Book Review: Lovely, Dark, Deep: Stories by Joyce Carol Oates

All of the stories in this book are dark; some are deep; only a few are lovely.  At first I thought the title was an original fabrication referring to the stories themselves, but in fact it is culled from the line in the Robert Frost poem “Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening” that says “The woods are lovely, dark and deep…”  One of the stories, in fact, concerns a fictitious interview with Robert Frost, in which the poet is presented as an egocentric scoundrel.  I almost never made it to that one, though.

It started like this…  I like to alternate reading fiction and nonfiction, and I was coming to the end of a lengthy biography and cast about for a piece of fiction to read.  It had to be something I could obtain at the library, as I am in straitened financial times.  I decided to peruse recent awards lists, and found this book, a finalist for the most recent Pulitzer Prize.  Okay, why not?  The last collection of short stories by Oates I had read, “Wild Nights,” had been entertaining.

The book is divided into four sections, with a few stories in each section, and the fourth composed of a single long novella.  I started reading, and found the first several stories to be mediocre.  Worse, they were depressing.  Not just depressing; they screamed out angst and despair, one after the other.  I thought, what the hell?  To be honest, I couldn’t understand how stories of that quality could be nominated for a prestigious prize like the Pulitzer.  Well, don’t get me started on the politicking that goes on with awards nominations of all sorts; I don’t want to get into or have anything to do with it.  But it did lower the Pulitzer several notches in my estimation.  I have been going through a lot of rough times myself recently:  lonely, poor, frustrated professionally.  I didn’t need to read literature that would only bum me out further.  I could sometimes hear Neil Young playing “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” in my head.

Anyway, loathe as I am to abandon a book in the middle, I almost tossed this one at the end of part two.  One reason is that I had borrowed a very interesting-looking nonfiction book from the library that I was anxious to start.

Something gave me pause, and I am glad I continued – because the last two sections of the book are by far the best.  In the third section Oates indulges in some fantasies, ghost stories.  The writing is more tight and controlled, and my interest level rose.  She seemed to be going somewhere, saying something, and although the themes were still dark, at least she was not just screaming in frustration.

The gem of the collection, though, is the last novella, “Patricide.”  It is the story of a Nobel Prize winning author, told from the viewpoint of his doting middle-aged daughter.  He’s a brilliant writer but also a frantic womanizer.  He has married and divorced four wives, and as the story begins has just met a woman young enough to be his granddaughter who becomes his newest fiancé.  Oates brilliantly depicts the complex relationships between the author, his new young love, and his protective daughter, and weaves in fascinating background about the author’s literary career and past wives.

In my opinion, this book would have been much stronger if only the stories in the last two sections were included.  If that had been the case, I would have given it high praise.  As it is, I acknowledge that in virtually every short story collection some stories are stronger than others.  But it was a grave editing error to put so many inferior and frustratingly negative stories in the front of the book and the finest stories in the back.  Perhaps if the stories had been more skillfully arranged, interspersing the fantasies with the tragedies, I would have been able to handle the bitter, despairing ones better.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Roadside Stands

While I was preparing to upload some short stories to Kindle for publication, somewhat ruing the fact that I could afford only the most rudimentary covers for them – a few bucks for an illustration from Dreamstime, simple formatting and fonts in PowerPoint – I abruptly remembered the summer roadside fruit stands we used to frequent in Greece.

We would be on our way to one of those splendid sandy beaches fronting the bathwater warm ocean on Halkidiki – that’s what they call the three peninsulas that stick out into the Aegean Sea like fingers east of Thessaloniki.  On the weekends the side roads off the main highway would be packed with cars full of people hitting the beaches, and along the side roads were numerous makeshift fruit and vegetable stands.  They were set up by local farmers and the goods came right off the fields behind the stands.  All the fresh produce would be seasonal.  There would be tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, zucchini, grapes, honey melons, watermelons.  People from the city would stop along the side of the road and fill their trunks with bags and crates of produce, because not only were the goods cheaper than they could find in the city supermarkets, but the quality was much higher as well.

The thing about these wildly successful entrepreneurial endeavors, though, is that they were entirely makeshift.  The shops would consist of rough tables or stands, a piece of canvas slung overhead on poles for protection from the sun, the produce displayed in wooden crates.  Sometimes there was a handwritten sign, black marker on cardboard, and sometimes there was no sign at all.  The farmers did the best they could with what they had, and folks from the city, recognizing quality goods, came regardless of the less-than-polished conditions.

Sometimes smaller farms sold only one or two products at these roadside stands.  You might see an old man or woman at the side of the road with one crate of lemons or watermelons propped up on a stool.  In the city, around the outskirts of the larger weekly street markets, there were always old people selling small quantities of goods, sometimes only a dozen or so bundles of herbs out of a cardboard box.  The security personnel policing the markets making sure the larger dealers gave receipts so they’d have to pay taxes left these smaller dealers on the backstreets alone, realizing that selling those bundles of herbs might make the difference of a widow or widower having enough cash to buy food for the week.

What I like about Greece is that there is room for all these vendors, and that they are not criticized or ostracized for the size or quality of their displays.  The United States could learn a lot about tolerance from European countries whose people have had to put up with each other in much narrower confines – not always successfully of course – for many more hundreds of years.

Back now to my short story covers, which I realize are not as professional as they would be if I had hundreds of dollars to spend on them instead of practically nothing.  I suppose I’m like one of those road side vendors.  Most of you might pass by without realizing I have quality goods to sell because my display doesn’t have the glitter and neon of the big chain supermarkets, but I’m going to do the best I can and put them out there anyway because I have to – I want to – I feel compelled to.  Maybe someday I’ll have the finances to upgrade them.  Until then, be assured that these covers package quality goods.  One of the stories I’m uploading now was even accepted and published in an international science fiction anthology.

I’m reminded of the covers of Hugh Howey’s “Wool” series when the stories first appeared as individual novellas – rudimentary at best, he’s told us on his blog.  And yet people bought them anyway.  Like that wonderful fresh produce we bought by the side of the road on the way to Greece.  We didn’t care that it came in wooden crates.  It was inexpensive and fresh and delicious; that was enough for us.  I’m very thankful for the self-publishing venues available nowadays on which writers can display their goods for sale.  Some spend hundreds of dollars on breathtaking covers; they’re like the brand shops in the malls with their garish, eye-grabbing displays.  Others, like the larger roadside produce stands at Halkidiki, rely on simple signs and word-of-mouth to make their sales.  Yet others put up literature with unadorned covers that approximate those poor widows’ cardboard boxes.  There is room for all.

Posted in Memoir, On Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

This is the second volume of a trilogy on the life of Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most dynamic of U.S. presidents.  The first volume, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” deals with his youth, education, early years as a rancher in the Badlands of South Dakota, and eventual rise in politics to the vice presidency under McKinley.  McKinley’s assassination at the end of the first book propels Roosevelt into the presidency.

The second volume begins as Roosevelt, who at the time that the president is shot is far off in the Maine wilderness, makes a long journey to Washington D.C., not knowing if the president will live or die, but with a premonition that he is traveling to his destiny.  As Morris recounts details of the journey, he brings the reader up to date on the political situation in the United States.  By the time Roosevelt reaches his destination, McKinley is dead, and Roosevelt must immediately take the reins of the government.

This volume describes Roosevelt’s two terms in office as president, although at least two-thirds of the book is devoted to his first term, during which he consolidated power and achieved milestones such as the treaty that initiated the building of the Panama Canal, the settling of rebel insurgency in the Philippines, the strengthening of the U.S. Navy, and an attack on and legislation against monopolistic trusts seeking to control large sectors of the U.S. economy.  The description of his second term is almost anticlimactic in comparison.

For most of its long length, the biography held my attention better than most novels.  Morris is a better writer than most novelists.  His research is exhaustive, but he melds the wealth of material together in a tight stream of narrative.

Morris certainly has a charismatic main character in Theodore Roosevelt.  Regardless of what one thinks of his personal opinions or political inclinations, the man was dynamic, forceful, persuasive, and intelligent.  As long as he held the presidency he kept strict control of governmental power.  It is fascinating to read how he reacts to one crisis after another, although it is difficult to fathom his need to assert his manhood by going out into the wilderness and slaughtering animals.

Contradictorily, though, his love for nature and the wild led to one of his greatest achievements:  the establishment of a network of national parks, forests, and monuments to preserve the country’s natural resources for future generations.  Without his relentless devotion to protecting the natural beauty of the United States, it would long ago have been decimated by amoral entrepreneurs.

The book’s pace slows a bit in the last sections.  Perhaps, as I said, it reflects the fact that Roosevelt’s first term was far more dynamic than his second.  By the time his second term came to an end he was exhausted, and refused to run for a third term, although his popularity ensured that he would almost certainly have won the Republican nomination and the subsequent election.

This is an excellent book, although in a way it lacks the scope of the first book, being necessarily confined to Roosevelt’s actions in the White House as chief executive.  In “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” he had to struggle against innumerable odds, and the force of the book is in how he overcomes one adversity after another.  In “Theodore Rex” he has arrived, so to speak, and despite his having to contend with often recalcitrant Congressional personages and foreign governments, one does not sense the same sort of peril or odds against him as he struggles.  Still, the book is worth reading not only as the portrait of a singular individual but as a reflection of the era in which he lived.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Blackout by Connie Willis

I approach this review with trepidation.  I admire Connie Willis and her writing.  I have read several of her books and a lot of her short stories.  She has won more major awards in the speculative fiction genre than any other writer.  This novel and its conclusion “All Clear” won more awards for her.  I have to admit, however, that despite moments of brilliance in “Blackout,” I found the novel dissatisfying.

For one thing, it’s only half a novel.  The publisher for some reason – well, it’s not hard to guess the reason – decided to snap the novel in half and publish it in two pieces.  I am going through a bout of severe poverty and so am trying to use the library as much as possible rather than buy books.  And my local library has a copy of “Blackout” but not of “All Clear.”  Frustrating.

I recently read a thread in an online forum by writers about writing discussing a recent phenomenon of publishers ripping whole novels in half or thirds, often leaving them at cliffhanging moments, and selling them in sections to increase profit.  Overall, opinions were largely negative of this practice, the general consensus being that a reader paying for a book wants a complete reading experience.

Be that as it may, as I read my way through this first volume, I was struck by several things.  It has fascinating characters.  Willis has done her homework and brings Great Britain during World War II to life with great effect.  She has a talent for showing not telling, for using the actions of her characters and the dialog to advance the plot.

However.  I thought the novel was way too long.  Some of the story threads could have been eliminated to focus on the most interesting ones.  Sometime Willis has characters running around looking for something or someone first here and then there and then another place, and in the end they don’t find what they are looking for and that’s another chapter.  I feel the two-part novel could have been trimmed down to one reasonably long novel and it would have been greatly improved in the process.  I felt myself drawn into the characters and their situations, the time travelers caught in the midst of a deadly conflict, but it took too long for things to happen.  I felt myself tempted to skim – and I hate skimming when I’m reading a book.  Any book worth reading is worth reading in total.

Another problem I had with the characters was their endless ruminations.  Always wondering what if, what if…  All right, it’s natural to be disconcerted if you find yourself trapped in another era, a very dangerous era in time.  But I kept thinking that the time travel elite back there in the future would have chosen level-headed, stable people for these forays into dangerous pasts.  I especially became very frustrated with one character who goes on page after page worrying if he has altered history.  He should have very quickly come to the logical conclusion that he has no way of knowing one way or the other, and it is a waste of time and energy to bother speculating about what might have been changed.  This should have been in time travel 101 when he was recruited in the first place.  The point should have been survival, not negative metaphysical meanderings.

As I mentioned, though, the book has its brilliant moments too.  It deals with characters caught in the London Blitz, the evacuation of Dunkirk, survival in the London undergrounds while bombs burst overhead.  It’s a fascinating look at how people coped under the constant bombing and imminent threat of invasion.  I just wish the book had been shorter and tighter and all in one piece, that all of the extraneous and unnecessary meanderings both physical and mental could have been cut out and Willis had concentrated on the story.  I really want to go on to read “All Clear,” when I can get hold of a copy, to find out what happens to all the characters, but at the same time I dread digging through all the superfluous bits to get to the heart of the matter.

Despite its flaws, though, in “Blackout” Willis has taken a profoundly important part of history and imbued it with life and renewed significance.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Brief Glimpse of the Goal

A mini-crisis happened this week which might have passed like the proverbial water under the bridge except for my reaction to it.

As I have mentioned before, I pay the bills by writing short nonfiction articles, usually from five to seven a day.  I work hard at it.  It pays little, and I have to write and submit constantly to generate enough income to keep afloat.  Sometimes the constant pressure of the work exhausts me, but I keep at it day after day, knowing that I work not for myself alone but for my sons.

It wasn’t always like this.  During the ten years or so in Greece before I left, I had a good, high-paying, well-respected job teaching English as a second language.  But when I came to the States with my sons to escape the sinking ship of the Greek economy, I had to start from scratch.

Every day I dream of and work towards the goal of writing my own work, my fiction and memoirs, full time.  Instead of waking early, grabbing my coffee, and researching and writing myself into a frazzle for the benefit of an Internet content mill, I long to get up early, grab my coffee, and write what’s really in my head and heart screaming to come out.  Eighteen published books and a lot of short stories and there’s still a lot I haven’t had time yet to say.  That’s my dream; that’s my goal.

So I had written several articles in the morning, took my customary brief nap, got up, grabbed my coffee and sat down to write more articles, but I could not access the articles on the website that posts the assignments.  I went away, did the dishes, did some general cleanup, came back expecting the problem to have been solved, and this time the website was blank.  No assignments at all.

I should have been mortified.  This was my bread and butter, after all.  But I wasn’t.  I breathed a psychic sigh of relief.  It has been stressful keeping up with all that crappy hack writing.  Oh, I do my best and get accolades on the quality of my work from the corporate end of things, but nevertheless the pay is poor and I have to work very hard to keep up.

So I was relieved.  In the back of my mind I knew the assignments would return, at the most in a day or so, but for a brief period I basked in the freedom of no work.  The next morning I allowed myself the luxury of working on my novel-in-progress at the beginning of the day rather than staying up to do it after all the other work is done between eleven and midnight.

Ah, sweet liberty.  At least I had a brief whiff of its clear, clean fragrance.  For by midmorning I had discovered that the corporation had changed sites (without, by the way, informing its writers) and now offered the assignments elsewhere.  I switched over without difficulty and am back at work.

But those brief moments when I had pseudo-reached my goal, when I tasted the freedom of putting my own work first…

In the past there were times when I was able to focus on writing in the fresh bright hours of the morning.  In Greece, for instance, I had the summers between school sessions, and during those times I would turn out a novel, or a memoir, or a series of short stories.  When I went to Brooklyn to spend the summer being a caregiver for one of my sons who had had a nasty accident and was temporarily disabled, I managed to wake up early and write 1,500 words or so a day and finish a novel.

Now, though, at this particular stage of the journey, I have to put the hack articles first or I can’t churn out enough to get by.  I have to keep reminding myself that it is temporary.

Recently, when assignments have been slim and I am too exhausted to continue with the junk articles, little bits of income have popped in at fortuitous moments from my own work: royalties from Amazon and Smashwords, payment for an article posted on the Science Fiction Writers of America website, other payments for short stories appearing in magazines and anthologies.  It gives me hope that the tables will turn for good, that momentum will build sufficiently for me to make a living at the work I love.

Posted in On Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Getting Rid of Things

Yesterday I did two things I almost never do.  I stopped reading a book I had started, and I threw another book in the trash.  The book I stopped reading I had picked up at the library, so I could hardly throw it away.  I wouldn’t have anyway; it was boring but innocuous.  The other book, though, a very famous book, a Pulitzer Prize winner in fact, I skimmed through because I was looking for something new to read after abandoning the other one, found some passages that were genuinely abhorrent to me, and threw it in the trash because I knew I would never read it and didn’t want my sons to read it either.

This isn’t like me.  I usually hang on to things, especially books.  And I almost never stop reading a book after starting it.

Times change; habits change.  Life is short.  Maybe not for you, but it’s getting shorter for me.  And I am coming to the realization that I don’t want to waste my time or clutter up my space with things I don’t need.  Several weeks ago I actually purged some books off my shelves and took them to the local used book store to sell, admittedly for credit to buy more.  I don’t own many clothes, but some of those in my closet I have never worn since I brought them with me from Greece three years ago.  I won’t miss them at all if I donate them to charity.  They may be of use to someone else.

When ruminating about wastage, I realized that the same principle holds for things that take up our time such as events, parties, customs, traditions.  Very few things we do in life are obligatory.  Most we impose upon ourselves.  We need to choose that which benefits us and eschew that which bogs us down or wastes our time.

As a writer, I find myself sometimes slashing off hunks of prose that serve no purpose.  Sometimes a story that has come to a grinding halt needs the last few paragraphs lopped off so it can go off in another direction.

I love accumulating books, which have been an important part of my life since my age was in single digits.  I have inevitably had to dispose of my collections in the past, though, when I picked up and moved from place to place.  For instance, in Los Angeles before the beginning of my epic hitchhiking journey across the State, Europe, the Middle East, and India, I had a valuable collection of science fiction and fantasy first editions, some of which would be worth good money now.  I couldn’t take all that weight with me, so I sold it all for whatever I could get, hard currency being much more valuable to me during my travels.  When I left Greece to move back to the States with my sons, I had a sizeable library accumulated in Thessaloniki.  Again, I couldn’t take it with me and couldn’t afford to have it shipped.  When my sons and I moved from San Diego up north to Yakima, we already had so much to take with us that I had to donate most of my books to Goodwill.

I’m beginning to get the message.  Books are great; I love to be surrounded by shelves of books.  But change is great too, and travel is great.  Life throws variegations of routines into your path, and sometimes you have to leave it all behind and start over.  It has happened to me several times.

Some of my writer colleagues would suggest switching over to electronic books.  Alas, I like the feel of paper books.  I have grown up with them.  Someday, perhaps, and yet…

In the meantime, I have gotten wise to the fact that I never seem to stay in one place very long, and I am looking to keep my belongings trimmed down.  That includes books.  I no longer crave to own every book in existence.  In Greece, it was harder to obtain books and I had to plan my reading ahead, whether I got books from the library, ordered them on the Internet, or browsed for them in bookstores.  I have got lazy here in the States, in this land of abundance, and have accumulated books I will never read.  I need to trim down the clutter.  I need to reestablish my priorities.  I need to realize the transient nature of existence and remain light and trim.

As I mentioned above, this applies not only to books, but all facets of life.  When you begin to realize time is limited, it becomes immeasurably more precious.  Every day, every hour, every minute is valuable.  That’s probably why I can’t help getting depressed when I am so busy surviving I can’t get any of my own writing done.  I have to fit it in somehow, a few hundred words a day at least.  If I don’t say it now it may never get said.  That alternative is unacceptable.  Presently most of what I write is hack work, done only to pay the bills.  I plan and work for a time when I can devote myself wholly to my own work, my novels, stories, memoirs, essays.  In the meantime, I need to remain lean and ready, doing whatever I can to increase my efficiency, including purging whatever gets in the way of productivity.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not an ascetic.  Entertainment is as crucial as work.  Each in its place.  But even entertainment must be carefully selected.  There is so little time for it after all.

Posted in On Writing, Reading | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Rims End

In lieu of blog post this week, I urge you to check out my latest published short story.  It’s available for free reading at the online magazine Perihelion Science Fiction here.

An intergalactic skiing champion has a near-fatal accident that leaves him quadriplegic.  He accepts an alien implant that restores his mobility but has unexpected and bizarre consequences.

Posted in On Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison! A Memoir by Harry Harrison

I picked this book up by chance at the library because Harry Harrison was a science fiction writer and I thought there might be some interesting stories within about the world of science fiction writers and fans.  A word about the title, in case you’re not familiar with Harry Harrison and his work.  He wrote the novel “Make Room! Make Room!” upon which the film “Soylent Green” with Charleton Heston and Edward G. Robinson is based, and I assume that the title of this memoir is a play on that title.

I have to admit Harrison almost lost me right there at the beginning, as the first chapter is a detailed look at the background of his ancestors, his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.  It went on a little too long, and I was tempted to put the book down.  That would have been a mistake.  After that first chapter the memoir takes off and never lets up.

The book mainly interests me on two levels.  One, as I already mentioned, is a glimpse into the world of a working writer in the science fiction and fantasy genre.  Harrison was an important presence in the field, especially as a writer for editor John W. Campbell in the heyday of Astounding Science Fiction.  He did not become involved in the new wave experimental writing of the sixties and seventies, which is where I came in, and as a result I have read little of his work, but the stories he tells of starting out as a comics artist, moving on to hack writing confessions and men’s adventures, and finally getting into more serious science fiction, and his encounters and friendships with many luminaries of the field, make for fascinating reading.

No less important, even more so, in fact, are the stories of Harrison’s travels with his family.  Early on he got frustrated and unfulfilled with U.S. culture, initially in New York where he was born and raised, and began a globetrotting odyssey with his wife and children that never ended.  They first moved to Mexico, then to England, to the isle of Capri in Italy, to Denmark, to Ireland.  They remained for years in these foreign lands as the kids picked up the local languages and went to the local schools and Harrison continued to churn out prose to pay the bills.  They had some exceedingly lean times with occasional windfalls.

I could relate to this because for most of my life and the life of my family when my children were young we experienced similar adventures.  My first two sons were born on the Indian Subcontinent, my third in Sicily, my fourth in Athens, Greece, and my fifth in Thessaloniki.  During our wanderings around the world we experienced much beauty and had many memorable experiences, but we also had our share of very, very lean times.  For some reason as I was reading this I recalled one very broke period in Greece when I couldn’t afford a pack of gum.  You see, I was teaching English in private schools at the time, but work was sporadic, and so income was uncertain.  I always wanted to make it as easy on my students as possible, so before I left for class I would shower, brush my teeth, and on the drive or bus ride to work I would chew some mint gum.  Not being able to afford the gum was discouraging.  But it didn’t last long.  Usually we ate well, and took full advantage of the environment in which we found ourselves – for example the unparalleled beauty of the Greek beaches in summer.

As a freelance writer struggling to pay bills and feed my family and at the same time with an unquenchable penchant for traveling, as I was reading this I empathized with Harry Harrison.  I have a lot in common with him, it turns out.  Every time he tried to settle in an American city, it wasn’t long before he’d get an itch to leave.  He felt more at home in Europe than in the United States.  He was more successful in his science fiction writing than I am so far, but I am hoping that will change, that I can eventually make more money off my fiction than I am now so I can toss the writing of the articles I presently churn out to pay the bills.

So once I slogged past the first chapter, this memoir turned out to be one of the most fun and relevant reading experiences I have had in some time.  Whether it would hit others the same way, I don’t know.  I realize that my family and Harry Harrison’s are anomalies in our globetrotting ways.  But really, you don’t have to live through experiences to vicariously enjoy the telling of them.  This memoir is a good read.  Skip the first chapter if you must, but read the rest.

Posted in Book Reviews, Memoir, On Writing, Travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Samurai by Shusaku Endo

Last night I watched the movie “The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise.  I have seen it several times.  I think it’s a great film and one of Tom Cruise’s best.  But if you are looking for the type of samurai action depicted in that story, you’ve come to the wrong place.  Shusaku Endo’s novel “The Samurai” brings out what a samurai’s place really was – one of submission and obedience.  Although the samurais in this novel wear the traditional long and short swords, they do not draw them once in combat.  The story is not about that at all.  It is more about inner turmoil, the combat within a person’s own psyche and spirit.

Shusaku Endo’s most famous novel is “Silence,” which is Martin Scorsese’s latest film project.  That novel tells of a missionary who goes to Japan during a time of intense persecution and must struggle with his Christian convictions.  I read it, enjoyed it, and reviewed it a few years back.  This novel, “The Samurai,” also has the Christian theme running through it, but it is more epic in scope and story.  I think I like it even more.

“The Samurai” begins by describing a poor samurai’s peasant-like existence.  He is the lord over a few villages in a marshland and is resigned to his simple lifestyle.  His family’s ancestral lands were taken away from his family by his overlord, but he does not complain, although his aging uncle does.  He is appointed to go with some other Japanese envoys on a voyage across the Pacific Ocean to Mexico, called in the novel Nueva Espania, ostensibly to negotiate a trade agreement with the Spanish.  In truth there are underlying motivations within the Japanese government.  He is accompanied by a Spanish priest who is ostensibly a translator, but is actually fanatically devoted to converting Japan to Christianity.

Endo is a master at conveying the emotions of his characters.  The Samurai is a simple man compelled by duty to undertake a voyage that he has no desire for.  The Franciscan priest is so overcome with his own ambition to become the bishop of Japan that he loses all perspective or concern for those in his care.  The other envoys each have their own personalities mirrored in their reaction to circumstances during their epic journey.

The envoys arrive in Acapulco, travel across the barren Mexican desert to Mexico City, learn they cannot present their petitions there, and travel onward to Veracruz to find a boat to take them to Spain.  In Spain authorities are not sympathetic to their mission, so they travel on to Rome, to Vatican City, for an audience with the Pope.  In Spain the envoys, including the samurai, convert to Christianity, without sincerity but with the conviction that it will help them succeed in winning over the foreign authorities.  It is all in vain.  They retrace their steps back through Spain, through Mexico, and across the Pacific to find a vastly changed Japan whose rulers are actively persecuting Christians and have no desire for commerce or communication with other countries.

It is heartbreaking how Endo describes the samurai’s return to his country, a country he had no desire to leave in the first place and did so only out of duty.  He cannot unburden himself, he cannot communicate to others what he has experienced.  Nobody understands or cares.  In fact, he is ostracized and eventually killed for having become a Christian.

I can sympathize with him in a way, having traveled and experienced many strange and wondrous things in far parts of the world.  Even though I came back to a country where I am free to communicate to others, most people who have never left their homeland listen politely for a short time but don’t really understand what I am talking about.  The sense of alienation, of being a stranger in a strange land, is strong.

This novel is based on true events, as an afterword explains.  Even more, Endo emotionally went through some of the same things the samurai did.  He was a Catholic convert in a land made up largely of non-Christians.  As he tells in the afterword, he was the first Japanese to travel and study in Europe after World War II, and became well acquainted with ostracism and alienation.

This is a great novel, deeply emotional and heartfelt.  It also succeeds on the level of an epic adventure story of those in service traveling to a far country to fulfill a mission and meet their destiny.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

On Rereading Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More From 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop by Kate Wilhelm

My rereading this book is a result of my reaching out to the Clarion West community here in Seattle after moving back into the area.  Personnel have changed, of course, since I attended Clarion West over forty years ago in 1973, but the Clarion experience continues for new writers every summer.  For those who are unfamiliar with it, Clarion is a critiquing workshop, meant to fine-tune the work of new writers and encourage budding writing careers.  Every week for six weeks a different professional writer is the guest teacher, and students submit short stories that are evaluated by the pro writer and by each other.

Kate Wilhelm, along with her husband Damon Knight, were among Clarion’s first professional teachers, and in this book, Wilhelm reminisces about the beginnings of the workshop and shares anecdotes from the many years she taught.  She also uses her descriptions of the many mistakes the novice student writers would make to go into several chapters on the craft of short story writing.  There’s good advice therein for seasoned pros as well as those just starting out.

Having been isolated while overseas in Europe and Asia for thirty-five years, I was eager to get back in touch with other writers when I returned to the States.  In San Diego I occasionally met up with a novel critiquing group.  We would meet in a park, having pre-read submitted manuscripts, and discuss them.  The members of the group were of widely disparate ages and backgrounds, and some were much more serious about writing than others.  I explained to them that I was mostly there for the fellowship, and I suggested that whoever was interested could meet some evenings in a less structured setting, share a glass of wine, and talk about writing in general.  We held several of those meetings once a month or so in a group member’s apartment.  As the most experienced and published member of the meet-up, I was able to help some of the more committed members with pressing questions on the business of writing, the current state of publishing, and how to produce consistently without waiting for so-called inspiration to strike.

When my sons and I had to leave San Diego, I had wanted to move to Seattle, but we couldn’t afford the rents, so we settled over the mountains in Yakima.  Try as I might, I could find no writers’ groups there.  It was an isolated, lonely situation for me.  I bided my time until we were able to make the move to Seattle in the summer of 2014.  Unfortunately, I arrived in Seattle right at the end of the summer Clarion West workshop and missed most of the readings and get-togethers that accompany the visits of the guest teachers.

At least I was in Seattle, back in the mainstream, so to speak.  I cast about for some science fiction conventions to attend, and the first one that came up was Potlatch, which as it turned out was closely aligned with the Clarion West community.  That’s how I got back in touch with recent Clarion West graduates and a Clarion West writers’ group.

Although I have attended a few recent critiquing sessions, I realized and confessed I was there more to meet and mingle with other writers than for the critiquing itself.  The critiquing, as Wilhelm describes in the book, consists of reading a story, and going around in a group and offering suggestions of how the story might be improved.  As you can imagine, the methods of presenting the criticism are as varied as the personalities of the attendees, although most attempt to present even major difficulties with the writing in a magnanimous way.  I had done the same thing with my class of attendees over forty years previously and, when the workshop was over, we continued meeting once a month or so on a houseboat on Lake Union until I took off on the first of my globetrotting hitchhiking adventures.

Personally, I was too young when I attended Clarion West back then to benefit much from the specific writing advice.  I had just turned twenty when the workshop began.  I produced no writing of significance while I was there.  What helped me most was to be surrounded by other writers, most of whom were as serious about the wonderful, maddening, all-absorbing, frustrating, fulfilling practice of writing as I was.  Notice I used the word “practice” there.  I couldn’t think of another word that fit better.  Not “profession” or “career” because that implies you’re in it only for the money.  The money is important, sure, mostly because you want to be free to write and not have to worry about food, shelter, and so on, but that’s not the main reason you do it.  There is an inevitability about it all, if you are truly committed.  You can’t imagine not writing.  So I chose the word “practice” in the same sense as it was used in a yoga book I once read.  The writer explained that yoga is always a practice because no one ever attains perfection.  The goal is to continually improve.  That’s how it is with writing too.  You write because you can’t imagine not writing, the thought of not writing is intolerable, and at the same time with everything you produce you try to improve.

The Clarion and Clarion West writing workshops help students fine-tune their work.  They are a shortcut to professional sales for some writers.  At the least, as with me, they provide a community of like-minded people to let writers know that they are not alone in their struggle against seemingly overwhelming odds.

Posted in Book Reviews, On Writing | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments