ANIMAL FARM

The first and only other time I’ve read Animal Farm by George Orwell, I was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school reading it as an English assignment. The title of the book struck me as odd, certainly getting my attention. I remember more the circumstances in which I read the book than the book itself, actually. I began it on a Saturday afternoon and finished it that evening while babysitting for a little girl who was a spoiled only child. She practiced a tyranny all her own. I vaguely remember discussing the book in English class, but beyond that, I do not remember specifics. After living through 2016 through early 2021 in the U.S., I decided it was time to re-read this classic satire of the Soviet Union’s version of tyranny.

George Orwell made no secret that he wrote this “fairy tale” as he called it to focus attention on how tyranny occurs. It didn’t have to be the tyranny of Communism, of course, but he had Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky in mind, their disagreements, and Stalin’s ultimate establishment of his power. He wanted to show how tyranny begins, how a tyrant thinks only of himself and not at all about the people he leads — but he lies to them constantly that he cares, how the tyrant creates a different reality for his followers, and that he will do anything to maintain his power. The tools he uses include manipulation, lies, brainwashing, and creating that reality of his own in which he can do no wrong, and he controls the lives and futures of those he reigns over. The Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore. We watched it break up into many separate countries, try to establish a democratic representational government, and a free market economy. We’ve watched that effort fail as some people saw an opportunity to grab what they wanted for themselves such as companies, money, and power, and practically turn the country into a criminal state. The Russian mafia emerged as a force. Eventually Vladimir Putin won the Presidency, and he’s been working ever since to return Russia to an autocratic tyranny.

I doubt Orwell would have been surprised. He wrote in Animal Farm about the early days of the Rebellion of the animals against the humans, and how Snowball’s influence introduced the animals to the tools they would need to be able to sustain a life of freedom, primarily education. Snowball envisioned a farm where everyone contributed to the success of their society, and because they were all equal, their contributions were as respected as anyone else’s. In fact, their Animal Farm begins quite well, and all the animals are happy, well fed, and more than willing to work hard for the success of the farm. What could possibly go wrong? Napoleon, that’s what. Napoleon and Snowball had shared leadership, but Napoleon wasn’t content. The first thing he does is take away the puppies born to the dogs on the farm, and raises them himself. No one sees anything really wrong with that, except the dogs aren’t happy about losing their puppies to a pig. If all the other animals on the farm had stood behind the dogs and demanded that they be returned to their mothers, perhaps Napoleon could have been stopped. But Napoleon convinces them that he will teach their puppies much more than they ever could and be better puppies as a result. And so it began.

As I read Orwell’s description of how a tyranny is created, I kept thinking of America from 2016 to early 2021, and especially the role of the media and the internet. America, led by a president who reveled in the power of the office, the attention it garnered, and the control he wielded over the White House, started the country down the road to tyranny by creating his own reality and telling the country that anything that wasn’t his reality was “fake news.” He wasn’t a leader. He didn’t lead. He demanded personal loyalty and demanded his staff work only for him, not for the country. A president who cannot tolerate his own flawed humanity, his mistakes, being wrong, or even not being the most intelligent person in the room, must create a reality in which he is the hero, all powerful, a genius, and always right. We witnessed that in the American White House, as well as an outright attempt to overthrow the democratic process in Congress. He couldn’t have done it, of course, without the support and collusion of the Republican Party, no longer a political party of democracy in America.

I imagined years ago that tyranny in America would be possible given the right conditions and called it The Change in the Perceval series. I’ve not written that backstory, i.e. how The Change occurred and why. It has remained very much on my mind, especially the last six years. Recently, as I’ve worked on the fourth novel in the series, Perceval’s Game, I’ve realized that I need to include it in that novel. Evan Quinn is in America only two years after his defection. Of course he’d be thinking about his life in America and what he’d learned since his defection. His observations of life in America become confirmations for his decision to leave America. At the same time, he is also working to help those who want to overthrow the tyranny and re-establish democracy in America.

Snowball (via George Orwell) understood that education i.e. teaching reading, writing, literature, history, civics, critical thinking, and the democratic process to empower each animal on the farm to be a citizen and participant in their democracy would prevent them from succumbing again to the tyranny of human beings on the farm. Snowball didn’t heed the warning signs that Napoleon wanted control. America in the Perceval series didn’t heed the warning signs as well. Both ended up with tyranny. Will America in 2022 heed the warning signs?

Writing Updates

This year has continued to be a particularly challenging one for the United States, and with the pandemic still raging, for the world. I just read this week of two new variants of the SARS-CoV2, and one is even more contagious than the Delta variant. While I received my J&J vaccination last March, I am thinking about getting either a Pfizer booster or the Pfizer full vaccination in the next few weeks. As I wrote before, the coronavirus is here to stay and will mutate at will. It’s up to us to take measures to protect ourselves from it now and in the future.

In July, I left my day job at the Minnesota Board of Barber Examiners and began a new job at the Minneapolis Community & Technical College. I’ve cut my commute down to 20 minutes each way but that means less time for reading on the commute. I only recently emerged from the initial job training and returned to a hybrid of work in the office and teleworking, then hunkering down at home and staying away from people (as my pulmonologist insisted that I do). Over the summer I also had to replace my laptop, printer, and modem. At least my health has remained fairly stable this year and my writing has gone well.

THE PERCEVAL SERIES

I continue to write on weekends, working on the fourth novel in the series, Perceval’s Game. I’m over halfway through but finding it somewhat difficult to get back into my writing mind on Saturdays. I continue to write notes for the last novel in the series, and any thoughts I have about the previous three novels. One character in the fourth novel is named after a friend who chose to have a character named after him in a fundraiser I ran a couple years ago. I recently updated him on the character’s development.

I had planned to launch at least two marketing campaigns, one in the first quarter and one in the third quarter, this year for Perceval’s Secret but did not. Posting the Aanora story did bring more sales for the novel, however, although sales remain disappointing.

The second novel in the series, Perceval’s Shadow, remains on the shelf for the moment, fermenting. I will eventually find a professional editor that I hope will stay with me for the entire series, but to work on the second novel first. I’m still thinking about gathering some beta readers and have talked with a couple people about doing it. Depending on what I learn from the editor and/or the beta readers will determine how I proceed with that novel. I don’t think it’s ready yet for publication, but just how much more work it needs is the big question. And Perceval in Love continues to ferment.

AANORA

This sci fi novella remains at the Fan Fiction website until next August. I did a bit of a push for it before it was scheduled to be taken down this past August. Then I decided to do some editing and cleaning up, and that actually bought me another year on the site. Yay! If you haven’t yet read it, you can find it here. I had a blast writing it!

ESSAYS

For most of this year, my essay writing (as well as blog writing) waited in the wings for attention. I finally worked on an essay I began last year and I think it’s about ready to send to the editor. I have been working sporadically on a collection of essays about classical music and how it’s affected my life. The working title is Music and Me. I’ve been writing down ideas as they come to me but haven’t yet begun writing the essays. I’ve decided that I’m committed to this project, so one way or another, I will finish it. Writing essays makes a nice break from fiction.

READING

Reading as much as possible and as widely as possible is an essential part of a writer’s life. I read science fiction, espionage thrillers, mysteries, and the occasional nonfiction. Since the America in the Perceval novels is an autocratic dictatorship, I was most interested to read Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy, an examination of Trumpism, the damage it’s done to America, and what needs to be done to repair the country and society. Other standouts this year: Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, The Little Drummer Girl by John le Carre, Still Life by Louise Penny, and Forever Young: a Memoir by Hayley Mills.

ANATOMY OF PERCEVAL

I’ve been terrible this year about writing at this blog. A part of me feels guilty about that, but I need to focus on the fiction in my limited writing time. I think a lot about this blog, and write down ideas for posts. So who knows? I may be able to squeeze in more posts as time goes on…..

Another Year for Aanora!

This afternoon, I edited Aanora: A Kelvin Timeline Story at FanFiction.net. I’d been meaning to clean it up a bit and add the URL for this blog in my bio at the end. When I did the edits and saved them, I discovered that the novella will remain on FanFiction.net for another 365 days. YES!!

If you haven’t yet read it, you can find it here. Read, enjoy, and leave a review!

Thank you!

Live Music Again

A cab driver told me a couple weeks ago that the increase in traffic congestion meant we were returning to “normal” after enduring lockdowns, masks, social distancing, vaccination hesitators, and an increase in body weight from stress eating. I laughed. He thinks the pandemic is over, I thought to myself. It’s not. We are hanging on by our fingertips. The Delta variant has shown us just how fragile our defense has been, although people who are vaccinated completely fare much better than those who aren’t. No, a sign of a return to some semblance of normality is the return to concert halls of symphony orchestras, and the musicians on stage are no longer sitting six feet apart.

About the time I listened to that cab driver extol the increase in traffic, my friend J emailed me with the offer of a ticket to a Minnesota Orchestra concert on Friday, July 30. After checking the program and conductor, I jumped at the opportunity to be one of approximately 900 people (in an auditorium that seats a little over 1800) to attend the live orchestra concert. Of course, COVID protocols were still in place — I received an email Health screening a day before the concert asking me to attest that I did not have any COVID symptoms and to wear a mask at the concert. I’m more than happy to wear a mask anywhere because I tend not to trust strangers in public places.

I was excited to attend a Minnesota Orchestra live concert after months of watching concerts on TPT public television or listening on Classical MPR radio. J picked me up and we headed to downtown Minneapolis, parked in the ramp across the street from the concert hall, and strolled into the lobby where we found people congregating around the bars, standing around talking, and enjoying the pleasant weather on Peavey Plaza. Minnesota Orchestra musicians dressed in concert attire mingled among the people both in the lobby and on the plaza. A musical appetizer drew people in the Atrium concert space off the lobby. We kept running into people and musicians that we knew. A common comment was “So happy to be here tonight to hear live music!” But the crowd was definitely thinner than before the pandemic. The joy, however, was palpable.

Conductor Ken-David Masur (Photo: Beth Ross Buckley)

The concert would be broadcast live on TPT (Twin Cities Public Television) so we were in our seats 15 minutes early watching the orchestra musicians settle into their seats. The concert would be hosted by Sarah Hicks, the MO’s Principal Conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall. Attending a concert that’s also being broadcast live was a new experience for me. There were breaks in the flow of the concert to accommodate the broadcast and Sarah Hicks’ introductions. Sometimes we heard her, sometimes we didn’t. We did hear the male voice from off stage saying “Maestro!” whenever the music could continue.

Guest conductor Ken-David Masur led a rousing opening of Summon the Heroes by John Williams written for the 1996 Summer Olympics. The principal trumpet soared. The acoustics in the Hall made me feel as if I were inside the music itself. In fact, my feeling during the piece was of relief. My hometown band was back. Yes, some of their faces wore masks, but they were sitting closer together, and there were more of them on stage. And with this concert, the musicians honored frontline workers in the neighborhood of Orchestra Hall — those people in jobs considered essential as well as medical professionals. Some of these frontline workers were in attendance, listening to this music live.

The concert program sampled American composers. Three of the works I’d never heard before: Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony (first movement), Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Sinfonietta No. 2 (2 movements), and William Grant Still’s Second Symphony (one movement). I especially enjoyed Perkinson’s music — the quiet lyricism of the first movement we heard, and the pizzicato humor in the second movement. Pianist Jon Kimura Parker (also the Orchestra’s creative partner for summer programming) dazzled with his solo performance of William Hirtz’s Wizard of Oz Fantasy for solo piano. I’d forgotten how lovely some of the melodies are in that movie. The themes brought back fun memories of watching the movie in black and white as a child and the first time I saw it in color as an adult.

Two works dear to my heart highlighted the concert for me, although we heard only one movement from one of them. Samuel Barber’s Essay No. 1 for orchestra begins in the cellos and basses with a simple motif that threads its way through each section of the orchestra in the 8-minutes of what I think of a dramatic sorrow. During the forte fortissimos, this orchestra produced waves of sound that washed over me. Their ensemble playing never ceases to astonish me — the precision and discipline of it. The pandemic certainly hadn’t affected their dedication to excellence. Barber is one of my favorite American composers, and the Essay No. 1 is a wonderful introduction to his unique musical voice.

Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Marin Alsop conductor

The concert ended with pizzazz, jazz, singable melodies and flash. The first movement of George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major with Parker again as piano soloist. I thought the tempo was a bit slow for this concerto — not much flash — and there were times that Masur let the orchestra play too loud, drowning out the piano. The conductor’s job when accompanying a soloist is not only to follow the composer’s wishes in the score but to balance dynamics so that the soloist can always be heard.

National Youth Orchestra of USA, Michael Tilson Thomas conductor, Jean-Yves Thibaudet piano (a very relaxed Michael Tilson Thomas — the kids are great!)

The Minnesota Orchestra played magnificently throughout this concert, and we left feeling we’d been given a sample of what was to come in the new season beginning in September. Live music is back.

Why Music Makes You Cry

Thanks to Frances Wilson at the Interlude blog for this essay on how music stirs human emotions. Enjoy!

Just this afternoon at the beginning of Bruckner’s 8th Symphony, I got the tingles.