Sunday Salon: Art in the Mail

One thing I do when I’m not reading or blogging about reading is make and exchange mail art with people around the world.

Since I don’t have a review to post today, I thought I’d post pictures of some (mail)art I have received lately.


Most mail art is collage based, mixed media stuff.  Some include calligraphy and various stamps.   img_1514

Sometimes the envelope is the art, sometime the art is inside the envelope.


People use lots of stickers and stamps.  Some even make their own stamps since you can do that now.


I post my own art along with the art I receive at the International Union of Mail Artists website.


I started doing this many years ago and have been doing it off and on ever since.  Usually I make a batch of ten to fifteen cards based on a set of materials I’ve found somewhere.  My last batch featured cards from an old Monopoly game.


I like to include drawings or miniature paintings on my cards, though I’m not very good at either.  Since they are mail art, typically postcard size or smaller, you can get away with not being all that much of an artist.  Though many, many people who make mail art are very good artists.img_1519

I also like to see what I can get away with mailing, so I’m always attaching things to the art I make, not to jamb up the postal machines, but to give the folks at the post office something different to talk about during their lunch breaks.


And if something never makes it past the post office, I figure the people there deserve some art in their day as much, if not more, than the rest of us do.


Only, very rarely, do I get something returned to me as undeliverable.  I figure I can keep those.  I’ve got a pretty good stack of artwork I’ve received that I keep in a box above the flood line in my basement.


Sometimes, I pick out places I want to visit and mail art to them. Sometimes I pick out places that have done something I like and send them art.  I sent several cards to random people in France last summer, for example.


I probably get one piece of artwork back for every four I send, which is a pretty good rate of return. I always send artwork to people who send me something.  But it’s not about getting artwork as far as I’m concerned, it’s about making it. If you’re someone who makes something, no matter what it is, that should be your motto.  Making it is what no counts, not selling it or getting lots of thanks for it.

Making it is the means and the end.

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We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

In 1921, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We became the first book to be banned by the Soviet censorship bureau, Glavlit.  Mr. Zamyatin was not able to emigrate until 1931 when he arrived in Paris, some seven years after his novel had been published in English.  We may have been the model for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; Mr. Huxley claimed not to have read the novel but George Orwell declared him a liar over this point.  Mr. Orwell began work on his classic novel 1984 just a few months after reading We and never denied its influence on his own novel.  We was not published in Russia until 1988.

So is this a history lesson or a book review?

The pleasure contemporary readers will find in reading We is equal parts literary and historical.  Whenever science fiction makes a prediction about the future, be it utopian or dsytopian, it affixes a sell by label to itself.  Sooner or later, it will become at least slightly dated.  While it can remain both entertaining and enlightening on a literary level, it will also become a piece of historical interest.  This is the case with We.

It’s easy to spot We‘s influence on George Orwell.  In We, a mathematical genius called D-503 is working on   the first interplanetary space craft called the Integral.  The One State, where D503 lives, controls every aspect of its citizens’ lives, down to the hour of each day– rest, work, even the daily hour of free time are all controlled by the One State.

During his hour of free time D-503 meets a woman, I-330,  who tries to convince him to join her in a revolt against the state.  I-330 takes D-503 to places he would not have considered before, like the other side of the Green Wall which separates the One State from the wilderness that was civilization before a series of wars destroyed all but a small percentage of humanity.  Contact with I-330 leads D-503 to begin dreaming which is a sign of mental instability in a world determined to find a way to surgically eliminate imagination from the human mind.  In the One State, logic is all that matters.

Because D-503 is writing We as a confessional and because he often states how shocked he is at his own behavior in retrospect, the reader knows that his romance with I-330 will not end well.  If you’ve spotted just how similar We and 1984 are,  and you remember how things turn out for Julia, the love interest in George Orwell’s novel, then you know what to expect.

So is there more to reading Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We than finding a greater understanding of George Orwell’s 1984?  Are there literary rewards to be found along with the historical ones?  Try this passage from early in the novel when D-503 reads a poem by the great poet R-13:

…I had been taking pleasure in a sonnet called “Happiness.”  I think I’m not mistaken if I say that it is a thing of rarity in its beauty and depth of thought.  Here are the first four lines:

Forever amorous two-times-two

Forever amalgamated in passionate four

The hottest lovers in the world–

Inseparable two-times-two

And it continues on about all this–about the wisdom and the eternal happiness of the multiplication table.

      Every  genuine poet is necessarily a Columbus.  America existed for centuries before Columbus but it was only Columbus who was able to track it down.  The multiplication table existed for centuries before R-13 but it was only R-13 who managed to find a new El Dorado in the virgin thicket of digits. Indeed: is there a place where happiness is wiser, more cloudless, than in this miraculous world?  Steel rusts; the ancient God created an ancient human capable of mistakes–and, therefore, He made a mistake Himself.  The multiplication table is wiser, more absolute than the ancient God: it never–you understand– it never makes mistakes. And there is nothing happier than digits, living according to the well-constructed, eternal laws of the multiplication table.  Without wavering, without erring. The truth is one, and the true path is one; and this truth is two-times-two, and this true path is four.  And wouldn’t it be absurd, if these happily, ideally multiplying pairs started to think about some kind of freedom, by which I clearly mean– about making a mistake?

I’d say that’s pretty good.  Logic prevails.  Happiness lies in predictable, mathematical order.  Poets and mathematicians to not invent, do not imagine.  Instead they simply discover what is already there, reveal what is true.  Freedom is a mistake.  On the other hand, we can’t help but look at We historically, because we know how important two plus two is in George Orwell’s 1984 where the state can force even mathematics to bend to its will and become two plus two equals five.

Hat-tip to Amy H. Sturges and her Genre History articles on the Starship Sofa podcast.  If you’re a science fiction fan and you’re not listening to her articles on Starship Sofa, you should be.  They are always interesting and they have led me to many fascinating books like We.


This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2011. I’ve kept it because I liked it and because I loved the cover art.  I think it would make a fun re-reading project one day–read it along with Brave New World and 1984 just to see how well all three still work and how much We influenced the other two.  The more I read the more I see influence all over the place.

Posted in Book Review, Classic, Fantasy, Fiction, Novel, Russian Literature, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Silent Land by Graham Joyce

Graham Joyce’s novel, The Silent Land, is an entertaining supernatural thriller that delivers the goods.

Jake and Zoe Bennett are on a ski vacation in the French alps when both are caught in an early morning avalanche.  Fortunately, Jake is able to dig Zoe free from the snow before it’s too late.  Having lost their skis, they wait as long as the can for a rescue team to help them back to the village and their hotel.  In the end, the decide to walk back arriving several hours later, hungry and exhausted.

To their surprise no one is at their hotel.  No one is in the village at all.  They decide that the entire town must have been evacuated due to the danger of more avalanches.  While everyone is gone, they may as well have a bath and use the hotel restaurant to cook up their own dinner.  After what turns out to be a romantic and passionate night together the two try to walk down the mountain into the next town.

If you’re like me, you’ve already got a very good idea what is going on, and you’re right. But knowing this won’t spoil The Silent Land at all.  What readers like us suspect is revealed to be true early on; that’s not the point of the novel.  The point is what will Zoe and Jake do after they have figured out what the reader already knows.  This discovery comes early enough in The Silent Land for the rest of the novel to build dramatic tension and to make the reader wonder what exactly will happen by the story’s end.  You may find you’ve moved much closer to the edge of your seat before you finish the book.

I found The Silent Land to be a pleasant surprise.  It’s an entertaining, smart story that I thoroughly enjoyed.  I hope to find more of Mr. Joyce’s work on my library’s shelves soon.


This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2011.

Posted in Book Review, Fiction, Novel, Thriller | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Mamaw by Susan Dodd

Pretend it’s not a western.  Pretend it’s historical fiction.

Imagine this story takes place in Ireland or South Africa instead of western Missouri.  A young woman marries a religious man who takes her away from home to start a new life.  The two raise several children on a hard-scrabble farm.  When he dies,  she re-marries, this time to a doctor.  More children are born.   Unable to continue living a life he feels is constantly hindered by a distant and unjust government, her favorite son becomes involved with a violent independence movement.  He later joins the army and fights on the losing side in a civil war.  Disillusioned and jaded, with no job-prospects he turns to a life of crime.  Before he can turn himself in, do his time and begin his live again, he is killed by one of his compatriots.   His mother is left to live the rest of her life with a reputation she had little hand in generating.

What makes this story a western?

Would it be substantially different if it were a book about a woman with a son in the IRA instead of a book about the mother of Jesse James, Civil War veteran turned outlaw?

It’s not a pretty story.  Certainly not along the Missouri-Kansas border at the time of the American Civil War.  I’ve a hard time deciding if there were any heroes in that particular struggle, but I’m certain Jesse James was not one of them.  So how does one approach a book about the woman who raised him, who loved him more than any of her other children and protected him when she could even though she knew her protection made more crimes possible, including murder?   To her credit, Ms. Dodd doesn’t whitewash her story, as far as I can tell.  Her heroine loves her son, admires him, pushes him to action, protects him and his reputation as much as she can.  But even she reaches a point where she must simply refuse to look too closely at what her son has done.  In order to remain the mother she has always been she must make herself willfully ignorant of her son’s crimes.  This is probably the healthiest choice she could have made.  Not the wisest or the best, but the only one that would work for her.

And Mamaw worked for me.  Whether it’s a western or not, whether or not the question even matters, Mamaw is a fascinating book that took me into the life of someone I never expected to meet.


This was one of the books I read for the Hop-a-long Git-a-long Read-a-long, a challenge I use to run back in the day.  While it never really took off, I did get double digit participation each year I ran it–I think three years total.  It was fun for me and a few of the people who joined in let me know that their overall opinion of the western genre changed for the better as a result.  I remember this book, Mamaw.  It’s wonderful book; one that stayed with me for a long time. I’m pretty sure I kept my copy to re-read in my retirement.

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Classic, Fiction, Novel, Western | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Doghead by Morten Ramsland

A drunken man so frightens and embarrasses his  grand children that they vow revenge.  After some planning and a short wait for the perfect moment young Asger seizes his chance and pees into his grandfather’s beer before serving it to him.

His sisters both laugh as they all watch their grandfather pick up his glass and take a healthy, full drink.  Unable to contain himself, Asger blurts out what he has done, victorious in his revenge.  Grandfather clutches his chest in pain and passes out leaving the children horrified with the thought that their revenge has killed their grandfather.

Though Doghead by Morten Ramsland deals with many serious issues, it is a comic novel.  Grandfather survives his grandson’s revenge and continues to wreck havoc on his family for many years.

Doghead is a comic novel in the same vein of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum.  Although Doghead  will produce many laughs,  just as in The Tin Drum  the laughs come with a price tag.

As the book opens, the narrator’s grandmother Bjork has begun sending him postcards.  Ten years earlier, Asger left the family home in Norway for the life of a painter in Amsterdam.  He thought he had escaped his family until his grandmother’s stories began resurfacing.  Is what she tells him the truth?  It all goes against much of the family’s accepted beliefs about itself and about Asger’s grandfather.  For as long as any of them can remember they believed he was a war hero.  A survivor of Auschwitz who managed to find his own way back home after escaping, Grandfather Askild struggled to find work as a ship designer though no ship builder could ever understand his Cubist influenced designs.

Now, approaching her own end, Grandmother Bjork tells Asger that his grandfather was far from a war hero.  Instead he was a scoundrel who made a fortune on the black market before the Nazi’s finally caught him for what was genuine criminal activity.  All his life he was a frustrated painter, incapable of putting the visions in his head onto canvas.  He abused his wife and his family, alienated the rest his own relatives and drank away most of the little money he did earn by trading off his reputation as a war hero and concentration camp survivor.

Asger tells his own story along with his father’s and his grandfather’s in an attempt to finally confront all of the family’s long kept secrets and the childhood monster who has haunted him all his adult life, the monster he called Doghead.

The resulting novel is as serious as the above description probably sounds, but it’s also very funny.  Mr. Ramsland has an inventive humor that walks right up to the border with magical realism found in The Tin Drum but never quite enters it.   The resulting novel is excellent, all the same.  Doghead has won several prizes in the author’s native Denmark.  I look forward to more by Mr. Ramsland soon.


In the years since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., not only have I not read more by Mr. Ramsland I have completely forgotten nearly everything about Doghead.  It does sound like something I would like, though.

Posted in Book Review, European Literature, Novel, Scandenavian Fiction, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment