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Mount Orégano
Sue Burke
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20th-Jan-2018 02:18 pm - [sticky post] "Semiosis" has its own site

If you’re here because I wrote the novel Semiosis, welcome!

You might also enjoy the website devoted entirely to the novel with scenes and information that didn’t make it into the book, associated fiction and essays, the full Constitution, and a blog.

You can find it here:


12th-Nov-2018 03:36 pm - World War I: a break with the past
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)

View all my reviews
7th-Nov-2018 09:22 am - Where to find me at Windycon
Let me see..

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!

— Sue Burke
Let me see..
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.

— Sue Burke
31st-Oct-2018 09:14 am - A true ghost story
Let me see..
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.

— Sue Burke
24th-Oct-2018 09:46 am - How to critique a work of fiction
Let me see..
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.

— Sue Burke
17th-Oct-2018 09:41 am - The judo way of life
Kano_Jigoro1.jpgThe ju in judo means “gentle” or “giving way,” and do means “way” or “principle.” Professor Kanō Jigorō created judo in 1882 in Japan, based on ancient self-defense methods.

I practiced judo about 20 years ago; an unrelated injury keeps me from fighting today, since a judo match is full-force combat. (Little can equal the thrill of full-force combat.) Though I only studied judo for a few years and was never especially good at it, I learned a lot.

In a judo throw, you help your adversaries fall from their own force by giving way in their path toward the floor. The principle is to obtain maximum efficiency with minimum effort, especially in the use of your spirit and body.

Professor Kanō insisted that judo’s five basic fighting techniques should be applied to life in general.

1. Analyze yourself and your adversary, as well as your surroundings. When you understand the strengths and weaknesses of both of them and yourself, you will know what to do.

2. You must take the lead. Those who play chess, Kanō said, know that their movements influence the movements of the adversary.

3. “Consider fully, act decisively.” This is not the time to hesitate or think twice.

4. “I would now like to advise you on when to stop,” he said. “When a predetermined point has been reached, it is time to cease applying the technique.” Have a goal and use it.

5. “Walk a single path, becoming neither cocky with victory nor broken with defeat, without forgetting caution when all is quiet or becoming frightened when danger threatens.” Know your purpose and be calmly prepared.

“Mental stability and an unbreakable calm are important factors in a judo fight,” Kanō said. “Judo can be considered as the art or philosophy of balance, and as a means to cultivate the sense and state of balance.”

But he adds: “The idea of considering others as enemies can be nothing other than madness and the cause of regression.” To practice maximum efficiency in combat and in life, there must be order and harmony among people. “This can be realized only through mutual aid and concession. The result is progress and mutual benefit.”

The first thing you learn in judo is how to bow, because you will bow a lot during a class or match. It’s the way to express gratitude and respect to your adversary, your teacher, and to your fellow students because they have given you a chance to become a better person.

I learned a lot, though too often I forget to live what I learned. In judo, every fight, win or lose, can lead to improved technique and efficiency.

— Sue Burke
10th-Oct-2018 08:52 am - A beer named Sue
Sue the Chicago T-rex
I hesitate to say “I like beer” these days, but I do like it. I spotted a beer named “Sue,” and it seemed worth a try. That’s why I bought some Pseudo Sue Pale Ale for a taste test.

The beer, 6.8% ABV, comes from the Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. in Decorah, Iowa, and features striking artwork, as you can see.

One of the brewery’s co-owners, Clark Lewey, said they named the beer in honor of Sue, the T. rex at the Field Museum in Chicago. His family visited the dinosaur’s exhibit several times when his children were young.

The museum wasn’t sure it wanted a beer named after its prized, trademarked Tyrannosaurus rex, but after a heartfelt chat about the brewers’ enthusiasm for history and science, both parties worked out a cross-promotional marketing agreement. You can now buy the beer on tap at the museum’s Bistro and in four-packs of 16-ounce cans at Chicago-area stores. That’s how I got my sample to take home for a taste test.

The carton says: “This single hop pale ale showcases the citra hop for a well-balanced beer that is delicate in body with a mild bitterness in the finish. Ferocious hop aromas of citrus and mango give a refreshing taste that is bright with just enough bite!”

That’s close to my opinion. The hops are as sharp as dinosaur Sue’s teeth: scary big, close to the too-bitter line, almost resiny — but not quite over it. If you like hoppy beer, you’ll love this. It’s a good thing I like hops. My husband, who is sensitive to bitterness, didn’t care for it so much.

I’ll buy this again, but not all the time. I might dull my palate to its roaring ferocity. Besides, sometimes the moment is right for a tamer beer, and there are lots of other fine Midwest brews to sample.

— Sue Burke

P.S. I’ve decided that the T. rex is my spirit animal. Because our times call for ferocity.
Let me see..

Autumn officially began on September 22. For some plants, the angle of the sun tells them what season it is. Others rely on the temperature. In any case, at this time of year, deciduous trees drop their leaves to prepare for winter.

The 2018 Fall Foliage Prediction Map at Smokymountains.com has a week-by-week interactive map showing regional peak colors for the United States. (See photo above, which is for October 8.) The web page also explains the science behind falling leaves and has downloadable coloring sheets for children.

When the time comes, trees cut off the flow of nutrients to leaves, which lose their chlorophyll, and beautiful underlying colors are revealed. (This season is typically called “fall” in the United States versus “autumn” in Britain for historical reasons.)

Years ago, I witnessed something that showed me the power of trees — not their strength but their autonomy.

The air could not have been more still that autumn morning, yet a tree near my back door was losing its leaves. One by one, they fell of their own weight as the tree let go. Leaves dropped steadily and eerily through the becalmed air.

Usually we think the wind sweeps the autumn leaves from the trees, and maybe it provides an extra tug. But trees decide to shed their leaves at the moment they deem best. Though they seem almost inert, buffeted by wind, soaked by rain, baked by sunshine, and parched by drought, they control their fates as much as any of us. We, too, can be uprooted by disasters, attacked by illness, cut down by predators, and suffer wilting thirst. Being mobile does not make us less vulnerable. Or more willful.

So on that cool morning, I watched a tree prove that it was the master of its destiny. One by one, it clipped its bonds to its leaves, and they dropped off. The tree was taking action, and no one and nothing could stop it.

— Sue Burke
Let me see..
Sunday, September 30, is International Translation Day. To celebrate, here are three poems I translated with Christian Law. “Twilight in Poley” is my favorite.

These poems are by Vicente Núñez (1926-2002), one of the most daring and important poets of Andalusia, Spain, in the 20th century. These translations will appear in a bilingual anthology of his work to be published later this year by the Vicente Núñez Foundation.

La Mentira

En la breve estancia
de una melodía,
la sospecha tuve
de que me mentía.

Como ya era tarde
y el ciprés gemía,
salí a la terraza
sola, oscura y fría.

Sonaron las doce...
La música hería
el último adagio.
Pero no venía.

Al besar el mármol
en la celosía
mudéjar el viento,
mentía, mentía.

The Lie

In the time that it took
for a song or a sigh,
I had the suspicion
he had told me a lie.

But by then it was late
and the cypresses whined.
On the balcony cold
and abandoned stood I.

“It’s midnight,” the bells tolled,
and the sad lullaby
reached its final strain.
But he did not arrive.

The wind brushed the marble
with a whispered reply
on old ornate carvings.
He did lie, he did lie.

A Santaella

Como en un mar de pájaros reales
tras la ventana de una antigua estrella,
sueña en su torre eterna Santaella,
canta, suspira y vaga en medievales

noches como rubíes. ¿De qué males
de amor se duele la gentil doncella
si ella es la bella porque sólo es Ella
junto a los muros de su casa, iguales

a quien sostiene ausencia y ronda y gime
sumiso al seno que en el Valle mora?
¿Qué llamarada te derrama en ala?

¿Qué vuela en ti, desnuda y alta, dime?
¿Donde me has puesto el corazón, señora?
Campo, capilla, esquila, cumbre, escala.

To Santaella [a village near Córdoba, Spain]

As if in a sea of birdsong, regal
flight through the window of an ancient star,
Santaella dreams in her eternal tower,
sings, sighs, and wanders in medieval

nights like rubies. Of what infirmity
of love does the gentle damsel sustain
if hers is beauty that can only reign
standing at the walls of her home as she

suffers along with song and laments there,
subject to her dwelling in the valley?
What impassioned flame spills you to take wing?

Tell me, what flies up in you, tall and bare?
Where have you put my heart, my lady?
Field, chapel, belfry, summit, quartering.

Ocaso en Poley

Si la tarde no altera la divina hermosura
de tus oscuros ojos fijos en el declive
de la luz que sucumbe. Si no empaña mi alma
la secreta delicia de tus rocas hundidas.
Si nadie nos advierte. Si en nosotros se apaga
toda estéril memoria que amengüe o que diluya
este amor que nos salva más allá de los astros,
no hablemos ya, bien mío. Y arrástrame hacia el hondo
corazón de tus brazos latiendo bajo el cielo.

Twilight in Poley

If evening has not touched the divine grace
of your dark eyes gazing at the fading
yielding light. If my soul has not sullied
your delightful solid sunken secret.
If no one has seen us. If we can quench
those sterile memories that might abate
this saving love from far beyond the stars,
now not a word, my love. Let your arms and
pulsing heart pull me deep beneath the sky.
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