January 31, 2014

Words of the Month - Words of the Future

        It seems that humans are utterly incorrigible in our attempts to foresee what the future will bring.  It seems there’s nothing we haven’t tried to read significance into, from the flight of birds to the dregs at the bottom of the teacup.  I myself in junior high devised a method of telling the future by noting the location of the white spots that sometimes appeared on my fingernails.  I daresay it was about as accurate as any of the other divination methods out there, which is to say no more so than random chance.  But it was amusing to pretend that I could somehow predict future events, and humans certainly do love to read meaning into every conceivable pattern we see.  So this month I’ve collected for your delectation a very small sampling of some of the wackier and more interesting words for methods of divination.
        Most of these words have Greek roots, and most arrived in English during the late middle ages or renaissance.  Unfortunately most of them are also sufficiently obscure as not to show up in many dictionaries (plus many of them have multiple spellings), so I wasn’t able to track down as much information about them as I would have liked.  Still, they’d be great words with which to impress your friends - especially if you actually managed to use any to foretell the future.  But please remember that some of these words are definitely not to be tried at home.

        Animals furnish many ways to foretell the future, giving us
            ailuromancy - divination from the actions of cats (used especially to predict weather)
            myrmomancy - ants
            skatheromancy - tracks of beetles
            ophiomancy - snakes
            nggam - spiders or crabs (this is a word from the Mambila people of Camaroon and Nigeria)
            ololygmancy - howling of dogs
            alectryomancy - roosters pecking corn
Those are methods that the animals presumably prefer.  There are all too many others that require the death of the unfortunate creature, including
            alectormancy - in which the rooster is sacrificed
            cephalomancy - in which a donkey’s head is boiled
            plastromancy - in which a turtle shell is heated to see the pattern of cracks that form
            haruspicy - the general term for the study of entrails, especially livers
            anthropomancy - human sacrifice
            batraquomancy - frogs… but I don’t know how that’s supposed to work and whether or not the frogs survive the process

        The behavior and anatomy of humans is also very useful to the diviner.
            gyromancy - spinning around inside a circle marked with symbols or letters until you fall down with dizziness on a symbol
            retromancy - looking over your shoulder
            oneiromancy - dreaming 
            belomancy - divination from arrows.  There are several methods using marked arrows, including seeing which arrow flies farthest and pulling an arrow at random from the quiver
            geloscopy - laughter
            fal-gush (Persian, also called cledonism) - finding significance in overheard words
            chresmomancy - ravings of lunatics
            cheiromancy - palmistry, finding the future revealed on the palm of your hand… and if you like that, why not also try
            natimancy, also called rumpology - finding the future revealed in, yes, the rump

        When it comes right down to it, anything that makes a pattern is fair game.
            tasseomancy - tea leaves from the bottom of your cup (from French for cup)
            abacomancy - dust, sand, ashes (from Hebrew for dust)
            oomancy - egg cracked into boiling water
            margaritomancy - pearls
            stercomancy - seeds in bird excrement
            trochomancy - wheel ruts
            tyromancy - cheese

        An excellent everyday method of divination is to pick random passages from a text.
            stichomancy - any book
            bibliomancy - the Bible (sometimes used for other books, too)
            stoicheomancy - the Iliad, Odyssey, or Aeneid
            rhapsodomancy - poetry
            shufflemancy - iPod playlist

        And finally, a few of my favorites…
            aleuromancy - divination involving flour, but more importantly also involving dough and messages therein, thus making this the word for telling the future from fortune cookies.  Too bad fortune cookies almost never provide actual fortunes!
            cromniomancy - the sprouting of onions.  There are various ways to do this, but generally you write possible alternatives on a selection of onions and see which one sprouts first.
            dracomancy - dragons.  I’m intrigued.  Do you observe the flight of dragons, or do you have to slice them open and examine their livers?  Where do you find these dragons in the first place?  And really, it hardly seems much advantage, since it’s just as hard to find the dragons as it is to know the future without them.
            moromancy - foolishness.  I don’t know how you’re supposed to use foolishness to tell the future, but I can’t help thinking this word really sums up the whole fortune-telling thing with a certain ironic neatness.

[Pictures: Roosters pecking corn, woodcut with watercolor by Gerrit Willem Dijsselhof;
Frogs, woodcut with watercolor by Dijsselhof from Kunst en samenleving, 1894 (Images from Nationale bibliotheek van Nederland);
Palmistry chart, woodcut from Les Oevres by Jean Baptiste Belot, 1640 (Image from The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things).]

January 28, 2014

Aliens Are People, Too

        A recurring theme among several panelists I heard at the Arisia con was that they hate it when sci fi authors use aliens or fantasy settings to explore real-world human issues.  One example was the movie “Avatar,” and I agree that it’s problematic to put blue skin on the “natives” and then trot out a whole batch of tropes and stereotypes about colonialism and race relations.  That said, however, I totally disagree with the basic premise that speculative fiction shouldn’t use fantasy characters to explore human problems.  Indeed, I think that’s one of the most important things speculative fiction can do.  Examples where I’ve tried to do it abound in my Otherworld SeriesReturn to Tchrkkusk wrestles with the very human issues of prejudice and discrimination, and the complex ways oppressed people may react to their oppression.  Now, my Tchrkym are not supposed to represent African Americans, or Australian aboriginals, or Native American Indians, or any other particular Earth people.  They are their own people with their own history and their own particular situation, but their story is nevertheless a story about a problem that humans have created and then had to deal with over and over - and that’s why I’m telling it.  Vision Revealed is about issues of religious fundamentalism, faith, continuing revelation…  It isn’t about any particular incident in the Middle East or the United States or anywhere else on Earth, but it’s nevertheless about real Earth puzzles that all of us need to think about.
        Authors who use aliens or fantasy to stand in for real Earth situations were accused of wimpiness.  These panelists seemed to feel that the only reason an author would do this is unwillingness to grapple honestly with reality.  (This from people who call themselves fans of 
speculative fiction!)  If you want to explore racism, they said, don’t write about prejudice against aliens; write about black and white right here on Earth now.  There may undoubtedly be cases where authors are too squeamish to tackle an issue head-on, but I have two objections to the charge of authors copping out.  First, we are talking about writers of sci fi and fantasy here.  “Realistic” fiction is not their chosen genre, and the implication that only in “realistic” fiction can serious subjects be addressed is nonsense.  Even more importantly, the panelists were looking at this question only from the writers’ perspective, but the readers are equally (or perhaps much much more!) important.  “Star Trek” may be guilty of wimpiness, but it was undoubtedly capable of leading mainstream 1960s viewers to consider important issues (including racism) in ways they might not have done had they seen the show as a Serious Drama About Race in America.  It’s the author’s job to tell a story that readers believe in, not to hit them over the head.
        Finally, I want to point out that, ironically, I don’t think even those panelists who said aliens shouldn’t stand in for humans actually meant it as much as they believed!  After all, they all held up Terry Pratchett and Ursula K. LeGuin as masters of creating fantasy cultures and peoples: authors who do it right.  And both those authors are notable for just how consistently they use their speculative worlds to explore the obviously all-too human issues of sexism, politics, racism, religious fundamentalism, war, and more.  The distinction here is 
that fantasy should not be used as a shield to put a comfortable safety barrier between author or reader and a difficult issue.  It should be used, rather, as a probe, a way in, to slip us into a knotty human situation before we quite have a chance to put up our accustomed defenses, and to jolt us into a new perspective on an old issue.
        Perhaps the best way to think about the distinction is to remember the deepest purpose of all - to tell a story.  A work intended to preach a Message About An Issue will likely ring false or grate irritatingly on sensitive nerves looking for nuance.  A story, however, a story by and for people, about people, will of necessity grapple with those same messy human issues, no matter whether the characters are rabbits, robots, elves, or aliens.

[Pictures:  UFO in a Tree, illustration by Bjorn Rune Lie (Image from PioneerHouse);
Ankh-Morpork Civic Protection Stickers, from the Discworld Emporium;
The island of Gont, illustration by Ruth Robbins from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, 1968.]

January 24, 2014


        Every year at the beginning of January when I dump out my bouquets of evergreens, pine cones, and red berries, I fill the vases with the cold, bare sticks of forsythia.  A few weeks later, in the dull and frigid tail of January when it seems that all there is to look forward to is the dull and frigid expanse of February, I suddenly have a sunny, yellow promise of spring.  First one bright, slender bud springs open, then another, and then the stems are covered with blooms, petals flung open in graceful exuberance.  Forsythia flowers aren’t really a particularly interesting form, nor do they have any pattern or texture.  All they have is that happy yellow.  So yeah, I know I always say how much I like black and white, but with forsythia, it’s gotta be yellow.
        Maybe you don’t have forsythia blooming in your home right now, so as usual: relief block printing to the rescue!  If you’re looking for 
color wood block prints of flowers, the Japanese printmakers are the obvious first stop.  Like my January forsythia, these flaunt their yellow in an essentially colorless space; they provide all the color in the world.  The second piece here, by contrast, places the flowers inside in a vase, just as mine actually are, but without such a wintry feeling.  I’m not sure what technique Kirchmeier used - multiple blocks, or perhaps one block with multiple colors plus a black-inked key block.  Shodo and Keinen used the traditional Japanese printmaking techniques of multiple blocks with multiple colors on each, inked with watercolor washes.

        I hope these flowers bring you a smile today!

[Pictures: Forsythia, color woodblock by Kawarazaki Shodo, mid-1950’s (Image from The Hanga Gallery);
Forsythia 2, color woodblock by Ruth Kirchmeier, 2009 (Image from Ruth Kirchmeier);
Yellow Forsythia, Long-tailed Tit, color woodblock by Imao Keinen (carved by Tanaka Jirokichi), 1891 (Image from Davidson Galleries).]

January 21, 2014

Annual Arisia Report

        This weekend was the Arisia sci fi/fantasy/fandom convention in Boston, and my third time attending.  As before, I had a display of my block prints in the art show, I enjoyed seeing peoples’ costumes, I attended lots of panels mostly about issues of reading and writing speculative fiction, and I came away with lots to think about.  I had hoped to have a more cohesive response for today’s blog post, but instead I’m just going to share a few unrelated quotations from panelists.

        “Some of my really visually skilled male students can figure it out from the diagrams.”  I took a workshop to learn how to make a Byzantine weave chain maille bracelet (this stupid spelling indicates jewelry as opposed to armor.)  When our teacher said these words, just in passing before leaning in to work one-on-one with someone, I think everyone in the class was shocked.  After a moment someone at the end of the table asked very cautiously, “Why do you say male students?”  I replied, “I think she means chain mail students, not men,” and a relieved ripple of laughter passed around the room.  The poor teacher looked up to realize what everyone had been thinking and hastened to confirm, “I meant mail with an i!”  So the moral of that story is, don’t jump to offense without questioning first.  Sometimes no one is actually insulting anyone at all.  (And by the way, the bracelet came out very cool!)

        “Do-gooders are boring.”  Yup, this opinion again, stated by a panelist on the topic of spirituality in sci fi/fantasy, and how he loves Greek mythology because the gods are so flawed.  Whether this is actually the majority opinion I can’t say, and if it is, by how great a majority the “good is boring” camp predominates I don’t know either.  All I can say is that I hold a different opinion that I wish would be acknowledged more often.  Here’s my previous discussion of my love for good good guys.

        “When we had my kids’ nerd mitvah we started with A New Hope, because we’re orthodox.”  I was greatly amused by this bon mot.  Certainly it’s interesting to think about what non-religious, possibly even frivolous cultural beliefs are important to us, and how we try to go about inculcating them into our children.  (And how sometimes we just have to accept that our kids aren’t going to be passionate about all the same things we are.  For example, neither of my children shares my love of doll houses and miniatures.)

        Not a quotation, but a final unrelated comment: one of my favorite moments of the entire weekend was a belly dancing dalek.  She imagined and made an awesome belly-baring dalek costume involving various black and silver fabrics, styrofoam balls, and a silver and black toilet plunger.  She performed her dalek dance to this mash-up of the Doctor Who theme and a Green Day song, “Dr Who on Holiday.”  It’s exactly this sort of creativity, enthusiasm, and sense of humor that I think is the best of fandom and what makes Arisia so much fun.

        I’m happy to report that my sales in the art show were fantastic this year, and D was so pleased that he signed us up on the spot for Arisia 2015.  So… I’ll be back!

[Pictures: My art show display, photo by DLN, 2014;
Jennifer Pelland (aka Zia) as a dalek, photo by falconn67, 2014.]

January 17, 2014

Happy Birthday, Ben

        Today is Benjamin Franklin’s birthday, and, as previously mentioned, I’ve had Franklin much on my mind in the past year as he’s featured in my new middle grade fantasy.  You can see my post on Franklin’s magical abilities here.  But of course Benjamin Franklin fits into this blog’s other theme, too, being a printer.  It’s unclear whether he ever did any printmaking - that is, designing and carving images as opposed to composing lines of type.  Probably he would have left that to others trained in the art, although certainly he was the type who liked to try his hand at everything, training or no training.  In any case, he doesn’t seem to have had any particular interest in the artistic side of printing, but he was undoubtedly a man who spent a lot of time inking and pressing.  Even when he was a respected scientist and a famous statesmen, he still always considered himself a printer.
        I came across this series of woodcut illustrations of Benjamin Franklin’s life, so I thought I’d share them.  Charles Turzak (USA 1899-1985) began as a woodcarver, but eventually went to art school, worked for the WPA, and became famous for images of Chicago and woodcut histories, including a biography of Franklin.  I think these wood block prints are notable for their large proportion of black.  It tends to make them look quite dramatic, which is especially fitting for the scenes of storm and discovery.  I find the sky especially interesting in the view of Franklin’s birthplace - half the sky is black and half white, based purely on artistic composition, rather than corresponding with anything in the real world.  It balances the white and black walls of the house and makes a better picture than either an all-white sky or an all-black sky.
        Benjamin Franklin would be 308 years old today, and he’s still going strong!

[Pictures: Key Experiment, woodcut by Charles Turzak;
Experimenting with Electricity, woodcut by C. Turzak;
The Young Printers Apprentice, woodcut by C. Turzak;
Birth Place - B. Franklin, woodcut by C. Turzak, all from Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in Woodcuts, 1935.  (Images from live auctioneers.)]

January 14, 2014

Small Treats for a Dull Day

        Here are some charming little woodcut illustrations from a 1919 German book of fairy tales.  Unfortunately I can’t find any indication of the artist who made these miniature illustrations, but I like his (or possibly her) style.  All the doodley lines and patterns are fun to look at, the characters are quirky, their situations whimsical.
        There are 94 illuminated initials in the book (if I counted correctly), one to start each story, but there are lots of repeats, so I’m not sure how many unique illustrations were made.  Although some seem to be appropriate to the stories they begin, they obviously 
weren’t designed for each story individually, so for all I know they weren’t even made for this book.  Perhaps the printer simply reused blocks already in his collection, which would explain the lack of credit given to an illustrator.  But in any case, I liked looking at them and I’ve picked out my favorites to share with you.  Of course I’ve given preference to those with a fantasy element: giants and dwarves, monsters and heroes, and other mysterious goings-on.  I’ve also given preference to those with pleasing patterns or contrast and visual appeal.
        Despite being so small (about 1.5 inches), and apparently being intended more as a type font than full illustrations in their own right, these little images manage to pack a lot of visual punch.  There are lots of interesting details of patterns, both black on white and white 
on black, and some charming whimsical details.  (I think my favorite detail is the ladder leading up to the flower in which the tiny dwarf sips his tea.)  They go to show that it doesn’t take a grand gesture to make an impact, and that even the smallest dose of art can brighten up the day.

[Pictures: Initial E (nighttime stroll), woodcut;
Initial E (elf in a flower), woodcut;
Initial E (rooster rider), woodcut;
Initial I (giant), woodcut;
Initial E (giantess), woodcut;
Initial D (boat), woodcut;
Initial E (giant’s head), woodcut;
Initial E (gentleman on horseback), woodcut;
Fronstpiece, woodcut, all from Deutsche Märchen seit Grimm (German Folktales since Grimm) set forth by Paul Zaunert, 1919.

January 10, 2014

Granaries by Spencer

        Here’s another artist I can’t find much about, but whose work pleases me greatly.  (Yet more confirmation that good art and art world fame are not synonymous.)  What I can discover about Jim Edd Spencer (c. 1905-1944) is that he was from Kansas City , and his primary work consisted of linoleum block prints of Kansas City and Independence, Missouri.  The Kansas City Public Library apparently has a collection of his work, but it isn’t digitized for me to look at on-line, much to my disappointment.  The few pieces of his that I did come across I like very much.
        Here are two pieces from a series on granaries that apparently had at least 11 prints.  I like the mix of black and white and texture; I like the swooping lines of the sky behind the straighter lines of the architecture; I like the mix of black outlines and white outlines; I like the slightly whimsical quality to the shapes that I’d expect to be stark and severe.
        You can see that Spencer fits into that Depression-era style in which so many artists created block prints between the two world wars, but Jim Edd Spencer definitely has his own, charming style to contribute and I wish more of his work were in the public eye.  Perhaps he never made very much -- after all, he died pretty young.  Still, he’s another artist who deserves more appreciation.

[Pictures: Granary 1, linoleum cut by Jim Edd Spencer, 1934;
Granary 2. linoleum cut by Spencer, 1934 (Images from 1718 Holly Street).]

January 7, 2014

Tolkien - Less and More

        January 3 was J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday, and I was going to use it as the opportunity to write my review of Part II of “The Hobbit” movie.  But I find that all I can say about that movie is, “What in the name of all the Ainur is Peter Jackson playing at?”  Another critic apparently called it Jackson’s fan fic, and I think that sums it up.  It’s excellent fan fiction - quite enjoyable, and with some elements that appeal to me very much - but it’s really not Tolkien’s story any more.  Like much fan fiction, it’s got some bits that I think a lot of fans will get a kick out of contemplating, but, like much fan fiction, it ranges in places from the slightly silly to the wildly ridiculous.  Fan authors seldom work as hard as the original author at logic, cohesive narrative, plausibility, or laws of science and nature.  Jackson certainly hasn’t.
        So enough of that.  Instead I’ll write today about a lesser-known story by Tolkien.  It’s not really a children’s story.  Indeed, Tolkien called Smith of Wootton Major “an old man’s book.”  Tolkien started writing it as an explanation of Faery which he intended to use in a preface to George MacDonald’s “The Golden Key.”  However, it grew into an entire story, first published in 1967, not only about the awe of Fairyland, but also with themes of imagination vs self-centeredness, and of the cycle of growing up, gaining wisdom, and eventually passing gifts on to the next generation.  The plot is simple, but embroidered out with many evocative little incidents and much description.  It’s not directly connected with Middle Earth, but shares with it some important qualities:
             It illustrates the same sort of attitude toward the wonders of Faery that Sam Gamgee feels toward the elves.
             It emphasizes the perilous power of Faery, as opposed to mere prettiness.
             It posits the dichotomy between those of open-eyed, open-hearted creative vision and those who want power and prestige without having to master hard work or true knowledge.  (Think of Gandalf vs Saruman and his orcs.)
             It’s about the cost of true knowledge, as opposed to blissful ignorance.  (Think of Strider and the Hobbits of the Shire.)
        I’m not crazy about the illustrations, which somehow manage to look very 60’s despite their medieval style, but I like this one of Smith and his family.
        In any case, Smith of Wootton Major is an interesting read reflecting a more traditional (as in medieval) view of Faery, tempered through a more modern romanticism.

[Picture: Smith and family, illustration by Pauline Baynes from Smith of Wootton Major by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1967.]

January 3, 2014

Snow Day

        It snowed all day yesterday and through the night, and today the children have a snow day.    There is much rejoicing.  Time for some more relief block prints of snowy scenes!  The snow came down hard and steadily, very fine, not big flakes like in this wood engraving by Ian Stephens.  But the windiness, which Stephens has depicted with strokes of the multi-line tool, was there through the night.  I like the movement and 
vigor of this scene when most other snowscapes seem to capture the stillness of snow instead.  For example, Herschel Logan’s scene of snowfall at night seems quieter and more peaceful.  It’s the soft white blanket, not the blustering blizzard.  One of Logan’s trademarks is the powdery look of many many little carved nicks that are hardly more than specks.  It’s very well suited to the silent, sifting snow.
        Kiyoshi Saito’s snow looks much heavier than Logan’s - or ours.  It’s actually a color woodblock print, although the colors are only shades of grey.  I think I can make out six colors of ink from black to the lightest grey, plus white.  It seems such a simple image, with its large, rounded areas of untextured ink, but in fact it’s quite complex.  Sort of like snow itself, really - which may be awesomely complex with every unique snowflake and all, but always has the effect of simplifying every shape and color.
        Saito’s snow looks like it might be excellent for packing, and so, evidently, is the snow in Olaus Magnus’s depiction of “the Youths’ Snow Castles.”  What an elaborate fort this is!  P went up the street this morning and tried building a snow fort with a friend, but theirs wasn’t even in the same universe as this, with its high battlements and tunnel entrances.  It looks to be decorated all around with icicles, too, which seems a remarkably artistic touch for a bunch a boys intent on a snowball fight.
        But our snow is shovelled, and the sun is out, and the only reasonable thing to do now is to get a mug of hot tea and curl up in a blanket with a good book.

[Pictures: Feb ’09, wood engraving by Ian Stephens, 2009 (Image from The Society of Wood Engravers);
Snow, wood block print by Herschel Logan, 1930 (Image from Legend Fine Arts);
Winter in Aizu, color woodcut by Kiyoshi Saito, 1972 (Image from the Cleveland Museum of Art);
On the Youths’ Snow Castles, woodcut from Book 1, Chapter 23 of Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus by Olaus Magnus, 1555 (Image from Lars Henriksson).]