two parts: first from his perspective and then from hers. That, in itself is interesting. Sign me up. But then things cross that line.

There are omniscient sections and excerpts of plays within the novel and paragraphs that recap an entire decade, but the language was the biggest barrier in keeping me from connecting with the characters. I felt distanced from them. So distanced I didn’t care about them, nor did I like them much. It was a demanding read.

Fates and Furies

I always ask myself why. Why didn’t I connect? What elements were missing? In this case, it was the form. The narration is often fed to us in fractured, incomplete sentences. The staccato nature of the beats kept me at arm’s length. (Many critics loved this calling it “lyrical” and “an almost wizardly command of language” so I’m in the minority, I know.)

On a related note, heavy allusions covered everything from Sophocles to Shakespeare to King Arthur to Nabokov (who knows what else I missed) and sent me running to reference material. It left me exhausted. Instead of feeling like I was in on a cool secret, I felt like a nitwit.

Sometimes all of these “experiments” cause the plot to take a backseat. For me, the story alone would have held my attention, but it felt buried under piles of flashy bling.

Do you enjoy experimental fiction? Can experiments in form go too far?

Have a great weekend, everyone!  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why We Read: To Stretch Our World

“We need fiction to stretch our world.”  ~Susan Sontag

If you want to learn something new—about yourself, the people around you, the world—there are plenty of nonfiction resources. Very bright people dedicate their lives to conducting research or sharing their personal experiences in the hopes of enlightening the rest of us.

Still, I find my eyes are opened widest through fiction. I’ve felt the dust in my throat as it swept across the Great Plains,  realized what it means to be unjustly accused, been an Outsider, discovered how to work a lighthouse, and much more. In fact,  I usually learn more and in a way that resonates with me longer through fiction than nonfiction. Nonfiction often has an agenda. The author has a thesis and is trying to convince me of X. With fiction, I let my guard down. No one is getting preachy (not in good fiction, anyway) or trying to persuade me. The author is presenting the details as they unfold, and I take what I want from it. Fiction immerses me in the lives, occupations, and eras of the people who lived them. These people may exist only in my imagination, but they are representatives for thousands who may not have had a voice.

And so it was with Salt to the Sea, a wonderful new novel by Ruta Sepetys. Near the end of WWII, there was a maritime disaster so terrible, it dwarfed the losses of the Titanic and the Lusitania combined. When the Wilhelm Gustloff sank to the bottom of the Baltic Sea from three Russian torpedoes, it took the lives of more than 9,000 people. Many were refugees and injured soldiers who were “trying to escape from a no-man’s land neither Axis nor Allied in a war already lost but not yet won.” (Read the spot-on New York Times review.)

 

Salt to the Sea

Weaving four narratives in very short chapters (reminiscent of All the Light We Cannot See), Ms. Sepetys brought me there to Gdynia, Poland, with her characters and asked me to make impossible, often heartbreaking decisions. Leave your family behind? Wait for the iron curtain to close across Eastern Europe or take your chance with the Nazis? Send your baby aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff with strangers in a desperate attempt to get him to safety? Behind each of these decisions were people faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. We put ourselves in their shoes. We wonder: would I have the courage, the strength to overcome this?

Every time I pick up a new book, my eyes are opened again and again, and I learn more about myself and the kind of person I want to be.

 

“I am drawn to stories of strength through struggle. I think how we deal with the challenges that face us—that’s what really defines us.” ~Ruta Sepetys.

 

What books have stretched your world lately? Have a great weekend, everyone! 

Free-for-all Friday

On Tuesday, I watched a live YouTube chat in which author John Green interviewed Bill and Melinda Gates.

Bill and Melinda kicked off the session by talking about their recent visit to Kentucky where a high school student asked, “If you could have one superpower, what would it be?”

They answered in their annual letter.

The superpower question was our favorite.

To fly. To be invisible. To travel through time. All good options.

“More time!”

“More energy!”

When we sat down to write this year’s letter, those answers stuck with us. Sure, everyone wants more time and energy. But they mean one thing in rich countries and something else entirely when looked at through the eyes of the world’s poorest families.

More time. More energy. As superpowers go, they may not be as exciting as Superman’s ability to defy gravity. But if the world can put more of both into the hands of the poorest, we believe it will allow millions of dreams to take flight.

Bill’s answer—energy—is a double-edged sword. About 1.3 billion (billion!), or 18 percent of the world’s population, do not have easy or reliable access to a source of energy. But it also needs to be a cheap, clean source of energy. He says, “If you could pick just one thing to lower the price to reduce poverty, by far, you would pick energy…Investing in ways to make energy cleaner and universally available is the most important investment we can make.”

Melinda’s answer—time—highlights the gender gap. In every part of the world women spend more time on unpaid work (household chores, caring for children, etc.) than men do, and in some areas that disparity is enormous. For example, in South Asia women  spend 5-1/2 hours per day on unpaid work while men spend 1/2 hour per day. It’s the disparity that can reinforce poverty, leaving girls with much less time for studying or generating income of their own.

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Here is the full letter (with interesting video clips) and watch John Green’s Q&A with Bill and Melinda below.

 

 

If you could have a superpower, what would it be? Share your thoughts in the comments. #superpowerforgood