Book Review: The Powers That Be by David Halberstam; Part One

“The Powers That Be” is the story of how media became an important shaper of events in the mid-twentieth century.  It was first published in 1975, when it was contemporary.  Now, of course, it is history.  It deals with newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.  The Internet was nonexistent at the time.  When I first considered reading it, despite the fact that Halberstam is one of my favorite modern history writers, I wondered if the book would remain relevant, considering the radical changes in modern media.  But then I realized that it would be as relevant as any other history, and perhaps more relevant than most.  We don’t use horses for transport nowadays, but that doesn’t prevent us from studying eras in which they did.  I wish Halberstam had said some words about the Internet era.  He could have, I suppose, as he didn’t die until 2007, and when he did he was working on another book, but the era he focused on was usually the twentieth century.

“The Powers That Be’ is, in fact, relevant to our present predicaments, not so much in the particulars but in the undercurrents.  For instance, Halberstam writes at length of Kennedy as being the first presidential candidate to take full advantage of television.  It was a new medium of expression at the time, and all the other candidates distrusted it and regarded it with suspicion.  Adlai Stevenson would have nothing to do with it.  Nixon hated it, and Halberstam points out that the televised Nixon/Kennedy debates were a key factor in Kennedy’s victory in the presidential election.  The lesson we can take from that is not to shove your head in the sand when new trends in technology are manifest, but rather see how they can be used to greatest advantage.

To tell his story, Halberstam focuses on the stories behind the CBS network, Time Incorporated, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and to a lesser extent, the New York Times.  He switches from highlighting one media empire to the next as his story moves forward through the century.  As usual, he doesn’t only skim the surface but delves deeply into the men and women whose stories he tells, including not only their backgrounds but often also the backgrounds of their parents, grandparents, and so on as long as they are relevant.  This does not detract from the narrative but rather gives it additional insight and depth.  The book begins with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his ability to manipulate radio audiences. It chronicles the stories of Ed Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and other key figures in the genesis and evolution into legitimacy of radio and television news.  It describes the importance of the patronage of the Los Angeles Times in the early stages of Richard Nixon’s career.  It discusses the fall of Joseph McCarthy, the notorious anti-Communist witch hunter that even presidents were afraid to touch, at the hands of Ed Murrow and CBS.  It is history told from the standpoint of media, and an insider’s account of how media shapes history and how those who recognize the importance of the media are able to utilize its tools to great effectiveness.

A few words need to be said about the book’s style, which is disconcerting at first.  To be honest, it could have benefited from some editing, especially in the early sections.  Halberstam uses commas to connect thoughts one after another in long run-on sentences that would have benefited from some corrections in grammar and punctuation.  It is jarring and hard to get used to.  I wouldn’t have stopped reading as a result; the material was too fascinating.  But I would have enjoyed the reading experience more if the text had been better ordered.  It becomes more coherent after the first one hundred pages or so, as if Halberstam blurted the first sections out in a torrent of haste, and then slowed down and used more cadence and nuance for the long haul.  I don’t recall the other books of his I’ve read having this run-on tendency, at least not to this extent.  Regardless of its defects, however, the book is well worth reading, and I look forward to plunging into the second half.

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Book Review: Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume I Edited by Robert Silverberg

Once upon a time, back in the last century in 1965, the Science Fiction Writers of America launched the Nebula Awards.  A few years later they thought:  Why not have a vote on the greatest science fiction stories of all time published before the Nebula Awards began, and honor them by compiling them into a book?  This is the result.  Volume I is a collection of short stories, and volumes II and III are collections of novellas.  Fair enough.  I read this book many years ago, in fact, but I found it recently again in a boxed set with volumes II and III at the Seattle Public Library book sale.  Interesting aside:  At the book sale I paid three dollars for the whole boxed set in excellent condition.  I was on Amazon looking for something else today, and I found two copies of this particular boxed set.  They were each selling for $2,000.  Now, Amazon marketplace sellers have the freedom to set their own prices, but even if the set cost a fraction of what they were charging for it, one would say I got a good deal.

Anyway, the earliest stories in this book are from 1934.  That’s eighty years ago as of the writing of this essay, and you expect, of course, that the science and some of the storytelling will be dated.  So it is.  Some stories hold up well, and others not so much.  Some stories are mediocre, to be honest, and have been far eclipsed by more recent efforts on similar themes.  But these stories were chosen for their historical and cultural context within the genre, and not only for their inherent value.

I probably wouldn’t have chosen these same stories, at least not all of them.  But I suppose they are fairly representative of the field as it was back then.  Only a few genuinely dragged, and I will not mention which ones they were because despite their ragged, aged technique they served a purpose in the development of what speculative fiction is today.  Instead, I will mention a few of the stories that struck me as genuine timeless works of literature on this reading of them.  And I am not referring here to the science.  “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny, for example, posits a fantasy world that due to modern scientific discoveries could never be mistaken for Mars, but it is a beautiful, fully-realized story that brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.  Other stories have their characters use old-fashioned phones and televisions and all sorts of odd devices that bring a smile and a shake of the head today, but none of that matters.  As a reader, I am willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of the tale.

Anyway, some of the stories that particularly struck me this time around:  “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon, about a scientist on a remote island who creates a race of mini-beings advancing in evolution at a speeded-up rate so he can benefit from the discoveries they come up with.  “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Lewis Padgett, about two young siblings, a brother and a sister, who stumble upon some futuristic toys in a time machine and use them to construct a gateway to an alternate reality.  “Arena” by Fredric Brown, the story that inspired the famous Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk and the alien face off for the fate of humanity.  Brown’s story, by the way, is much more intense and gutsy.  “Surface Tension” by James Blish, in which microscopic colonists living in a tiny pool on a far planet build a two-inch “space ship” to traverse the void of atmosphere to a new world in another nearby pool.  “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, in which a shuttle captain discovers a teen girl has stowed away aboard his spacecraft, and he must eject her into the void or he will not have enough fuel to deliver needed medication to save many lives.  “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, the now-famous story that became a film for which Cliff Robertson won an Oscar, about a man with an IQ of 68 who has an operation that makes him a genius, and then realizes the change is temporary and slowly deteriorates back into the person he was.

Yes, there are some good stories in this book, and some of them brought up a lot of memories of past reading of pulp magazines, anthologies and novels.  As I said, there are some glaring omissions.  The editor explained in the introduction that he was limited to one story per author.  I would have chosen, for instance, more stories by Cordwainer Smith, and the one that made it into the book would not have been my choice if I could only choose one.  I would have included “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”, my all-time favorite Cordwainer Smith tale, or perhaps “The Game of Rat and Dragon” or “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul”.  But I didn’t have a vote in the matter.  I was just a kid when this book came out.  I didn’t even know SFWA existed, although I soon found out.

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Today I did a lot of deep thinking about my habit of taking a nap after lunch.  With necessary exceptions, I have done it for decades.  In the last year or two, though, I have had trouble with insomnia, and I have begun to wonder if the nap is at least partly responsible.  For a long time I thought the problem was mainly stress.  After all, ostensibly I have a lot to feel stressed about.  I am poor financially.  I have not attained my life goals as far as my writing is concerned.  I am a single parent.  But I have to face the facts:  Unless it is some deep buried subconscious bullshit, I am not really that stressed.  To be honest, recently I feel pretty good.  I’m making enough money to at least pay the bills and eat decently, and we have gotten out of the isolated small city I really did feel depressed in.  Okay, I am far from my life’s goals, but I am working towards those goals and making progress.  When a physical or psychic glitch comes up I lie awake and think about it, but normally I go to bed with a relative sense of satisfaction that I have done what I could that day.

So is the nap responsible?  A few months ago I figured maybe I simply didn’t need so much sleep, and I started staying up later, working on the novels and stories I didn’t have time to do during the day.  That worked for a while.  I would go to bed at twelve instead of eleven and I’d be tired enough to sleep.  I also had the satisfaction that I was producing the work I loved.  But lately, going to bed at twelve doesn’t do it anymore.  I still lie awake a long while before I drift off.  Perhaps I should keep working until one.

For me, the nap has been a habit since at least the late seventies.  It is rooted in practical considerations.  I lived for ten years in Southeast Asia, in India and Bangladesh, and in that part of the world, the early afternoon is too hot to function in, and everything grinds to a halt.  So what do people do?  They nap.  As did I.  In Greece, where I taught English language at private language schools for fifteen years, I always worked from afternoon until late evening; sometimes I didn’t stop work until eleven.  Additionally, I always got up at least by six in the morning to get the kids up and see them off to school.  I had to take a nap or I wouldn’t be sharp enough to teach my students.

And now, as a freelance writer, the habit continues.  I still have to get up and see a son off to school.  I attack the writing, that is, the Internet articles that pay the bills, by seven in the morning.  After lunch I’m wiped out and sleep for half an hour or so, and then spend a little time reading before I get up and work some more.

So today I was wrestling with the dilemma:  Am I doing it wrong?  Sure, I can make it straight through the day if I have to.  Maybe I should adjust my schedule and power through the day without a nap; thereafter I may be able to go to bed earlier.  I am not a prisoner of habit after all; habit is an expediency that functions as a tool of schedule.  Habits make it possible to bypass some decisions and focus on others.  But if they outlive their usefulness it is necessary to change them.

In the end, the most important consideration is the writing, both the nonfiction articles that bring in money and the more important literature that is my personal justification for existence.  Today I wrestled with the dilemma of whether or not to forsake my daily naps until after lunch when I sat down to try to skip the nap and get some work done.  And I decided to hell with it.  I was too damned tired to focus on putting words together into coherent sentences, paragraphs, and whole entities such as articles and stories.  I had to have that nap if I hoped to get any more work done today.  So I slept.  And then got more work done.

Sometimes the most obvious solutions are also the most practical.  When you’re tired, you rest.  I don’t know what I’ll do about the insomnia.  Maybe I’ll work later; I don’t mind.  Or I’ll use the time to think up new story ideas.  I’d better get a notebook and pen for the bedside table.

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Life and Death

One night my friend Rolf and I, staggeringly drunk, walked out to a freeway entrance leading to I-5 South, having decided to hitchhike somewhere, although we had no particular destination in mind.  We got there and Rolf changed his mind.  He said, “I’ve already been on the road.  Now it’s your turn.”  With that, he stumbled off into the darkness.  I stood at that entrance for a long time before I went home.  I wasn’t ready to leave then, but I did leave eventually, and didn’t return for over thirty-five years, apart from short visits.  I recounted this story in my memoir of the road, “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search“.

But Rolf was right.  He had already been on the road.  He had been to Europe, and I always envied him the experience.  Even then, though I was too timid to do anything about it, the fires of road-longing burned strongly within me.

Rolf and I started hanging out together when were in high school.  We weren’t very similar in personality.  Maybe it was a case of diverse personalities melding, or maybe we just both needed friends.  Concurrently, I started to drink heavily when I was about sixteen years old.  He and I would get drunk together; we’d go out and shoot pool; we’d hang around and watch movies.  At some point drugs were added to the mix and we’d smoke dope when it was available.  After my year of university in California when I experimented with a diversity of psychedelics, we dropped acid once in a while too.  We roomed together twice.  Once we rented a two-bedroom apartment that was the upper floor of a duplex in the Wallingford District of Seattle for $100 a month.  Another time we rented a three-bedroom house in the University District for $200 a month.  You won’t find prices like that nowadays; you’ll pay ten times that or more for comparable accommodation.  But Seattle was a backwater back then and we liked it that way.  We’d hold down jobs, make at least enough money to pay the rent and bills and keep ourselves in food and drink and drugs, and we’d party as much as we could.  We’d have girls over; often we’d date girls who were friends with each other.  Perhaps date is too grandiose a term for what we did though.  The girls usually joined us in our standard nefarious activities, and then we’d pair off and hit the bedrooms when we got home.

I’m skimming over all of this really quickly.  There are hundreds of vignettes scattered through the years.  But all that to say that we were close.  We were buddies.  We confided in each other and knew we could rely on each other.

As I became absorbed in traveling and writing, Rolf found a passion that thoroughly consumed his interest: psychology.  He attacked it with a zeal that surprised me, as I was used to his casual don’t-give-a-damn-about-anything demeanor.  He buckled down and started to study.  He managed to get admitted to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles to study psychology.  Passing through the area during my wanderings, I rented a room on top of a nuthouse near his apartment and hung around a short time.  This, too, is recounted in “World Without Pain”.  But he had changed.  He wasn’t interested in partying anymore.  He was committed to his studies.  While I took off for another foray around the world, he hung on and earned himself a doctorate in psychology and became a university professor.

We wrote a few times to each other while I was living in India, but then we lost touch.  He met a woman, married, and had a son.  I met a woman, married, and had five sons.  We still traveled a lot, my wife and I and our progeny, but then we finally settled near Thessaloniki, Greece.  I did a web search to try to get back in touch with Rolf, wrote to him, and he responded.  We wrote back and forth every few months.

Then he wrote me and said he was attending a psychology conference in Germany and asked if he could come visit us afterwards.  He spent five days or so in the midst of a beautiful warm Greek summer.  We took him swimming at an idyllic Greek beach and showed him around Thessaloniki.  One night during a sudden unexpected rainstorm we sat under a shelter beside the pool at his hotel sipping ouzo, and we caught up in more detail on what had been happening in our lives.  His wife had been from another country.  In the midst of a midlife crisis she decided to leave him and their son and go back to settle alone in her homeland.  His son stayed with him off and on, as I remember, but was pretty much grown and gone.  His finances took a nosedive in the divorce.  He had just got a new job at a university in Alabama that he had high hopes for.

That was it, more or less.  We corresponded once or twice after he left but then lost touch again.  Some time ago I tried to find a new e-mail address and I wrote to him but he didn’t reply.

A few nights ago I was talking with one of my sisters about him and decided to try again to contact him.  One of the first things that came up on a web search was a notice from his university that he had died a year ago, in September of 2013.  I tried to find out more and came across an obituary in the Seattle Times that gave few details.

A kind of slow shock set in.  In the last few days I have been thinking a lot about all the life Rolf and I shared together.  And then he just up and died.  Death is so close, an inevitability to all of us.

The articles I accessed online did not say how he died, only that he died at home.  He may have been alone.  He may have been in pain.  I wish I could have been there to sit with him at the end.

Requiescat in pace, my friend.

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Sweet Soft Rain

I don’t know if I’m ready to write about Seattle yet.  I just got back a few months ago.  I was born and raised here, but I’ve been gone for thirty-seven years.  Being gone for so long puts things in a different perspective.  I’m still coming to grips with my feelings about the city I find around me as opposed to the city I grew up in.  But the rain I experienced today ignited a desire to compose a few words, so here they are.

I work almost all the time just to stay afloat.  I start at seven in the morning and work until midnight, with breaks for a short nap, meals, meal prep, and necessary outings like shopping.  I’m a single parent with two sons living with me, so I have to have plenty of food on hand.  Lately I have been researching and writing articles during the day and in the early evening, and writing my novels and stories late at night.  The research and writing of the articles is exhausting because it is an effort.  I don’t want to do it.  I would rather be writing my stories all day, but the articles pay the bills.  Barely.

Today I had done a couple of articles and I couldn’t take it anymore.  I got up from the chair at which I work and I was dizzy and deeply weary.  I had to get out of the house for a while so I decided to take a walk to the drugstore about eight or ten blocks away.  Glancing outside, it seemed that wind had driven away the clouds and there were hints of sunlight, so I decided to leave the umbrella at home.

It’s autumn.  Wind was whipping leaves all over the place.  I stayed off the main road and took neighborhood sidewalks past wooden houses, towering evergreens, and lush bushes and grass.  Seattle is rife with greenery.  It was a wonder and a pleasure to breathe in the fresh air, walk briskly, and get all the kinks out of my joints.

So I went into the drugstore, bought a few things, and when I came out a few minutes later, it was raining heavily.  There was nothing to do but walk home in the rain.  And it was glorious.  The rain was soft, and sweet, and beneficent.  It was like a benediction.  So unlike the harsh, punishing rain in Yakima where I spent last winter.  It was blessed, this rain.  It was comforting.  It was exhilarating.  I felt caressed by the environment.  I felt at home.

In some ways I feel I am home, but in other ways I don’t.  Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again.  I never read the book so I don’t know his take on the subject, but I am certainly not the same person I was when I lived here almost four decades ago.  I’ve lived in starkly different cultures and learned new perspectives.  I can’t look at things the same way people view them who have spent their entire lives here and nowhere else.  In some ways I feel at home, but in other ways I feel like a stranger in a strange land, and I can’t wait until circumstances open up to take me off on my next adventure.  In my memoir “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search” I write:

Perhaps the journey itself, the search, was the point of it all.  But if it was then there was no end, no goal, no destination.  One could not arrive; one could not rest, except intermittently.

And home?  I couldn’t go home again.  Home was an abstraction from which one commenced a particular phase of the journey, not an absolute.

And Seattle has changed.  It’s not the backwater city, quaint and inexpensive, that it used to be when I last lived here.  The dotcoms moved in and wreaked havoc with property values.  Everything is expensive and chic now.  Where the hell is the simple life?

It’s too soon to say how long I will be here.  I have no plans to move on at the moment.  Then again, you never know until it happens.  But I have a son in school and for such things one needs a modicum of stability.

Anyway, although I get weary sitting here hour after hour writing the words, I find the sound of the pouring rain outside comforting.  It reminds me that I’m back in Seattle, and that I’m meant to be here, at least for now. I have come for a purpose that will slowly become apparent as the days, weeks, and months progress.  And if the work gets too overwhelming, I’ll take another walk in the sweet soft rain.

PS for those who follow this blog regularly as it appears:  I don’t always publish the blogs on the days I write them.  At the moment Seattle has been experiencing several days of very chilly but very clear weather.  I wrote this about a week ago, when it was raining heavily every day.

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What Is It About Romance? …and Tragedy

I wrote my recent review of Neil Simon’s memoir “Rewrites” when I still had about twenty pages left to read.  It turns out the last twenty pages are about Simon’s first wife’s battle with cancer and how he reacts to it.  It puts the book on a whole different level.  Those twenty pages, though not much about writing, which is why I originally was drawn to the book, are worth the price of the book, because they are about stark, raw humanity.  They are touching, and beautifully written.

Simon’s wife Joan had her thigh hit during a tennis match and it didn’t heal.  Weeks later she went in to have it looked at and she was diagnosed with advanced, incurable cancer.  It’s clear through the whole book how much Simon loved her, so that when the doctor tells him that his wife has only a year to a year and a half to live, the reader understands how devastated he is.  Simon did something that I wouldn’t have done, on the recommendation of his doctor, and that is make light of the diagnosis and not tell his wife how seriously she was ill.  I believe people need to know such things – and they have a right to know.  But apart from that, he set about making the last year of her life as memorable as possible.  He bought her a house in the countryside next to a lake where they spent a lot of time.  What comes across is the agony of being so deeply in love and knowing it’s going to end soon.  Wondering how to tell the children.  Wondering how to survive without her.  I’m very sensitive to these things.  Tears frequently filled my eyes as I read.

And I contemplated, as I read, what makes love so important, so worthwhile, when it brings on so much pain.  Such a vital, integral, honest experience.

It reminded me of Richard Attenborough’s movie “Shadowlands” with Anthony Hopkins and Deborah Winger, based on the true love story of C. S. Lewis with an American woman who he first finds annoying and then realizes he cannot live without.  She is diagnosed with incurable bone cancer, and they marry in the hospital with her on the bed, unable to rise.  She gets temporarily better, so that they enjoy a few short months together, but in the end Lewis is left to mourn along with the woman’s son.

Why do so many of us look so hard for romance?  It hurts so damn much.  It’s a sort of pleasure/pain thing.  You know the deeper you get into it the harder it is to extricate yourself, but you take the dive anyway.  We all enjoy a good love story, as long as it’s not a load of cotton candy bullshit, and sometimes it seems we fall for those too.  I was reminded of my favorite John Steinbeck novel, “Sweet Thursday”.  It’s the story of the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold who meets the lonely aging recluse and they hit it off, but it is told with such verve and depth of character that it punches me in the heart every time.

I’ve fallen in love several times, and most of the women I sincerely fell in love with I still love, even though the relationship in some cases only lasted a few days or a few weeks.  Take, for example, the women I describe in my memoir “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search“, Carlie and Catherine.  I still deeply love them both and would love to hear from them and know how they’re doing.

I ramble, I suppose.  But all that to say that I’m a sucker for a love story, even one touched with tragedy.  Because love is at the core of the human experience.  Sometimes we have it, and we are enmeshed in the relationships it creates.  Other times we are alone and we long for it.  Either way it’s there, so close, so intimate, so approachable with the heart and spirit that we can feel what someone like Neil Simon goes through as he writes about it.  There is something about love in its purest form that is the same for everyone.  That’s what creates empathy, ethics, all that is best in humanity.  Words like those I read today bring such feelings into conscious remembrance.

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Book Review: Rewrites: A Memoir by Neil Simon

This is another book I found at the yearly Seattle Public Library book sale.  Before finding it in the rows, stacks, and piles of books scattered on the long tables, I never even knew it existed.  Neil Simon is a well-known playwright and screenwriter, though, and I am always eager to read memoirs and biographies of other writers.

Perhaps I under-described Simon’s fame in the paragraph above by merely stating he is well-known.  As of 2014, he has won a Pulitzer Prize, a Golden Globe Award, a Writer’s Guild of America award, and two Emmy Awards; he received seventeen Tony nominations and won three; and he has also been nominated for four Academy Awards.  Many of his plays and films are easily recognizable, such as “Barefoot in the Park”, “The Odd Couple”, “The Sunshine Boys”, “California Suite”, “Lost in Yonkers”, and “The Goodbye Girl”.

In the memoir, Simon briefly touches on his childhood, but most of it concerns his play writing – how he got started in the business and his trials and tribulations getting various plays from paper to stage.  I read with great fascination the stories of each play’s inspiration,  first draft, rewrites, pitches to directors and actors, rehearsals, more rewrites, first performances, and yet more rewrites.  Whether Simon was creating a play or a film, he was hands-on from beginning to end, there for conferences, tryouts, rehearsals every step of the way.  He would be constantly improving his work even as it was being performed.

This is a fascinating glimpse into the world of Broadway plays, and features anecdotes about some of the great directors and actors such as Mike Nichols, Robert Redford, Maureen Stapleton, Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and others.  But the great gift Simon gives his readers is the intimacy that is also prevalent in his plays, some of which are obviously autobiographical.  He brings you into his personal life; he chats with you as if you were an intimate acquaintance.  He makes you laugh and stress and weep with him as he sees his brainchildren through from conception to completion.

I don’t think I have been so edified and entertained with a celebrity’s memoir since I read Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography.  All right, Keith Richard’s memoir was also a great read, but that’s a horse of a vastly different color.  Simon’s prose is erudite, informative, yet accessible.  The one thing that annoyed me, especially at the beginning, was his penchant for throwing one-liners into the descriptions as if he were writing one of his plays.  There seems to be a preponderance of these zingers in the first few chapters, and after that Simon gets on with the business of telling his story, which is a relief.  If I want to watch a stand-up comedian I will do so, but in a memoir I am after a different experience.  I think part of it is simply that Simon has it in him; he is a very funny person.  He has the ability to mix comedy and tragedy both in this account of his life and in his performance art.

All in all, this is a great read, and I highly recommend it.  For one thing, it is deeply touching.  Simon has his finger on the pulse of humanity in his plays and films, and he manages to turn it effectively on himself.  For another, it gives great insight into the creative process, more than anything showing that every artist works differently, but it is the zeal, integrity, and whole-heartedness brought to the process that determines the outcome.  For yet another, it is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the New York Broadway theater era of the 1960s and 70s from someone who was intimately involved.

One other insight the book gave me, or rather reinforcement of an insight I already had, is that each writer – and I mean every writer who has ever put pen to paper – is different.  The title of this book is a giveaway about Simon’s viewpoint on rewriting.  For him it is a constant process.  Some of it has to do with the state of theater in that era, but it also has to do with his inability to be satisfied with anything short of perfection.  It is obvious that he has a sixth sense, so to speak, of what works and what doesn’t, but he has to put the boat into motion before the rudder of his rewrites goes into effect.  I have read writing advice by others warning against rewriting (except to editorial orders) and I understand that argument as well, but it all boils down to the individual artist and what brings about the desired effect at the moment.  Personally, I have done both.  Many of my works have been written and published with only minor changes to correct occasional misspellings and grammatical errors.  Once in a while, though, I reread something I have written and realize something is fundamentally wrong with either the entire work or a piece of it.  If I am convinced that the piece of writing will benefit and that it is of sufficient importance to justify the expenditure of time, I will go ahead and rework it.  Otherwise I simply set it aside and move on to the next project.  Not only is every writer different, but every project that every writer works on is different.  That’s just how it is.

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Book Review: The John Varley Reader

I hadn’t intended to review this book at all.  I bought it at the Seattle Public Library book sale for a dollar because I noticed that it had “The Persistence of Vision” in it, a story I have been wanting to read for years.  I was planning to read just the one story.  But then a few things tipped the scales, and I realized I had to say a few words.

By the way, I picked up a big pile of books at that sale.  From a writer’s viewpoint, I am sorry I cannot help the writers make their living by buying their new books, but on the other hand, I am just too damn poor now to be able to afford new books.  And I have to have my reading fix one way or the other.

Anyway, as I said, I bought the book for just the one story, but I recognized a few other award winners in the mix, so I thought maybe I’d read a half dozen stories or so and leave it at that.  The first things that hooked me, though, were not stories at all – they were the introductions to the stories.  In them Varley doesn’t really talk much about the stories.  He talks more about his life, and his trials and tribulations as a young writer.  And a lot of it clicked with me, especially when he shares anecdotes of his time as a hippy.  He lived in Haight/Ashbury; he attended Woodstock, albeit by accident.  I can relate to that.  I got involved in the hip scene myself in the Bay Area in the early seventies, right around the time I realized I wanted to be a writer and began to compose stories.  I wasn’t successful by any means, as Varley was almost right away, but still there was that common immersion in the scene and fascination with science fiction and writing.  I was so impressed by our similar backgrounds that I thought I’d write him a line and say so.  However, the mail link on his website didn’t work, at least not for me, and he wasn’t listed in the SFWA members directory.  Ah, well.  I had to let that one go.

Anyway, “The Persistence of Vision” is a very good story, although not what I expected.  It tells of a commune established out in the wilderness of New Mexico by deaf and blind people, and how they cope, how their social structure evolves, and how their handicaps become a gateway to something greater.  Another award-winning story, “Press Enter”, I have read before.  It’s a very creepy story with very well-drawn characters about a murderously nasty computer network.  A good read.  The third award-winning story, “The Pusher”, I had never read, but when I did I was somewhat disappointed.  It’s okay, but mainly a fairly light gimmick story.

Having read all the stories I had intended to read, I went through and read the rest of the introductions until I came to the last story in the book.  This was the story, says the introduction, that Harlan Ellison requested when soliciting stories for “The Last Dangerous Visions”.  If you haven’t heard of that, you don’t know much about the history of the science fiction field.  “Dangerous Visions” and “Again, Dangerous Visions” were important anthologies in the New Wave era of the late sixties and early seventies.  Full of award-winning original fiction, they pushed the boundaries of the genre.  It was Ellison’s intention to publish stories that no one else would touch at the time, on themes radical and even taboo.  When I attended Clarion West in 1973, “Again, Dangerous Visions” had just come out.  Everyone was aware that Ellison was seeking stories for the next volume and had already bought a good number from Clarion students.  It was the highest dream of all of us to sell a story to “The Last Dangerous Visions”.  I didn’t even come close.  I didn’t write any really good stories until decades later.

But then, something happened with that last volume.  It got delayed, and then delayed some more.  Ellison hung on to the stories, obviously intending to get the work done, but now four decades have passed and “The Last Dangerous Visions” has yet to be published.  Even knowing about the delay, back then I think I would have sold Ellison a story if he was willing to buy it because I respected his opinion so much.  But anyway, as the years passed, some writers hung on with Ellison, while others pulled their stories from the anthology and published them elsewhere.  Varley describes how he respectfully approached Ellison to withdraw the story as it had been so long, and finally Varley published it for the first time in “The John Varley Reader”.  It’s the only original, never-before-published story in the anthology.

This piqued my interest.  I decided to read “The Bellman” to find out what made it so dangerous.  Some of the stories in “Dangerous Visions” are no longer as controversial as they used to be, and I wondered how Varley’s had fared.

Well, I have to say that Varley really knocked it out of the park with this one.  It’s a great story, though intense and gruesome, and it would still be considered extreme today.  It concerns a pregnant woman police officer investigating some very unusual murders in a moon colony, but…  I will say no more.  This story is worth the price of the book.  It’s that good.  I don’t want to spoil it for you by giving too much away.

So, “The John Varley Reader” has some great stories and some so-so stories, but that’s true with almost all anthologies.  It’s partly a matter of reader’s taste, and partly the fact that almost no author gets it spot-on every time out.  Still, the good stories in this one are very, very good.

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Short Story Author Highlight: Roger Zelazny

The two best things I got out of my dreadful year of college at the University of Santa Clara were an unquenchable desire to be a writer and a love for science fiction.  Both came about because I enrolled for a science fiction literature course on a whim.  The anthology that was the main text was a collection of brilliant stories both classic and contemporary.  One of them was “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison, the reading of which made me realize there was nothing in the world I wanted to do more than produce memorable works of fiction.

When I returned to Seattle, I sought out the science fiction shelf at the local public library, and they had several volumes of the Nebula Awards anthologies, all of which I devoured.  In volume one were two stories, “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” and “He Who Shapes” by a writer I had never heard of named Roger Zelazny.  As I read them I was immediately struck by his idiosyncratic style, his vivid descriptions, his liberal use of metaphor, and his spare effective dialog.

Nobody writes like Roger Zelazny.

Since then I have read a fair amount of his work, and I have enjoyed most of it.  He’s like any prolific writer, even some of my favorites:  in my estimation, some of his work is brilliant, some is excellent, some is readable, and some is so-so.  His best work is some of the finest science fiction ever written.  My favorites include some of his earliest stories and his first novel, “This Immortal”, also known as “…And Call Me Conrad”.

In my perusal of the mountains of books at the recent yearly book sale of the Seattle Public Library, I came across the first hardbound volume of a set of complete stories by Roger Zelazny, and besides some of his early short shorts, some of which were published in high school and college literary magazines, were my three favorite Roger Zelazny short stories.  And here they are.

A Rose for Ecclesiastes“.  This is the first major short story Zelazny ever wrote and published, and it became such a classic that it was chosen for the Science Fiction Writers of America Science Fiction Hall of Fame.  It concerns a famous poet who accompanies an expedition to Mars to study the Martian language.  As he becomes enmeshed in their culture he falls in love with a Martian woman and discovers that a plague of infertility has doomed the Martian race.  However, the woman becomes pregnant with his child, and he uses the Book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible in Martian translation to convince the Martians to let the child live.  The story is told in such precise, beautiful language that it tugs my heart and brings me to tears every time I read it.  Truly one of the great classics of science fiction.

The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth“.  Another wonderful science fiction classic.  The title is from the description of the leviathan in the Book of Job in the Bible.  In chapter 40 of the King James version it says, “Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?…Who can open the doors of his face?  His teeth are terrible round about…Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out.”  The Bible passage continues with a long description of a fearsome sea creature.  The story is set on Venus, where in the deep ocean lives the largest sea creature in the solar system, a monstrous fish with fearsome fangs and incredible strength.  A team goes out on a specially-built platform to hunt the beast, and the protagonist is a baitman who must dive into the water when the beast is sighted to manually trigger the lure.  This is the first Zelazny story I ever read.  It highlights his lean style perfectly, has amazingly nuanced characterization, and is a rousing adventure at the same time.

He Who Shapes“.  This is a longer work, a novella.  It is more intricate than it first appears, and I have to admit I didn’t really get it, at least not all of it, the first few times I read it.  It concerns a special type of psychiatrist who enters his patients’ minds and helps them by shaping their dreams.  He encounters a woman blind from birth and begins to help her discover what sight is, but becomes drawn into the fantasy world of her psyche.  There have been many imitations since this first appeared, but none have had the depth or insight of this wildly original story.

Many other Zelazny stories have given me intense pleasure, among them “Devil Car”, “Home is the Hangman”, and “This Moment of the Storm”.  He was a great writer who died much too young in 1995 at the age of 58.

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Book Review: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam

Let me just say from the start that this is a magisterial, brilliant book.  I read somewhere that Halberstam considered it his best book, and I can’t argue with that.  On the other hand, I have read several of his books, and every one of them is excellent.  With this one, though, he shows the true master’s touch, the abilities of one who has learned his craft through decades of practice.  He presents complex, detailed, multi-faceted material with clarity, depth, intelligence, and insight, but at the same time he makes it read like a novel, a fascinating tale that is difficult to put down.

This book reminded me of another recent read, “Gulag: A History” by Anne Applebaum.  While I was reading it, I was wondering why I was dredging through such gruesome historical horrors in my mind.  The conclusion I came to, at least partially, is the same as when I wondered why I was reading Applebaum’s book.  It’s for the sake of those who lived through it, that they be not forgotten.  Many soldiers on both sides in Korea – American, Korean, and Chinese – lost their lives for an ambivalent cause, and also due to mistakes, indifference, and poor decisions by those in command.  Korea, as Halberstam points out, was the forgotten war.  It never received the publicity or media uproar of other conflicts, such as the war in Vietnam.  There are very few movies or novels based upon the Korean War.  It’s something that at the time people wanted to go away.  After the clear imperatives of World War II, motivations for the United States to get involved in the Korean War were more muddied and uncertain and based as much on politics at home as realities abroad.

The book highlights the first year, especially the terrible first winter, of the Korean War.  Kim Il Jung, the North Korean leader, decided he wanted all of Korea and, equipped with state-of-the-art Russian tanks, sent a blitzkrieg of troops and weaponry south.  The South Koreans and Americans were unprepared for the sudden attack and fell back.  It looked like they would be pushed right off the peninsula.  They ended up in a tiny corner of southeast Korea around the port city of Pusan, and there they made a courageous stand, with many casualties, while they waited for reinforcements.

Halberstam, as usual, is not satisfied just to report the action.  He digs deep behind the scenes to find out why events happened as they did.  One of the key figures, of course, was General Douglas MacArthur, who was the overseer/emperor of conquered Japan and was in command of American forces in Korea.  By that time he was seventy years old and more obsessed with his own legacy than with victory in the field, the safety of his troops, or orders from Washington.  Apart from a brilliant amphibious landing that he orchestrated at Inchon early in the war effort, he was completely out of touch with what was really happening in the field.  His sycophantic underlings fed him only what information he wanted to hear, so that he lived in a state of perpetual delusion.  President Truman became more and more frustrated at his egoism and blatant insubordination, especially at the cost of many lives and overwhelming setbacks when the Chinese entered the war, that he finally had to relieve MacArthur from command.  His replacement, General Ridgeway, got down on the field with the men and figured out a way to turn the war around, despite the numerical superiority and skill of the Chinese soldiers.

Halberstam tells the individual tales of many of the soldiers and officers in the front lines during the bloody, discouraging fighting.  He also goes behind the scenes and explains the motivations and strategies of Kim Il Jung’s North Korea and Mao’s China.  He discusses the politics in the United States that affected the war effort, including the Communist witch-hunting of Joseph McCarthy, the rabid support for Chiang Kai-shek of the China First lobby, and the behind the scenes efforts of Dean Acheson, George Marshall, Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, and others in the Departments of State and Defense.

It sounds complicated, and it is, just as life is complicated, and the occupation and protection of a foreign country halfway around the world is complicated.  But Halberstam connects all the pieces together with great finesse.  Never did I feel that the text was too academic or detailed or beyond my grasp.  That’s the mark of a great historian and journalist.

Despite its violent, terrible subject matter, I came away from this book renewed and enriched, as one does after absorbing any great work of art.  Much of the artistic process concerns turning the sordid aspects of the human condition into something palatable, even beautiful in its own way.  This is a great book, and well worth reading.  It was Halberstam’s last book.  He died while researching the one he was planning to write next.  It is a fitting climax to a terrific career.

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