World War I meant change

The Meaning of the First World WarThe Meaning of the First World War by René Albrecht-Carrié

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since this brief book was originally written for the 50th anniversary of World War I, it is in itself a historical artifact. But more than that makes it worthwhile.

Albrecht-Carrié does not try to place blame for the start of the war. Instead, “the little Eurasian peninsula that was Europe, which had conquered the world and was its powerhouse, contained too much energy and power for the narrowness of its confines. The very process of imperial activity had simultaneously furnished occasion for clashes and crises and served the function of safety valve for the overflowing energy of Europe. There was, in 1914, no more room in the world for fresh conquests.” (Page 43)

In other words, in addition to poor leadership, bad diplomacy, pent-up need for social change, and an inability to understand the new nature of warfare – what another author has labeled “sleepwalking” – the thrust of history itself pushed Europe toward a crisis that left few good outcomes, although they were possible. Poor choices meant they did not happen.

Once war began – and the book does not examine the military campaign with any depth, only the political considerations around it – all these factors caused greater change than anyone expected: politically, geographically, economically, militarily, and socially. Russia, for example, became Marxist. The United States had to get involved and become a superpower. France and Britain were bled dry. And, in the end, true peace was impossible because there were too many problems to solve. The meaning of the war could be summed up in one word, “change.”

Then World War I led directly to World War II, which solidified those changes.

Albrecht-Carrié ends the book attempting to assess the situation of Europe and the world fifty years after the start of World War I. He tries to understand what will happen with the bold and hopeful agreements that we now know led to the European Union, which at the 100th anniversary of the start of the war faces its own crisis. He also tries to imagine how the clash between the United States and the Soviet Union will go, and how the United States and Europe will finally relate.

In that way, the book ends with as much tension as it starts, a useful reminder to our time that the decades past were not as rosy and easy as we might remember. In 1964, he wrote:

“No one should be surprised to find that our time is beset by deep uncertainty and bedeviling confusion. The scientific and technical explosion is no less a source of stress than the population explosion, and the current state of literature and arts is apt expression of the search for an answer to unresolved dilemmas. But on whatever clouded course we may be launched, no one now thinks of going back to the days of 1939, let alone those of pre-1914. The First World War was a great break with the past. That is its fundamental meaning.” (Page 172)

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Where to find me at Windycon

From November 9 to 11, I’ll be attending Windycon 45, Chicago’s oldest science fiction convention. It’s a literary-based event (the guests of honor are authors, filk musicians, artists, cosplayers, and fans), with children’s programming, games, anime, panels on all sorts of topics during the day, and parties at night. Usually more than a thousand people attend.

My schedule:

Friday, 10 to 11 p.m. panel. Science in the Kitchen: How science is changing the way we eat.

Saturday, 9 a.m. to noon, Writers Workshop. We’ll critique short stories and chapters of novels. Preregistration required.

Saturday, 4 to 5 p.m. panel. ¿Como Estás? Translation Challenges: What are the challenges in translating your work to other languages?

Saturday, 8 to 9 p.m. panel. Animal Typecasting: Hollywood and authors typecast all the time. Why are reptiles almost always the villain? A discussion about different animals and how they are typecast.

Sunday, 1 to 2 p.m. panel. Autonomous Cars: More and more, our cars are becoming automated. Is this new technology awesome or awful?

If you’re there, say hi!

An unlikely election night in Madrid a decade ago

In 2008, I was living in Spain. What was election night like far from home? Patriotic, for starters. And long, very long. Being six time zones east of Washington, DC, made November 4 last almost until dawn. This is an article I wrote about that night for Guidepost, the official magazine of The American Club of Madrid. Tomorrow’s election, ten years later and here in Chicago, will be very different.


“In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope,” Senator Barack Obama said in a much-quoted speech given in New Hampshire during the primaries. “Yes we can.” Full of hope, we crowded into the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid for the election night party on November 4.

Like everything else about the campaign, enthusiasm exceeded expectations. The party’s organizer, Democrats Abroad Spain, had hoped for 2,000 people at the event, which started at 11 p.m. But Obamamania had taken hold in Madrid, and far more wanted to attend. Lines several blocks long formed outside the entrance.

Inside, results trickled in. At 1 a.m., Obama got his first victory: Vermont, with three electoral votes. Everyone cheered wildly. But Kentucky, with 8 votes, had gone for McCain. A few voices booed. Then we kept waiting.

People had come ready for a patriotic party. Many were dressed in red, white and blue, sported Obama t-shirts and buttons, had the campaign logo painted on their face, or carried placards or American flags. Several men wore American flag ties. One woman sparkled in a star-spangled sequined vest.

Live music and televised results on big screens filled the ground floor of the building. The band Guns ‘N’ Butter had people dancing when the Salón de Columnas on the fourth floor opened up at 1 a.m. It was showing CNN’s election night special report on three large screens. That’s where my husband and I wound up, sharing maps and tidbits of geopolitical wisdom with old and new friends as we watched the results with undivided attention. The room was soon packed to overflowing.

At 1:30 a.m., we screamed as Obama took the lead in Florida, a sign of a possible national victory. By 2 a.m., some people were already exhausted and lay on the floor around the TV screens as the lead grew to 77-34 electoral votes. At 2:15 a.m., CNN called Ohio for Obama — great news. By 3:10 a.m., the crowd began thinning out, since the outcome was becoming clear. At 3:20 a.m., my friends and I studied a map and did the math, then considered buying a bottle of cava, Spain’s answer to champaign. But we didn’t dare celebrate, not until the final results were in. Probability wasn’t good enough. We had to be sure. We kept waiting.

As 5 a.m. neared, everyone got on their feet. The polls closed on the West Coast, and, immediately, CNN projected victory for Obama! We screamed. We hugged. Ten minutes later, we were still screaming. Yes we can. Si se puede. O-ba-ma!

We watched as Senator John McCain gave a gracious concession speech. “Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship on this, the greatest nation on Earth. Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and his country.”

We gave him warm applause. Singer Angie Herna took the stage and microphone and led us in a heartfelt “America the Beautiful.”

And though was already 6 a.m., no one would leave until President-Elect Obama spoke. Finally, he took the podium in Grant Park, Chicago.

“I was never the likeliest candidate for this office,” he said. “Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.”

A woman near me, who had painted little American flags on her fingernails, wept. My eyes were wet, too.

And so we all finally left into cold pre-dawn darkness. An unlikely candidate, an unlikely story, and hope. We can change America and the world. Yes we can.

A true ghost story

Since it’s Halloween, let me tell you a true story about a ghost. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I want to believe in this one. It happened quite a few years back when I was living in Milwaukee and I went to visit a friend’s house in the Bay View neighborhood.

I didn’t know the house was haunted. I simply said the big, colorful framed poster hanging at the top of the stairs looked lovely, especially in that spot.

“Do you want to know why it’s there?” My friend was eager to tell me. She and her family had moved into the house not long ago, and they had decided that the space at the top of the stairs seemed like a natural place for art, which it was.

So they hung up a picture. It fell down. They put it up again. It fell down the stairs and broke. They tried another picture, carefully securing it to the wall, and it, too, fell down the stairs and broke. They couldn’t figure out what the problem was.

Then one day they were talking with an elderly neighbor who had lived next door all his life. He listened to their story and sighed sadly. Decades earlier, the family in that house had a teenage son who was gay, which in those days was a terrible taboo, so he had committed suicide by throwing himself down the stairs. Ever since then, things fell down the stairs for no reason — or perhaps because the boy was still there in spirit.

My friend and her family decided to try an experiment. They bought the most beautiful gay rights poster they could find, put it in a nice frame, and hung it at the top of the stairs hoping the boy might understand that things had changed.

“And it’s still there!” she said. “I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, but maybe we helped his spirit rest in peace.”

Now, I knew the neighborhood. The street in front of that house was built over an underground stream, Deer Creek. Maybe, when heavy trucks went past, they made the ground shake and the movement somehow focused on that stairway.

Or maybe there was a troubled spirit in that house, a forlorn teenage boy who had lived there many years ago. And possibly, if he had been born decades later, he would have lived in peace with himself and still be alive.

How to critique a work of fiction

I’m doing a lot of critiquing these days. Here is a critique format I learned from Maureen F. McHugh in the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, which I attended in 1996. We used it throughout the six-week workshop, and I continue to use it to this day — one of the many invaluable lessons I learned at Clarion.

There are many other formats, but I recommend this one because it’s easy to use and especially helpful for the author. It has four parts:

1. What the story or work is or does, in one or two sentences.
2. The successes of the work.
3. The weakest parts.
4. One or two ideas for the fastest and biggest improvements.

This kind of critique is meant to help the author improve the story before publication — something quite different from an academic or literary analysis, which helps readers understand the story after publication.

Each part of the critique tries to accomplish something different to help the author — and often helps the critiquer as well. The best way to learn to write is to write a lot, and I think the second-best way is to analyze other written works. It’s even better to do it as part of a critique group. This lets you see other viewpoints and get even more ideas about how to improve your writing.

1. What the story or work is or does, in one or two sentences.

This way the author can see if you read the story the author tried to write. For example: “This is a story about racism.” “A couple pauses during a trip and talks about everything but her pregnancy. It becomes clear they’ll break up after the abortion.” “A poet faces constant challenges to his art until he decides to defy authority.”

A unique understanding of the story can spur the author toward a new thematic development. On the other hand, the summary may also show the author that the critiquer wanted to read a different story, and the critiquer’s comments should be interpreted in that light.

It’s okay to say you didn’t understand the story.

2. The successes of the work.

This tells the author what not to change, which is important. It also gives the author some sense of accomplishment. We wouldn’t want the author to make a mistake out of despair and eliminate the good parts.

3. The weakest parts.

This way the author knows what should be changed. This is not the place for typos, quibbles over word choice, and stylistic changes such as how to handle dialog, which should be noted on the manuscript. This is for observations like “There’s no foreshadowing of the murder” or “I didn’t realize for too long that the setting was a hotel” or “I don’t think the main characters are three-dimensional.”

Critiquers might not agree on the successes and weaknesses.

4. One or two ideas for the fastest and biggest improvements.

This way the author and you can focus on the big picture. This can be a learning experience for both of you, since there’s always a lot that could be changed.

Again, there may be disagreements that can help both the author and critiquer evaluate other stories better by observing what different eyes saw in this particular work.

When should you seek a critique?

I suggest: when you don’t know how to improve the work further. Or when you have questions you can’t answer yourself. Don’t waste the critiquer’s time with works that you will revise before you receive the critique. Likewise, critiquers should have the courtesy to return the critique promptly, and should offer constructive rather than destructive criticism.

What should you do as a critiquer?

For me, as a rule, it’s best to read the work through once to get an overall sense, and then read it again to begin critiquing.

How should you conduct a group critique?

Here are the usual rules for feedback:

The author does not speak, since readers will not have the author on hand to explain the work after it is published. The author should be scribbling notes, though.

The critiquers speak in a circle, one after another. If someone else has already said what you found, you can just say “I agree with Miriam about the lack of foreshadowing.”

After every critiquer has spoken, they can continue to discuss, even argue. The author remains silent, taking notes.

Finally, the author may speak if they choose to do so, and more discussion can ensue. Then the author collects the annotated manuscripts and thanks everyone sincerely, and if necessary concealing their anguish.